II Samuel 20

1. And there happened to be there a rebel, whose name was Sheba the son of Bichri, a Benjamite. And he blew a trumpet, and said:
“We have no share in David,
Nor do we have inheritance in the son of Jesse;
Every man to his tents, O Israel!”

We have seen that tensions had mounted to the breaking point between the angry people of Israel, who felt insulted that David had not waited for them before crossing the Jordan, and the people of Judah, whom they had insulted by accusing them of stealing David from the rest of the nation. Now the tense situation is made worse by a troublesome man who happens to be there, and who takes the opportunity to make a bad situation worse.

The New King James Version reads that he is “a rebel,” but in Hebrew this is a “man of Belial.” Belial is not really a name but a Hebrew word, beliya’al, which means basically “worthlessness.” This was a worthless man. How he got to be among this representative group of men we are not told. His name is given as Sheba, which means “Seven,” the son of Bichri, which means “Youthful.” He is a Benjamite, which likely means he was one of the thousand men who arrived with Shemei in the delegation from Benjamin. If that was the case he was among those who were there to accompany David over the Jordan, and so who had nothing really to complain about, as some of the other Israelites who did not get there in time were doing. Yet it seems he sees in this an opportunity to be a big man and take leadership, and so he does so.

Sheba apparently has a trumpet, or else he quickly procures one for himself. These were, of course, not the same as our brass trumpets of today, but were more what we might call a horn, used to muster the troops and quickly convey simple orders, like “move forward” or “stop” or “prepare for battle.” Having gotten this horn, he then blows it to get everyone’s attention, and once he has it he makes a proclamation. He promotes himself to speak for all his fellow Israelite representatives, notice. He declares that they have no share in David, nor inheritance in the son of Jesse. Why then, he implies, should they follow him? Thus he encourages everyone to abandon David. Perhaps Sheba as a Benjamite was still upset and jealous that David from Judah was given the throne, when formerly it had been under the control of Saul of Benjamin. Whatever his reasons, this worthless man takes action to turn the people away from David.

He calls on every man of Israel to scatter to his tents. Yet The Companion Bible points out that “to his tents” was one of the emendations or changes of the Sopherim, the self-proclaimed “wise ones” who were the self-appointed “editors” of the Hebrew Bible. They changed this reading from the original Hebrew, which said “to his gods.” They transposed the two letters of the word “lhm” (Elohim) to “hlm” (ohelim) to make this “tents” instead of “gods.” Perhaps the Sopherim did not wish to believe that Israel at this time would have gone along with such a call, even at this time of confusion and apostasy. Yet they did, and changing the record to deny it does little good! This same change was made by the Sopherim in I Kings 12:16 and II Chronicles 10:16, wherein the ten northern tribes of Israel abandoned David’s grandson son Rehoboam with these same words. The spirit of Sheba did not die out of Israel, and around a half century later the rebellion that Sheba started would come to fruition and result in the permanent division of the land.

2. So every man of Israel deserted David, and followed Sheba the son of Bichri. But the men of Judah, from the Jordan as far as Jerusalem, remained loyal to their king.

The men of Israel, still in the midst of their temper tantrum, are susceptible to the arguments of this worthless man, and so these representatives of Israel desert David and follow Sheba the son of Bichri in leaving David. Yet Sheba’s words were not just about leaving David, but about leaving David’s God as well. How sad that these Israelites were willing even for a moment to answer such a call! If here, in Israel’s golden age, they were ready to do such a thing, should it surprise us that they really did do it permanently not long after?

Yet the representative men of Judah do not follow the crowd or go with Sheba the son of Bichri. As they would be later with Rehoboam, they are loyal to David and to David’s God, and so stick with him. “From Jordan to Jerusalem” was not the extent of the territory of Judah, for it continued west further than Jerusalem. Rather, this statement bookends the whole route they took as they returned David from exile back to his house in the capital city of Jerusalem.

3. Now David came to his house at Jerusalem. And the king took the ten women, his concubines whom he had left to keep the house, and put them in seclusion and supported them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up to the day of their death, living in widowhood.

Now David arrives at his house at Jerusalem. The LORD has brought him back in spite of everything. Yet he comes back both humbled and humiliated. His nation is still in disarray, as is his house. So when he arrives back home, he must deal with the ten concubines he left behind to keep his house while he was in exile. Concubines, as we discussed, were slave-wives, or at least employee-wives, without the full privileges of wifehood. Absalom, remember, had defiled these women and dishonored his father by sleeping with them in public on the roof of David’s house. David does not blame them for this incestuous adultery, of course, for as slaves they had little choice but to do as Absalom demanded. This was more of a rape than anything else, and slaves would have had no recourse. Yet David does not take them back into his harem now as wives. Instead, he puts them in seclusion. He keeps them and supports them, caring for their needs as long as he lives, but he does not treat them as wives anymore by having sexual relations with them ever again. Thus they were kept celibate from this point on to the day of their death, living all this time as widows.

This was a sad thing. Of course what Absalom did was sad and terrible, using these women as pawns to dishonor and express his disdain for his father. Yet, though his actions were kinder, did not David use these women as well? Imagine marrying a woman yet keeping her as your slave! Or leaving her behind to keep your house while you went into exile! David really used these women too, if not as badly as his son did. Yet at least they lived in comfort from this point on, though they were in a way prisoners in their own house. How sad, though, this matter of concubinage was! Surely this was never what God intended when He created marriage in the beginning.

4. And the king said to Amasa, “Assemble the men of Judah for me within three days, and be present here yourself.”

The king well knows that matters are still in disarray with the rebellious actions of Sheba and the way he led the representative men of Israel away from David. This Sheba might even now be gathering support to set himself up as a ruler in Israel in place of David. David has his own forces with him, of course, but it would not be good just to trust in his loyal standing army. All of Judah has sided with him, and so he would be wise to call out all these troops as well to help him in the effort to retain the throne and stop the schemes of this worthless man Sheba.

Thus he speaks to his new army commander and step-nephew Amasa, whom he has recently promoted to replace the disobedient Joab. He orders him to call for help to the men of Judah on David’s behalf, for surely he will need their help if this rebellion of the other eleven tribes is to be put down. He wants them to all be assembled to him within three days, and he orders Amasa to be there at this time himself along with them.

5. So Amasa went to assemble the men of Judah. But he delayed longer than the set time which David had appointed him.

Amasa goes as David commanded to call out the men of Judah to help David. Yet he is not timely about it. He delays and hesitates longer in carrying out this command than he should have, and so the time David had given him comes and goes and still he has not returned with the assembly of the men of Judah, as he was ordered to do. We wonder why Amasa thought it was acceptable to be late like this? Maybe he was one of those people who just did not think it important to be on time. Or perhaps the men of Judah were not responding as he would have liked, and he was taking the time to try to do the task right. Yet he had been ordered by the king, and it was not good that he failed to show up on time!

6. And David said to Abishai, “Now Sheba the son of Bichri will do us more harm than Absalom. Take your lord’s servants and pursue him, lest he find for himself fortified cities, and escape us.”

David is upset by this delay, for he knows that time is of the essence. He complains to Abishai, Joab’s brother and his more trusted and trustworthy nephew, that this delay will hurt their cause. It is allowing Sheba the son of Bichri to lay his own plans and gather his own support. If he is clever and is able to do so, he will end up doing them more harm than Absalom did, for Absalom’s plans have come to nothing, as we know. Thus he commands Abishai to act, taking his lord’s servants, (meaning David’s own servants, of course,) and to pursue Sheba before he entrenches himself in defended cities and cannot be rooted out, thus escaping the wrath of David’s men.

7. So Joab’s men, with the Cherethites, the Pelethites, and all the mighty men, went out after him. And they went out of Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri.

So David’s men take the field with Abishai leading them, going to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri themselves. David’s men are described here as being Joab’s men, with the Cherethites, the Pelethites, and all the mighty men. The Cherethites, remember, were the Executioners, and were designated servants of David to execute his will. The Pelethites were the Couriers, and carried David’s orders and messages around the land. Many of these men seem to have come from among David’s own most loyal six hundred men who had followed him way back before he took the throne when he was on the run from Saul. Along with these are all the mighty men of David, which at one time numbered thirty but later grew to over fifty. They leave Jerusalem and chase Sheba the son of Bichri.

One of these mighty men, though he was never listed among them because of his final disloyalty, was Joab himself. He had been demoted and was no longer in charge. When Amasa did not show up and he had to choose another leader, David chose Abishai his brother rather than Joab. It is clear David no longer trusted Joab, and had no plans to reinstate him to his former position of leadership. He was to remain among the soldiers, but his disobedience meant David did not plan to put him in charge again. Joab must have known this. Yet this ambitious man was not about to accept this demotion without fighting back, as we will see.

8. When they were at the large stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa came before them. Now Joab was dressed in battle armor; on it was a belt with a sword fastened in its sheath at his hips; and as he was going forward, it fell out.

They arrive at the great stone at Gibeon. Gibeon means “Hill City,” and was a city in Benjamin about five miles from Jerusalem. There was a great stone there, apparently well known to all the people of the land at the time. Here, Amasa finally comes to meet them. We are not told if he came with the gathered men of Judah or not, and the Bible never tells us how successful he was at this task he was given. Did the men of Judah ever come to help, or did David’s men end up dealing with the rebellion of Sheba on their own, as they did with the rebellion of Absalom? With the help of God, they succeeded either way. Yet surely Judah should have joined David’s forces here. We wonder if they did or not.

Joab apparently sees this as his opportunity. Amasa has failed to follow the king’s orders, and has not come in the time the king appointed. His actions, then, are suspicious. Might he be planning to betray David and side against him with Sheba? Probably not. Amasa was not only related to David, but he was also of the tribe of Judah, and so had no reason at all to support Sheba of the tribe of Benjamin. More than likely he was just late. But Joab can use this incident to justify eliminating a man who had put them all in danger by his tardiness.

Joab is with David’s company, as we suggested he was before. He is described as being dressed in cloth, probably cloth battle armor, and he has a belt on the armor with a sword in its sheath hanging from it, fastened at his hips. This sword would have been on the left side for easy drawing by the right hand. The sword drops out of the sheath and falls. More than likely this was not an accident, but was the result of careful manipulating by Joab. Apparently Joab either catches the sword or casually picks it up, but since it fell out on his left side rather than being drawn out in the normal way, he is holding it in his left hand.

9. Then Joab said to Amasa, “Are you in health, my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him.

Joab greets Amasa in a friendly way, asking after his health and calling him “brother.” Amasa was actually his cousin, or perhaps his half-cousin, but they had no special word for this and so the word “brother” stood in for any number of relations. Then Joab takes Amasa by the beard to kiss him in the typical fashion of an oriental greeting. This was all just a pretense, however, and a ploy to put Amasa in a helpless position so Joab could assassinate him.

10. But Amasa did not notice the sword that was in Joab’s hand. And he struck him with it in the stomach, and his entrails poured out on the ground; and he did not strike him again. Thus he died.
Then Joab and Abishai his brother pursued Sheba the son of Bichri.

Amasa is totally caught off guard by Joab’s ruse. He does not pay attention to the sword Joab is holding in his left hand after it fell out of the scabbard. Swords were usually held in the right hand by right-handed people, as Joab was, and so a sword in the left was not viewed as much of a threat. Plus Joab had allowed it to drop and picked it up in what appeared to be an innocent accident. Thus Amasa is not ready for violence, and has no idea of Joab’s intention until he stabs him with his sword in the stomach near his fifth rib. His bowels pour out the hole to the ground, and no further blow is necessary by Joab, for this is a mortal wound, and Amasa dies.

Thus once again the bloody Joab commits a murder. The first time it was ostensibly revenge for the death of his brother, though it also eliminated in Abner a rival to the top army position in Israel. The second time it was at the command of David, and was done through the sword of the Ammonites. Yet this time what excuse did Joab have? He accidentally stabbed him, being clumsy with his left hand? He didn’t trust him because of his showing up late? No, this was nothing short of murder, and murder merely to remove a rival and restore himself to the leadership of David’s forces. Joab’s character has become worse over time. He might once have had some integrity, but now he is just a bloody and ambitious murderer.

Joab and Abishai continue pursuit of Sheba the son of Bichri. Notice how Joab is listed first now. David had placed both Amasa and Abishai in charge, and had given Joab no leadership at all. Yet Joab murdered Amasa, and it does not seem that Abishai his brother ever had the courage to stand against him. Thus Joab climbs back to the top of the ladder by assassinating his rival. He is in charge of the army once again, whether David likes it or not. This plot is helped by Joab’s loyal men, as we will see in the next verse.