Getting back to the rebellion of שבע בן בכרי, David wants to nip it in the bud.
To review the characters here, David had two older sisters, צְרוּיָה and אֲבִיגָיִל. צְרוּיָה‘s sons were אַבְשַׁי, וְיוֹאָב and עֲשָׂהאֵל; and אֲבִיגָיִל’s son was עֲמָשָׂא (see דברי הימים א פרק ב). All of them served as David’s military leaders, with Yoav as his chief of staff. Asahel was killed during the David/Ish Boshet civil war, when he chased after Avner, Saul’s general. Avner begged him to stop, then killed him in self-defense. Amasa joined Avshalom in his rebellion, but after Yoav killed Avshalom and rebuked David, David fired Yoav and hired Amasa in his place:
This explains why David is addressing Amasa and Avishai here, not Yoav. But we need to remember that the army is fiercely loyal to Yoav; part of the force that goes with Avishai is אנשי יואב. Back in פרק יא, Uriah called Yoav (not David) אדני:
When Avishai and his forces meet up with Amasa, Yoav goes to join them. And he does something odd:
תפל is feminine; it refers to the חרב (which is feminine; (במדבר כב:כג) וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלוּפָה בְּיָדוֹ). Yoav is a seasoned warrior, with his sword in its scabbard fixed to his thigh, and yet his sword just happens to fall out.
It’s not an accident. Yoav picks up his sword in his left hand and goes to greet Amasa in apparent friendliness:
This is entirely in character for Yoav. He holds grudges, and really likes how that fifth rib solves problems:
And David will recognize the danger that Yoav represents:
But we need to realize that Yoav is never, in his own mind, betraying David. He is always loyal to David, and does what he thinks David needs, even if David doesn’t see it. That’s his justification for killing Avner, and his justification for killing Amasa: Amasa was clearly not competent to be David’s chief of staff (he failed this critical mission of mustering the army in 3 days) and only he (Yoav) could save the country. So they press on, now with Yoav in the lead (יואב ואבישי אחיו רדף אחרי שבע).
Even though we only see the negative side of Yoav, the gemara notes how well he served David and the people:
And now the loyalty of the army to Yoav comes to the fore:
Yoav is now effectively the general of David’s army despite David’s command. And David will accede to Yoav’s return; at the end of the perek it says:
And we return to the rebellion:
It’s unclear who the subject of this pasuk is, but I will assume with Abarbanel that this is the story of שבע בן בכרי:
שבע has been on the run בכל שבטי ישראל and ends up in the city of אָבֵלָה (a little bit of foreshadowing, hiding in a city named “mourning”) in the area of בית מעכה and the ברים. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us anything:
But most commentators assume that it is in the area of בנימן (which makes sense, since שבע בן בכרי is from בנימן):
What’s interesting about בארות is that it was a major city of the גבעונים, one of the Canaanite nations:
The Givonim seem to be very involved in undermining Jewish sovereignty in Israel. We will have to look at this more when we get to the next perek.
So the Israelite forces arrive at אבלה but are stymied by the city wall:
This was exactly the situation that David was afraid of:
A side note about the חֵל: it refers to a low wall outside the main wall, and the empty, free-fire zone between them. It is an important security measure, analogous to a moat. There was a חֵל in the בית המקדש as well, not for security, but as a kind of warning track to keep non-Jews away from the Temple proper (labeled ד in the illustration).
The situation is very similar to פלגש בגבעה: the Benjaminites are harboring a fugitive and the Israelite army besieges the city, but the inhabitants refuse to give him up. That war ended very badly, nearly wiping out all of שבט בנימין. This battle will likely end up the same way, especially with Yoav in command. He’s massacred civilians before:
And the city is saved—and by extension, the country as a whole is saved from civil war—by an אשה חכמה:
The אשה חכמה points out that if Yoav had only started by talking rather than attacking, all this could be avoided:
It’s unlikely, but possible, that there was only one girl among the 70, but what’s remarkable is that she is also listed among those who returned to the land, 250 years later:
There are two possible approaches to understanding the role of שרח בת אשר: the Ramban looks at her from a פשט perspective, trying to understand why she is in the list of families that will settle the land. We will follow a דרש perspective, starting with Rashi:
Where does this come from, the idea that Serach lived for so long? It goes back to פרשת ויגש:
Now, the ספר הישר is an obscure midrashic collection (first published apparently in the 16th century, but it’s mentioned by the Ramban, but skeptically). However, Serach appears through history in more authoritative midrashic sources:
And going even further into the future to our story:
Serach is the one אָשֵׁר הִשְׁלִימָה עִמָּהֶן אֶת הַמִּנְיָן; she is the one woman who completes the count of the שבעים נפש ירדו אבתיך מצרימה.
And she becomes the midrashic symbol of the אשה חכמה:
Her role, in all these midrashic stories, is to be the witness to the history of the Jewish people. She is the one who restored Yaakov’s future, so she is the one who remembers the past. Rav Soloveitchik saw this as a critical part of the מסורה:
חז״ל say that Yaakov never died:
And in exactly the same way, as long as we have those with a memory of the past, as long as the mimetic tradition is not completely ruptured, שרח בת אשר לא מת. Pace Haym Soloveitchik, we still feel the gentle pressure of His hand.
So in the eyes of חז״ל, the text of our perek is setting up a contrast between Yoav and Serach. The text does not have the details of the verbal battle between them, but the midrash fills in the narrative gaps:
In my mind the contrast is between two aspects of David’s personality, between a unity that is enforced by killing all those who differ, and a unity that emphasizes our common history and destiny. Serach is no pacifist (as we will see) but she does prevail, and the city of אבלה does not become a city of אבלות, and Israel will survive the end of ספר שמואל and be able to build the בית המקדש in ספר מלכים.
At this point, I should deal with the halachic implications of this perek:
But I’m not going to do that; for halachic questions, please contact your local orthodox rabbi. I will just point out that the comparison makes it clear that חז״ל felt that Yoav was acting like as a case of
פגעו להן גוים. His was not a Jewish response.
And while the story ends with ויואב שב ירושלם אל המלך, seemingly with no repercussions, I think there was a long-term consequence of this battle. We quoted the midrash that associated it with a pasuk from קהלת, טובה חכמה מכלי קרב. Let’s look at the context of that quote:
That story certainly sounds familiar!
At the time of our story, Shlomo is 8 years old. Four years from now, he will be king of Israel and he asks ה׳ for only one thing:
When did he learn the value of wisdom; ראיתי חכמה תחת השמש; וגדולה היא אלי? It would seem it was from learning about the rebellion of שבע בן בכרי and its aftermath, and the nature of תורת אמך and the ongoing presence of סרח בת אשר.
The פרק תהילים I want to look at is another one that deals with David facing his enemies. The Malbim says the parallelism represents two kinds of enemies:
I’m going to look at this a little differently. David needs protection from two kinds of people: his enemies, and his friends whose help does more harm than good. I would propose that Yoav is the איש חמסים. He is not an אדם רע; he never intends evil.
Again, there is a difference between the ones who חשבו רעות and those who יגורו מלחמות.
David needs to be saved from both his enemies and his friends.
The second stich goes from two-fold parallelism to three fold, adding a line that summarizes both sides.
אשר חשבו doesn’t necessarily mean “planned to”; it means “was about to”, something that threatens to happen:
Both set traps, even the one who uses violence ostensibly for my benefit (פרשו רשת ליד מעגל, not לי but in general). They are מקשים שתו לי, snares set for me.
But the next stich seems to prove me wrong. David asks that his enemies be punished harshly:
This all seems far too cruel for the David portrayed in ספר תהילים, and certainly if we are interpreting this perek in terms of not enemies but friends who love violence. Alshich has a more positive interpretation of פסוק י:
And the ימוטו עליהם גחלים? It should remind us of something. It’s more explicit in תהילים יח:
What is it about ברד?
בפעם הזאת אני שלח את כל מגפתי means that this plague is the last one aimed at Pharaoh and the Egyptians. After this, ה׳ says הכבדתי את לבו ואת לב עבדיו; they no longer has the free will to decide what to do. They have turned from human beings to Nonplayer Characters. The nature of the מכות is that the overt revelation of Divine power makes free will impossible; we see the same thing at מעמד הר סיני:
מכת ברד was the tipping point of the מכות. It represented just enough revelation, just enough miraculous phenomena, that it was possible to attribute it all to natural causes and deny Providence, if they really wanted to. Rav Dessler talks about the נקודת הבחירה:
So ברד represents not only a punishment, but a test as well. David, in asking ימוטו עליהם גחלים, is asking ה׳ to bring them to their נקודת הבחירה, force them to make the moral choices that will determine their fate.
And the conclusion is, of course, גם זו לטובה. It will work out in the end.