“And he went through all the tribes of Israel unto Abel, and to Bethmaachah, and all the Berites: and they were gathered together, and went also after him. And they came and besieged him in Abel of Bethmaachah, and they cast up a bank against the city, and it stood in the trench: and all the people that were with Joab battered the wall, to throw it down. Then cried a wise woman out of the city, Hear, hear; say, I pray you, unto Joab, Come near hither, that I may speak with thee. And when he was come near unto her, the woman said, Art thou Joab? And he answered, I am he. Then she said unto him, Hear the words of thine handmaid. And he answered, I do hear. Then she spake, saying, They were wont to speak in old time, saying, They shall surely ask counsel at Abel: and so they ended the matter. I am one of them that are peaceable and faithful in Israel: thou seekest to destroy a city and a mother in Israel: why wilt thou swallow up the inheritance of the LORD? And Joab answered and said, Far be it, far be it from me, that I should swallow up or destroy. The matter is not so: but a man of mount Ephraim, Sheba the son of Bichri by name, hath lifted up his hand against the king, even against David: deliver him only, and I will depart from the city. And the woman said unto Joab, Behold, his head shall be thrown to thee over the wall. Then the woman went unto all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri, and cast it out to Joab. And he blew a trumpet, and they retired from the city, every man to his tent. And Joab returned to Jerusalem unto the king. Now Joab was over all the host of Israel: and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and over the Pelethites: And Adoram was over the tribute: and Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was recorder: And Sheva was scribe: and Zadok and Abiathar were the priests: And Ira also the Jairite was a chief ruler about David” (2 Samuel 20:14-26).
Now that Amasa was out of the way, Joab and Abishai returned to the main task of hunting down Sheba and bringing the revolt to an end. Having gathered together a larger force, for as yet they did not know how powerful Sheba was, they headed to walled city of Abel which was located at the very edge of Israel’s territory at its border with Syria.
Sheba had chosen well, for Abel was protected by a strong wall that could not be destroyed without extreme force. The first verse of our text is believed to be about Sheba rather that Joab by commentators. If this is so it means that he had gone from tribe to tribe trying to muster up support for his rebellion before retiring to Abel with a small band of followers. Fortunately for Joab and Abishai Sheba’s revolution had not gained as much ground as Absalom’s, and it appears that he was in fact hiding from Israel’s army. Nevertheless the army laid siege and tried every possible means to break through the wall.
In Abel was a “wise woman”, maybe a governess or judge of the city, who realised that the walls would eventually give and maybe everyone inside would be slaughtered for harbouring a fugitive. She told Joab that Abel was renowned for its wisdom and understanding, and if any arguments arose amongst them they resolved each one honourably rather than using violence. It seems that Abel had become proverbial, so when anyone had a dispute they would be told to “seek the judgement of Abel.” If Abel were destroyed then one of Israel’s treasures would cease to be. She claimed to be “peaceful and faithful” which are rare virtues in any city. She pleaded with Joab to be merciful to the innocent people inside the walls, but warned him that he would be acting against God if he did attack them. Also the plea for mercy might be based upon the words of Deuteronomy 20:10, “When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.” The reference to “mother” according to Adam Clark might relate to the city rather than the woman herself, that is, “a chief city of a district.”
Joab promised that he had no intention of slaying the innocent with the guilty, but had only come for one man who hand rebelled against the king. The promise was conditional, for the people had to give Sheba to him. He basically reminds the woman that there are two sides to every argument, and that they had only heard Sheba’s version of things. Maybe he had deceived them into thinking that he had done nothing wrong and so sought their protection. If he went there for this reason then it is possible that Abel was a city of refuge. Joab is saying that justice had to be done without the interference of anyone else. Abel could not be spared at the expense of justice.
The woman accepted Joab’s view and counselled the people to give up Sheba, and as she promised Sheba was decapitated and his head thrown over the wall to Joab. This satisfied Joab and brought to a close the revolt.
Joab was made the commander-in-chief, probably for his part in putting an end to the sedition, and “David was obliged to continue him; and dared not to call him to account for his murders without endangering the safety of the state by a civil war” (Adam Clark), or as John Wesley states, “The king could not without danger displace him.” The rest of the list contains the names of those who had been promoted to various jobs in David’s government. A similar list appears in 2 Samuel 8:15-18 and 1 Kings 4:1-6.