Wise Woman of Tekoa: Bible
Tekoa—a Judean hill country village ten miles south of Jerusalem—was home to one of two women designated as “wise,” both appearing in 2 Samuel. One defining attribute of “wisdom,” in the biblical tradition, is skill in rhetoric (Prov 1:5–6 and passim), and the speeches of both this woman and her counterpart from the town of Abel (20:14–22) are highlighted in their respective stories. More obvious in the latter story is the wise woman’s role as village leader, likely akin to the male role of elder. In the present narrative, subterfuge hides overt indications of such status, while at the same time offering under-the-surface allusions to its social and symbolic grounding. This narrative, however, to some degree clouds a clear judgment about the quality of the woman’s wisdom.
2 Samuel 13 tells of the rape of King David’s daughter Tamar by her half brother and David’s heir, Amnon; Amnon’s murder by her full brother, Absalom (now the heir!); Absalom’s subsequent flight; and David’s grief. It is now three years later, and Joab, David’s general, devises a ruse to reconcile David and his son. He instructs (forces?—her willingness is never stated) the wise woman of Tekoa to act the role of a widowed mother of two sons, one of whom has murdered the other. She ostensibly seeks mercy for the fratricide in the face of the family’s will to execute him, thus preserving her dead husband’s name and also the mainstay of her own familial status and survival.
The woman thus acts out a parable, not unlike the ewe-lamb story told by the prophet Nathan after David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. Both prophet and wise woman force David to clear thinking and action on his own situation by indirect means, though there are also differences in the two performances. Whereas the speech of Nathan, the divinely appointed prophet, is clear in both syntax and judgment, that of the humanly appointed female outsider is grammatically broken and employs the servile flattery of a social inferior. The wisdom of having Absalom return to Jerusalem is also questionable: four years later, he revolts against his father.
Despite these narrative ambiguities, the outline of an ancient Israelite woman’s leadership role shows through. Her story is not as dramatically effective as is Nathan’s, yet she persists through the dangerous and unpredictable turns in her conversation with David: she clearly understands that “with patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue can break bones” (Prov 25:15). Her effective use of a proverbial simile (2 Sam 14:14), the sage’s stock-in-trade, further indicates her experience in such dealings. Finally, although her story may have originated with Joab (14:3, 19), the wise woman is represented as one able to appropriate the fundamental cultural values of ancient Israel: the preservation of patriarchal lineage (14:7) and the people of God (14:13), and the king’s obligation to protect the right of widow and orphan to enjoy God’s heritage (14:16). Although her self-presentation as a mother is in one sense artifice, it also indicates an acknowledged source of women’s authority and wisdom in ancient Israel, as attested by the phrase “mother in Israel” applied to the judge Deborah (Judg 5:7) and used by the wise woman of Abel (2 Sam 20:19).
Brenner, Athalya. The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative. Sheffield, England: 1985.
Camp, Claudia V. “The Wise Women of 2 Samuel: A Role Model for Women in Early Israel.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981): 14–29.
Willey, Patricia K. “The Importunate Woman of Tekoa and How She Got Her Way.” In Reading between Texts: Intertextuality and the Bible, edited by Danna Nolan Fewell, 115–131. Louisville, Kentucky: 1992.
Women in Scripture, Carole Meyers, General Editor (2000).