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WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 9, 2019)—In 2 Samuel 20:14–22, the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah stands up to Joab, the commander of King David’s army, and adroitly negotiates the salvation of her town. Nava Panitz-Cohen and Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem investigate this biblical figure in their article “The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Along with Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, Panitz-Cohen and Yahalom-Mack direct excavations at the site of Tel Abel Beth Maacah in northern Israel. Their excavations provide insight into the figure of the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah.
At Tel Abel Beth Maacah, the excavators have found several rooms with cultic paraphernalia in a large public building. One room dates to the late 11th or early tenth century B.C.E. (late Iron Age I). Another room, a stone-paved courtyard, dates to the late tenth–ninth centuries B.C.E. (Iron IIA). Notably, archaeologists uncovered a jar holding 425 astragali (ankle bones) of sheep, goats, and deer on a podium in the courtyard. Astragali have been found in excavations throughout the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world. A variety of interpretations exists regarding their purpose. Some think they functioned as merely game pieces, while others think they served a ritual purpose, such as being used in divination (practices to foretell the future). For example, astragali may have been used in cleromancy, the casting of lots to foretell the future.
Although the exact purpose of the astragali from the jar is unknown, the authors contend that such a large collection probably featured in a ritual activity. This discovery, coupled with other evidence, suggests that Abel Beth Maacah may have served as a center of oracular wisdom, a place people visited to have their questions answered. The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah herself asserts this in 2 Samuel 20:18, when she tells Joab, “They used to say in the old days, ‘Let them inquire at Abel’; and so they would settle a matter.”
While it is impossible to say definitely whether the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah practiced divination or served as a spiritual leader, we can ascertain that she filled a public role in society, which was political and authoritative. Part of her authority likely stemmed from her town’s reputation as a place of wisdom.
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