When they were at the large stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. Now Joab was dressed in his military attire, and over it was a belt with a sword in its sheath fastened at his waist; and as he went forward, it fell out. Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. But Amasa was not on guard against the sword which was in Joab’s hand so he struck him in the belly with it and poured out his inward parts on the ground, and did not strike him again, and he died. Then Joab and Abishai his brother pursued Sheba the son of Bichri. (2 Samuel 20:8-10 NASB)
There are times that I really wish the Biblical writers had included more detail. Then there are times, like here, where they include a lot of detail, and it doesn’t help; I still don’t get it. This used to bother me, but the more I read commentaries, I realize we all struggle imagining just what happened here. In addition to the few things we surmise, there are a few things we actually know.
Recorded Failures Not Successes
Amasa is both a tragic and obscure character in Scripture. There’s no record of anything he has said, no record of any of his successes (with two possible exceptions), and no sense he has any legitimate family. He has to have said something in order to call out the troops, and he has to have had some success in order to warrant appointment as ‘general’; first by Absalom and then by David. It’s possible that, in both cases, this was done because he was popular within the tribe of Judah, and such an appointment assured their support. But popularity would at least suggest he succeeded at something.
But as general under Absalom, his first and only recorded foray ended in disaster. Under David, he delays and misses the three-day appointment set by David. We have no words or successes recorded, but he’s two-for-two on failures. His final failure is explicitly pointed out by the writer, and it’s his failure to be on guard against Joab.
An Example? Good or Bad?
The death of Amasa is full of detail. Joab’s garb is described in detail. Joab’s sword and that it ‘fell out’ is an included detail. He clearly states that Joab takes Amasa by the beard with his right hand, that he strikes Amasa in the belly, that he removes Amasa’s organs onto the ground, and finally that he does not strike him again, but leaves him wallowing in death in the middle of the road.
The sight of Amasa writhing in death in the middle of the road stops the troops, so the man tasked with moving everyone along throws his body into a field beside the road and covers it with a garment. That’s the end of this obscure silent failure of a man. I would ascribe him to the list of those who are bad examples, except for one other reference to him. Later on in 1 Kings 2:5 and 32 Amasa is again mentioned. In verse 32, Amasa is referred to as a man more righteous than Joab. It’s not a huge accolade, but in the vacuum of positives in this character you take what you can find.
Judging Amasa From 3,000 Years Away
So was Amasa an effective leader? Not in a way that’s obvious to understand from Scripture. Was he a tested and proven warrior? Not from any included account in Scripture. Was he popular or something? Possibly, but it’s only alluded to. First Absalom my have appointed him to bolster support in Judah. And David may have done the same thing for the same reason. It’s difficult to fill in the blank of why Amasa was a reasonable choice to lead troops in battle.
I learn a few things from this character though. First, I learn that righteousness isn’t judged by ‘skill’ or ‘success’; in others or in myself. Amasa is credited with being a righteous man, but isn’t credited with even one success. Second, I learn that sometimes very bad things happen to good people. Amasa’s righteousness isn’t judged by the way he ends, and he ends in a most painful long public death.
I wish I could say that these are very encouraging, but really, they’re not. They challenge me to assess my assumptions and existential beliefs. Do I, after reading Job, still believe that hard and times and good times are the measure of God’s pleasure in me? Do I see the path of Jesus to the cross and still believe that I somehow deserve success and a good end? Or do I say I believe that God’s grace is sufficient for any ‘thorn’ He puts in someone’s life, but live and behave as if such things are curses? Have I traded the breastplate of righteousness for a mask to appear righteous?
Amasa died in a field covered by a cloak in the painful agony of his mortal wounds. But he was more righteous than his murderer. It isn’t fair. None of his success made it into print. None of his words find expression. Even his family line is obscured. Can I, will I, see Amasa as a man more righteous? Or will I, along with my culture and society, judge him to be a failure? Will I take God’s view or this world’s view? Because somewhere along this line, I walk in Amasa’s sandals. How frightening is that?
That’s my view through this knothole. What’s yours?