We grow, love, and die in the flash of a firefly on a summer evening. But not Serah bat Asher. She lives forever. As I described in my last post, “Serah bat Asher: Immortal Secret Keeper,” Serah had lived for two thousand years by the time she leaned into Rabbi Yohannan’s window to tell him that the Red Sea looked like lighted glass. By 2020, she’s nearing 4000. That’s about 130 generations of Jews for whom she’s looked out. Give or take. While the Jewish tradition doesn’t chronicle all of her adventures, there are a few more to share. Which is great, because each one has something deep to teach us.
Serah bat Asher, Werewolf Hunter!
The Tanach, in II Samuel, tells of Serah saving a city during the reign of King David and of her hunting werewolves! Sheba ben Bichri, a “scoundrel” of the tribe of Benjamin, was leading a rebellion against King David. David sends his army, lead by Joab, to smack down the rebellion. First, Joab applies some pre-game stabbiness to another of David’s generals (1). Then he and his troops catch up with Sheba, who’s hiding with his troops in city of Abel of Beth-maacah. Which is a great hideout for a scoundrel. It’s up on a hill, strong walls, lots of locals to use as human shields. Perfect! To support the kingdom of Israel, and to stop the conflict before Joab tears down the city walls and applies more stabbiness to the city’s inhabitants, an unnamed “clever woman” comes out of city and demands to speak to Joab. First she convinces him that attacking is a bad move (why destroy one of David’s cities? David might want it later). Then she convinces the people of the city to decapitate Sheba and throw his head over the wall (2). While the Tanach doesn’t identify the woman, Rashi does. The clever woman was, of course, Serah who “completed the faithful of Israel. (3).”
Here’s the full(ish) story from II Samuel 20. (4)
A scoundrel named Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite, happened to be there. He sounded the horn and proclaimed: “We have no portion in David, No share in Jesse’s son! Every man to his tent, O Israel!” … And David (the king) said to Abishai, “Now Sheba son of Bichri will cause us more trouble than Absalom. So take your lord’s servants and pursue him, before he finds fortified towns and eludes us.”….II Samuel 20:1 to 20:23 (4)
[E]verybody continued to follow Joab in pursuit of Sheba son of Bichri. [Sheba] had passed through all the tribes of Israel up to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Beerites assembled and followed him inside. [Joab’s men] came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah; they threw up a siegemound against the city and it stood against the rampart. All the troops with Joab were engaged in battering the wall, when a clever woman shouted from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come over here so I can talk to him.”
He approached her, and the woman asked, “Are you Joab?” “Yes,” he answered; and she said to him, “Listen to what your handmaid has to say.” “I’m listening,” he replied.
And she continued, “In olden times people used to say, ‘Let them inquire of Abel,’ and that was the end of the matter. I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city in Israel! Why should you destroy the LORD’s possession?”
Joab replied, “Far be it, far be it from me to destroy or to ruin! Not at all! But a certain man from the hill country of Ephraim, named Sheba son of Bichri, has rebelled against King David. Just hand him alone over to us, and I will withdraw from the city.”
The woman assured Joab, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.”
The woman came to all the people with her clever plan; and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri and threw it down to Joab. He then sounded the horn; all the men dispersed to their homes, and Joab returned to the king in Jerusalem.
So, using her wisdom and long memory to save a city of thousands from being destroyed is pretty great. But I promised werewolves…where are the werewolves‽ As I keep saying in my posts, Jewish monster hunters have to read the texts carefully. And remember that reading Torah is about making associations. This story already has Rashi associating an unnamed person, the clever woman, with Serah, a well known woman. So I’m adding my own midrash to the Serah story that fills in the family drama and generational associations. Here goes…
Sheba ben Bichri wasn’t just any rebel. He was a Benjaminite. In my prior post, Benjamin is a Predatory Wolf, I talked about Serah’s grandfather Jacob blessing her uncle Benjamin as being a “predatory wolf” e.g. a werewolf. The Jewish tradition has always understood Jacob’s blessing to be as much focused on Benjamin’s descendants as on Benjamin himself. So if Benjamin was a werewolf, then some of Benjamin’s descendants are too. And Serah would know that. She was there when Benjamin was blessed. She would have recognized Sheba for what he was as soon as he entered the city. And she rallied the town to hunt him down and throw his head over the wall.
Monster Hunter Pro Tips
1. Werewolves are vulnerable to decapitation. Particularly when in human form.
2. Stay vigilant. While we have no shortage of external foes, the enemy is also us.
3. Be a leader. Serah didn’t save her city by picking up a sword and going it alone. She rallied her town and taught them how to fight.
I love the idea of Serah as an eternal counterbalance to Benjamin’s curse. Monster hunter counterbalancing threat, all within the family. And it is a family thing. Serah is an Asherite, the daughter of Benjamin’s brother Asher. Asher had the opposite blessing from Benjamin, to receive royal rewards (6), and was known for his single-minded virtue (7). This single-mindedness for good, inherited from her father, is Serah’s third blessing, after God blessing her with wisdom and Jacob blessing her with immortality.
So Serah, as I see it, is a perfect example of a Jewish monster hunter, using deep Torah and mystical knowledge to protect Jews from the werewolves, and other threats, in our own communities. She’s not a warrior, the way Abraham was. She’s not a combat mage, the way Moses was (8). None of her blessings gave her that kind of fire power. She’s more Willow than Buffy (9). As a vigilant keeper of our memory, though, she’s what we need.
It’s worth noting that not everyone in the Jewish tradition agrees with my applause for Serah’s handling of the Sheba situation. As early as the 2nd Century CE, the rabbi’s who wrote the Tosefta debated the ethics of sacrificing a single person to save a group. In Tosefta Terumot 7.23, the rabbi’s are split (11). They seem to decide that in this case it was justified because Sheba was a criminal who was endangering in the city, that handing him over (or handing over his head) avoided the group being punished for his crime, and that Joab was a Jew. In other cases, particularly when the threat comes from outside, however it’s better to let the group die as a group, before sacrificing the individual. We’re not to be complicit in the crime.
Stay tuned for next post, when we hear about “Serah in Exile or The Death of Serah?“
Notes and References
(1) David gave his generals Joab and Amasa a set amount of time to gather their troops. Amasa was late…so Joab stabbed him to death on the street and commandeered his troops. As one does. II Samuel 20 @ Sefaria.
(2) According to the midrash (Genesis Rabba 94:9), Serah convinces the people of the city using the following strategy. “The woman immediately came to all the people with her clever plan. ‘Do you not know David’s reputation?’ she urged them, ‘Which kingdom has successfully resisted him?’ ‘What does he demand?’ they asked her. ‘A thousand men,’ she replied, ‘and is it not better [to sacrifice] a thousand men than to have your city destroyed?’ ‘Let everyone give according to his means,’ they proposed. ‘Perhaps he would be willing to compromise,’ she suggested. She then pretended to go and appease him, and returned with the number reduced from a thousand to five hundred, then to one hundred, to ten, and finally to one, a stranger there, and who was he? – Sheba the son of Bichri. They promptly cut off his head [and threw it down to Joab]” The translation comes from Moshe Reiss’ essay “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature.”
(3) Rashi’s full commentary on this passage was “I am [from the people of the city] that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel. I am from the people of the city that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel and to the king. An Aggadic Midrash [states:] this was Serah, the daughter of Asher. I faithfully rewarded those who faithful [to God]: Through me, the location of Yosef’s coffin was revealed to Moshe. I told Yakov that Yosef was alive.”
(4) A slightly trimmed version of II Samuel 20 (Sefaria.org).
(5) Ok, Jan Cossiers painting Júpiter y Licaón is a scene from Greek mythology…. but you get the idea. Public Domain Image from Wikipedia Commons. I really need an art budget.
(6) See Genesis 49:20 (Sefaria.org)
(7) In The Testament of Asher the Tenth Son of Jacob and Zilpah, one of the Apocryphal books, Asher is quoted as saying. “All these things, therefore, I proved in my life, and I wandered not from the truth of the Lord, and I searched out the commandments of the Most High, walking according to all my strength with singleness of face unto that which is good.” Testament of Asher @ Sefaria.org. The Testaments of Asher comes from The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which is a bit of a muddy text. The text we have took its final form around the 2nd century CE and mixes Jewish and Christian thoughts. I’m citing this text because it’s a good example, but the sentiment shows up elsewhere.
(8) Yes. Abraham was a warrior and Moses was a mage. The tradition is pretty specific on both points. Abraham being a warrior is straight Tanach. See Genesis 14 (Sefaria.org) Not even Talmud. Same with Moses’s magic. Remember the whole rods to serpents and 12 plagues incidents? Oh, and his brass serpent? Yeah, that’s all at God’s direction so if we’re being Dungeons and Dragons technical, that makes him a cleric, not a mage. But my previous post about Serah, where Moses raised Joseph’s coffin from the Nile, is a good example of mage power. Abraham and Moses’s being badasses will come up over and over again. I’ll write both soon when I write about Og the giant.
(9) In case you don’t get the reference, I’m talking about characters from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which is a fantastic contemporary monster hunting TV show (and a meditation on what it’s like to be a teenager in America). It is absolutely not based on Jewish lore, but it does have Jewish characters including Willow, one of Buffy’s “Scooby gang” sidekicks. Willow is often the brains of the team. Buffy has the punch and the willpower, but Willow has the smarts and the lore. The show also happens to have a Jewish werewolf named Daniel “Oz” Osborne. Oz isn’t a Benjamite, though, he became a werewolf the ouch way.
(10) Tel Abel beth Maachah. Near Metula, Israel. The picture is a view of the tower, with its northeastern corner of large boulders and the layers of small stones, looking southwest. Photo by Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons license. CC-BY-SA-4.0
(11) Tosefta Terumot 7.23 (Sefaria.org). Sefaria community translation. “A group of [Jews] to whom gentiles say, “Give us one of you and we shall kill him, and if not, behold, we will kill all of them”; they should let themselves be killed and not deliver them one soul from Israel. But if they designated [the person] to them – for example, Sheva ben Bichri – they should give him to them and not let themselves be killed. Rabbi Yehuda said, “When do these words apply? In a case when he is [inside and they are] outside [a fortified city]; but in a case when he is inside and they are inside, since he will be killed and the [other Jews] will be killed, they should give him to them and not let themselves all be killed. And so did it state (II Samuel 20:22), ‘And the woman come to all of the people in her wisdom, etc.’ – she said to them, ‘Since he will be killed and you will be killed, give him to them and do not kill all of you.’” Rabbi Shimon says, “So did she say [to them], ‘Anyone who rebels against the monarchy [of the House of David] is liable to [receive] the death penalty.’”