Chapter 3: The Pleasure of Her Text by Alice Bach
That which you are, that only can you read.
Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism
No sooner has a word been said, somewhere, about the pleasure of the text, than two policemen are ready to jump on you: the political policeman and the psychoanalytical policeman; futility and/or guilt, pleasure is either ideal or vain, a class notion or an illusion.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
My reading of Abigail’s story, found in 1 Samuel 25, is concerned with woman as reader of male-produced literature, and with the way the hypothesis of a female reader changes our understanding or vision of a text1 by exploring the significance of its sexual codes.2 Formerly, in analyzing biblical texts, it was de rigueur to present scholarly interpretations as objective or neutral descriptions; some critics now recognize that such a "neutral reading" is no more innocent than any other. All this time scientistic scholars have been telling it slant, reading from the male point of view. The typical reader response to female characters has held them in thrall to the dominant male figures, who are accepted as the keystone of each narrative unit. Female character is defined by male response. Often the perception of female characters as "flat" results from scholars’ crushing assumption that male authors have created male characters to do the bidding of their male god. A hermeneutical version of the old-boy network.
In this paper I consider the story of Abigail as a self-contained narrative unit which achieves its dramatic effect by the skillful interweaving of dialogue and by contrasts of character.3 By examining the sexual code, I am presenting an unabashedly subjective reading.4 Instead of evaluating and praising Abigail as a suitable partner for David, reading the text as it has been controlled by codes of male dominance, I adopt a revisionary approach, in order to explore female influence in a male-authored work. Understanding Abigail to be the focus of her own narrative, I award her an opportunity to break free of the traditional plot of love and marriage. The text lends itself to this interpretive strategy since all the other characters, the young outcast David, Abigail’s landowner husband Nabal, and the peripheral male and female servants, interact only with Abigail. No other character in the episode interacts with all the other characters. Thus, even though the story appears to be about male authority, female presence shines through.
A closer examination of the sexual codes in the text shows Abigail to be more subversive than her male authors have understood. During the time and space of her narrative, she has used her wise good-sense to control her life verbally while appearing socially dependent and compliant. The moment she encounters David, she speaks. Her determination is reflected in the series of active verbs (v 23) which rapidly move the narrative: wattemaher, wattered, wattippol, wattishtahu.
She hastened and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground.
The first speech is hers. Before David can articulate the anger which the reader has heard him express to his men as Abigail was riding toward him, she delivers a series of beseeching demands, orchestrated to absorb the insults her husband had spoken. Well-chosen words will wash away the villainous words spoken earlier.
"upon me, my lord, be the guilt" v 24
"let your maidservant speak" v 24
"hear the words of your maidservant" v 24
Let your maidservant arrange for the gift to be given v 27
Calling herself "maidservant," amateka or shiphateka, synonyms delineating a lower-class woman of no power, Abigail reflects the opposite in her actions: the text has informed us that Abigail is a wealthy woman, and now we see her in charge, comfortably issuing orders, while at the same time deflecting male anger. One suspects she has spoken equally soothing words to her husband to still his rages. There is no reply from David. The scene continues to belong to Abigail. After offering the gift of nourishment for him and his men, she proffers a greater gift: spiritual nourishment in the form of the prophecy endorsing David’s destiny to reign as the chosen one of God .5 Once she is assured that David has no further violent intentions toward Nabal, she dissociates herself from this husband, who she concedes has no hope of survival (vv 25-26), and seeks to link herself with David. "When YHWH has made good his promises to my lord, may you remember your maidservant" (v 31). Throughout her speech, Abigail continues to emphasize a power hierarchy, repeatedly calling David adoni and herself amateka/shiphateka. While her actions show that she is accustomed to controlling situations, her words assure David that she is handing over power to him. Abigail’s cloying humility is a result of her belief in her own words of prophecy. Her deference to the landless pauper underscores David’s position as prince in disguise. We are in no doubt that Abigail would not herald a rogue with words suited to royalty.
Abigail’s ability to act halts the negative progress of the story. The young men, who reported the foul acts of Nabal (vv 14-17), are incapable of reversing their master’s action. Abigail, the woman, acts swiftly. Nabal had refused to give David bread and wine and meat (v 11); Abigail gathers up extravagant amounts of those items and more. "Two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of parched grain, one omer of raisins, and two hundred fig cakes" are brought to David (v 18).
A central illustration of her verbal power is provided in Abigail’s prophecy. Her words echo and elaborate Saul’s acknowledgment (chap. 24) that David will become the next king of Israel. But her words have a more powerful effect on David than Saul’s had; they stop him from committing a violent act. In the previous episode in the cave, David had spared Saul’s life before Saul extracted David’s promise of protection. Abigail’s words to David change the course of his action toward Nabal, and possibly the echo of her prophecy in chap. 26 guides David’s hand when he so flamboyantly seizes, then returns, Saul’s spear.
One impression of the patrician landowner’s wife is that she is the maternal wife of order and control. She sets limits on her husband’s refusal to comply with David’s request; she brings calm to David’s fury. The biblical author does not consider Abigail merely as the good mother. If she were, she would have been rewarded with a long life (in the text) and a top-rated male heir, a common patriarchal convention for conferring praise on a biblical woman. For a moment Abigail steps outside the bounds of convention: a woman succeeds in stopping the future king from committing bloodguilt. But in exercising power and speaking in her own distinctive voice, perhaps Abigail has been guilty of the crime of female ambition. In order for male power to be restored, her voice must be stifled. Her recorded moment of prophecy is not to be repeated.
Scholarly readings of Abigail’s story have often reduced it to "1 Samuel 25," that is, the commentators’ somewhat mechanical explanation of how David annexed his second wife and the valuable territory south of Jerusalem. Perhaps that is why Abigail has no passionate admirers. Few have taken pleasure in her text.
Suppose we befriend for a moment this woman brave enough to ride out from the closed security of her home to face the storms of her husband’s enemy. Instead of imprisoning her in the language of wife, let her break those restraints and relate to other women. We know she is strong and decisive; might she be capable of sustaining friendships, perhaps with Michal and Bathsheba? As Elizabeth Abel discovered in her study of women’s friendships, "through the intimacy which is knowledge, friendship becomes a vehicle of self-definition for women, clarifying identity through relation to an other who embodies and reflects an essential aspect of the self."6 Might Abigail comfort Bathsheba on the death of her baby? Did Michal return as "primary wife"; or had that position been claimed by Ahinoam, mother of Amnon, David’s eldest son? Was Abigail’s gift for pro-flouncing the right words at the right time necessary to keep peace among the wives of the monarch?
As the story unfolds, we can contrast Abigail’s behavior with the men’s actions; by holding our literary mirror at another angle, we can contrast her with the other women within the Davidic cycle. When Abigail is placed at the center of her drama, she emerges as a redeemer whose action and prophecy are necessary in assuring the future role of David, the divinely chosen monarch of Israel. Is it surprising to find that the historical code, strengthened with added muscle from the theological code, inscribes a woman in the role of God’s helper? Permitting a woman to pronounce a crucial prophecy remains well within the Deuteronomistic Historian’s narrative program. The prophecy is supportive, highlights the role of the deity in the selection of David as king, and "emphasizes David’s success in avoiding any action that would later jeopardize the integrity of his rule."7
Among the thematic threads that bind together chaps. 19-28 one can identify the depiction of Saul as the seeker and David as the vulnerable one whose life is sought. Holding the thread, like Ariadne guiding the reader through the Deuteronomist’s maze, is Abigail, who makes explicit the connection between the "seekers alter David" and Nabal. At the center of the maze, the minotaur is Saul/Nabal. Abigail’s action is "providential persuasion," part of the larger pattern within chaps. 24-26 of God’s active protection of David.8 Like Ariadne rescuing Theseus, Abigail keeps David safe from the devouring minotaur. Comparing Abigail with Ariadne is not frivolous; both women figure as a trajectory in a story about men; both women rescue/protect the questing hero and then follow him to a different land. Once in David’s land, Abigail is left out of David’s story. Theseus deserted Ariadne on the island of Naxos. As a figure of the process of solution Abigail/Ariadne rewards the hero (as well as the reader who makes her/his way to her) with a way out of the story. When we grasp Abigail/Ariadne’s thread, we follow a different path through the labyrinth. Instead of admiring the man who entered the arena to do violence, we admire the woman who led him out alive.
Neglecting to put Abigail at the center of her drama, as a primary actor, weakens her role as God’s helper. Adele Berlin does not regard Abigail’s words of prophecy (vv 28-31) as crucial to the narrative, claiming the insertion is "hardly relevant to the events of the Abigail story."9 Many scholars agree,10 however, that the primary theological function of Abigail is to speak the word of YHWH to David. While Nabal is ignorant of David’s true identity, Abigail recognizes David as the future king of Israel. Her prescience is a clear indication that Abigail is God’s chosen prophet-intermediary.11 Abigail’s assurance to David that he is YHWH’s intended ruler and must remain innocent to do God’s will is the link between the anointing prophecy of Samuel and the dynastic prophecy of Nathan.12 In an ironic twist, the fate about which YHWH’s prophet Abigail has warned David, that of shedding innocent blood, prophesies his downfall while it connects this episode of David acquiring his good-sense wife with that future episode of David acquiring another wife (2 Sam 11:1-25). Possibly Abigail’s words reveal a latent subtextual desire for connection with Bathsheba, for a community of women.
Inevitably Abigail must join Michal and Bathsheba, the other wives of David who experience moments of narrative power. A clear illustration of gender politics is found in the biblical portrayal and scholarly interpretation of David’s wives. Seen through the stereotyping lens of male authority, each of these women typifies a particular aspect of wife; Michal is the dissatisfied daughter/wife of divided loyalties; Abigail is consistently the good-sense mother-provider, and Bathsheba, the sexual partner. There is no interdependence of the wives of David, although in their actual lives there might well have been.13 Nor is any of the three women portrayed as a woman with depth or timbre. In the text as traditionally interpreted, as well as in their lives, the wives of David cede to male domination, and in ladylike fashion allow biblical literature to privilege male gender and to demystify their own. However, by rerouting the circuits of conventional comparisons, we can clarify and restore the identity to each woman through her relation to an other who embodies and reflects an essential aspect of the female self. We can imagine alliances based upon affiliation instead of kinship and filiation.
As the only female character in her story, Abigail’s isolation is apparent. When, however, we join her story to and make it part of and a link with Michal’s story (Michal is essentially erased from David’s life when Abigail is inserted into it) and then link Bathsheba’s story to the previous two, we see female power, or self-identity, asserting itself. We can bring the women together by altering our usual chronology of reading with a Lacanian moment of mirroring. This strategy allows the women to reflect one another as whole bodies, and deflects the bits-and-pieces views we get from glimpsing a shard of each woman in the Davidic mirror, where she appears as a distortion of the male image. Such revisioning provides the reader with a method to probe the ideological assumptions which have resulted in the polarized "good wife, bad wife" stereotypes, the popularly held view of the women within the Davidic narratives.
Abigail: The Good-sense Wife
Abigail is labeled the good-sense wife, the embodiment of sekel in contrast to her husband nabal, the fool. The connection to the book of Proverbs where the use of the word sekel is the most extensive in the Bible is immediate. The portrait of Abigail at first glance seems to be a narrative interpretation and expansion of the qualities attributed to the good wife of Proverbs 31, who provides food for her household, and "opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue" (v 36).
Providing us with some of the details of the life of an upperclass wife, Proverbs offers a clue to Abigail’s many accomplishments. She considers a field and buys it; she perceives that her merchandise is profitable she spins, she takes care of the poor, she makes all manner of garments and sells them. Clearly she does not eat of the bread of idleness (when would she have time!), while her husband sits in the gates of the city. Not surprisingly her children call her blessed. She is rated far more precious than jewels. Perhaps Nabal thought his good-wife Abigail was a glittering gem until the morning she told him that she had appeased the greedy son of Jesse. Discovering that his precious jewel had sided with the young brigand struck the undefended hungover Nabal in his heart with the force of a stone.
Traditional interpretations of 1 Samuel 25 have consistently focused upon Abigail’s good-sense works as advantageous to the men in the story: as appeasing David in his anger, thus saving the lives of her husband’s workers; preventing David from committing bloodguilt by killing her husband, and of course providing quantities of food for David and his men. The moral code reflects patriarchal values: a woman’s personal payoff for virtue is connecting herself to a "better" husband, one as beautiful, pious, and pleasing to God as she is herself. The rabbinic view of Abigail expands and escalates her biblical goodness. In b. Megillah she is considered the most important wife of David, equal with Sarah, Rahab, and Esther, as the four most beautiful women in biblical history.14 In the women’s Paradise, Abigail supervises the women in the fifth division, her domain bordering those of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.15 Josephus also emphasizes Abigail’s goodness and piety, referring to her as gynaikos d’agathes kai sophronos.16This description of Abigail is close to that of the ethical paragon par excellence, Joseph, a model of sophrosyne, "self-control," for both Josephus and Philo. In both stories, of course, there is the motif of sexual restraint bringing divine rescue. It is understood by the rabbis also that Abigail’s moral goodness and self-control cools David’s ardor, thus distinguishing her from Bathsheba. The mere sight of Bathsheba enflames David to sin, whereas encounter with Abigail cools David’s fervor to kill Nabal.
Kyle McCarter’s summary of the narrative unit is typical of the traditional patriarchal response to the portrayal of Abigail as necessary piece in the grander Davidic mosaic: "the partnership of such a wile bodes well for David’s future, not only because of her good intelligence and counseling skills, but also because she is the widow of a very rich Calebite landowner."17 Jon Levenson characterizes Abigail as one who "rides the crest of the providential wave into personal success."18 His view of her as an opportunistic surfer is no more complete than McCarter’s wife of mergers and land deals. The pleasure of her text comes from acknowledging both these aspects of Abigail and celebrating her subtleties and contradictions.19
Although the biblical author describes Abigail as wipat to‘ar, her beauty is apparently not the sort to inspire sexual desire (pace to the ancient aggadists who have dreamed on paper of her) since there is no hint of a sexual relationship between Abigail and either husband. We are riot told of any children from her marriage to Nabal, indeed if Abigail had had children with Nabal, they, not David, would have inherited their father’s important estate. The biblical narrators/writers are not interested in Abigail’s son from her marriage to David, referring to him as Chileab (2 Sam 3:3) or Daniel (1 Chron 3:1).20 The text emphasizes Abigail’s importance as the wife with the goods, the flocks and herds, detailing the quantity of every delicious item of food and drink she brings to the outcast David. His sexual hunger will be satisfied by another wife.
To illustrate the textual denial of sexuality to Abigail we might compare how the themes of sexuality, nourishment, and death are developed in another story, that of Judith, a different story to be sure, but one with striking similarities. A woman rushes from the security of home to halt the destructive action of a male. Unlike Abigail, Judith spends a long time dressing to please the male, to seduce him into helplessness. Once in the presence of Holofernes, Judith tantalizes him with possibility. She stays in a tent adjoining his for three days, offering words that are sharply double-edged, meant to fool her enemy into believing that she is preparing for a sexual banquet and that she has come to lead him to victory, when the audience understands she plans the opposite. Taking with her the same items as Abigail does, a skin of wine, barley cakes, loaves from fine flour, and dried fruit (Jdt 10:5), Judith brings the food to nourish herself, not to appease the appetite of Holofernes. Food in the book of Judith functions as a symbol of impending death; Abigail’s vast amounts of the same food serve the opposite function. The gift of food comforts David and permits him to accept her words of prophecy. Abigail does not deceive David with words or with food. Judith serves tempting words and is herself the tasty dish.
Another textual silence concerns Abigail’s lineage, for she is not the wife of important bloodlines. That connection with Saul’s house is achieved by David’s marriage to Michal. After Abigail’s prophecy, assuring David that his own house is secure, v 28, the mosaic is altered, the royal connection to Saul is no longer necessary. As if to underscore his awareness of David’s relentless rise to power, Saul, flailing in his own impotence against the challenger, gives Michal to Paltiel (v 44).21 From the chronological order of wives in David’s life, one can posit a setting of priorities of male ambition. First, the connection with the royal house, then the acquisition of personal wealth and the assurance of kingship, and finally a pleasurable sexual liaison.
Casting Abigail in the role of mother-woman represents a view of woman as a respite or dwelling place for man. She functions "as a kind of envelope [for man] in order to help him set limits to things."22 in its positive aspect, as we have noted, Abigail helps David set limits to his fury. While this envelope or place sees the female body as offering a visible limit or shelter, it also views her place as dangerous: the man risks imprisonment or murder within the villainous other unless a door is left open. Thus, to protect himself from the possibility of her engulfing him, the man must distance himself from her, and place limits upon her that are the equivalent of the place without limits where he unwittingly leaves her. After acknowledging that Abigail has stilled his murderous sword, "unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by the dawning of day not a single man would have been left to Nabal" (v 3.4), he must limit her power. Serving David’s unconscious will, the narrator turns down the heat of the female hero. Our last image of her is as she is riding subdued toward David’s house, in the company of female servants, playing her role as traditional wife, obeying the will of her husband. How different from that passionate ride down the mountainside in the company of male servants! Shut away from the action of the story, Abigail is no longer
Mieke Bal has noticed a similar framework expressing the unconscious fear of woman in the story of Abimelech by connecting six motifs (identified by Fokkelman): death, woman, wall, battle, shame, folly. Bal interprets the linking of these images as a strong chain of warning from male to male to keep his distance, to proceed with caution. "One dies a shameful death as soon as one is so foolish as to fight woman when she is defending her wall/entrance from her mighty position as the feared other."23 Abigail has defended her entrance with words instead of violence. By offering David all her goods, she keeps her own body secure. Ironically David does not risk imprisonment in her house, indeed does not even show curiosity about what might be within. Instead he sends messengers to her in conventional fashion to define her as wife, as though her moment of power and prophecy had never occurred.
As Abigail’s absence in the subsequent text of the Davidic narrative proves, David is more successful than Nabal in keeping Abigail shut up in his house, within her own limits.24 Only when she breaks free of the container of Nabal’s house, does she become all-powerful, simultaneously saving and threatening the men in the story. The story is resolved when the narrator serving the male characters puts Abigail in her place.
A feminist reading intent on restoring dimension to flattened characters must account for pieces that do not fit. Abigail the woman resists being dismissed as a literary type, "the exemplum, the perfect wife."25 Nor is equating Abigail with mother-provider congruent if we understand Mother to be the Earth Mother, the well-spring of fertility. Abigail, the good wife of Nabal, is the mother of none. As the wife of David, she is the mother of a son, whose name Chileab, "like [his] father,"26 removes him from her influence and control. Abigail is clearly the mother-provider of transformation. She turns the raw material provided by her destructive husband into salvific nourishment. She is not the tender of lambs, but of dressed sheep; she does not offer grain, but baked loaves. Model wife? She refers to her husband as a fool (v 25), sides with his enemy, and does not even mourn his death.
In introducing the character of David, Meir Steinberg has observed that the biblical author provided a complete, formal, and ordered portrait of David through "summary epithets" in the glowing report Saul’s servant makes about "the young son of Jesse, skillful in playing, able in deed, a man of war, wise in counsel, a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him" (16:18).27 Most biblical portraits, unlike this one, are the product of the reader’s gap-filling activity; one collects shards of information as the narrative unfolds. Usually the biblical text provides the reader only a partial picture of each character. This is certainly the way in which interpreters have read the relevant texts in the Davidic cycle in which female characters are present. Critics consistently define women as foils for David’s development. As we have noted, female characters tend to have their identity stolen.28 Traditional commentary has failed to fill out the identity of Abigail, Michal, and Bathsheba, binding them by their gender to the overpowering portrait of David. In Steinberg’s schema the entire personality of marginal characters gets telescoped into one or two words: churl and paragon.29 Thus, he robs the story of elements of paradox. A reading that lingers over the collisions and conflicts between characters adds pleasure to the text.
Assigning to each of David’s wives her summary epithets provides us with a male-produced map of each woman’s place in the larger landscape. Michal’s summary epithet states that she loved David, a fact not revealed about his other wives. Next the narrator tells us that Saul gave Michal "as a snare for him" (18:21). The language of her epithets is clear. Described as daughter of Saul and snare, she is to spell death for David, although her love for him keeps her from snapping the trap. Abigail, as we noted earlier, is the good-sense wife. She is also wise and beautiful. But neither her name nor her epithets are presented until after a description of her husband’s flocks. Nabal is mentioned first. David hears that Nabal is shearing his sheep and sends his men to ask for the payoff. David seems unaware of or uninterested in the beautiful wife inside the landowner’s house. In contrast is a later David, inactive, no longer a fighter or outlaw, watching a beautiful woman in her bath. In this case Bathsheba is mentioned before Uriah. Immediately after identifying Bathsheba as the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah, David30 sends for this other man’s wife and lies with her. In this narrative the biblical author develops themes of sexual power: in contrast to his earlier stories of David’s marital alliances, which are really male power struggles.
Bathsheba’s epithets are the most telling of the three products of male fantasy. For her creators, Bathsheba certainly provided pleasure in her text. Through the eyes of the focalizer David we see beautiful Bathsheba bathing: we observe her having sex with him. Then the narrator takes over, revealing that she is at the beginning of her menstrual cycle and then that she has just conceived a child. Bathsheba’s first spoken words, "I am with child," could serve as her summary epithet. But the language of sexual intimacy continues. We learn that Uriah will not have sex with her. After his death she mourns Uriah, is brought to David’s house, becomes his wife, lies with him (again), and bears him a son. The explicit details of Bathsheba’s sexual life stand in sharp contrast to the absence of any sexual language in the story of Abigail. Thus, the biblical author exposes private matters to paint the portrait of Bathsheba as the wife who inspires improper desire; he uses the language of prophecy and deference to describe Abigail, the wife of legitimacy and public acquisitions.
Examining these summary epithets provides major clues about the fate of each woman. The daughter of death inherits death (in a woman figured as barrenness) from her father; she does not pass on death to her husband. In the concluding episode about Michal (her stories are split as are her allegiances), she is scornful of David, uncovering himself before maidservants. David, Michal’s husband, triumphant in his sexuality, is a sharp contrast to the dispirited figure of Saul, Michal’s father, holding in his hand his spear, a symbol of male potency, and failing to kill David with his ineffectual shaft (1 Sam 19:10). As Saul’s life force wilts, David’s grows stronger. Deprived of David’s sexual energy, Saul’s household is powerless: in the first episode, Saul cannot stop David from playing his lyre until Saul hurls his spear at him; in the second Michal cannot stop David from ecstatic dancing. Since there is no sexual life between Abigail and David, Abigail enjoys no further textual life either. Only Bathsheba, the wife of sexual intimacy, participates in the ongoing story of David’s reign. The length of female textual life seems to be directly connected to the extent of sexual pleasure she provides her male creators.
Another contrast among the women is the way in which David wins each of them: within the consistent framework of fragmented episodes about the women, there are full reports of how David gains these wives: Michal through violence against the Philistines; Abigail through withholding violence against Nabal; Bathsheba through violence against Uriah. While Abigail prevents David from acting against Nabal, Michal has no part in the deal struck between her father and David. She is the reward of a struggle between men doing violence to men. Bathsheba, a casualty of David’s sexual imperialism, has no part in David’s death-dealing plan. Only Abigail actively opposes David’s violence.31 In her story, David refrains from the impetuous act of killing the unpleasant Nabal and so gains Abigail through YHWH’s will; in the episode of Bathsheba, after he has gained the power of kingship, David arranges the death of Uriah in order to assure with his own actions that he may possess Bathsheba. When Saul set the bride price of Philistine foreskins for his daughter, he hoped the violent encounter would kill his enemy David (20:21). Rather David triumphed through sexual slaughter. David himself sent his enemy Uriah into battle, again the prize being a woman. David kills the Philistines with the sword; Uriah is also killed by the sword. In Abigail’s story, David and his men strap on their swords but never unsheathe them in battle. It is the only one of the three stories in which sexual violence does not lead to marriage. It is also the only one of the three in which there is no allusion to sexual union, or nonunion in the case of Michal. After Nabal’s death, David sends his messengers to collect Abigail, "to make her his wife" (v 42). After Bathsheba’s period of mourning for Uriah was over, "David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son (2 Sam 11:27). Saul gave Michal to David as a snare for him, but with the help of the wife who loved him, David escaped the snare and fled. And Michal was left with an empty bed, stuffed with teraphim, an imitation man. David escapes Michal’s bed; Bathsheba is ensnared in his.
Fathers and Son
In his vigorous examination of the literary history constructed by the Deuteronomistic Historian, Samuel and the Deuteronomist, Robert Polzin uses a strategy of "allusive readings" to make interbiblical connections among episodes within 1 Samuel. Through his comparisons of Saul and Nabal, he makes a convincing case for Nabal’s death as proleptic of Saul’s. Earlier David Gunn concluded that "one of the important functions of Abigail’s speech, in the context of the story as a whole, is to foreshadow Saul’s death."32 But it is Abigail herself who first made this connection explicit in telling David, "Let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal" (v 29). Following their lead, let us test connections between foolish men.
As Polzin notes, one of the major themes of the first book of Samuel is the establishment of kingship in Israel. Read through a psychoanalytic lens, this translates into a taut chain of fathers and sons, tensions of male power. Beginning with the birth of Samuel, spiritual father to both Saul and David, and ending with the death of Saul and his sons, and the kingship or coming of age of David, 1 Samuel can be read as a record of war games of slaughter and betrayal. The cycle of doom is compressed into a question in a Margaret Atwood poem:
Aren’t you tired of killing
those whose deaths have been predicted
and who are therefore dead already?33
But the struggle is inevitable. Until the father is vanquished, the son cannot flourish. David Jobling sees the motif of heredity as the most important aspect of continuity between the books of Judges and Samuel.34 The sins of Eli’s sons lead to the rise of Samuel as Eli’s surrogate son; David, the one who can soothe Saul when the dark spirit comes upon him, becomes a surrogate son to Saul and a brother to Jonathan. Jobling understands the rise of monarchy under Saul as a move toward continuous and hereditary government. There is, however, no mention of kingship as hereditary in 1 Sam 8:4-12:25. As Jobling recognizes, the theological code supports monarchy in circumstances much like those of the judge-deliverers. The king unifies Israel and does not appear as a dynast.35 For a dynasty is "a direct negation of divine initiative in the raising of Israel’s leaders."36
Struggles between fathers and sons abound throughout the biblical narratives. Within the scope of this paper we can only glance at those that involve David as son. As we have noted earlier, the son of Jesse refers to himself as son to two surrogate fathers: Saul and Nabal. This self-designation underscores the liminality of David’s situation. No longer the child-shepherd guarding his father’s flocks in the hills of Bethlehem, not yet ready to discard the time of sonship.37 We can contrast another son connected to David, his "brother," Jonathan, who struggles against his father, but dies alongside Saul, never to escape the role of son.
From the time David flashes his sword against the Philistines to capture the bride price for the daughter of Saul, assuring himself sonship to the king, the woman-mother is the prize for the murder of the father. Michal never quite achieves this status; she remains a transitional figure, the link between Saul and his successor. Her divided loyalties mirror the difficulties of the reader in deserting Saul and taking up emotional residence with David. Although David may be the ultimate Father’s chosen son, the biblical author’s ambiguous feelings toward him remind the reader that David is not always the popular choice. Abigail like Michal stands between David and a father figure. On first reading, the author’s response to Nabal’s wife appears to be different from his response to Saul’s daughter. After all Abigail is the subject of an entire chapter in the narrative. And she is rewarded with a son, even if an "unimportant" one. David flees the daughter of Saul, and neither her husband nor the biblical authors praise her for her courage in helping David escape her father. Michal, the companion of David’s liminal period, is discarded like an outgrown garment. She remains childless, a daughter until the day of her death.
However, there is a similarity between the two women David has taken from older men: he seems to lose interest in them after he has possessed them and overcome the fathers their husbands represent. They are his public wives, as he publicly wrenched power from their husbands. Bathsheba, the wife of his bed, with whom he mourns the death of his infant son, is the wile of adulthood and privacy. David’s victory over Uriah was born in an act of concealment. The only benefit from that marriage was Bathsheba herself. No kingship, no land, no wealth. Of course there is a future benefit for David from Bathsheba herself. From her womb comes the son Solomon, who will rule after his father.
Mother-women are at the center of the father and son battle from the first chapter of the book of Samuel through Elkanah’s question to his wife Hannah, "Am I not more to you than ten sons?" It is also possible to imagine the question posed to Abigail by the young man who has introduced himself to her husband as bineka, "your son." Standing as intercessor between him and the father, she answers his question with resounding affirmation. Presenting him with the goods of the father, she tells him that his house will be secure, unlike the houses of his predecessors, Saul and Nabal. And she plans to follow him into the house. Lest he be overcome with her devouring power, she calls herself amateka/shiphateka, signaling that he will be the ruling father, and she will be his obedient mate. David acknowledges this transfer of power by telling Abigail that he has heard her voice and granted her petition (v 35).
Earlier in the narrative David instructs his men to ask Nabal for a payoff because they had not harmed his shepherds. In other words David wants a reward because he behaved correctly. He had not invaded the older man’s territory; he requests recognition from the father: "give whatever you have [in] your hand to your son" (v 8). At the rejection of the father, David responds in anger and pain and threatens to kill him. Abigail holds up the mirror to the son David in this episode, assuring him that he is good. It is the father Nabal who is evil and who must die.
The death of Nabal marks the end of this liminal period for David begun with the death of Goliath, also felled by a stone. In the next chapter, in what is to be their final meeting, David possesses Saul’s spear, the metonymic weapon of sexual power, and receives acknowledgment from the father, "Blessed be you, my son David." Not believing Saul’s words. David flees the borders of Israel, but the record of Saul’s pursuit of David has ended. The transitional time of David’s struggle to overtake the older king, which began with his battling Goliath in Saul’s name, concludes with another scene of displaced victory, the death of Nabal. During this liminal period, David has depended on women to assure him that he is better than the father. In the episode with Bathsheba, he has become the man in charge. Bathsheba’s announcement, "I am with child," proclaims that David is no longer a son. No longer does he need a woman to defend him from the threatening father. No longer does he depend on the ultimate Father to do his killing for him. In this story he takes control from the Father God and proves that he can kill in his own name. And, thus, with this supreme act of disloyal sonship, he incurs the wrath of the Father, who takes the life of David’s infant son.
After Nabal’s death, Abigail becomes a widow, almanah.38 The word is derived from the root lm, meaning dumb, without speech. From the same root comes the noun elem, meaning silence.39 In Akkadian, lemun, a cognate word, means "it is bad." In spite of her marriage to David, Abigail remains a widow, that is, she survives without speech in the text. Her name is mentioned twice to remind the reader that she lives. Although she has a son, he is Chileab, like (his) father, and thus not connected with his mother. We do not hear her wise voice again. Ironically, in spite of the textual insistence that Abigail was improperly paired with the fool, that marriage gave her the power of speech as well as the power to ride down a mountainside, emboldened by her mission to stop David from killing her husband. In spite of the implication that Abigail lived happily ever after with her Prince Charming, the vibrant, verbal Abigail seems to have functioned better as the wife of Nabal. While he lived, she demonstrated bravery. She had the power of prophecy. After his death, Abigail’s voice is absorbed into David’s, much as she is absorbed into his household. Once inside his house, she is no longer a threat or a redeemer to men.
Living on in the echo of her story as widow, isolated by the tradition as the good-sense wife, the Paragon, Abigail is denied political agency and her own identity. At the moment at which readers conceive of Abigail as agent, as actor, as subject, they restore dimension to her. And delight in the pleasure of her text.
1. For our ongoing exploration of woman as reader and for providing pleasure in analyzing texts, I am grateful to J. Cheryl Exum of Boston College.
2. For a feminist literary delineation of the difference between women reading male-authored texts, and women reading books written by women ("gynocritics") see Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) 243-270.
3. Flaubert, in a letter to Louise Collet, Oct. 12, 1853, thus defined his own aspirations in attempting to write the perfect artistic novel.
4. Mieke Bal in Murder and Difference (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988) has illustrated the effectiveness of a reading strategy that employs a combination of codes, "a transdisciplinary approach." The advantage of Bal’s method is that one avoids privileging one code, allowing it the voice of authority, obscuring social realities. This paper owes much of its understanding of examining codes to Bal’s perceptive work.
5. In this central scene, vv 14-35, Kyle McCarter’s sensitive translation reads with Vaticanus against Alexandrinus and Venetus and against MI, eliminating the name of Nabal. Thus, the name Nabal is not spoken by either the servants, Abigail, or David, until the potentially violent situation has been resolved. The loss of his name reflects the loss of his status, as well as his importance to the story. By removing his name, McCarter has emphasized the loss of the power Nabal possessed at the beginning of the narrative. See P. Kyle McCarter, I Samuel, Anchor Bible 8 (AB), (New York: Doubleday, 1980).
6. Elizabeth Abel, "[Emerging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women," Signs 6 (1981) 413-435.
7. Robert Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist (New York: Harper and Row, 1989) 213-215. Although Polzin does not characterize his approach as a reading of the theological-historical code active in the text, his strategy of tracing allusions and repetitions within the History results in laying bare this code.
8. Polzin 206-207.
9. Adele Berlin, "Characterization in Biblical Narrative: David’s Wives," JSOT 23 (1982) 77. Incorporated in Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983) 23-43.
10. See Gunn, McCarter, Polzin.
11. Jon Levenson ["1 Samuel 25 as Literature and as History" CBQ 40(1978) 20] acknowledges that Abigail is the first person to announce that David will be chosen nagid al yisra el, "ruler over Israel" (v 30) and that her assertion that YMWH will build David a bayit ne eman, "secure house" (v 28) is an "undeniable adumbration of Nathan’s prophecy which utilizes identical language." Levenson, however, decides that "the narrator does not present Abigail as a prophetess [sic] in the narrower sense; she is a person who from intelligence rather than from special revelation senses the drift of history, and who endowed with the highly valued initiative and efficiency of the "ideal woman (see Prov 31:10-31) rides the crest of the providential wave into personal success." It seems highly speculative to assume Abigail does not possess special revelation. At best Levenson’s tone indicates that Abigail’s intelligence is a gift secondary to prophecy.
12. Splitting the impact of Abigail’s prophecy (vv 28-31) by concluding that these verses are a later Josianic addition to the earlier story of David’s meeting with Abigail is another way to diminish the female role in the story. McCarter falls victim to this approach by calling the later redaction "a vehicle for an early reference to the promise of dynasty to David" (AB 8: 402). McCarter does not mention that the Josianic historian has chosen to put the prophecy on the lips of Abigail, nor does he suppose any connection between the Josianic addition of v 1, the report of the prophet Samuel’s death, and the addition of the proleptic prophecy within the chapter.
13. See Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Woman’s Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). Gilligan argues that women typically develop different moral languages and decision-making styles from those of men. Gilligan has concluded from her female informants that women embrace an ethic of responsibility, nurturance, and interdependence, which differs from the male ethic of autonomous individual entitlement.
14. There were apparently only four women of perfect beauty. In b. Meg 15a Sarah, Rachel, and Abigail are consistently mentioned although there is no agreement as to the fourth beauty. Vashti, Esther, Rahab, Michal, and Jael are all competitors.
15. When it comes to describing women, the rabbis seem to suffer from narrative exhaustion, since they describe Michal also as a woman of entrancing beauty, who was a model of the loving wife. Beit HaMidrash III, 136.
16. Josephus, Biblical Antiquities, Book VI, 296.
17. McCarter 402.
18. Levenson 20.
19. Adele Berlin describes the wives of David with phrases that prolong gender stereotyping: e.g., Michal as "unfeminine" for declaring her love for David, and "aggressive and physical" (apparently negative qualities) for helping him to escape through the window. Collaborating with the patriarchal agenda, Berlin describes Abigail as an exaggerated stereotype of the "model wife and modest woman." See Berlin’s chapter, "Character and Characterization," op. cit. 23-43.
20. There is a rabbinic tradition that claims Chileab was so named because he resembled physically and in his mental powers his father David (kil’ab like [his] father). The name, according to Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 6, p. 275, silenced any misunderstanding about David’s hasty marriage to Abigail. The son is clearly the son of David because he resembles him physically. For similar explanation see Targum 1 Chron 3:1. David’s marriage to Abigail seems implicitly to be connected with the marriage to Bathsheba. Although both marriages were impulsive, one was born of improper sexual desire; one was proper. Abigail’s good name is protected by the name of her son.
21. Although Michal is returned to David (2 Sam 3:13), their relationship is anything but harmonious. When David orders Abner to bring Michal to him, he refers to her as "Saul’s daughter"; in the following verse in speaking to Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, David refers to Michal as "my wife." Once again the occasion of Michal’s becoming David’s wife is surrounded by male violence. Soon after she has been returned, Abner is killed by Joab.
22. See Luce Irigaray, "Sexual Difference," in French Feminist Thought, ed. Toni Moi (Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1987) 118-130. Irigaray argues that "the relationship between the envelope and the things represents one of the aporia, if not the aporia, of Aristotelianism and the philosophical systems which are derived from it." She concludes that man, in fear of leaving the mother a subject-life of her own, in a dynamic subjective process, remains within a master-slave dialectic. "He is ultimately the slave of a God on whom he bestows the qualities of an absolute master. He is secretly a slave to the power of the mother woman, which he subdues or destroys."
23. Mieke Bal, Lethal Love (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) 33.
24. For a convincing argument of the silencing of Michal within the Davidic story, especially the metonymic function of the house as agent of silence and confinement, see J. Cheryl Exum, "Murder They Wrote," in this volume.
25. Berlin 30-31.
26. Another interpretation of Chileab is, "yes, the father is mine."
27. Meir Steinberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) 326.
28. By reducing the story to slogans, Steinberg’s reading does not acknowledge Abigail as the initiator of action. While there are tropes of folktale in Abigail’s story — the wicked husband, the good and faithful wife — outcast David makes an odd Prince Charming. His threat of violence is not intended to rescue the fair maiden but rather to increase his own wealth. For a stimulating "caution" against reading folktale or myth without expressing its ideological bias, see Mieke Bal, "Mythe a La Lettre," in Psychoanalytic Discourse in Literature, ed. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (London: Methuen, Inc., 1987) 57-89.
29. Steinberg 325-328. Even though biblical texts reflect such formulas, I do not agree with Steinberg’s conclusion that the reason for verbal shorthand is to discourage further inquiry into makeup and motivation. He sees omitted features as blanks rather than gaps to be filled in by the reader. While Nabal by his very name is to be thought of as a churl, one can fill in the gaps within the text by comparing his behavior with that of his wife.
30. The text of 2 Sam 11:3 reads wayyomer halo’ zo’t bat sheba. The identity of the male speaker who identifies Bathsheba is not clear. It could refer to David.
31. Contra Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981) 61. Alter sees a progression of violence in each of the three "discriminated premarital episodes," e.g., Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba. Alter reads each text with David at its center, missing the critical difference in interpretation when Abigail is placed at the center of her story. Her actions stop violence; the other women are not participants in the episodes which lead to their alliances with David; they are the prizes.
32. David Gunn, The Fate of King Saul (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1980) 96.
33. Margaret Atwood, "Circe/Mud Poems," in Selected Poems (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976) 59.
34. David Jobling, The Sense of Biblical Narrative, II (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986) 53.
35. Jobling 64.
36. Jobling 85.
37. I understand the term liminality to refer to important boundaries of the hero’s life. Thus, David’s rite of passage is bounded by the slingshot stone at one end and the stone-dead Nabal at the other. This liminal or transitional period ends with the marriage to Abigail, who marks the beginning of the portrait of the adult David, who soon after this "adult" marriage is anointed king of Judah.
38. Abigail is not called almanah in the text, perhaps because she is already considered David’s wife. From the moment David tells her to return to her house, for "I have granted your petition," the reader links Abigail with him and not with the drunken Nabal, whose life seems to drizzle out of him like the previous night’s wine.
39. I am indebted to Edward L. Greenstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America for his etymological acumen as well as for his careful reading and valuable discussion about many of the issues and suggestions raised in this paper.