King David

King David’s Mother: She Stands for Us

Shavuot (Pentecost), among its many aspects, is the traditional death date of King David. This is an opportunity to return to my theme “Of King David’s Women,” and this time, I want to tell you about David’s mother. She’s mentioned twice in the Bible, but like most of its female characters, she has no name. And so the sages filled in the blanks in riotous color. They said her name was Nitzevet, which means “standing woman.”

Life in the Hareem. John Lewis (1858). Wikimedia Commons.

In Psalm 69:8, David wrote: “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children.” Why, the sages asked. They found the answer in the convoluted path David’s family took on its way to establishing the best known dynasty in Judeo-Christian tradition.

David was the great-grandson of the Moabite Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot and who famously joined her fate to the Israelites. But Jesse, after years of marriage to the Israelite Nitzevet, the mother of his seven sons, suddenly realized that as a prominent public figure, his part-Moabite status was an impediment.

Jewish tradition accords Ruth high honors but the law in Deut. 23:3 explicitly forbade intermarriage with Moabites. So, the sages said, Jesse felt compelled to cast Nitzevet out. This was for Nitzevet’s own good, they said – Jesse didn’t want to impugn Nitzevet’s status as the wife of a despised Moabite.

The separation lasted for three years. Jesse became lonely and wanted more children. And so he took a Canaanite slave woman, who could provide him with a child of unquestionable lineage. This was possible, it was said, because if Jesse were to emancipate the slave, their children could be recognized as full-fledged members of the tribe.

Compassion Births a Plan

What an awkward, painful situation. Nitzevet and the slave woman, living alongside each other, meeting every day at the loom, the grinding stone or over the cooking fire, neither of them with any real way out. And then, out of compassion, the slave woman came up with a plan, using one of the few tools biblical women had: subterfuge. She would switch places with Nitzevet on Jesse’s sleeping pallet that night. This apparently worked well enough, because Nitzevet became pregnant.

But from the moment her pregnancy began to show, Nitzevet’s own sons, ignorant of the bedroom switch, shunned and shamed her as an adulteress. The conscience-panged Jesse forbade his sons to harm her or the child, and eventually Nitzevet gave birth – to David. Jesse recognized the child as his own, although, like some biblical Cinderella, David was relegated to shepherd status, distanced from the family, a “stranger,” “hated without reason” (Psalm 69:4). Only twenty-eight years later – when Samuel the prophet anointed David king of Israel “in the midst of his brothers” (1 Samuel 16:12–13) – was the dignity of both mother and son restored. According to one source, it was at this point that Nitzevet uttered the words ascribed to David in Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected….”

Anointing of David, Veronese, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the Moral?

Some people in their anguish distance themselves from God, and some come closer. David, it was said, was among the latter. Women commentators have put a new gloss on the moral. They say Nitzevet is the one to be admired for bearing her pain with dignity and faith and for passing on her strength to her son David. What’s more, the story of “Standing Woman” doesn’t end in the Bible or its interpretations over the ages. It’s timeless and universal. Nitzevet stands for us. We can change the ending.

 

 

Further reading:

Chana Weisberg, “Nitzevet, Mother of David: the Bold Voice of Silence. https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm#comments

The legend of Nitzevet is based, among other sources, on the following sources:

Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 91a.

Eliyahu KiTov. Sefer HaTodaah, 1958 (Hebrew on line http://sifrei.blogspot.co.il/2014/03/blog-post_9.html, p. 302­–303, the section on Sivan and Shavuot tells about Nitzevet). English translation, Feldheim, 1998.

 Yalkut HaMachiri http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=32637&st=&pgnum=205 (Hebrew).

 

Of King David’s Women: Tamar, Symbol of Survival

The date palm speaks of justice and survival in the biblical world of #MeToo

On this upcoming Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of Trees, my thoughts go to King David’s daughter Tamar, whose name means date palm. Tamar was raped, then scorned and cast out by her half-brother (2 Sam. 13). Ironically, the tree for which Tamar was named is a biblical symbol of survival, of life itself, thriving as it does in oases, surrounded by desolation, seen from a distance by parched and desperate travelers. In its bounty it is compared to the rewards of righteousness (Psalm 92:13) and to justice (Judges 4:5).

“The Rape of Tamar,” Alexander Cabanel, 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Its scientific name is Phoenix dactifera. In this name, we can find a symbol of hope as well. Some say the legendary phoenix – the bird who ended its life in a blaze and whose successor rose from the ashes – might have gotten its name from a characteristic the bird shares with the date palm: After a fire, it is reborn from shoots that spring from its innermost surviving parts.

The date palm as a “giving tree” became a symbol in early Christianity and in Islam as well. An infancy narrative attributed to St. Jerome depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the desert. When Mary says she is hungry and thirsty, the baby Jesus commands a date palm to bend down, give his mother its fruit and reveal a spring of pure water. The Quran also tells this story.

Among the magnificent mosaics discovered in 1992 at the Kathisma, The Church of Mary’s Seat, on the Jerusalem–Bethlehem road, is this date palm that immortalizes the legend of  Mary’s “giving tree.” Courtesy of  Dr. Rina Avner.

The courtroom of the biblical heroine Deborah was under a date palm, and so the tamar became a symbol of justice. But for David’s daughter, there would be no true justice in the biblical telling. Her brother Absalom meticulously planned and executed his revenge on her attacker, but even this he did not share with his sister. His advice to her sounds all too familiar: Just put it behind you. Don’t tell anyone. As for David, when he heard what happened, he “became angry.” No more. Neither man gave Tamar what we now know victims need most after such a trauma – recognition, validation, comfort.

Tamar as a Flower

Tamar has entered the botanical world not only in the name of a tree, but, oddly, together with her attacker, as a flower: the pansy. In Hebrew it’s known as Amnon v’Tamar, by way of a Russian legend about a brother and sister, Ivan and Maria (which is the name for pansy in Russian), separated in childhood, who are reunited as adults and fall in love. God takes pity on them and turns them into a two-tone blossom, each symbolizing a different color, so they can stay together forever. These star-crossed Russian lovers were transformed into a prince and princess of Israel, abuser and victim, by none other than the Russian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who translated the legend into Hebrew and sought a biblical name and theme for his protagonists.

Pansy. The gold is Tchernichovksy’s Tamar (Maria in the Russian legend); the purple, Amnon (Ivan). Wikimedia Commons.

Absalom killed Amnon, and fled from his father. And David mourned. Not because one son had killed another, but because David longed for Absalom. Did David also long to have acted differently? Did he regret not having spoken up for his daughter and punished Amnon with his own hand (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:3)?

Where is David’s mourning for Tamar? Where, indeed, is she? Must her only trace after the crime against her be in her name – given by Absalom to his daughter, perhaps out of guilt over abandoning his sister?

Hope in the Future

This is where I want to go in my next historical novel. According to an ancient legend I’ll be weaving into it, Tamar was once again threatened, and once again, it happened in the place where she should have felt safest, among her own family (this time, on her mother’s side). But this story ends in hope. This Tamar, who once placed ashes on her head in mourning, like the women in my first historical novel, The Scroll, will rise from the ashes.

Big Tamar with little Tamar and her mother Maya, cutting cookies, shaping the future, 2015.

As did Tamar, my mother-in-law and who passed away just three months ago at age 87. Tamar was her adopted name. When she was about 16, after the liberation of the Budapest ghetto where she survived the Holocaust, Vera, as she was known then, cared for orphaned Jewish children getting ready to go to Palestine. The group’s leaders gave everyone a Hebrew name, to prepare for the future they hoped for in the land of their ancestors. “You’ll be Tamar,” they told her, because you’re tall and lovely like a tamar“– a date palm (Song of Songs 7:7–8).

Like Tamar, the daughter of David, my mother-in-law was left unprotected in a world of unimaginable cruelty, and she rose from the ashes to reestablish her family – our family. Let’s work so that her great-granddaughter, also named Tamar, the descendent of strong, heroic women on both sides, will know a better world.

  Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch

Further reading

Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20. http://gnosis.org/library/psudomat.htm.

Philologos. “Named for a Rapist.” The Forward, Feb. 24, 2010. https://forward.com/culture/126322/named-for-a-rapist/

Feinberg-Vamosh, M. Food at the Time of the Bible. Herzliya, Israel, n.d. P. 40.

Lowin, S.L. Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems in Al-Andalus. New York, 2013.

 

 

Of King David’s Women Part I: Abigail of Blessed Memory

In the Scriptural game of thrones, Abigail plays a key role in a surprise-filled plot. A strong woman of the Bible take the lead – again.

Why start my series on the women in King David’s life with Abigail? She’s not his first wife (Michal) nor is she the most famous (Bathsheba). Neither is she the daughter that his son, and David himself, so wronged (Tamar). But Abigail – her wisdom so powerfully revealed in so few slender verses – reaches out across the millennia in a way that has put her at the top of my list of strong women of the Bible.

Abigail, by Riki Rothenberg. Abigail appears in the center, and red-headed David and his men at left. David’s future crown is tied, literally to Abigail. Nabal is carousing at top right. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

As usual, although Abigail is the heroine, it’s Nabal, a man of means – and a mean man – about whom we get all the details. And, seeking to understand more about Abigail from elsewhere in Scripture, we find that according to scholars, Abigail was no more than a means to an end for David. Nabal, we’re told in 1 Sam 25:3, was a Calebite chieftain. According to 1 Chron. 2:50–51, David must have been a descendant of the Calebites, through a man named Bethlehem (David’s ancestral city). By marrying Abigail, some say David attained vital Calebite support for his kingship.  Indeed, David was eventually crowned in Calebite territory, in Hebron, where he spent seven years.

But it’s in the story itself that Abigail reveals herself to us, with Haiku-like brevity and precision. Here we find a decisive, strong, quick-acting woman of faith, who rewrote not only her own history and future, but the history through which we descendants of the Judahites know ourselves. In that sense, Abigail was an inspiration for my first-generation heroine in my first historical novel, The Scroll, among the few survivors of Masada, who by her wisdom and sheer willpower, changed a bleak future overshadowed by men’s desires.

The story in 1 Samuel 25 opens with David roaming the desert with band of 600 (!) outlaws. David had sent men to Nabal with a message: To paraphrase 1 Sam. 25:6–7:  “We’ve been watching your shepherds now for some time, busy with the shearing of your prodigous flock, and, just so you know, they’re feeling fine.” Then came some over-the-top wishes for continued good health and wealth, and a request for supplies. Considering David had left behind 200 of his men to guard his own supplies, it seems hunger was not his motive, but rather a Corleone-style demand for protection money if ever there was one. Nabal mockingly refuses, and it’s all downhill from there. Swords girded, off they go.

Abigail comes on the scene, having heard of the goings-on from a servant after the men involved had already sparked conflict. The quantity of supplies she presented to David might have fed Nabal’s household for no more than two days. That is, except for the extravagant “five dressed sheep,” which Abigail undoubtedly included to make a point – she was in charge, not Nabal. Abigail bows when she meets David, as her culture required. But using Nabal’s unfortunate nickname (“base fellow”) against him, she makes it clear that David will find dealing with her much different than with Nabal.

Pretending that violence is the last thing on David’s mind, Abigail blesses the outlaw and future king with long life, the monarchy, victory over his enemies and a dynasty to boot.  David, quite bowled over, sends her home with a promise that all will be well. Abigail then reports back to a drunken, carousing Nabal, who keels over when he hears what his wife had done without his knowledge and against his wishes.

David “proposes” to Abigail (roses and champagne are not mentioned, but “taking” is…twice. That’s ancient culture for you; lucky we’re done with that…). Abigail agrees, describing herself as a lowly handmaid and foot-washer, in direct contradiction to what we have already come to appreciate about her.

No need to dwell on David’s numerous flaws here. One of his most egregious sins had to do with another married woman who he brought into his life, with disastrous results. But David himself recognizes the role Abigail played in restraining his worst inclinations. That even God’s chosen king needed someone to keep him in line should comfort us  ordinary mortals at this time of year, when New Year’s resolutions are already weakening for some.

Abigail tells David that his life “will be bound securely in the bundle of life by the Lord your God.”  Our sages, who counted Abigail among the seven prophetesses of Israel (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megillah 14a), found that image so touching that they quoted it to describe what happens to the souls of the righteous after death (tractate Shabbat 152b). These poignant words are recited at Jewish funerals to this day. And thus, Abigail is still with us.

Thank you, Abigail, of blessed memory, for your deeds, and the hope of eternity bound up in your words.

 

Further reading

C. Meyers (ed.), Women in Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI, 2000), pp. 43–44.

J.D. Levenson and B. Halpern, “The Political Import of David’s Marriages,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99:4 (Dec.1980), pp. 507–518.

T. Kadari, “Abigail: Midrash and Aggadah.” https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/abigail-midrash-and-aggadah.

M. Feinberg Vamosh, The Scroll.

M, Feinberg Vamosh, Women at the Time of the Bible.

 

 

My thoughts on Abigail are partly based ideas exchanged with the artist Riki Rothenberg, whose inspiring work adorns this blogpost. My thanks to Riki for allowing me to present them and her art to you.

“Loving Divorce”: Born on the Battlefield

When might a man love a woman so much that he divorces her? And what does that have to do with David and Goliath? Click on the headline “Loving Divorce” below and find out! Thank you David Bivin and the Jerusalem Perspective for allowing me to reflect on a unique Jewish practice of wartime divorce, which gave me the plot of my first historical novel, The Scroll.

“Loving Divorce”: Born on the Battlefield

King David Saw it on the Web

Are Your Kids and Grands Afraid of Spiders?  Tell Them What King David Thought about Them

Spiders are not exactly way up there on my list with raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens. But every spring morning I take a walk, I love the sight of their webs glistening with the morning dew on the ornamental junipers like the fairy veils of a different culture. The other day, I began thinking about what the Bible says about them. I hope home-schoolers, grandparents and others will enjoy sharing what I found.

Spider webs 2

Spider webs gracing the ornamental junipers. Har Adar, Passover week 2016. (Miriam Feinberg Vamosh)

Isaiah said evil men “weave the spider’s web” (Isaiah 59:5).  Good image, if we want spiders to continue being the stuff of our nightmares. Sir Walter Scott sure thought so, turning the web into the ultimate liar’s lair in his unforgettable two-liner about tangled webs.

Job 8:14 says if we forget God our “trust shall be a spider’s web,” in other words – fragile. Wait, what? Oh well, without Google and NatGeo TV, how could Job could have known that a given weight of spider silk is as strong as the same weight of steel?

And then comes Proverbs 30:28: “The spider skillfully grasps with its hands, and it is in kings’ palaces.” What do you think, good press for the six-leggers?  Coming after other verses describing creatures “little upon the earth, yet exceedingly wise” (Prov. 30:24), the answer seems obvious. And here’s where knowing Hebrew comes in handy. As I mentioned in my blog entry “Where the Language Meets the Land” sometimes things get lost in translation.  Out of some 52 English translations of this verse, I found that about 28 call the creature a lizard, not a spider!  In Hebrew, the word for lizard is smamit (in modern Hebrew, it refers to a Mediterranean house gecko). Scholars did wonder how a literal lizard turned into a scriptural spider, especially because the usual biblical word for spider is different. Even Rashi weighed in on it (he stuck with “spider” by the way).*

A Mediterranean house gecko. Is this what Proverbs 30:28 meant? (Wikipedia)

A Mediterranean house gecko. Is this what Proverbs 30:28 meant? (Wikipedia)

And now, for the tale I promised you. The much longer and more involved original comes from an early medieval source called “the Alphabet of Ben Sirach.”  The backdrop is En Gedi on the Dead Sea. If you have photos of your own visit to that beautiful oasis, you can show them when you tell the story, which springs from David hiding from Saul in I Samuel 24.

“And it was when David was hiding in a cave from King Saul that God set a spider who spun a web over the opening of the cave and the cave was closed up by the web. [Saul said] surely no one has entered here for if he had entered he would have torn the web apart. And so he went away and did not enter the cave. When David emerged and saw the spider, he kissed him and said: ‘Blessed by your Creator and blessed be you.”**

David's Waterfall, En Gedi (wwwlgoisrael.com)

David’s Waterfall, En Gedi (wwwlgoisrael.com)

In other words, we might say, every creature has its purpose in the great skein, I mean scheme, of things.

multi eyed spider on web clipart

 

*There are several versions of this story. I found this one in Humanism in the Talmud and the Midrash by Samuel Tobias Lachs, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.

** Proverbs, The Soncino Books of the Bible: Hebrew Text & English Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, edited by Rabbi Abraham Cohen and revised by Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg (New York : Soncino Press, 1993),  p. 207), quoted on www.kjvtoday.com.