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Samuel: The Personal Failings of Our Greatest Leaders
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We understand why we learn about this incredible King, I mean, David had so many, incredible, remarkable traits, he became instantly beloved to the people not just for slaying a giant, but pretty much for being successful and pious and righteous and doing all the right things to super human extent. Why do we also learn about his errors? Why do we learn about Uriah and Bath Sheba which takes up a chapter for the sin, a chapter for prophetic condemnation and eight more chapters describing just what a disaster it was, and how it wreaked havoc on the entire nation, let alone on David and his family.
The Talmud in tractate Avodah Zarah 4B-5A teaches that we can learn teshuvah, repentance, from David. Through a comprehensive reading of David’s sin, and a closer understanding of David’s teshuvah process, we can see models for how we can approach sins and teshuvah. Before we get to David and Bath Sheba the primary events, we have to look at the roots of his downfall which you might miss if you are just reading the story forward. One way to look at the David narrative is that he is superb until David encountered Bath Sheba, and everything falls apart. But if you go to 1 Samuel 25, we hear the roots of some of David’s ultimate flaws that are manifest in the Uriah - Bath Sheba story.
Before listening to this shiur, by the way, I encourage you to hit pause right now, read the entire chapter, 1Samuel 25, and then you return to the shiur; you will gain so much more by doing that. If not, carry right along, but good idea to read it.
The setting of the story, Chapter 25 vs. 1 is that Samuel dies. Samuel’s death does not seem to have anything to do with the story where David is already a refugee from King Saul, Saul is trying to kill him because he feels threatened by David. But is there any connection between Samuel’s death and the rest of the Abigail-Nabal story? Rabbi Yosef Kara, who was a younger student of Rashi in northern France in the 12th century, he thinks that there is. He thinks that as long as Samuel was alive somewhere, David never would have done what we’re about to read together. He would have had this moral sense that “oh, Prophet Samuel is somewhere out there, I better behave better.” But once Samuel had died, that moral shield that Samuel offered just by being such a superior individual and prophet, protected David and everybody else. It’s a very fascinating theory about Samuel’s ongoing influence even after he retired from public life. At any rate, the basic story is like this.
There was a man named Nabal who was a very, very wealthy land owner and he had a huge sheep shearing festival and process. David shows up with his so called ‘merry men’, these are the people who were themselves are also refugees for one reason or another, and they have been following David around, and says, “Messenger Nabal, you’re very wealthy. We’ve been protecting your sheep on the countryside. I know you never hired us but we’ve been protecting your sheep. Can you please give us a nice picnic lunch?” Nabal doesn’t just say “no”, he said no with incredibly obnoxiousness. He is so disgusted. His very name Nabal means “the disgusting one” or “the bore”. He is a jerk! The narrator does not wish that we should like him. But just because he is a disgusting person, just because he is so contemptible to our beloved David, that does not mean that he is deserving of any punishment. Shockingly David said “Oh yeah? Gird on your swords”, in verse 13. Each girded on his sword. David too girded on his sword. About four hundred men went after David while two hundred remains with the baggage. David swears in God’s name, “I am going to massacre Nabal and his family.” Does David goes through with this swear? He doesn’t! What stops him? Did he have a change of heart? Did he realize, wait a minute, ‘Nabal is obnoxious, he is disgusting, I am never, ever, ever going to invite him to my birthday parties. But, didn’t deserve death for this’? Did David realize that he was completely overreacting?
Not initially. Surprisingly, David was going to actually destroy Nabal and his household as a result of this obnoxious retort. It was Abigail, Nabal’s wife who came out to meet and plead with him. First of all, very importantly and wisely, she brings them lunch. Then she insults her own husband Nabal saying, “His name means ‘he is disgusting’, well he is; just like his name says.” But then she goes on.
In verse 25 she says, “Please my lord, pay no attention to that wretched fellow Nabal”, she is speaking about her own husband, “for he is just what his name says. His name means ‘bore’, and he is a bore. Your handmaid did not see the young men my lord, look, if it were up to me of course I would have sent you lunch right away and make sure you have lunch. However, my husband is disgusting, I am sorry that you went to him and I am sorry that he gave such a disgusting response to your reasonable request.” But then she goes on in verse 31, “Do not let this be a cause of stumbling and a fault to encourage you my lord, that you have shed blood needlessly and that my lord sought redress with his own hands. And when the Lord has prospered my lord, remember your maid. David said to Abigail, ‘praises be the Lord, the God of Israel, who send you this day to meet me. Thank you for stopping me in time.” Abigail says, ”It’s murder; you can’t wipe us out!” If you murder us,” first of all that’s bad, “not only that, but you are going to be the next king, and this will completely stain your record, if you have cold blooded murder Nabal and his household, the nation will hate you.” And David immediately stop in his tracks. He mirrors her language and praises her and thanks her. There is a Midrash.
In Midrash Tehillim 53:1 , if Abigail had not stopped David from carrying out his plan and killing Nabal, all of the sacrifices in the world would not have atoned for him. So the model of teshuvah in this story is not repentance from something that he did wrong, it’s that David had an openness. He realize that the criticisms of Abigail were correct and he immediately accepted it and stopped in his tracks, no matter how worked up he has been; he realized that she was right, he backed down immediately and he thanked her for stopping him.
For the very first time in the David’s narrative however, we see a native killer instinct in David; this is not something we have seen before, we’ve seen a saintly David. Now suddenly we see this temper which unfortunately almost led to murder of an entire household. Fortunately Abigail stopped him before he murdered anybody, and David thanked her for saving the day.
There is one other element of the story that I wanted to discuss with you. In verse 31 that we just read, when Abigail says, “And when the Lord has prospered my lord, remember your maid.” “David, after you become king, please remember me”. Now, what does “remember me “means? Does it mean send a Hallmark card? Does it mean put her on the King’s Bulletin Board of people who have helped David before he became king? Or does it mean “David, I want to marry you”? That certainly how several midrashim and later commentators understand this; they are talking marriage right now.
The moment Nabal dies, and he dies by the end of this chapter, David and Abigail do get married and she becomes later on the queen, once David do ascends to the throne. What’s striking is that throughout the David’s narrative, even long after Nabal is dead, Abigail is always referred to as “Abigail, the wife of Nabal.” Rabbi Yosef ibn Kaspi, one of the great 14th century commentators suggests, that the prophetic narrator is criticizing David for marrying her so soon after Nabal’s death, and also for even discussing marriage with a married woman; she was not yet available and yet they are already talking marriage. So while everything was cushier here, the fact that there is talk of marriage, there is a suggestive discussion going on over here. You should know that later on, after David marries Bath Sheba at the end of that whole episode which we will talk about in the next segment, Bath Sheba also is called “Uriah’s wife”, even after Uriah is dead. By the way, I did not make this connection up. The Talmud realized that here we have the root of the Bath Sheba story as well.
In Megillah 14a, 14b in the Talmud, Abigail is trying to stop David and says, “There are two kinds of blood.” The passage teaches that she bared her thigh and he went three parsings by the light of it. In other words, there was an incredible sexual attraction in this story. And he said, listen to me, she replied, “let not this be a stumbling block to you.” The word “this” implies that something else would be. And what was that? The incident of Bath Sheba and so it was eventually.
The Talmud understands that even though this story was not a stumbling block, because David did not have an affair with a married woman; he just talked about marriage with her, he did not murder anybody; he had just planned to murder, but he was stopped in his tracks. But those are the roots of what happened later on with Bath Sheba and Uriah where David does have an affair with a married woman, and he does get Uriah killed.
In our next segment, we’ll see how David’s latent trait in this Abigail-Nabal story that we’ve just discussed, are manifest more exclusively in the Bath Sheba and Uriah’s story.
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