Greater than guilt/14 - Re-sewing, re-healing, acting in haste brings about peace
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 22/04/2018
“Goods are now to be seen as the medium, less objects of desire than threads of a veil that disguises the social relations under it. Attention is directed to the flow of exchanges the goods only marking out the pattern.”
Mary Douglas, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption
Gift is a great word, and therefore it is an ambivalent one. Because if it weren't ambivalent it wouldn't be great, just as love, religion, community, life and death are great and ambivalent. The "capacity to give and receive gifts" is a possible definition of human nature, because gift says freedom, autonomy, dignity, beauty. Gifts received and given mark the decisive stages in our lives and in the lives of those we love, from the first gift of life to the last, when we give that first gift back a hundredfold, and it will be perhaps only at that moment that we understand all its value - and also the value and meaning of that last gift we are making.
But among the most painful days of life there are also those marked in the flesh, with scalpels cutting just as deep, by rejected gifts, by betrayed offers of trust, by those who misinterpreted and distorted our gift, manipulated it, misrepresented and destroyed it. And like the gifts that work by activating virtuous circuits of counter-gifts and generative reciprocity, the gifts that go wrong produce spirals of violence and always much pain. Furthermore, the gift has the amazing and tremendous characteristic of being able to suddenly transform itself into its opposite: like water that passes from liquid state to solid in an instant, the denied gift dies and is reborn as animosity and anger at the very moment in which it is denied. Like Cain’s offering, not appreciated by God, that became the anti-gift of fratricide. This is an effect of the complexity and richness of our heart, capable of immense love and immense hatred, because it is infinite.
The encounter between David and Abigail is an authentic literary, theological, anthropological and sociological pearl. It is introduced by an important fact: “Now Samuel died. And all Israel assembled and mourned for him...” (1Samuel 25:1). Samuel was linked to Saul and David, he was the one who consecrated both of them to be kings. His passing away, however, makes David even more vulnerable in Israel, as he is continuing his pilgrimage from city to city. He arrives in the Maon Desert, north east of Sinai. “And there was a man in Maon whose business was in Carmel. (...) the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was discerning and beautiful, but the man was harsh and badly behaved” (25:2-3). The feast of the shearing of the flocks arrives, and David sends ten men to Nabal (whose name means "fool": nomen est omen, as we shall see) to ask that rich gentleman for some gifts in the form of food and provisions, particularly precious given their condition of escapees. The reason for David's request is important: “Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing all the time they were in Carmel” (25:7). David therefore reads the request to Nabal as a counter-gift, as a due reciprocity response - in gift practices, responding to the gift received is an obligation. His previous correctness led him to think that Nabal would comply with the twofold sacred rule of gift and hospitality and thus reciprocate his honesty. But he was wrong: “And Nabal answered David's servants, »Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?«” (25:10-11). Not only does Nabal not send gifts to David, but he offends him and his men. He doesn't recognize him - the first denial of the gift is denying the recognition of the gift giving person. This rejection of the gift perverts David's original benevolence, which turns into anger and violence: “And David said to his men, »Every man strap on his sword!«” (25:13). And he repeated in his heart: “he has returned me evil for good. God do so to the enemies of David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him” (25:21-22).
At this point of the crisis Abigail enters the scene. When she learns about what happened to one of her servants, she literally takes matters into her own hands. She immediately understands the gravity of her husband's clumsy gesture and takes action: “Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves and two skins of wine and five sheep already prepared and five seahs [35 litres] of parched grain and a hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on donkeys” (25:18). Abigail makes haste to act. Her fast action articulated by this series of numbers is very beautiful from a narrative point of view (even numbers have their secular beauty), revealing to us a writer who knew the female talent rather well. It is part of women's repertoire to understand immediately what to do in dramatic circumstances, especially those caused by conflicts between males, and to guess the rhythm and timing, too. In this fast action we see, ‘in live transmission’, the movement of those many women who during crises and wars act instinctively and quickly to save their families, at any cost.
Abigail is an icon of the wise, concrete and intelligent woman who reads into relationships and then acts for the common good. She acts by an instinct of salvation. She is the expert of relationships and care, a peacemaker. A weaver of fine plots at the service of life. And she acts in secret ("she did not tell her husband"), because she knows that men would not understand that different intuition and would hinder it. She keeps it all in her heart, and then acts: “When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt.” (25:23). Again, Abigail gets down quickly. She must immediately heal that wound. Women, much more than men, do not like to remain in unhealthy relationships. And, since they are experts of life and body times, they know that time is the decisive factor in relational wounds.
Abigail takes upon herself the blame for what happened, though she is innocent. When it is necessary to heal a relationship and prevent the spiral of revenge from being triggered, it does not matter who is right or who is wrong, and anyhow, wrongs and reasons matter little. Justice must give way to goodness, and therefore to life. There are too many injuries that continue to bleed in the name of justice and truth.
Relationships are a "third" with respect to the people who generate them, they are living flesh, and if that "third-flesh" is to be healed, the reasons and the wrongs of those who wounded that body count little. It must be healed, and that’s all. Then we will have to take account of things, because the “accounts” made before the reconciliation are very different and worse than those made after it. We are all capable of doing this, but women know how to do it better, because of that vital instinct that leads them to choose life, whatever the cost. Abigail then makes David some offerings: “And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord” (25:27). It is significant that the Hebrew word chosen to say is "gift" is brk, that is, blessing, the same good-word given to Jacob by the angel after the battle and the wound at the Jabbok River. Gifts are always words, and gifts after wounds are always and above all bene-dictions, good words begging for reconciliation.
When it comes to primary relationships, the cost-benefit analysis of women is different from that of men. For them, reconciliation and the common good of the family weigh much more. Perhaps for reason too, when the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, created the greatest financial innovation of the last century (the Grameen Bank), at the beginning he set as a rule that loans should only be granted to women, because he knew that repayment and honouring the loan was something more important and different for women, because behind those loans there were relationships, family, children, blood, life. And he was right, and so he gave a better life to millions of (mostly) Muslim women, to their families, children and husbands.
David was convinced and won by Abigail’s words which have the beauty and strength of a prayer, a psalm. There are many prayers and psalms born of prayer-words like Abigail’s, because there are no human words that could be more spiritual and holy than those spoken by an innocent man who takes up the guilt to save someone at any cost. That is why those who pray, before praising God praise men and women, because, even if they do not know, in that praise they are using the most beautiful and holy human words, those distilled from the pain-love of those who saved others by saying different words. Words of men, and words of women. But the different words of women, especially in antiquity, were spoken in the dungeons of the house and soul, or they remained choked in the throat, just like Hannah’s splendid silent prayer (ch. 1). The Bible is also to be thanked for having saved and given us these words-prayers of women, who are real tombstones to the "unknown soldier of peace and relationships", which, like all tombstones, are a memory and an invitation to recognize and to thank.
“And David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand!” (25:32-33) These are beautiful words that echo those of the angel to Mary, blessing the intuition and haste of that woman, her genius.
The story ends with Nabal's death because of a heart attack after a sumptuous banquet: "In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone" (25:37). Receiving the news, David, evidently also struck by the beauty and grace of Abigail, sent his messengers to her to ask her to be his wife: “And Abigail hurried and rose and mounted a donkey, and her five young women attended her. She followed the messengers of David and became his wife” (25:42). Once again, she hurried. And again in a hurry, Abigail leaves the pages of the Bible. She will give David a son (whose name is uncertain), who will perhaps die young, and we will never see her again. Hers was a fleeting passage, but her figure remains in the Bible to remind us of the talent of women, their different intuition, their concreteness, their times and their vocation to attend to relationships, peace, and life. It’s a song and a high recognition to the women who, always making haste, continue their work of peace, while we men continue, without haste, to practice the art of war.
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