Friday, December 2, 2016

Shame: the case of Old David & Abishag the pretty virgin

This week I spent a day with a group of mostly Muslim high school students, and restorative justice leader Terry O’Connell. We heard about a 14 year old boy, “Garry” who knocked Terry down to the ground with a punch when Terry was a young police officer. Terry found out that the teenager was stuck in a cycle of shame and lashing out at others. We learned about “the compass of shame” that leads people to attack others and/or self, withdrawal and avoidance (1). I wonder if shame and self loathing on the part of some men plays some role in the disregarding of the dignity and rights of women in their lives. To understand the mind and heart of offenders is not to condone their choices (2) but might help prevent them reoffending.   

These thoughts were on my mind as I tried to make sense of a Biblical story that was recited last Saturday in my Synagogue about King David as an old man. David was very cold and being covered by clothing failed to warm him. Avishag, a very beautiful girl, was found and brought to the king, because his servants thought having a beautiful virgin lie in his lap would warm him. Although Avishag served David, and perhaps did lie in his lap (3) “the king did not know her” (4).  

In one elaboration of the story (5) Avishag said to King David, “‘Let us marry,’ but he [David] said, ‘You are forbidden to me.’ ‘When courage fails the thief, he becomes virtuous,’ she mocked”. She was obviously resentful of the proposed arrangement. This version of the story implies that Avishag was not ok with the arrangement of being the king’s body warmer if she wasn't going to be his wife and appears to legitimize the objectification of women. However this ancient story would generally not be taken as license by Jewish religious male readers, as it violates relevant Jewish laws (6). It is likely that the moral messages of the story (7) would be the one that are received by most readers, rather than what comes up for readers viewing it from a critical literary lens.

One interpretation of the story brings us back to the “compass of shame”. David’s “weakness and his exceptional coldness was due to the “many troubles and wars that never left him all the days of his life, sleep was driven from his eyes in the ways of the warriors...His sin with Bathsheba [who he saw bathing and lusted after] and Uria [her soldier husband whose death David hastened] was always on his mind (8) and he would cry about his sins and worry about them a lot all day and all night” (9). His unresolved shame appeared to lead him to attack himself constantly in his mind and combined with possible post traumatic stress, and grief (10) profoundly unbalanced his mind .  

David's response to shame is further highlighted in a contemporary analysis of our story (11). In contrast to the bold, decisive, even impulsive younger king, we see a withdrawn, avoidant, passive man paralysed by his guilt about Bathsheba. He said and did nothing when his son raped his daughter (12) and when her full brother killed his half-brother rapist. Even when his advisers suggested the young virgin he said nothing, he just allowed them to proceed without permission or protest.  He was also oblivious to one of his sons, Adonija, presumptively, claiming that he will succeed David as king (13).  

Shame might also explain what has been described as a far fetched (14) explanation of story in the Talmud that the reason for David's predicament in which his clothes didn't warm him was a punishment for his cutting off the corner of King Saul’s robe (15) many years earlier. This was deemed as a “sin against clothing” (16). David had little respect for clothing and the dignity they confer on the wearer. At another time in his life, David danced wildly before God, allowing parts of his body to be uncovered (17). The symbolism of clothing is quite linked to shame, in fact clothing is first introduced as a means of dealing with shame (18). David doesn't manage shame well.
In the end David's shame was overcome. Avishag’s role in the palace had been hidden, she was ostensibly the king’s treasurer (19). However, in a dramatic moment, Bathsheba walked in on David and Avishag in bed together, as Avishag warmed the old King (20).  Bathsheba confronted the king with the subject of his shame; his sin with her. She reminded him that he and she had been so overwhelmed by shame and fear of stigma after their first born son died that she didn't want to be with David anymore. But they had overcome their feelings when David made an oath that their next son together would succeed him as king (21). When he heard Bathsheba, he came alive again. He decisively directed the coronation of the wise Solomon as king as he had promised. This doesn't make everything ok, but by dealing with his shame he is able to function and net his obligations.

Returning to 14 year old Gary. Terry, the caring cop, met with him and his mother. There were tears running down his mother's cheeks and healthy shame for this young man about his mistakes. He dealt with it and broke the cycle, he sat up a little straighter and was given opportunities to make things right. Shame is powerful, it can be terribly destructive but it can also redeem.

  1. Nathanson, D. L. (1992), Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, cited by O’Connell, T, in resources prepared by Real Justice.
  2. An argument I first heard being made by UK prime minister John Major
  3. This is the view of Radak, Metzudas David and Rashi commentaries to 1 Kings 1:4 and 1:15, Abarbanel wrote:  While by nature King David loved women and was driven to sexual relations, [at this point of his old age] he was already so deficient in his powers that he had no intimacy with her [Avishag] and did not draw close to her to lie with her…
  4. 1 Kings 1:1-4
  5. Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a, the Talmud goes on to relate David’s response to her mockery “Then he said to them [his servants], ‘Call me Bathsheba [his wife]’”. He had intercourse with his wife numerous times to demonstrate that he was still virile”. This raises a further objection as the old King proving his sexual prowess by summoning his wife also doesn't come across as being infused with love and equality between two people.
  6. Jewish laws does not allow a man and woman who are not of the same nuclear family to touch each other or being in a room alone with the door locked unless it is a medical situation for example.
  7. See Siegelbaum, C. B, quoting her teacher Rav Carmel, that takes an approach articulated by Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi in Yalkut Me’am Loez Moznaim, p7, citing Ralbag (although I can’t find it in Ralbag). They argued that this incident was a way for David to demonstrate that he had repented from the incident with Bathsheba in which he succumbed to his lust. The highest expression of repentance involves “overcoming the desire to sin despite being in the exact same situation with equally powerful temptations as when originally committing the transgression (Maimonides, laws of Teshuva, 1:1). This anecdote shows that David had indeed repented in the very highest way, and that it was not because he was too old that he held himself back from taking Avishag
  8. Psalm 51:5
  9. Abarbanel
  10. Abarbanel also mentioned David's “troubles with his son Amnon [who raped his sister and David's daughter] Tamar, and Abshalom who rebelled against David weakened his heart and spirit.”
  11. 2 Samuel 13
  12. 1 Kings 1
  13. Radak commentary to 1 Kings 1:1
  14. Talmud Berakhot 62b
  15. Yalkut Me’am Loez, p. 5
  16. II Samuel 6:16-22, metzudat David commentary to 6:20
  17. Ralbag
  18. Radak to 1 Kings 1:15
  19. Radak, to 1 Kings 1:13