Fleur considers Guido Reni’s painting of the meeting between David and Abigail.
In 1 Samuel chapter 25, a beautiful story emerges amid imminent revenge. Through the intelligence of one astute woman, peacekeeping, deliverance and God’s mercy are all realised. Abigail is one of the Bible’s less well-known heroines who was married to a rich old brute called Nabal. Abigail combines rare emotional intelligence and shrewd use of wealth to come before her enemy and his 400 strong army – to plead for her husband’s safety and that of his household and livestock.
In Guido Reni’s painting in the Italian Baroque style, David’s armour and cape shine brilliantly. Reni uses bright tones and smooth idealised forms to reveal David as a brave and powerful warrior more like a Counter-Reformation General than a guerrilla leader from the wild places of the Judaean Hills. No hint of the former shepherd here! David’s posture is confrontational as he caresses his sword – the last thing he’s expecting before a dawn raid is to see this beautiful woman approaching with her pretty servants. Abigail rides sidesaddle into David’s camp, her submissive pose and sunken shoulders contrast with his arrogant stance. But, look more closely and we see David’s internal psychology unfolding: his face is softer, and seems more compassionate than the rest of his body language. Reni is painting a moment of spiritual realisation – following God’s truth does not always involve blood and violence in the Old Testament. We are watching David see how Abigail is making amends for her husband’s stupidity and he is impressed with her courage and humility. David is beginning to listen not judge. He understands that God has sent this woman to show him justice not retribution.
Our scene is Carmel in the desert west of the Dead Sea. ‘Pastoral guerrillas’ need to live off the land so David demands protection money. Nabal is a wealthy herder with large flocks and David’s army has kept Nabal safe. So this shouldn’t have been a problem, but Nabal means foolish or senseless in Hebrew, and he really is dense. Nabal, like many property owners had no intention of feeding wandering rebels – even though it’s his covenant duty to offer hospitality, especially during the festival season. David’s people are in distress and serious debt, but this story which is recorded by them, sees David as the Lord’s anointed and their saviour. So while David’s men are preparing for revenge, sharpening their swords and fueling their anger, Abigail and her assistants are loading up provisions in order to curry favour. She knows it’s a gamble so she sensibly doesn’t tell her husband.
When Abigail meets David, she so acts and speaks that David is able to see himself through her eyes. She is apologetic, obsequious and empathetic. Just look at her donkey with its head and ears playing the part of shame and remorse. The two of them will do all it takes to save the lives and honour of all concerned. How reminiscent of Jesus’ donkey on Palm Sunday amid the violent backdrop of Jerusalem in its pursuit of power. Not only does Abigail bring much food and drink, her heartfelt plea to save her people and David from the guilt of mass slaughter are the peacekeeping tactics that will renew David’s sense of his Divine commission; and enable him to go forward to the Throne without the stain of unnecessary violence and bloodshed.
Abigail returns to find Nabal partying and drunk, but waits till the next morning to reveal how close he had brought his people to disaster and how she has remedied the situation. The shock of this reality quickens Nabal’s death and David wastes no time in making Abigail his new wife. This painting could be interpreted as a dating event – David with two guards on the left, Abigail with two maids on the right – each guarding their prize asset while a boy gazes up at Abigail’s flowers, and the donkey wonders when it can go home.
This story is a fascinating psychological study. Nabal, failing to understand either Abigail or David’s needs, is brought swiftly to his ruin. David, who is normally portrayed as a man gifted with insight into people’s characters, immediately perceives Abigail’s intuition. He has recently spared his enemy Saul but his adrenalin and patience are running wild. Unlike her husband, Abigail understands David’s personality perfectly. She appeals to his nobler nature through faith in God, calm reasoning, and a ready meal for his hunger.
Seventeenth century Catholics would have read this story and this painting as an example of right moral behaviour, and would appreciate the practical nature of Abigail risking her honour for the common good. They would also relate to the military detail in David’s clothing since Europe continued to be in turmoil as new political and religious boundaries were determined after the Reformation carved its fault line across Christendom. Bloody military conflicts were endemic to the Old Testament and this story sits between several battles between Saul and David that decide the future of the monarchy. While there is artistic license in David’s flashy gear, his fine features and hands more typical of Italian portraiture than the reality of the tough, nomadic lifestyle of an Israelite tribal leader, Reni’s depiction of a woman bearing gifts – some of which will save the monarchy as well as many lives, is exquisite.
Abigail’s Story: Biblical Wisdom from a Woman of Strength and Faith by Sarah Young. WestBow Press. 2015.