strong women of the Bible

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.

Women of the Bible

Their messages of endurance span the millennia

Some women of the Bible are so well known that we name our daughters after them – Sarah, Deborah, Mary, Martha. Others have left us familiar names, but less familiar stories, like Joanna of the New Testament, who put all her considerable resources at the disposal of Jesus. There’s fascination with the misdeeds of the infamous ones, like Jezebel and Delilah, as well as those of heroines like Rebekah. And there are some whose names we’ll never know, but whose stories still touch us – Jepthah’s daughter, the wise woman of Tekoa, the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and was healed.

Mary and Elizabeth meet. Detail of a mural at the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As seekers of inspiration from Scripture, we try to imagine ourselves walking a mile in the sandals of these female Bible characters, especially women of faith like Hannah and Ruth. Many of the strong women of the Bible, like the midwives Shifrah and Puah, the matriarch Rachel, or Queen Esther (and her predecessor, Vashti, for that matter) possessed the secret of finding power in a society that thrived on taking it from them. And let’s recall Michal, David’s wife, who, like many of her scriptural sisters, had to resort to subterfuge to reach her goals.

Some of the women of the Bible became “leading ladies.” Miriam, for example, was both leader and prophet. Her impression on Jewish history was so great that legend has portrayed her as part of Jewish experience for millennia after her death. And then we have Mary Magdalene, whom Christian scholars like Mary R. Thompson consider an early leader in the Judeo-Christian community.

The Rape of Tamar, by the 17th-century artist Le Sueur.

We painfully recall Tamar, a rape victim of her own half-brother, and Dina, raped as part of a biblical political drama. These are women who had everything taken from them. The biblical telling, or rather not-telling, leaves us to imagine that they must never have gotten over their tragedy, a fate that pursues all too many of their modern-day sisters.

The barren women of the Bible teach us special lessons in faith and strength. There’s Manoah’s wife, Samson’s future mother, who believed more strongly than her husband in the angel’s message, and Hannah, Samuel’s mother; both dedicated their sons to divine service.  Hannah in her praise poem gloriously presages Mary’s song when she met Elizabeth, another barren-fruitful, faithful woman.  Both these paeans point to unifying aspects of our Judeo-Christian tradition and lead to a deeper understanding of the Hebrew roots of Christianity.

Woman kneading dough, terracotta, 12th century BCE, from the cemetery at Akhziv, Israel. Courtesy of Palphot

We are fortunate in the gift that archaeology has given us in unearthing the tools of their everyday existence. Real archaeological finds bring these women alive!  Most of them (like us) worked from dawn to dark. Perhaps the first multi-tasker in biblical history was the indomitable “woman of valor” of Proverbs 31.

Cover of The Scroll, depicting a woman marching from darkness into light.

In my historical novel, The Scroll, I sought to make the spirit of the strong women of the Bible pivotal in my plot. which begins with the fall of Masada. According to the historian Josephus there were two women survivors of Masada. One is my heroine in the first generation of The Scroll. She brings a message of female empowerment down through the generations. With it comes striving the for the elusive goal of Jewish unity, with which we still struggle today.

Delve into the stories of the women of the Bible and don’t be surprised to discover that in their stories, you’ll find your own.

I gratefully acknowledge the publisher of my book Women at the Time of the Bible, Palphot, for permission to use material from it for this article.

 

 

Interview About The Scroll on Hebrew Nation Radio

Click here to listen to my recent radio interview! Thanks to the hosts on the Hebrew Nation Radio morning show “The Remnant Road,” who gave me an opportunity to discuss my books, especially The Scroll. The audience at Hebrew Nation Radio wants to learn more about the Jewish roots of their faith, and so I was able to tell interviewers Mike Clayton, Al McCarn and Barry Philips about episodes in The Scroll where I brought Jews and early Judeo-Christians together. The interview was a golden opportunity to discuss all the subjects I love to write about, including the strong women of the Bible. But best of all, I was able not only to discuss the women survivors of Masada and the future I imagined for them and their descendants, but also the Hebrew roots of Christianity and the beginnings of Christianity,  My aim in bringing Jews and early Christians together in The Scroll,  as I told the interviewers, was to show how each community faced the harsh challenges of  its times.  To this day, we can and must face the enormous challenges of our times together, celebrating and building upon what unites us rather than what divides us.

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors

Like the women of faith in the Bible, the heroines of my first historical novel, The Scroll, are strong women whose voices I want to make heard. When The Scroll begins, during the final days at the fortress of Masada, a woman surrounded by the enemy chooses life. She chooses life against all odds, like the strong women of the Bible. I introduced that woman to my readers as I imagined her – the last of the Masada’s survivors. I raised her in a Jerusalem torn asunder by the infighting that led her to that desolate plateau. But I brought her from that killing ground into a future where faintheartedness was not an option.

What’s in a name?

I didn’t make her up entirely. I based her character on a real woman who called out from across the millennia. Her name, and place of residence (Masada!) appears in an ancient divorce document, a real archaeological find, discovered in a cave in the Judean wilderness in the 1950s. Her name gave me pause for thought. It was Miriam – the same as mine. That could be awkward for an author. But it harked back to another strong woman of the Bible, Miriam, who praised God for deliverance in song and dance by an ancient sea.  And so I decided that this was no coincidence; it was going to help me understand how a modern Miriam would have faced the challenges of dark, troubled, ancient times.

Biblical Miriam dancing and playing the tamborine, by contemporary artist Rikki Rothenberg.

Biblical Miriam is just one of the female Bible characters I sought to bring alive in The Scroll. The spirits of other women of the Old Testament are reflected in  my plot, as readers discover whether, over three generations bookended by rebellion, my characters learned the lesson of Masada’s downfall or whether enemies – within and without – robbed it from them. Infused in the women of each generation in The Scroll are the warrior instincts of Deborah and Jael and the survivor instincts of Ruth, the steely determination of Sarah, Rebecca’s mastery of subterfuge, Hannah’s boundless faith, Rahab’s unwavering commitment, Esther’s love of her people. In such women, in The Scroll and in Scripture, I hope you’ll find lessons of endurance we all need now more than ever.

 

Singing but Often Unsung – Ancient Women Musicians

A recent discovery at “Solomon’s Mines” in Timna reveals the first evidence of women at this harsh desert site. It’s an intriguing prelude to the tradition of women musicians in the Bible and enriches our thoughts about the women of the Bible who came later.

Archaeologists excavating the ancient copper mines in Timna in southern Israel were startled, according to the recent report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, to find the 3,200-year-old remains of a woman. Touchingly, the skeletal remains of her fetus were entombed with her.

Pottery figurine of a pregnant woman. Akhziv, seventh–sixth centuries BCE. Courtesy of Palphot.

Why were the the experts startled? Archaeologist Erez Bar-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, digging at the site, explained to Haaretz that because Timna was not home, but rather a work site, prominent people who died there might be temporarily buried and eventually taken home for permanent interment. Slaves were accorded no real burial at all, Bar-Yosef said. Hence, most tombs they find are empty. But even when human remains were found, none were of women. Thus, this woman must have been someone special. She was important enough to be buried with jewelry – two beautiful, Egyptian-style glass beads were found – and what’s more, her final resting place was just 200 meters from the famous temple of Hathor, at the base of the massive cliffs known as Solomon’s Pillars.

Egyptian woman playing an instrument. From a fourteenth century BCE.

Tel Aviv University Egyptologist Deborah Sweeney told Haaretz that this apparently highly regarded woman may have been a singer or musician for Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love, fertility, music and mines, whose image was incised millennia ago into the red rock of Solomon’s Pillars, high above the temple.

Women and music have been associated for ages in this part of the world, as attested by ancient figurines and plaques.  Nine sistra (musical rattles associated with the worship of Hathor) were found at Timna itself by its first excavator, Beno Rothenberg.

Reconstruction of a banquet scene, showing women musicians, common in Egyptian tomb decorations of aristocrats in the New Kingdom (1570–1070). Courtesy of Palphot.

Women in the Old Testament in Song and Dance

The dramatic discovery at Timna is a good opportunity to recall the female Bible characters who sang and danced in praise of God. While the role of women in the Bible seems often to have been limited to family and home, it was in song and dance that they could give full expression to their creativity and devotion to God in the public sphere. Perhaps the most famous songstress in the Bible – and one of its best-known women of faith – is Miriam, who led the women in song and dance by the Red Sea – “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted…”(Exod. 15:20–21).

Biblical Miriam dancing and playing the tamborine, by contemporary artist Rikki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Rikki Rothenberg.

A New Psalm”

Deborah – one of the strong women of the Bible, sang a song of victory in battle in Judges 5. Later, Solomon says he had both men and women singers at his court (Eccl. 2:8). Also in Ecclesiastes (12:3–5) are references to slowing down in old age, one of which relates to women singers. “The daughters of music are brought down low.” The Apocrypha contains a magnificent praise poem by another of the strong women of the Bible, Judith: “Begin unto my God with timbrels, sing unto my Lord with cymbals: tune unto him a new psalm.”

And moving on to women of the New Testament, while according to Luke (1:46–55), Mary spoke the Magnificat, the text itself  appears in poetic style, and it became one of the earliest hymns, dating back to the beginning of Christianity.

Who was the “pregnant woman of Timna”? We hope the archaeologists will be able to tell us more in the future. She must have been a strong woman to have traveled so far and endured the rigors of the unforgiving desert. This woman lived on the cusp of Bible times, and in the southern reaches of the Bible lands.  And so we can call upon her to help us remember with love and admiration a long line of strong women of the Bible, who sing out to us to this very day.

In addition to her series on daily life in Bible days, Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of The Scroll, a historical novel about a woman of Masada and her descendants over three generations, who faced the challenges we still face today.

For further reading:

“Archaeologists startled to find remains of pregnant woman buried in ‘King Solomon’s Mines,’ by Ariel David. Oct. 31, 2017. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/1.820180.

“A Joyful Noise: Music and Dance, in Women at the Time of the Bible, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh (Palphot).