Greater than Guilt/28 - It would be nice to see history through mothers'eyes
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 29/07/2018
The grand-vizir himself was the father of two daughters, of whom the elder was called Scheherazade, and the younger Dinarzade. (...) One day, when the grand-vizir was talking to his eldest daughter, who was his delight and pride, Scheherazade said to him, “Father, ...I am determined to stop this barbarous practice of the Sultan's, and to deliver the girls and mothers from the awful fate that hangs over them.”
The Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights Entertainments, English version by Andrew Lang)
Words can kill, but they can also ward off death. The first enemy of Tanathos is Logos. As long as we still have something to tell, we can postpone death’s arrival by a day, and, perhaps, when she arrives because we've finished our story, we'll find that we still have a story to tell, and it is the one for her.
Women are particularly familiar with death because they have a special intimacy with life. Perhaps because for thousands of years they have kept the house, where they developed one of the primary relationships while men dedicated themselves to the economy of productive and military relationships outside the house. Women have become experts of both life and death. They washed and dressed their children and their dead, they cared for wounds that rarely healed, they made the same bed, often the only big one in the house, for a birth one day and for the funeral chamber of a parent on the next. In relation to death, for them life is like a garden for the blind: they do not see it but touch it, feel it and breathe it. And when, in the end, they finally open their eyes and look death in the face, they discover that they already knew her, as only a woman knows a sister. Death does not seem to be their biggest enemy. To really kill a woman it is not enough to take her life. In the Bible, women’s life generally does not end by dying, but by leaving the scene after being raped and humiliated, telling us, perhaps, that it is these deaths that really make them die.
“Now there happened to be there a worthless man, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjaminite. And he blew the trumpet and said, »We have no portion in David«” (2 Samuel 20:1). With this attempt at insurrection, a man from Saul’s family continues the struggle between the tribes linked to Saul and those loyal to David, and at the same time marks the beginning of the conflict between North (Israel) and South (Judah) which will then lead to the tragic splitting of the Kingdom of David. In these concluding chapters of the Second Book of Samuel, we are seeing that Saul's party, though defeated by David's, had remained alive and strong in Israel, especially in his tribe of Benjamin. The war with his son Absalom, which represented the most serious political crisis in David’s reign, also created theological cracks, where the fringes that had remained faithful to Saul tried to creep in. In fact, the tribe of Benjamin, for its hinge position between North and South, had always been a critical element for Jerusalem: let us not forget that the prophet Jeremiah and Paul-Saul of Tarsus, both of whom were critical of Jerusalem and its tradition, were also Benjaminites.
Meanwhile David, after the temporary abandonment of the city to repress Absalom’s conspiracy, returned to Jerusalem. His first post-crisis political act concerned the ten concubines he had left in the city at the time of his flight (15:16), and of whom Absalom had come into possession (16:21) to tell all the people who was the new king. To make that gesture public, a tent was erected on the terrace of the palace where Absalom entered to the women (16:22). Perhaps it was the same terrace from where his father had watched Bathsheba bathe and then felt desire for her and committed adultery at the origin of the blood that never stopped staining his family afterwards. Here again, women appear being used as the instruments of power, women who live in the palace without being seen or recognized as individual human beings. The harem was part of the king’s riches, a set of things, objects, goods without rights or names. It took the whole Bible, and it was not enough, for the woman to become that ezer kenegdo again that Adam joyfully recognized as "his equal” in Eden, as someone with whom to exchange looks at the same height, in the decisive event that Genesis (2:23) sets at the beginning of creation, as the cornerstone of its anthropology and theology. For millennia, however, the eyes of women have remained lower than those of men, closer to the eyes of animals than to those of their husbands, beautiful eyes that looked ahead without being crossed or recognized as equals.
“And David came to his house at Jerusalem. And the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to care for the house and put them in a house under guard and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood” (20:3). To definitively close the political parenthesis of Absalom, David condemned those ten women to life imprisonment, to serve, though innocent, their widowhood of the rebellious son who had consumed them without asking permission. Women, like Tamar, without guilt, who must serve because of the sins and revenge of males, imprisoned in a forced political and social widowhood, used as a message of flesh to be sent to the people (Judges 19). Women, when their words were over or their breath was exhausted, had to speak with their flesh, with their children and with their reclusion, which even when they are a message of life always remain a sacrament of flesh to say words of spirit that are almost never collected and understood.
However, we cannot help but be struck and disturbed by the indifference with which the biblical writer communicates to us this unwanted seclusion of women, as if the pietas he knew how to use for the great men were not necessary for these women, and for many others. If we could, it would be nice to imagine and maybe write some episodes of the story told in Samuel's books as seen from the perspective of women. To ask ourselves: how did Michal, Saul's daughter and David's wife, experience the civil war between her father and her husband, and how did she take the death of Jonathan and her other brothers? And what feelings and, perhaps, what words did Bathsheba have for the death of the nameless child through which YHWH wanted to punish David’s sin? And what did Maacah, the mother of Absalom say, if she said anything when she got to know that her son, the most handsome of all, had been entangled by his hair in a tree and then killed by Joab? How do mothers read and live the history of men's wars and violence? What are their different words?
But it is in this cloistered widowhood and in this sad silence of women that the Bible introduces another woman to us, and thus makes us hear some of the feminine words that are too often silenced. Listening to her words we can try to hear those of the many silent women buried by history and the Bible.
Sheba’s uprising has not been followed up in Israel. So with his few men he finds refuge in a northern city: Abel (Abel of Beth-maacah). Joab, who is chasing him, besieges the city, and begins the construction of an embankment leaning against its walls to conquer it.
After the nameless and wise woman of Tekoa (chap. 14), here, at another decisive moment, another wise nameless woman enters the scene: “Then a wise woman called from the city, »Listen! Listen! Tell Joab, ‘Come here, that I may speak to you.’« And he came near her, and the woman said, »Are you Joab?« He answered, »I am.« Then she said to him, »Listen to the words of your servant.« And he answered, »I am listening«” (20:16-17). First of all, it is striking that it is a woman to speak on behalf of the city. In a world of men, in a time of great crisis where the survival of the community is at stake, it is a woman who speaks, and she does so with authority, so much so that Joab listens to her. And the woman tells him: “They used to say in former times, ‘Let them but ask counsel at Abel,’ and so they settled a matter. I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel. You seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel. Why will you swallow up the heritage of the Lord?” (20:18-19). In Israel Abel was a mother city of peace, it had a history and a vocation of wisdom and fidelity. The wise woman of Abel uses the genius loci of her land, clinging to its roots to save the tree of life, because the roots are not the past but the present and the future. But roots can be saved if someone knows what to call them because she can see and understand them - this is also the talent of women, because their capability of generating life makes them experts of the bond between generations.
The dialogue between the wise woman and the ruthless general continues: Joab answered, “Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy! That is not true. (...) ...Sheba... has lifted up his hand against King David. Give up him alone, and I will withdraw from the city” (20:20-21). The woman has achieved her goal of saving her city and its inhabitants from death with her word; and, here too, she acts immediately: “And the woman said to Joab, »Behold, his head shall be thrown to you over the wall« ... And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri and threw it out to Joab” (20:21-22). Today, perhaps, a mediator capable of saving even the life of a rebel would be called "wise". The Bible has little interest in Sheba’s fate (in that world the death of his type of rebels was certain). In this story that woman is called wise because in a desperate situation she was able to find, quickly, the only possible solution to save her city from destruction, convincing that bloodthirsty commander through dialogue to change his mind, and thus earning peace. In a liminal place between death and life where the Bible often places women, the woman of Abel knew how to save the sons of a "mother city". In that prodigious duel, the words of peace of the wise woman were the ones to prevail.
That woman is left without a name, but not without words. Sometimes, in the Bible, the protagonists of stories with great messages remain intentionally nameless. Their anonymity does not reduce the value of their words but universalizes it: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho”; “A man had two sons...”. We can fill that absence of a name with our own, and then hear it repeated to us: “You go, and do likewise”.
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