The encounter between David and Avigayil, described in Shemuel I 25, has all the elements of a great story: drama, suspense, romance, victory of good over evil, and a happy ending. The three 17th century Baroque paintings shown here all illustrate the meeting, but each focuses on a different phase of the story. The Flemish artist, Simon de Vos (1603-1676),2 depicts the initial encounter, when David is still full of wrath (25:18-25). His compatriot, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640),3 focuses on the second phase of the story, Avigayil's attempts to diffuse David's anger (25:26-35), while Italian artist Guido Reni (1575-1642)4 portrays what appears to be the final phase of the encounter (25:32-35 or 42).
The Biblical Text
David hears that Naval, a very wealthy sheep herder, is celebrating the annual sheep-shearing festival in Carmel. He instructs ten of his men to graciously appraise Navel, on his behalf, of the protective help that his men had given to his shepherds, hinting that he desires a tangible expression of his appreciation. Not only does Navel refuse to give them anything, but he impugns the authority of David whom he insinuates is a mere brigand with no right to Navel’s hard earned profits. When David receives his men’s report, he is furious and orders 400 of his men to gird their swords and accompany him to kill Navel and his entire household.
Hearing from one of the servants all that has taken place, Avigayil, Naval’s wife, quickly acts to avert the looming disaster and prepares lavish and abundant amounts of food to be sent ahead of her appearance. When David and Avigayil meet up, she throws herself at his feet and names herself as responsible for the offense committed. In a long speech of 8 verses, Avigayil displays psychological insight and alludes to prophecies associated with David as she succeeds in diffusing his anger, but also kindles his personal interest in her. Meanwhile, Navel, drunk from all the merriment, is not aware of all that has transpired until Avigayil informs him the following day. The news causes Naval to suffer a paralytic attack and he dies 11 days later. Upon hearing that Naval has died, David sends for Avigayil to be his wife, an offer that she quickly and humbly consents to.
Simon de Vos
De Vos pays much attention to the scene's setting, choosing a landscape and atmospheric effects that capture the drama of the narrative. The dark threatening sky contributes to a sense of an approaching danger, with a high wind that causes the military banners to wave and David’s red cape to billow. One might identify the hills dotted with houses, in the center-right of the painting, with Navel’s properties in Carmel. The artist has filled the entire canvas5 with other painterly elements, such as color contrasts, movement, studies in human anatomy and a selection of animals and piles of food that cover the foreground. However, for de Vos, it is Avigayil’s display of humility that takes center stage as she confronts a mounted and armed David in a moment of heightened danger. After dismounting from her donkey, Avigayil, dressed in white, falls to the ground and prostrates before David, with one hand on the ground, the other in a gesture of supplication, while her maid-servants look towards the light for salvation.6
Peter Paul Rubens
Rubens creates a less busy background than de Vos. On the left of the canvas, he paints a forested area from where Avigayil and her entourage of three female and three male servants emerge. Gifts of breads in baskets are carried and placed on the ground. On the right side of the canvas are positioned seven, well armed soldiers, two of whom are on horses. Two young arms-bearers stand beside them, one carrying David’s helmet, the other holding the reins of his horse. Rubens' figures, like those of de Vos, are presented in motion, dramatic in their facial expressions, and rich in the color and texture of their wardrobes. In contrast to de Vos, though, Rubens chooses to highlight the dramatic moment when a calmer David realizes the justice of Avigayil’s plea. He even presents David as offering his hand to help the kneeling Avigayil up from the ground. His Avigayil is animated in conversation while pointing to the gifts. The surrounding figures are rapt in attention as they witness Avigayil’s successful effort to deflect David’s anger and put an end to the crisis.
In the third painting, Reni is not distracted by landscapes, atmospheric affects, multiple figures, or a parade of gifts. The focus of this close-up of David and Avigayil is, instead, the moment of David’s recognition of Avigayil’s wisdom and beauty and his gratitude for her action.7 The figures are treated in a classical idealized style, rich in color, and with a calm that pervades the painting. Avigayil shows humility in the downward cast of her eyes and modesty in the grasp of her cloak. She is, nonetheless, presented as sitting on her donkey, higher than David. The artist takes this liberty as an expression of David’s looking up to and admiring of Avigayil. Reni presents David in a much less militaristic manner than the other artists. David wears no helmet and the appearance of his armor is subdued. The menacing faces behind David seem to fade out, while the faces of the maid-servants are bright, indicating that the danger is over. David’s hands are on his hips and his face show an expression of wonderment. There is an outside light that illuminates the couple, towards which some of the figures are looking.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
Urgency and Secrecy
The mood that pervades the story is one of tension and pressure. From the moment Naval refuses David's request, action follows at a furious pace. David hurries to marshal his men, the servants hurry to inform Avigayil, and she, in turn, hurries to prepare her gifts and intercept David. Three times and in close proximity, the text uses the phrase "חגר... חרב" to highlight David's murderous intentions,8 while, in tandem, three times the text employs the root "מהר" to describe Avigayil's reaction.9 This urgent, tense mood is reflected in de Vos’ painting in the foreboding clouds and gusty winds.
Both de Vos and Rubens also hint to the fact that Avigayil’s mission is a covert one.10 De Vos has Avigayil descend from a cloud-covered hill, while Rubens has her appear out of a dense forest. This might reflect two possible interpretations of the somewhat unusual phrase, "וְהָיָה הִיא רֹכֶבֶת עַל הַחֲמוֹר וְיֹרֶדֶת בְּסֵתֶר הָהָר" (25:20).11 De Vos' depiction suggests that the phrase refers to a part of the mountain which is hidden from view, while Rubens might follows those commentators who asserts that it refers to a hidden area between two mountains.12
In the text there is no evidence that Avigayil went to intercept David while accompanied by her handmaids,13 yet the artists all insert these women into their work.14 Is it logical that such maidservants would have been present? On one hand, it would seem to be contrary to Avigayil’s objective to present herself as David's equal, replete with maidservants. On the other hand, perhaps Avigayil thought that David would be more hesitant to act aggressively in the presence of so many women. [It is possible that, in the artwork, the inclusion of the maidens is simply the artists' way of expressing Avigayil’s economic and social status.]
In accordance with the text, all three artists depict a humble Avigayil who demonstrates her subordination before David. This is reflected in how they render her body language and hand gestures after she dismounts her donkey and falls to her knees.15 In addition to these actions and body language, the text has Avigayil demonstrate her humility, respect, and fear through her choice of words. Fourteen times in this chapter, Avigayil addresses David as “my master”, while referring to herself as “maid-servant/servant” six times.16
Wise and Beautiful
Avigayil is introduced to the reader as both wise and beautiful, "טוֹבַת שֶׂכֶל וִיפַת תֹּאַר" (24:3). Which of these traits takes precedence? Rubens depicts an attractive woman, but might imply that it is her wisdom which ultimately persuades David. He highlights her animatedly making her case17 as she attempts to both save herself and her household from David’s wrath and sword, and to save David from his quick tempered-self. David is appeased by the gifts and persuaded by her arguments as he offers his hand to help Avigayil up and bless her.18 Reni’s close up of Avigayil highlights Avigayil's beauty even more,19 perhaps hinting that it was this more than her wisdom which convinced David.20 He paints a beautiful portrait of her in a classical, delicate style, as she sits on her donkey, facing from atop a David who adopts a posture of wonder at the beautiful and wise Avigayil.
In both de Vos’ and Reni’s work there seems to be a mysterious light towards which some of the figures are looking intently. They might be looking in search of salvation or, perhaps, in acknowledgement of a providential intervention. This might also reflect an assumption, made already by the Sages, that Avigayil was a prophetess.21 Rashi suggests that her words, "יִהְיוּ כְנָבָל אֹיְבֶיךָ" were a prophetic allusion to Naval's upcoming death, while Ralbag suggests that her words "וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת אֲמָתֶךָ" foresaw her future marriage to David. Avigayil's hinting to the future Davidic dynasty ("כִּי עָשֹׂה יַעֲשֶׂה י״י לַאדֹנִי בַּיִת נֶאֱמָן") might also be prophetic.22
A Standing Army?
Both de Vos and Rubens depict a David who leads an impressive army of soldiers, complete in Roman-like gear, well-equipped, with banners, ensigns, and horses at their disposal. This is not in keeping with the text’s description of David’s followers as a rag-tag band of men.23 Probably, the artists are using the opportunity to display their painterly expertise in depicting shiny metal armor, draped textiles, and the anatomy of the horse. Or, perhaps, taking a cue from Avigayil’s prophetic words, or inspired by David’s private anointment by Shemuel, the artists are projecting their image of the future King David who will command a standing army. Nonetheless, the depictions do make one question how un/organized David's men were. Considering that the monarchy as a whole was but a couple of years old, was his army all that different from that of Shaul?