The Weak Force that Saves Us

Greater than Guilt/13 - Do not to kill, but save the name and cut the edge of the robe

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 15/04/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 13 rid«Caro male,
non ti chiedo ragioni
è questa la legge dell’ospitalità…
ti do riparo
proprio a te che mi scoperchi.
Non ti voglio bene male
ti so sapiente ti tengo d’occhio
e nido sono
di te che mi assapori
e poi sputi il nocciolo

Chandra Livia Candiani, Fatti vivo

There are many forms of conflict. Each era adds new ones, leaving those inherited unchanged. The Bible also knows several cases. The conflict between Cain and Abel, where a vertical frustration (between Cain and God who rejected his offerings) becomes horizontal violence (against Abel). The conflict between Joseph and his older brothers, where envy leads to the elimination of the envied one, sold to camel drivers on their way to Egypt. Or that between Abraham and his nephew Lot, due to the abundance of resources in a common space that is too small, which is solved by separation, thanks to Abraham’s generosity who leaves Lot the choice of land ("Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left”; Genesis 13:9).

The conflict between David and Saul takes on another form. It is the paradigm of that typical conflict that is created between those who, usually being the younger one, have received an authentic call to perform a task and are faced with hindering someone who is already performing the same task for a call received earlier, and who reads the arrival of the new as a threat and a fatal message for his own vocation. This type of conflict is particularly painful for both sides, because it is a necessary clash of identities where everyone thinks they are legitimately in their place (because they really are). These conflicts can only be resolved or prevented by the surrender of one of the two sides, which can take many forms - fear or weakness, or obedience to a new voice calling us elsewhere. In most cases, we are unable to resolve these conflicts, or we resolve them too late and with serious mutual damage, which ultimately makes us worse and distorts our hearts. The biblical account of the war between Saul and David is also important because it offers us a paradigm of a possible good handling of these conflicts that are so devastating and so common.

From Adullam's caves David went to Moab, where he asks the local king to host his father and mother. Moab immediately evokes Ruth and her wonderful story. The Moabites were friends of the Jews, and so they hosted David's parents. But another prophet, Gad, enters the scene and says to David: “»Do not remain in the stronghold; depart, and go into the land of Judah.« So David departed...” (1 Samuel 22:5). Samuel's books show us David as a friend of priests and, above all, a friend of prophets who listens to them. The beauty of David’s person lies also in his ability to listen to the prophets. At the same time, serves as an explanation of the love that the Bible shows for this re-messiah in abundance.

David continues his escape journey from Saul, and puts up his tent in the desert of Ziph. Here his friend Jonathan joins him, and the two renew their 'covenant of salt': “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you.” And so they “made a covenant before the Lord” (23:17-18). David sets out again, and settles in the mountainous desert of Engedi, towards the Dead Sea, where a decisive encounter awaits him.

Saul, warned of David's presence in those mountains, takes three thousand soldiers and departs to hunt him down. Along the way, Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, but at the bottom of the same cave, in a more internal room, David, too, was hiding with some of his companions: “And the men of David said to him, »Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you’«” (24:4). David's companions want to be the interpreters of God's will and of the feelings of the ancient listener of this tale, and so they invite David to seize this opportunity of Saul’s absolute vulnerability (as he is alone and with his back to him) to eliminate him. But David does not consider the vox populi as vox Dei. He gets closer to Saul and instead of hitting him he “stealthily cut off a corner of Saul's robe” (24:5). But not only David ignores the advice of his men, “afterward David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe” (24:5). Therefore he scolded his men with very serious words and “did not permit them to attack Saul” (24:7). And he said to them: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord's anointed” (24:6). Here we have a complex narrative, very effective and full of pathos, which, among other things, illustrates what Freud called 'the taboo on rulers' or the untouchability of the sovereign. In many archaic civilizations (and not only in these) the king is surrounded by a prohibition of 'touchability', which stems from the deep desire of the people and their heirs to kill him (expressed by the advice of David’s companions in the text). But that strip of cloth in David’s hand is even more beautiful: to those who have followed Saul’s epic from the beginning, it immediately recalls the strip of Samuel's cloak that remained in Saul’s hand when he tried to stop the prophet on the day of his repudiation.

After Saul relieves himself, he leaves the cave, and David approaches him there, holding the cut corner of his robe in the hand. The dialogue between the two men is very beautiful and sincere. After prostrating himself in front of Saul, David says to him: “...some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed.’ See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand” (24:10-11). Saul replies to David: “»Is this your voice, my son David?« And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David, »You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands«” (25:16-18).

Once again Saul is able to feel authentic feelings of repentance and to cry aloud for the evil he is doing. He calls David 'my son', recognizing his mistake and wickedness. And it stirs sincere compassion in us, and the same piety as David had. The whole tragic story of Saul continues to be sprinkled with these fleeting but intense good gazes performed by the text, which seems to want to attribute Saul's wickedness to the evil spirit of God who one day took possession of his heart (an effective and deeply humane way of redeeming something of this first sad and unfortunate king). As soon as this evil spirit leaves him, Saul becomes capable of saying good and beautiful things again: “So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day” (24:19).

This wonderful encounter between Saul and David ends with these words of Saul: “»Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father's house.« And David swore this to Saul.” (21:21). Saul feels that his end is near and, like the great biblical characters, he immediately thinks of his (fore)father(s) and children. In that kind of humanism the most important salvation is not one's own but that of our children and parents, who are, at the same time, our true name. At that brief moment of spiritual lucidity, Saul therefore mentions the name of the father and the name of the children. He does not want the failure of his vocation to become the failure of the past and future. When we realize that our life hasn’t worked out, that it hasn’t become what it could and should have, we can still save something good and true if we protect the name, if we try to prevent our mistakes and sins from contaminating the root and the buds, because we know that they are innocent, and we want them to remain so. In these efforts for the salvation of the name we regenerate our children and become fathers of our parents, and sometimes we can hear their 'thanks' that reaches us in the darkness of our abysses, illuminating them. There are families saved by a final act of love of those who had made a mistake but managed to save the innocence of the name.    

After this intense encounter, David resumes his flight. He does not give up because he cannot renounce his vocation. He escapes but does not renounce becoming the legitimate king of his people. And while fleeing, suffering and seeing Saul's evil deeds, he still respects him, calls him 'my father', 'my lord', and recognizes him as a legitimate sovereign. And when he could kill him and thus put an end to his suffering, he does not. He prefers remaining in conflict to an easier but less sincere solution. And so the Bible sends us yet another message of life: learning to inhabit contradictions, to handle conflicts, to prefer a difficult but more sincere non-solution to a solution that appears simpler only because it is less sincere. To approach those who hurt us in silence, to cut only a strip of their robe, and to find ourselves standing with a humble piece of torn cloth instead of the murderous knife in our hand. Because vocations mature also by remaining, with loyalty and meekness, in a conflict in which we found ourselves without seeking or wanting to, when we choose to use the knife only to cut a strip of cloth. One can only save oneself from certain conflicts by using the weak kind of strength of a shred of cloth.

David had been chosen and consecrated king when he was still a youth. One day he became king, and the greatest of all. That costly and generous loyalty learned and exhibited in the conflict with Saul made him the most loved king, despite his many faults. Even after great sins and infidelity we can hope to be forgiven by life, by God, by our friends, by the angel of death if we have been able to respect an enemy possessed by a bad spirit, if we did not abuse his vulnerability, if we called him 'father' or 'friend' even when he no longer deserved it. If we have done so at least once.

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