Seminarian N.C. Harrison examines the Biblical precedents for peacemaking.
Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that in a state of nature, the lives of men were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. A wise man of my acquaintance, mentor of mine and husband to a thirty-five year veteran kindergarten teacher added that, in his experience, the last three also applied to almost every five year old he had ever met. Kenneth Waltz, a founding father of the Neo-Realist movement in international relations theory, argued that the only thing which could compel men to behave was a powerful overlord–much as Hobbes and Morgenthau had earlier–and that, in the absense of this overlord, the world system was characterized by a state of constant, anarchical warfare. Another of my mentors, an international law professor, even went so far as to say that warfare was the historical default and that instead of discussing the outbreak of war in hushed voices, we should instead be shocked by the occasional outbreak of peace.
In general, people do seem to encounter conflict at a rate more quickly than they do anything else. Not just in the context of countries and great men but also between the members of families, young men who have had a little bit too much to drink in a bar or even just two otherwise good and kindhearted young men who chance to meet one another on a darkened street. This is why the role of a mediator, one who can bring about reconciliation between embattled parties, is so important. This is a role presented at length in the Bible and, like so many others, can be carried out by a man or a woman.
One of the most famous mediators in the Biblical record is Avigayil, a woman of Ma’on and Karmel who was married to the rich herdsman Naval. Naval was, by all accounts, a foolish, crude man with little to recommend him. This lead, in 1 Sh’muel 25, to a conflict between David and Naval which very nearly cost the latter his life (and the lives of all associated with him) and the former his good name–all important to a leader of men.
David, grieving after the death of the prophet Sh’muel, came with his men to the place in Karmel where Naval’s men kept his flocks. After spending some time together–with David’s men guarding Naval’s from bandits and wild animals while they went about the labor intensive business of shearing the sheep–he sent ten of his own men to Naval’s household with a message of shalom and a request for food, water and shelter.
Naval, showing his notorious boorishness, replied to these men that he knew neither David nor his father, Yishai, and that David was nothing more than a slave running away from his master, Sha’ul the king of Israel. Either of these would have been a terrible insult to David, but together they were more than he could bear. This is possible for a number of reasons. One, most obviously, was that Sh’muel had just died and David was blind with grief. Another is that he was separated from his wife, Michal, and suffering from that. Finally it is entirely possible that after sparing his longtime tormenter Sha’ul, in 1 Sh’muel 24, that David’s mercy was simply at a low ebb. Whatever his reasons the results were the same. He gathered four hundred of his men, armed them, and went to slay Naval and all of his retainers.
Naval’s wife Avigayil, however, was a more temperate woman than her husband. After receving news of David’s plan and Naval’s behavior from a servant, she gathered two hundred loaves of bread, 200 fig cakes and an assortment of other healthy viands for David and his men. Upon meeting the furious warlord, she sought clemency for her husband’s behavior, claiming that the ill-treatment of David’s men was her own fault (as she had not intercepted them before Naval could). She also used a great resource of guile by reminding him that the slaughtered of Naval and his retainers would put an indelible stain on the name of David. No man, after hearing that David had slain the entire household of a man who had offered him insult, could accept him as a temperate leader who was worthy to be followed. David accepted Avigayil’s wisdom, thanked her for the food, and let her go home.
Naval, after sleeping off a drinking binge, suffered a massive stroke at the rage of hearing that his wife had gone to see David. He died ten days later and David, impressed by the good character and kindness that Avigayil had shown, made her his own wife. She pronounced that he was to be the founder of a lasting dynasty and has been regarded by most commenters as a crucially important woman in the biblical record. She is also considered, by the Talmud, to be one of the Tanakh‘s seven prophetesses.
Although Avigayil is one of the most outstanding examples, there are many other peacemakers in the Bible and many pronouncements about the importance of peacemaking. In the third chapter of Ya’akov (possibly the first Christian epistle), it is said that divine wisdom is both peaceful and pure and much of the substance of Mosaic law is a code of interpersonal behavior which is meant to maintain a certain level of peace between people in a society or even between two societies at war. The gospel accounts, also, are full of respect for those who seek to resolve conflicts nonviolently. Matthew 5:38-42 finds Yeshua admonishing His followers to not seek revenge for slights and injuries–the same advice which Avigayil gave to David so long before this–and the ninth verse of the same chapter even goes so far as to say that those who make peace out of conflict are the sons of the Lord. Rabbi Yeshua surely could not have offered higher praise than this!
In today’s society, which glorifies violence through the media and mocks those who seek to avoid it as “weak,” the example of Avigayil should be held up as a beacon of wisdom and righteousness for all to emulate. This attitude could lead to fewer men and women dying violently before their times, and change the default state of mankind from one of war to one of peace.