In the Sixty ninth Psalm David describes himself as a poor, despised and lowly individual who lacks even a single friend to comfort him. More numerous than the hairs on my head are those who hate me without reason… Must I then repay what I have not stolen? Mighty are those who would cut me down, who are my enemies without cause… It is for Your sake that I have borne disgrace, that humiliation covers my face. I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons. … Those who sit by the gate talk about me. I am the taunt of drunkards… Disgrace breaks my heart, and I am left deathly sick. I hope for solace, but there is none; and for someone to comfort me, but I find no one. They put gall into my meal, and give me vinegar to quench my thirst…
This is the voice of a tormented soul who has experienced untold humiliation and disgrace. How can this be the voice of the mighty, righteous and beloved servant of God? At what point in his life had he felt so alone, so disgraced, and so undeserving of love and friendship? In this Psalm he reveals that he was shunned by his own brothers (“I have become a stranger to my brothers”), the subject of gossip by the Torah sages who sat in judgment at the gates (“those who sit by the gate talk about me”) and ridiculed by the drunkards on the street corners (“I am the taunt of drunkards”)? Of what was David guilty arouse such ire and contempt?
It isn’t until the Prophet Samuel makes an unusual and unexpected visit to Bethlehem that we first meet David. Samuel invites the elders of the community and the head of the supreme court of Torah law, the most distinguished leaders of his generation, Jesse to a feast to anoint a new king to replace the rejected King Saul. The elders feared that Samuel had somehow learned of some grievous sin taking place in their town. Jesse became anxious when Samuel inexplicably invited his sons to attend the feast. Samuel’s big surprise was that the new king would be one of Jesse’s sons.
Ist Samuel 16:4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
After Samuel scrutinized Jesse’s sons a Jewish text says that he asks: “Are these all the young men? That’s slightly different from the text with which we are familiar. He chose his words carefully. Had he asked Jesse if these were all his sons Jesse would have been quick to answer in the affirmative. To Jesse’s mind he had no other sons. He says “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping sheep.” The Jewish translation says “There is the smallest, but he is keeping sheep”. By small he meant of little or no consequence. He was hoping that Samuel would allow David to remain where he was, out of sight, out of trouble, tending to the sheep in the faraway pastures. According the the Jewish Madrash, Jesse did not give David the status of a son.
When David was born into this prominent family his birth was greeted with utter derision and contempt. In the psalm David says, “I was a stranger to my brothers, a foreigner to my mother’s sons . . . they put gall in my meal, and gave me vinegar to quench my thirst.” He was not permitted to eat with the rest of his family. He was given the task of shepherd and sent to pasture in dangerous areas full of lions and bears because they hoped that a wild beast would come and kill him while he was performing his duties.
Jesse was the leading Torah authority of his day. He was also the grandson of Boaz and Ruth. His grandmother, Ruth, was a convert from the nation of Moab. Because Moab was the nation that refused the Jewish people passage through their land when they wandered in the desert and cruelly refused to sell them food and drink, the oral Torah specifically forbade an Israelite to marry a male Moabite convert yet seemed to exempt female Moabite converts. Tradition actually has it that, on the night of his marriage to Ruth, Boaz died. Ruth had conceived and subsequently gave birth to Oved, Jesse’s father. During Ruth’s lifetime many raised questions about the legitimacy of her marriage to Boaz. Some rabble-rousers claimed that Boaz’s death verified that his marriage to Ruth had indeed been forbidden.
Late in life doubt gripped Jesse’s heart gnawing away at the very foundation of his existence. His integrity argued that if his status of being a veritable Israelite was in question he was not permitted to stay married to his wife, Nitzevet bat Adeal (neat so vich), unquestionably an Israelite herself. Disregarding the personal sacrifice, Jesse concluded that the only solution would be to separate from her, no longer engaging in marital relations.
Afterward Jesse longed for a child who, unlike his seven sons, would have unquestionable Jewish ancestry. His plan was to engage in relations with his Canaanite maidservant, the off spring of which would be legitimate according to the most stringent interpretation of the Torah. The maidservant was aware of the anguish of her mistress, Nitzevet and understood her pain in being separated from her husband for so many years. She also knew of Nitzevet’s longing for more children. The empathetic maidservant secretly approached Nitzevet and informed her of Jesse’s plan, suggesting that they should replicate the actions of Leah and Rachel and switch places.
Nitzevet took the place of her maidservant and that night she conceived. Jesse remained unaware of the switch. After three months, Nitzevet’s pregnancy became obvious. Incensed, her sons wished to kill their apparently adulterous mother and the “illegitimate” child that she carried. Nitzevet, for her part, would not embarrass her husband by revealing the truth of what had occurred and chose to keep a vow of silence.
Unaware of the truth behind his wife’s pregnancy, but having compassion on her, Jesse ordered his sons not to touch her. “Do not kill her! Instead, let the child that will be born be treated as a lowly and despised servant. In this way everyone will realize that his status is questionable and, as an illegitimate child, he will not marry an Israelite.”
From the time of his birth Nitzevet’s eighth son was treated by his brothers as an abominable outcast. Noting the conduct of his brothers, the rest of the community assumed that this youth was a treacherous sinner full of unspeakable guilt. On the infrequent occasions that Nitzevet’s son would return from the pastures to his home he was shunned by the townspeople. If something was lost or stolen, he was accused as the natural culprit, and ordered, in the words of the psalm, to “repay what I have not stolen.”
Only one individual throughout David’s youth was pained by his unjustified plight, and felt a deep and unconditional bond of love for the child whom she alone knew was undoubtedly pure. This was his mother who felt the intensity of her youngest child’s pain and rejection as her own. Torn and anguished by David’s unwarranted degradation, yet powerless to stop it, Nitzevet stood by the sidelines, in solidarity with him, shunned herself, as she too cried rivers of tears, awaiting the time when justice would be served.
When the messenger went out to bring David home from the fields, out of respect for the prophet David first goes home to wash himself and change his clothes. Unaccustomed to seeing David at home his mother asked, “Why did you come home in the middle of the day?” David explained the reason, and Nitzevet answered, “If so, I too am accompanying you.” When David arrived at the festival Samuel doubted whether David could be the one worthy of the kingship. God commanded Samuel, “My anointed one is standing before you, and you remain seated? Arise and anoint David without delay! For he is the one I have chosen!” As Samuel held the horn of oil, it bubbled, as if it could not wait to drop onto David’s forehead. When Samuel anointed him, the oil hardened and glistened like pearls and precious stones. As Samuel anointed David, the sound of weeping could be heard from outside the great hall. It was the voice of Nitzevet, David’s lone supporter and solitary source of comfort. Her twenty-eight long years of silence in the face of humiliation were finally coming to a close. At last, all would see that the lineage of her youngest son was pure, undefiled by any blemish. Finally, the anguish and humiliation that she and her son had borne would come to an end. Facing her other sons, Nitzevet exclaimed, “The stone that was reviled by the builders has now become the cornerstone!” (Psalms 118:22)