Bywords and insults in the ancient world (1 Samuel 25)

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Plautus: Everything you say, by Hercules , is so unbearably boring that it’s murder by monotony.

Nabal’s answer to David’s agents (1 Samuel 25:10-11) was a flagrant insult; David had been serving him with honour, but Nabal responded by speaking of David in scurrilous terms as an outlaw. In the ancient world men (and partially warriors) placed an enormous premium on their personal reputations and thus took insults and perceived slights to their honour very seriously. Examples of this abound in ancient literature; perhaps the most famous is the Greek hero Achilles, who sat in his tent and refused to fight against the Trojans when he felt his fellow Greeks had failed to show due respect for his prestige (as described in Homer’s Iliad). When the Philistine Goliath defiled the ranks of Israel (1 Samuel 17), the young David regarded this as reason enough to go out to fight the giant. David was later willing to start a war with the Ammonites to avenge their humiliating treatment of his ambassadors (2 Samuel 10).

Insults and slights required an appropriate response on behalf of the individual so affronted. Exodus 21:17 prescribes the death penalty for those who cursed (reviled or insulted) their parents, and the 42 young men making fun of Elisha were mauled by two bears (2 Kings 2:23-25). The New Testament calls upon Christians to be forbearing toward those who insult them (1 Peter 3:9), but in order to understand David and his responses to taunts we need to comprehend the warrior-culture in which he lived. In addition, as in the above examples, when Yahweh’s people or His anointed are insulted the reputation of Yahweh Himself has been affronted.


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