I Samuel 25 – Abigail
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Oct. 19, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Church. It has been a beautiful week in North Carolina. There are few things more pleasant than the Carolina sky this time of year, and now that the leaves are turning it is hard to sit at a desk. I can see Pilot Mountain from my office at Wake, but I haven’t figured out how to grade exams while hiking. It is easy to follow Paul’s instruction to rejoice when the leaves are flaming with color and the sky is so blue that you feel you could dive into it. Last week I presented a paper on the theology of Spangenberg at an international Moravian history conference at Moravian College. Less than a fourth of the papers were by Moravians; most were secular scholars. It was an excellent conference and many of the papers will be published in the Journal of Moravian History. Riddick and Julie Weber from Winston-Salem also presented papers, and we had the pleasure of driving up together. I hope that the Moravian Church finds ways to encourage them and other young scholars. I am grateful to Dr. Moore for teaching class last week. One of the benefits of Home Church’s relationship with Wake Forest is that we can have someone with a PhD in Old Testament substitute in Sunday School. As it happened, I had to leave the conference early, and so I was able to hear Megan’s excellent presentation on ways to read the story of Abigail. I have to admit that she is right. If I were making a movie about I Samuel, I would cast Catherine Zeta Jones as Abigail. I am afraid that Juliette Binoche may be jealous, though, since for years I had a not-so-secret crush on her. Thankfully, I am married to a woman who is my Abigail: beautiful and smart. This week, I would like to follow up on a couple of the paths outlined by Megan and suggest ways that we might use this story in our lives today. If you were listening last week, you know the story, so there is no point in repeating it.
There is much that we can learn from Abigail and that her example can help us navigate treacherous waters. We saw that Abigail recognized danger to herself and others, and that she used her management skills to address the danger. We saw that she was willing to disobey authority when it would have been foolish and dangerous to submit. She was willing to go to remarkable lengths to prevent bloodshed and violence. And we saw that she had the courage to act when action was needed, and the courage to speak the truth even though others might find it shameful.
Nabal First of all, lets think about the character of Nabal, which is the Hebrew word for fool. I am always interested in whether translators decide to translate a proper name or not. Most English translations leave Nabal’s name in Hebrew, but that obscures the nature of this story. As Megan said, this tale advertizes to us that it is a folktale. No father in ancient Israel ever named his son Nabal or Fool except in anger. I’m reminded of Bill Cosby saying that until he went to school he thought his name was Jesus Christ because his dad was always yelling “Jesus Christ, stop doing that.” Think how different this story would sound if it said, “Now the name of the man was Fool.” We might picture folks in the village saying, “Yo, Fool!” What we have here is a special kind of folktale. It is a piece of wisdom literature that is going to illustrate the difference between the Fool and Wise Wife. It will also show us that David recognizes the difference between wisdom and folly.
Many people in the class wondered how this Fool/Nabal could be so rich, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Our news today is filled with stories of fools who are rich. Some inherited their wealth; others were lucky in the stock market; some were well connected. There are rich fools, but we are all paying a price for foolishness and greed on Wall St., as John McCain has pointed out. Nabal may well have been a shrewd landowner, but even very intelligent people can be foolish. Eliot Spitzer comes immediately to mind. Nabal’s particular brand of foolishness was his arrogance. He was wealthy and powerful, which made him feel invulnerable. He did not investigate the situation to learn who David was or even whether he was a friend or a threat. Like a crotchety old man, he looked down on David as an upstart who needed to be brought down a peg. Nabal not only refused David’s request for food, he insulted him because he assumed he was nobody. The Fool substituted swagger and tough talk for diplomacy, and unknowingly invited his own destruction.
Abigail The next person to consider is Abigail. One of the important things to note about I Samuel 25 is that a woman is the main actor. Abigail is the only one who interacts with all of the other characters in the drama, even the unnamed servants. Last week you heard how carefully she gathered provisions for David and his men. I think we have to assume that the 600 men in David’s band also had their women and children with them. In other words, Abigail had to put together a lot of food, but she did it in secret against the expressed wish of her husband. This is rather extraordinary, and it challenges the assumption that the Bible teaches that women must always be submissive to their husbands. Abigail is one of the many biblical heroines we’ve discussed over the past three years who wisely subverts the expected rules and norms.
She is acting in the best interest of the Fool she is married to, but there is also an element of self-interest in the story. What do you think happened in ancient times to the women marauders killed all of the men? They were given as prizes to the warriors along with the other plunder, but Abigail is not going to be a passive victim of macho stupidity or male violence. She is going to take the necessary actions to protect herself and others, but she is wise enough to know that there is no point in telling Nabal what she is doing. Rather than wasting her time trying to convince a fool to do the wise thing, she simply acts on her own.
Abigail went herself to deliver the gifts to David. There is much that we do not know about the customs of ancient Israel, and so it is not clear if this was a scandalous act on her part. Certainly it was risky and required great courage. Abigail trusted the reports of the servants that David was good and had protected them, but she has no assurance that David would not seize her as a hostage or worse. Even if she succeeded in her mission, she would have to face the wrath of Nabal when he learned what she had done. It took as much, if not more, courage for Abigail to face David the warlord unarmed than for David to confront Goliath with a slingshot. Abigail will have no stones to hurl at David; instead she has to persuade the warlord through the power of her words.
The Speech: In recent months I’ve heard a lot people speak disparagingly of eloquence in politics, but communication is an essential part of leadership. We need leaders who can put their thoughts and plans into words and persuade others to follow a wise course of action. Eloquence that reflects wisdom and courage is a precious gift. Abigail was smart and well-spoken.
She bowed before David, which is something that bothers our modern sensibilities. We don’t usually see women bowing to the ground before men, although I know a few men that might like that. Keep in mind that Abigail is doing exactly what David did when he greeted Jonathan and Samuel. This bowing to the ground was not sexist; it was a sign of respect. Abigail is acknowledging that David is a prince, which is important since her fool of husband implied he was a runaway slave. Yes, she is flattering David, but sometimes it is wise to remind someone of their exalted status. As Megan pointed out, David is still insecure. He feels a need to put Nabal in his place for having offended his honor. Abigail responds to this by reminding David that he is a powerful and respected chief. I’m reminded of a scene in Schindler’s List when Schindler tries to convince the Nazi commandant that he could demonstrate his strength and authority better by showing mercy rather than killing those who offended him. The Nazi tried, but he was too weak and insecure man to be merciful.
I Samuel portrays David as a man who can be bold, but he can also control himself. It appears that he was impressed by the courage and prudence of Abigail. He listens to her speech about the fool she was married to. Though Abigail is often presented as the perfect wife, she does not attempt to defend her husband’s boorish behavior. She appears almost disloyal to her husband talking about him this way to another man. No doubt she and the other women in the red tent swapped stories about their husbands the way wives do today over coffee or on the internet, but this was different. She is shaming her husband before another man, but she is doing so in order to save Nabal’s life and the lives of the entire household.
There is a lesson in this for us today. One of the things I’ve learned about family abuse is that the abuser usually tries to isolate members of the family from outsiders. Families with abuse keep secrets. The great fear is that someone will find out the truth, but it is the truth that sets us free. The only way to stop abuse is to be honest about what is happening and to seek help. Someone in the family must break the code of silence for the sake of everyone’s health. Abigail could have submitted to her husband and not revealed his foolishness, but that would have led to his death and the suffering of many. She took a great personal risk in order to preserve life. Our ethical ideals mean nothing if we do not have the courage to act when it is necessary. Abigail’s courage and willingness to defy her husband saved her life and the lives of many.
Verses 26-31 After Abigail pleads for Nabal’s life, she gives a long speech blessing David. As Megan pointed out, speeches like this were a way that ancient authors could communicate important ideas to the readers. These verses appear to be a later insertion in the story since they break the flow of the narrative. Abigail is thanking the LORD for restraining David from his sanguinary intentions, but David has not yet responded to her plea. The story reads better if we go from verse 25 straight to verse 32 when David takes Abigail by the hand and assures her that he will not take vengeance on Nabal. The inserted verses and David’s response to Abigail both talk about the fact that David has been preserved from bloodguilt. Unlike Saul, David was willing to break a foolish vow when greater wisdom was revealed to him. In this case he recognized that Abigail was an agent of the LORD, and he was grateful to God that she came and spoke to him. Had David killed Nabal and his household, Nabal’s extended family and clan would have been obligated to seek revenge. Even in our day we suffer from the cycle of violence where vengeance is never satisfied. The story of David might have turned out quite differently if he had responded to Nabal’s disrespect with violence. Rather than uniting the tribes and clans of Israel as king, he might have remained a petty warlord who only knew one tool of statecraft – the sword.
Meanwhile Back at the Ranch Abigail was able to pull off her plot, which may be a testament to her husband’s lack of attention to his own affairs. You would think he would miss hundreds of loaves, skeins of wine, fruit, and five whole sheep! But we have many examples in our day of leaders in government, business, and the church who were apparently clueless about what was going on in their own organizations. It is perhaps significant that none of the servants told Nabal what was going on. That is always a bad sign in an organization, by the way. When Abigail returns home from her mission, Nabal is feasting like a king, or a pig, depending on your point of view. It appears that Nabal started the feast without his wife, and this may be a further indication of just how out of touch Nabal was. He didn’t even notice Abigail was missing. Of course, it is possible that Abigail had made all of the arrangements for the feast as a way to distract her husband from what she was doing. That would make a lot of sense, but we do not know for sure.
Someone in the class pointed out last week that Abigail very wisely waited until Nabal was sober to tell him what she had done. I learned years ago when working the night shift in a motel that you can never reason with a drunk. Don’t even try. There is an interesting pun in this section. It says that the wine was drained out of Nabal, meaning that he had sobered up, but the word Nabal can mean “wineskin” (Birch, 1169). We can imagine what kind of condition Nabal was in the next morning after his feasting and drinking. No doubt he was experiencing that peculiar type of repentance that comes after self-indulgence. As his head pounded and his stomach churned, he probably knew he had been a fool. Abigail took advantage of the opportunity to let him know just how great a fool he had been. She told him that she had gone to David because she had learned that David was planning to slaughter every man and take all of the women and animals as booty. She told him that the only way she could save his life was to present herself to David and plead for his life.
Wives Nabal was shocked at the news. The Bible says that his heart died and he became like a stone. We don’t know if he had a heart attack or a stroke. Either would make sense in this situation. It is even possible he had a catatonic fit. We don’t know for sure, but the severity of his reaction is an indication of the seriousness of this story. In the end, Abigail had saved everyone’s life, except Nabal’s. He survived for a few days more before he died. I Samuel emphasizes that it was the LORD, not David who killed Nabal, and David blesses the LORD for this. This is one of those prayers that makes pastors uncomfortable, by the way. Today it is not acceptable to thank God for the death of your enemies. There is more to this blessing than that, though. The text reiterates that David is without guilt. Megan talked last week about the apologetic aspects of I Samuel. Here, the author wants to make it clear that David was not responsible for Nabal’s death, and that Abigail had not poisoned him so that she could be free to become David’s wife.
We aren’t told how long David spent wooing Abigail. The Bible is a bit like modern movies in that events are telescoped. The text sounds like David got the news that the fool had died and immediately sent for Abigail, kind of like a Mafioso taking the wife of his rival as soon as the funeral was over. Most likely, David followed custom and sent for Abigail after a period of mourning. It is likely that she had let it be known that she was interested in David. Clearly David was impressed with Abigail.
If this story was originally a folk tale about a fool with a wise wife, this is the happily ever after ending. Because she was prudent and brave, Abigail was able to marry the handsome prince. If this story was based in historical events, we can assume that David’s marriage to Abigail had practical benefits. We don’t know how much of Nabal’s property Abigail inherited, but this marriage meant that David was no longer just a leader of brigands. Abigail would help finance his rise to the throne.
Chapter 25 ends with brief mentions of two other wives of David. First we are told that he married Ahinoam of Jezreel. This marriage is further indication that David is rising in status and power. The difference between biblical times and modern times is that in those days rich and powerful men added trophy wives without having to get divorces. Polygamy was considered a good thing. Ahinoam is particularly important since she will be the mother of David’s firstborn son, Amnon.
But what happened to David’s first wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul? The text states tersely that Saul gave her to Palti son of Laish. This is stark reminder that in the ancient world fathers could give their daughters away literally. Even though Michal was married to David, Saul felt he had the right to give her to another man since David had betrayed him. You may remember that I Samuel says that Michal loved David. She is the only woman in the Bible that we know loved her husband. She saved David’s life, but her father gave her to another man. In a single verse, the author reminds us that David’s struggle against Saul has not ended.
Conclusion: We spent two weeks on the story of Abigail and David not only because it is so long but also because it is a rich story. It is one of those passages of Scripture that acknowledges the complexities and ambiguities of life, but which also provides some guidance on how to live. Hopefully, none of you is like Nabal the fool, but if you are, perhaps this story can open your eyes to the need to change before it is too late. Hopefully, none of you is living with a fool like Nabal, but if you are, take guidance from Abigail who acted wisely, courageously, and cautiously. Hopefully, none of you has ever been in danger of shedding blood over a point of honor, but if you are, learn from David. Listen to wisdom and do not follow through on rash and stupid oaths.