Monday, November 17, 2014

Nabal and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25

The story of Nabal and Abigail is an interesting one that has all kinds of interesting indications of character.

Briefly speaking, the story is this: David asks Nabal for food because he and his men kept Nabal’s flocks safe.  Nabal refuses rudely.  David decides to kill Nabal and his household, but Abigail (Nabal’s wife) finds out what her husband did and goes out with a big present of food to apologize for Nabal.  She pacifies David.  After she tells Nabal what happened, Nabal dies and then David marries Abigail.

What kind of person is Nabal?  His name means fool and was probably a nickname.  He was very great and rich, having 3000 sheep and 1000 goats.  But he was “churlish and evil in his doings” (v3).  He was of the house of Caleb (v3), but didn’t have Caleb’s nobility of character.  By one of his servants he was described as “such a son of Belial, that a man cannot speak to him” (v17), meaning his servants must have frequently tried to reason with him to prevent him from making mistakes and he wouldn’t listen.  Even his wife knew he was a fool (v25).  He held feasts in his house like feasts of a king (v36), so he had plenty of food, and he seemed to think nothing of feasting without his wife (v36).  He also got very drunk (v36).

What kind of person was Abigail?  Her name means “my father is joy.”  She is described as “of good understanding and of a beautiful countenance” (v3).  She has the confidence of the servants because she is informed of problems (v14-17).  She takes action quickly and is generous (v18), she is a peacemaker and tries to smooth things over for her husband and for the sake of her household.  Also, the things she says to David about how the Lord will make him a sure house and he will be appointed ruler over Israel indicate she is far-seeing and could be considered prophetic.  Her concern that David not ruin his excellent record so far or have any regrets shows she is a true friend who sees the spiritual importance of staying pure.  Even though she doesn’t tell her husband what she’s going to do, she tells him afterward, so she takes responsibility and keeps him in the loop (v36), though that must have been hard when it went so against his wishes.

One question that might naturally come at this point is “How did these two ever get married in the first place?”  How did such a good woman end up with such a jerk for a husband?  Did she make a bad choice?  I don’t know if we can assume that marriages were formed the same way back then as they are today.  They may have been paired by parents and she didn’t know enough about Nabal to refuse.  Also, it is likely that she had to develop that good understanding out of self-defense in her marriage to cope with him.

It is interesting that after Nabal insults David’s messengers that one of Nabal’s servants goes directly to Abigail and tells her what happened and Abigail acts immediately, preparing this big food gift and delivers it personally without telling her husband.  That is a lot of stuff going on behind Nabal’s back.  And I bet you this is not a one-time event.  I bet that Nabal has been rubbing people wrong for a very very long time, and his servants and his wife have had to learn how to cope and pacify and mollify everyone whose feathers he’s ruffled. 

In fact, I bet that Abigail had to take a lot of the management of Nabal’s concerns herself, managing from the shadows, so to speak.  We get a glimpse of this when in her apology to David she says, “I thine handmaid saw not the young men of my lord, whom thou didst send” (v25).  She implies that if they had come to her, the response would have been different, and she was the one who took care of business, not her husband.

Also note that Nabal has no clue that what he’s said to David’s messengers is going to have any consequences or that his refusal is bad.  But Nabal’s servant who informs Abigail, and Abigail herself are completely aware of what is about to happen if they don’t do something fast, and they are completely right.  There is a major mismatch here about awareness of consequences.  That suggests that Abigail has been smoothing things over for so long that Nabal hasn’t learned there are consequences for being a jerk and he’s gotten worse over time.  And this time he’s angered the wrong guy and if Abigail hadn’t stepped in, he and the other men of the household would have been dead.

Was Nabal like this only with servants and outsiders?  Odds are that Nabal treated Abigail badly too.  She probably suffered under his critical eye and he was dismissive of her abilities just as he was dismissive of David’s messengers and refused to believe David and his men had helped him.  Abigail probably had to pacify Nabal and submit to unreasonable demands a lot.  In fact, her powerful appeal to David was probably informed by a huge amount of practice with apologizing and humbling herself to Nabal.

This should bring us to ask ourselves whether we are like Nabal or like Abigail.  Are we the kind of person who has to be pacified and have messes smoothed over for, or are we the kind of person who does the peacemaking and apologizing?  Are we the kind of person that no one can reason with, or are we the kind of person that can be warned and will take immediate action?

We can see Abigail had a hard life married to Nabal, even if they were very wealthy.  She could have given up.  She could have become Nabal’s enemy.  She could have left him.  If she had been any less of a righteous woman, she could have chosen to do nothing and then David would have rid her of her obnoxious husband.  But instead she acted against her own personal interest and pled for Nabal to be spared.  That is Godlike love right there.  In fact, she becomes a type of Christ: “Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be” (1 Sam. 25:24).  She is willing to be punished for her husband’s sins to save him, jerk that he was.

So, looking at this again, if Abigail is a type of Christ, Nabal typifies Adam and the rest of fallen mankind—deaf to good advice, thinking there is nothing wrong with us when we have offended many times over, shielded so many times from the immediate consequences that we don’t realize the doom that approaches, unwilling to acknowledge we’ve been helped by anyone if we can’t directly see it, returning railing and insult for justified requests for help or pay, feasting and enjoying ourselves while unaware of our danger.  If we, as Nabal, were informed of our true situation, our hearts would probably die within us too.

The truth is, we need a redeemer as badly as Nabal needed Abigail.  And Abigail’s determination and haste to plead for Nabal teaches us about Christ’s love and willingness to hurry and plead for us, even though we have made His suffering great.

Now, let’s look at this story even more granularly to see what more we can learn.

4 ¶And David heard in the wilderness that Nabal did shear his sheep.
5 And David sent out ten young men, and David said unto the young men, Get you up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name:
6 And thus shall ye say to him that liveth in prosperity, Peace be both to thee, and peace be to thine house, and peace be unto all that thou hast.
7 And now I have heard that thou hast shearers: now thy shepherds which were with us, we hurt them not, neither was there ought missing unto them, all the while they were in Carmel.
8 Ask thy young men, and they will shew thee. Wherefore let the young men find favour in thine eyes: for we come in a good day: give, I pray thee, whatsoever cometh to thine hand unto thy servants, and to thy son David.
9 And when David’s young men came, they spake to Nabal according to all those words in the name of David, and ceased. (1 Sam. 25:4-9)

David hears that Nabal is shearing his sheep and he sends ten messengers to ask Nabal if he can give anything from his feasting to help David, even though it would have been a temptation to just take what they needed.  Living off the land as David and his men were, any place they could build goodwill became a possible source of support, so he may have hoped that if he helped Nabal, Nabal would help him back.  He invited Nabal to confirm the claims of David’s messengers by asking his own servants. He didn’t even make a demand for a certain amount; he left it up to Nabal, trusting Nabal’s generosity.  (Sadly,  in this case, it was trust misplaced.) 

Here’s Nabal’s answer:

10 ¶And Nabal answered David’s servants, and said, Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse? there be many servants now a days that break away every man from his master.
11 Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men, whom I know not whence they be? (1 Sam.25:10-11)

Nabal undoubtedly had many servants leave him because of his jerkiness, but he didn’t realize he was the problem.  He just knew he had troubles keeping workers, so he looked upon David and Saul’s situation from that perspective and judged David to be an ungrateful servant breaking away from Saul.  It is also possible that he was suspicious about the messengers themselves, wondering if they were just using David’s name to try to get in on the feast he prepared.

Concerning their claims that they didn’t hurt Nabal’s sheep or bother his shepherds, Nabal doubts they made any difference at all, and rather than inquire of his servants whether it is true whether David’s men were helpful or not, he makes a snap judgment that they don’t deserve it since he doesn’t know them.  (Clearly Nabal hadn’t been out with the shepherds.)  I think it is pretty bad how Nabal could have learned the truth if he had just asked them and he chose not to.

14 ¶But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying, Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he railed on them.
15 But the men were very good unto us, and we were not hurt, neither missed we any thing, as long as we were conversant with them, when we were in the fields:
16 They were a wall unto us both by night and day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.
17 Now therefore know and consider what thou wilt do; for evil is determined against our master, and against all his household: for he is such a son of Belial, that a man cannot speak to him. (1 Sam. 25:14-17)

One of Nabal’s servants gives Abigail the benefit of the information that Nabal should have heard but didn’t.  And Abigail learns that not only did David’s men refrain from sheep-stealing, but they had been an extra protection for the flocks, keeping thieves away and keeping sheep from wandering.  In doing so, they really were like an army of shepherds.

I notice the servant doesn’t tell Abigail what to do to help the situation of Nabal’s rudeness; he only tells her to think about what she’s going to do and that “evil is determined against our master and against all his household” (v17).

So Abigail jumps into action and she gets all this food ready:
200 loaves of bread
2 bottles of wine
5 dressed sheep
5 measures of parched corn
200 raison clusters
200 fig cakes

I don’t think Abigail had to make all this right then.  I think it was already on hand in huge amounts for the kingly feast Nabal was about to have anyway (v36).  There was so much food already on hand that evidently what she took was never missed.

Notice that when Nabal talked to David’s servants about the food he’d have to give up he talks about bread, water, and flesh, and then look at the kinds of food Abigail prepared.  Nabal was downplaying the quality of food they had and trying to make it seem like he had only just enough for his own servants and nothing to spare.  He didn’t want to give anything.

Naturally when David finds out Nabal was so rude, he decides it is time to rid the world of a worthless, inhospitable person and household. 

As David gets ready to go kill Nabal and his household, he says so with an oath, but his oath is kind of funny:

So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall. (v22)

The usual oath is “God do so to me and more also if I don’t ________” and it essentially asks for God to punish you if you don’t do what you have decided to do.  But David’s oath is different.  “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David if ______”  He’s asking God to punish his enemies if he doesn’t do what he says he will do.  It’s kind of funny because no way would God punish someone else completely unrelated if David doesn’t do what he promised; that would be unjust.  But the main effect of saying that is David’s pretty sure he’s going to do it, but he’s leaving the door open in case something prevents him for a good reason.  And it’s a good thing he did because Abigail has some really good reasons why he shouldn’t kill Nabal and all his men.

David is an excellent contrast to Saul, who makes strong oaths all over the place, and then finds himself breaking them because extenuating circumstances arise, to the point that soon his oaths mean nothing.

So lets look at what Abigail says to David after she throws herself at his feet. 

23 And when Abigail saw David, she hasted, and lighted off the ass, and fell before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground,
24 And fell at his feet, and said, Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be: and let thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak in thine audience, and hear the words of thine handmaid.
25 Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this man of Belial, even Nabal: for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him: but I thine handmaid saw not the young men of my lord, whom thou didst send.
26 Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, seeing the Lord hath withholden thee from coming to shed blood, and from avenging thyself with thine own hand, now let thine enemies, and they that seek evil to my lord, be as Nabal.
27 And now this blessing which thine handmaid hath brought unto my lord, let it even be given unto the young men that follow my lord.
28 I pray thee, forgive the trespass of thine handmaid: for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house; because my lord fighteth the battles of the Lord, and evil hath not been found in thee all thy days.
29 Yet a man is risen to pursue thee, and to seek thy soul: but the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God; and the souls of thine enemies, them shall he sling out, as out of the middle of a sling.
30 And it shall come to pass, when the Lord shall have done to my lord according to all the good that he hath spoken concerning thee, and shall have appointed thee ruler over Israel;
31 That this shall be no grief unto thee, nor offence of heart unto my lord, either that thou hast shed blood causeless, or that my lord hath avenged himself: but when the Lord shall have dealt well with my lord, then remember thine handmaid. (1 Sam. 25:23-31)

First, notice that it repeats three times that Abigail abased herself in some way.  Repeating three times is the superlative form, like of like “best” is for us.  It shows us that Abigail humbled herself to the greatest extent that she could.

When she pleads for Nabal to David, another thing to notice is how she refers to herself and how she refers to David.  She calls herself “thine handmaid” six times and calls David “my lord” 14 times.  She’s humbling herself and exalting him.  That she’s so quick to do this and does it so well speaks of the practice she’s had at it and that she’s realized it doesn’t hurt her in any way, even though she is the wife of a “great” man.

There’s also something else happening subtly in the background of everything she says.  She starts out requesting that Nabal’s iniquity be upon her, essentially a request to be punished in his place.  Then, midway, her request becomes “forgive the trespass of thine handmaid,” which means she asks not to be punished.  And then at the end, her request is “when the Lord shall have dealt well with my lord, then remember thine handmaid,” which implies she’s doing him a favor that he can repay later.  I think she probably hopes that he’ll see that her persuasion to keep him from shedding blood in this case is an important spiritual service more important than the food she brings.  This suggests that maybe we should try to see warnings as great services as well.

There’s one thing Abigail says that seems kind of strange:

Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, seeing the Lord hath withholden thee from coming to shed blood, and from avenging thyself with thine own hand, now let thine enemies, and they that seek evil to my lord, be as Nabal. (v26)

It seems to express the wish that all David’s enemies could be like Nabal is at this stage with the assumption that David will not kill him.  But Nabal is rich and a complete jerk.  Adding to this, to underline her words, she uses the strongest oath she can—“as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth.”  I can only conclude that Abigail understands Nabal’s true state and knows he’s in deep trouble, that it is only a matter of time before he is taken out of the world.  He is not to be envied even if he is rich.  He is not even to be feared.  (And we see that she is right.  Nabal was in his very last days, even if no one knew it.)

The upshot of Abigail’s appeal is that David listens and does not destroy Nabal and his household.

36 ¶And Abigail came to Nabal; and, behold, he held a feast in his house, like the feast of a king; and Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunken: wherefore she told him nothing, less or more, until the morning light.
37 But it came to pass in the morning, when the wine was gone out of Nabal, and his wife had told him these things, that his heart died within him, and he became as a stone.
38 And it came to pass about ten days after, that the Lord smote Nabal, that he died. (1 Sam. 25:36-38)

Abigail goes back home and finds Nabal drunk and feasting.  Wisely she waits ‘til later to tell him what she did so his head will be clear.  If he’s a fool while sober, he’d be even worse while drunk, right?

When she tells him in the morning, it says, “his heart died within him, and he became as a stone” (v37).  I think this means his courage and confidence in himself died.  If he had a heart attack and his heart literally died right then he would have died that day, but he lived 10 days longer.

Consider all the many reasons a selfish conceited person like him would have to lose courage.
1. He made a huge mistake without realizing it when trying to protect his interests, and the consequences would have destroyed him and his household unawares.
2. Rather than him being the one who protected his whole household, his wife had. 
3. His wife couldn’t even tell him what she was going to do beforehand because he would’ve stopped her and that would’ve sealed the fate of him and his household.
4. He hadn’t listened to his servants who tried to tell him. 

If Nabal was in any way thoughtful, he would have thought about all the decisions he’d made throughout his life that brought him to that point.  He would have to realize he had been wrong so much of the time.  And that realization—“everything you’ve done to protect your interests has been offensive and wrong all along”—is incredibly painful.  The man wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

Ten days later, Nabal is dead from some sort of disease.

39 ¶And when David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, Blessed be the Lord, that hath pleaded the cause of my reproach from the hand of Nabal, and hath kept his servant from evil: for the Lord hath returned the wickedness of Nabal upon his own head. And David sent and communed with Abigail, to take her to him to wife.
40 And when the servants of David were come to Abigail to Carmel, they spake unto her, saying, David sent us unto thee, to take thee to him to wife. (1 Sam. 25:39-40)

When David heard Nabal was dead, he saw it as vindication from the Lord, and he admired Abigail enough to want her for his wife.  He had already seen her faithfulness to her husband Nabal, so he knew she would definitely be faithful to David.  She had seen how she advocated for Nabal, so he knows she will advocate for him too.  He needs good allies who will stick with him, and she is a good choice.  Also, her forward-thinking and anticipation of him eventually gaining the throne will encourage him through the hard times.  Annnnd, her generosity will make it much easier for him and his men to live on the run from Saul.

So he sends servants to her to tell her he wants to take her to wife.  What is her response?

41 And she arose, and bowed herself on her face to the earth, and said, Behold, let thine handmaid be a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.
42 And Abigail hasted, and arose, and rode upon an ass, with five damsels of hers that went after her; and she went after the messengers of David, and became his wife. (1 Sam.25:41-42)

She asks to serve David’s servants by washing their feet.  It is as if she doesn’t ask for or anticipate anything more than a life of service.  For a woman who has been head of a great household with many servants, this is incredible humility. 

It is also a very wise move.  She doesn’t know what kind of command structure David has in his army of followers or in his household.  She realizes that if she joins the household as a high-and-mighty woman she will stir up hostility and resentment and she knows from seeing Nabal at work how detrimental that can be.  So she’s willing to “start from the bottom” and be helpful to everyone as she figures out her place and demonstrates her worth.  She wants them to know she is not a threat and she won’t make trouble.

Abigail’s approach is a smart thing to do for anyone who joins an organization as a leader.  Learning the ropes and serving everyone makes more friends than lording it over everyone.

Is there anything else you learn from Abigail?