Character Study – David, Abigail, and Nabal

Character Study – David, Abigail, and Nabal

In my last post, I began a character study on David, Nabal, and Abigail. The story is found in 1 Samuel 25. If you want a quick review, check out this puppet version.

What’s happened so far is David has been protecting Nabal’s estate and flocks from outlaws.  He asked for some food for him and his men. His request was perfectly within reason for that time, even if he had not been protecting Nabal’s estate. Nabal not only refuses David’s request. He insults David so egregiously that honor demands he take revenge. He tells his men to kill every male of his household. But Nabal’s wife Abigail is on her way to meet him. Let’s see how she handles this.

Abigail to the Rescue

When Abigail saw David, she hurried and alighted from the donkey, fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant.

1Sa 25:23-24 NRS

Your servant, spoken twice. This was not necessarily literal. It was a common expression of humility to someone from whom you were about to ask a favor. Or, as in this case, forgiveness. David used the same language when he first made his request to Nabal (v. 8).

 “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him; but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent.

1Sa 25:25 NRS

For as his name is, so is he. She’s basically saying, “Don’t listen to my idiot husband. He’s a fool, just like his name says. How could you take anything the fool says seriously?”

Escalante's Prudent Abigail
Prudent Abigail By Juan Antonio de Frías y Escalante, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8860089

 “Now then, my lord, as the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal.

1Sa 25:26 NRS

My lord, Heb adoni, refers to David. The LORD, whenever this appears in all capital letters, it refers to the divine name for God, sometimes represented with the letters YHWH.

Since the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt, now that was smooth. She is talking to David as if he has already granted her request not to take vengeance with his own hand. Also, this subtly reminds him God is watching him now.

 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord.

1Sa 25:27 NRS

This present, see vv. 18-20.

 Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live.

1Sa 25:28 NRS

The LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, a promise that Nathan repeats to David, in more detail, after he has taken the throne (2 Sa 7:11-16). Abigail is not referred to as a prophet, but she is doing a pretty good job here.

Because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD. What could be a higher compliment to a pious warrior like David? The LORD sees what you have done. You have fought for righteousness and against the enemies of the LORD. That includes the fighting he did to protect people like her and Nabal’s servants from those out to harm them. Even if her idiot husband doesn’t see it, she does. And more importantly, God does.

Evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the reference to a sure house certainly did. I think this was typical language petitioners would use toward a king. If so, she is subtly reminding him of the destiny God has for him. He should consider his actions in light of God’s promises to him.

 If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the LORD your God; but the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling.

1Sa 25:29 NRS

If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, Saul for example. This was also typical of blessings for a king. God (or “the gods” in other cultures) will keep you from harm and cut down your enemies.

You are under the care of the LORD your God. Therefore, anyone who would be your enemy is already defeated. In other words, David, you know better than to take vengeance into your own hands when the LORD has already promised the throne to you. Don’t incur bloodguilt on someone who is already as good as dead.

When the LORD has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the LORD has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.”

1Sa 25:30-31

Her whole plea is couched in getting David to look at this decision in light of God’s promises to him. Remember, David, What you do today will stay on your conscience for the rest of your life. Think about the day when God has appointed you prince over Israel. You know the day is coming when the LORD has done…all the good he has spoken concerning you. Do you want to remember this as a day when you brought bloodguilt on yourself? Or do you want to remember this as the day you were the bigger man, because you trusted in God’s promises to you?

This is another reason I don’t believe this was David’s normal way of operating. If he was already known for killing every male when people refused to give what he asked, her appeal to his conscience would have been meaningless. What good could it possibly do to talk of avoiding bloodguilt if he already had bloodguilt?

Your final words are the most important. They are what people most often remember. She says, Remember me when the LORD has dealt well with you. Normally, it does not go over well to ask a favor when you seek forgiveness. But it’s smart the way she does it. At the same time she asks him for kindness, she reminds him that God would one day fulfill God’s promises to him. When God has made you king of Israel, I ask you to remember me. What did the thief say to Jesus? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luk 23:42 NRS). It’s almost word-for-word what Abigail said to David 1,000 years before.

Later, David’s son Solomon would write, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Pro 15:1 NRS). I wonder if he was thinking about this incident at the time. Nabal stirred up anger with his harsh words. Abigail turned it away. Abigail sounds like she has had a lot of practice turning away wrath with soft answers. No wonder considering who she’s married to. And just as Nabal knew what insults would hurt David, Abigail knew what to say to David to bring him back to his senses. She is a good teacher for this, so let’s see what we can learn from her.

How to Apologize to Men Ready to Kill

She was humble and apologetic. In ancient Israel, to ask someone for forgiveness, you must apologize and also acknowledge that you (or someone associated with you) were wrong. It was common for people in these situations to refer to the offended party as “my lord,” and themselves as “your servant.” It was often not literally true, but it was a powerful way to humble yourself to them. Abigail refers to David as “my lord” and herself as “your servant” throughout her petition to David. In this case, she may have been thinking literally, because she believes he will be king one day.

She came bearing gifts. A “peace offering” for them did not guarantee the person would accept an apology, but it was a way to put your money where your mouth is, so to speak. She brings the food David asked for initially. Without this, I don’t think any apology would have been strong enough to stop David.

She separated herself from her husband. She tells David, “I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent” (v. 25). The implication is if she had been there, she would have given them what they asked. She called her husband a fool for the way he acted, which in this case was appropriate. This not only separates her from her husband’s insults, it also blunts the impact of his words. What is an insult from a fool? It is empty and meaningless.

She spoke to him as if he had already granted her request, without being pushy or presumptuous. The worst mistake people often make when they apologize is to presume they have forgiven you before they actually forgive you. It works in her case, however, because the way she does it is not presumptuous. “Now then, my lord, as the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal” (v. 26). She slips it into the middle of her apology, making it subtle, almost subliminal even. She appeals to his piety, …as the LORD lives…since the LORD has restrained you…. And she follows it with a curse on David’s enemies, even including her husband. This reminds him God is not only watching him. God is watching Nabal as well. God knows the wrong he did to you, so trust God to execute justice on him and all your enemies.

She appreciated what he had done up until now. “The LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD” (v. 28). What did she mean? It could be referring back to when he led the armies of Israel into battle. I believe it also included the fighting he did to protect her husband’s estate from outlaws. In the minds of the people in that time, a good and just king protected the weak from the lawless. At any rate, the greatest compliment David could hear was that the work he did pleased the LORD, and Abigail gives him that pat on the back.

She let him know she believed in his destiny as much as he did. God had promised to make David king of Israel. Regardless of his present circumstances, this was his destiny. Nabal’s insults attacked that very promise that must have been sustaining David through these years of looking over his shoulder. David’s anger made him lose sight of the destiny he was working towards. Abigail reminded him, several times in this petition, God’s promises are true. The insults of a fool cannot negate them. She painted the picture of his destiny in such vivid language it drove the wrath out of him.

She appealed to his conscience. Conscience actually is a powerful motivator to those who have one. If you read chapter 24 of 1 Samuel, you know David’s conscience could make him absolutely miserable. I don’t know if Abigail knew about this event, but she brought up his conscience at the end. She told David on the day when he becomes king, “my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself” (v. 31). And won’t that day be much happier if you don’t have any grief or pangs of conscience?

She urged him to consider his actions in light of God’s promises. Everything she said to him was in the context of the time “when the LORD has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel.” David, you know what God has promised you. You know God will fulfill all the good he has spoken concerning you (v. 30). God has been watching you and seen the good you have done (v. 28). God has also been watching my fool of a husband (vv. 25-26, 29). Don’t you think you can trust God to execute justice on your behalf? And may the LORD do so to all the enemies of you, my lord.

A Soft Answer Turneth Away Wrath

Were these words effective on David? You’d better believe it. He told her what he had planned, but because of her, the plan has changed. He accepted her gift and called off the raid he ordered (vv. 32-35). His men probably were not happy about that, but they obeyed. Listen to what he tells her.

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand!” For as surely as the LORD the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.”

1Sa 25:32-34 NRS

He sees her as a messenger from the LORD, the God of Israel. He tells her she can go back to her house in peace, because “I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition” (v. 35).

I think there is enough evidence here to prove Nabal’s wealth and success had nothing to do with him and everything to do with his clever and beautiful wife. She showed she was capable of rebuilding the bridges he burned. Her words were wise, not only for David but for us. We all need a voice like hers when we lose our temper to bring us back to our senses.

A Fool’s Reward

Her words were prophetic as well. God made David prince of Israel and established a sure house for him. God fulfilled all the good God had promised concerning David, just as she said God would. As for her husband, her words about him also came true. He looked like he was sitting pretty, getting drunk on fine wine and feasting like a king, all without paying David for services rendered (v. 36). But the next morning, Abigail told him what she had done. Here is what happened.

In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him; he became like a stone. About ten days later the LORD struck Nabal, and he died.

1Sa 25:37-38 NRS

Abigail told Nabal about her encounter with David. She probably stressed how he and every male that belonged to him would be dead right now if it weren’t for her. Did she know telling him this would be enough to kill him? As much as I’m impressed with her prophetic skills, I don’t think there is any way she could have known that.

It sounds like he had a heart attack. His arteries were probably already clogged up with all the rich food and wine he had consumed. However, that usually kills quickly, not ten days later. Was he in a coma? It almost sounds like he was literally scared to death. I don’t know if that’s medically possible, but there is one other instance in the Bible I know of, Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11). I’m not qualified to make a medical diagnosis. I’m just wondering if Abigail felt any responsibility for it. Or if she cared. Even if she did, she knows no one will punish her for it.

David and Abigail “mourn”

David, I’m sure, will respond with appropriate and pious respect for the dead. I’m kidding, of course.

When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the LORD who has judged the case of Nabal’s insult to me, and has kept back his servant from evil; the LORD has returned the evildoing of Nabal upon his own head.”

1Sa 25:39a NRS

Well, I can’t blame him too much for that. He had withheld himself from exacting revenge by his own hand, because Abigail urged him to trust the LORD. He trusted, and the LORD both avenged him and kept him from evil. David never received any blessing without thanking the LORD. It probably also served as an object lesson in how to deal with Saul. Saul stood between him and the throne and sought his life, but the LORD would take care of it when the time was right.

And now, Abigail is single, and David made a promise to remember her (v. 31).

Then David sent and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife. When David’s servants came to Abigail at Carmel, they said to her, “David has sent us to you to take you to him as his wife.”

1Sa 25:39b-40

Is that too soon? Abigail is a newly grieving widow. Common decorum demands she must wait an appropriate amount of time before she can accept David’s proposal. Surely, she is going to send a message back to David that though she would love to marry him, it is too soon. She respectfully asks if he would be so kind to give her time to finish her period of mourning first. You know I’m kidding, right?

She rose and bowed down, with her face to the ground, and said, “Your servant is a slave to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.”

 Abigail got up hurriedly and rode away on a donkey; her five maids attended her. She went after the messengers of David and became his wife.

1Sa 25:41-42 NRS

Got that one wrong too. I don’t begrudge them their happiness, but I keep thinking they should feel just a little bad for Nabal. Yes, he was a fool, mean and surly, so ill-natured that no one could speak to him. He could not have been easy for Abigail to live with all those years. It was probably an arranged marriage, so she had no choice. And David’s only dealings with him were not pleasant (to say the least). But still, you shouldn’t celebrate when someone dies, should you?

Okay, I’m not exactly shedding tears for him either. Maybe I’m thinking I should have more sympathy for him. It’s hard to feel bad for him, even though I think I should. After all, when his parents named him “Fool,” how could you expect him to turn out to be anything but?

In spite of that, both of them have reason to be excited. She gets to marry the future king of Israel (not to mention a man who can be reasoned with, for a change), and he gets to marry a clever and beautiful woman. After their encounter, how could he not be in love with her? It looks like it could be the beginning of a great love story. Unfortunately, royalty and romance don’t go together in the ancient world. Like most kings, he will have more than one wife. In fact, it begins in the very next verse.

David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel; both of them became his wives.

1Sa 25:43 NRS

David and Abigail probably had a great honeymoon before he married Ahinoam of Jezreel. In Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, one thing I think she got right is despite David having multiple wives, Abigail remained a favored wife and one of his most trusted advisors until she died. Perhaps she was even a maternal figure for him, sort of like Camilla to Prince Charles. It’s not quite “happily ever after” as we think of it. But if you were a king, or married to a king, it was the most you could hope for.

There is one more matter to complicate this story. David was married to Saul’s daughter, Michal. In David’s absence, Saul has given her to another man (v. 44). Right now, David is probably not thinking about that. But when David takes the throne, what to do about Michal will be an issue he can’t ignore. Just a little bit of foreshadowing to end the chapter.

Conclusion

As a writer, what I am really impressed with is how richly human these characters are. David and Abigail are exceptionally gifted in different ways, David as a warrior and leader, Abigail as a negotiator and businesswoman. Not to mention, she doesn’t get enough credit for her prophetic gifts. It’s easy to see how their abilities will complement each other. She will make David a wiser and more just king. Yet both of them show they can be frustrated. David had been running from Saul for years. When Nabal compared him to a fugitive slave, all his frustration boiled over.

As for Abigail, I think all those years of cleaning up Nabal’s messes boiled over. We’re not told exactly what she said to Nabal, but it scared him enough that it was the last thing he heard. I bet she let him know exactly how close his stinginess came to getting him killed. She might have even told him next time he angers a powerful man like David, she will just let him reap what he sowed.

Nabal was not only a fool. He was the worst kind of villain to ancient Israelites. A rich man who gained all his wealth from the efforts of others (Abigail, his shepherds and servants, David, and probably more), yet acted as if he had earned it all. A man of obscene wealth who kept it all for himself. A man who could feast like a king, let others around him go hungry, and sleep like a baby. A man who acted as if basic hospitality would drive him to poverty when he really had more than enough for everyone. Even so, his parents named him “Fool.” We should think about what it must have been like growing up with everyone calling him “Fool.”

Hopefully, I have made the case that the way we see David in this episode is not how he normally operated. Did you think David and his 600 men were the only outlaws riding around? They weren’t. If they were, I would believe the theory was most likely true. But since there were other gangs of outlaws, it served David and his men better in the long run to protect people from bandits than to act like bandits themselves. Did you think when he told Nabal nothing was missing from his flocks while he and his men were around, he meant, “You owe us because we didn’t take anything”? No, he meant nothing was missing because they protected Nabal’s property from bandits.

I can only conclude this idea of him operating a protection racket came from not understanding the historical background David and these other characters lived in. This is what happens when you read the Bible out of your own experience rather than its original context. Context includes historical and cultural background. It includes translating from the original languages. Our own context may suggest David was running a protection racket. The original context says he was more like an informal police force protecting landowners and ordinary folk from theft and harm. David and Abigail were already interesting characters. Getting to know them in the text and the context has made them ten times as interesting to me as before.

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