One way I like to combine my love of Bible study and writing is with character studies of fascinating Biblical figures. David is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible. One particular story from 1 Samuel 25 tells us a lot about him and a woman who eventually became his wife. I am reposting it because it seems like a good time to bring it back. This is the first of a two-part series.
When you hear David and _______, what do you fill in the blank with? Or rather, who do you fill in the blank with? Probably David and Goliath, perhaps David’s most glorious moment. Maybe you think David and Bathsheba, definitely not David’s most glorious moment. Have you heard of David and Nabal?
The story of David’s dealings with Nabal (1 Samuel 25) is one of the most controversial episodes from David’s time before he became king. Many commentators read it this way: David asks a rich man named Nabal for some food for his men, so they can have a feast. When Nabal refuses and insults him, David totally overreacts and almost commits a mass murder. He tells his men to kill every male of Nabal’s household. Only the intervention of Nabal’s wife, Abigail, prevents him from slaughtering many innocents.
This is true for the most part. However, many people read this as David’s M.O. He would first ask for what he needed. If they gave it to him, no harm would follow. If they did not give it to him willingly, he and his men would ride roughshod over everyone, kill all the males, and take everything they could carry. Among those who present that view are Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord. This is an excellent work of Biblical Fiction concerning David, written from the perspective of Nathan, David’s court prophet and close adviser.
In The Secret Chord, while David is on the run from Saul, he gathers together a band of men, in part for his protection, and in part because leading warriors is something he’s good at. If you have an army, one of the most urgent and constant questions is how are you going to feed them? According to Brooks, he does to everyone what he does to Nabal: He asks and waits. If they give him the food he needs, he leaves them in peace. If not, he kills all the males of the household. The reason is more than just revenge. He wants to send a message to all he will encounter, “Give us what we want, or there will be no mercy.”
Was this David’s M.O.?
This was an old tactic among armies in the ancient world. Wholesale slaughter of one city creates terror in the surrounding areas. The next city might not even resist if they know how dire the consequences will be. And even if they do, a terrified enemy is much easier to defeat. His men, David tells Nathan, are his first responsibility. He will do “whatever is necessary” to feed them and care for them.
In many ways, Brooks did a wonderful job of fleshing out David’s story. However, when it comes to the question of whether or not this is how David normally operated, I have a different take on it. This is the only text where we see David behave this way, so let’s take a look at it.
Nabal the “Fool”
There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean; he was a Calebite.(1 Sam 25:2-3 NRS)
Nabal means “fool” in Hebrew (v. 25). You have to wonder what kind of parents would name their son “Fool.” It also says he was a Calebite. It’s hard to know whether this was a significant detail or not. Every culture has its racial and ethnic stereotypes. Were they known for being surly and mean? (Cf. 30:14; Jos 14:13; 15:13). Whether or not he is typical of Calebites, we will see in this story he lives up to the name his parents had given him.
David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep.1 Sam 25:4
This is an important detail. Shearing the sheep for sheepherders and goatherders was like the harvest for farmers. This is when they get paid for the work they’ve done. They have plenty, they will usually celebrate with a feast, so this is when they are normally most generous. But, as we’ve been told, Nabal was surly and mean.
A Peaceful Delegation
So David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name.
“Thus you shall salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.'”1 Sam 25:5-8
Look at verse seven for a minute: …we did [your shepherds] no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Why do people think this is referring to some mafia-style protection racket? I suppose if you have Godfather movies on the brain, this might sound like a veiled threat. But the rest of the chapter makes it clear: They missed nothing, does not mean “We didn’t take anything, so you owe us.” It means David and his men protected them from bandits, who would have taken anything they wanted by force.
Let’s pause for a minute and notice a few things:
- David did not approach Nabal with all 600 of his men brandishing swords, which would clearly have been a request “they could not refuse.” He sent a delegation of ten. That doesn’t sound like he’s looking for wholesale slaughter.
- His greeting and request could not have been more polite, not like common bandits would ask.
- He asks at a time when Nabal has plenty, so it will not place any hardship on him.
- He reminded Nabal of the protection he had given his men and flocks before this. Since Nabal has reaped the benefits of David’s protection, was it unreasonable to ask him for help when he needed something?
- The bandits who roamed the land, looking for easy plunder, would not have been so polite. They were the reason why Nabal’s sheep and goat herders appreciated David’s protection.
- He asked on a feast day, when it was tradition to share your bounty with those in need.
On a Feast Day
Why does David mention they have come on a feast day? In Hebrew, the phrase is yom tob, literally, “a good day.” However, the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB) says yom tob sometimes refers to a “festal day,” or a feast (cf. Est 8:17; 9:19, 22; Zec 8:19).
Here’s an example from the Book of Nehemiah. On the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the priest, Ezra, reads the entire copy of the Torah to the people, and they have interpreters to help people understand. The people weep, probably because they know they have disobeyed it. But Ezra is quick to tell this festival is not about putting a guilt trip on them. It’s a time to celebrate and thank God for all the ways God has blessed us.
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”Neh 8:10
A festal day, a day that is holy to our LORD, is a day for celebration. It’s a day to enjoy your bounty and share it with those for whom nothing is prepared. The Law of Moses even told them to collect a tithe for that purpose.
Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.Deu 14:28-29
And again in Deuteronomy,
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments:Deu 26:12-13 NRS
Part of the purpose of the tithes was to make sure everyone would have something to eat on the religious holidays, or as is said in our passage, a feast day. Those who had an abundance were supposed to share with the poor and needy on the feast days. David and his men were needy. Try feeding 600 men, plus their wives and children, in the middle of a wilderness if you don’t believe me.
This is said today as part of the Passover Seder:
“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat: Whoever is in need, let him come and celebrate the Pesach”.(Haggadah)
I know this comes from a time long after David. But like most traditions in the Haggadah, they were well known among the Jews and Israelites long before they were written down. I’m not saying this was part of the Passover Seder in David’s time, but the spirit of it was in their culture. You see it in the tithes they collected for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows. They should never go hungry but especially on a festal day. David’s request for some food, so he and his men could celebrate a feast, just like Nabal (who was enjoying a feast fit for a king, v. 36), was consistent with the spirit of the Law of Moses regarding feasts. That’s why he makes a point of saying it’s a feast day.
The Fool Responds
So David’s men make the request and wait. In vv. 10-11, we get Nabal’s response.
But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”(1Sa 25:10-11 NRS)
Nabal says, “Who is David?” as if he were a nobody. He likens David to a fugitive slave – because he ran from Saul. He compared David to an outlaw, the very kind of people David and his men protected Nabal’s flocks and herders from.
He said David and his men “Come from I do not know where.” He called them aliens. They really weren’t, but calling them this made him even more culpable. What does the law in Deuteronomy 26:13 say again? “Then you shall say before the LORD your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to…the resident aliens.’” If they are resident aliens, as he said, the Torah specifically requires him to share his abundance with David and his men, even if they had not protected him all year.
For a guy who claims not to know David, he seems to know exactly what insults will wound him the most.
Of course, David is furious. He orders 400 of his men to come with him while 200 stay with the baggage. Why? They need to protect their own stuff from bandits (see ch. 30).
Quick, Tell Abigail
The 400 who came with David were out for blood. Fortunately for Nabal’s household, one servant told Abigail.
But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.(1Sa 25:14-16 NRS)
One of Nabal’s herders says he had felt safe because of David’s protection. Back in verse seven, David’s envoys told Nabal, “Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel.” Was this as a description of David’s mafia-style “protection” business? “You got some nice sheep and goats here. Would be a shame if something happened to them.”
I might be open to that kind of interpretation if it weren’t for two factors:
- David and his merry band of outlaws were not the only armed nomads in the area. If they had been, that interpretation would be likely. However, the land of Israel was notorious for bandits. It was a great territory to operate if you were a criminal. Because of the many caves, you and your gang could hide from the authorities, if they ever happened to show up (which many times they did not).
- The eyewitness report of the young man who tended Nabal’s flocks. He said they were very good to us…we suffered no harm…we never missed anything…as long as they were with us. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, so no bandits could slip past them and steal from us. Does that sound even close to what you would say about mafia henchmen coming to collect their “rent”?
Now let’s hear the rest of his testimony.
Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”1Sa 25:17
See? You were gonna skip that, weren’t you? How did he know evil has been decided against our master and against all his house? Because that’s how David operated.
No, that’s how bandits operated. How did he know David was planning evil against them? Because he saw his master take good from David and reward him with evil (v. 21). He knew David and his men were skilled warriors. He heard the insults Nabal hurled at him, and yes, David had his pride. He could not let such insults go unpunished. Any fool would have known that. That is, any fool except Nabal, a man so ill-natured that no one can speak to him. I bet the young man tried, but it was like trying to reason with a brick wall.
I imagine he had a lot of experiences like this: His master acting like an ass, and no one could tell him to shut up. He had learned where to go when his master was mean and surly. We’ve already been told Abigail, unlike her husband, was smart (v. 3). She knew what to do. Whenever you see a fool like him somehow rich, it has to be one of two reasons: 1) he inherited it; or 2) he has a clever wife who covers for his idiocy.
She gathered together enough for a feast for David and his men, loaded it on donkeys, and sent them ahead of her. She did not tell her husband, of course (vv. 18-19). Duh! We already know she’s no idiot.
Evil Is Coming
Next, we find out exactly what evil David has planned against Nabal and all his house.
Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good. God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”1Sa 25:21-22
Most modern translations clean up the language. However, if we go back to a time before such sensibilities about cursing in a holy book, this is how the King James Version renders that last verse.
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.1Sa 25:22 KJV
In other words, any male—man or child—who is old enough to stand up to urinate, is good as dead. And now we are back to the question, was this David’s normal way of supporting himself and his men while he was on the run from Saul? So far we’ve seen not only David but Nabal’s own servant say he had been protecting Nabal’s men and flocks, so no. This was not his M.O. The next questions I think need to be answered are,
- What was he doing instead?
- Why did he change his mind here?
What Was He Doing Instead?
This is my take. I haven’t seen anyone else say this. But if David was not taking what he wanted by brute force, how did he support himself and his men? I think the answer is in what he had done for Nabal up until this point. He protected honest farmers, herders, and villagers from outlaws, and in return they gave him and his men the food they needed. Ever heard of Barzillai? Probably not. We don’t meet him until the second book of Samuel, but his history with David went back to these same days before he became king.
Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man.(2Sa 19:32 NRS)
He had provided the king with food. David protected Barzillai, and Barzillai fed David. I don’t think he was the only one. There were humane reasons for it, and practical reasons on both sides. Men like Barzillai needed protection from bandits, who will kill anyone who stands in their way and take everything. David and his men needed food, so you gave them what they needed, and they would protect you from the bandits. If you hired guards, you would have to feed and pay them anyway, so this was not unreasonable.
For David, it helped him keep practicing his leadership and military skills. It also built support for him among the people. Saul either could not or would not protect them from outlaws. David did, and they would remember that when he became king.
In his King Arthur trilogy, Bernard Cornwell wrote the story of Arthur from the perspective of Arthur’s friend, Derfel. In the first volume, The Winter King, one of my favorite scenes is where Arthur explains to Derfel why they can’t just rush into villages and slaughter and plunder anytime they have a disagreement with the people.
It’s easy for us, he tells Derfel, to come in and take whatever we want and kill whoever we want. We have swords, shields, armor, and horses. They don’t. We are trained to fight. They aren’t. But there’s an unspoken agreement between us. We fight to protect them, because they can’t fight for themselves. In return, they grow the food that feeds us, produce the clothing we wear, and forge the armor and weapons we use to fight. As long as they know we are on their side, we don’t have to take what we need. They’ll either give it or sell it to us.
I think that is the kind of ethic David was trying to live by, and that he was trying to teach his men to live by. Which brings us to the second question.
Why Did He Change?
This is not an apology for David. I am not interested in defending the indefensible. I am, however, interested in understanding his state of mind at the moment. Writers need to understand their characters’ motivations, whether they agree with them or not. In David’s case, I think he felt pressure in a number of ways to behave like a bandit and outlaw. He resisted successfully for a while, but this was the moment when many factors came together at once and pushed him over the edge. Those factors were:
- The death of Samuel (1 Sam 25:1).
- It was a rough world.
- A “Biblical” concept of justice
- His men wanted him to do this
- Building frustration over having to hide like a criminal
- Insults that touched his own insecurities
Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.
The Death of Samuel
Just before this story begins, we are told,
Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran.1Sa 25:1
Anyone can feel lost after the death of a mentor. Samuel was the one who started David on his journey that had taken him from being a shepherd to being commander of the king’s armies. Samuel had been with the people when they demanded a king. Against his better judgment, he accepted their pleas and anointed Saul. But after an act of disobedience, Samuel told Saul the LORD had rejected him as king. Since kings ruled for life, he could not remove Saul from the throne. That didn’t stop Samuel from calling David out of the fields and anointing him as king, even though Saul was still alive.
After defeating Goliath, David caught the attention of Saul, who brought him into the palace. He made David an officer in the army, where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a commander. Saul probably did not know Samuel had anointed David (they would keep that a secret for obvious reasons), but he still saw David as a threat. His jealousy over David’s rising popularity led him to put a price on David’s head, which was why David was hiding out in the wilderness.
That is a greatly oversimplified summary of how David got into the situation we see him now. All of that was to say Samuel’s death had to have affected him. All of Israel mourned for Samuel, and David probably mourned him more than most. The man who anointed him king was now dead. He had been on the run from Saul for years at this point. How does that make sense if the LORD had chosen him to be king? Samuel’s death probably left him with some unresolved questions.
It Was a Rough World
We’ve already noted bandits roamed throughout the countryside. You could barely travel from one city to another without running into them. The men David would have attracted could easily have fallen in with one of these gangs. They knew the ways bandits and outlaws operated. They accepted David’s leadership, but he had to be strong to keep their respect.
He told his men they would kill “every male of all that belongs to him,” but he did not invent that expression. It was already well known, both as a saying and as a tactic, among the outlaws and armies. I’m not saying he was right. I’m saying it was a rough world, and people sometimes sink to the lowest level of their world when they are under pressure.
David’s reasoning was, “We protected all that belongs to him. Now, we will kill all that belongs to him.” We wouldn’t call that justice, to kill the innocent of an entire household because one man returned evil for good. But there are parts of the Bible that show for people of that time, that kind of logic partially defined justice for the Israelites. For example, here’s an early pronouncement against men who abuse widows and orphans.
You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.(Exo 22:22-24 NRS)
If you abuse any widow or orphan, I will kill you. Then your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. It is the same kind of logic David used to justify what he was about to do. Over time, that attitude would change. In the later prophets, like Jeremiah, you see the people, and God, coming around to an idea that people should pay for their own sins, not for their masters’ or their parents’. To Israelites of that time, however, there was justice in what David was planning.
His Men Wanted It
This is another example of what a rough world it was. He was leading rough men. They respected him, but his hold on them was tenuous (1 Sa 30:1-6). I’m sure they were watching to see if David was strong enough to do what was “necessary” when someone tried to take advantage of David’s decency.
When David announced his plan, did any of his men say, “Wait a minute, David. Don’t you think that’s a little extreme? Of course we’re gonna kill Nabal, but come on now. We know the young men who watched his flocks. They’re good people”? No. I bet they were excited, like, “This is what we’ve been waiting for! Every man, strap on his sword!” At a time when David needed a voice of reason, there were none.
Rising Frustration That Came to a Head
David was supposed to be king. God sent Samuel years ago to anoint him. Why was he still having to hide out in the wilderness? In most nations, when one man believed the gods have made him king, he claimed it by killing the current occupant of the throne. David could not do that, and he could not send someone else to do it. His conscience would not allow him to lift his hand against the LORD’s anointed (1 Sa 24:5-6). Yes, the LORD had rejected Saul as king. That was why Samuel anointed David to take his place. But as far as David was concerned, once God anointed someone, that anointing never left. Even though Saul was trying to kill him, David could not defend himself like he would against any other enemy. So basically, he was waiting for Saul to die by God’s hand. Today, we would call it natural causes.
Now Samuel was dead. Maybe some questions he had been carrying in his heart became more urgent. If God has anointed me king of Israel, why must I live like a fugitive? Why would God anoint me before I could take the throne? Maybe Saul found out. Of course. That is the reason why Saul thinks I want to kill him. And why he will never believe I mean him no harm. There is nothing I can do to change that, so why did God put me in this position? How long will I have to wait before God fulfills his promise to me?
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?(Psa 13:1-2 NRS)
Pressure was building inside him, and it only took one fool to say the wrong things to make that volcano blow.
Insults that Touched His Own Insecurities
I mentioned before that Nabal knew exactly what insults would wound David the deepest. He compared David to a fugitive slave, because he was hiding from his master, Saul. That wasn’t true, of course. Even though God had made him a rival to Saul’s throne, he always tried to do right by Saul. He couldn’t bring himself to kill Saul, even when God gave him into his hands (ch. 24). But this could be interpreted in a bad way. He was living like a fugitive and an outlaw, despite his best intentions. It was a sore point for David, a scab no wise person would pick at. But what do you expect from a man whose name means “Fool”?
Nabal said, “Who is David?”
David thought, “Who am I? I’m the one who’s been protecting everything that belongs to you, your young men, and your flocks.”
Nabal said, “Who is the son of Jesse?”
David thought, “Oh, so he insulted my father too?”
Nabal said, “Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”
David thought, “The reason you have this abundance of bread and water and meat is because my men and I have been protecting you. Without us, bandits would have taken all of it. And after all that, you talk as if I don’t even have a right to be here in the whole territory of Maon? I was anointed king of Israel. This whole nation is mine. I’ll show you who has a right to be here, and who doesn’t!”
This was a crossroads for David. If he had gone through with his plan, I don’t think it would have stopped with Nabal. I think it would have changed his character forever. The irony would have been he would have become exactly what Nabal accused him of. But remember, Abigail was already working behind the scenes to clean up her idiot husband’s mess—again (I guarantee this was not the first time she had had to do just that). What she did to assuage David’s anger was positively brilliant. I will pick up with that in the second part of this character study.