As a writer and a Bible Geek, I get frustrated by verses like this:
Now the rest of the acts of Rehoboam, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?
(1Ki 14:29 NRSV)
The author says this as if we could just go down to the local library to check this out, or search for The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah online. Apparently, he never envisioned a time when such a book would not be available to his readers.
Back in 1993, I went on an archeological dig organized by professors from Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Connecticut. (Good thing it wasn’t for basketball). The topic of theoretical sources like “Q” (which scholars say was a common source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) came up. Some students wondered why scholars would make up these sources if we don’t have any manuscripts of them. One professor pointed out about two-thirds of all ancient books we know of, we have no manuscripts for. We only know they existed because they are mentioned in manuscripts of books we do have, as in the example I gave above. If we had copies of them, who knows what more books we would learn about?
Among the books mentioned in the Bible that we have no copies of today are
The Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14)
The Book of Samuel the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
The Book of Nathan the Prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29)
The Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
The Records of the Prophet Shemaiah (2 Chronicles 12:15)
The Book of Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 12:15)
The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29)
And I have to include here Solomon was said to have written more than a thousand songs (1 Kings 4:32), yet only two are preserved in the book of Psalms (72 and 127), and of course the canonical Song of Solomon. The imagination boggles at the information lost because the Biblical authors assumed these sources would be preserved forever.
The Book of Jashar
One more of these is the Book of Jashar (also spelled Jasher). In Hebrew it translates as “The Book of the Upright” or “the Book of the Just Man.” It is mentioned in Joshua and 2 Samuel.
On the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the LORD; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.
(Jos 10:12-13 NRSV)
This is one of the most famous stories in the Bible, God making the sun stand still because Joshua prayed for it. Maybe you think this did not really happen. If so, I don’t blame you. But what I’m interested in is the mention of a book that we no longer have any copies of.
Then it is mentioned in reference to “The Song of the Bow,” which David likely composed, but again, we have no manuscripts.
[David] ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.
(2Sa 1:18 NRSV)
So imagine my excitement when I found out there is a copy of something called “The Book of Jasher” today. Turns out it is not the same book as mentioned in the Old Testament. It is an eighteenth-century forgery that alleges to be a translation of the “lost” Book of Jasher by Alcuin, an eighth-century English scholar.
Another book by this same name, called by many “Pseudo-Jasher,” while written in Hebrew, is also not the “Book of Jasher” mentioned in Scripture. It is a book of Jewish legends from the creation to the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, but scholars hold that it did not exist before A.D. 1625. In addition, there are several other theological works by Jewish rabbis and scholars called “Sefer ha Yashar,” but none of these claim to be the original Book of Jasher.
So potentially, there were at least three or four copies of the Book of Jashar that turned out to be fake. But just out of curiosity, I got a copy of one of these on Kindle. It presented some intriguing possibilities for biblical fiction, as I had hoped.
Making sense of Abraham’s first meeting with God
For example, Abraham’s first encounter with God is in Genesis 12. God just appears to Abraham and tells him to leave his father’s house and country and go to a land “that I will show you” (Gen 12:1-3), and he does it. I always wondered how Abraham recognized the God called Yahweh or El Shaddai when the only gods he had been exposed to were the gods of Ur and Harran. This version of the book of Jasher presents an interesting answer, even if it is speculation.
Like his neighbors, his father had idols of Babylonian gods. It was customary to offer food to these idols. In this version of The Book of Jashar, Abraham wanted to test the idols of his household. He prepared some savory meat (like Esau), placed it before them, and invited them to eat. Nothing happened. He invited them again. Don’t they smell that enticing aroma coming from the meat? Don’t they want to taste it?
He sat for hours, waiting for them to eat this delicious food he had prepared for them. They didn’t eat. They didn’t answer him when he asked why they didn’t want to eat it. And then it dawned on him. These idols have no power of their own. These gods have no power of their own. So he smashed the idols to pieces and waited to see if the gods would kill him. No harm came to him. He turned his back on the gods of his people, and that set the stage for Yahweh to introduce himself.
Helpful for biblical fiction. Sort of.
If I were to write a novel based on Abraham, that would present a believable scenario for how Abraham came to know the God he called Yahweh. There are many other examples like this that present intriguing possibilities for filling in some of the gaps in the Biblical narratives. The best stories were those associated with Abraham and his family.
But after Abraham, especially when it gets to the sons of Jacob, it goes too much into flights of fancy to be at all believable. For example, the sons of Jacob over and over again face armies in tens of thousands with one or two hundred and utterly destroy them. Two hundred shepherds obliterate armies of thirty, forty, or fifty thousand, even those in walled cities, which one man tears down with his bare hands? Not just once but several times? Come on!
“But it’s fiction,” you say.
Do you know the difference between fiction and real life? Fiction has to make sense. In Egypt, 150 Israelites kill 400,000 of Pharaoh’s army? That doesn’t make sense, because then, how could the Egyptians possibly have enslaved them? The book tries to explain it by saying they tricked the Israelites into making bricks in order to weaken them first. Then they enslaved them. But if 150 can kill 400,000 trained soldiers of the most powerful empire of the time, there is no way making bricks is going to weaken them enough to enslave them. There is no labor at all that could weaken them.
So it can be a source for Biblical fiction. But as with everything, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I originally published this on a different blog. But it struck me this is a perfect story to say Mother’s Day, to my mom and mothers everywhere.
If you remember your wedding day, how would you have felt if your wedding planner came to you during the reception and said, “We’ve run out of food and not all the guests have been served”? I suppose you would have panicked for a moment and then expected the wedding planner to fix it. Find some food. I don’t care where you get it. Just get it here now. You would not have expected any of the guests to get it for you.
When Jesus and Mary are at a wedding in Cana (see John 2:1-12), Mary hears they have run out of wine. She probably felt their embarrassment, especially if they were friends of hers. In Galilee in the first century, “those invited might be expected to contribute provisions such as wine” (HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible, John 2.1 note). So it was not necessarily unusual for her to ask her son to help.
Interesting fact about Jewish weddings in the first century: Receptions lasted a full week. During this time, the bride and the bridegroom had their honeymoon in their new home. The wedding guests celebrated outside.
Jesus appears unconcerned at first.
“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
(Joh 2:4 NRS)
I know mothers are going to ask, why did he call her “Woman,” instead of Mother or Mom? That probably was not disrespectful in that culture (compare 19:26; 20:15). But the next line he says indicates her request is about more than wine. In other words, “This is not the time to reveal myself as the Messiah and Son of God.”
But his mother tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Joh 2:5 NRS)
I imagine at this point, she gave him The Mother’s Look. You know what I’m talking about. Your mother wants you to do something, and she gives you that look that tells you there is no arguing with her about this. That sets the scene for Jesus’ first miracle–or sign as John prefers to call it–turning water into wine. She knows something about her son, something he does not want to reveal–at least, not yet. He does not think it is the right time to show his miracle working power. His hour has not yet come. Really Mom? You think this is how I should reveal to the world I am the Son of God? But he does it anyway.
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.
(Joh 2:6 NRS)
So the servants need to get wine fast. They are waiting for Jesus to tell them what to do. He sees six large stone water jars, and as a Jew, he would know these are used to hold water for purification rites. He says to fill them with water. What were the servants thinking? How is purifying ourselves going to help us get wine?
But Mary is there, and maybe she reminds them. “I said, do whatever he tells you!”
They follow his directions, filling the jars to the brim. They draw some out. At what point did the water change to wine? When it was in the jars or when they drew some out (in a pitcher I imagine)? When the chief steward tasted it? Who knows. And I have to wonder, as important as washing for purification rituals was for Jews, how could these jars have been empty?
At any rate, this water that would normally be used to wash people and objects for ritual purification has turned into wine, and the social crisis is solved. With the capacity of each jar, they would have had 120-180 gallons of wine, presumably enough to last the entire reception.
It’s a strange story, so I feel more compelled than usual to ask,
What can we learn from this?
The purification vessels are empty then filled with water, which allows them to fulfill their original purpose. Jesus repurposes them when he turns the water into wine. One commentator says,
The pots contain only water. Soon Jesus will fill them with eschatological wine, a rich symbol in the biblical tradition inferring prosperity, abundance, good times; the wine will overflow the water pots. Their true purpose will be fulfilled. Changing the pots of water into pots flowing over with good wine becomes a metaphor for Jesus’ ministry as he brings vitality to the ancient religion.
You can be spiritual and still join others in celebration. Two of the fruits of the spirit are love and joy. One way to show love is to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. A wedding feast is a time for rejoicing with those who rejoice, and any religion should make room for joy when it is appropriate.
It is okay to pray for “unimportant” things. I hear people all the time say, “Don’t pray for that. God has more important things to do.” Did Jesus have more important things to do than keep the party going? Yes, and he would go on to do them. But for now, he is there, and they need wine. Someone asks for his help, and he answers.
Any religion should make room for “Cana Grace.” Cana Grace? This is a new term for me, but one commentator explains it this way.
…it is worth a miracle because it manifests the glory of God—the very God who wants even now for the community of faith to be a celebration of people. Brothers and sisters in Christ eating on the back porch and laughing until the sun goes down; a new members’ dinner at someone’s home that ends with folks giving thanks to God for the welcome they have received at church—it is called Cana Grace. Give thanks for everyone in your church and in your life who has the knack for throwing a party. What a way to begin a ministry!
So what if there were much bigger problems in the world. Yes, it was almost incredibly embarrassing for the hosts, but social embarrassment is not the end of the world. But if we’re honest, it sure feels like the end of the world. Jesus saved the day by bringing “Cana Grace” when his friends needed it. It was not the way he planned to launch his ministry, which strangely makes it feel even more appropriate. And the reason is one we can all relate to. He had a very hard time saying no to his mother.
Did you know the joy of the kingdom of God/Heaven is often compared to a wedding or wedding feast? Just a few examples:
Hos 2.16, 19-20
Mat 22.1-14; 25.1-13
Rev 19.7-9; 21.2-4
 Cana was a small town in the middle of Galilee, about 10 miles north of Nazareth.
 Eschatological or eschatology relates to the end times. God’s future action to end this world and inaugurate a new one is a common theme in the Bible. What will this new world be like? That is what eschatology is concerned with.
 Bridges, Linda McKinnish. Exegetical perspective. Cited in January 17, 2016: Abundant life: Focus on John 2:1-11. Feasting on the word curriculum.
 Brearly, Robert M. Pastoral perspective. Cited in January 17, 2016: Abundant life: Focus on John 2:1-11. Feasting on the word curriculum.
Sorry this is a little late, but we had a little incident in our home.
I woke up on Palm Sunday. We weren’t going to church, because of the Coronavirus restrictions. But it was Palm Sunday. My wife and I decided to take advantage of the fact that many services are available online now, especially in response to Coronavirus. Particularly, my sister–a Presbyterian minister–had started filming her services at home to broadcast on Facebook and YouTube. My wife gathered some palm leaves, tied a ribbon around them, and taped them to the door.
She made blueberry pancakes, and I made scrambled eggs. We were looking forward to a pleasant breakfast and my sister leading worship right in our home. While I was getting my plate together, my wife called out from the dining room. It almost sounded like the way she screamed when she saw a mouse, but there was something different about it. I figured it must be a critter of some kind.
She rushed back to the kitchen. I asked what it was, but she couldn’t even tell me. I went to see, and there in the middle of our dining room floor was a snake. Not a big one, it was only a little more than a foot long. But still, a snake. In our home. That cannot stand.
Perhaps the truest verse in the Bible is when God told the serpent there would always be enmity between women and snakes (Gen 3:15). She hates snakes, and I wasn’t thrilled about it either.
It started crawling for the china cabinet. I stepped on it before it got there. The front half was under the cabinet, so I figured that would block it from making a quick strike on my foot. But I was only wearing sandals. Maybe its head would come back out. So I lifted my foot, and it went under the china cabinet. Great! Now how are we going to get it out? Needless to say, Palm Sunday and worship were forgotten at that point.
You Will Trample the Serpent Under Foot?
Why didn’t I just keep my foot on the snake? I had stopped it from going under the china cabinet. And the Bible says, “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot” (Psa 91:12).
I had it under my foot, just like the Bible says. Should I grab it at the bottom half and pull it out? I shouldn’t have been afraid to do it. After all, the Bible says, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mar 16:17-18 NRS).
So I could just grab that snake and not worry about whether it was poisonous, and then take it deep into the woods outside my home and release it. That’s supposed to be one of the signs of a believer. While I had it under my foot, why didn’t I grab it? For the same reason I don’t drink cyanide, strychnine, or diesel fuel, even though this verse says it won’t hurt me. Folks, hear me when I say this. NOT EVERYTHING IN THE BIBLE IS SUPPOSED TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY.
So no, I’m not going to grab that snake with my bare hands because of a couple of Bible verses taken out of context. The point of Psalm 91 is not for you to go to the local zoo, climb into the lion’s cage, and jump on its back and say, “Look, I can trample a lion underfoot, because I believe in Jesus Christ.” Many Christians in the first century found that was not meant literally, in case you’ve forgotten.
So we were trying to figure out how to get him out from under there, and how to trap him once he did. While I kept an eye on the snake to be sure he didn’t leave and crawl under something else, my wife brought a Hello Fresh box, a rake, a paint roller, a broom and dustpan, a yardstick, and a pillow case for various ideas we had. I tried calling local pest removal services, but they were closed. Whether because of Coronavirus or that it was Sunday, I don’t know. Finally, I went to the best how-to source on the web, YouTube, and found this from a Tampa area pest control expert.
Glue traps. That was his advice. My wife went to the dollar store to get some.
Meanwhile, I wondered if we might need to move the china cabinet to force him out, so I removed everything from the top section. We never moved it. Instead, we put some glue traps under it. But how do we force the snake onto the trap? My wife fashioned a coat hanger and prodded it into the corner, where I had set a trap. Then its tail showed out the back. I folded another glue trap over its tail to make sure I had it. It was hard to pull out, because the front half was indeed stuck to a glue trap.
I thought about killing it, but the guy in the video reminded me a lot of snakes kill and eat other pests, like mice and rats. It didn’t look like any of the poisonous varieties of snakes in this area, so I was okay with letting it go. He said you could free it from the trap with vegetable oil. I tried the tail first (after going outside, of course). The snake worked its tail free, so one trap down. I took it deep into the woods and poured oil over it. Within a few minutes, he worked himself free and crawled away. Later, I found out it was a rat snake, so I’m glad I let him go.
Lessons for Coronavirus
I had never had to remove a snake from my house before. I didn’t know what to do, so how did I do it? By quoting Bible verses, or naming and claiming promises from the Bible? Truth is, I did quote this verse in my mind.
“You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.”
But you already said not to take that verse literally, so what good was that supposed to do?
I said don’t take it literally. I didn’t say don’t meditate on it. I meditated on that verse the whole time I was trying to figure out what to do, the whole time I pulled the snake out and took it outside, and while I was pouring oil over it to release it. I wasn’t treating it as a promise that God was somehow obligated to put a force field around me and my wife, so the snake couldn’t touch us. “Come on, honey. We can just wait for it to come back out, and I’ll grab it then. Here’s two verses that say snakes can’t hurt us, because we’re believers. Don’t you believe the Bible?” How do you think that would have gone over?
I still put on whatever protective equipment I could: socks, shoes, long pants, and gloves. I didn’t expect that quoting that verse meant the snake couldn’t bite me. I meditated on it for one reason only: To keep myself calm through the process.
I listened to an expert, I did what the expert said, and it worked. I didn’t use the scripture as a substitute for expert advice, only as something to meditate on so I could stay calm. The author of this Psalm did not mean for it to be taken literally. It would help all of us to remember Psalms were originally sung. Songs and poetry most of the time are not meant to be taken literally. They are meant to move us emotionally. Emotions were running high with a snake in our house. This song was made for moments like this. It was meant to help you stay calm and trust God when you have to do something that scares you. And I can tell you in that way, it worked for me.
So with Coronavirus, just as with snakes, listen to the experts and follow their advice.
What Time I Am Afraid, I Will Trust in Thee
Psalm 91 is one of the most popular scriptures for promoting peace of mind in stormy circumstances, and with good reason. It is not a license to abandon common sense. As I heard a preacher today talking about his reasons for closing the church and moving services online, “Faith works best when it’s combined with common sense.” So with the understanding that this is not a “promise” that “obligates” God to protect you from Coronavirus by becoming your invisible hazmat suit, I invite you to meditate on these scriptures from Psalm 91 that I am meditating on for comfort and peace in the storm.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
(Psa 91:1-2 NRS)
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge;
(Psa 91:3-4 NRS)
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
(Psa 91:5-6 NRS)
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
(Psa 91:7 NRS)
Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
(Psa 91:9-10 NRS)
When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
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?”
My Lord and the LORD
“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.
Appealing to His Better Angels
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.
According to All the Good the LORD Has Promised
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.”
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?
My Lord, Remember Me
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
For anyone who has to turn away wrath, Abigail has given a great model. She was humble and apologeticthroughout. 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 always 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). When you take the throne, 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
“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.
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. She might have even told him next time he angers a powerful man like David, she will not save him. She will just let him reap what he sowed. Whatever she said, it appears to have been enough to scare him to death, if that’s possible.
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.”
Is that too soon? Abigail is a newly grieving widow. Common decorum says she should 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?
Sympathy for the Fool?
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.”
Talk about a colloquialism. Not only does she follow the custom of saying she is David’s servant. She also says she will wash the feet of David’s servants. A pretty convoluted way of saying, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”
Perhaps we could say in our own colloquialism, “David’s wish is my command.”
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 25:42 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?
Happily Ever After … Sort of
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 who will enhance his reputation in that territory. 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.
As a writer, I am really impressed with 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 came to a head. We’re not told exactly what she said to Nabal, but it scared him enough that it was the last thing he heard. Maybe a weak heart, combined with clogged arteries from his feasting and drinking, made it possible for her words to upset him so much it killed him. And maybe she knew it could happen, but no one can prove it.
I don’t want to condone even a possible murder. If this was her acting out years of frustration, and it led to an accidental death, I don’t blame her. But if she knew her words would kill him, I find that a little chilling. Truth is, though, most people cheer when the villain dies.
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. To be fair, his parents named him “Fool.” We should think about what it must have been like growing up with everyone calling him “Fool.”
Not the Godfather
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 of David running a protection racket 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.
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
Secret Chord. This is an excellent work of Biblical Fiction concerning
David, written from the perspective of Nathan, David’s court prophet and close
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
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.”
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.
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”.
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.”
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.”
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
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
It was a rough world.
A “Biblical” concept of
His men wanted him to do
Building frustration over
having to hide like a criminal
Insults that touched his
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.
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
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.
My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for
your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is
Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).
This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.
won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear
from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at
their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)
He/him refers to the
Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised
and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly,
many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the
nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace,
healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.
the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and
as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the
nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself.
It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song,
that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid
their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked
see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the
LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should
have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him
(53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his
silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of
their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins
NRSV Study Bible says,
“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).
(HC 53:4-6 footnote)
And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.
Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.
He Grew Up Like a Young Plant
The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)
They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.
The Servant as Messiah
First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.
I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with
the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
(Isa 52:13 NRS)
the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall
prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only
The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:
At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.
Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.
Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].
If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.
A Leper Messiah
is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
(Isa 53:4 NRS)
The Talmud comments,
The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.
Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.
The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”
Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope
with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll
lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,
One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.
Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.
God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our
pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an
offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was
the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his
sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes
out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many
to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled
Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night
of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.
The First Principle of Recovery
Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.
Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.
might ask why I believe this theory of Second Isaiah when it isn’t mentioned in
the Bible. The main reason is the difference in tone between First and Second
Isaiah. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is clearly addressed to people
pre-judgment, while Second Isaiah only makes sense post-judgment, where sweeping
announcements of forgiveness and restoration can be spoken in ways not possible
for First Isaiah.
of the most striking features of Second Isaiah is the figure of the Suffering
Servant, a mysterious figure whose suffering brings healing for the nations. Bernhard Duhm is credited with
first identifying the songs of the Suffering Servant in his 1892 commentary
on Isaiah. He recognized the four songs in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; and
52:13-53:12. In some commentaries, the songs might be longer. But this designation
will work for our purposes.
The Suffering Servant in My Principles of Recovery
My first principle for recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” I connected that with Isaiah 53:3-6. My second principle for recovery is “God will not kick you when you are down.” I connected that with Isaiah 42:2-3. So now I’m going to show you how those passages helped me formulate those first two principles for recovery. I’m going to go backwards in terms of the principles and start with the song of Isaiah 42.
The Second Principle: God Will Not Kick You When You Are Down
might be wondering what does the Jews’ experience of Exile and Return have to
do with your experience of depression.
dark night of the soul happens at the intersection of faith and depression. Usually,
something has happened to you that you think shouldn’t have happened, and you
wonder why God would treat you this way. Sometimes, it’s not something that happened
to you, but rather feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of injustice in the
world and wondering why God would allow it to continue for as long as it has. You
want to do something about it, but you feel helpless. You pray, but you don’t
see it making any difference. Maybe you reach a point where you’re so
depressed, you can’t pray at all. Maybe you are so angry you are no longer on
speaking terms with God. Or maybe you have become so disoriented you no longer
believe in God at all.
Jews in Exile experienced all these things: disorientation, humiliation,
confusion, anger, unbelief, you name it. Even if they still believed in God,
they could not trust God anymore. God had let them down when they needed God
most. In some of the Psalms, we see they were not shy at all about telling God
exactly how they felt (Psa 137).
could have responded with anger in kind. God could have reminded them how they
let God down by failing to be the example of justice and righteousness God had
called them to be. Instead, God’s answer to them begins with comfort (Isa
40:1-2). That sets the tone for all of Second Isaiah. Not that there are no reprimands
from God, but they are much gentler than First Isaiah and balanced with the
promise that they would return home.
Is It about Me?
believe before we make any personal application of scripture, it’s important to
understand the context where it was given initially. I imagined the Jews in
Exile when they heard the words of Second Isaiah, learning to hope where hope
before seemed impossible, learning to trust God again, basically rebuilding
their faith from scratch, and finding the courage to respond when God reached
out to them.
I came out of one of my dark nights of the soul, these words leapt off the page
… a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
(Isa 42:3 NRS)
don’t know if I can adequately describe the circumstances when I felt the full
weight of those words. As I said, I had just come out of a dark night of the
soul. During the dark night, I was filled with guilt over “disobeying” the Holy
Spirit and “not believing” God’s word.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
(Rom 8:14 NRS)
almost any Christian, that is great news. If you see yourself as a child of
God, you want to be led by the Spirit of God. Through some bad teaching, I
began to hear a voice I thought was the Spirit of God. The catch is, if you are
being led by the Spirit of God, you must obey. And your obedience must be
unhesitating and without doubt and fear. Whatever the Spirit commands, you must
obey. If you hesitate, that is the same as disobedience. Some hesitation and doubt
is okay in the beginning, as long as you obey. But over time, you should come
to a place where you obey without hesitation and without doubt or fear.
For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.
(1Sa 15:23 NRS)
not rebel against the Holy Spirit. I would hear the voice saying, “Witness to
this person, witness to that person. Lay your hands on that sick person. Give
money to this ministry. Give money to person.” And I would hear stories from
people who said they heard the same voice, and they weren’t sure at first if they
should do it, but they obeyed. They prayed and laid hands on the sick person,
and they were instantly (or after a few tries) healed. They gave money to whom the
Spirit told them, and they received more money just a few days later. They witnessed
to the person, and the person gave their lives to Christ. In their stories, success
and reward always followed obedience and faith. You hear those stories, and
eventually you start asking yourself, “Why am I not getting the same results?”
When I looked for answers, one of my TV mentors said, “Either you or the Bible is wrong. Which is it?”
if it’s between me and the Bible, it has to be me. I still have too much doubt.
Doubt creates fear. Fear creates hesitation. And after you’ve followed for some
time, hesitation is the same as disobedience. You’ve been a believer for six years
or however long. You should know by now God’s word is the truth no matter what
the circumstances say. If the voice you hear agrees with God’s word, hear and
do I know I’m supposed to witness to everyone the Spirit tells me to?
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
(Mat 28:19-20a NRS)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
(Act 1:8 NRS)
do I know I’m supposed to pray for and lay hands on every sick person the
Spirit tells me to?
And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.
(Mar 16:17-18 NRS)
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
(Mat 10:1 NRS)
do I know I’m supposed to obey the voice of the Spirit in giving money to this
person or that ministry?
… give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
(Luk 6:38 NRS)
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
(2Co 9:6 NRS)
there you have it. The voice of the Spirit I’m hearing and the Word of God are
in agreement. Now, I understand they were taking all these verses out of
context. But at the time I didn’t know that. And every time I failed or
hesitated to obey, I would be wracked with guilt afterwards. I would pray for
forgiveness and repent and promise never to do it again, but of course I did it
again. And each time, the guilt doubled, because I promised to obey but did not.
I would beat myself up, and the voice of the Spirit would pile on.
Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? (Luk 6:46)
I can’t help it. I’m afraid, and I don’t know how to stop being afraid.
Didn’t I tell you in my Word I have not given you a spirit of fear but of power, of love, and of a sound mind? (2 Tim 1:7)
So why are you afraid?
It might not work.
What do you mean it might not work?
I might not have enough faith for it to work.
Why wouldn’t you have enough faith? I have promised you everything in my Word. I have given you my Spirit, the same spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Why do you still not believe me?
I don’t know.
Let’s be honest. You’re afraid of looking foolish, aren’t you?
No! Well, maybe.
So you are disobeying because you love the praise of men more than the praise of God (Joh 12:43).
NO! That’s not it! I love you, Lord!
But you love the praise of men more. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Rev 3:16)
No, Lord! Please! Anything but that! Lord? Lord? Are you there?
matter how low I felt, the voice of God could always make me feel lower. And no
matter how many times I fell down, the voice of God would kick me. Except … it
wasn’t the voice of God.
What Was Really Happening?
are two explanations I think are most likely: 1) The voice came from internalizing
bad teachings; or 2) the voice was the product of a clinically depressed brain.
I believe it was a combination of the two. A chemically imbalanced brain will
speak to you, and it will sound like the truth. Add to that a belief that it is
the voice of God, and you are sure to get kicked when you are down. You are
sure to be led astray.
did I believe it was the voice of God? Because, as I said, it spoke from the
Bible. It has to be true, because the Bible is the Word of God, right? On the
factcheck.org scale, I would categorize that statement under “True, but misleading.”
This is going to be a controversial statement, but it needs to be said. The
Bible is the word of God, if and only if it is rightly interpreted and rightly
applied. Let that sink in. The Bible is the word of God, if and only if
it is rightly interpreted and rightly applied.
are many different interpretations, many different rules people have formed for
how to apply the Bible. How do we know which is right? I have spent the last
forty years trying to answer that question. I can’t give you everything that came
of that in one blog post, but I can tell you this. The Bible has to be read
in context. That is why, in the last post, I gave you a basic historical
background of events leading up to Second Isaiah, and the background of Exile
and Return in which Second Isaiah was written. That is called context.
I made the decision to go to seminary, people in the church I was in at the
time said, “They’ll teach you not to believe the Bible.” Again, true, but
misleading. What they did was teach me how to read the Bible in context. As a
result, I started to believe the Bible again but not in the way they taught it.
hallmark of bad teaching is they quote the Bible, but they never teach the
context in which it was written. We have to understand what Second Isaiah
would have meant to the Jews in Exile, because that was who it was written for
originally. Then, maybe we can glean some message for us today. The same goes
for all of the Bible.
The Suffering Servant and the Voice in My Head
In addition to the bad teachings and the clinically depressed brain, I had even more dysfunction. I listened to that voice in part because I thought I deserved it. I deserved to be kicked when I was down, because I repeatedly disobeyed the voice of the Holy Spirit.
going back to that voice that said Christ was going to spit me out of his mouth,
at the same time, I heard another voice underneath my guilt and depression, a
still, small voice that did not come from the deepest depths of my soul. That voice
said, “I love you.” Not “I love you, but you need to start obeying me.” Not “I
love you, but you need to change.” No “but”s at all. Just “I love you.” Period.
voice comforted me at first, but then I rejected it. I chose the voice I
thought I deserved over the voice God graciously offered. But then I lost faith
in the voice kicking me when I was down. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I rejected
that one. What was left of the voice of God? I read again this suffering
servant song, and when I came to the line that said, “a bruised reed he will
not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” then I understood. Even
though Second Isaiah wasn’t speaking to me directly, I am the bruised reed he
will not break. I am the dimly burning wick he will not quench. God will not
kick me when I’m down. That’s how I know that other voice is a false God.
And with that old voice bound, gagged, and kicked out of my head, I listened, and again I heard the voice of the Spirit saying, “I love you.” A voice as gentle and mild as the suffering servant, not crying aloud and making itself heard in the street, so soft you can only hear it if you quiet the false gods in your head and listen for it. “I love you,” with no qualifiers, as if I had already received from the LORD’s hand double for all my sins. That was the voice of the Holy Spirit. That was the voice I finally learned to listen to.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
(Rom 8:1-2 NRS)
What about You?
you ever heard a voice you thought was God? What was it like? Did it kick you when
you were down? Hopefully, I have convinced you that was not God. If you have
clinical depression, you might be more prone to hearing that voice (and thinking
you deserve it) than most people. I overcame it, and so can you. So I want to
invite you to take this little spiritual exercise.
into a quiet room with a notebook and pen. Not a phone or laptop, nothing electronic.
Sit quietly and listen. Try to quiet your mind and listen from deep within. Just
give it a few minutes, as long as you feel comfortable. Write down whatever you
you think it is the voice of God? Why or why not? Feel free to tell me about it
in the comments.
bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (Isa 42:3 NRS)
lexicon would translate qaneh ratzutz as “a crushed reed,” as in 2 Ki 18:23.
However, most translations render it “a bruised reed,” probably because of the
phrase lo’ yishbor, “he will not break.” It doesn’t make sense to say, “he
will not break a crushed reed.” How can you break something that’s already
Halladay’s lexicon says phishtah is a wick of flax, but it calls phishtah
kehah is a dimly glowing wick. Lo’ yichbennah, “he will not
are two beautiful metaphors for gentleness toward vulnerability. The reed is
already bruised. Just a little pressure will make it break. But the servant of
God will not break it. A dimly glowing wick is easily extinguished, but he will
not quench it. In modern vernacular, we might say, he will not kick you when
There are four passages in Isaiah called the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” I used these in two of my four principles for recovery. I’ve found the Suffering Servant to be a great source of comfort, so that seems like a good place to pick up the blog.
But Isaiah is a long, complicated text, written over a period of more than two hundred years. So first, you should have a good overview of when, how, why, and to whom it was written. This is called context, by the way, which is pretty important anytime you do anything with the Bible.
generally divide Isaiah into three sections.
First Isaiah: Chapters 1-39. Before
and after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) to Assyria, ca. 738-687 BC
Second Isaiah: Chapters 40-55. Near
the end of Exile of the Jews, ca. 545-539 BC.
Third Isaiah: Chapters 56-66. After
the return to Jerusalem, ca. 520-515 BC.
You won’t see these divisions in the Bible text itself. However, differences in tone, language, and references indicate each of these sections was written in different historical circumstances. If you are used to just reading the Bible without referring to the historical background, this may sound confusing, or you might think we are making it unnecessarily complicated. “The Bible doesn’t mention First, Second, and Third Isaiah. It’s just called the book of Isaiah.”
understand why you might object to this. But I’ll say there are very good
reasons for this “three Isaiahs” theory that come from the text of Isaiah, along
with just basic knowledge of what was happening in Israel and Judah between the
eighth and sixth centuries BC. Hopefully, that will become clearer as I walk
you through it.
And yes, while this is fun for me, I know I’m in the minority. So believe me when I say I wouldn’t drag you through this preliminary history and textual analysis if I didn’t really believe it was necessary to understand not only the message but the comfort the songs of the Suffering Servant can offer. So, I’ll try to make it as interesting as I can. And I promise, it will not be a waste of time. So if you’re ready, let’s dive in.
songs of the Suffering Servant all come from Second Isaiah, but I think it’s
important to understand First Isaiah to get the full impact of it.
First Isaiah: What You Need to Know
I said, First Isaiah refers to chapters 1-39 of “the book of Isaiah.” He said
he received his call to be a prophet in the year king Uzziah died, about 738 BC
(Isa 6). He continued to prophesy and write until about 700 or 687 BC, depending
on the date of his last word to the king Hezekiah. This entire time, the
nations of Israel and Judah were in crisis because of the Assyrian empire. Isaiah’s
message to both nations was, repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or
God is going to send Assyria as the hand of judgment.
Assyria was the hyperpower of its day. They built a juggernaut of an army that no one could stand against. They conquered all the land of Mesopotamia, then turned their attention toward the land of Canaan. The nation of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC. After this, Isaiah’s warnings to the nation of Judah became more urgent. Repent of your injustice and unrighteousness, or you will be next on Assyria’s list of conquered cities and nations. The people didn’t listen until Hezekiah took the throne. He was known as a righteous king.
Even under Hezekiah, Assyria wreaked havoc through Judah. Isaiah warned them they would, but with one caveat: Because of God’s covenant with David, they would not take the city of Jerusalem (2 Sam 7:1-17). Isaiah proved right on both counts. Assyrian records said they took forty-six cities from Judah. When they got to Jerusalem, they laid siege like they had to hundreds of cities before. Until then, the result was always the same. The city fell, its treasures were plundered and sent back to the capital city, Nineveh, and the people were either slaughtered, tortured, enslaved, and/or exiled. The people within the walls of Jerusalem thought the same would happen to them, but Isaiah’s word proved true. The Assyrian army left with the city of Jerusalem still fully intact.
After First Isaiah
Now how do you think the people of Jerusalem responded to this remarkable salvation? They were probably grateful at first. But it didn’t take long for them to become arrogant. “This is the Temple of the LORD,” they said of the great structure Solomon had built over 200 years before. “No one can touch us, because this is where God has chosen to dwell on earth. Not even Assyria can stand before our God.”
Even the righteous king Hezekiah became so arrogant he foolishly showed all the treasures of the city, the palace, and the Temple to the king of Babylon. Chances are, said Babylonian king recorded them in the archives, so about 150 years later, king Nebuchadnezzar knew exactly where to find all the riches when he took the city.
In the meantime, people all over the Assyrian empire got sick of living under their iron boot. Assyria constantly had to put down rebellions throughout their territory in Whack-a-Mole fashion. No matter how brutal they were in crushing rebellions, they could not stop people from rising up to throw off their yoke.
Finally, in 612 BC, an alliance of Medes and Babylonians overthrew the capital Nineveh, and with it, the territory of the Assyrian empire became ripe pickings for the neo-Babylonian empire. No Jew shed any tears over Nineveh, that’s for sure. That is, except for the prophets who knew what would follow.
The Unthinkable Happens
the chosen city, the one with the Temple of the LORD, the city God had chosen
for his name to dwell on earth, the city even the king of Assyria could not conquer
because of God’s presence there, fell to king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The immortal,
impregnable, indomitable city of David, was conquered, torn down, and
plundered. Even the Temple, with its great and huge stones, was torn down so
not one stone was left standing on another. Its gold, silver, and bronze furnishings
were all brought back to Babylon in about 587/86 BC. And the people were sent
into exile, mostly to the city of Babylon.
If Isaiah had been alive at this time, the people probably would have said, “WTF, Isaiah? You said this couldn’t happen!” But Isaiah’s word concerning Jerusalem was for Isaiah’s time. The prophets of their time, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, warned them in stark terms, “Do NOT think God will save you this time. You have not repented of your unjust and unrighteous ways. Do not think the Temple of the LORD will save you. God has removed his glory from that place.” Even with his high view of Zionist theology, Isaiah probably would have said the same thing.
Like many other prophets, Isaiah had a school where he taught others to receive messages from God as a prophet. The school likely continued after his death. Over the years, they preserved his writings and teachings. They may have continued to write in his name. This was actually common in the ancient world. Students of a particular school, if they had mastered the founder’s teachings, might write new documents in his name.
Around 545 BC, there was a new major player on the world scene. Cyrus, king of Persia, looked like someone who could challenge the might of Babylon. As he racked up victories on the battlefield, a new hope arose for the Jews in exile, because unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians before, he acted with justice and righteousness.
about 539/8 BC, he conquered the city of Babylon, and all of Babylon’s territory
became part of the Persian empire. Two things are remarkable about Cyrus’s victory.
One, the people of Babylon opened the gates for him, so he took the city
without bloodshed. Two, one of the students of Isaiah’s school predicted his rise
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him– and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.
(Isa 45:1-6 NRS)
This is Second Isaiah, responsible for chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. He appears to have written between 545-539 BC, before Cyrus’s ultimate victory over Babylon. Second Isaiah predicted Cyrus would succeed in taking over the Babylonian empire, because the LORD had chosen him to rule and to free Israel, God’s chosen. He also predicted Cyrus would allow the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem. And so his chapters are filled with hope and anticipation. “It won’t be long now. We will go home, thanks to our God and his chosen one, Cyrus.”
When the LORD Restored the Fortunes of Zion …
have taken you on this brief journey back in time in the hopes that you could
have some sense of how dreamlike it was to the Jews in Exile when the student
of Isaiah told them they would return to their ancestral home of Jerusalem. The
sense they had of being God’s chosen people and nation had burned down with their
beloved city. For decades, the Babylonians had mocked them, saying, “Where is
your God?” and they had no answer.
Now, God is promising deliverance through a foreigner named Cyrus, and they are seeing it come true. City after city either falls or surrenders to him. God calls him his “anointed,” like David. God calls him by name, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is all so strange. They are not used to hearing God talk like this about a Gentile king. And yet, if this was how God chose to deliver them from Exile, I don’t think any of them would have complained.
Comparing First and Second Isaiah
When you read First Isaiah, there is a strong sense of looming judgment. And it was no mystery how it would come. Assyria would steamroll them like they had everyone else. Though there is hope in Isaiah, it’s mostly directed toward a future king, a Messiah, who would execute justice and righteousness for the people (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-9). At times, it seems Isaiah believed the Jews’ present king, Hezekiah, could have been that Messiah. But for the present, he is mostly gloom and doom. Repent! Judgment is coming! Repent! Judgment is coming!
from the beginning, he says,
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!
(Isa 1:2-4 NRS)
What is the result?
Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
(Isa 1:7 NRS)
Why has judgment come?
How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her– but now murderers! … Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
(Isa 1:21, 23 NRS)
That’s a small sampling, but it tells you mostly what you need to know about why God is angry, and why judgment has come for Israel and is coming for Judah.
… he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry [of distress]!
(Isa 5:7 NRS)
later, when you turn the page to chapter 40, suddenly the tone is entirely
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
(Isa 40:1-2 NRS)
That is the tone through most of Second Isaiah. The thrust of First Isaiah is judgment is coming. The thrust of Second Isaiah is judgment is over. First Isaiah makes sense when there is an enemy like Assyria, looking at them like a wolf licking its chops. Second Isaiah makes sense only after they have received their punishment. Now, God says Jerusalem has received double for all her sins. Their debt is paid in full. There is nothing to prevent them from returning home to Zion. He goes on to say,
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
(Isa 40:4-5 NRS)
God will clear the way home for them. They had just been through the longest, darkest night in their history since the period of slavery in Egypt, and they were about to come out of it.
The Dark Night of the Soul Is Over
I don’t know where you are in your journey. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you finally see yourself coming out of your own dark night of the soul, like the Jews when Cyrus conquered Babylon. Maybe you are still so deep in darkness you can’t see the deliverance yet. I was there just a few years ago myself, but I can see it now. There were many years when the Jews thought they were stuck in Babylon with no way home. So don’t give up. Sometimes it’s just about living long enough for your work to start bearing fruit.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
(Psa 126:1-2 NRS)
that you have the background, next week I’ll talk about the songs of the Suffering
Servant and what they mean in the context of Second Isaiah and recovery.
… [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7 NRS)
is a pun in the Hebrew text not apparent in any English translation. The word
for justice here (as in most cases throughout the Hebrew Bible) is mishpat.
It carries with it the same meanings as in English. Justice, as in the justice
system and its execution through legal process. Justice in a more conceptual
sense of fairness and equality. It can also refer to following established
customs and procedures. In this context, it is a synonym for “righteousness.”
word for “bloodshed” is mishpach. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as “a
breach of law,” so it is the opposite of mishpat. BDB defines it as an “outpouring
(of blood), bloodshed,” the inevitable result when a society abandons mishpat.
So to show the pun, I’ll say it like this.
He expected mishpat, but saw mishpach …
The word for “righteousness,” here as in most places in the Hebrew Bible, is tzedakah. It can mean right behavior in general, honesty, integrity, or doing the right thing. It is often paired with mishpat (as in this verse), making it a synonym for justice. In the plural, it often refers to acts of generosity. The box in the Temple for collecting donations for the poor (Mark 12:41-44) was called a tzedakah box, and they are still found in synagogues today.
word for “a cry” is tze`akah. Halladay’s lexicon defines it as a “cry of
wailing, call for help.” It is the same word God used when God told Moses the
cry of the Israelites living under slavery in Egypt had reached God’s ears (Exo
3:7). So Isaiah is charging the nations of Israel and Judah with being just as
oppressive to the poor, the slave, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and alien
as Egypt was to them. So again to show the pun,
I thought I would take a break from blogging for the
holidays. However, I managed to get this put together. It’s shorter than
previous posts, and I didn’t get everything in here I wanted to. Just a little
bit of background about our Christian traditions.
Did You Know?
Jesus was not really born on December 25
The Gospel of Luke says,
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)
You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth.
So why do we celebrate on December 25th, you ask?
In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine
wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was.
Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time,
claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with
the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was
born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations
would help unite the people.
Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date
of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve
seen, when and where a great man was born was not necessarily important in the
ancient world. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David,
Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching
about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was
important. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Ancient Christian confession
They didn’t care much about his birth, at least not at first. The less they knew about his natural origins, the better (Heb 7:3; Jn 1:1-3). Great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them.
It was only in later years, maybe around the 70’s and after, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem?
Luke investigated (Luk 1:1-4) and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be … Bethlehem! So we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …
… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived
Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the
east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star
that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king,
the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know,
however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
(Mat 2:7 NRS)
He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi he would have been born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them to pass along to let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.
Sorry to Mess with Your Nativity Scene, but …
When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11). An angel appeared to them in a dream and warned them not to return to Herod, so they went home without informing the reigning king. Herod responds with shocking cruelty. He orders his soldiers to kill every male child two years old or younger. Granted, Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. So even though we have no other record of this event, it is certainly consistent with Herod’s character to do this.
But why kill all the males under two years old? If he was a newborn baby, he would probably have said any male child one year old or younger. That would give you enough margin for error to get him. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking. You can tell that’s not a newborn baby. And remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or younger.
The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (called “kings” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.
The Powers that Be
The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers that be would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. His kingdom was not of this world, but it changed the world.
He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the elites, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.
The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers that be have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military power. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone.
Truly he taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and his gospel is peace.
The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
“O Holy Night”
It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even
where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels
ring through the ages,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
In my Abraham series, I have included writing tips that are illustrated in Abraham’s stories. We came to the end of his story in my last post. This post continues that series, but it is all for writers. How can these stories help you improve your technique?
The challenge for any writer of fiction is to tell a good story that keeps the reader/audience’s attention from beginning to end. There is an unspoken agreement between the storyteller and the audience: They will suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story, as long as you keep it believable to them. The trick is to know what is believable and what is not to your audience. Or perhaps, whether you have made it believable to them.
As fiction writers, we sometimes create moments when we
could easily lose the reader, because we stretched their suspension of disbelief
too far. So we should always consider whether we have succeeded in making
that moment of “impossible” believable. In that regard, I think we can learn a
few things from the author of this saga I’ve been following for the last several
The author/editor of Abraham’s saga was most likely not so much an author as an editor. These stories had circulated orally for centuries before they were written down in what we call today the book of Genesis. So instead of creating these stories out of nothing, the writer decided to put the individual stories together into one narrative. It’s a little easier when you’re working with stories your audience is already familiar with and has accepted as part of their history. Still, there are moments when the author has to overcome the disbelief any rational person would have. Perhaps the greatest of those moments is how and when Isaac is born.
Here it is to review.
The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
(Gen 21:1-3, 7 NRS)
Remember, Abraham is one hundred, and Sarah is ninety-one. How did the author make that moment believable to his original audience?
Know Your Readers’ Expectations
The original readers of this story probably had heard these
accounts of Abraham and his family before, but not exactly the way the author
presented them in this written account. This author wanted to collect all those
disjointed stories into one narrative. In sewing together these different
patches, sometimes the seams show. While there are a few plot holes, his audience
forgave him that. I think that is because,
Each genre carries certain expectations. These stories primarily come from the Origin Story genre, and they fit the expectations of that genre.
Expectations and believability for the reader/audience often depend on the genre. In a murder mystery, for example, the audience expects that there is a murder, and by the end of the story, the murderer is revealed and caught. In a fantasy, the audience expects there will be magic, sword battles, and mythical creatures. A dragon as the murderer in a modern mystery would not be believable. But in a fantasy? No problem. Knowing what your audience will accept, and what they won’t, is the first step to making your story believable to them.
And beyond this story, Isaac’s role in the story foreshadows many things that will happen later in the Torah.
Meetings at a well that lead
to marriage (Jacob and Moses).
Wives who have difficulty
conceiving and bearing a child (Rebekah and Rachel).
Wives giving handmaids to
their husbands to conceive and bear a child (Rachel and her handmaid, Zilpah).
Parents’ favoritism or
rejection leads to dysfunction among siblings (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his
Covenants that involve name
changes (Jacob to Israel).
Foreshadowing, when used well, will help the reader/audience maintain their suspension of disbelief and accept the “impossible” as the natural outcome of your story.
Show the Heroes’ Humanity
When God appears to Abraham at ninety-nine years of age and
says he will have a son with Sarah, who was ninety, “He did not weaken in faith
when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was
about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s
womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew
strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Rom 4:19-20 NRS).
That’s the “hero of the faith” version, which is totally unreal and not how the story tells it originally. How did Abraham really react? “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (Gen 17:17 NRS), and that’s how any human with a brain would have reacted. Sarah also laughed, and who could blame them? Any of us would have laughed at that as well. They know as well as we do this is impossible.
When the promise is fulfilled, we see Sarah’s humanity in her joy as she holds her newborn son. She lets us know everything she went through to get to this moment was worth it. The author shows their humanity in so many other ways as well. In contrast, Paul presents them as believing God, and it being accounted to them as righteousness (Rom 4:3, 9; Gal 3:6), as if this were a 24/7/365 reality. God said it. They believed it. And that settled it, once and for all.
That is not usually what a life of faith looks like, and
Abraham and Sarah are prime examples. When God commanded, they obeyed. But for
years, they struggled to understand what God really wanted from them. They said
things like, “How do I know this is true?” (Gen 15:8). God said things that made
them laugh. They wavered between belief and disbelief in the long time between
promise and fulfillment.
Another thing to remember is even heroes have faults. I have
talked about failings in the character of both Abraham and Sarah. Whatever
character flaws your characters have, you don’t need to hide them. They make
your characters more human. Some of the most fascinating characters are
those who infuriate us one moment and inspire us the next.
Prepare the Reader for the Big Moment
Abraham and Sarah are going to have a son. That is the most crucial event of this story. It has to happen, and it’s impossible. Everyone knows it is impossible. So how can the reader believe it when it happens? In this case, they are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah, so they know it happened. The big question they had was not if but how.
Getting back to genre expectations, origin stories often involve interactions between human heroes and divine beings. In this case, when God announces the big moment to Abraham, God has already appeared to him twice. God has made big promises to him, but none of them can come true unless he has a son with Sarah. That is the one promise God absolutely must fulfill in this story. The rest can happen later, but this has to happen now.
The author has helped prepare the audience for this
moment by how God has guided Abraham thus far. God only hinted at the promise
before. They did not understand what God meant at first. Then, at this crucial
moment, God promises much more specifically to both Abraham and Sarah. And when
they actually did “weaken in faith” and “waver concerning the promises of God”
momentarily, God made sure there was no misunderstanding this time. God made specific
promises, not that this will happen sometime in the future. It will happen “by
this time next year.”
They had hoped for this sooner. They had given up hope of it
ever happening. But God keeps God’s promises at the time God chooses. And now,
I, the angel of the LORD, am telling you, this is the appointed time.
Bring in an All-Powerful God
Origin stories often use a technique called Deux ex
Machina, literally “God of the Machine.” Just when everything is lost, some
divine being—a god, goddess, angel, etc.—swoops in and fixes everything. Today,
that is considered an amateur move. This author avoids that pitfall,
however, by having God appear to Abraham before this and make promises that are
not specific enough. The audience knows more than Abraham and Sarah. They know
God wants this to happen, even when Abraham and Sarah have given up on it.
This is God’s third visitation to Abraham, so the big
pronouncement does not come out of the blue. It is consistent both with the previous
appearances and what God has promised before. “I am El Shaddai,” God tells Abraham
this time (Gen 17:1). That is a name Abraham has not heard before, so that
alerts him and us the story is about to take an important turn.
This particular name is usually translated “God Almighty.” Another
meaning I found was “God the Overcomer,” meaning that God can and will overcome
any obstacles when it’s time to fulfill a promise. In this case, the obstacles
were pretty significant. To review,
Though they were still in good health, the text makes it clear they were not having sex anymore. Not because they were unwilling, but because they were both unable.
The deadness of Sarah’s womb. She never had a child nor got pregnant, even when she was young.
Even if somehow God made her barren womb fertile, Abraham still had to rise to the occasion. That hadn’t happened in years, because (D’uh!) he was nearly a hundred years old.
But God addressed those objections even before Abraham had a
chance to raise them by saying, “I am the God who overcomes every obstacle that
exists and any that will exist.” And when God tells Sarah, “Is anything too
wonderful for the LORD?” that signals to her and the audience this is going to
happen, in spite of any obstacles that would normally prevent it.
If your type of story allows it, you can bring in a god,
goddess, angel, or superhero to make whatever needs to happen happen. Just be
sure you’ve set the reader up to accept it, so you don’t look like an amateur.
Have Your Heroes Make Missteps along the Way
It was twenty-five years from when God promised Abraham a son of his own issue to when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. When God first promised, Abraham had no problem believing it. He was still a “young man” of seventy-five. He and Sarah still were active in the bedroom. Sure, she was sixty-six and had not yet had a child. But if God promised he would have a son, he would have a son. God would do God’s part in fulfilling the promise as long as they did their part (keep having sex).
But after ten more years of trying, still nothing. Sarah concluded if Abraham was to have a son of his own issue, it would have to be through another woman. So she convinced her husband to go in to her handmaid, and he had a son, Ishmael. On the one hand, it was a misstep. They stopped believing that they would have a son together. On the other hand, this misstep was not a product of doubting the promises of God.
God had not yet promised that Abraham’s heir would come through
Sarah. God only promised that he would have a son of his own issue. Sarah
was seventy-six before she resorted to bringing in a surrogate. She had no
reason to believe at that point there was any other way. They gave up only
after giving every reasonable chance, and then some, for God to make it happen.
And that makes the big moment even bigger.
Heroes Recognize the Moment When It Comes, Even after Hope Is Lost
God shows up again when Abraham is ninety-nine and says now
is the time, and Abraham is elated. He jumps for joy that the hope he had been
living for was about to happen. Sarah is ninety when God tells her this is it,
and she forgets the deadness of her womb and her husband’s flesh. She believes immediately
and does not doubt it, because God said it. You know I’m kidding, right?
Sarah and Abraham react the same way at first. They laugh,
not for joy, but because the very idea is utterly ridiculous. They had
given up on this happening years ago. If God wanted this to happen, God should
have done it before now. But note that God did not say, “You don’t believe me?
Then forget it. I won’t do this for you, because you doubted my word.”
Instead, God makes it clear this is no joke. For Abraham, God
repeats the promise and lets him know Ishmael is not forgotten. God will make
him a great nation as well. But his heir would come through Sarah, “by this
time next year.” Then God appears again and repeats it so Sarah can hear.
Last time God promised this, God was totally vague about
how and when it would happen. This time, God is totally clear.You, Sarah,
will have a son by this time next year. And God says, “Is anything too
wonderful for the LORD?” When God makes a promise, nothing is too wonderful to
prevent God from fulfilling it. God even incorporates their laughter into the
promise by saying, “You will name him, ‘He laughs.’”
How did they recognize now was the time? God finally told them so. But did they believe immediately? No, they laughed. Even if they did, that was not enough to make it happen. If Abraham was not able, he was not able. If Sarah’s womb was barren, it was barren. There was nothing either of them could do to change it. The only thing they could do at this point was be open to the possibility. And that was all God required of them.
And there was one other way they recognized it was time. After
all God did to tell them to be ready, there was one particular sign they needed
to see. One day, for the first time in years, Abraham was able to get it
up. Sorry for being crude there, but we’re adults. We know without that, there
was no way God’s promise could be fulfilled. Somehow, God brought both their
dead flesh back to life. Sarah conceived and bore a son at ninety-one, and
they named him Isaac (“he laughs”).
Irony Makes for Memorable Stories
Sarah laughed again (Gen 21:6-7), but the meaning of her laughter changed from disbelief to joy. Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” to remind both Abraham and Sarah they once thought this was impossible. When a story turns in a way either the characters or audience doesn’t expect, that creates irony. I’ve talked in previous posts about how the author uses irony effectively. The irony happens when they go from laughing at God to laughing with God. For the Israelites who first heard this story, the irony was a reminder that their very existence was once considered impossible, just like Isaac’s.
As I’ve examined how the author used irony in Abraham’s
story, I was struck thinking how many of my favorite stories, the ones I come
back to time and again, make effective use of irony. And it is not just in this
story. Across many different authors and thousands of years going back to when
these stories were first told around campfires, the stories in the Bible use
irony as much as O. Henry. When it comes to making the impossible believable
in your stories, irony says to the reader, “I know you didn’t expect this. I know
you thought this was impossible. Now, I just showed you it’s not.”
From generation to generation, this and all the stories in
the Bible have been passed down, because they are so memorable. They make us
believe the impossible is possible. Or if not believe, they at least make us question
whether “impossible” really is an absolute term. They open us, like Abraham and
Sarah, to possibilities we had once dismissed. I think one reason is because this
author and all the others represented in the Bible saw and highlighted the
irony in the stories they passed down to us.
Whether or Not This “Really Happened” Really Doesn’t Matter
Anne Rice is a bestselling author who first became famous
for her vampire novels. After a conversion, she turned her attention for a
while toward religious fiction. In an interview, she said she used to have readers
call her at 2:00 AM, begging her to reassure them that her vampires really
were made up. In fiction, it doesn’t have to be real. It has to be believable.
Perhaps the same can be said of Abraham’s saga. I’m not saying it’s fiction. I’m saying it is an origin story. The reason we study origin stories is not to learn historical fact so much as to learn about the personality and culture of the people who produced those stories. What experts have found is they often began with some historical event. Over time, legends and myths grow around that event. Homer’s Iliad, for example, was once thought to be pure myth. Then archaeological excavations of the city of Troy revealed it was once a prosperous city that underwent siege and destruction around the same time as Homer said.
That does not prove that everything it says about the gods
and goddesses and Helen’s abduction/escape launching a thousand ships all “really
happened” as well. But it appears the whole saga began with a real event. Experts
still study the Iliad to learn about the character of the people who
produced those stories.
The Hebrew Bible was written primarily in what they called the land of Canaan. However, those authors were familiar with Babylonian myths. They showed some influences from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian sources. The story itself says Abraham immigrated to Canaan from cities in Mesopotamia. Could that point to a historic migration of people from Mesopotamia who eventually became part of the Hebrews and Israelites? He left the city and became a nomad and herder, so perhaps they were herders as well.
What is most important in origin stories is usually the moral and theological lessons they teach. What lessons did this author want to teach?
God called their ancestors to this land with the intention that
they would inherit it.
God chose them to bring justice, righteousness, and the fear of
God to this land.
God preserved offspring through their ancestors so that through
them, at the right time, the Messiah would come into the world.
Remember all of God’s promises, and make sure your children know
them. One day, they will all be fulfilled.
Remember “nothing is too wonderful for the LORD” when it is time
to fulfill a promise.
Do not despise the Ishmaelites, because God had a purpose for them
So what about your WIP?
Do you know the expectations of your genre? Are you meeting them? If you want your readers to believe something impossible, how are you going to make it believable? If you do it right, they should see the “impossible” become “inevitable,” just as it was inevitable that Sarah have a son at the tender age of ninety-one.