Character Study: David, Abigail, and Nabal Conclusion

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

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

Abigail to the Rescue

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

1Sa 25:23-24 NRS

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

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

1Sa 25:25 NRS

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

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

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.”

1Sa 25:30-31

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

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

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 apologetic throughout. 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 her.

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

1Sa 25:32-34 NRS

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

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

A Fool’s Reward

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

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

1Sa 25:37-38 NRS

It sounds like he had a heart attack. His arteries were probably already clogged up with all the rich food and wine he had consumed. However, that usually kills quickly, not ten days later. Was he in a coma? There is one other instance in the Bible I know of, Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11). I’m not qualified to make a medical diagnosis. But according to the American Heart Association’s website, it is possible but extremely unlikely for a person to be literally scared to death. Even when it happens, there needs to be an underlying condition that makes a person’s heart weak enough to be susceptible to it.

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.”

1Sa 25:39b-40

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.”

1Sa 25:41

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.

Conclusion

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

Godfather meme: "You got some nice sheep and goats. Would be a shame if something happened to them."
This is not David.

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.

For Writers: Making the Impossible Believable

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 weeks.

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,

  1. He ordered the individual stories in a way he knew would be satisfying to his audience. This is why it is good to know how to plot. The story arc this author used was familiar to his audience.
  2. 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.

Use Foreshadowing, Subtly

The author is skillful in how he uses foreshadowing. He doesn’t give away too much too soon. He used the genealogies to create just enough uncertainty that the reader could think they might be able to have a son, even at their advanced age, before telling us they were too old. God hinted to Abraham his son Ishmael would fulfill his destiny apart from him before it happened. If Ishmael was not the child of the promise, then who? His heir would come through Sarah.

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 brothers).
  • 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.

Sarah overhears three angels promise her a son
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen 18:14 NRS)

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.

Tissot, the Caravan of Abraham
Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. (Gen 12:5 NRS)

What is most important in origin stories is usually the moral and theological lessons they teach. What lessons did this author want to teach?

  1. God called their ancestors to this land with the intention that they would inherit it.
  2. God chose them to bring justice, righteousness, and the fear of God to this land.
  3. God preserved offspring through their ancestors so that through them, at the right time, the Messiah would come into the world.
  4. Remember all of God’s promises, and make sure your children know them. One day, they will all be fulfilled.
  5. Remember “nothing is too wonderful for the LORD” when it is time to fulfill a promise.
  6. Do not despise the Ishmaelites, because God had a purpose for them as well.

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.

Photo of Sarah with Isaac

Abraham’s Genealogy and a Lesson in Foreshadowing

Photo of Sarah with Isaac
“Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Gen 21:7 NRS)

In the series of character studies on Abraham, I’ve been taking my cues so far from Hebrews Chapter 11 and the stories that it relates about Abraham as an example of great faith. We’ve learned a lot about him and there are still more stories to go. So I want to go back now to the beginning and see how this story developed.

In some ways, Abraham represents a transition from really ancient times, when in the Bible you regularly see people living lifespans of hundreds of years, to getting closer to lifespans we are accustomed to.

If you go back to the first man, Adam, we have this.

When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.

(Gen 5:3-5 NRS)

Before this, Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel, and Cain ended up murdering his brother, Abel. So now they have another son when Adam is one hundred thirty years old.

Don’t roll your eyes at me

Now if you’re rolling your eyes at me and saying, “Come on. We all know this is a fairy tale. It never really happened,” stop! It doesn’t matter whether it “really happened” for what I’m doing. I’m not looking at history. I’m looking at this story. So even if you don’t believe it really happened (and I will admit I have serious doubts myself) that doesn’t change the story. I’m looking to see what it would have meant to the people for whom it was originally written. Every nation in ancient times has some kind of origin story, and most of them we agree didn’t really happen. But we still study them to learn something about the people. What does this tell us about the people and how they saw themselves?

So even if you don’t believe this is real history there are still plenty of reasons to study it. In this case, I’m looking ahead to the story of Abraham and Sarah. There’s a pattern developing, and it’s going to be important when we get to Abraham and Sarah.

So when Adam is one hundred thirty years old, he has a son named Seth. Today, we couldn’t even imagine most of us living to one hundred thirty years old, much less, if we make it, then having a son. It would have been the same for the original audience of this document. It goes on to say,

The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.

(Gen 5:4-5 NRS)

So Adam, the first man in this saga, lived nine hundred thirty years. Here’s some interesting trivia. Who was the oldest person in the Bible?

When Methuselah had lived one hundred eighty-seven years, he became the father of Lamech. Methuselah lived after the birth of Lamech seven hundred eighty-two years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years; and he died.

(Gen 5:25-27 NRS)

So the answer to that question, it was Methuselah. He lived nine hundred sixty-nine years and had his first son at one hundred eighty-seven.

By the time we get to Noah and the flood, he was six hundred years old when the flood happened. He lived a little bit longer after the flood, so he was somewhere in his six hundreds when he died. We’ve gone from 900-something to 600-something. And then we get to the descendants of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Abraham’s Story Begins

The stories of Abraham are bookended by genealogical frameworks. So the genealogy of Shem is officially the beginning of Abraham’s story.

When Shem was one hundred years old, he became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; and Shem lived after the birth of Arpachshad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.

(Gen 11:10-11 NRS)

So his total lifespan is six hundred years. His father lives into his 600’s, so this is still in the same ballpark. He has a son named Arpachshad when he is one hundred. Remember, Abraham was a hundred when he had Isaac.

When Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah; and Arpachshad lived after the birth of Shelah four hundred three years, and had other sons and daughters.

(Gen 11:12-13 NRS)

Okay, Arpachshad is thirty-five years old when he has his first son. This is much closer to our normal, and importantly, closer to the normal of the first audience of the book of Genesis. There’s also a dramatic shift in lifespan. We’ve gone from his father living six hundred years to four hundred three years for Arpachshad. He was the father of Shelah.

When Shelah had lived thirty years, he became the father of Eber;

(Gen 11:14 NRS)

Shelah is thirty when he has his first son. Again we’re in territory that’s closer to the experience of the original audience. I’m going to skip ahead to verses 20-21.

When Reu had lived thirty-two years, he became the father of Serug; and Reu lived after the birth of Serug two hundred seven years, and had other sons and daughters. 

(Gen 11:20-21 NRS)

Again, we’re still in this normal range of having the first son somewhere around thirty years old. The lifespan, though, is going down. Shelah in verse 15 lived four hundred three years. Now Serug lived two hundred thirty-nine years. This is a few generations later, and you see there is a definite downward trend in terms of average lifespan. I’m going to skip ahead to Nahor.

Nahor Became the Father of Terah

When Nahor had lived twenty-nine years, he became the father of Terah; and Nahor lived after the birth of Terah one hundred nineteen years, and had other sons and daughters. 

(Gen 11:24-25 NRS)

We’re getting close to the birth of Abraham, and there is a significant drop off from over two hundred years. Nahor had his first son at twenty-nine, but lived after that one hundred nineteen years. So he lived to be one hundred forty-eight. That’s still a long time by our standards, but it is a far cry from the nine hundred sixty-nine years of Methuselah, and the six hundred years of Noah and Shem. When we get to Arpachshad, it’s four hundred some years, on down to Reu, who lives two hundred some years. And now Nahor, Abraham’s grandfather, is down to one hundred forty-eight years. Next is Terah, who was Abram’s father.

When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

(Gen 11:26 NRS)

Does that mean they were triplets? Maybe. Maybe it just means that by the time he was seventy, he had three sons named Abram, Nahor and Haran. So when Terah was seventy, Abram had been born. They’re still living pretty long lifespans, into their hundreds, but again you see the downward trend.

Abram and Sarai

Abram's Counsel to Sarai by Tissot
You believe the angel, don’t you?

When we get into the story of Abram and Sarai (later renamed Abraham and Sarah), he was eighty-six when he had his first son, Ishmael. But his wife, Sarai, still had not had a son. She was ninety-one when she had her first son, Isaac, and Abraham was one hundred. On average, men are having their first son around thirty years old. The author is showing that this is late for Abram and Sarai to be having children.

Since Eve, the author did not talk about the mothers in detail until now. This was a patriarchal society. The lineages were traced through the father. But it was important in this story that Abraham and Sarah have a son. It was so important that even when Abraham was one hundred, God came in and said, “It’s not too late.”

He went on to live to one hundred seventy-five. Sarah was one hundred twenty-seven years old when she died. When you first hear that, you might think that it was not impossible at that point, since people were living well into their hundreds on average. They were still in middle-age. The man still might be able to rise to the occasion. The woman still might be of fertile, childbearing age for that time. That would not have been normal, but maybe it would have been possible.

For writers: Know your audience’s expectations

The original audience probably would have wondered the same thing. The author wants to establish that Abraham and Sarah were both “too old” to procreate when Isaac was born. The author will make that clear at the right time. But at first, he wants to keep that question open.

As writers, we can learn something from this. The author knows his audience’s expectations. They have heard stories of people in ancient times living for hundreds of years. Before we even meet Abram and Sarai, the author is hinting at the answer, but not giving it away. He has established the average lifespan and average age when the first child is born has been going down steadily from Adam to Abraham.

When the moment of truth comes in the story, the author says when Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, it was impossible not only for her but for Abraham. They had stopped having sex some years earlier. That part of their marriage life was a thing of the past. She had passed menopause, and Abraham was no longer able to rise to the occasion. To an audience that has heard of ancient lifespans being a few hundred years, he has hinted just enough in the genealogy to prepare them for this. She was ninety, he was ninety-nine, and even with the average lifespan back then, they were too old.

Also for writers: Foreshadowing

The first eleven chapters of Genesis answers questions about the origins of the world, people, and nations. The author, however, draws the added benefit of foreshadowing from the genealogies. When God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah, it is a crucial moment in their story. Abraham is ninety-nine, and Sarah is ninety. If you compare them with Methuselah, you might think they were just teenagers. They have plenty of time to have a son.

But the genealogy showed how, over time, the average age for childbirth and lifespan went down steadily. By the time you get to Nahor, Abraham’s grandfather, people are having their first child around thirty on average. Is it too late for Abraham and Sarah?

The author doesn’t necessarily need the foreshadowing. He states clearly that Sarah had passed menopause, and they were no longer having sex, so yes, it’s too late. But the foreshadowing hinted just enough to raise the question for a second and create a little more tension, before dropping the anvil on their hopes.

Foreshadowing is a good technique, but you have to know how to use it. If it’s too heavy-handed, it usually backfires. The reader sees it coming, so it lessens the impact. The author of Abraham’s story in Geneses used it subtly, and it added another layer of tension.

If you want to learn more about using foreshadowing effectively, this is a good example to study.

  1. Skim chapters 5 through 11 of Genesis. You don’t have to memorize everyone’s names and ages. Just notice how the numbers go down.
  2. Then read chapter 18. Start with verses 1-10 and pause. The angel of the LORD has just made the promise. You know Abraham and Sarah’s ages as compared with the last four generations or so. How does it feel? Do you wonder if it is still possible for them?
  3. Then read Sarah’s reaction in verses 11-12. That’s your answer. Sarah (and we must assume Abraham also) believes that ship has sailed.

Not that it’s a surprise, but did that moment of uncertainty make the impact of her hopelessness stronger for you? It did for me. So there’s an example of an effective use of foreshadowing.

Do you think you could use it in your story? How could you use subtle foreshadowing to heighten the tension at your story’s crucial moment?

What do you mean “too old”?

Abraham Serving the Three Angels by Rembrandt
The angel tells Abraham he and Sarah will have a son. Do you see Sarah eavesdropping?

Then the angel of the LORD steps in one day, visits them in their tent, and says, “By this time next year Sarah will have a son.”

She laughed, and the angel is like, “Why did you laugh?”

She said, “I didn’t laugh.”

“Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Great use of dialog, by the way. You feel her nervousness when she says, “I didn’t laugh.” And then her embarrassment when the angel says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

But the angel said something to her that turned things around. Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

They had heard promises like this before. God had promised Abraham a son of “his own issue,” but God did not say when and did not promise it would be with Sarah. So he ended up sleeping with Hagar, because Sarah said, “I can’t give you a son. Go in to my handmaid. You need to have a son, because God commanded it.”

He did, and he had a son. God promised to bless Ishmael. But this time God promised specifically, not just Abraham’s issue, but you, Sarah, will have a son by this time next year. I know it looks impossible, but is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

They counted God faithful

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

The angel of the LORD said in effect, “God made a promise. Do you believe it?”

They did, even though it was “impossible,” and even though anyone would probably wonder why God waited until now to fulfill that promise. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered whether they believed or not if Abraham couldn’t get it up. God must have given him some heavenly Viagra. (Hey, the Bible talks about this frankly, so why can’t I?)

Shortly after that encounter with the angel, Sarah started menstruating again. This was their chance. If Abraham was able. Around the same time, Abraham’s dead flesh came back to life. Guess what, Sarah? For the first time in several years, they came together again as husband and wife.

God told them they would have a son together “at the appointed time,” which was within one year. They named him Isaac, which means “he laughs,” because they had both laughed when God first said it to them.

They did not believe instantly. They did not believe constantly throughout their lives. They went through periods of doubt, probably wondering if Abraham was insane. But this time the angel promised, they both heard it, and they knew God was serious. They counted him faithful who had promised, and that’s why they are in the “faith Hall of Fame” of Hebrews Chapter 11.