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.

Kill Any That What on the Wall? A Character Study of David, Nabal, and Abigail

One way I like to combine my love of Bible study and writing is with character studies of fascinating Biblical figures. David is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible. One particular story from 1 Samuel 25 tells us a lot about him and a woman who eventually became his wife. I am reposting it because it seems like a good time to bring it back. This is the first of a two-part series.


When you hear David and _______, what do you fill in the blank with? Or rather, who do you fill in the blank with? Probably David and Goliath, perhaps David’s most glorious moment. Maybe you think David and Bathsheba, definitely not David’s most glorious moment. Have you heard of David and Nabal?

The story of David’s dealings with Nabal (1 Samuel 25) is one of the most controversial episodes from David’s time before he became king. Many commentators read it this way: David asks a rich man named Nabal for some food for his men, so they can have a feast. When Nabal refuses and insults him, David totally overreacts and almost commits a mass murder. He tells his men to kill every male of Nabal’s household. Only the intervention of Nabal’s wife, Abigail, prevents him from slaughtering many innocents.

This is true for the most part. However, many people read this as David’s M.O. He would first ask for what he needed. If they gave it to him, no harm would follow. If they did not give it to him willingly, he and his men would ride roughshod over everyone, kill all the males, and take everything they could carry. Among those who present that view are Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord. This is an excellent work of Biblical Fiction concerning David, written from the perspective of Nathan, David’s court prophet and close adviser.

In The Secret Chord, while David is on the run from Saul, he gathers together a band of men, in part for his protection, and in part because leading warriors is something he’s good at. If you have an army, one of the most urgent and constant questions is how are you going to feed them? According to Brooks, he does to everyone what he does to Nabal: He asks and waits. If they give him the food he needs, he leaves them in peace. If not, he kills all the males of the household. The reason is more than just revenge. He wants to send a message to all he will encounter, “Give us what we want, or there will be no mercy.”

Was this David’s M.O.?

This was an old tactic among armies in the ancient world. Wholesale slaughter of one city creates terror in the surrounding areas. The next city might not even resist if they know how dire the consequences will be. And even if they do, a terrified enemy is much easier to defeat. His men, David tells Nathan, are his first responsibility. He will do “whatever is necessary” to feed them and care for them.

In many ways, Brooks did a wonderful job of fleshing out David’s story. However, when it comes to the question of whether or not this is how David normally operated, I have a different take on it. This is the only text where we see David behave this way, so let’s take a look at it.

Nabal the “Fool”

There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean; he was a Calebite.

(1 Sam 25:2-3 NRS)

Nabal means “fool” in Hebrew (v. 25). You have to wonder what kind of parents would name their son “Fool.” It also says he was a Calebite. It’s hard to know whether this was a significant detail or not. Every culture has its racial and ethnic stereotypes. Were they known for being surly and mean? (Cf. 30:14; Jos 14:13; 15:13). Whether or not he is typical of Calebites, we will see in this story he lives up to the name his parents had given him.

David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep.

1 Sam 25:4

This is an important detail. Shearing the sheep for sheepherders and goatherders was like the harvest for farmers. This is when they get paid for the work they’ve done. They have plenty, they will usually celebrate with a feast, so this is when they are normally most generous. But, as we’ve been told, Nabal was surly and mean.

A Peaceful Delegation

So David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name.

“Thus you shall salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.'”

1 Sam 25:5-8

Look at verse seven for a minute: …we did [your shepherds] no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Why do people think this is referring to some mafia-style protection racket? I suppose if you have Godfather movies on the brain, this might sound like a veiled threat. But the rest of the chapter makes it clear: They missed nothing, does not mean “We didn’t take anything, so you owe us.” It means David and his men protected them from bandits, who would have taken anything they wanted by force.

Let’s pause for a minute and notice a few things:

  1. David did not approach Nabal with all 600 of his men brandishing swords, which would clearly have been a request “they could not refuse.” He sent a delegation of ten. That doesn’t sound like he’s looking for wholesale slaughter.
  2. His greeting and request could not have been more polite, not like common bandits would ask.
  3. He asks at a time when Nabal has plenty, so it will not place any hardship on him.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. He asked on a feast day, when it was tradition to share your bounty with those in need.

On a Feast Day

Why does David mention they have come on a feast day? In Hebrew, the phrase is yom tob, literally, “a good day.” However, the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB) says yom tob sometimes refers to a “festal day,” or a feast (cf. Est 8:17; 9:19, 22; Zec 8:19).

Here’s an example from the Book of Nehemiah. On the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the priest, Ezra, reads the entire copy of the Torah to the people, and they have interpreters to help people understand. The people weep, probably because they know they have disobeyed it. But Ezra is quick to tell this festival is not about putting a guilt trip on them. It’s a time to celebrate and thank God for all the ways God has blessed us.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Neh 8:10

A festal day, a day that is holy to our LORD, is a day for celebration. It’s a day to enjoy your bounty and share it with those for whom nothing is prepared. The Law of Moses even told them to collect a tithe for that purpose.

Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

Deu 14:28-29

And again in Deuteronomy,

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments:

Deu 26:12-13 NRS

Part of the purpose of the tithes was to make sure everyone would have something to eat on the religious holidays, or as is said in our passage, a feast day. Those who had an abundance were supposed to share with the poor and needy on the feast days. David and his men were needy. Try feeding 600 men, plus their wives and children, in the middle of a wilderness if you don’t believe me.

This is said today as part of the Passover Seder:

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat: Whoever is in need, let him come and celebrate the Pesach”.

(Haggadah)

I know this comes from a time long after David. But like most traditions in the Haggadah, they were well known among the Jews and Israelites long before they were written down. I’m not saying this was part of the Passover Seder in David’s time, but the spirit of it was in their culture. You see it in the tithes they collected for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows. They should never go hungry but especially on a festal day. David’s request for some food, so he and his men could celebrate a feast, just like Nabal (who was enjoying a feast fit for a king, v. 36), was consistent with the spirit of the Law of Moses regarding feasts. That’s why he makes a point of saying it’s a feast day.

The Fool Responds

So David’s men make the request and wait. In vv. 10-11, we get Nabal’s response.

But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

(1Sa 25:10-11 NRS)

Nabal says, “Who is David?” as if he were a nobody. He likens David to a fugitive slave – because he ran from Saul. He compared David to an outlaw, the very kind of people David and his men protected Nabal’s flocks and herders from.

He said David and his men “Come from I do not know where.” He called them aliens. They really weren’t, but calling them this made him even more culpable. What does the law in Deuteronomy 26:13 say again? “Then you shall say before the LORD your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to…the resident aliens.’” If they are resident aliens, as he said, the Torah specifically requires him to share his abundance with David and his men, even if they had not protected him all year.

For a guy who claims not to know David, he seems to know exactly what insults will wound him the most.

Of course, David is furious. He orders 400 of his men to come with him while 200 stay with the baggage. Why? They need to protect their own stuff from bandits (see ch. 30).

Quick, Tell Abigail

The 400 who came with David were out for blood. Fortunately for Nabal’s household, one servant told Abigail.

But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.

(1Sa 25:14-16 NRS)

One of Nabal’s herders says he had felt safe because of David’s protection. Back in verse seven, David’s envoys told Nabal, “Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel.” Was this as a description of David’s mafia-style “protection” business? “You got some nice sheep and goats here. Would be a shame if something happened to them.”

I might be open to that kind of interpretation if it weren’t for two factors:

  1. 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).
  2. The eyewitness report of the young man who tended Nabal’s flocks. He said they were very good to us…we suffered no harm…we never missed anything…as long as they were with us. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, so no bandits could slip past them and steal from us. Does that sound even close to what you would say about mafia henchmen coming to collect their “rent”?

Now let’s hear the rest of his testimony.

Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”

1Sa 25:17

See? You were gonna skip that, weren’t you? How did he know evil has been decided against our master and against all his house? Because that’s how David operated.

No, that’s how bandits operated. How did he know David was planning evil against them? Because he saw his master take good from David and reward him with evil (v. 21). He knew David and his men were skilled warriors. He heard the insults Nabal hurled at him, and yes, David had his pride. He could not let such insults go unpunished. Any fool would have known that. That is, any fool except Nabal, a man so ill-natured that no one can speak to him. I bet the young man tried, but it was like trying to reason with a brick wall.

I imagine he had a lot of experiences like this: His master acting like an ass, and no one could tell him to shut up. He had learned where to go when his master was mean and surly. We’ve already been told Abigail, unlike her husband, was smart (v. 3). She knew what to do. Whenever you see a fool like him somehow rich, it has to be one of two reasons: 1) he inherited it; or 2) he has a clever wife who covers for his idiocy.

She gathered together enough for a feast for David and his men, loaded it on donkeys, and sent them ahead of her. She did not tell her husband, of course (vv. 18-19). Duh! We already know she’s no idiot.

Evil Is Coming

Next, we find out exactly what evil David has planned against Nabal and all his house.

Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good. God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”

1Sa 25:21-22

Most modern translations clean up the language. However, if we go back to a time before such sensibilities about cursing in a holy book, this is how the King James Version renders that last verse.

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

1Sa 25:22 KJV
Who's Next Album Cover
Better not let David catch you, boys.

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,

  1. What was he doing instead?
  2. Why did he change his mind here?

What Was He Doing Instead?

This is my take. I haven’t seen anyone else say this. But if David was not taking what he wanted by brute force, how did he support himself and his men? I think the answer is in what he had done for Nabal up until this point. He protected honest farmers, herders, and villagers from outlaws, and in return they gave him and his men the food they needed. Ever heard of Barzillai? Probably not. We don’t meet him until the second book of Samuel, but his history with David went back to these same days before he became king.

Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man.

(2Sa 19:32 NRS)

He had provided the king with food. David protected Barzillai, and Barzillai fed David. I don’t think he was the only one. There were humane reasons for it, and practical reasons on both sides. Men like Barzillai needed protection from bandits, who will kill anyone who stands in their way and take everything. David and his men needed food, so you gave them what they needed, and they would protect you from the bandits. If you hired guards, you would have to feed and pay them anyway, so this was not unreasonable.

For David, it helped him keep practicing his leadership and military skills. It also built support for him among the people. Saul either could not or would not protect them from outlaws. David did, and they would remember that when he became king.

In his King Arthur trilogy, Bernard Cornwell wrote the story of Arthur from the perspective of Arthur’s friend, Derfel. In the first volume, The Winter King, one of my favorite scenes is where Arthur explains to Derfel why they can’t just rush into villages and slaughter and plunder anytime they have a disagreement with the people.

It’s easy for us, he tells Derfel, to come in and take whatever we want and kill whoever we want. We have swords, shields, armor, and horses. They don’t. We are trained to fight. They aren’t. But there’s an unspoken agreement between us. We fight to protect them, because they can’t fight for themselves. In return, they grow the food that feeds us, produce the clothing we wear, and forge the armor and weapons we use to fight. As long as they know we are on their side, we don’t have to take what we need. They’ll either give it or sell it to us.

I think that is the kind of ethic David was trying to live by, and that he was trying to teach his men to live by. Which brings us to the second question.

Why Did He Change?

This is not an apology for David. I am not interested in defending the indefensible. I am, however, interested in understanding his state of mind at the moment. Writers need to understand their characters’ motivations, whether they agree with them or not. In David’s case, I think he felt pressure in a number of ways to behave like a bandit and outlaw. He resisted successfully for a while, but this was the moment when many factors came together at once and pushed him over the edge. Those factors were:

  • The death of Samuel (1 Sam 25:1).
  • It was a rough world.
  • A “Biblical” concept of justice
  • His men wanted him to do this
  • Building frustration over having to hide like a criminal
  • Insults that touched his own insecurities

Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.

The Death of Samuel

Just before this story begins, we are told,

Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran.

1Sa 25:1

Anyone can feel lost after the death of a mentor. Samuel was the one who started David on his journey that had taken him from being a shepherd to being commander of the king’s armies. Samuel had been with the people when they demanded a king. Against his better judgment, he accepted their pleas and anointed Saul. But after an act of disobedience, Samuel told Saul the LORD had rejected him as king. Since kings ruled for life, he could not remove Saul from the throne. That didn’t stop Samuel from calling David out of the fields and anointing him as king, even though Saul was still alive.

After defeating Goliath, David caught the attention of Saul, who brought him into the palace. He made David an officer in the army, where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a commander. Saul probably did not know Samuel had anointed David (they would keep that a secret for obvious reasons), but he still saw David as a threat. His jealousy over David’s rising popularity led him to put a price on David’s head, which was why David was hiding out in the wilderness.

That is a greatly oversimplified summary of how David got into the situation we see him now. All of that was to say Samuel’s death had to have affected him. All of Israel mourned for Samuel, and David probably mourned him more than most. The man who anointed him king was now dead. He had been on the run from Saul for years at this point. How does that make sense if the LORD had chosen him to be king? Samuel’s death probably left him with some unresolved questions.

It Was a Rough World

We’ve already noted bandits roamed throughout the countryside. You could barely travel from one city to another without running into them. The men David would have attracted could easily have fallen in with one of these gangs. They knew the ways bandits and outlaws operated. They accepted David’s leadership, but he had to be strong to keep their respect.

He told his men they would kill “every male of all that belongs to him,” but he did not invent that expression. It was already well known, both as a saying and as a tactic, among the outlaws and armies. I’m not saying he was right. I’m saying it was a rough world, and people sometimes sink to the lowest level of their world when they are under pressure.

“Biblical” Justice

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.

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.

Abraham the Pimp?

When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram;…

(Gen 12:14-16a)

So far, everything is happening the way Abram predicted. When Pharaoh heard his officials tell him how beautiful Sarai was, she was taken into Pharaoh’s house. As her “brother,” Pharaoh dealt well with Abram. Just how did he deal well with her “brother”?

…and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

(Gen 12:16b)

Hagar was almost certainly among the female slaves (Gen 16). Where did all this booty come from? Pharaoh wanted to get in good with Sarai’s closest male relative, so he would be favorably disposed to him. If he wants to marry Sarai, he has to go through her brother. What’s going on here? Does Abram really think they will kill him if they find out he is her husband? Or is he using her as a bargaining chip?

This does not sound like it can end well.

Foreshadowing the Exodus

But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.”

And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Gen 12:17-20 NRS)

The great plagues (not specified) are almost certainly meant to foreshadow the plagues that the LORD afflicts Pharaoh and Egypt with when Moses says, “Let my people go.” They set him on the way … with all he had, including all the gifts he had received from Pharaoh (v. 16). This also foreshadows the Egyptians essentially paying the Israelites to leave, because they were so desperate to be rid of them and their plagues.

Next, we find Abraham was a very rich man.

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.

(Gen 13:1-2 NRS)

Be Rich Like Abraham?

Some preachers love to talk about how rich Abraham was. They link it to this verse from Galatians.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”– in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

(Gal 3:13-14 NRS)

“See, the blessing of Abraham is yours if you are in Christ Jesus,” they say. “Abraham was rich, so God wants you to be rich. God promised the blessing of Abraham for you.” Two problems with that.

  1. The blessing of Abraham has nothing to do with making you rich. Paul says the blessing of Abraham we receive when we are in Christ is the promise of the Spirit through faith. Besides, God also blessed Abraham and his wife by making them parents in their nineties. Do you think God will do the same for you?
  2. They praise Abraham for his wealth, but never talk about how he became wealthy.

Early in chapter 12, we learned that Abraham left his extended family and kindred in Haran to wander in Canaan. He left with possessions, so he earned some on his own. But we also just saw he got more livestock, silver, and gold through deceiving Pharaoh. Deceit is much more a part of the story of the Patriarchs than we want to acknowledge.

They Will Say, ‘This Is His Wife’; Then They Will Kill Me

I’ve been talking as if Pharaoh was an innocent victim, and Abram used his wife’s beauty to con him. But was Abram correct about the threat? Would Pharaoh really have killed him if he had known he was Sarai’s husband? I’m having a hard time finding the answer to that. But what if it is true?

Egyptian art depicting Semites coming to Egypt
Semitic refugees coming from Canaan to Egypt because their land was in famine

Here is one possible scenario. Faced with starvation, Abraham decides to take his household to Egypt, where there is plenty of bread. He intended all along for the move to be temporary (Gen 12:10-11). After all, God sent him to Canaan, not Egypt. As soon as the land of Canaan could sustain his people, he would return.

Sojourn in Egypt

When Abraham gets to the border with his wife, his nephew Lot, his people, and his possessions, the soldiers notice his wife. They say she is his sister (according to plan). The guards report to Pharaoh, and he wants her as part of his harem. He tells them to follow plan A, take her to the palace and deal well with the brother. Plan B is to kill her husband, which they don’t do because (in Pharaoh’s mind) she has no husband..

Since the nearest male relative needs to sign off on the marriage, they bring gifts to Abraham and say, “The Pharaoh requests you and your sister join him for dinner tonight.” Of course, no one says “no” when the king makes a request, especially a foreigner who is only in the country at the king’s pleasure.

The pharaoh, having paid the bride-price for Sarai, takes her away. Abraham wants to protest, but when a king wants a woman for his harem, “no” is not an option. Esther and Bathsheba knew that quite well. What does Sarai do at this point? If she tells them Abram is her husband, he’s a dead man. If Pharaoh wants her in her bed, she can’t refuse. What does she do? Maybe she can play coy with him for a while, keeping him at arm’s length, but not burning that bridge altogether. Let him think she will have him (soon) in order to save her husband while trying her best to stay faithful.

That’s possible. But I know you’re dying to ask this question about Sarai and Pharaoh. Did they or didn’t they? To answer that, we need to dig into the Hebrew a little bit, and then compare this with the other “wife-sister” episode in Abraham’s story.

Did They or Didn’t They?

Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? (Gen 12:19a NRS). We have the Pharaoh saying, “I took her for my wife” (Cf. Gen 4:19; 24:4, 67; 25:1-2). KJV renders it “So I might have taken her to me to wife.” That is the Sunday School version, where we don’t want to tell our children Abram pimped his wife to the Pharaoh in order to save his own hide. That version would have Pharaoh saying in effect, “You told me she was your sister. I might have taken her as my wife. I didn’t, but I might have.” And that would be reason enough for Pharaoh to protest.

In almost all modern translations, including NRS, NAS, ESV, NAB, NIV, there is no “might have.” The verb laqach in Hebrew typically means take. Like “take” in English, it can be used in many different ways. When paired with ‘ishshah (woman), it means to take [her] as a wife. A qal waw-consecutive is usually translated in the simple past tense, hence, I took her. (see Translation Notes below).

So did they or didn’t they? It sure sounds like they did. Translations that say anything to the effect “I might have taken her” appear to be uncomfortable with the obvious meaning of the text. But before we decide, we need to compare a similar incident.

Abimelech, King of Gerar: Another Unwitting John?

When Abraham sojourned in the territory of Gerar, Abimelech the king also took Sarah (Sarai and Abram’s names were changed in Genesis 17) into his household, because she was beautiful. This time, God speaks to the man who took Sarah from her “brother.”

But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”

(Gen 20:3 ESV)

Laqach, is in the qal perfect, which indicates completed action, just as the qal waw-consecutive imperfect. Now it sounds like he has had sex with her, and God is about to avenge her husband. But here is what we read just a little later. After Abimelech protests that he is innocent, because Abraham told him she was his sister, God says this:

“Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”

(Gen 20:6 NRS)

So it says he took her, which would normally indicate they had sex. But it also says God kept Abimelech from sinning against me and did not let you touch her, which means they did not have sex.

If you only look at the text about Abraham and Sarah in the land of Egypt, you would have to conclude Sarah slept with Pharaoh, because he took her as his wife. That’s usually what that means. But since we have this case where a man “took her” [as a wife] but never “touched her” (because God prevented him), it is possible this happened with Pharaoh as well.

Gerar “In the Hands of an Angry God”

Like Pharaoh, God visited Abimelech and his people with a plague (20:17-18; cf. 12:17). They must have been wondering what was wrong. Finally, they knew. God tells him how to remedy the situation.

“Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”

(Gen 20:7 NRS)

This is the only verse that specifically calls Abraham a prophet, but he has already been playing the role of a prophet in many ways. Of course, the king must restore the prophet’s wife to him. Abraham, as a prophet, will then pray and heal Abimelech and his household of their plague of childlessness that started when he took Sarah into his household.

What Have You Done to Us?

Naturally, he is furious with Abraham for putting him in that position.

So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done.”

 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?”

(Gen 20:8-10 NRS)

How have I sinned against you, that you have brought this great guilt on me and my kingdom? That sums it up quite well. Abraham brought the guilt upon them. That is no way to treat your host. Why would Abraham do this? It’s the same story we heard when he went to Egypt.

Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.”

(Gen 20:11-12 NRS)

This is where we find out Sarah is his half-sister.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister smirks.
Imagine Cersei is Sarah.

We don’t know who her mother is, or under what circumstances she was born. My guess is Abraham and his brothers found out about her when she was a young girl, right about marriageable age. I wonder how they met. I wonder how they reacted when they found out they had the same father.

He says, I thought there is no fear of God at all in this place, but verses 8-10 say otherwise. When they found out God was offended and threatening to kill them, they very much feared God. Also in Kiriath-Arba (later renamed Hebron), he appears to have good relations with the people there (Gen 23:1-20). So as in Egypt, I have to wonder if this is real. Did they really kill husbands of beautiful women to take them as wives? After Abraham brought plagues on his host in Egypt, why is he doing this again? It turns out this was not limited to Egypt and Gerar.

“And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’”

(Gen 20:13 NRS)

He claims everywhere he goes, there is no fear of God. They will kill him to get to his wife, “so please, dear, say I am your brother.” I could see this happening in a place here or there, but do they really have to do this at every place to which they come? And just like in Egypt, he makes out like a bandit.

Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. Abimelech said, “My land is before you; settle where it pleases you.”

(Gen 20:14-15 NRS)

More sheep, oxen, and male and female slaves. And this is to a man who already has a lot of these (13:2). After restoring his wife, Abimelech allows him to settle anywhere in his territory. That was very important to a man like Abraham with no land of his own. Could he have negotiated this without bringing plagues on his host?

Sarah is Innocent … This Time

To Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

(Gen 20:16 NRS)

Abimelech declares in the open she is completely vindicated and restored to her husband, and nothing happened between them. She keeps her honor. But was that true in every place they went? Did she succeed in keeping every king from touching her? Or was Abraham pimping her out for cattle, sheep, slaves, gold, and silver everywhere they went?

And was Sarah really unwilling? The first time, she might have just gone along because everything happened too fast for her to think it through. What if Abraham is right and they will kill her husband? But if they kept doing this everywhere they went, she had to be a knowing accomplice.

Reality Check

Apparently, we are supposed to believe that every king in Canaan and Egypt had a standing policy of killing husbands of beautiful women, so they could take them into their harem. If the woman wasn’t married, he would acquire her the normal way, by negotiating with her closest male relative. Abraham only started doing this in Egypt, which means he passed through the land of Canaan without ever having to do this with the kings there. Now, we’re told he has to do this everywhere, because every king they had already met suddenly started killing husbands, even though this was never an issue before.

map of ancient Egypt and Middle East
Some of the cities in Canaan Abraham passed through on the way to Egypt: Shechem, Jerusalem, Hebron (called Kiriath-Arba), and Beersheba. Gerar was in the Negeb Desert.

And why didn’t word get around? You’d think after this happened to one king, word would have spread along the trade routes. “Sarah is beautiful, but don’t believe her or her husband Abraham when they say they are siblings. They are husband and wife. You’ll be stealing a man’s wife, and his God will bring plagues on you until you release her.”

Is There Really No Fear of God in Every One of These Places?

Here’s what Matthew Henry’s commentary says about it:

Pharaoh’s reproof of Abram was very just: “What is this that thou hast done?” How unbecoming a wise and good man!…

The sending away was kind. Pharaoh was so far from any design to kill Abram, as he feared, that he took particular care of him. We often perplex ourselves with fears which are altogether groundless. Many a time we fear where no fear is.

Pharaoh charged his men not to harm Abram in anything. It is not enough for those in authority that they do not hurt themselves; they must keep their servants and those about them from doing hurt.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete), Genesis 12:10-20, retrieved from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/genesis/12.html

I am inclined to agree with Henry. The evidence that Pharaoh would have killed Abram is flimsy at best. Maybe Abram really believed it. But if so, it seems he “perplexed himself with fears which were altogether groundless.” And when you see someone claim they fear for their lives yet walk away not only unharmed but richer than before, that is always suspicious. What are we to think when Abraham profits over and over again from the same “mistake”?

Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

And Sarah was sixty-six when they started doing this. Okay, this is going to be a little politically incorrect, but we need to get real here. At sixty-six years old, Sarah is not only beautiful. She is smoking hot. When a king who already has a harem with just about every beautiful woman in the territory at his beck and call, and he sees another woman and says, “I’ve got to have her,” we’re not talking about inner beauty. We’re not talking about personality. We’re not talking about love. We’re talking lust. At. First. Sight.

Van Halen: Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

Could a sixty-six year old woman be so hot she would inspire instant lust in a man like that? Maybe. I’ve seen some women in their sixties who look good. What about a woman ninety years old and likely pregnant (18:10-15)? I’m sorry. I’m just not seeing it.

I’m not saying she couldn’t be beautiful to her husband or to people who knew her. I know men (including myself) need to focus more on inner beauty than outer beauty, but try telling a king he needs to do that. Try telling a king with a harem he needs to stop collecting “barbie doll” wives and concubines and find a soul mate. See how far you get with him. The kind of beauty the story is saying Sarah has at this age just does not happen, even for a woman who lived to be one hundred twenty-seven.

And we are supposed to believe they got away with this? Repeatedly? He said he asked Sarah to do this every place they went (20:13). As I said before, after this happened in Egypt, how could word of this not have gotten around to all the kingdoms of Canaan and Mesopotamia, given the extensive trade that went on in the area?

Conclusion

There is no way Abraham and Sarah look good in this. Sarah might have done it reluctantly the first time to protect her husband. But by the time they got to Abimelech, they had to be a team on this. The king’s officials ask about her and Abraham’s relationship, and they say they are brother and sister. That’s half-true but omits the most important detail.

The king takes her into the palace so he can woo her. Sarah plays coy but most likely slept with some of the kings they scammed. God shakes down the king with plagues. The king pays them, so Abraham will pray and remove the curse. So every time, Sarah and Abraham leave richer than they came in. We don’t know how Abraham became rich in Haran, but doing this in every place is how they became very very rich.

The episode with Abimelech raises the possibility that Sarah never really slept with Pharaoh. If you wanted to say Pharaoh took her as a wife but did not touch her, this is your best evidence. But in the process, the author made Abraham and Sarah both look far worse than if she slept with Pharaoh.

And this is the man and woman God chose to initiate the God’s covenant with the Jews? The bloodline of the Messiah officially starts with them. That seems to be why God protects them. The Bible does say that God’s call and gifts are irrevocable, apparently even for such scoundrels (Romans 11:29).

At this point, I’m almost inclined to believe this happened, simply on the ground that no one in ancient times wanted their nation’s founder to be so deeply flawed. Even so, it still sounds too far-fetched to be real for reasons I named above.

Usually, when authors make up stories about their founders and heroes, they try to make them look better and more praiseworthy. This author seems to have deliberately made Abraham and Sarah look worse as human beings. Why? I can think of two reasons, which I will explain in the next two blog posts.

Translation Notes

In Genesis 12:19 and 20:3, the key verb is laqach. The simple meaning is “take,” but when paired with ‘ishshah, it means “to take [a woman] as a wife.” Here is an excerpt from the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon.

Hol4162  לָקַח

7. l¹qaµ °iššâ take a wife Gn 251, for onesf. Gn 419, for s.one else Gn 244, l¹qaµ °œt¹h lô le°iššâ Gn 1219;

Pharaoh

וָאֶקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ לִ֖י לְאִשָּׁ֑ה (WTT) – וְ particle conjunction   לקח verb qal waw consec imperfect 1st person common singular.

Translation would normally be “I took her as my wife.”

Abimelech

In Genesis 20:3, the phrase, the woman whom you have taken, in Hebrew is

עַל־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה אֲשֶׁר־לָקַ֔חְתָּ (Gen 20:3 WTT).

laqach is qal 2nd masc. sing., “… you took,” or “… you have taken.”

So in both cases, it should be translated in the simple past tense. There is nothing to favor the KJV rendering “I might have taken her.”