Sunday, May 11, 2014

Abigail and Her Really Stupid Husband

Nabal was a wealthy property owner living near Carmel during the reign of King Saul.  He owned substantial flocks of sheep and goats as was married to a beautiful and intelligent wife named Abigail.  Nabal was a bad-tempered man and mean in his dealings.  Perhaps it was his name that made him so grouchy; “Nabal” in Hebrew means “fool”; and undoubtedly he was often mocked behind his back.

At this time David and his men were encamped in the Desert of Maron (or Paran, in some manuscripts) near Nabal’s lands.  This was during the time when David was a fugitive, on the run from King Saul.  Although Saul was not actively pursuing him at the moment, David was still keeping out of Saul’s way.

David heard that Nabal was shearing sheep.  Shearing season is usually a festival time for shepherding folk, as David would known from his own boyhood.  So he sent some of his men to Nabal with this message:

“Long life to you!  Good health to you and your household!  And good health to all that is yours! 
Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time.  When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing.  Ask your own servants and they will tell you.  Therefore, be favorable towards my young men, since we come at a festive time.  Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.  (1 Samuel 25:6-8)

Nabal answers scornfully.  “Who is this David?  Who is this son of Jesse?  Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days.”  (v.10)

Nabal might have had reason to suspect David.  After all, what did he know about him?  David was an outlaw who had left the King’s service under a cloud.  And how did David support himself and his men during his years of exile?  The text is vague on this subject, but many in his position would have turned to raiding and banditry.  That’s probably why David emphasizes in his message that he and his men have stolen nothing from Nabal‘s men, that in fact they have protected Nabal‘s flocks; and that Nabal’s own men will vouch for his honesty.  Still, an uncharitable mind might interpret David’s protection as nothing more than an extortion racket; and charity does not seem to have been one of Nabal’s virtues.

Nevertheless, whether David was a bandit or a benefactor, he did command a small army, and insulting him as Nabal did was a remarkably boneheaded move.

One of Nabal’s servants went to Abigail and told her about her husband’s adventures in diplomacy, emphasizing that David and his men had always treated the shepherds well and deserved none of his master’s abuse.  “Disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household,” the servant warns.

He is right to be worried.  We like to think of David as compassionate and forgiving; and in some cases he was:  he respected King Saul and deeply loved his son Absalom, despite the wrongs both did him.  But in other cases we see that David had a temper; and that, although he would often forgive, he would rarely forget.  Upon hearing Nabal’s insulting response, David gathers his army together to teach the jerk a lesson.

Abigail, however, takes action immediately.  She gathers up enough bread, wine, dressed sheep and other foodstuffs to cater a small army, which is exactly what she intends to do, and has them packed up on donkeys and sent to David’s camp, following close behind.  She does not tell Nabal what she is doing.

She meets up with David just as he is telling his men, “It’s been useless -- all my watching over this fellows property in the desert so that nothing was missing.  He has paid me back evil for good.  May God deal with David ever so severely if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!”  (v. 21-22)  This oath, “May God deal with me ever so severely...” is one which appears frequently in the Books of Samuel, and shows he means business.

Abigail goes to David and asks his clemency.  “Do not pay attention to him,” she says of her husband, “As his name says, he is a fool”  (v. 25).  She begs David not to stain his own honor and reputation with an act of bloodthirsty vengeance.

David is moved by her plea, (and no doubt also by the gifts of food), and calls off the raid.

When Abigail comes home, she does not tell her husband about what she did right away.  It’s festival time, remember, and Nabal is busy partying.  She waits until the next day, when he’s sober.  Nabal does not take the news well.  “His heart failed him and he became like a stone,” the NIV says.  (v. 37)  “...his heart died within him” is how the King James Version puts it.

Various commentators have interpreted this to mean he suffered an apoplexy or a stroke.  Some have suggested that he was stricken with terror when he realized how closely he came to being slaughtered by David’s vengeance.  Another possibility, and given what we've seen of Nabal’s personality, I think it the more likely one, is that Nabal was furious that his wife had gone behind his back and given away his stuff in defiance of his express wishes.  He grew so enraged that he worked himself into an aneurysm.

However it was, ten days later Nabal dies.

David hears about Nabal’s death and offers to take Abigail as a wife, and she agrees.  Under the culture of the time, she has no rights to her late husband’s property.  The best she can hope for is to find a new husband.  Whether David gained any claim to Nabal’s lands and livestock by marrying Abigail, I’m not sure, but he was impressed by the wisdom she showed and grateful to her for preventing him from rashly attacking.  David already had one wife, Ahinoam of Jezreel; (one-and-a-half, if you count Michal, the daughter of Saul, whom Saul had given him and then taken away again), but polygamy was still accepted at this time.

I would like to think that Abigail proved a wise and prudent wife and that her advice became valuable to David.  Unfortunately, she falls out of the narrative.  She is mentioned a couple of times later, but only as one of David’s wives, and we hear nothing about her once he becomes king.

She deserved a happy ending; and she certainly deserved better than the fool she was married to.

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