The first Abigail is a wise and beautiful hero, an inspiration to women and men everywhere. Her quick thinking, deliberate action, and diplomatic speech saved many lives. We meet this Abigail in a delightful story told in 1 Samuel 15. Sadly, many of us raised under the Institute in Basic Life Principles and ATI’s teachings grew up hearing a misleading version of this courageous person’s story.
The other version of Abigail is an illustration of the consequences of rebellion. Unhappy with the man whom God had placed in authority over her, she took initiative and stepped out from under his authority, thereby stepping away from God’s will and her “umbrella of protection.” This unwise response to her situation seemingly achieved short-term relief but caused long-term pain, illustrating once again that God hates rebellion. This second version of Abigail’s story is an unfortunate invention appearing in IBLP’s Character Sketches.
This post is the first in a two-part series. The purpose of this post is to see Abigail’s story in Scripture. Abigail’s tale is a literary gem. I recommend you stop reading this now and read her story here.
Abigail’s narrative is woven into the larger story of Saul and David, in the context of God guiding the events of David’s life. God was often quietly at work in the background of David’s life, such as when he protected him from a lion and a bear, Goliath, and eventually Saul. God was with David as he responded to the priests of Nob, the Philistines, and the Moabites. The Lord provided a friend in Jonathan, one who stood by David’s side against his father, the failed king Saul. Desperately clinging to his forfeit kingship, Saul fought God and chased David with murderous intent. Our story here in 1 Samuel 25 is sandwiched in between two chapters (1 Sam. 24 and 26) that each contain a scene where David had an opportunity to kill Saul but he showed restraint and chose not to. Even in this David was aware of God quietly working behind the scenes, such as causing a deep sleep to fall on Saul’s men (see 1 Sam. 26:12).
Nabal was “surly and mean” in sharp contrast to his “intelligent and beautiful” wife, Abigail. We learn from speeches in the story that he was rude and unapproachable (“no one can talk to him” v. 25:17). Nabal’s name became a play on words for “fool” (v. 25). Perhaps his parents did not name him with this intention and it became a nickname later. Proverbs makes a clear contrast between Wisdom and the Fool. Readers who are familiar with ancient Wisdom literature will recognize this as a common theme of other Wisdom writings as well. Nabal played the fool, a stubborn and brash person who is an excessive drinker with a hot temper. Even the style of the narrative suggests the distinction between Nabal and Abigail by reporting Abigail’s speech as a wisdom speech. One commentary calls it a “masterpiece of rhetoric” (Barker & Kohlenberger, p.425). This literary device is subtle to the modern reader but important: in ancient literature wise speeches are made by wise people.
David enters the scene. According to customs of the time, David and his men protected Nabal’s sheep and shepherds under an implied contract. Wool was an important part of the economy and sheep-shearing time was payday. David chose this appropriate occasion to respectfully ask for his fair wages. True to form, Nabal’s response to David’s request was stingy, rude, and nothing short of foolish. His retort that, “Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days,” was an insult to David, the rightful king, the one being hunted by Saul as if he were a breakaway slave. This statement becomes further ironic in light of events that would shortly unfold.
David responded to Nabal in anger, bent on revenge.
One of Nabal’s servants (ironically) broke away to warn Abigail of the danger. Her action was quick and decisive, her haste being named in four verses. She quickly put together what we might call a care package: gifts of food and wine, including fig cakes similar to the food that would soon revive a fugitive Egyptian in the field (1 Sam. 30:11-12). Her ability to do so speaks well of her preparation. The urgency of the situation and her husband’s foolish responses dictated that this was not the time for confrontation. “The attentive reader gains the impression of a woman who decided, years ago, that her very survival would require an energetic but disciplined approach to life.” (Reardon, in Touchstone) She courageously rode on a donkey to meet David and his 400 armed and hot-blooded men to offer them the gift.
Abigail diplomatically offered the answer that turned away David’s wrath. She took the blame for her husband’s wrongdoing (reminding the believer of Jesus’ taking our blame), clearly stating the truth about his actions and attitudes as she interceded to save his life and the lives of those under his direction. She found a way to appeal to David’s honor and to appease his anger without being disloyal to her husband. Her words were perceptive, some say prophetic, as she spoke to his future kingship and the one who was pursuing him (the reader sees Saul in the background).
David understood that her quick judgment and deliberate action had saved him the grief of his hot temper. The same God who had been guiding in the background through the confrontations with the lion, bear, Goliath, the Philistines, and Saul had now guided Abigail directly into David’s path. Unlike the foolish Nabal, David listened and corrected course. He expressed appreciation to Abigail and to the God whose hand had once again quietly intervened. The mission was a success.
Abigail returned home. Nabal* had laid aside his former stinginess and was now eating and drinking to excess, celebrating like a king (one of several opportunities to see an allusion to the now illegitimate King Saul). At the appropriate time, no sooner or later, Abigail explained what had taken place. Gregory the Great praised her timing:
"Wherefore, Abigail laudably did not speak to Nabal about his sin when he was intoxicated, and as laudably told him of it when he became sober. For it was precisely because he did not hear of his fault when drunk that he was able to recognize it." (cited in Franke & Oden, p. 312)
Less than two weeks later, the Lord struck down Nabal and he died. Hearing the news, David sent for Abigail and she accepted his proposal for marriage. The story closes with Abigail and David both being in improved situations. Abigail is married to the future king, a man who respects her and will go to battle to save her. David is married to a strong and passionate, well-connected woman of means who only helps to further his position in life and his political career.
But wait, there’s more! Click here for Part Two as we replay this story through the lens of Gothardism…
*Nabal’s name here holds an additional literary irony: it is very similar in appearance to “nebel,” the word for skin, such as the wine-skins that Abigail gave to David as a peace offering. Drunk, Nabal is literally a “nebel” full of wine until “morning, when the wine was gone out of [him].” (for example, Gordon, p.30)
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Dunn, J. D. G., & Rogerson, J. W. (2003). Eerdmans commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
Franke, J. R., & Oden, T. C. (2005). Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.
Freedman, D. N. (1992). The Anchor Bible dictionary: Vol.1. New York: Doubleday.
Freedman, D. N., Myers, A. C., & Beck, A. B. (2000). Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans.
Gordon, R. P. (2006). Hebrew Bible and ancient versions: Selected essays of Robert P. Gordon. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.
Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. (1976). Character sketches from the pages of Scripture, illustrated in the world of nature. Oak Brook, Ill.: The Institute.
Klein, R. W. (1983). 1 Samuel. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Reardon, Patrick Henry. “Touchstone Archives: Abigail & the Way of Wisdom.” Touchstone Magazine: A Journal of Mere Christianity. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2011. <http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=09-02-026-f#ixzz1YjMGb9lA>.
Walton, J. H., Matthews, V. H., & Chavalas, M. W. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.
(Photo Credit: Jesse Therrien)