Since our readership has rapidly expanded over the past few years, and especially during the past few months, we want to take some time this summer to draw attention to earlier articles for those who may have missed them. Today’s article was among those from our first few months and was published on Recovering Grace in October of 2011.
This is the second of two re-printed articles examining the biblical character, Abigail. To quickly summarize the first article (found here), Abigail was a hero. Her quick thinking and action saved lives. David praised God for using her to save him and others from needless pain.
From the Pages of Scripture
This article looks at Bill Gothard’s interpretation of the story as presented in Character Sketches (an Institute in Basic Life Principles publication known for its beautiful illustrations). Abigail is presented as villain rather than hero; as well-intentioned but rebellious, causing “grief,” “lasting consequences,” and “ultimate tragedy” (pages 299 – 301).
But is this interpretation consistent with Scripture? Character Sketches makes many assertions about Abigail in an effort to build a case against her. The following paragraphs consider several of those claims:
Abigail disobeyed the Law (Deut 19:15) and Matthew 18:15-17: She was wrong to accept the “bad report” of a lone shepherd (p. 301).
However, both of these passages are being wrested from context. Deuteronomy 19:15 prescribes a process for legal claims, one person against another. Matthew 18 concerns personal offenses in the church. Neither passage applies to Abigail. An eye-witness had urgently warned Abigail that there was an immediate threat to life and limb. Her actions were not a legal dispute between her and Nabal. They were an attempt to save her husband’s life while appealing to David’s better judgement in the light of God’s future plans for him. It is absurd to claim that these verses judge against Abigail. Why is there a need to wrest verses out of context in an attempt to judge Abigail for averting an urgent threat?
Abigail is guilty of rebellion, something the Lord hates: Initiative is most often praised in Institute literature as one of 49 Character Qualities, but Abigail’s initiative here is cast in a negative light with the phrases “taking the lead,” “acted independently,” “taking matters into her own hands.” (These are loaded terms for followers of Gothard’s teachings; they imply rebellion.) “We must conclude that, although her motives were sincere, her methods were wrong and displeasing to the Lord who hates rebellion against authority even though that authority be an unwise father or a foolish husband” (p. 301). If the Lord hates rebellion, and if she was rebellious, then the Lord seemingly hated her actions and/or attitudes.
However, her speech of seven verses (1 Sam. 25:24-31) began with her bowing down to the ground. Six times she referred to herself as servant (“handmaid” in the KJV), 10 times she called David “my lord.” Her speech saved the life of Nabal and the lives of all the men in the house. If Abigail were truly in rebellion, perhaps it would have made more sense for her to step aside and let her husband die at the hands of an offended warrior. Regardless, her speech is not one of rebellion, it is one that shows appropriate respect. In reality, Abigail protected her husband without covering for him or enabling him (a feat that any spouse of an alcoholic will report is difficult).
“Hate” and “rebellion” are strong words. The reader will look in vain in 1 Samuel 25 for them–they are not there. Why the need to import these strong words into the interpretation of Abigail’s story when there is nothing to suggest them in the Scriptural context?
Abigail set David up to commit adultery and murder: “She robbed [David] of the necessary caution that could have prevented” him from later “killing another woman’s husband in order to cover up his sin with her” (p. 299). This is how her “independent action caused permanent grief” and “ultimate tragedy.”
However, Scripture makes no link, either express or implied, between Abigail’s wise appeal here and David’s sin years later with killing Bathsheba’s husband after he became king. It seems that in Gothard’s economy, for David to kill everyone in Nabal’s house would be an excusable failure, but for Abigail to appeal against it was a horrible sin. Why the need to blame a wife for a husband’s sin?
Abigail suffered consequences: “After her husband died, Abigail became [David’s] wife. He removed her from a comfortable home to the hardship of a fugitive’s life” (p. 299).
However, Scripture shows Abigail “quickly” joining David. Nothing in the story indicates that Abigail’s home life with her cruel husband was comfortable.
“Fugitive” is a curious name for the rightful king of Israel. David was temporarily on the run to save his life from the abusive and murderous Saul, but as Abigail had predicted, he was soon the king (and she a queen). That Abigail was temporarily taken hostage (not in the current context but in a separate story) does not make a statement against her. She was taken hostage and David rescued her. This is in contrast to her first husband who put her in harms’ way and she had to rescue him. The story in Scripture ends with both Abigail and David being in improved stations in life. Why the need to twist the satisfying conclusion into something negative?
Abigail later admitted remorse: Character Sketches claims that later in life, Abigail changed her son’s name to Daniel, which is said to mean “God has judged me.” It also claims that her son should have been king but instead lived and died in obscurity (giving the impression that this is somehow God’s judgement for these events).
However, Scripture’s entire record for Abigail’s son consists of two verses:
2 Sam. 3:3–And his second, Chileab, of Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite;
1 Chron. 3:1–…the second Daniel, of Abigail the Carmelitess…
Where is the evidence? There is a positive connotation in Genesis 30:6 where Rachel declared that God had judged positively in her favor and given her a son whom she named Dan. The name Daniel means “God is my judge.” The famous Daniel whom God saved from the lion’s den received justice and favor from God. Scripture does not fill in any details about when the son was given which name, or if perhaps he was known by both names. The supposed evidence of Abigail’s remorse is entirely speculation. Why the need to invent details and claim that they are Scriptural?
“It was true that Abigail was successful in her scheme but there may have been a better method.” (p. 301)
However, this faint praise does away with David’s words and ignores that God’s hand was at work behind the scenes, using Abigail:
“Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the LORD, the God of Israel lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak.” (1 Sam 25:32-34)
Why the need to ignore David’s praise of both Abigail and God?
Thirty years ago, a concerned reviewer wrote an article in which he attempted to be as fair as possible to Bill Gothard’s teachings. But he concluded with a caution that Gothard had an “an almost fascistic view of power” (Bockelman, 1974). That Scripture would smile on Abigail is an unwelcome challenge to Gothard’s view of power. To mitigate this threat, Gothard re-interpreted Abigail’s story in a unique and negative way that is inconsistent with both Jewish and Christian tradition.
The overarching problem with Gothard’s interpretation of this story is that it ignores authorial intent* and manufactures a meaning inconsistent with the text. This passage clashes with Gothard’s extreme and dangerous emphasis on submission to all authority at any cost. He did not find the clear reading of this passage to his taste, so he twisted it to create his own “bad report” against Abigail and a not-so-subtle threat to survivors of abuse everywhere that their own actions would be “hated” by the Lord, should they take initiative. The lack of submission that this interpretation reveals is not Abigail’s, it is Bill Gothard’s. Gothard is unwilling to submit himself to this passage. Instead, he is attempting to force Scripture to submit to him.
Bockelman, W. (1974). Pros and cons of Bill Gothard. Christian Century, 91(32), 877-880. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. (1976). Character Sketches from the pages of Scripture, illustrated in the world of nature. Oak Brook, Ill.: The Institute.
*For more about authorial intent, see A Call for Discernment.