Today we are returning to our summer series on Women in the Old Testament, looking at some of the most important and impactful women in Jewish Biblical history. This week we are reflecting on 1 Samuel 25, Abigail - Wisdom. Abigail is the only woman in the Bible to be described as being both beautiful and intelligent. Abigail uses her intelligence and wisdom to save her household from David’s anger, and to save David from engaging in an impulsive and rash act of vengeance that would have threatened his kingship later on. Abigail helps to ensure that David lives into his godly character.
1 Samuel 25
August 14, 2022
This story of David, Abigail, and Nabal feels like an interruption in the larger story of David and King Saul. This story comes between two stories of King Saul going after David and David showing King Saul mercy after having opportunities to kill the king. David’s mercy and grace in both these instances are important to remember as we reflect on our passage this morning.
The prophet Samuel has died and David is no longer able to lean on Samuel’s wisdom and guidance. David takes his 600 men and moves into the wilderness south of Jerusalem, away from the danger of King Saul. While David and his men live in the wilderness, they come across the flocks of a clansman of David called Nabal and they keep an eye over Nabal’s flocks and men, protecting them from thieves and wild animals. This is what you do for a person from your same tribe of Judah, especially when he’s as wealthy as Nabal is. There’s an unspoken relationship here of “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours.”
Now the time comes to shear the sheep, a huge task that always ends with a great time of celebration, “David tells ten young men, “Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. Say to him: ‘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 toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.’”
David’s asking for Nabal to be generous to him and his men and offer them a few sheep for themselves out of gratitude for protecting Nabal’s flocks and men. Nabal nastily and rudely mocks David and his protection, refusing to offer them anything, insulting David as mere ruffian. David’s angry! He tells his men to put on their swords and he’s ready to teach this miserable, mean cheapskate a lesson. Now Abigail, Nabal’s wife enters the story, she’s the only woman in the Bible who is described as being both intelligent and beautiful. One of the family servants comes to Abigail and tells her what her husband has done, insulting David after David and his men had protected them and their flocks and then asked for a gift of food to celebrate a successful shearing season. The servants realize that they’re in danger of losing their protection due to Nabal’s foolish stubbornness. The servant tells Abigail, “He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.”
David vows, in very crude language that our English translations translate much more politely, “May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!” David’s desire for vengeance after being insulted by Nabal stands in a stark contrast to how David responds to King Saul’s attempts to kill him both just before and right after this story. We get a glimpse of David’s not so godly impulses here. Most commentaries connect David’s reaction in this story to David’s impulsive act with Bathsheba later on; neither act honoring God, both putting God’s plans at risk.
The Jewish Women Archive writes, “Abigail’s intervention prevents a bloodbath. She quickly assembles an elaborate feast, which is loaded up on donkeys and sent in advance. She then intercepts David to persuade him against fulfilling his violent oath…. Before we are struck by the full force of the oath, we anticipate its undoing.” Abigail shows up with an extra-generous gift for David and his men and she does so in a spirit of humbleness, realizing only humility will sooth David’s pride. When Abigail sees David, she quickly gets off her donkey and bows down before David. “Pardon your servant, my lord, and let me speak to you; hear what your servant has to say. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name—his name means Fool, and folly goes with him. And as for me, your servant, I did not see the men my lord sent. And now, my lord, as surely as the Lord your God lives and as you live, since the Lord has kept you from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, may your enemies and all who are intent on harming my lord be like Nabal.”
Before, Samuel would have been around to advise David against seeking vengeance, but now God brings Abigail, an intelligent and wise woman, to offer David godly guidance. Abigail recognizes that God has plans for David and that those plans likely include the throne of Israel, and if that is the case, then a blood feud with the family of Nabal would create division in the tribe of Judah and make it difficult to for David to gain the throne. Abigail goes against her husband and takes the side of David, calling David “lord” and herself his “maidservant.” She tells David that if he turns back from his vow to kill Nabal, that God will “make a lasting dynasty” of David’s family line, and that “the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling,” an echo back to David’s defeat of the giant Goliath. Abigail recognizes that David’s vow of vengeance doesn’t fit with the character the king of Israel needs to have, or the kind of character that David normally shows. We all need people like Abigail in our lives, reminding us of who Jesus calls us to be as his children and followers.
David does turn from his vow to kill Nabal, acknowledging Abigail’s wisdom keeping his from bloodshed and vengeance. David’s decision to follow Abigail’s advice shows his worthiness to be king over Israel, and reveals how God will often use those around us to offer us guidance in life, turning us back to his ways when we are tempted to follow the darker impulses in our hearts. James reminds in his letter that “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed,” while Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians that, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
God uses the wisdom of Abigail to keep David from the temptation to punish Nabal and remind David of his true character shaped by mercy and grace. God provides us with ways to endure and get through temptation, often using wise people already in our lives, parents, mentors, friends, teachers, counsellors, and others. Jesus went to the cross and returned to heaven in order to send us “the Holy Spirit to be with us forever, the Spirit of truth… who will teach us all things and remind us of everything Jesus told us;” as John reminds us in his Gospel. It’s important that we surround ourselves with people who continually call us to godly character, but also that we gently call others to godly character in all the areas of our lives.
Abigail acts as a mediator between Nabal and David, even though Nabal’s unaware of it at the time. Abigail comes to David to turn David’s wrath aside by bringing David an offering to soothe his wrath and anger. In this way, Abigail is a foreshadowing of Jesus, our mediator to God, going to his Father to turn God’s wrath away from us and onto himself, even when we’re unaware of our sin. Paul writes to Timothy, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” I love how Isaac Ambrose, the English Puritan preacher, describes Jesus as our mediator, “Only Christ is that ladder between heaven and earth, the Mediator betwixt God and man; a mystery which the angels of heaven desire to pry into.” The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us in Q & A 49 that “Jesus pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of the Father.”
Abigail returns home ands finds her husband drunk from feasting. She waits until the morning to tell him what she has done and his heart turns to stone in fear and he dies ten days later, struck by the Lord. Abigail saves her household and at the same time makes an impression on David with her wisdom and courage. David takes Abigail as his wife, bringing her wisdom into his household. David’s marriage to Abigail also increases his standing in Judah, making him one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the tribe, setting him up well for when God finally sets David on the throne in Jerusalem.
Abigail kind of fades out of the Bible story at this point, bearing David a son, standing by him at his inauguration, but we learn nothing more about this interesting woman. God placed Abigail into David’s life to offer him wise guidance and to act as a mediator, echoes of who Jesus is in our lives still today.