16 May 2021
Women in the Bible – Abigail
Men behaving badly! In our Bible reading we’ve read about two men behaving badly who caused a crisis. But we’ve also read about one woman who behaved wisely and so was able to avert that crisis. ‘Men Behaving Badly’ is also the title of a commentary by John Goldingay, on the events of 1 and 2 Samuel. The story of Abigail is just one of many examples of men behaving badly in OT history.
Let’s have a look at the context. The Israelites under King Saul were at war against the Philistines and were struggling badly. David had entered the scene in dramatic fashion by killing the giant Goliath. Saul had put David in charge of his army and David led the Israelites to victory in several battles. Saul had given his daughter, Michal, to David as his wife. But David’s growing reputation among the people as a warrior and leader incited Saul’s jealousy, and Saul began trying to kill him. So David had fled and had become an outlaw, and he had gathered together a band of followers who lived in the wilderness.
For several chapters of 1 Samuel, David was on the run, but Saul had never been able to catch him. Indeed, there were two occasions when David could have killed Saul but spared him, because David did not want to kill God’s anointed King of Israel. Samuel, the great prophet of God, had anointed Saul as King and David was content to leave it to God to do justice between him and Saul. Yes, after Saul had turned away from God, Samuel had anointed David as the future King, but David was willing to leave the timing in God’s hands.
At the start of our reading, we see that David and his followers had been patrolling the Desert of Paran, where the shepherds of a wealthy landowner, Nabal, had been tending his flocks. David’s men made that area safe from raiding Philistines and occasional wild animals that might have harassed Nabal’s shepherds. But it was now pay-back time.
David’s men had been protecting Nabal’s sheep, now they wanted something in return. It was sheep-shearing time, and Nabal would have been making money from selling the wool. It was also a happy time for shepherds, something like a harvest festival, and usually involved feasting. So there would have been plenty of food about. And David and his men expected to share in it.
Even before the incident described in today’s reading, Nabal had a reputation for being surly and mean, so we may be surprised to be told that Abigail, his wife, was intelligent and beautiful. But it’s unlikely that she would have had much choice in the matter. Her parents would have chosen Nabal for her, perhaps thinking a prosperous sheep-farmer was a good match for their daughter.
Anyway, David sent a polite request to Nabal for provisions, but Nabal rebuffed him. Maybe Nabal was a supporter of Saul who regarded David simply as a rebel. Perhaps he felt that David was running a protection racket to finance his outlaw way of life. Or the miserly Nabal simply did not want to part with anything that he had. After his initial politeness, David quickly turned to anger. He overreacted to Nabal’s insults and prepared to attack and kill every male in Nabal’s household that very night.
While David was willing to take the “long view” of things when it came to becoming king, he wasn’t so keen when it came to his response to Nabal. Suddenly David was about to commit mass murder, while Nabal cared more about his pride than about his workers and family. These two arrogant men were unable to resolve an argument about sheep without spilling the blood of hundreds of innocent people. Thankfully, unlike Nabal, who was foolish because he would not listen, David received and responded to correction.
David got back on track, because of a woman’s wise actions. Two men behaving badly, Nabal and David, had created a crisis, but Abigail, through behaving wisely, redeemed the situation.
As a woman in a patriarchal society, she wouldn’t have been a party to the visit by David’s men, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t do anything about it. Abigail responded wisely to the crisis. She quickly prepared a feast for David and his men, then rode out to meet David with a fulsome apology. Yet wrapped in her courteous words were some hard truths that David needed to hear. He was on the verge of shedding blood without cause, bringing on himself a guilt he could never have escaped.
Abigail’s approach to David was a model of tact and courage. Imagine this solitary woman, riding on a donkey, approaching 400 armed men on horses who were bent on slaughtering her household. It took immense courage and boldness, as well as great wisdom, for Abigail to take her life in her hands and do what she did.
She gave a wonderful speech. Some commentators suggest that she was simply being realistic. She was wise enough to see the way in which the wind was blowing and to get out of a very tricky situation. Other commentators suggest that she was godly and wise enough to recognise the truth. Either way, pragmatically or sincerely, Abigail spoke the truth powerfully. And the power of what she said - and its impact on David – leads me to believe that she was sincere, that she did indeed have God’s perspective on the situation.
First, Abigail apologised for her husband’s foolish actions. Abigail begged David to listen to her; her own husband would not. Nabal had proudly described David as a runaway servant, but Abigail presented herself humbly as a servant to David.
Secondly, Abigail spoke according to a proper perspective. In some way, she knew that David was destined by God for greater things. She looked forward to a time when David would sit on Israel’s throne.
In light of that perspective, she successfully persuaded David that he was made for bigger things than exacting vengeance on a fool who had acted as fools do - foolishly. Just because Nabal had played the fool didn’t mean David had to do the same.
Abigail concluded with a request that David would remember her when he attained his throne. In all that she said, Abigail revealed a godly perspective that was totally absent in her husband.
David was moved by her words and abandoned his plan to kill Nabal and all his men. He even thanked Abigail for diverting him from his reckless plan. “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. 25:33–34).
When she returned home, Abigail discovered that her foolish husband was drunk from celebrating. He had been totally oblivious to his mortal danger. He had been feasting rather than fasting.
Abigail wisely waited until morning before telling her husband what a close brush he had had with death. By then he had sobered up. When he realised what had happened and his foolishness, our text says that “his heart failed him and he became like a stone”. Ten days later, he died.
After Nabal died, David married Abigail. It would be nice if there were a happy ending and David and Abagail lived happily ever after, but that didn’t happen. David had two other wives, Ahinoam and Michal, though King Saul had given Michal, his daughter, to another man. Fairly soon afterwards Abigail and Ahinoam were captured by the Amalekites, and David had to launch a rescue mission.
Subsequently we read that Abigail was one of six women who bore sons for David in Hebron (2 Samuel 3:3), though he had more sons after that when he was King in Jerusalem.
So, what can we learn from Abigail?
The first lesson for us is to beware of anger. Anger is a rampant problem and can wreak havoc in relationships – whether between nations or in families or even churches. Yet it is also necessary to acknowledge that anger can sometimes be perfectly legitimate. In the Bible, there are plenty of examples of God’s anger. Anger can be helpful in that it signals to us that something is wrong. Anger in the face of injustice and evil is a godly response. The important thing, though, is that, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:26, "In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
Thomas Jefferson, one of the main authors of the US constitution, once said, "When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred."
Jefferson was right. When we act out of anger, as Paul indicates in Ephesians, we run a great risk of falling into sin. There are times to be angry. Let God use our anger to show us what’s unjust in the world and what God is calling us to do about it.
But do not let anger lead us into sin like David. No matter how foolish the people in power may be, they are not the ones finally in charge.
So when we’re angry, start counting and ask God to show us what he wants us to do about the situation. In contrast to David and Nabal, Abigail remained calm and was able to defuse the crisis. In particular, she stopped David committing senseless murder.
The second lesson is that, if we want to make peace, we must sometimes act with holy boldness.
We don’t have to be a person of high status to be called to exercise influence. But we do need courage, which fortunately is something we can ask God for at any time.
Abigail acted with holy boldness. She didn’t allow the prejudices of her culture to hold her back. Her culture told her she was only a woman, that she had no power and that she must be subject to her husband’s wishes. But she knew her husband was making a huge mistake. So she took charge.
It does not matter who you are, you are made in the image of God. You are not inferior to anyone else, because of your race, sex, education or any other reason. We can all ask for holy boldness. We’re unlikely to in a situation like Abigail’s, but there are times when we can show holy boldness. For example, how do we react to racist or sexist comments? Or to people making disparaging comments about someone with mental health problems?
The third lesson is that if we want to make peace, we may need to humble ourselves like servants. Abigail showed respect, even while rebuking David for his plans to massacre Nabal and all his men. Abigail provides a model for challenging authority. Nabal turned a petty argument into a life-threatening situation by wrapping a minor dispute in a personal insult. Abigail resolved a life-threatening crisis by dressing a stern rebuke in respectful words.
Sometimes harsh words are called for, but sometimes a gentler approach is the godlier one. Her example is one that we shall do well to follow.
When the moment of crisis came, Abigail kept calm. She was also able to see the situation from God’s perspective, and refused to allow the cultural rules of her time to stop her from intervening. She was willing, with tact and holy boldness, to confront a powerful leader who was bent on revenge. Through God’s grace, she was able to rise to the occasion and avert a disaster.
Can we, through God’s grace, show the same wisdom and courage to speak truth to power?