Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Abigail and David, an Exemplary Romance or a Cautionary Tale?

Recently I’ve heard a few sermons on the exemplary romance between David and Abigail the widow of Nabal.  The sermon usually exhorts Abigail’s beauty and wisdom and David’s chivalry and justice.  Sometimes wives in abusive relationships or who find themselves married to foolish men are encouraged to “pray for their David.”  However, I'm not sure the story demonstrates anything good about Abigail or David.  And I’m pretty sure that “praying for your David” will only lead to ruin.

The principal scripture we're dealing with is 1 Samuel 25.  As a background I remind myself who the players are and what sort of people they are.

  1. David, not yet king.  He had surrounded himself with men of ill repute - 1 Samuel 22:2 - debtors, malcontents and such.  David wasn't the Messiah and he was far from perfect, even at this very young age. David was running from Saul, continually bouncing from fear of Saul and others on the one hand (1 Samuel 21:10, 12 - even pretending to be crazy) to trusting in the Lord on the other and all the while knowing that innocent people would die because he kept running 1 Samuel 22:22.  While David was certainly much better than Saul, he was hardly the poster child of faith and Godliness.
  2. Nabal, a man of wealth who behaved badly and was harsh (1 Samuel 25:3)  While he was harsh and behaved badly, he is not the Anti-Christ.  He took care of his family and his workers (verse 11).  
  3. Abigail, the wife of Nabal commended for her discernment and her beauty but never for her Godliness or virtue.  

Herein is the story - David asks Nabal for protection money.  It was a shakedown.  David and his 600 men, mentioned before as malcontents and debtors who couldn't pay their debts, were continually running in fear for their lives from the lawful king of Israel.  God had never yet displaced King Saul - God had not yet installed David as king.  While living in the hills running away from the law - which act David was never explicitly told by God to do, and which acts cost the lives of many innocents including priests - David apparently made sure none of his men or any other men stole sheep from Nabal, and now he wanted payment.  It is important that Nabal never asked for this protection.  While it is undoubted that Nabal received benefit from David’s actions, the basis for David then demanding payment for that protection is dubious.  

When Nabal rebuffed David's demand for protection money, David immediately and quite rashly told 400 of his men to get the guns out (swords actually - verse 13).  What was he going to do?  What had David put into his heart to do to Nabal, a man whose sheep did NOT belong to David and which the law provided nothing that David should have a claim on those sheep?  David was acting horribly here!  He was getting ready to massacre Nabal and Nabal's servants and family.  If David is named "Don Corleon" and this is NYC in the 1950's we call this a mob hit.  But because David was so often a man after God's own heart Christians are constantly mixing this up with righteous behavior.

One of the principles of Scripture interpretation is reading Scripture for the purpose it was written.  History is to be read as history; poetry as poetry; didactic writings as teaching.  1 Samuel is history.  Just as it would be foolish to say "well, Saul did it so I can too" it is just as foolish to say "well, David did it, so it must have been good."  Nowhere in this whole passage is David commended by the writer (likely the prophet Samuel) for what he does - and there is clear evidence that David was not acting properly.

So, what about Abigail?  She's discerning.  Discerning people get things - they see the consequences, they see the ramifications - they understand politics.  Nabal has spurned the local mob boss's demand for protection money and now his hit squad is headed for town.  Abigail gets it.  She also knows that David's not been pillaging the area like others might.  She discerns that a beautiful woman going out humbling might just keep everyone from doing something stupid - David included.  And she does.  Abigail exercises a great deal of worldly wisdom here.  But Abigail also sins.  

We don't know her sin from this Scripture - just as we don't know David's shake down for protection money is sin from this Scripture.  But Scripture has to be read as a whole.  It is sin to murder in Genesis and it is sin to murder in 1 Samuel.  It is sin to dishonor your spouse in Ephesians 5 and it is sin to dishonor your spouse in 1 Samuel 25.  

Now, remember - David is acting cowardly at this chapter of his life.  He's feigning mental illness to avoid harm.  He's hiding in caves.  And now poor little Nabal has rebuffed his demand for protection money and he's all "I'm going to kill every male" - verse 22 and then he invokes the name of God and special privilege.  David is out of control.  If you doubt me, I'll demonstrate more of this in a couple paragraphs.

Abigail knows he's out of control - just like she knows that Nabal is out of control.  Nabal won't listen to anyone and David is acting rashly and with a hot head.  So, she wisely interrupts David's plan to commit murder (remember, David is not above murder, see Uriah), and suggests that her husband is a fool (a sin per Ephesians 5 as it was unnecessary to her plan) and that God has prevented David from murder (verse 26) and that all David's enemies should perish.  She feeds David's ego and wisely reminds him that God is in control here.  

David has several weaknesses, women, his pride and his love for God.  Abigail hits on all of them.  But I don't believe Abigail does this because she's a particularly Godly woman - that is omitted and we have no evidence that she was.  She could have simply reminded David that God was in control - as Nathan did - and trusted in the Lord.  But instead she also went to feeding David's ego by rebuking her husband and dishonoring him and the institution of marriage.  Even though Nabal was a fool, it was wrong of her to so rebuke him.  We know this because Paul refused to rebuke an ungodly High Priest.  
Abigail does save the day.  And for her worldly wisdom I think everyone may commend her.  But there is a very sad ending to this story.

First, Abigail is deprived of her family - her husband dies.  And if that weren't enough, all of Abigail's wisdom is thrown away when David asks her to marry him.  Wisdom would have said "David, aren't you already married?  Doesn't Hebrew law prohibit polygamy?"  But she falls prey to her own worldly wisdom and accepts.  Ironically David doesn't even marry her alone - he offends her dignity by marrying another the very same day.  David is collecting a harem and Abigail falls victim to her own sin.  

Abigail sinned against God when she dishonored Nabal.  And her punishment was spending another marriage with a man who would dishonor her by 1) marrying another the very same day, 2) breaking God's law and keeping multiple wives and 3) need we mention Bathsheba?  Abigail bears David children but she also has to deal with David the home-wrecker, David the murderer (God would not prevent David from murdering forever), David the exhibitionist, David the adulterer, David the rager, David the fool.  Abigail would have the indignity of seeing David do all of the things that Nabal did.  In the end, Abigail was hardly better excepting that she exchanged one rich fool for another.

I recognize that David did have a heart for God.  However, that heart for God did not characterize David's whole life.  The verse is 1 Samuel 13:14.  That was a statement concerning David before he disobeyed God concerning the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant which cost Uzzah his life and then railed against God for being Holy.  Before he disobeyed God and numbered the people.  Before he disobeyed God and accumulated horses and gold.  Before he disobeyed God and took multiple wives.  Before he disobeyed God and committed murder.  Before he disobeyed God and committed adultery.  

Please don't get me wrong - David is one of my heroes.  But not because he was perfect and certainly not because he was such a great sinner.  The marked difference between Saul - another king who sinned greatly, and David was not their sin - for they both sinned egregiously.  But David was sorrowful over his sin.  It broke his heart.  He really did love God.  He lived Romans 7.

So in the end, the tale of Abigail and David is more a cautionary tale than an exemplary tale of Godly romance.  It is not OK to dishonor your spouse even if they really are a fool.  And I caution those women stuck in back relationships to be careful what you wish for.  God may indeed reward you with a David, and who wants to be married to a David?

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