It’s Complicated: Abigail and David
Have you ever had to live with a bully?
I don’t just mean your older brother, who sometimes tormented you a bit, but also would have had your back the second someone else said a word to you.
I mean a bully. The kind of person who turned your world upside down. A person who changed the way you lived in and interacted with the world around you. Who tortured, tormented, and hurt you in ways that left scars lasting a lifetime?
I have lived with a bully. I know what it is like to live on high alert, tiptoeing around someone, learning their rhythms and finding ways to accommodate. When your life revolves around a bully, you learn how to breathe the same oxygen that they breathe. You speak their language. You learn how to cut them off at the pass, meeting their unmet needs in other ways to reduce the damage that they cause.
It’s not an uncommon story. Listen to survivors and you’ll hear the same thread- survivors of domestic violence, of childhood abuse and neglect, and even childhood sexual assault. Many will tell you that they survived by learning to read their abuser. They learned cues, triggers or even the needs of their abuser. In doing so, they found ways to survive within the environment. Survival is instinctual.
Abigail was a survivor. (1 Samuel: 25, NSRV)
She was married to a man named Nabal. He was extremely wealthy, owning both sheep and cattle. He’s described as a Calebite who was surly and mean with his dealings. Other translations use words like “harsh, badly behaved, and crude.” One of the servants even said to Abigail, “He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.”
We’re given two adjectives to describe Abigail: beautiful and clever (intelligent in other translations).
This was a man whose world revolved around himself. He treated others poorly, as we see in his exchange with David, and he demonstrated no regard for others.
Can you imagine what life must have been like for Abigail? She was tied to this awful, bully of a man. She likely spent a large portion of her time cleaning up his messes- in fact, when Nabal deeply offended David, the servant went to Abigail. Why? Why would the servant do that? I would venture a guess… He’d probably seen Abigail clean up Nabal’s messes before. Likely many times before.
Abigail was a survivor. She knew how to adapt. She had learned, because she had no choice but to learn, how to interact with people her husband had offended. She learned how to mend broken relationships. She also likely had ample experience soothing the wounded ego of a prideful man. After all, her husband certainly fit the bill.
Abigail’s intelligence became critical when her husband offended another man with an enormous ego. In 1 Samuel 25, David and Nabal’s egos collided in what could have become a bloody, pride-filled disaster. But, Abigail.
David and his men had been in the countryside protecting farmers and shepherds. Nabal’s shepherds had benefited from David’s protection, and as a result, Nabal enjoyed the fruits of that labor. He threw a celebration in honor of the successful season, and David wanted an invite. When he sent messengers to Nabal requesting kindness and food for his men, Nabal dismissed them, scoffing, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat I have butchered for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”
He pretended to have no idea who David was. He compared David to a servant who ran away from his master. Such pride. Such arrogance. Such selfishness.
And David had his own egotistical response. He couldn’t handle being dismissed like that- not after he and his men worked so hard. All they had asked for was kindness and food. Who did this guy think he was, anyway? David was the future KING. Nobody treated him like that and got away with it. So he, and four hundred men, strapped on their swords. They headed for Nabal’s community. David declared that by morning there would not even be ONE MALE left alive.
He was not just out to kill Nabal. He was going to kill all of the men. Every last one. Prideful, arrogant vengeance.
Two prideful, arrogant bull-headed men, about to cost countless people their lives.
When the servant reported all of this back to Abigail, she moved quickly. She was a survivor, after all.
She immediately prepared all of the food David and his men should have been given in the first place and headed out to cut David off before he reached their camp…without telling her husband.
She reached David before he could attack and fell down before him. She knew what it takes to soothe a man’s bruised ego.
How many times before had she taken the violence intended for someone else, sparing them? How many times before had she offered herself up as a sacrifice, in order to keep the peace? She was clever. Intelligent. She knew what to do.
“Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears and hear the words of your servant. My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he, Nabal is his name, and folly is with him, but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent” (1 Samuel 25:23b-25)
“Please, sir,” she begged, “My husband is a fool. I’m responsible. I should have seen your men and handled this myself.”
Isn’t this what survivors learn to do? Take on blame that is not theirs, in order to survive or keep other people safe?
Abigail then sang David’s praises. She reminded him that he was good and powerful and strong. She reminded him that he was the Lord’s chosen and offered him gifts. She encouraged him not to carry the weight of having sought vengeance. Instead, she insisted, leave vengeance to the Lord.
And David bought it, hook, line and sinker. He accepted the food, and turned away. Neither he, nor his men killed anybody, even though they set out to massacre every man at that camp.
A Different Perspective
I’ve seen this taught many times as I’ve participated in Sunday School and Bible Studies, especially women’s Bible studies.
Abigail was humble, beautiful and gentle, the church teaches. References to Proverbs 15:1, “a gentle answer turns away wrath,” abound. Extend the olive branch, be humble and kind, respond gently to aggression, soft speech can crush opposition. (Proverbs 25:15, NLT) Abigail is often upheld as an ideal of womanhood. She was beautiful, and smart enough to know what David needed in order to not kill people. She was humble, soft spoken, meek and gentle in her words.
I want to challenge that.
Abigail was brave. She was courageous. She was a survivor. She walked up to an army with nothing but food in her arms. She was willing to sacrifice herself to save every man in her community from the violence caused by two men’s egos.
Her gentleness and soft spoken response are not an ideal we should all seek to emulate. They are a response to toxic masculinity. They are the SURVIVOR in her. They are a reflection of her intelligence bubbling to the surface.
Abigail wasn’t being humble or meek. She was being smart. She read the situation, recognized it for what it was, and coddled David’s ego, just like she had likely done countless times with Nabal. She had survived marriage to a brute. She used the skills she’d fostered through that survival to save all of the men that day.
This story is not prescriptive. Is not an example for us to follow. It’s descriptive. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when egos run unchecked.
Rather than encouraging people to be like Abigail in the face of adversity and aggression, let’s discourage people from allowing their egos to run unchecked, like David and Nabal.
If Abigail is a Survivor, and her”gentle response” is conditioned from years of trauma, living with a bully, then what are we saying if we encourage people to respond to aggression like Abigail did?
Why are we encouraging conditioned responses rather than addressing the bully? The aggressor? Let’s flip that.
Abigail should not have had to meekly approach an army armed with nothing but food, offer herself as a sacrifice to save the men of her community, and stroke David’s ego in order to prevent a massacre. The two men in this story should have been able to self-regulate their own egos.
We shouldn’t strive to be like Abigail, although we should respect her for being a survivor and saving her community.
Instead, we should recognize the systems that put Abigail in a position that required survival in the first place, and dismantle them.
Abigail’s intervention was brilliant and heroic. It saved lives. But while Nabal died in the end (of Natural causes, brought on by God), David walked away as if nothing happened. His ego continued to be an issue, all throughout his life. As we read the account of David, we see over and over again that his ego ran unchecked, damaging the people around him. Pride and Power. Power and Pride.
Let’s stop trying to turn people into Abigails and instead hold our Davids more accountable.
We can do better. We should do better.
Lord, Thank you for revealing yourself to me when I open up your Word, even when the lesson I get is different from what has been taught to me for years. I am so thankful for your Holy Spirit, dwelling inside of me. God, help me be humble. Don’t let me be like David, charging ahead in a quest for vengeance, or like Nabal, selfishly putting my own desires above the safety or the needs of those around me. When I start to become like Abigail, remind me that Yes- I am a survivor. You have walked with me through some very tumultuous waters, and I am thankful for that. However, when I am tempted to apply my conditioned responses to any Davids I encounter today, remind me that you loathe injustice. Remind me that I am not representing you well, nor am I doing anyone- including my Davids- any favors, when I coddle them so that their egos are left to run unchecked, damaging everything in their paths. Help me be better than I was yesterday. In Jesus’ name. Amen.