Abigail and David’s Comrades: A Case of Great and Not-So-Great Advice

David, the future king, is on the lam. Except for brief moments of skin-deep remorse Saul is bent on impaling the young man who replaced the troubled king as the focus of public adulation. Seriously, how could the groupies do any less than swoon over the ruddily handsome warrior who took down a lion, a bear, and Goliath? And how could Saul do anything other than become absolutely, insanely jealous? So throughout the second half of 1 Samuel, Israel’s new hero is on the run.

The question the text seems to ask, especially in chapters 24-26, is whether David will stoop to Saul’s level. Under the pressure of the crazy king’s unrelenting pursuit, will David become just as murderous? Will David permit the strain of the continual fighting for his life, barely evading Saul here, there, and everywhere, to consume his heart and destroy his integrity? Will he allow his sense of responsibility for Saul’s ruthless slaughter of the priests of Nob to push him over the edge?[1]

Yet even as the text confronts David with three sterling opportunities to take a wrong turn, it also turns the spotlight on who advises David well and who counsels him poorly.

Guess who lands on the right side of history.

In chapter 24 David faces the wild prospect of doing away with Saul once and for all. What made Saul choose this cave to relieve himself, the very place David and his men were sheltering? It couldn’t be merely coincidence, could it? David’s men didn’t think so. No, they argued, it must be God.

So Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. 

Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” With these words David sharply rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way. (1 Sam. 24:2-7)

There is no record of God ever saying he would give Saul into David’s hands, so it’s likely that David’s men were jumping to conclusions. Yet it seems that David was influenced by their argument, at least to some extent, since he responded by creeping up behind Saul and cutting off a bit of his robe.[2] The fact that only afterward is David conscience-stricken, rebuking his men harshly and commanding them not to attack Saul, suggests that the men’s reasoning did affect David’s initial response. 

In the end, though, David makes the right choice.

Skipping ahead to the third narrative (1 Sam. 26) we find David and Abishai sneaking into Saul’s camp at night and stealing his spear and water jug. Saul and all his men of action are in a very deep snooze, thanks to the Lord himself, missing the action and missing the argument between David and Abishai. 

Then David set out and went to the place where Saul had camped. He saw where Saul and Abner son of Ner, the commander of the army, had lain down. Saul was lying inside the camp, with the army encamped around him. David then asked Ahimelek the Hittite and Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, “Who will go down into the camp with me to Saul?” 

“I’ll go with you,” said Abishai. So David and Abishai went to the army by night, and there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him. Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands. Now let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I won’t strike him twice.” 

But David said to Abishai, “Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless? As surely as the Lord lives,” he said, “the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed. Now get the spear and water jug that are near his head, and let’s go.” (1 Sam. 26:5-11)

No delayed response this time. As soon as the words leave Abishai’s lips David jumps all over him: Haven’t you figured it out by now, Abi? We don’t do that!! We don’t stoop to Saul’s level and we don’t kill the Lord’s anointed! To be fair, Abishai must have wondered why in the world they snuck into Saul’s camp if they weren’t going to do anything. He had been bold enough to accompany David, remember, even as Ahimelek mutely passed on this stellar opportunity to put his life on the line. Sneak into the center of a camp filled with ruthless warriors? No problem, Davey. You can hardly blame Abishai for his confusion. 

Once again, despite Abishai’s unhelpful urging, David makes the right decision.

And, significantly, sandwiched between these two hair-raising accounts is the story of David’s encounter with mistress Abigail (1 Sam. 25). This time, unaccountably, it’s David who flies into a rage and is consumed with murderous intent. Offended by Nabal’s insults David displays the passions of a man under pressure, swearing to do away not only with Nabal but also with every man in this wealthy landowner’s extensive household. Sure, Nabal was an arrogant jerk who wouldn’t listen to anyone. And sure, cultural expectations may have dictated that Nabal give provisions to David and his men.

But responding with dagger, sword, and spear? That might be, well, overkill.

Disaster seems inevitable until Nabal’s bold and beautiful wife Abigail intervenes.[3] With diplomatic genius Abigail appeals to David’s better instincts, convincing him that he would not want to carry a boatload of bloodguilt on his shoulders as he ascends the throne, as he surely will one day. 

When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground. She fell at his feet and said: “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. (1 Sam. 25:23-26)

Abigail goes on to affirm that David will indeed become ruler of all Israel one day. And when that happens: 

“My lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.” (1 Sam. 25:31)

David’s reply to Abigail’s remarkable speech says it all.

David said to 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. 25:32-33)

As they say, all’s well that ends well, and in this case it does. David recognizes that Abigail has been sent to him by God and has spoken for God, expressing the Lord’s will and direction for David in this circumstance. And David is not alone in his assessment; even the rabbis thought Abigail was among the seven women – yes, a whole, entire seven! – who had been “graced with the holy spirit.”[4]  

In the end the Lord strikes down Nabal, David marries Abigail, and David (eventually) becomes king.

There you have it. Three splendid opportunities to commit heinous evil, yet our more-than-a-bit passionate hero manages to squeak through unsullied. And while David’s men push their leader to do wrong, an otherwise unknown woman presses him to do right.

My question for you today is why, in a world where literary structure is formed more around thematic than chronological development, the narrator placed the Abigail story where he did. What I mean is that ancient authors weren’t so worried about precisely what happened next, ordering everything exactly to the calendar, but rather about what shed light on what.[5] That is, these three narratives didn’t necessarily come one after the other in the Bible because that’s the way they happened in real life, but because they help to interpret each other.

And that begs the question: Precisely what is interpreting what here?

Numerous scholars note the implicit comparisons and contrasts between the characters. Saul and Nabal are two of a kind, fools who refuse to listen to the voice of reason. By sandwiching Nabal between the Saul episodes, the biblical author can imply that Saul is a fool without ever going so far as to directly say so, which might have been an uncool way to speak of a king.[6] David, who listens to the voice of wisdom (embodied by Abigail), is starkly contrasted with these fools. Though he has several superb chances to embrace folly, David ultimately declines.

But what about Abigail? Is she compared to anyone? 

Well, in an old but influential study Jon Levenson compares the Abigail narrative to the one about David and Bathsheba, arguing that in both cases “David moves to kill a man and to marry his wife.”[7] In the first case David gets his new woman legitimately, after her husband’s death, but in the second, well, you know the story. Levenson’s point is that in 1 Samuel 25 we have “the very first revelation of evil in David’s character” and, according to Levenson, this “evil” has to do with scheming to obtain another man’s wife. 

Are you scratching your head yet? Does the text say that David wanted to kill Nabal in order to snag Abigail? Or because he was offended? 

You tell me.

To me this is where Levenson’s argument falls apart. The reason David sets out to kill Nabal has nothing to do with Abigail; in fact, as far as we know, David hasn’t even met her yet. No, David decides to go after Nabal because his “pride has been wounded.”[8]

Levenson does not contrast Abigail and Bathsheba directly. He simply makes the suggestion and then goes on to make a big deal about Abigail being “the ideal woman,” a living embodiment of the Proverbs 31 archetype. Levenson explains that Abigail is the epitome of womanhood because she manages to covertly distance herself from her dastardly husband, saving the day, while remaining overtly loyal to him. If Abigail had “called a spade a spade,” that would “prove her unfitness for the wifely role.”[9] This would be disastrous, as you know, since Abigail eventually becomes David’s wife.

So although he never states it directly, Levenson does seem to imply a contrast to Bathsheba, that less-than-ideal woman, the dastardly “temptress.”[10]

Comparing the Abigail and Bathsheba narratives and contrasting David’s behavior in each is legitimate, but I think Levenson misses the point when it comes to Abigail. In the immediate context the more-than-obvious comparison is between Abigail and David’s men. Or perhaps I should say contrast. Abigail plays the same role in her narrative as David’s men do in theirs, as advisor to David. 

Yet how they counsel David is wildly distinct.

When the men say kill, Abigail says restrain. When the men mislead, Abigail leads. When the men rely on assumption (Hasn’t God given Saul into your hands?), Abigail relies on truth (You will regret this when you become king). Though in our modern world we tend to imbibe the Bible in piecemeal fashion, perhaps a chapter a day, if you read right through 1 Samuel (or listen to it all at once) the point-counterpoint is patently clear:

Abigail is elevated as a wise counselor — in direct contrast to David’s men.

What might this mean? And how do we apply it to our world today?

Well, not that women are always right or always have the best solution. Or that women are the wisest people on the block or even the church board. Neither does it mean that we shouldn’t listen to men or that men always shoot from the hip. 

Not at all.

But 1 Samuel 24-26 does demonstrate that sometimes a woman brings a perspective that a man hasn’t or perhaps wouldn’t. And that at times a man is better off listening to a woman than to other men. It might also suggest that women can be gifted in diplomacy and could be of great value in those roles.

And considering the many biblical examples of a man bringing wise counsel, this passage also probably indicates that we need both men and women in decision-making positions, working together toward solutions. Too much of one perspective or the other likely leads to an imbalance, an emphasis on one type of response over and above another.

There’s a lot more going on in this text that I won’t take the time to discuss, like how David strengthens his position in Hebron (where he first becomes king) by marrying the widow of one of the region’s most influential landholders,[11] and how the narrator uses the same terms of Abigail (intelligent and beautiful) that he does of David.[12]

But for today, all I want you to ponder is why the author of 1 Samuel intentionally contrasted Abigail with David’s men. 

It’s worth a second thought.


[1] According to Bill T. Arnold, 1 and 2 Samuel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 354, these episodes “are narrated in close proximity … in order to help us measure the development in David’s character.” Arnold applies this principle only to the first and last accounts (chs. 24 and 26), however. The ESV Study Bible, 530, states: “The three episodes in the next three chapters all have the same theme: David, who as a warrior has already killed many of the Lord’s enemies, should not kill for his own advantage.”

[2] Mary J. Evans writes, “David would have known the oracle was not valid, but in this emotionally charged situation he is easily persuaded and probably relishes the challenge.” In 1 & 2 Samuel (Rapids: Baker, 2012), 107.

[3] Abigail “takes immediate and decisive action.” CEB Study Bible, 460.

[4] Jon D. Levenson, “1 Samuel 25 as Literature and as History,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978): 20.

[5] The extended passage is an example of narrative analogy, “a device whereby the narrator can provide an internal commentary on the action which he is describing, usually by means of cross-reference to an earlier action or speech. Thus narratives are made to interact in ways which may not be immediately apparent; ironic parallelism abounds wherever this technique is applied.” Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988), 147, quoting R. P. Gordon.

[6] Evans, 113.

[7] Levenson, 24.

[8] CEB Study Bible, 460.

[9] Levenson, 19.

[10] I do not think Bathsheba was a temptress; in this I am reiterating the view of many commentators. As far as the contrast with Bathsheba, others are explicit where Levenson is not. Arnold, 344, writes, “In contrast to Bathsheba, Abigail is the ‘ideal woman,’ whose ‘rhetorical genius’ prevents David from killing her husband.” 

[11] Judging by his wealth and influence Nabal may have been the leading man of the region. By marrying his widow David inherited not only Nabal’s wealth but also his position. See Levenson, 24-27; and Robert D. Bergen 1, 2 Samuel (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 253.

[12] “Intelligent” is used of David in 1 Sam. 18:5, 30; David is “beautiful” in 1 Sam. 16:12.

5 thoughts on “Abigail and David’s Comrades: A Case of Great and Not-So-Great Advice

  1. I’m not sure that Abigail’s words are a “woman’s perspective”. She gave a wise answer, which could have been spoken by anyone, male or female. Perhaps it is telling us that males don’t have a monopoly on wisdom but that women should also be listened to. Some people seem to think that Genesis 3:17 suggests otherwise.

    Like

    1. I don’t think I said that Abigail’s words constitute a “woman’s perspective,” but merely that in this case a woman brought a perspective that was otherwise lacking. You’re right that anyone could have counseled David in this way; my point is simply that no one else did. I think our bottom line is the same: both men and women should be listened to, albeit with discernment in any given situation.

      Like

  2. I agree with you!!! I think we get something of the same dynamic you are portraying the gospels that we are likewise supposed to notice (although there it is to do with faith rather than wisdom). Jesus’ disciples are shown up several times for their lack of faith and really not getting it, by a whole range of people including women that the culture would probably have dismissed. God can use any one of us.

    Like

    1. So true. If we pay attention the details are there – and this is where I think women, people of color, and interpreters from non-Western backgrounds bring so much to the table, since they tend to notice things that have traditionally been overlooked.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: