David and Abigail (1 Samuel 25)
The story of David and Abigail is one of the more remarkable and fascinating stories in the books of Samuel. In terms of the structure of 1 Samuel, the account of David and Abigail forms a nice bridge between two very similar stories in which David twice passes over the opportunity to kill Saul. From a literary standpoint, the events of chapters 24 and 26 would not flow neatly if placed one after the other, so our story gives us pleasant aside from the David-Saul battle that has consumed the better part of chapters 16-24. The story also takes place just after Samuel, Israel’s king-maker, died (v. 1). At the end of chapter 24, Saul had formally recognized David as Israel’s next king, so Samuel’s work as a political and spiritual figure in Israel is effectively completed.
While it is certainly true that chapter 25 does not deal directly with Saul, there are some hints in the passage that lead us to believe that Nabal, Abigail’s foolish husband, is something of a type of Saul. The conspicuous reference to Nabal “holding a feast in his house, like that of a king” (v. 36) suggests that we are to think of Nabal, like Saul, as a bad king who treats David poorly, even though David has been nothing but good to him. The similarities between Saul and Nabal do not end there, as Robert Bergen points out: “Both [Saul and Nabal] were socially powerful individuals who were members of wealthy families; both had benefited from David’s actions, yet both acted hostilely against David; both had female clan members who married David and acted to help him avoid a personal catastrophe; both had their lives spared by David. And, as the narrative will later show, both died under God’s judgment” (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel [Nashville: Broadman, 1996], p. 252).
While we should not normally read too much into the meaning of names in the Bible, we should make an exception for this chapter because the biblical writer himself makes something of the names. Nabal is true to his name, which means “fool,” (v. 25). Abigail’s name means “My Father is Joy,” and the positive name reflects her positive character and charm.
Verses 1-13: After Samuel’s death (v. 1), David and his men relocated to the southern-most part of Judah, known as the wilderness of Paran. This region was about as far south as one could go and still remain in Israel. While David was in the wilderness, he and his men assisted Nabal’s servants by providing military protection for them while they were shearing their sheep. After Nabal’s servants finished and had returned to Nabal, David sent some of his servants to Nabal to request reimbursement for their services. Nabal rejected David’s request, using phrases reminiscent of Saul (“son of Jesse”, etc). Nabal’s rhetorical questions about about David’s identity should be understood as derogatory put-downs. Nabal certainly knew who David was since David was the champion of Israel and since both David and Nabal were from the tribe of Judah. Nabal’s response violated payment provisions in the Mosiac Law (e.g. Deut. 24:15), and David responded to Nabal’s actions by summoning his men for battle.
Verses 14-35: Apparently word of David’s intention to attack Nabal made its way to Nabal’s servants, who turned to Abigail for help. The servants went to Abigail because they knew that Nabal was “a worthless man” (v. 17) and could not be reasoned with. Abigail, without her husband’s knowledge, ordered the servants to prepare provisions for David and his men. She personally went to David to appeal to him to change his intentions. She showed up right as David was calling an oath of judgment down on Nabal (v. 22). It is important to note the careful wording of David’s oath. Unlike Saul, who had made a rash vow about his men eating during battle (1 Sam. 14:24, 39, 44), David does not invoke the covenant name of Yahweh nor does he obligate himself to carry out the pronounced judgment. David has left himself an out, if for some reason he does not fulfill his intentions, and shows more care than Saul when it comes to taking oaths. As it turns out, David does not carry out vengeance on Nabal, but his oath makes it so God can carry out vengeance for him in accordance with biblical teaching on revenge (Deut. 32:35, Rom. 12:19, Heb. 10:30). The reason David does not carry out his plans is due directly to Abigail’s appeal for mercy. Abigail brought the provisions that David had requested and beseeched David by saying that this problem was her fault (v. 26). Interestingly, she acknowledged that her husband was a fool (v. 25). Abigail’s appeal to David in many ways takes the form of a prophetic blessing. She asks for David’s enemies and those who seek his life to be like Nabal, that is, to be under God’s judgment (v. 26, cf. v. 29). This statement is to be understood as a reference to Saul, who was seeking David’s life. She reminds David that she had prevented him from taking vengeance on Nabal when it was the Lord’s right to avenge, and she points out that God will bless David and make him the prince of Israel because he fights the Lord’s battles (vv. 28-30). This last statement is significant in light of Saul’s selection as Israel’s first king. The people of Israel wanted a king to fight their battles for them (1 Sam. 8:19-20), so God gave them the king they wanted. Saul, however, was ineffective in caring out this task due to poor leadership and a lack of faith. David, in contrast, was God’s king (see 1 Sam. 16:1) and was fighting God’s battles. Abigail concludes her appeal by asking David to remember her when God has done all the things he had promised David (v. 31). This statement prepares us for what follows; we expect David to remember Abigail later on. David gladly blesses her grants her request (vv. 32-35).
Verses 36-44: Abigail returned home to find Nabal in a drunken stupor and could not tell him what she had done (v. 36). The next morning, after Nabal had sobered up, she told Nabal what had happened with David. At this point, God stuck Nabal with a physical ailment that incapacitated him (v. 37). He died 10 days later (v. 38). It is important to note that God struck Nabal here. This fact is consistent with David’s oath we read back in verse 23. David had left it to God to carry out judgment in the event he could not do it himself. God did just that. The chapter concludes with the story of David making Abigail his wife.
One of the major issues this passage raises is the matter of polygamy. By the end of the chapter, David has three wives, although his first wife had been given to another man (this will be significant later on in 2 Samuel). David will eventually have more wives than those mentioned here (e.g. Bathsheba). The question that comes up is simply this–was it acceptable for David to have more than one wife? We should point out two things in this regard. First, polygamy is never officially condemned anywhere in Scripture. Second, the biblical ideal is that of monogamy. We know the latter because of the pattern set out in Genesis 1-2 as well as the standard set out for pastors in 1 Timothy 3. Spiritual leaders in the church are to be the husband of one wife, which makes it impossible for polygamy to have a place for Christian leaders. The ideals expressed for pastors in the NT should be the goal of all Christians, so believers should not seek to be anything other than monogamous in their own lives. I think it is best to see polygamy in the OT as something God tolerated but did not condone. It is true that some of the great figures in OT history had multiple wives (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc). It is also true that in every case, significant problems arose as a result of these polygamous relationships. In fact, some of Israel’s bitter enemies came about as a result of these relationships. David himself would later experience tremendous family difficulty as his children fought each other and ultimately their father for control of the kingdom. While the Bible never officially condemns polygamy, the consistent OT picture of polygamy is a negative one. Despite some of the poor choices made by men like David in the personal lives, God used them to advance His purposes in redemptive history.