David, Nabal, and Abigail: Character Study, Part 2

In my last post, I began an in-depth study of David, Nabal, and Abigail. The story is found in 1 Samuel 25. To summarize so far, David had been protecting the flocks of a rich sheep and goat herder named Nabal (which, not coincidentally, means “Fool”). He asked for some food for his men in accordance with hospitality customs of the time. Nabal not only refused but answered so rudely David became enraged. He ordered 400 of his men to come with him, raid Nabal’s property, and kill every male of his household. I left by saying, while this was not David’s normal way of operating, there were several factors that led him to such an extreme response to Nabal.Those factors were:

  • The death of Samuel (1 Sam 25:1).
  • It was a rough world.
  • A “biblical” concept of justice
  • His men wanted him to do this
  • Building frustration over having to hide like a criminal
  • Insults that touched his own insecurities

Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.

The Death of Samuel

Just before this story begins, we are told,

Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran.

1 Sam 25:1

Anyone can feel lost after the death of a mentor. Samuel was the one who started David on his journey that had taken him from being a shepherd to being commander of the king’s armies. Samuel had been with the people when they demanded a king. Against his better judgment, he accepted their pleas and anointed Saul. But after an act of disobedience, Samuel told Saul the LORD had rejected him as king. Since kings ruled for life, he could not remove Saul from the throne. That didn’t stop Samuel from calling David out of the fields and anointing him as king, even though Saul was still alive.

After defeating Goliath, David caught the attention of Saul, who brought him into the palace. He made David an officer in the army, where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a commander. Saul probably did not know Samuel had anointed David (they would keep that a secret for obvious reasons), but he still saw David as a threat. His jealousy over David’s rising popularity led him to put a price on David’s head, which was why David was hiding out in the wilderness.

That is a greatly oversimplified summary of how David got into the situation we see him now. All of that was to say Samuel’s death had to have affected him. All of Israel mourned for Samuel, and David probably mourned him more than most. The man who anointed him king was now dead. He had been on the run from Saul for years at this point. How does that make sense if the LORD had chosen him to be king? Samuel’s death probably left him with some unresolved questions.

It Was a Rough World

We’ve already noted bandits roamed throughout the countryside. You could barely travel from one city to another without running into them. The men David would have attracted could easily have fallen in with one of these gangs. They knew the ways bandits and outlaws operated. They accepted David’s leadership, but he had to be strong to keep their respect.

He told his men they would kill “every male of all that belongs to him,” but he did not invent that expression. It was already well known, both as a saying and as a tactic, among the outlaws and armies. I’m not saying he was right. I’m saying it was a rough world, and people sometimes sink to the lowest level of their world when they are under pressure.

“Biblical” Justice

David’s reasoning was, “We protected all that belongs to him. Now, we will kill all that belongs to him.” We wouldn’t call that justice, to kill the innocent of an entire household because one man returned evil for good. But there are parts of the Bible that show for people of that time, that kind of logic partially defined justice for the Israelites. For example, here’s an early pronouncement against men who abuse widows and orphans.

You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

(Exo 22:22–24 NRS)

If you abuse any widow or orphan, I will kill you. Then your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. It is the same kind of logic David used to justify what he was about to do. Over time, that attitude would change. In the later prophets, like Jeremiah, you see the people, and God, coming around to an idea that people should pay for their own sins, not for their masters’ or their parents’. To Israelites of that time, however, there was justice in what David was planning.

His Men Wanted It

This is another example of what a rough world it was. He was leading rough men. They respected him, but his hold on them was tenuous (see 1 Sam 30:1–6). I’m sure they were watching to see if David was strong enough to do what was “necessary” when someone tried to take advantage of David’s decency.

When David announced his plan, did any of his men say, “Wait a minute, David. Don’t you think that’s a little extreme? Of course we’re gonna kill Nabal, but come on now. We know the young men who watched his flocks. They’re good people”? No. I bet they were excited, like, “This is what we’ve been waiting for! Every man, strap on his sword!” At a time when David needed a voice of reason, there were none.

Rising Frustration That Came to a Head

David was supposed to be king. God sent Samuel years ago to anoint him. Why was he still having to hide out in the wilderness? In most nations, when one man believed the gods have made him king, he claimed it by killing the current occupant of the throne. David could not do that, and he could not send someone else to do it. His conscience would not allow him to lift his hand against the LORD’s anointed (1 Sam 24:5–6). Yes, the LORD had rejected Saul as king. That was why Samuel anointed David to take his place. But as far as David was concerned, once God anointed someone, that anointing never left. Even though Saul was trying to kill him, David could not defend himself like he would against any other enemy. So basically, he was waiting for Saul to die by God’s hand. Today, we would call it natural causes.

Now Samuel was dead. Maybe some questions he had been carrying in his heart became more urgent. If God has anointed me king of Israel, why must I live like a fugitive? Why would God anoint me before I could take the throne? Maybe Saul found out. Of course. That is the reason why Saul thinks I want to kill him. And why he will never believe I mean him no harm. There is nothing I can do to change that, so why did God put me in this position? How long will I have to wait before God fulfills his promise to me?

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

(Psa 13:1–2 NRS)

Pressure was building inside him, and it only took one fool to say the wrong things to make that volcano blow.

Insults that Touched His Own Insecurities

I mentioned before that Nabal knew exactly what insults would wound David the deepest. He compared David to a fugitive slave, because he was hiding from his master, Saul. That wasn’t true, of course. Even though God had made him a rival to Saul’s throne, he always tried to do right by Saul. He couldn’t bring himself to kill Saul, even when God gave him into his hands (ch. 24). But this could be interpreted in a bad way. He was living like a fugitive and an outlaw, despite his best intentions. It was a sore point for David, a scab no wise person would pick at. But what do you expect from a man whose name means “Fool”?

Nabal said, “Who is David?”

David thought, “Who am I? I’m the one who’s been protecting everything that belongs to you, your young men, and your flocks.”

Nabal said, “Who is the son of Jesse?”

David thought, “Oh, so he insulted my father too?”

Nabal said, “Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

David thought, “The reason you have this abundance of bread and water and meat is because my men and I have been protecting you. Without us, bandits would have taken all of it. And after all that, you talk as if I don’t even have a right to be here in the whole territory of Maon? I was anointed king of Israel. This whole nation is mine. I’ll show you who has a right to be here, and who doesn’t!”

This was a crossroads for David. If he had gone through with his plan, I don’t think it would have stopped with Nabal. I think it would have changed his character forever. The irony would have been he would have become exactly what Nabal accused him of. But remember, Abigail was already working behind the scenes to clean up her idiot husband’s mess — again (I guarantee this was not the first time she had had to do just that). What she did to assuage David’s anger was positively brilliant. I will pick up with that in the third part of this character study.

Originally published at https://davidandersontheauthor.com on March 9, 2020.

David Anderson is a multi-passionate author of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book is Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

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