Sermon from November 15: Abigail

Pentecost XXIV (O. T. 33); November 15, 2020
I Samuel 25:23-31

Abigail is someone I admire, and I’m not speaking of Abigail Adams, although I think I would admire her too, if I knew more about her. You heard a piece of Abigail’s story and I would like to tell you more of it. But first, please keep this in mind: the Rabbis consider Abigail one of the seven female prophets of Israel. Her importance is greater than appears.

When she first appears in the Bible, she is the wife of a man named Nabal. Now, Nabal was very wealthy: he had huge herds of sheep and goats and a large staff of men that looked after them. And here’s a curious thing: the word “nabal” means “fool;” what were his parents thinking?

In the First Book of Samuel, David is hiding out in caves and wandering in desert places, as well as working for the Philistines, along with his men. The King, Saul, was after David to kill him, so David was almost constantly on the move. He came to where Nabal’s flocks and herders were, and while they worked at sheering sheep, David’s men protected Nabal’s men. Everybody got along great. So David thought, in return, that he would ask Nabal for some food for his men. Since they were essentially outlaws, they had to live on whatever they could scrounge. And since he was a good guy, he didn’t go for stealing it. So David sent emissaries to Nabal to ask for food.

Nabal refused. He said, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? Just like so many other servants, he has run away from his master, King Saul. Why should I take the bread and water and meat that I’ve set aside for my men and give it to him and his band of outlaws?” Now, let’s be fair: David could be considered in a state of rebellion against his lord, and for Nabal to help him could be considered an act of treason. But the Bible makes clear that Nabal was also bad-tempered and surly. It occurs to me that when Nabal speaks of servants deserting their masters, he probably has some experience with that. If I worked for him I’d probably look elsewhere too.

David’s emissaries took the message back to David, who replied, “Every man strap on his sword!” And he vowed that by the next morning Nabal and all his men would be dead.

Meanwhile, one of Nabal’s men went to Abigail. He said, “David and his men protected us while we were shearing the sheep; no harm came to us while they were with us. David asked your husband for help, but Nabal told David where he could put it. I’m worried about what may happen if you don’t do something, since Nabal is such a grouch that he won’t listen to anyone.” Abigail got busy; she gathered 200 loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five whole sheep ready for roasting, five bushels of grain, 100 clusters of raisins, and 200 fig cakes, and sent them with her young men to David, telling them, “I’ll be close behind.”

During the night, as David and his men were on their way to Nabal’s estate to destroy him and his men, the foodstuffs reached him and Abigail came after. She got off her donkey, and said to him as you heard in the reading. This is why the Rabbis call her a prophet: she saw what Nabal could not see, that God had chosen David to be King. This was not obvious to anyone; it’s not even clear that David entirely believed it yet. But Abigail saw clearly the will of God and so she intervened and thereby accomplished two things. First, she saved her husband’s life and the lives of his men. You may think he didn’t deserve it, the old grouch, but she was good and loyal and so she did what she could to make up for his stinginess. And second, she prevented David from committing a terrible crime. If you read I and II Samuel, you’ll see that David is a passionate man, frequently given to impulsive actions. People sometimes loved him for it, but later on it would get him into a heap of trouble. The Rabbis thought that Abigail saw that, too, because she said that she didn’t want this to get him into trouble; they said that she was implying that someday something else would get him into trouble. So David didn’t kill anyone, and his men had plenty to eat, all because of the wisdom of Abigail.

David and his men went back to their camp and Abigail and her men went back home. When they got home, Nabal was drunk, so she left him alone. In the morning, however, after he had sobered up, she sat down with him and told him what she had done. The Bible says, “His heart died within him; he became like a stone.” I take that to mean that he had a stroke. He died ten days later.

Word of Nabal’s death came to David; how could it not? And the first thing he did was pray to the Lord a prayer of thanksgiving that Nabal got what he had coming to him. Okay, David is a hero in the Bible, but he isn’t always a very nice guy. The second thing he did was commission some of his men to go to Abigail and tell her that David wanted to marry her. She rose from her couch, bowed before the men, got herself together and with five maids she rode to David in order to be married to him.

Now let’s pause and reflect. She is the widow of a wealthy man. David is an outlaw, wandering in the fields to stay away from the King and his army. Sure, David is young and handsome, but really, why should she go with him? Well, remember that she has prophesied that he will be King. Furthermore, David already has two wives: Princess Michal the daughter of Saul (who isn’t with him) and Ahinoam, who is with him. But Abigail too is wed to David, who continues to go about in the fields and the wilderness and among the Philistines, along with his two wives.

There is just a little more to tell you, and then I’ll stop. David had some troubles and adventures between this moment and when he did finally become King, and Ahinoam and Abigail were involved in all of it. Ahinoam and Abigail also each gave him a son: the first-born was Ahinoam’s and his name was Amnon and the second-born was Abigail’s son Chileab. One of the most horrible stories in the Bible is what Amnon later did, and the terrible conflict it brought upon the entire family of David. But what about Abigail and Chileab?

No one knows. When David became King of Judah, and made his capital at Hebron, Ahinoam and Abigail, along with their sons, were with him. But by the time he also became King of Israel and made his capital at Jerusalem, Abigail and Chileab were gone from the story. When the struggle over the throne came near the end of David’s life, Chileab was not around. He should have been the heir; by then Amnon was dead and so he would have been the eldest. But there is no mention of him or of his mother. I presume that sometime before David settled at Jerusalem, both Abigail and Chileab were dead, but the story-teller has not seen fit to tell us.

For me, Abigail stands for all those faithful people who do what is needful at the right time, and then disappear from the story. Perhaps you have an ancestor who did something notable at a critical moment, and you’ve heard their story, but when someone asks you, “What happened to them?” all you can say is, “No one knows.” Perhaps you have been someone’s Abigail; you spoke up at the right moment or intervened to prevent something terrible, and you had some joy as a result, but then your involvement was over. Perhaps they now say about you, “I wonder what happened to Vivian.”

No one knows what happened to Abigail, but consider what she did. By wisdom, ingenuity, and generosity she prevented a slaughter; she also saved David from commission of a horrible crime. Perhaps her intervention was the critical moment that made it possible for David to become King without war, without treason, but by simply being patient and waiting on the timing of God. We need more Abigails; we need those who calmly but promptly do what is needed at just the right moment, especially when all it takes is a simple act of generosity. Perhaps you, like me, would love to be remembered as someone’s Abigail.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska