Nabal answered David’s servants, “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 that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” (1 Samuel 25.10-11)
A Timely Tale Seldom Told
Today’s Old Testament reading (1 Samuel 25.1-22) takes a chapter from the married life of Nabal and Abigail. In light of sweeping financial crises and subsequent political turmoil that presently set the world on edge, it’s a timely tale seldom told. Its placement in the biblical narrative is also unsettling because it steals the spotlight from one of the most devastating losses in Israel’s history. In an oddly matter-of-fact tone, verse 1 informs us, “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.” And that’s it. No funeral coverage, no in-depth analysis of how losing the prophet who ushered the Hebrews into nationhood affects Israel, no transcript of David’s eulogy—just, “Samuel dies. The people mourn. They bury him and David goes off to the wilderness of Paran.” Without so much as a transition, verse 2 begins the story of Nabal and Abigail.
Hang on. Before we dive into that drama, the mention of Paran tantalizes us with the prospect the writer has reason to include it. And he/she does. Paran is a vast desert extending SSE from Jerusalem’s outer perimeter to the Sinai. In Jewish mythology, it’s “where God dawns” and judgment originates. Most often, it’s associated with safety and survival, the place where the rejected find sanctuary and the lost sojourn while awaiting guidance. After they’re banished from Abraham’s house, Hagar and Ishmael settle in Paran. It’s where God’s presence, manifest as a cloud, leads the Hebrews to camp before undertaking the last leg of their journey. Thus, David’s venture into Paran fills in a lot of blanks. Samuel’s death deprives him of the rudder he’s relied on. The prophet’s integrity as God’s spokesperson was the critical link ensuring the nation’s health and prosperity. Without him, David doesn’t know what to do. So he goes to Paran, the Source, where God begins, judges, and shelters those without ties or direction.
While David’s away, his herdsmen tend his flocks, though apparently not as well as when he’s there. From his desert retreat he dispatches 10 young men to call on Nabal, a rich rancher—a bona fide “job creator”—who’s shearing his flocks and due for an influx of cash. David tells them to approach Nabal in peace, reminding him their herds have shared pasture with his and they’ve never abused his shepherds or stolen his sheep. As king and neighbor, David appeals for a favor: could Nabal provide for David’s herdsmen until he returns? It’s little to ask. And given who’s asking, as well as the unfortunate circumstances behind the request, one would think he’d go out of his way be helpful. Think again.
Nabal’s reputation hangs on his wealth, smart and beautiful spouse, Abigail (trophy wife?), and nasty disposition. The text describes him as “surly and mean” (v4), but after seeing his response to David’s men, add miserly, self-important, uncaring, arrogant, imprudent, shortsighted, and disrespectful to the list—in short, a total buffoon. Once they tender the king’s request, Nabal replies, “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 that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” (v10-11)
Is he out of his mind? He’s just insulted his king—when David is grieving an irreplaceable loss and unsure of what to do, no less. His trumped-up excuse (the men might be impostors—might be) is a slap to the monarch’s face, implying David’s such a nobody that no one would think twice about using his name to con a rich man out of a few groceries. Nabal’s head is so swollen with greedy meanness there’s no room to entertain the possibility the request is legit, the men are legit, the need is legit, and his chance to reap rewards that money can’t buy is legit. His reasoning is so lame it’s bogus. “I’m not going to help because there are a lot of people abusing the good-neighbor system these days.” What if there are? The question Nabal needs to consider is, “What if I’m wrong?” And here’s the worst of it: Nabal knows he’s wrong, because he’s seen these men tending David’s sheep! He has no excuse. But selfishness won’t let him think that far, and next we see what comes from not thinking ahead. (Spoiler alert: the end, slated for tomorrow’s reading, is revealed.)
David explodes. He assembles a small army and heads for Nabal’s ranch. One of the miser’s shepherds gets to Abigail and tells her what happened. She can’t believe Nabal could be so stupid. She throws together as many supplies as she can gather and rushes to stop David before he strikes. She falls at his feet and begs his mercy. David won’t be deterred. “Pay no attention to that wicked man Nabal,” she pleads. “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.” (v25) She urges David not to resort to bloodshed because of her husband’s idiocy and presents her offerings as an apology. “You fight the LORD’s battles,” she stresses, cleverly hinting this a personal matter, therefore beneath him, and appeals to his integrity as a righteous king and leader. One can almost read David’s mind. She is smart. She is beautiful. And she is convincing. It’s senseless to slaughter Nabal’s household and make a widow of Abigail because of his foolishness. David relents. Abigail goes home, where Nabal is throwing a party fit for a king! He’s drunk and full of himself. The next morning, when she explains what almost became of him and his wealth, he has a stroke. In 10 days’ time, he’s dead. If you know anything about David, you see the final twist coming: he marries Abigail.
A sea of present-day Nabals has overtaken us. It floods the airwaves, boils over in blogs and pollutes our social media. Nabals poison office water coolers and soak backyard barbecues in bile. Their response to the world condition is inexcusable and they know that, yet their selfishness doesn’t allow them to think that far. So they keep tossing out lame excuses that offer no help and flout their civic duty and moral responsibility. Request their help and generosity and they turn the tables. Their capacity to fix problems gets spun into why those who appeal for their help are con artists. Their swollen heads leave them no room to consider what befalls those who stare truth in the eye and insist it’s not true.
They know the crises confronting us are real. They know their surly indifference and meanness won’t solve anything. In their hearts they’re aware their greed and self-centeredness not only create many of our problems; they intensify them. They sense our grief and despondence. We’ve lost our rudder and can’t discern where to go or what’s next. They don’t care. They’re content with not thinking ahead. While they’re throwing parties fit for kings, drunk and full of themselves for having defied their consciences and leaders, comeuppance marches out of the desert, where God dawns, judgment originates, and the forsaken and lost take haven.
As disaster nears, we must become Abigails and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, interceding for innocent lives that will be destroyed by a full-scale outpouring of vengeance. This is a personal matter we beseech God to judge personally. The Nabals must be stopped, and when God’s judgment is levied, they will. It will come quickly, decisively, and finally—a just end for those whose names have come to mean Fool and whose folly goes with them.
Save us, O God, from the Nabals of our day. Deal with them swiftly and justly as You will and spare us greater grief from being swept up in their evil tide and the wrath it brings. Amen.
Surliness, meanness, greed—they’re all symptomatic of swollen heads that have no room to entertain the legitimacy of need or what befalls those who don’t think ahead.