At the time I am writing, family relationships are one of the several subjects that have become a litmus test of faith in American Christianity. God’s story of life in God’s family, as depicted in the Bible, is much more nuanced than any list of rules we can locate there.
Today, it is still common for women who ask their pastor for help with an abusive spouse to be asked what they are doing to make their husband so angry. And on the reverse side, women seeking to follow God have been taught they must obey their husband, whether or not their husband’s direction is godly.
But when we look for clarification of the rules in the Bible, one of the subtle stories about how women live out their faith and trust in God is the story of a woman named Abigail, whose wealthy husband Nabal was unhospitable, ungenerous and probably flat out greedy. You get the sense from the story in 1 Samuel 25 that maybe one way Nabal became so rich was by refusing to participate in the usual community philanthropies that were expected of any person of means.
To understand this story well, it is important to understand that Israel was a tribal culture living in what is called a “gift economy.” That’s different from the “exchange economy” we know. In our way of life, you give something to get something:
• $4.50 for a latte
• $28.00 for an hour of housecleaning
• Three hours standing at the fast-food window for $21.75
We believe that we have earned whatever we have and it is our right to exchange it for whatever else we want.
Earned with Rights vs. Gifts with Responsibilities
A gift economy is based on fundamentally different beliefs. It holds that what I have comes to me as a gift and therefore carries responsibilities – both to the giver and to my community. I am responsible to the giver to make use of the gift. I am responsible to the community to share the gift, often in ways that have been set by long-standing tradition.
So in Israel’s gift economy, one of the giving traditions is that every year, each member of the community brings the first fruits of their labor as tribute to the temple, where their ruler – the Lord God – resides. And in that place, the Lord God does what every traditional ruler in a gift economy does with tribute: keeps a portion for the servants of the household and gives the rest back to the community for a feast, to display both the ruler’s generosity and the greatness of the community’s collective wealth, gathered together in one place.
This is what a gift economy looks like. Gifts are given and returned. Each is responsible to use the gift he or she has, producing even greater gifts from that initial gift. Each is responsible to share those gifts with the leaders of the community in certain prescribed ways. Then, the leaders of the community will demonstrate their generosity and the greatness of the people they lead by returning a portion of the gifts to the people for a festive celebration.
A Foolish Farmer Exploits the Future King
So back to Nabal and Abigail. This story takes place during sheep-shearing, a festival season. As a very wealthy herdsman, Nabal should have been throwing a big party for his crews and everyone who had helped throughout the grazing season for his 3,000 sheep.
Imagine for a moment what it was like to care for 3,000 sheep in a world where no one had a fenced farm. Nabal’s crews had to keep his sheep separate from everyone else’s sheep that were out grazing in shared public fields. They had to keep the sheep moving so no area would become overgrazed, but ensure that the huge flock would return to a public water source at least every 10 days. They had to protect Nabal’s sheep from hyenas, jackals, lions and other predators that could carry them away. Those predators included human thieves, who could snatch the sheep or rob the shepherds.
This particular grazing season, Nabal’s shepherds were blessed. A former shepherd named David, who was fleeing the mad attacks of the paranoid King Saul, had settled into the area with about 600 of his own friends and followers. David, it seems, had not forgotten what it was like to be responsible for a large flock of sheep. He and his friends made sure that Nabal’s crews remained safe from thieves and predators the entire time they were caring for the sheep in the pastures. Nabal’s staff said they were “like a wall” around the flock and crew. When the sheep shearing festival started, David’s men headed down — not to join the party, because David was being hunted and making themselves visible would be unsafe, but just to ask for some food.
Nabal turned out to be unlike David’s father or any other herd owner David had ever known. Instead of welcoming the guests, he turned them away.
“Who is this David?” he asked. “Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers and give it to men coming from who knows where?”
A Fool Claims He Owns God’s Property
Nabal had forgotten that the bread and water and meat he had prepared for the festival – indeed, even the shearers with whom he would share it – did not belong to him. They were not “his” bread and water and shearers. They were gifts provided to him with which he was responsible to provide for God’s people. Nabal had forgotten that.
When David heard Nabal’s message, he had 400 of his friends arm themselves and prepare to go to battle against someone who had accepted the gift of their services but denied them the gift of his hospitality. At this point it is important to clarify why David thought Nabal “owed” him. In a gift economy, there is no direct exchange as there is in ours. We exchange a certain number of dollars for a certain number of hours of work, for instance. In a gift economy, there is no direct exchange. Still, a person who amasses wealth is responsible to share it with those who make their wealth possible.
Nabal had forgotten that his wealth was not his own. He was claiming personal possession of what belonged to God, had been gifted to him, and was intended to be shared with the community. As a result, he was on the verge of losing his wealth entirely.
Unsubmitted Staff and Wife Take Control
Fortunately, both his crew and his wife, Abigail, failed to submit to Nabal’s irrational guidance.
The crew told Abigail about the impending attack. They urged her: “Now, think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.”
A Wise Wife Ignores Her Foolish Husband
Abigail quickly loaded up some donkeys with a feast for David’s men: two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred cakes of raisins, two hundred cakes of figs, about a bushel of roasted grain, two skins of wine and five dressed sheep ready to be roasted. When she saw David, she begged him:
“Pay no attention to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name – his name is Fool, and folly goes with him. … Please forgive your servant’s offense.”
Abigail also acknowledged in her remarks that David was about to become a ruler in Israel. She knew that her husband had not only violated hospitality; he had mortally offended the future king.
Did God Bless an Unsubmitted Household?
So was it right or wrong for Abigail to refuse to submit to her husband and for the servants to refuse to submit to their master?
In this story from the history of Israel, God shows us a husband who refuses to submit to God’s leader of Israel, household members who recognize their responsibility to do so, and a household that is rewarded for doing what is right – even while the arrogant and rebellious husband is punished by God, not people, for doing what was wrong.
Lessons for Those Under Conflicting Authority
So what does this mean when we find ourselves in conflicts between the various authorities in our lives?
I can’t answer for the situation you face today. What I see in this story is that:
- Abigail did not disobey a direct order she had received from Nabal. Sometimes we get really tangled up in attempting to follow what we are certain someone in authority wants done when they haven’t told us to do it.
- Abigail did not throw her disobedience in Nabal’s face. He never knew she had gone in a different direction than he wanted.
- Abigail had to choose between respecting God’s ruler over Israel and God’s ruler over her home. Respecting one would protect peace for a moment; respecting the other would keep her family alive. Both held God-given authority. So Abigail used wisdom from God to make her choice. She respected a wise ruler of a nation instead of a foolish ruler of a family.
- Abigail also submitted to the standards of her community, which sought to live according to God’s rule, although it often failed. Her husband, who is described as a morally and spiritually bankrupt “fool,” placed his own interests above the community’s way of life.
What I also see is that it is important to read the stories in the Bible as one way God makes his rules clearer to us. By the standards of many 21st century conservative churches, Abigail was a disobedient and unsubmitted wife. Yet, God rewarded her and took vengeance against Nabal. If Abigail got something right, perhaps our 21st century interpretations have got something wrong.