Abigail: Businesswoman, Diplomat, Peacemaker, Prophet
Stuck Between Two Extremes
Many of us have read the story of Abigail, Nabal, and David in 1 Samuel 25 so many times that we fail to appreciate the precarious situation in which Abigail finds herself. She is caught between two powerful systems threatening both her life and those of her household.
Nabal’s power stems from his expansive property, agriculture, and wealth. The text describes him partying like a king (1 Sam. 25:36). Simply put, he represents established power. To Nabal, David represents a rebellious servant fleeing from his master and running a criminal protection racket.1 Nabal asks, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water and the meat I have slaughtered from my shearers, and give to men coming from who knows where?” (1 Sam. 24:10-11).
Meanwhile, David’s power comes from violence, perfected in his military background and fed by desperation. We meet him on the run, hiding in a cave surrounded by indebted and desperate men. When he doesn’t get his way with Nabal, the narrator tells us of his crude intentions to kill “[every] one who pisses against the wall” (1 Sam. 25:22 Everett Fox).2 To David, Nabal represents a wealthy potential patron who could care for him and his men.
Nabal treats David as we treat terrorists, refusing to negotiate, and David takes up the role, marching on his plantation to kill all the men. Abigail and the rest of the household are caught in the middle.
Nabal: An Abusive Drunk
Countless women recognize their own circumstances in Abigail. From the outside, Abigail has it all. She is beautiful, intelligent, and married to a very wealthy man. She had her own servants, the loyalty of her husband’s staff, and unquestioned access to all the household abundance. But beneath this wealth, Abigail is navigating a marriage to a drunk who is likely abusive.
After her peacemaking mission to David, she comes home and finds her husband drunk and partying, so she decides not to tell him about it until the morning, “when Nabal was sober” (1 Sam. 25:36–37). Those raised by or married to alcoholics recognize Abigail’s choice to wait until the alcohol has worn off. The fact that she does not approach him that night speaks to her years of bitter experience with his drunkenness that taught her when to avoid her husband in her own home.3
The text further suggests an abusive side to Nabal. Both his servants and Abigail describe him using the phrase “son of Belial,” often translated into English as wicked or worthless (1 Sam. 25:17, 25). The Old Testament repeatedly uses this phrase to describe men who disregard God’s law, specifically in the context of egregious abuse, including the following:
- The men in Sodom who demanded to rape Lot’s angelic visitors in Genesis 19
- The men in Gibeah who raped the Levite’s concubine all night in Judges 19
- Eli’s sons who raped the military women at the entrance to the tent of meeting in 1 Samuel 24
Who Really Runs the Business?
Beyond being an abusive drunk, the text describes Nabal as a greedy fool to whom his servants don’t even defer for important business matters. Instead of telling Nabal about David’s protection of Nabal’s flocks from banditry and wild animals, they tell Abigail, explaining that their master “is such a wicked man [son of Belial] that no one can talk to him” (1 Sam. 25:17b).
This raises the question of Nabal’s business skills. Did he did not recognize how well his flocks fared that year compared to years past? Did he did not question his shepherds so that he could replicate their strategies in the coming years? And later, when Abigail tells him of the disaster she averted, rather than appreciate her business savvy, he goes into shock and dies ten days later. How could he be so wealthy and have no business instinct? Many business leaders, particularly women, will recognize the answer hidden in the text. Nabal was just the front. Abigail was the businesswoman.
First Samuel 25 is full of clues that point to Abigail’s business smarts. The servants went to her and told her all that happened, and then they said, “Now think it over and see what you can do” (v. 17a). She quickly understands David’s threat. She has unquestioned access and authority to marshal the necessary resources to stave off disaster. And her own words to David provide the final clue, “Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. 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” (1 Sam. 25:25). David’s men had gone to the wrong person, the man, when in fact a woman—Abigail—ran the business. Oh, how so many of us can relate!
David: A Man of Violence
Unlike Nabal, David was not known as a drunk or a fool. No, he was a brilliant strategist. But as a man of war, violence was his language and an issue that surrounded him his entire life. In fact, this chapter is sandwiched between two chapters of David being tempted to kill Saul, God’s anointed, and his own violent streak scared him.5 But now, faced with a rich, established man who was not anointed by God, David had no misgivings about violence. First Samuel 25:21–22 reveals David’s brooding about the vengeance he would exact, “It’s been useless—all my watching over this fellow’s property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!”
David’s violent streak is barely controlled against Saul, and later we see it unleashed against Bathsheba and Uriah. But in this instance, Abigail intervenes, saving David from himself.
Abigail: A Skilled Diplomat in the Art of Peacemaking
David met his strategic match in Abigail, a successful businesswoman who had navigated the world of abusive men. As Birch says, “If David was quick to take action for violence, Abigail matches his decisiveness in the effort to avoid violence.”6 Taking executive action, she quickly loads donkeys with a feast of supplies for David’s men.
Like her clever ancestor Jacob who anticipated meeting Esau’s vengeance, Abigail sent the supplies ahead to appease and distract David’s anger, softening him before they met face-to-face. Rather than sending a mediator in her place, she courageously met David and foreshadowed Jesus by taking her husband’s blame upon herself to save him and her entire household.7 As a peacemaker she employed the diplomatic skills women have used to persuade men for eons, convincing David that she was on his side.8
Thus Abigail convinced David to save himself from the stain of bloodguilt that would impede his path to the throne. Abigail also anticipated the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7 by prophesying that “the Lord your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the Lord’s battles” (1 Sam. 25:28a).9 In so doing Abigail saved not just herself and her household, but David’s future and the future of Israel!
Just as David heeded his first wife Michal’s strategic plan to save his life, David listens to Abigail and recognizes God speaking through her, saying, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands” (1 Sam. 25:32–33).
He then admits what Abigail and anyone who has experienced abuse knows, violence affects more than the intended target. Though David’s explicit plan was to take out the men, he knows there would have been collateral damage, saying, “Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me . . .” (1 Sam. 25:34).
Though Abigail saves her household from destruction, she is left widowed. Her husband cannot absorb the magnitude of what has happened and dies of shock. When David hears that she has been widowed, he honors her request and remembers her, asking for her hand in marriage (1 Sam. 25:39). Through her incredible skill, Abigail not only saves her household’s lives and David’s reputation, she also secures her own future in the royal household.
Abigail: Old Testament Type-of-Christ by Heather Celoria
Who’s Who? Biblical Models of Women in Leadership by Grace Ying May
Taking Initiative by Karen L. H. Shaw
- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 317. See also Bruce Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpeter’s Bible, Volume Two (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 1166. See also Jared Byas and Peter Enns, “Joel Baden-The Historical David: The Bible for Normal People,” produced by B4NP Podcast, Bible for Normal People, October 3, 2022. This is not an original idea. Many scholars note that David’s behavior, and especially his willingness to kill all of the men in Nabal’s household for not “paying up” for services Nabal had no knowledge or choice in securing, is very reminiscent of protection rackets.
- Everett Fox, The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes (New York: Schocken Books, 2014), 400. Fox preserves the literal Hebrew in this English translation, which can also be found in old translations like the KJV. Our modern English translations tend to gentrify David’s language. Fox points out that this language is playing off the insult of dogs—Nabal is a Calebite, a word closely associated with the insulting word “dog,” who pisses on the wall. This is earthy language of military men, not foreign to our own world today.
- Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 206. Gafney speaks to the truth that children and spouses of drunks know how to avoid drunken people in their home.
- Kimberly Dickson’s translation. The Hebrew word describing these women is zaviot. Scholars agree that this word has a strong military meaning and describes God as the Lord of Hosts (zaviot), which as Birch says, “emphasizes the God who fights as a warrior for Israel.” Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1087. Considering the strong military meaning of this word, Dickson concludes that patriarchal interpretations are at the root of this translation of “serving” in the context of women at the tent of meeting. If serving was the author’s intention, there is a different common and appropriate word for service.
- Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1166. Birch’s commentary on David’s rise and kingship returns again and again to the issue of David’s violent streak, how it scared him in the case of Saul, how Abigail helped him control it, and how it eventually got the best of him in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah.
- Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1167.
- Heather Celoria, “Abigail: Old Testament Type-of-Christ,” Mutuality, July 12, 2012.
- Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 319–320.
- Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 321. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1168.