a new story

The scripture for Sunday, 1 Samuel 25, is intertwined with the reflections on it. (Scripture is in italics. I adapted the Common English Bible translation.) The story is an episode from David’s life that isn’t often told, but bears re-learning. The protagonist of the story is a woman named Abigail, and she is, simply fantastic.

Our story today is a story that I didn’t even know until a couple of weeks ago when I reread 1 & 2 Samuel. I must have read it before, but I’d never noticed it. It’s an absolutely fantastic story. It’s a story of temptation, violence, courage, and love.

To set the stage: David is now a grown man, fighting to become king. He and his men are on the run, living in the wilderness. Food is scarce.

In those days, there was a man who was very important, and very rich. He owned three thousand sheep and one thousand goats. Every year, when it was time to shear the sheep, he had a big party. The man’s name was Nabal, which means fool. His name fit. He was a hard man who did evil things. Now, Nabal was married, and his wife was named Abigail. She was intelligent and beautiful. While he was in the wilderness, David heard that Nabal was shearing his sheep.  So David got ten servants and told them, “Go to Nabal and when you get to him, tell him I said: ‘Peace be with you! I’ve heard it’s sheep shearing time, and you’re having a big party. We’d love to join you. You know that your shepherds were out in the wilderness with us the last few months, and the whole time we didn’t rough them up. None of their stuff went missing. Ask them—they’ll tell you. So, since this is such a happy day, and since we didn’t hurt any of your shepherds, how about you give us some of your food.” So David’s men went to Nabal with David’s message. Then they waited. Finally Nabal answered them. He said, “Who’s this David? And what do I care? There are all sorts of outlaws roaming the countryside. Why should I take my bread, my wine, and the meat I’ve butchered for my shearers and give to to people I don’t know?” So David’s men went back and told him every word. When David heard this, he said, “Everybody, strap on your swords! We’re going to get him!”

David doesn’t waste any time does he? Inside he’s still that little boy who didn’t blink before going toe to toe with Goliath.

He’s always been this way—anger burning right under the surface, always ready for a fight, quick to settle the score. Maybe some of us know what that’s like.

In the larger narrative God has been trying to shape David into a more patient man, a man who leans primarily not on his own strength, but on God’s. God’s been asking David to slow down, leave judging and vengeance to God, turn the anger down a couple notches.

Nabal, though, really got under his skin. Who does this rich fool think he is? David’s ready to go, sword in hand.

In the meantime, one of Nabal’s servants went to Abigail and told her, “David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master, but he just yelled at them.  But David’s men were very good to us and didn’t mistreat us. Nothing of ours went missing the whole time we were out with them in the fields.  In fact, the whole time we were with them, watching our sheep, they were a protective wall around us both night and day.  Think about that and see what you can do, because trouble is coming. And you know how our master, your husband is. No one can speak to him.” So Abigail quickly gathered up two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep ready for cooking, five pounds of roasted grain, one hundred raisin cakes, and two hundred fig cakes. She loaded all this on donkeys  and told her servants, “ Go on ahead of me. I’ll be right behind you. ” But she didn’t tell her husband Nabal. As she was riding her donkey, going down a trail on the hillside, David and his soldiers appeared, descending toward her, and she met up with them. David had just been saying, “What a waste of time—guarding all this man’s stuff in the wilderness! And look how he’s repaid me. So help me, I’m going to kill every last one of them if it’s the last thing I do!” When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and fell facedown before him, bowing low to the ground.  She fell at his feet and said, “Blame me, Sir! Forget about Nabal. He is a fool—just like his name says. I’ll take all the blame for this, my king. I didn’t see the men you sent. “It must be God who has kept from taking vengeance into your own hands. Thank goodness the Lord stopped you! Here, let me offer you this gift of food. Please, give it to your men, and forgive any offense I’ve caused. “I can tell that the Lord is going to make a mighty dynasty out of you. You fight on God’s side, and God keeps you from doing evil. God will keep you safe; and you don’t even have to worry about your enemies—God will take care of them. “And when all God’s promises have been kept and you are the king of the land, don’t let shedding blood needlessly or taking vengeance into your own hands today be a mark on your conscience, or a regret that haunts you. “And, when that day comes, my king, remember me.” 

Abigail is amazing here! She is arguing for the survival of her entire household. If she doesn’t win this argument, everyone in her family and everyone who works for her will be killed. But she doesn’t even break a sweat.

In just a few words, she dispenses entirely with Nabal. Pay him no mind, she says. Just deal with me. And then, in a stroke of brilliance, she acts as if David has already made his decision to lay down the sword. Thank God, she says, that you’ve made this wise decision today. This way you won’t regret foolish bloodshed when you’re king someday.

She affirms David’s true calling, which is to be God’s servant. She affirms David’s source of power, which is God. And she reminds him to rely on God to be the judge. She definitely got his attention. David’s reply was:

“Bless the LORD, who sent you to me today!  And bless you and bless your good judgment for keeping me from shedding blood and taking vengeance into my own hands!  If God hadn’t kept me from hurting you, and if you hadn’t come quickly and stopped me, there wouldn’t have been a single person left in your house come morning.” Then David accepted the gifts she’d brought, and sent her on her way, saying, “Go in peace. I’ve heard you. You and your house are safe. And believe me, I won’t forget you.” When Abigail got home, Nabal was in the middle of a huge party. He was drunk, so Abigail didn’t talk to him that night. The next morning, when he’d sobered up, she told him everything. His heart failed inside him, and he became like a stone. And ten days later the Lord struck Nabal and he died. When David heard that Nabal had died, he said, “Bless the Lord, who took vengeance on Nabal, and who kept me from doing something evil.” And, remembering Abigail, he sent word to her, and wooed her, and asked her to be his wife. And she said yes.

It’s almost a fairytale isn’t it? The way it ends with David and Abigail in love. And a modern fairytale at that. After all, it’s Abigail who saved the prince.

Except this is not a fairytale. This is the Bible. Our prince is not perfect.

And there is that little part about God striking Nabal dead. That part may not sit so well.

The point of it, within the context of the story, is that vengeance belongs to God, not David. Nabal’s fate is God’s business, not ours.

But let’s be clear. It makes a good narrative device in this story, but I don’t believe this kind of tit for tat smiting is how God operates.

None of us knows the full contours of how God’s justice works. The biblical witness struggles for words on this as well, sometimes suggesting that God judges in earthly ways on a daily basis, sometimes suggesting that all will be reserved for a final day of judgement, sometimes suggesting that God’s justice works in us and through us to bring us more in tune with God’s will.

Here is what we can rely on: the God who created the world in wholeness and harmony is still at work, bringing the world’s sin-scattered shards of glory back into one shining whole.

God is just, and seeks to redeem and purify me with all of my faults and weaknesses, and you with all of yours, and our neighbors, and our enemies. God seeks our wholeness, not our destruction. We cannot know the scope, or the intricacies, or the ways of God’s justice.

But what we do know is that it is not our job. Vengeance wasn’t David’s, and it’s not ours.

And thank goodness! How often we’re wrong when we rush to judgment. How rarely do we know the whole story.

And, how heavy a burden, to be the judge of the whole world, to have to be right all the time, and to have to fix all that’s wrong in other people.

That burden is not ours. It belongs to God.

But how hard it is to set it down! That was part of David’s struggle. He had to set down the desire to settle all his own scores.

He also had to set down his anger. And his hasty impulse to react. And even his rash tongue that led him into war before he’d even thought twice.

Those weaknesses are all fault lines in David’s personality. He will live with them the rest of his life. Sometimes they get the better of him.

We all have weaknesses like David, ways we’re prone to go astray, the vices to which we turn when we’re sad or hurt or angry, the manifestations of brokenness in our lives. Living with them, learning their contours, praying for help, praying that God’s strength would be present in our weakness, is part of the walk of faith for us just as it was for DAvid.

And the good news is that we do not walk alone. The God of David walks with us, strengthens us, and gives us companions for the journey. God helps us by sending people like Abigail, who wisely and courageously jump in our way as we’re going off course, and help us get back on track.

Some days we are David, and Abigail saves our lives. On those days, our call is to look for, listen to, and give thanks for the Abigail’s in our lives. Other days we are Abigail called to care for our friends and neighbors and family by saying, don’t make a mistake you will regret. I think the way to life lies over here.

It can seem some days, like the struggle to do right, to live as God would have us, is too much. We fear we’re broken beyond repair. That fear crowds in and blocks all the light.

But God’s love is a relentless love, that seeks and finds us, even in the darkest times. That love takes countless forms—the still small voice inside, the words of scripture, the testimony of creation, and sometimes, the presence of someone like Abigail.

Friends, we do not walk alone. God sends us angels in disguise, companions for the journey.

And God never, ever stops loving us. And God’s love is mighty; it is strong—stronger than our weakness, stronger than death, stronger than sin, stronger than our hottest anger and deepest fear. God’s love never fails. Thanks be to God.

by Sarah W. Wiles
July 1, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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2 Responses to a new story

  1. Linda Gaines says:

    I did remember that David had a wise wife named Abigail from the stories my good teachers at First Presbyterian in Everson taught me but the entire story wasn’t familar.. Sarah’s sermon helps us with the way God speaks to people and lets us know that we can hear that voice even today

  2. Carolyn Joy says:

    God’s love is indeed brighter. Amen

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