Monday, September 13, 2010

Shining Stars of Davida: Abigail

The Text After Samuel died, David was still on the run from Saul, who wanted to kill him. He asked Nabal, a rich Calebite, for provisions, but was refused. David prepared to kill out Nabal's household for the disrespect. Nabal’s wife Abigail heard of David’s intentions, prepared a lot of food, and begged him to spare her family. He agreed and went away with the provisions. When she came home, Nabal was drunk. She waited until morning to tell him about the huge amount she gave away. When she did, he had a heart attack and died. David then proposed to Abigail, who accepted.

The Commentary Commentators tell us more about Nabal and Abigail. Nabal was “difficult and an evildoer” (I Sam 25:3) who refused to give charity; his name even means fool in Hebrew. When Samuel died and the country was in mourning, Nabal made a festive sheep-shearing party. Abigail was Nabal’s polar opposite. The name Abigail means fountain of joy in Hebrew, and was considered “intelligent and beautiful” (I Sam 25:3). She is counted as one of the four most beautiful women and as one of the seven female prophets mentioned in Tanakh (Jewish Bible).

Abigail rode to intercept David on a donkey, not an easy thing to do in a dress. As a result, the dress got twisted up and her thigh was exposed. Because she was uncovered, she descended on the opposite side of the mountain from David. When she saw him, she dismounted and asked him whether she was pure or not due to her period. When he told her that menstrual blood can only be judged in daylight, she asked him how he couldn’t judge menstrual blood, but could judge Nabal’s blood. When he replied that Nabal had rebelled against his kingship, Abigail countered that Saul was still on the throne. David had nothing to say to Abigail’s impeccable logic and spared the family.

Abigail was so beautiful that commentators go so far to say that the thought of her made men weak in the knees. David had seen her thigh as she dismounted (apparently a big turn-on back then), and wanted to have sex with her. Abigail refused. Commentators explain that when she told him, “[Do not let] this be a stumbling block…for my lord” (I Sam 25:31), she was referring to having sex with her, not Nabal’s possible death (as would be assumed from reading the text straight). David controlled himself and said, “Blessed are you, who has restrained me from coming to bloodshed” (I Sam 25:33). He used the Hebrew plural of bloodshed, which commentators say refer to Nabal’s life and having sex with Abigail while she was still impure from her period.

As she convinced David to spare her family and simultaneously fended off his sexual advances, she was still able to prepare for the future. She ended the sentence, “[Do not let] this be a stumbling block…for my lord” with “May God act beneficently towards my lord, and may you remember your maidservant” (I Sam 25:31). In modern terms, she was saying, “I can’t have sex with you now, since I’m married and impure anyway, but once you’re king, keep me in mind, okay?”

So not only was Abigail beautiful, she was brilliant and great at multitasking. In contrast, Nabal was a cruel, obese (the amount of food that Abigail gave to David’s camp, enough to hold them all over for a while, was just one meal for Nabal), a real piece of work. What were they doing together?

My Teacher’s Lesson One of my teachers had an explanation for this. “Abigail got nothing from her husband,” she said. “He was an evildoer and cruel, but she was still a good wife to him. This teaches us that what someone invests in marriage should not reflect what they get back, but that each party should invest 100% no matter how their spouse acts. Abigail had all reasons to be miserable. But she was always happy because her attitude was that if God put her there, she could grow from the experience, and she was happy as long as she was growing spiritually.”

Even just recording my teacher’s words make me ill. So a woman should just grin and bear it? If a woman has a Nabal for a husband, she should just smile and be happy even if she’s really miserable because she’s “growing spiritually”?

My teacher then adds, as an afterthought, “Unless there’s abuse. That’s different.”

The Real Lesson No. No it’s not. It is 100% absolutely NOT different. A man who’s a piece of garbage, who treats his wife like a sex object and maid and acts like Nabal, disgusting, a failure, a deceiver, a fool, surly, mean, even if there’s no physical or sexual abuse, that’s not something anyone should have to live with every day. Judaism HAS divorce laws. God knows that some marriages are mistakes, and gives both parties a way to get out of an unhappy relationship. If a woman is not happy with her spouse, she can still sue for divorce; she does not have to be a martyr and deal with it. Bless Abigail for dealing with Nabal for so many years. But women do not have to follow her example and stay in a loveless marriage just because.

But my teacher didn’t even follow through with her own explanation. Abigail was brilliant. Nabal had probably suffered at least one heart attack in his life due to his obesity, and he was extremely cheap. She waited to tell Nabal what had happened until the next morning, when he was no doubt extremely hungover. He suffered from a heart attack due to the shock and died. Could Abigail have expected such an outcome? I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that she did. She knew she was planning on a life with David. So, in effect, she got rid of Nabal and got David instead. To me, that’s not passively dealing with a bad husband; that’s being proactive about it.

So don’t listen to my teacher. Don’t deal with a husband you’re not happy with. Don’t wait for a king to come and sweep you off your feet like Abigail, though: get a divorce instead. God made humankind to serve the Creator. The only way we can properly serve God is to be happy. Keep yourself satisfied.

I dub Abigail an inductee to Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make feminists proud.


  1. Thank you for this! I always had trouble thinking that my namesake just stayed passively with such an evil man when she was such a brilliant tzadeket and strong woman.