Marriage is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell. Marriage, as designed and intended by God, is one of the greatest blessings. As all too often practiced by flawed human beings, it can be a living hell. Even the best of marriages has moments of conflict. Human beings are far too imperfect to live in such intimacy without conflict.

The wife of a famous evangelist was interviewed on television on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. The reporter asked, “Did you and your husband ever consider divorce?”

“No,” the woman replied. “Murder often, divorce never.”

Sadly, in too many marriages, the conflict is no laughing matter. Abigail’s marriage to Nabal was one such.

In ancient times, national boundaries were not clearly marked, and mostly unguarded. Fortified cities controlled major travel routes, but those living in the long distances in between could not depend upon the royal army for protection. Cross-border raids were common, as bands of men without property made their living by stealing livestock, grain, and even women from undefended herdsmen and farmers.

The servant girl who helped save Namaan was taken in such a raid. What the king could not provide, entrepreneurs could. Sometimes these bands of propertyless men camped near the frontiers and acted as private security, discouraging raids across the border, and repelling others by force. In return, the protected herdsmen and farmers would gladly supply food and animals as a sort of tribute. It made sense voluntarily contribute a little to these vigilante security forces in return for personal safety, and the safety of wives and daughters, than to risk losing all to merciless marauders.

David, after being driven from Saul’s court, headed up just such a band of men. Their presence as they patrolled a portion of the border encouraged foreign raiders to seek easier prey elsewhere. Oh, and Samuel has just died. In fact the narrative about Abigail begins with that news.

Samuel died; and all Israel gathered themselves together, and mourned for him, and buried him at his house at Ramah.

Then David arose, and went down to the wilderness of Paran.

Samuel had been David’s mentor. With Samuel’s death, David has no one whose counsel he trusts. It is in this context that our story begins.

There was a man in Maon, whose possessions were in Carmel; and the man was very great. He had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats; and he was shearing his sheep in Carmel.

The Carmel ridge runs from the Mediterranean southeast toward the plain of Jezreel in Galilee. The plain of Jezreel is today and was then the breadbasket of Israel. Men and nations covet such land and the wealth it can generate. The man mentioned in the narrative provides an example. Three thousand sheep and a thousand goats represented significant wealth, and being in a border area, provided a tempting target.

Shearing three thousand sheep would require a great deal of time, and the wool would bring a small fortune. The biblical author wants us to understand that this man, whoever he is–for he is so far unnamed–has wealth to spare. And just the sort of man, living in just the kind of place, who might be targeted by foreign raiders, or protected by a band of men like those following David.

Now the name of the man was Nabal; and the name of his wife Abigail. This woman was intelligent and had a beautiful face; but the man was surly and evil in his doings. He was of the house of Caleb.

Pretty and smart, versus surly and evil. You can almost here the neighbors saying, “I wonder what she sees in him?” except that a wealthy man often has a pretty wife, and security could be hard for a woman to find in Israel.The simple fact that Abigail’s name, along with the mention of her beauty and intelligence, appears so quickly in the story tells us that she—and those attributes—will be important. He needs to do that, because despite the fact that this is very much Abigail’s story, it will be some time before we see her again—and even longer before we hear from her.

As it happens, Nabal lives on a part of the frontier that David and his men patrol.

David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep.

As we mentioned in the chapter on Tamar, sheep shearing was the first big event after winter. Nabal would have been at the shearers for some days. Wool merchants would have left Nabal and other herdsmen flush with cash. Feasting and celebrations occupied owners and servants alike.

David, understanding all this, decided it would be a good time to receive a contribution for the protection he and his men had provided.

David sent ten young men, and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name.

Tell him, ‘Long life to you! Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. Now I have heard that you have shearers. Your shepherds have now been with us, and we didn’t harm them, neither was there anything missing from them, all the while they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you.

Therefore let the young men find favor in your eyes; for we come on a good day. Please give whatever comes to your hand, to your servants, and to your son David.’”

This reads very much like business letter, with greetings, a statement of services rendered, and a request for payment, all in very respectful language. Note the shrewd references to shearing and “a good day”–pointing out that Nabal’s profit is at least partly due to the protection provided by David and his men. Any reasonable man, you would think, would gladly and generously respond. But the author has already warned us: Nabal is not a reasonable man.

Nabal answered David’s servants, and said, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants who break away from their masters these days. Shall I then take my bread, my water, and my meat that I have killed for my shearers, and give it to men who I don’t know where they come from?”

You may hear an echo of Pharaoh saying to Moses, “Who is the Lord?” In both cases, a sign of contempt, dismissal. The words “There are many servants who break away from their masters these days,” is a not subtle jab—but then, subtlety is not in Nabal’s repertoire—at David’s recent escape from Saul’s service.

So David’s young men turned on their way, and went back, and came and told him all these words.

David said to his men, “Every man put on his sword!”
Every man put on his sword. David also put on his sword. About four hundred men followed David, and two hundred stayed by the baggage.

Nabal asked in scorn, “Who is David?” He’s about to find out. No matter how many herders and other servants Nabal may have, they are not a match for David and his 400 professional soldiers. Fortunately for everyone, someone, apparently one of Nabal’s servants becomes aware of David’s plans—how this can be, we are not told.

But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying,

“Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to Greet our master; and he insulted them.

But the men were very good to us, and we were not harmed, and we didn’t miss anything, as long as we went with them, when we were in the fields. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.

Now therefore know and consider what you will do; for evil is determined against our master, and against all his house; for he is such a worthless fellow that one can’t speak to him.”

By now, you probably have noticed that dialogue carries much of the burden of the narrative. What people say in the story carries great importance. When something is repeated, its significance increases every time. Here, the servant confirms David’s protection–“They were a wall to us both by night and day”–legitimizing his claim. When the narrator introduced Nabal, he told us the man ‘was surly and evil in his doings. in His brief appearance so far, his words were contemptuous and dismissive. Now, a servant, no less, describes him as so worthless he isn’t worth talking to.


Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.