Sunday, May 21, 2006

1 Samuel 25

In this chapter, David is tempted to murder, but the Lord, acting through a woman, saves him.

The basic story is that, while hiding out, he and his men have fortuitously served as a shield against wolves and rustlers for the shepherds and flocks of a Calebite named Nabal. So, when shearing day arrives, David expects Nabal to provision him, as hospitality customs might advise. Nabal, being greedier than clever, instead insults the emissaries David dispatches.

This sends David into a killing rage, and he marches on the house of Nabal, with the intent of exterminating it. Nabal's wife Abigail, being noticeably smarter than her husband, sends a party with a feast to meet the army marching toward Nabal's house. Abigail's speech to David is a remarkable polemic, effectively cursing Nabal, promising David that God will save him and destroy his enemies, and predicting a lasting dynasty for David.

Note that although she has never met David, she says that God has promised him "every good thing." From this we may infer that Abigail's speech is a prophetic utterance. The last line, indeed, contains deep wisdom: by trusting God to settle
scores, David will free himself of the "staggering burden of needless bloodshed."

Returning home to find Nabal drunk, Abigail waits until he awakens (presumably with a nasty hangover) to tell him that his arrogant dismissal of David's men nearly led to the elimination of his entire gene pool, starting with his gene puddle. He has
some form of seizure, perhaps a stroke or heart attack. He dies 10 days later. While the body was yet cooling, David made Abigail his third wife after Michal and Ahinoam. In the meantime, however, Saul had apparently repossessed Michal and married her to Paltiel.

There are many interesting angles to this chapter. It is set immediately after the death of Samuel. "All Israel [presumably including David and his men, under truce] assembled and mourned." Only after Samuel's death does David move from En Gedi, with its beautiful waterfall and oasis, to the Desert of Maon ("habitation"). According to the Zondervan NIV, some Septuagint manuscripts say Desert of Paran ("place of caverns").

The Desert of Paran covers much of the Sinai Peninsula. According to Jewish History Maon (now called Maun) is 5 miles south of Hebron (hence roughly 20 miles south and west of Jerusalem and in the mountainous region between the Dead Sea
and the Mediterranean). References to "the Desert of Maon" simply mean the unpopulated region around the village. in 2 Sam. 2, David was publicly anointed king of Israel in Hebron and ruled there for 7 1/2 years.

Nabal is a Calebite. Caleb was a specially honored descendant of Judah, being one of the two spies (the other was Joshua) who urged the Israelites to occupy Canaan according to God's command. Yet "Caleb" is also Hebrew for "dog," and can't have been a desirable clan name.

The home of Abigail ("my father is joy") and Nabal is in Carmel (Hebrew: garden-land). According to Abigail, the name of Nabal means "fool," but she makes a point of explaining this to David, suggesting perhaps either that the word was not in common use or that an editor was making a didactic point. In any event, this passage underlines how neglect to act generously amounts to injustice. Even if those who are so treated do nothing on their behalf, the Lord will not spare their oppressor. Rather, His will be the hand that strikes them down.

The marriage to Abigail foreshadows the Bathsheba story in a manner that would have troubled any editor but would explain a great deal about later events. The Lord later forbids David to bring the Ark to Jerusalem and build the Temple, because David had shed blood (1 Chron 28). This is puzzling: In 1 Samuel, David repeatedly refrained from violence, even when seriously provoked by Saul, by Shimei, and eventually by his own son, Absalom. Whatever blood David has spilled, according to the account of 1 and 2 Samuel, has been God's enemies... with the minor exception of Uriah the Hittite. We are told in 2 Sam. 12 that that sin has been washed clean by the death of the child conceived of the adulterous union.

Yet there are reasons to see David as less restrained in shedding blood than his scrupulous behavior with Abigail in 1 Sam. 25 would have us believe. On his death bed, David's last charge to his son Solomon is to clear the family name of the shedding of innocent blood by punishing Joab for the murders of Abner and Amasa--by killing them. Joab is ultimately killed while clinging to the altar, probably not the way God would have preferred.

David also orders Solomon to kill Shimei for having cursed David (1 Kgs 2), an act of political expedience and vanity, not justice. As David himself said (2 Sam 16), Shimei's cursing perhaps led to David's salvation after Absalom's coup. Solomon goes on to kill his own brother Adonijah simply because Adonijah covets the throne, thereby beginning the dynastic wars. David on his deathbed seems consumed with vengeance.

This is not the only episode. David swore to Jonathan eternal friendship with the house of Saul. Yet in 2 Sam. 2, a war inexplicably breaks out over what seems to start off as roughhousing, but ends with 12 men on each side dead, killed by mutual dagger thrusts. This war was politically convenient for David, as his general Joab doubtless knew.

In 2 Sam. 2, there is an amazing comment that may illuminate so much. The editor identifies Saul's house as "Israel." In 1 Kgs 12, Jeroboam (who is identified with "Israel") revolts against Solomon's son Rehoboam, fissioning the Davidic kingdom into two weaker halves. Jeroboam's father Nebat was an Ephraimite, not a Benjamite like Saul. Is it possible that he traced his ancestry through his mother Zeruah to Saul, and that the war between Joab and Abner foreshadowed the later war between Israel and Judah?

But the story of Bathsheba is the crux of discerning whether David was a peaceful man who was a soldier by necessity or a violent man who found restraint useful. The Bathsheba story is not a simple story of adultery. When David's adultery is about to be discovered, because her husband Uriah the Hittite is too committed a soldier to put sexual recreations ahead of destroying Israel's enemies, David orders that he be abandoned in the clutches of the enemy.

The story of Bathsheba is the story of murder and pride-- as we see, God (and presumably the Israelites) forgive David when he confesses his sin. Further, the Bathsheba story shows David's greed for women.

And this brings us back to Abigail and Nabal.

Did the Lord strike down Nabal?

Or did David, acting through Abigail?


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