|by Doug Ward|
Two of the Psalms, the fourteenth and fifty-third, begin with the statement,
|``The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.''|
When we read these words today, we might picture an atheist-someone who has come to believe, perhaps for philosophical or scientific reasons, in the nonexistence of a Supreme Being. However, we have no evidence that there were any atheists living in the time of David, to whom this psalm is attributed. In those days many people believed in a plethora of deities, but few, as far as we know, imagined that there were none at all.
To get an idea of the sort of person that David had in mind, let's look at the Hebrew word used for ``fool'' in this verse: the word nabal. A nabal is pictured in the Hebrew scriptures as corrupt, a doer of wicked deeds (Jer. 17:11; Ps. 14:1), uncharitable (Isa. 32:5-6), gluttonous (Prov. 30:21-22), and one who brings grief to his father (Prov. 17:21). Hebrew scholar Jon D. Levenson of Harvard University describes this type of fool as ``not a harmless simpleton, but rather a vicious, materialistic, and egocentric misfit'' [1, p. 221]. Professor Marvin R. Wilson [2, p. 287] characterizes the nabal as a ``practical atheist''-not so much someone who says there is no God as someone who ``says no to God.'' The nabal, in his self-centered arrogance, refuses to acknowledge a higher authority in his life.
We can gain further understanding of the character of the nabal by studying I Samuel 25, which relates the story of a man whose name actually was Nabal. As we will see, Nabal was a vivid personification of the vile traits of a God-denying fool. In sharp contrast, his courageous wife Abigail embodied the true wisdom of one who walks with God.
|What's in a (Biblical) Name?|
Today the selection of names may be based on a variety of considerations. A particular name may run in our family or belong to someone we admire. A name may be popular or famous, or it may simply sound pleasant and have no connection with anyone we disliked when we were growing up. Rarely, though, do our names make statements about who we really are.
The situation was different in ancient Hebrew culture. Wilson [2, pp. 180-181] explains,
On the negative side, the same thing can be said about Nabal's life. But in
his case, was the name assigned at birth? It seems unlikely that his parents
would have given him such a derogatory name. Semitic linguists have pointed out
that in ancient languages related to Hebrew, there are words that sound almost
like nabal and have the meanings ``flame,'' ``sent,'' ``to be noble,''
and ``skilled, clever'' [1, p. 222]. Perhaps his parents originally gave him
such a name, or another name with a positive meaning, but he later came to be
known as Nabal after his character became apparent. In any case, the name Nabal
is an apt designation for the man described in I Samuel 25.
When King Saul of Israel sought to take David's life, David took refuge in the Judean wilderness. There he was joined by a ragtag group of about four hundred men who were ``in distress or in debt or discontented'' (I Sam. 22:2, NIV). While staying a step ahead of Saul, David and this makeshift army provided protection for people in the region, including the shepherds of a wealthy rancher named Nabal.
We are introduced to Nabal and his wife Abigail in I Sam. 25:2-3:
Verse 3 mentions that Nabal was ``a Calebite.'' Considering the extent of his wealth, perhaps he was one of the leaders of the clan of Caleb. Levenson [1, p. 223] points out, though, that the Hebrew word for ``Calebite'' (k»alibbi) can also be translated as ``doglike.'' These translations are based on the traditional choice of vowels for this Hebrew word. In addition, Levinson notes one further possibility. The word kelibb˘ is also consistent with the consonantal Hebrew text. This word is translated ``like his heart.'' If kelibb˘ is the word intended here, it is likely a reference to Psalm 14:1 (53:1).
Sheep-shearing time was a season of great celebration and thanksgiving. David hoped that since his men had protected Nabal's shepherds and sheep from harm, Nabal would see fit to reward them with some much-needed provisions. He sent ten young men to Nabal with a request for suitable compensation (vv. 4-9). Sadly, Nabal answered their polite request with a stinging rebuff (vv. 10-11):
Nabal's words can also be compared to those of Gaal son of Ebed (which literally means something like ``Loathing son of a slave'') against the judge Abimelech in Judges 9:28: ``Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should be subject to him?'' Gaal's speech prompted retaliation from Abimelech, and much bloodshed resulted.
The ten young men returned to David and ``reported every word'' of Nabal's
wicked rejoinder (v. 12). David was generally inclined to leave retribution in
God's hands (see I Sam. 24), but this time he lost his temper and appeared ready
to follow in the footsteps of Abimelech. (As Proverbs 15:1 says, it often
happens that ``a harsh word stirs up anger.'') With four hundred men, David set
out for Nabal's estate, vowing to kill Nabal and all of his servants (vv. 13,
Meanwhile, David and his men were not the only ones who were upset over Nabal's behavior. Nabal had rejected David's request on the pretense of concern for his own men, but those men knew that he hadn't acted justly or in their best interests. One servant approached Abigail to ask for her help, knowing that there was no way to reason with Nabal (vv. 14-17).
Abigail apparently agreed that it would be fruitless to confront Nabal over the matter. Instead, she quickly gathered provisions for David's men and set out to make a direct personal appeal to David himself (vv. 18-19). Levenson characterizes her plea to David (vv. 23-31) as ``a rhetorical masterpiece.'' First, she accepted responsiblity for the situation, showing loyalty to her husband while not condoning his actions. At the same time, she distanced herself from Nabal's attitude and urged David to look at the ``big picture'': God was working with David and would eventually establish him as king, so David should continue to trust in God and refrain from shedding innocent blood. In this speech, Abigail exemplified the qualities of the ideal wife of Proverbs 31 (see especially verses 10-12, 26-31).
Abigail's humble and eloquent appeal presents quite a contrast to Nabal's stubborn outburst. While Nabal wrongly viewed David as an outlaw, Abigail recognized David's place in God's plan. Her statement in verse 28 that ``the Lord will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my master,'' an anticipation of the promise given in 2 Sam. 7:16, is an example of the wisdom granted to those who fear God (Prov. 1:7).
Abigail's mission of intercession was a success. In response to the divine
wisdom she communicated, David accepted her apology and gift. Recognizing the
truth in Abigail's words, he praised both her and God for steering him away from
violence and bloodshed (vv. 32-35).
While Abigail pleaded for her husband's life, Nabal feasted like a king, oblivious to the uproar he had caused and to the hunger of David's men (v. 36). Abigail returned home to find Nabal ``very drunk,'' so she waited until the next morning to tell him what had happened.
Verse 37 has an unusual and colorful way of describing Nabal's recovery from
the evening's festivities, saying that ``the wine was gone out of Nabal'' (KJV).
This phrase compares Nabal to a wineskin, as Levenson [1, p. 227] explains:
Some have speculated that Nabal's death was caused by either heart attacks or strokes. Whatever the medical cause of death, the phrase ``his heart failed him and he became like a stone'' has symbolic significance. Previously we noted the similarity between Nabal and the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Both hardened their hearts, denying God's authority over them by refusing to listen to a servant of God. The medical condition of Nabal's final days was a reflection of his hardened spiritual condition.
It is instructive once again to compare the attitudes of Nabal, Abigail, and
David. When Abigail presented her case to David, his heart softened in
repentance. On the other hand, when Abigail told the news to Nabal, his heart
hardened in some combination of anger, jealousy, and fear. Abigail bowed down in
submission to David (v. 24), and David responded by submitting to God. Nabal,
however, submitted to no one. He was a God-denying fool right to the end.
As we have seen, Nabal embodied the negative qualities attributed to the nabal in the Bible's wisdom literature. One wonders whether David had Nabal specifically in mind when he wrote Ps. 14:1. In contrast, Abigail (whose name means ``My Father Is Joy'') exhibited the peaceable characteristics of wisdom. Speaking of wisdom, Proverbs 3:17 states, ``Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.''
At the news of Nabal's death, David praised God for His mercy (in sparing him from doing wrong) and His justice (in dealing with Nabal). David and Abigail then were married (vv. 39-42). In addition to being a good match for both parties, this marriage may have been of political benefit to David. If Nabal was indeed a prominent Calebite, a marriage to Nabal's widow would have solidified David's position within the tribe of Judah. David was later acclaimed as king over Judah in a ceremony at Hebron, in Calebite territory (2 Sam. 2:1-4).
In David's confrontation with Nabal, we catch a glimpse of a darker side of his character that would show itself again later in his life. Here Abigail's wisdom helped rescue David from the brink of sin. Later, however, in the case of Uriah and Bathsheba, David came to see his sin too late to prevent it.
I would guess that few, if any, readers of this article will be atheists. All
of us, however, sometimes slip into the folly of behaving as if God's existence
did not matter. Let us pray for the wisdom of Abigail and strive to avoid the
error of Nabal.