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,
- “In Hebrew thought, the name of an individual was considered to be more than a title or label for identification. Rather, a name was believed to reveal the essence, character, reputation, or destiny of the one to whom it was given…. Thus the name of every Hebrew sent out some sort of message with it.”
Jesus Himself provides a prime example of the connection between the names and characters of biblical figures. His name Yeshu`a means “salvation,” and He came in order to bring salvation (Matt. 1:21). Wilson observes that Jesus’ ministry was “a commentary on his name.”
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:
- “A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. His name was Nabal and his wife’s name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband, a Calebite, was surly and mean in his dealings.”
Significantly, the first thing we are told about Nabal is the extent of his wealth. As we will see, this wealth was what mattered most to him; he even seems to have valued it above the priceless treasure of an intelligent and beautiful wife. And in spite of the great blessings he had been given, he had a disagreeable personality.
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 kelibbô is also consistent with the consonantal Hebrew text. This word is translated “like his heart.” If kelibbô 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):
- “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?”
As Levenson comments, this insulting tirade was “more an outburst than a speech” and showed that Nabal certainly lived up to his name. Two biblical statements about a nabal are very relevant here. One is Proverbs 17:7, which states in the KJV, “Excellent speech becometh not a fool.” A second is Isa. 32:6:
- “For the fool speaks folly, his mind is busy with evil: He practices ungodliness and spreads error concerning the LORD; the hungry he leaves empty and from the thirsty he withholds water.”
It is instructive to compare Nabal’s reaction with a response that Moses had received from the Pharaoh of Egypt in Exodus 5:2:
- “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.”
Levenson [1, p. 228] observes that “Nabal sees in David only what Pharaoh saw in Israel-an uppity slave.” By refusing to acknowledge God’s authority, Pharaoh was a nabal as described in Ps. 14:1. Similarly, Nabal defied God in his treatment of David (God’s anointed future king of Israel) and in his refusal to provide for David’s hungry and deserving men (see e.g. Deut. 24:14-15, 19-21).
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, 21-22).
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:
- “The phrase, `when the wine was going out of Nabal,’ just three words in Hebrew, captures graphically the full measure of the man’s materialism, his unsanctified corporeality. It is a pun as well, since the word nebel (or n¯ebel), which sounds like `Nabal,’ to which it is identical in written form, means `wineskin’ or `jar.’ In short, the man is equated with his bladder.”
We are not told what emotions went through Nabal when he heard Abigail’s account of her encounter with David. Was he angry and jealous that Abigail had gone alone, without consulting him, to see David, giving away five of his three thousand sheep in the process? Was he terror-stricken to hear about the disaster that he and his household had narrowly escaped? In any case, he was not repentant. The Bible simply relates the following:
- “Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the LORD struck Nabal and he died”(vv. 37-38).
The sudden death of Nabal seems to illustrate another proverbial saying about the nabal. According to Proverbs 30:21-22, “a fool who is full of food” is one of three things that make the earth tremble and one of four things under which the earth “cannot bear up.” Levenson [1, p. 226] comments, “It is as though the moral balance of the universe would become misaligned if Nabal were able to sink into such depths of gluttony and ego-gratification with impunity.”
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.
- Jon D. Levenson, “I Samuel 25 as Literature and History,” pp. 220-242 in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, Edited by Kenneth R.R. Gros Louis (with James S. Ackerman), Abingdon, Nashville, 1982.
- Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.
File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.
On 12 Aug 2002, 17:29.