14 … One of the young shepherds told Abigail, Nabal's wife, what had happened: “David sent messengers from the backcountry to salute our master, but he tore into them with insults.
15 “Yet these men treated us very well. They took nothing from us and didn't take advantage of us all the time we were in the fields.
16 “They formed a wall around us, protecting us day and night all the time we were out tending the sheep.
17 “Do something quickly because big trouble is ahead for our master and all of us. Nobody can talk to him. He's impossible—a real brute!”
18 Abigail flew into action. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep dressed out and ready for cooking, a bushel of roasted grain, a hundred raisin cakes, and two hundred fig cakes, and she had it all loaded on some donkeys.
19 Then she said to her young servants, “Go ahead and pave the way for me [with David]. I'm right behind you.”
20 As she was riding her donkey, descending into a ravine, David and his men were descending from the other end, so they met there on the road.
21 David had just said, “That sure was a waste, guarding everything this man had out in the wild so that nothing he had was lost—and now he rewards me with insults. A real slap in the face!
Abigail gathered up extravagant amounts of food, along with some of the most valued products of the land, especially cakes of dried figs, so that she might appease David.
22 “May God do his worst to me if Nabal and every cur in his misbegotten brood isn't dead meat by morning!”
23 As soon as Abigail saw David, she got off her donkey and fell on her knees at his feet, her face to the ground in homage, saying, “My master, let me take the blame! Let me speak to you. Listen to what I have to say. Don't dwell on what that brute Nabal did.”
I Samuel 25:14–25a, The Message
Biblical Passage Notes
Abigail (Hebrew for “source or cause of delight”), undoubtedly one of the most astute and politically savvy women of the Bible (and considered to be one of the seven female prophets of the Hebrew scriptures), is portrayed in this short but important story as the clever wife of a gluttonous lout, a man known as Nabal (in Hebrew, “fool”). Nabal was a wealthy landowner who owned more than 3,000 sheep. At the end of the sheep-shearing season, it was customary to celebrate with a great feast set out for all those who had worked hard to bring the year to a successful end. It was expected, therefore, that Nabal would regale his men, as well as any others who had been kind enough to help in some way during the year, both as a token of thanksgiving to God and as an act of goodwill toward the neighbors. When David (in Hebrew, “beloved”) and his army approached their neighbor's home to collect what was owed them for the protection they had offered for Nabal's flocks and shepherds during the year, Nabal insulted David by refusing to offer proper hospitality, even when David reminded him of what was expected. Instead, Nabal continued to feast with his friends and cronies, seemingly oblivious to the dangerous faux pas he was committing. Tipped off by a loyal servant that David was on his way and that her husband was paying no mind to the formidable encroaching army, Abigail set out to head off the ruin and possible destruction of her family and all of its holdings. Nabal had earlier summarily ignored David's request for bread, wine, and meat for him and his men (verse 11), an imprudent and disrespectful act by the standards of the time. But Abigail seemed to know just what this tension-filled moment required. Acting swiftly, she gathered up extravagant amounts of food, along with some of the most valued products of the land, so that she might appease David and at the same moment atone for her husband's insolence by the abundance of the fine gifts she loaded onto her pack mules.
All that Nabal had denied, Abigail provided and then some. The items on the shopping list of goods that Abigail gave David, though seemingly random, are in order of importance to the story. First on the list are the items that Nabal denied David and his men in verse 11, beginning with two hundred loaves of bread. That much bread could not have been prepared in the moment, so one may wonder where it came from. The suggestion, of course, is that it had been prepared for the feast that Nabal was holding with his entourage; and the fact that they had not yet needed it or called for it made Nabal's refusal to David not merely inhospitable; with so much at hand, his rudeness smacked of greed. The Hebrew word used for bread (lechem) is also the generic term for “food”; therefore, whatever was prepared, if it were not bread, it must have been quite a lot of some standard staple known to this particular community.
Or perhaps not. “Two hundred” (in Hebrew, resh) is understood numer-ologically to mean “in the beginning.” So as bread is at the beginning of the list, the two hundred might just be a modifier to indicate what was most important, or what was to be first on Abigail's list.
Following the bread, we are told that two skins of wine (in Hebrew, yayin, literally “what is pressed out”) were sent to David. The King James Version (KJV) of this text says that Abigail packed two “bottles” (in Hebrew, nebel); yet it hardly seems likely that she would have provided just two bottles of refreshment to wash down so much food, and with so many men to be served. Not to mention that bottles, in common parlance, seems to indicate some sort of glass container. Although glass has its origins in the Middle East or North Africa, it is unlikely that it was being used to store wine anywhere in Israel at this point in time. Nebel can also mean “vessel,” “flagon,” or “pitcher,” so the idea of two large skins as vessels for the wine, especially in a community that raised sheep and goats, makes much more sense. It is also interesting to note that the Hebrew root for this wine container, nbl, is the same root for the name of Abigail's husband, Nabal (perhaps indicating that too much wine makes one foolish?). All in all, it appears that however much wine was sent, David and his men were satisfied by the portions.
Next on the list of gifts to David and his men are “five sheep dressed out and ready for cooking.” Once again, the butchering could not have been done on the spur of the moment, so these sheep must have been provisions that Nabal had set apart for his own meal, already cooked and seasoned (“dressed”) so that at best, come meal time, they might have had to be cut or warmed by the fire. But why five sheep? Is there a symbolic meaning here, as above with two hundred and with two? Perhaps there is. Five in Hebrew numerology represents strength and severity. It can also represent peace, wholeness, or appeasement. Perhaps Abigail chose five finely prepared and tasty sheep, knowing that David would understand her intentions as she humbly asked his pardon for her husband's insolence.
Not content to provide only what had once been denied by Nabal, Abigail went beyond what might have been considered an adequate recompense and sent grains and fruits as further ingratiation. Some Bible translations speak of “five seahs (or ephahs) of parched corn.”1 Because it follows as it does the five sheep on her list of giving, perhaps David might have understood her generosity as “what was required, and to further underscore our desire for peace, then five of grain, also.” (What Abigail took from Nabal's storehouse was most likely roasted barley [in Hebrew, qali], or some other dark grain.) And just how much is five seahs or ephahs ? A seah is a biblical measure, three of which equal one ephah. One ephah in modern-day units is about three-fifths of a bushel (see Appendix A). The Message translation above of “a bushel” is probably a good compromise understanding of the amount Abigail packed; once cooked, as the grain expanded, a bushel could feed a small army with sufficiency.
To accompany the grain, Abigail gathered one hundred raisin cakes. Some translations say, “one omer of raisins' (an omer is one-tenth of an ephah), but whether that translates into one hundred cakes is anyone's guess. The understanding of biblical weights and measures requires a lot of conjecture. However, suffice it to say that Abigail did put together many bunches or clusters of dried fruits native to the region, both dried grapes and dried figs. “Cakes” as it is used here does not mean a baked good, but merely indicates a large pressed mound of dried goods. And why one hundred? One hundred (in Hebrew, qof) signifies holiness, and is a reminder of the one hundred daily blessings. Perhaps Abigail was also trying to flatter David by sending along blessings as well with all the ingredients of the meal.
Finally, we are told that David also received two hundred fig cakes, and here the list of the bounty ends. Like the dates, these fig cakes were dried groupings of figs, held together in mounds or cakes by the sweet juices that as they dry become very sticky. As the list begins, so it ends with two hundred. Abigail understood her offering and what it would mean to the man she sent it to: peace, humility, blessings, atonement, and subservience before a man of great stature. In the end, her unique political insights paid off: when her husband Nabal later died (of an apparent stroke), David sent for her, and she took her place of honor as one of his wives of important stature.
Most of us will never have to cook for four hundred people, so we have reduced the recipes to what might suffice for a meal served to just ten or twelve friends and family in celebration and in thanksgiving for all the goodwill that is engendered by hospitality to one's neighbors.
||See the discussion regarding “corn” in the Preparation section of Chapter 1.
As noted in Chapter 7, Ruth and Boaz were David's great-grandparents. But what had been happening in Israel during the intervening years, and how had David come to be the leader of a small army?
When Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land (Canaan), perhaps in the 13th century b.c.e., the tribes were still governed by their own elders. These leaders came to be called judges, chosen because of their knowledge of the Law and their ability to resolve conflicts among the members of the community. They also served as military and spiritual leaders, mobilizing the people to confront external enemies and teaching the community how to worship God and live according to the Covenant. Joshua (Moses' top general) is sometimes identified as the first judge. Some scholars count fifteen judges; others, sixteen—the history of this period (13th-9th centuries b.c.e.) being very uncertain. Among the more important judges were Deborah, Gideon, and Samson.
Near the end of the reign of the judges, probably in the 12th century b.c.e., God raised up a young prophet, Samuel. As he grew in wisdom and stature before God and the people, Samuel attempted to appoint his sons as judges to succeed him, but because of their corruption, and because of continued threats of foreign invasion, the elders of the twelve tribes of Israel demanded that God have Samuel appoint a king to rule over the united kingdom. The prospect enraged Samuel, but God stepped in and indicated that Samuel should anoint Saul ben Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, as the first king. Under Saul's leadership, the Israelites vanquished their enemies, among whom were the Ammonites and the Amalekites. However, Saul disobeyed God's command to destroy every Amalekite—man, woman, and child, as well as all the livestock—sparing the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, as well as the prize sheep and cattle. Therefore, God rejected Saul as king over Israel and told Samuel to anoint another king. In due course, God guided Samuel to the house of Jesse and identified David, the youngest son, as the next king. Samuel anointed David, a shepherd, in secret; ironically, David was soon summoned to play the lyre for Saul, to help ease the king's troubled spirit. Dividing his time between his own home and that of Saul, David also brought provisions to his brothers as they continued to engage the Philistines in battle. It was during one of these forays that David succeeded in striking down Goliath, the champion Philistine warrior, with a stone and a slingshot, securing his reputation as an accomplished warrior.
As David's star rose, Saul's enmity toward the younger man increased. David's covenant with Saul's son Jonathan exacerbated the hard feelings, as Jonathan conspired to protect David against the king's plots. At one point, Saul attempted to have David done in, sending him into battle against one hundred Philistine soldiers; when David returned unharmed, having dispatched all the Philistines, Saul gave his daughter Michal in marriage to David, even though the two men had previously agreed that the elder daughter, Merab, would be David's prize for victory in that battle. Observing how the people adored David, Saul became obsessed with getting rid of the young man. As the conflict between the two grew more desperate and dangerous, David began to gather an army of loyal supporters.