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Thursday, September 27, 2007

1 Samuel 25 -- Whose ox is gored?

I take the story of David, Abigail, and Nabal as a cautionary tale about the abuse of power. In fact, most people who read the story come to that conclusion: Don't be a fool like Nabal, who took advantage of David's perceived weakness and paid with his life. On one level, this is the correct application of the story. But I think this story functions as a cautionary tale about the abuse of power on at least 2 or 3 other levels. On the deepest level, it is a cautionary tale about the power (or lack of it) of telling the story.

That perception makes me want to investigate the story more deeply as a platform for ranting about something that really troubles me about our culture lately. There's no point in beating around the bush. I think Americans have decided self-restraint is folly. I'm not just talking about obvious things like sexualized media or the loss of shame over public tantrums by adults. I'm also talking about the loss of a desire for objectivity in thought. People have always had a hard time seriously criticizing their own ideas and listening carefully and sympathetically to people with whom they disagree. In the not so distant past, however, it was a genuine and shared goal among educated people to try to acknowledge and set aside your own prejudices in public discourse, at least enough to be able to tell the difference between complete hooey and telling arguments on different sides of an issue. Sure people cheated and lied about conforming to this expectation. At least they had a standard to cheat over and lie about. These days, it's hard to find anyone arguing for genuine self-restraint. I guess a lot of people figure nobody else knows how to think, so why should I bother?

Who are my villains? To be honest, I'm not sure who to blame. Maybe just about everybody. Maybe me too. I know a few I won't blame: Carl Sagan, Umberto Eco, James Barr (Professor of OT Literature), Paul Tillich (protestant theologian) and a raft of brave souls who toil in education, science, theology, and public policy quietly, precisely because they believe in self-restraint, which naturally gets them no headlines and too few awards. I can pick on a few people who I'm sure have some role to play, but don't know how big: postmodernists who believe that objectivity is an unattainable illusion. (I include here some precursors, too. One known only to conservative evangelical Christians is Cornelius Van Til, a Presbyterian Professor of Christian Apologetics) I can't speak about the genuine pioneers, because I don't know their work (except Van Til), but the second or third-rank followers who have tried to implement their ideas have in some cases royally screwed up. Example? The objectivity of scientific methods is an illusion. They are really a power play to justify andro-centrism or enlightenment autonomy. I don't get these criticisms. What does scientific method have to do with patriarchy? Does openness to correction by data pose some kind of special risk to women's rights? As for enlightenment autonomy or the hegemony of "reason," it seems to me that the only other alternative is to give up on trying to convince people of anything. I take this type of criticism to mean that thinking itself is the problem. The critics will insist that they are only criticizing a particular kind of thinking, one that stacks the deck in favor of the types of conclusions a particular community of thinkers wishes to draw. So, the real target is "materialistic" or "naturalistic" or "abstract/generalist" thinking. The trouble is, when you ask the critics what they want to replace it with, they end up with something that is not thinking at all: unquestioning loyalty to some religious principle, for example. Or worse, nihilism. Current conclusions of scientists about the nature of the world contradict your favorite religious authority? Bummed that you can't convince them to change their views without marshaling adequate evidence and producing a theory that will explain it better than the current models? Fine, you say. Scientifice method is the problem. For the kind of reality I believe in, it doens't work. Ok, then, give up on modern science, but be consistent. You'll have to give up everything it's taught you about the way things work too. Bring back to witch burnings and exorcisms. Throw out all your maps (illusory, who really knows if the earth is round anyway?), trash your computer, tv, turn off the electricity, heat, AC. In fact, you'll have to strip off your clothes and throw out all your books, plates, bedding, furniture, most of your food, tear down your house, disassemble your car. Dump your purse and empty your wallet, too. In short, I think postmodernists are idiots. I don't mean this to be a cheap insult; it's too serious. I think postmodernism saws off the branch on which it sits. Yes, (if you happen to be one of that rare breed who reads Van Til) I'm borrowing this metaphor from Van Til, and I think he was guiltier of it than the enlightenment types he accuses.

Well, now I've gone off on my rant and forgotten about the story of Nabal. But at least you know where I'm coming from. Feel free to trash anything I say from here on out as the ravings of an enlightenment rationalist bigot, if you have to. But I hope you'll at least think through what I say first.

At first glance the story of David, Abigail and Nabal is a straightforward morality tale. We have already been repeatedly informed that David is an innocent man on the run from the murderous and tyrannical king Saul. In fact, David and his small band have been wandering through Nabal's territory already while on the lam. They come back at sheep-shearing time. The narrator tells us that Nabal is rich and a foolish man given to dealing meanly. On the other hand, he has a beautiful and intelligent wife, Abigail. David is already a "hero" in the story. Nabal is the villain, and Abigail is a heroine. Sure enough, David sends messengers to Nabal to greet him, and Nabal "hurls insults" at them. At least, that's how one of his servants describes the situation to Abigail. The servant apparently finds Nabal's behavior infuriating and expects David and his men to feel the same way, so he urges Abigail to do something quick, or Nabal is in big trouble. She gathers a generous supply of food and rides off to meet David and his men. When she meets him she speaks very graciously, takes the blame for the misunderstanding, pronounces a blessing on David, and begs for his consideration when he becomes king. David praises her for preventing him from taking vengeance, promises to spare her busband, takes the gifts and leaves. Abigail goes back home, waits until her husband is sober after some over-enthusiastic celebration, and tells him the whole story, which leaves him utterly stunned. 10 days later he dies at the hand of the Lord. When David is told about it, he praises God for taking care of his enemy for him and proposes marriage to Abigail, who accepts and rides off to meet him. End of story. David and Abigail are rewarded for their virtue and Nabal is punished.

Unfortunately, this reading of the story only works without a hitch when much of the story as actually told is left out. When you fill in the rest of the details, things get murky. First, there's David. What exactly goes on between him and Nabal? We are told earlier in the book that David and his men spent some time in the "desert of Maon," where Nabal lived. We are not told how long they stayed, what they did there, or whom they met. When they go back to this area, David is told that Nabal was shearing sheep in Carmel. Based on what we're told, then, David and Nabal had not met. Of course, there are plenty of people who are willing to fill in the Bible's silence on this matter with suppositions favorable to one party or the other, but the new story crafted out of these careful suppositions takes the edge off what is in the text. We won't go there. We don't know how much about Nabal David knew before he was told about the sheep-shearing or vice versa. Nor does this text really clear those questions up. Presumably, David's men and Nabal's men did know about each other at least a little bit, because they spent an unknown amount of time together in the fields. Most likely, it was not a long period of time. At any rate, we first learn about this in the message David sends with his men, and then again in the report of Nabal's servant to Abigail. Whether any of Nabal's servants told this to Nabal is unknown. The servant hints that no information was exchanged when he tells Abigail "no one can talk to him." In any case, the first "encounter" between David and Nabal, then, is the message sent with David's 10 young men to Nabal in Carmel.

What does David's message mean? It starts off sounding quite comradely. "Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours!" Then David informs Nabal that his men were with Nabal's shepherds in the fields and took good care of them: "we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing." He requests Nabal to give "whatever you can find" to David's men and to David himself, since it is a festive time. What that is not said here should be assumed? Is this a shakedown? On the one hand, for all we know it may have been customary for local armed bands to protect shepherds in exchange for a share in the harvest. And it may have become an understanding among the local owners that they should include local armed bands in their harvest celebrations. Even if this were so, however, there is no clear boundary between this type of arrangement and extortion, if David's reaction to Nabal's refusal to share was typical. Some have argued that David was fully justified in seeking the life of Nabal for refusing to provide provisions for his men. Nabal had broken the "customary" law of repaying protectors and the Biblical law of providing food for the "sojourner." He may indeed be guilty of the latter. After all, since he claims he doesn't know where the men are coming from, don't they qualify as "sojourners?" The text says nothing about Nabal attempting to check out their claims to find out if they are in need. The message they brought was apparently enough for him. If Nabal is guilty of denying provisions to "sojourners," is his death the fitting punishment for his crime? But the worst part of this argument is the assumption that armed bands receiving "gifts" from citizens in exchange for "protection" is a legitimate social arrangement, especially when the armed band gets to decide whom to protect without consulting with the protected, and when they are allowed to kill people who don't reward them for their "protection." It may be that everyone in the story except Nabal, even the narrator himself, regards David's request as legitimate. That doesn't make it so.
Anyway, back to dealing with the nature of David's request. Nabal's servant seemed to think that Nabal was in serious trouble for "hurling insults" at David's men. Why? What did he know or suspect about David that would lead to this conclusion? And why does Abigail immediately gather a generous supply of food to bring to David? The servant only told her that David sent greetings. What does she know about David that leads her to think David's greeting was a request (demand?) for supplies? Finally, David's immediate reaction to his men's report is a command to strap on their swords and march to Nabal's dwelling. Later, we're told what David was thinking: He had wasted his time protecting Nabal's goods, Nabal had returned evil for good, and he was surely going to make Nabal pay for this with his life and the lives of all the men in his household. All of this suggests that the decision to march against Nabal was not an unpremeditated fit of rage, but the normal tactical response to a recalcitrant "dependent." In modern times we are thoroughly familiar with these types of practices from the jungles of Colombia and Peru to the mountain valleys of Afghanistan. It's worth pointing out that Nabal otained or maintained his wealth for an unknown number of years without David's help. What had changed to make him suddenly need it? And we have to ask why David did not make an agreement with Nabal in advance, if all he really wanted was to trade protection for food? Conclusion: David is practicing extortion. The message sent to Nabal is a metal-knuckled fist wrapped in a satin glove.

What about Nabal? His response to David's men is curt and cutting. "Who is David? Who is the 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 butchered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?"
There have been disputes on the internet about whether Nabal was justified in rejecting David's request/demand. The very fact that Nabal's words, taken without the commentary of the narrator and other characters, would be assessed so differently is telling. Is Nabal insulting David? His apparent ignorance of David may be a slight, or it may be the literal truth. Other details in the story present Nabal as clueless about the general situation. That he would not know who David is fits that picture. Strictly speaking, what Nabal says about the circumstances of David and his men is true. David has broken away from his master. Sure, Saul is pursuing David to kill him, not bring him back into his service, but does Nabal know any of this? In fact, Nabal's statement may be only a supposition: Armed bandits are made up of people who have fled from regulated society. David is an armed bandit, so he and his men must be breakaways. Plenty of people assume that Nabal was speaking from a general knowledge of David's situation. In fact, you can find articles that have Nabal rejecting David's request because he's aware that Saul has been looking for David, and he doesn't want to end up like Ahimelech. The text says nothing about this; it is an unecessary supposition. The last thing Nabal says sums up quite well his reason for rejecting David's request. David and his men have come from who knows where bearing a veiled threat if Nabal does not share his bounty with them. Nabal is not going to deprive himself and his employees of the fruits of their labors for somebody who just shows up demanding something. The general tone of Nabal's words is confrontational. There is no diplomacy or deference here. Why doesn't Nabal show more restraint? I'm not sure. "A gentle answer turns away wrath" must not have had an honored place in Nabal's proverbiary. For no other reason than this, he earns the name "Fool." Does he merit death for this lack of tact? Of course not. Nabal may be plain-spoken, even crass, but he is not the obvious villain after all. He may still be a villain of some sort, but it's going to take some work to make that clear to the reader.

What about Abigail? Of the three main characters, she has the least social power. But she compensates for it by her intelligence. I'm not talking only about her mental acuity; she seems to have a prophetic gift. As mentioned above, she somehow reads between the lines of the servant's words and gathers food for David and his men. In her speech to David, she reveals the following: 1.) David will accede to her request (v. 26); 2.) Nabal will die (v. 26 with v. 29); 3.) someone is pursuing David (v. 29, although translations differ as to whether this is a statement of fact or a supposition); 4.) God has promised David he will be the next "leader" of Israel (v. 30); 5.) God's promise will be fulfilled (v. 31). The narrator leaves us to speculate about how she came to know all this. Some of it can be supposed to have come throught the grapevine; her knowledge about the future could be ascribed to wishful thinking, clever diplomat-speak, unusual insight, or genuine prophetic inspiration. In any case, a surface reading of the text indicates that she possesses a better grasp of the situation than any of the other characters. It is almost surprising that she didn't know David's men had come, given everything she says she does know.

How does she use her power? The standard reading of the text is that she used it virtuously. This reading will sometimes start by attempting to work out the implications of a beautiful, intelligent woman being married to a churlish fool, probably against her will (i.e., arranged marriage). She may have suffered verbal and physical abuse. She may have had to avoid Nabal as much as possible to escape his abuse; they were probably strangers living in the same house. This alone may explain how Abigail can know so much about David and Nabal so little. Whatever scuttlebutt was floating around about David reached her, because the rest of the household could talk to her, but even she could not find a way to discuss these matters with her husband. The woman has been suffering at her husband's hands. Of course, all of this is speculation, presumably encouraged by the narrator's brief comments on their character (much more on this later). We don't really know how Nabal treated his wife. The only time they interact is at the end of the story, when Abigail tells Nabal all about her encounter with David. His response is to lose heart and become like a stone (stroke? catatonia? sudden depression? spiritual hardening of his heart?). So we don't really know how Nabal treated his wife.

We know quite a bit more about how Abigail treated her husband. First, we know that she brought gifts to David without telling Nabal. This initial act is so contrary to the expectations traditional types have about a virtuous woman that you can find several lengthy justifications of it on the web. I won't go into details recounting them. It should be pointed out that 1.) she and Nabal do not agree about how to handle David's request; and 2.) she takes independent action behind her husband's back. When she encounters David, the first thing she does is grovel at his feet. Then she takes the 'blame' for the incident and asks David to "pay no attention" to Nabal. She expostulates on Nabal's foolishness and implies that he is only acting according to character; nothing better could be expected of him. She indicates her 'blame': she did not see the men David sent.

This last point stands as the introduction to her requests. The first request? Let all David's enemies be like Nabal! As mentioned above, this implies a curse upon Nabal that will lead to his death. The second request is that David distribute the food she sent to his followers. The third request is that David forgive her trespass. She explains her request in terms of David's coming exaltation. Since he fights the Lord's battles, God will surely bless him with life and leadership over Israel. By restraining himself now, he will spare himself from a conflicted conscience over the deaths of Nabal's household in days to come. Finally, she requests that David remember her when he becomes the leader of Israel.

One of the interesting issues here is her attempt to take the blame for the situation. First, it should be noted that although she uses the language of wrongdoing and guilt, she does not admit to doing anything really wrong. Her "fault" was not to be there when David's men arrived. This is really a way of casting Nabal in a worse light. (He may deserve it, but nonetheless, she is not defending her husband's character or reputation.) She is saying, "If I had been there, I would have taken care of you; Nabal is just too foolish to treat you the way you deserve." Of course, by trying to deflect the blame to herself, she is increasing the likelihood that David will not carry out his murderous plan; it is far easier to "forgive" a beautiful woman who brings you a generous supply of food, casts herself at your feet, praises you, predicts a glorious future for you, and begs you for mercy (and perhaps hints that she'll be available for something more in days to come), than it is to overlook a curtly-delivered insult by a powerful man. In this respect, Abigail can be understood to plead for her husband's life. So really, she is not taking blame; she is simply trying to coax David into turning aside from his plan and uses the language of guilt to direct his anger away from the really guilty party, Nabal. Now, I think Nabal's guilt is still a matter of doubt, but not David. Abigail is dealing with David's mindset, not a disinterested observer's.

How seriously should we take Abigail's speech? On the surface, she deals very badly with her husband. She curses him, she neglects to plead for his forgiveness, and she neglects to plead for David to give him consideration when he becomes king. Now, it is possible to interpret all of this as a series of concessions to David in order to protect her husband. She understands that David thinks so ill of her husband that the best thing she can do is distract him completely from Nabal and get him to focus his attention on her. On the other hand, nothing in the text prevents us from taking Abigail's words at face value. Her husband is as good as dead, anyway, as far as she's concerned, so she may as well set herself up for the future she is soon to enjoy without him. Later, after David has left satisfied, the sheep-shearing celebrations are over and her husband is good and sober, she tells him "these things." There is plenty of room to guess at what "these things" includes, but it most likely is meant to include everything the narrator has told us about what went on after Nabal's confrontation with David's servants. This means Abigail told Nabal what she said to David. She could have told Nabal nothing, just as she and his servants did heretofore. Why tell him this now? One explanation is that since the crisis is now past, she does the right thing by explaining her behavior to her husband. Presumably, this includes an explanation of her speech as a desperate measure to spare Nabal's life. Nabal reacts to this either with paralyzing fear (the most common interpretation) or hardness of heart. Another explanation is that she tells him everything now as an act of spite. She wants him to know how despicable she thinks he is, how she called death down upon him and cozied up to David to be her protector when he achieves success. Depending on how favorably one regards Nabal's deeds, Abigail's spite can be understood as a virtuous act of self-assertion against a tyrant or wicked opportunism and betrayal. Nabal reacts in shock, perhaps the deep depression of someone who recognizes how deeply he has been betrayed.

We don't know whether Abigail is protecting or separating herself from her husband. Likewise, we can't tell exactly how Nabal takes the news she bears. By the end of the story we still do not know how Nabal and Abigail got along. Maybe the narrator wants us to reach some conclusions about this. One common interpretation of the narrator's intent is that Abigail is deserving of freedom from Nabal and so legitimately acts to free herself from him, and his reaction to her deeds (and his death) confirms that she deserves better.

Why is this conclusion not more obvious? Are we hampered by a lack of common cultural assumptions, or is the real problem in the text?

The gap I am insisting exists between the narrator's apparent intentions and the interpretive options available in the text leads me to focus my attention on the narrator himself. How does he acquit himself in this story? What conclusions should we draw about him?

Now, don't be hasty here. Sure, raising questions about the narrator sounds like a "hermenutic of suspicion." It may resemble some techniques employed by deconstructionists. Please leave the excess theoretical baggage associated with those labels behind.

On the other hand, you may immediately rule my questions about the narrator out of order because the narrator is God and I am a mere man. Who am I to question the narrator's competence or character? Doesn't that prove I'm the one with an agenda? Of course, you may think, this takes us back to the old question, "Is something right simply because God says it is?" Which is more ultimate, the will of God or the standards that will embodies/conforms to? But you don't have to go there. I am not raising questions about how God's will conforms to a standard. I am raising questions about what God's will is. How do we know what God wants us to do? I do NOT assume I know what God is telling me to do just because it shows up in a "holy" book written by someone who claims to speak in his name. It may be that something is right just because God says it is. The question is, how do I know God is telling me it is right?

Actually, some of the traditional discussions of the relationship between the will of God and the moral law end up dealing with the epistemological questions I am interested in. The one I am most familiar with, that of Cornelius Van Til, approaches the question with the understanding that anything asserted by the author of a Biblical text as good and true is also asserted to be good and true by God himself. The epistemological question resolves to "How do I know what the Biblical author is asserting to be good and true?" Once that is settled, any qualms I may have about the goodness or truth of the assertion are my problem. It is a sign of my exceeding sinfulness that I have a problem accepting God's assertion. The solution is to learn the character of my sinfulness so that I may recognize its evil and heartily repent.

I object to this approach. First, there is at least one Biblical counter-example (see post on Discerning good from evil). Under Van Til's view of the Bible, that is enough to undermine his entire position. Moreover, determining what the Biblical author asserts to be good and true in practice includes weighing evidence that does not come from the text and does not directly address the meaning of the text. This is because of the belief that "all truth is God's truth." So, if historical or scientific evidence leads knowledgeable people to believe that the earth revolves around the sun, for example, then that belief should play a role in how one understands the story of the sun standing still in Joshua 10. This procedure amounts to saying that of however many possible meanings may be found in a Biblical text, those that contradict truths discovered outside the Biblical text are ruled out. This principle has been employed by many conservative interpreters to deal with problems of the sort I've encountered in this text. But it is a controversial principle nonetheless, often because interpreters employ it to select an otherwise less probable interpretation simply to efface an apparent error in a Biblical text.

Even more fundamental is the situation in which the text itself appears to undermine its own intention. This is the kind of situation I believe we encounter in 1 Samuel 25. Folks who follow Van Til don't believe that the Bible usually works this way; it is not an ironical or self-parodying/defeating text. This comes from the combination of their view of the character of God and his relationship to human authors. They think God is too directly involved with the surface intention of Biblical texts to let a human author fall into self-defeating behavior, and they don't believe God would actively seek to confuse or frustrate (believing) authors and readers. I think these presumption need testing with Biblical data, and 1 Samuel 25 appears to disconfirm them.

In short, here's what's at stake. On the one hand, the surface intention of the text appears to belittle, insult, and demonize Nabal while presenting Abigail in a positive light and defending David from possible charges of evil-doing in his dealings with Nabal. On the other hand, there are features in the text that at least put a question mark behind these surface intentions, and in some cases directly contradict them. So, are these discordant features purposefully planted clues to the overall meaning of the story or just revealing mistakes? And who put them there? Is this story the product of one hand, or several working at cross-purposes?

Right away, let me dispose of the second set of questions. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't ultimately matter whether 1 or 10 authors "wrote" this story. While answers to those questions may be useful for many other purposes, I don't think they will help us come up with the answer to the question of what "lesson" to derive from David's interactions with Nabal and Abigail.

An answer to the first set of questions, on the other hand, could be quite useful. Is the story trying to get us to question David's character and motives? Is it trying to undercut its own surface pro-David slant? Or is the text a true believer's screed for David and against all his enemies and critics, and we just happen to notice its excesses because we don't share the author's faith in David? If the latter is correct, then our choices are clearer and simpler. We either accept the author's claims because the text is ultimately authored by God, and who are we to question or doubt his use of apparent propaganda, or we reject them because we find propaganda incompatible with God's character and would rather the Bible be untrue than God a Joseph Goebbels.

If the former is correct, the whole situation becomes more interesting. First, it leads one to look for clues of the same kind of narrative behavior elsewhere in the David story. How many are there, where will they show up, how will they qualify or undercut the surface presentation of David? Subsequent posts to this log will show some of these "clues" in other texts. Second, it raises the question of the motivations underlying the "ironical" narrator's actions. Why not just come out and openly declare David a bad guy? Third, it gives an "out" to evangelicals who want the "teaching" of the Bible to come out inerrant at the end of the day. After all, if the narrator ultimately wants you to condemn David for his bad behavior rather than praise him, how can you fault the narrator for propagandizing? But what an out! If a serious evangelical scholar were to adopt and promote this kind of interpretation (to my knowledge, none has), it would start a hermeneutical war.

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