David’s early years as king were tortuous, he having been anointed initially in secret and then forced on the run from the progressively unstable Saul, the first king of Israel, from whom power was taken after a litany of errors by the prophet Samuel. Yet the proto-King David was not immune to the struggles and vicissitudes of power; and it is in this context we meet Abigail.
Abigail is described in Tanach as intelligent and beautiful (Samuel I 25.3); the Sages list her among the seven prophetesses (Megillah 14a). We meet Abigail – whose name in Hebrew means ‘the joy of my father (or Father)’ – married to a rich landowner, Naval. He is a boor, both in name (Naval translates literally as ‘disgrace’) and nature. One struggles to imagine their marriage as one of equals.
The story begins when Naval the uncouth insults David’s men, who have come to his household. David is furious and immediately orders his execution. Abigail, hearing of the encroaching army, approaches with sumptuous tribute, and bravely gives one of the truly masterful speeches in Tanach.
Rabbi Amnon Bazak (Yeshivat Har Etzion) identifies three themes: she accepts personal responsibility for not greeting the messengers respectfully; she emphasises her husband is beneath the contempt of David; and any unnecessary bloodshed will diminish the status of the nascent king.
David capitulates, declaring: “Blessed is Hashem, God of Israel, who sent you to greet me; blessed is your sense, and blessed are you.”
Naval, who has been ignorant of the whole episode, is so shattered when he hears Abigail’s report he seems to die of shock. Abigail then marries the king, in whom we hope she has a match for her insightful and confident personality.
- Rabbi Wayland is an educator with United Synagogue Living & Learning
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