Monday, June 09, 2008

David the Mafia Boss: 1 Samuel 25

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

The ongoing battle between David and Saul is interrupted in chapter 25 for a curious story of David's treatment of an unaffiliated rich landowner named Nabal, who lives at Carmel. He owns a thousand goats, three thousand sheep, and a wife named Abigail. David's men watch Nabal's shepherds in the desert but don't try to take any of the livestock for themselves. Later, David sends messengers to Nabal and says he owes David for this. To repay the debt, David's men thoughtfully suggest that Nabal give them "whatever you can find" in the way of food and gifts.

Uh huh. Well, we could "interpret" this as evidence that rich people need to be charitable, or that David is a man of God and therefore we should support him, or even that we as Jews and Christians have a moral obligation to finance guerrillas and rebels (admittedly a more radical interpretation than any I've ever seen advanced in a church). It's a feast day, so Nabal really should be generous, at least with the immediate visitors. This is what you'll find in most conventional evangelical interpretations of the story - like this one, for example.

There's something to it, though most conservatives would probably hesitate to suggest this gives us the right to finance armed rebellions against legally constituted governments, even though that's exactly what's going on here.

What's much more interesting is that David is basically operating a protection racket here. He didn't agree on these terms with Nabal in advance. His men just show up and say "you know, we've been standing around making sure your flocks weren't harmed these last few months, and, well, you kind of owe us now. Wouldn't it be a shame if we weren't protecting you?" David's armed band is the largest group in the area - there's an unspoken threat here that they might start raiding the flocks if Nabal proves disagreeable. If they were speaking with an Italian accent, they would be threatening to break Nabal's kneecaps just about now. And while it's not charitable, Nabal's claim also isn't entirely unreasonable: he doesn't enough food to feed six hundred extra men, and he would really prefer to give the food to his own servants, who are relying on him for nourishment.

Put in this light, David's reaction becomes understandable: furious that Nabal has rejected the terms offered to him, he takes four hundred of his men-at-arms and marches against Nabal to punish this uncharitable landowner for his transgression. Such an action is necessary because there are probably other landowners in the area who David is extorting in similar fashion. Fortunately for everyone involved, at this point Nabal's wife Abigail intervenes and secretly defects, sneaking off to David's camp. She warns David that, even though Nabal is foolish and clearly inferior to "my lord" David, what David's about to do is still murder. David hesitates, then agrees, telling Abigail that she has demonstrated "good judgement" by preventing a murder from taking place.

God, naturally, takes David's side in this sorry affair. David has decided not to murder Nabal - and therefore, God rewards David by killing Nabal all by himself. First he gives him a heart attack, after which he "became like a stone"; then, after a few days, "the Lord struck Nabal and he died." Chillingly, David thanks God for killing Nabal. Then he finishes the story by marrying Abigail himself.

He's starting a decent collection of wives, it must be said - the Bible adds as an afterthought that in the meantime he's also married Ahinoam of Jezreel. Ain't polygamy grand?