Avigail's Righteous Conduct Within a Bad Marriage: a Message for Today
The Torah recounts Avigail's story in I Samuel (25:2-44). Historically,
the events take place during the reign of the Jewish king, Saul. At this
point, God has already chosen David the next king of Israel, however, He
sustains Saul's position for the time being. Saul is pursuing David in the
desert from place to place, believing mistakenly that David is rebelling
against him. (David is an important part of the Avigail picture, as will be
discussed further on).
One of the first things the Avigail text tells us is that she and her
husband, Naval, are incompatible:
"The man was very wealthy... [his]name was Naval and his wife's name was
Avigail; the woman was intelligent and beautiful, but the man was difficult
(Hebrew: "kasheh") and an evildoer... (I Samuel 25:3)."
The Hebrew word, "kasheh," can be translated as, "obdurate." This
definition implies that Naval's character deficits are irreparable, because
he is not interested in self-improvement. According to Radak (R' Dovid
Kimchi: 1160-1235), Naval is both internally and externally wicked, which
is to say that neither his intentions nor his actions are good. In I Samuel
25:25, Avigail herself declares that Naval refuses to shoulder any form of
"responsibility" (Hebrew: "bli ya'al," or "without a yoke"). The Torah
connects the phrase "bli ya'al" to idol worship, to withholding charity and
to adultery - transgressions that imply rejection of spiritual, legal and
moral accountability. Our sages inform us that Naval was guilty of all three.
According to the Midrash, Naval believes his lineage entitles him, and not
David, to succeed Saul as king. This is a key piece of information, since
Naval's hostility ultimately causes David to plan an attack on the former's
household. (Torah law mandates that a king respond in this way to those who
rebel against him). Avigail manages to avert this catastrophe through her
wisdom, ingenuity and inherent goodness.
The Avigail passage in I Samuel does not explain why she remains married
(when in fact Torah law would permit her to divorce)to an evil man who is
certain not to change. The omission of this information suggests that
Avigail's reasons for staying with Naval are not integral to what the Torah
wants us to learn from her story. (The Torah, in general, does not read as
a history book, wherein details and chronological events contribute to an
in-depth and thorough survey of a particular subject. Rather, the Torah
aims to communicate a specific message (or messages) with each chapter, and
includes only those details that serve this purpose. In the same way, the
Torah does not necessarily set forth a series of events in the order they
take place. Instead, its narrative may proceed in a roundabout fashion, if
this route best serves the Torah's goal of articulating a message for all
If Avigail's reasons for staying married are irrelevant in this particular
chapter, the Torah, elsewhere in its text, does discuss the topic of
whether to stay in or leave a bad relationship. topics of this sort. With
Avigail, however, the Torah works within the framework of her unhappy
marriage - once she has effectively decided to stay - and, in so doing,
speaks to other people of other generations who have made this
choice. Through Avigail's perfect righteousness and her husband's perfect
evil - the Torah demonstrates, on an epic scale, the ground rules for
"proper" conduct within a less than ideal relationship, no matter what the
degree of imperfection. As such, Avigail's story is a self-improvement
manual for all, complete with terms and conditions, which protect the
physical well-being of its users and maximize the potential for positive
change in their partners.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of Abigail and what she has to
offer, it is worthwhile to first examine the context and the characters in
her story. Of particular significance in this regard is the conflict
between Naval and David, which generates obstacles that Avigail overcomes
and through which shines her greatness...
I Samuel 25:2 finds Naval celebrating his successful livestock season with
a sheep-shearing feast. David, who has been hiding from Saul, sends ten of
his men to bless Naval for continued prosperity (I Samuel 25:4), and then
to ask for food. David's appeal for food is reasonable on a practical
level, for several reasons. First, in Biblical society sheep-shearing was
known as a time of abundance, sharing and public celebration. Naval's feast
would have been such an occasion, were it not for his general stinginess
and his specific hostility towards David. Second, in asking for provisions,
David does not beg charity, but asks only that Naval reciprocate for his
previous kindness to Naval's shepherds:
"Now, your shepherds stayed with us, and they did not lack anything...
[Therefore] let my attendants find favor in your eyes, for we have come
because of your celebration - please give whatever you can to your servants
and to your son, to David (I Samuel 25:7)."
Naval refuses to accommodate David's men, and his retort conveys both
resentment towards David's kingship and cynicism about his lineage:
"Who is David... Should I take from my bread and my water and my meat that
I have slaughtered for my shearers and give them to men about whose origin
I do not know (I Samuel 25: 10-11)?"
Naval's insolence amounts to sacrilege and treason, since God, Himself, has
appointed David the king. In response to Naval's transgression, David
plans to wipe out Naval and his entire household (I Samuel 25:22). Upon
hearing this news, Naval's men return home - and one of them reports to
Avigail, telling her of Naval's refusal to feed David's ranks and warning
that Naval must expect Divine retribution at David's hand:
"Behold! David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master and
he drove them off. These men were very good to us; we were not shamed, nor
were we lacking anything all the days that we traveled with them, when we
were in the field. They were a [protective] wall over us, both by night and
by day, all the days we were with them tending the sheep. And now be aware
and determine what to do, for the evil decree has been made final against
our master and against his entire household, and he himself is too base a
person even to talk to (I Samuel 25: 14-17)."
The soldier's appeal for protection not to his master, but to Avigail,
testifies to her extraordinary intellectual clarity and leadership ability.
He seems also to be aware of her moral sensitivity, given that he includes
details about David's previous kindness to Naval's men. Avigail's response
to this information - discussed in our next class - demonstrates her
diplomacy, justice and self-control. Through these attributes, she emerges
as a role model for Jewish women of all generations.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2002 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.