September 27, 2008
Today's Donkey Tale takes us on a wild ride with some unexpected twists.
Quick question: Who rides on a donkey, washes people's feet and takes on the responsibility of other people's sins? Wrong. It's Abigail.
Well, not "wrong," exactly. These three things are true of Jesus as well. It's just that they're also true of Abigail, wife of King David.
Jesus is our presumed first response in all things Christian. That's the old Sunday school joke: the teacher asks, "What has a long furry tail, climbs trees and collects nuts for the winter?" and the student responds, "I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me."
But in some cases, Jesus is not the answer. Sometimes the answer is "a squirrel." Or, as in today's donkey tale, the answer is Abigail.
Abigail was not first the wife of David, nor was she the first wife of David. She's also not--in case you're tempted to scan the genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke--a direct ancestor of Jesus. When we first meet Abigail she is married to Nabal, a cantankerous land baron in the hills of Judea, and she's about to get into deep trouble for it.
Nabal is portrayed in 1 Samuel 25 as almost entirely repugnant. He's a drunkard, a misanthrope, a greedy gus. After enjoying the protection of David's troops over his vast property for some time, he responds to a simple request for food with insults and rejection. He calls David--the secretly anointed though currently homeless king of Israel--a nobody from nowhere, a renegade servant. He makes David mad.
Enter Abigail, and as she enters, pay attention. Abigail approaches David in a similar way to how Jacob approaches Esau in their moment of reconciliation--sending a wealth of gifts before her as a symbol of her shame over her husband's offense. She saddles up a donkey and descends from her lofty estate into a mountain ravine, taking a long, sober ride to face judgment. She comes down from her donkey and presents herself humbly before her judge, asking him to "let the blame be on me alone." And then she says, in effect, "Come, let us reason together."
In so doing she satisfies the wrath of the king and restores her people into his good graces, delivering them all from certain death. And in an unexpected turn of events, she is herself exalted to the right hand of the king, where she defines her newfound power by humble service: "Here is your maidservant, ready to serve you and wash the feet of my master's servants."
So Abigail, it seems, is a "type" of Christ. That's a technical term; it means that she is described in such a way as to offer clues about the coming Messiah. She's also a type of Jacob, a bit of Mary the mother of Jesus and even a dash of Moses and Isaiah for good measure. We don't see much of Abigail after this scene, but we see her shadow, and we know that she is blessed.
Christians tend to look through the Old Testament for hints of Jesus as the occasional reward for otherwise laborious reading of ancient rites and rules and oddly pronounced names. But when David meets Abigail, whole chunks of the book of Psalms have yet to be written. The Proverbs and the Prophets do not yet exist. The trivial details of messianic prophecy that so excite us--he'll be born in Bethlehem, he won't be much to look at--are still out in front of Abigail.
Still, Abigail is Jesus' type, because when she encounters trouble she seeks a solution, and she commits herself to it regardless of personal cost. She sees clearly enough to know that Nabal is a wicked fool and David is a righteous hothead, and she thinks clearly enough to determine how to satisfy the one and save the other. And though she has significant power as a woman of wealth, the wife of first a land baron and then a king, she chooses first and last to serve. Just the way Jesus might.
In prophecies such as Zechariah 9:9--"See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey"--we get a superficial clue for recognizing Jesus when he comes. But in Abigail we get a different kind of clue, an insight into the character of Christ, which is meant to be the character of the people of God.
My thanks to Stewart Pattison, my pastor, for pointing out the parallels between Abigail and Jesus to me.