(What prompts this commentary is my heart to encourage Christians to walk boldly in their relationship with Jesus Christ, for whom the Son has set free is free indeed [John 8:36]. Of particular concern to me, and a primary motivation for this piece, are Christian women in certain sects and denominations who have been told that they are unable to interpret or understand the scriptures because of gender and must rely on men to do so for them. Also of concern are Christians caught up in the many cults and occultic groups both outside and inside the church today who are told they must adhere to whatever the leadership pronounces no matter how extra-biblical or apostate. I believe it is crucial for all Christians—no matter our distinctions—to immerse ourselves in God’s Word and to “test every spirit” that claims some “new” or “extra” revelation especially as we draw closer to the time of Jesus’ return.)
“Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.
But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.
And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42, KJV).
Our place? Learning at the feet of Jesus.
I sometimes imagine Adam and Eve fellowshipping with God in the cool of the day. God’s first two people walking with Him, night after night, wrapping up the day’s business and discussing all things new; the first husband and wife, complementary of body and purpose, strolling in the mists with God. At least for a little while before free will took over (with a little help from a snake). And then the curses.
For the snake, consignment to the dirt and a future bruising. For the man, appointment to a hard livelihood on “cursed” ground. And for the woman: “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”(Genesis 3:14-16).
Gone: Edenic harmony. Enter: a new and constrained relationship. But at the same time promised: redemption (15).
Ginger Rogers famously said that she had to do everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels. A Christian woman might feel like this too in a marriage relationship where she believes or has been told she somehow does not have equal footing spiritually. She may also feel trapped in the midst of two conundrums.
1. She reads in Ephesians 5:22 that she must submit to her husband “as unto” the Lord but she must always remember he is not the Lord. While honoring a (fallible) man’s position in the family she must always be on guard that she does not allow him to usurp her allegiance first and foremost to God—or the children’s allegiance to God.
2. She reads in Ephesians 2:12 that she must not teach or usurp authority over her husband, but as a believer she is always to exercise discernment. If another person no matter whom and in what position believes or follows after “another spirit,” she is to take a stand for Christ.
What’s a girl to do? I believe Abigail of Old Testament fame provides some insights and some leadership principles.
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament has to do with Abigail and her dealings with two men, one, her husband named “fool” (Nabal), the other, the future king David about to do a foolish thing. Her story is preserved for us in I Samuel, chapter 25. I believe it reveals not only her understanding of her options as a woman of God despite the restrictions placed on women in that culture but also principles of leadership for any of God’s people whether “Jew, Greek; slave, bond; male or female.”
The scene opens on David and his troops in the wilderness near a place called Moan. They are hungry and David has sent ten young men to ask for some food from Nabal, a wealthy rancher whose sheep and goats graze the land. David instructs his messengers to remind Nabal that the soldiers have been providing protection for Nabal and his workers while camped nearby. Along with the request for food David sends greetings of peace.
Nabal, one “churlish and evil in his doings” (25:3), refuses to give them food. “Who is David?” he asks, “and who is the son of Jesse? there be many servants now a days who break away every man from his master” (10). And so on.
David, still hungry and by this time apparently quite irritable, orders some 400 of his men to arm up and kill by morning any of Nabal’s workers that, as King James renders it, “pisseth against the wall” (22).
Fortunately, one of Nabal’s servants comes up with a plan. He runs with the news to Nabal’s wife Abigail, known to be a woman “of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance” (3). Perhaps she could save them! Considering her husband’s reputation she has no doubt come between him and the results of his churlish behavior before.
(Now here is where I always pause when I read this story. If Abigail does NOT intercede for the men of the household here is a fantastic way to get rid of her brute of a husband. However, I always cheer her on because of the much greater good she will do by acting on the behalf of all of them.)
KEYS OF LEADERSHIP
After studying these verses for a number of years, I have come to look upon Abigail’s subsequent actions as a leadership plan for any believer, not just a believing wife, based upon four key principles.
Abigail’s Leadership Principle # 1: get understanding.
At some point in David’s psalm writing career he scribed Psalm 119, every verse of which points to the blessings of abiding in God’s ways, laws, precepts, statues, commandments, and testimonies. I wonder if Abigail’s single-minded pursuit of wisdom in any way influenced this psalm? I’ve often pictured her meditating on God’s ways and His people in pursuit of His wisdom even as she was learning how to step exceedingly carefully with and around her wicked husband.
Abigail’s Leadership Principle #2: face facts.
Abigail was under no illusions about Nabal, nor did she feel she had to cover for him or that she was somehow to blame for his behavior. As she tells David when she meets up with him laden with an appeasement offering and hope: “Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this man of Belial (one of the Crown Princes of hell), even Nabal: for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him […]” (25).
This woman of God was also under no illusions about David. She knew he was the up-and-coming king, but she also knew he was susceptible to human nature just like everyone else. “And it shall come to pass, when the lord shall have done to my lord (David) according to all the good that he hath spoke concerning thee, and shall have appointed thee ruler over Israel; that this shall be no grief unto thee, nor offence of heart unto my lord, either that thou hast shed blood causeless, or that my lord hath avenged himself […]” (30-31).
In addition, she recognized the imminent danger for her household. Even though as a woman she was not allowed in the halls of the learned she knew exactly what she had to do.
Abigail’s Leadership Principle #3: pursue mercy.
Abigail no doubt knew and pondered the story of Adam and Eve: yes, they sinned and received just recompense for it but not without God seeding in them the plan of redemption, too. She no doubt knew and pondered the story of Abraham and Isaac and how God provided His own sacrifice, sparing Abraham’s son. She no doubt knew and pondered the story of the Israelites in Egypt, variously faithful and faithless, who were nevertheless spared destruction because of the blood of a lamb spilled on their doorposts that night of nights.
Abigail knew what all God’s people come to know: He desires mercy not sacrifice. And where sacrifice is needed for sin, He provides. As we know today, that sacrifice for our sins is the only Perfect Offering, the Lamb of Lambs, God’s own Son, Jesus.
Perhaps David was just too tired and hungry to remember all that, that night, and thus made his own plans for Nabal’s comeuppance. Whatever the case, Abigail packed up the food and wine with the hope that God’s man David would extend mercy upon her household though he had every right to punish the ungrateful Nabal.
And Abigail went one extraordinary step further.
Abigail’s Leadership Principle #4: show how.
But before Abigail, risking all, addressed the ultimate issue of David’s kingship that night in the wilderness, alone save for a few servants sent ahead with provisions, she “fell down before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground” and began her entreaty thus, “Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be […]” (23-24).
(Had David seen such courage even on the battlefield? Did this prompt his own remembrance of God’s mercy, a theme of which David himself had written and sung? Or perhaps it was a combination of realizations and Abigail’s beauty, if he could see her face in the darkness, that God used to soften his heart…)
And when she had finished her plea David replied: “Blessed be the lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me: And blessed by thy advice, and blessed be thou, which has kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand” (32-33).
David, God’s man of the hour, stood corrected.
Abigail’s willingness to lay down her life because of the actions of an evil husband for the sake of not only her entire household but for this man, too—and her understanding of these things—had pierced David’s angst and helped him re-align with God.
The future king of Israel wisely looked beyond the letter of the law and a woman’s peripheral status to the Lord of the Law and recognized God’s will for him—through her.
The rest of Abigail’s story has some good, some bad, some “life goes on,” and some “best” news. First, the bad.
When Abigail told Nabal what she did, biding her time until one morning after he’d spent a night in drunken revelry, “his heart died within him, and he became as a stone,” passing on to his just desserts ten days later (37-38). Bad news for Nabal anyway.
The good news: Abigail’s household was spared and she eventually became one of David’s wives.
The “life goes on” news: David fought other battles and took on other wives, one of whom was Bathsheba. In short, he continued wrestling with human nature just like the rest of us.
And the best news: I suspect that by the time Abigail entered David’s household she was quite able to fend for herself. She no doubt continued to honor David and, more importantly, his calling as Israel’s king, but having long-since learned to attend first and foremost to God for understanding and for direction, she knew Who her real Lord and Master was. I am quite sure Abigail took in her stride everything else human nature dealt her—as can women (and all) who attend to Him first and foremost today.
The Scripture featured in the introduction is another one I’ve often pondered and one that also guides me as a woman, but more importantly, as a believer.
Back in Martha’s dining room, Jesus knew the culture, He knew the law, He knew to whom he was speaking, He knew Martha needed help, He knew what He said to her might surprise her, and He knew any men present were probably puzzled. But I believe Jesus was teaching on more than just the “good part” Mary chose that afternoon. I believe He was also illustrating an important point which the Holy Spirit brought later to the mind of the epistle writer (even the same who penned the instructions to Christian wives noted above): God fashioned us male and female for certain work on this earth, but in Christ Jesus we each have a new life and position:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,
Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:
That in the ages to come he might (show) the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness towards us through Christ Jesus”(Ephesians 2:4-7).
Abigail and Mary knew from whence came their help, Martha was learning, and Jesus beckons us today to “sit at His feet” and learn of Him—no matter our gender or other distinctions.