Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
This post was inspired in part by an essay on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” and in part by my ongoing concern and encouragement for women in abusive or potentially abusive relationships whether secular or in extra-biblical patriarchal religious cults.
A fellow blogger has posted a thoughtful piece on interpretations of the recent Disney animation that is an adaptation of the fairy tale classic “Beauty and the Beast” . She cites the popular feminist literary criticism of the fairy tale as an abuse apologetic but offers a deeper interpretation of the story as an example of what happens when we look beneath the “beastly” exterior of a person, beastly in our minds perhaps because of prejudice, and then see the real person—and respond with love. This, then, can be attitude- and life-transforming for “beast” and hero(ine) alike.
As a Christian, I propose another view, offer another type of “beast” and another type of “beauty” in a tale that touches on themes referenced above but also underscores another reality and redemptive possibility. It is a narrative that features my favorite real heroine of all time, Abigail, whose story is detailed in 1 Samuel, chapter 25.
BEAUTY AND THE FOOL
The story of Abigail, her husband Nabal, and the future King David is rarely taught in the church let alone as a “plot type” in culture-shaping narratives. It is a story, for starters, about a good woman married to a man named “Nabal,” which means “fool,” and about her courage in the face of great odds.
Nabal was a man known for his meanness (v. 3)—another type of “beastly” behavior. His wife, Abigail, with few “lifestyle options” in that era outside of marriage, no doubt had learned how to recognize and carefully avoid his abuse. More than that, it is apparent from the narrative that she also rose above it.
Instead of withering in sorrow or closing off the world in fear Abigail maintained good relationships with other members of her household among whom she was regarded as a woman of not only beauty but also intelligence (v. 3). She was, as the story implies, trusted enough by the servants so that when her husband put all of the men of his estate at risk of death because of his attitude and behavior toward the future King David, the servants went immediately to Abigail for a solution and for leadership.
And she immediately knew what to do.
Abigail prepared gifts and food for David and his men and, unbeknownst to her husband, rode to meet with David at night to plead for the life of her servants—and her husband.
Here was her chance to rid herself of Nabal once and for all, but her strength of character and compassion for her household compelled her to ignore her surly spouse and place her own life at risk by approaching David.
But that’s not all.
I believe that because she also had spiritual insight, Abigail knew that David would one day regret his impulsive, anger-based decision. So she took another chance and confronted him.
THREE “BEASTS” ONE DIFFERENCE
Fortunately, David, unlike Nabal and the pre-transformation Beast in the fairy tale, quickly acknowledged Abigail’s admonition as truth. He also understood his need to repent. He initiated his own change even though the “messenger of change” was a woman in an age when women were generally regarded as little more than chattel. This in contrast to the B&B story where Belle’s understanding and compassion finally won over the adversary.
But Abigail did not know how David would respond. And he had all the power. She could have faced abuse from him, too, or worse. She was at his mercy, or lack thereof. She had no dancing brooms or singing tea cups, no “helpers and guides” (key elements of the kind of “hero-quest” stories that no doubt inspired B&B) save the Helper/Guide of divine instruction. She had only truth.
But she obviously knew the strength of truth.
Regarding the other “beasts,” Nabal apparently had no last-minute epiphany or if he did it was not told. After Abigail explained what she did Nabal’s heart failed him and he “became like a stone” (suffered a stroke?) and died soon after.
And the beast in B&B eventually, as noted, saw his potential to become a loving being but not as a response to an admonition as much as due to the compassion and understanding of the tale’s heroine, Belle. One would also hope that, like David, he maintained his goodness independent of Belle so that should she, in turn, become beastly in some sense at some point he would be able to retain his changed nature. In other words, he would not continue to depend on Belle to nurture him or continue to show him how to be good, because he would nurture goodness himself.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER?
But the outcome of B&B is the way of “happily ever after” tales. Culture-shaping story tellers don’t as often plot other endings that, in real life, sometimes occur despite the efforts of the noblest protagonists. Story tellers continue to hope in lore and in life that “love conquers all” because the opposite is too sad, depressing, or dangerous, and we offer the classic tales to teach our children to become more loving (and non-prejudicial) toward others, even mean others. Christians are also encouraged to “win over” the adversary with patience and love. But in “the world” as well as in Christendom, adversaries may choose another response. This one, not good.
We need to teach our children (and remind ourselves of) this, too.
As noble as is the long-suffering heroine—or Christian—she must also be prepared to leave or at least defy her mate, if need be. As stalwart as is the hero, he must be prepared to release even “true love,” if need be. The only intercession remaining may be prayer—from afar.
In short, the antagonist, the perpetrator in real life, may choose not to be transformed whether immediately, or over time, but we—and our households—can be saved. Abigail’s story reveals this.
Her story also reminds Christians of another antagonist, this one supernatural, but a very real and dangerous presence. And sometimes, this beast is the real influence behind the scenes.
WISE WOMAN OR DARK PRINCE?
The blogger references the supernatural character of the “wise woman” who inflicted the curse upon the beast in B&B as a sort of catalyst for the immature young man to learn a lesson about how beastly he had become. But there are other supernatural characters that have no such benevolent intent.
Scripture references these creatures as “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6)—demonic entities with whom mankind, wittingly or unwittingly, consorts. Against this, we need more than literature of enlightenment and behavior-shaping fairy tales. We need the strength of the power of God’s Word, the kind of “weapon” Jesus modeled when He was beset with temptation (Matthew chapter 4). A source of strength not usually cited in feminist literature, media analyses, or fairy tales.
WHAT WOULD ABIGAIL DO?
Whether the beast was foolish by nature like her husband Nabal, a “passing fool” like David who reacted out of the angst of the moment, an immature young man in need of a lesson, or evil of a darker nature, Abigail, I believe, knew or would know how to proceed.
No doubt she was a woman of God who understood her value and her responsibilities. Although compared with women’s freedoms today, she had little to none, she did not cower in fear or intimidation when faced the potential massacre of her (male) household due to her husband’s behavior. She was also under no illusion that it was her obligation to save Nabal for his own sake, although her actions certainly saved him for a little while.
Abigail understood that Nabal alone was responsible for his meanness, his surliness, his abuse. I suspect that on some level she understood that he was either incapable of genuine love or that he had turned aside from it for myriad reasons, reasons perhaps stemming from his youth from which she, at first, may have thought, like Belle, she could “redeem” him through compassion.
I suspect that many days and nights, years perhaps, of self-analysis, recrimination, guilt over her own real flaws and failures and Nabal’s accusations, put-downs, and contempt caused a gradual sea change in her mind, emotions, and spirit. I suspect she realized she had to either somehow overcome or succumb to this relationship.
But we don’t have those insights into this story. We have only the testimony of her wisdom—in spite of Nabal’s surliness and the restrictive gender mandates of her culture. Actions that took strength of character and superseded what may have otherwise been a spirit-crushing prison strewn with eggshells on which she—and her household—carefully trod day after day lest Nabal’s meanness surface and damage. Actions that indicate she took, I believe, the road of redemption.
I suspect that Abigail also knew there would come a time of deliverance.
She no doubt knew the pattern of redemption stories, big and small, traceable in spiritual history that echoed the pattern of the fall: paradise, sin, promise, and deliverance though in between there may be length of time and depth of heartache. A woman of God, Abigail, I believe, knew hope.
Though her actions could have cost her literally everything including her life, I believe Abigail also understood God would be with her in whatever “wilderness” awaited her on her own.
As a woman of her times, she may not have had access to the inner sanctums of education reserved for men, but she had every bit as much access to God in an honest quest to understand His ways and wisdom. In addition, she could freely meditate and reflect on the ways and wisdom of His people of antiquity and His people of her times. And I think she did.
But most potently, she had the knowledge of Who her real Protector and Provider was. On His nature, Abigail’s future husband—the very man her actions saved from egregious sin—David—penned this from his own observations:
God is our refuge and strength,
An ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though
The earth give way
And the mountains fall in to
Heart of the sea,
Though its waters roar and foam
And the mountains quake with
[…] The Lord almighty is with us;
The God of Jacob is our fortress.
(Psalm 46 NIV)
REDEEMED EVER AFTER
Abigail, like Belle, certainly had a lot going for her: youth, beauty—an eventual or even perhaps innate sense of her value and worth. We lesser mortals may have far fewer advantages in our struggles against adversity or adversaries. However, like Abigail, we have the same Provider and Protector. And, like Jesus, we have the same weapon, God’s Word, which, whether on the home front or some other battle front, reminds us:
(We) wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Ephesians 6:12 KJV)
And against such spirits the same Word advises us to:
(Put) on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (13-19).
Possibly more often than not our human efforts to understand and to love another, even a difficult other—maybe ourselves—bear redemptive results. However, there are also adversaries who have chosen another path, who for reasons hard to fathom may reject compassion, love, and hope for now, for a while, or for good. There is little a mate can do, there. And when such adversaries put others in danger, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and/or physically, a believer can be comforted in that deliverance of one form or another is nigh.
It’s hard to let go of a sense of responsibility for a better outcome, however, especially when the culture promotes so many stories of beautiful, innocent young girls having such success (with a little help from their friends) in the fairy tales of childhood and in the stock romances, myths, and legends that support “happily ever afters”.
But of course believers have another, literal, “happily ever after” to look forward to where there will be no more Princes of Darkness, only the Prince of Peace, Jesus (and just maybe we’ll see our earthly antagonists there, too, for whom we never stopped praying, never gave up hope).
And here’s a promise to go with:
(As) it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9 referencing Isaiah 64:4 NIV).
If you are in an abusive relationship, whether verbal, mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical, please get help. Start with local women’s shelters, or referrals from a doctor, counselor, or therapist. For women looking for a Christian perspective, I highly recommend the work and ministry of Cindy Burrell, author of Why is He so Mean to Me? Cindy blogs at http://www.hurtbylove.com/
UPDATE: September 2019. I had previously listed other Christian resources, but since the original publication of this post, several of the ministries have either ceased or are ommitted for various other reasons.