09 October 2016

Abigail: Disobedient

1. Samuel 25

I will disobey you,
my Husband -
I will ignore your command.
I will subvert your decision,
I will counter your wish.
I will disobey you,
my Husband -
and save us all.

How can I idly sit and watch
as your choice risks our destruction?
How can I stay silent and passive
in the face of such danger?
How can I submit
to the threat of war
when in my hands
lies the chance to make peace?

I will disobey you,
my Husband -
I will do what you refused:
I will share of our wealth
with these men who have asked us
before they take it by force.
I will disobey you,
my Husband -
and save us all.

I will not let my weapons rust,
my gifts of wit and diplomacy.
I will not bury God's gift of wisdom
beneath a false submissiveness
when I can use it now for peace,
to reconcile
and save us all.

God does not ask me
to submit without question
and obey you unconditionally.
God does not ask me
to sit silent at home
while all around me
the world crashes down.
God does not ask me
to quash my own will
beneath that of a man,
be it my husband
or my future king -

I will disobey you,
my Husband -
I will take initiative.
I will go out and save you
from certain death,
I will go out and save him
from the sin of murder,
I will go out and save us all.


[9. October 2016]

Recently I read this story again... David (on the run from Saul with a band of outlaws) asks the wealthy landowner Nabal to provide food for his men - in return for the protection they have given Nabal's shepherds. Nabal refuses. David is angered and decides to kill everyone on Nabal's estate.

This is where Abigail, Nabal's wife, steps in. She decides to override Nabal's decision and goes out to meet David with the provisions he asked for - thus preventing the massacre David had planned. She saves Nabal (and the servants, shepherds etc) from being killed, and saves David from bringing sin upon himself. Abigail becomes the mediator between Nabal and David, and becomes their "saviour" - all this by being disobedient and insubmissive!
(The help comes too late for Nabal, who is so frustrated with what Abigail has done that he "becomes like stone" and dies some days later. David, on the other hand, takes Abigail to be his third wife.)

This made me think of how conservatives like to talk about "biblical womanhood", i.e. what the role of women should be according to the Bible. According to conservatives ("complementarianism"), God has given men and women distinct roles: men shall lead, women submit and follow. The man is the head of the family, the woman should obey him. Leadership roles in the church also are reserved for men alone; women are not allowed to become pastors, preach or teach men. This is based mainly on a few texts in the letters of Paul (e.g. Eph 5:22, 1. Tim 2:11-15).

I believe this is a highly selective reading - and one that is not "counter-cultural", but clinging on to the patriarchal culture the Bible continuously subverts. The Bible is full of stories of women who dance out of this pattern of submissiveness and through their insubordination actually end up saving the day or fulfilling God's plan. Abigail is just one example. Others include:
  • Zipporah, who saved Moses' life by circumcising his sons (Ex 4:24-26) - something he for some reason had failed to or refused to do.
  • Deborah, who was a prophet and judge (leadership role), and in her story comes across as the strong woman warrior braver than the male captain Barak. Her husband hardly features in her story. (Judges 4)
  • Esther, who broke the rules and dared to approach the king unbidden to speak up for her persecuted people (Esther 5). Even as his wife, Esther was barred (on threat of death!) from coming to the king unless he called her.
  • Women in the early church like Philipp's daughters, the deacon Phoebe or the apostle Junia who did not stick to the traditional "women's roles" dictated by their culture, but served God in the church and in teaching and leadership roles.
There is hardly a single woman in the Bible who fits the "subservient" role conservative Christian leaders call "biblical". If we want to understand texts like Eph 5 and 1. Tim 2 properly, then we need to understand them in the context of the whole Bible, which includes stories of women disobeying their husbands, taking initiative and taking on roles conservatives like to reserve for men.

I believe true biblical womanhood is not unquestioning submission to your husband. Men can be wrong. We have been given gifts by God which we are to use. Marriage is about teamwork, not about my husband telling me what to do and me slavishly following without asking whether he's leading me in the right direction. Being a wife is not about simply doing all my husband wants, because there's a world out there and maybe his decisions harm us, or himself, or people out there. We are responsible before God and we can't hide behind submission - we have been given gifts to use them, when God calls us we are to follow (even if He calls us into a role our culture doesn't agree with), and when our husbands' decisions are harmful and we know it, we are in a position to do something. Like Abigail, like Esther, like many other women in the Bible who "disobeyed" - and in doing so, saved the day and did right in the eyes of God.

"Submission" is not about unconditional obedience, but about love, honour and respect - and sometimes love, honour and respect are exactly what call us to disobedience... (Btw for more on the correct meaning of "submit" in Eph 5, check out this article.)

Picture by Juan Antonio Escalante.

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