There are many people recorded in the Bible who are not particularly bright, but my choice for the dumbest person in the Bible is Nabal. Today I would like to spend a bit of time discussing all the ways that Nabal was foolish, and how we can learn from his stupidity. In order to set the stage for our discussion, let us look at the passages in which he plays at least an indirect role. First, we have 1 Samuel 25:2-19: “Now there was a man in Maon whose business was in Carmel, and the man was very rich. He had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. And he was shearing his sheep in Carmel. The name of the man wasNabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. And she was a woman of good understanding and beautiful appearance; but the man was harsh and evil in his doings. He was of the house of Caleb. When David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep, David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, go to Nabal, and greet him in my name. And thus you shall say to him who lives in prosperity: ‘Peace be to you, peace to your house, and peace to all that you have! Now I have heard that you have shearers. Your shepherds were with us, and we did not hurt them, nor was there anything missing from them all the while they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever comes to your hand to your servants and to your son David.’ ” So when David’s young men came, they spoke to Nabal according to all these words in the name of David, and waited. Then Nabal answered David’s servants, and said, “Who is David, and who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants nowadays who break away each one from his master. Shall I then take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers, and give it to men when I do not know where they are from?” So David’s young men turned on their heels and went back; and they came and told him all these words. Then David said to his men, “Every man gird on his sword.” So every man girded on his sword, and David also girded on his sword. And about four hundred men went with David, and two hundred stayed with the supplies. Now one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying, “Look, David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master; and he reviled them. But the men were very good to us, and we were not hurt, nor did we miss anything as long as we accompanied them, when we were in the fields. They were a wall to us both by night and day, all the time we were with them keeping the sheep. Now therefore, know and consider what you will do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his household. For he is such a scoundrel that one cannot speak to him.” Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep already dressed, five seahs of roasted grain,one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them on donkeys. And she said to her servants, “Go on before me; see, I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal.” After this we have a short coda in 1 Samuel 25:32-39: “Then David said to Abigail: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand. For indeed, as the Lord God of Israel lives, who has kept me back from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, surely by morning light no males would have been left to Nabal!” So David received from her hand what she had brought him, and said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have heeded your voice and respected your person.” Now Abigail went to Nabal, and there he was, holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. And Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk; therefore she told him nothing, little or much, until morning light. So it was, in the morning, when the wine had gone from Nabal, and his wife had told him these things, that his heart died within him, and he became like a stone. Then it happened, after about ten days, that the Lord struck Nabal, and he died. So when David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has pleaded the cause of my reproach from the hand of Nabal, and has kept His servant from evil! For the Lord has returned the wickedness of Nabal on his own head.” And David sent and proposed to Abigail, to take her as his wife.”
How does Nabal end up taking the title of the dumbest man in the Bible? Let us begin by looking at what he had going for him. He had inherited his wealth and position as a descendant of the powerful and noble house of Caleb. Obviously, given his idiocy, he would not have been able to earn his wealth based on his own merit. He also had, probably as a result of an arranged marriage, a particularly shrewd and intelligent wife in Abigail. Again, this was a man blessed in at least two ways that he most certainly did not deserve. He was blessed in a third way that he neither deserved nor appreciated, and that is having able servants and help, who knew that to get anything done in the household, including saving their own lives (more on that shortly), they had to go to Abigail because one could not even speak to Nabal. Even when their life was in danger, Nabal was too much of a fool to take the advice of wise servants, or even his wife, and so everyone had to go behind his back.
Having looked at how Nabal’s folly squandered the resources that he had available to him, including a certain amount of inherited wealth and power, a wise and beautiful and charismatic wife, and servants who were knowledgeable and wise, let us look at how he nearly destroyed all of it. He appears to have thought that his wealth and power was enough to protect him from the violence of David and his hundreds of armed men. While it is entirely understandable that he would be less than enthusiastic about the protection racket that David had set up to keep his men fed and content, the obvious decision in this case would have been to pay off the armed men who had at least provided protection in a dangerous area full of violent nomadic tribes to ensure that the armed people would stay on your side. This is a truth so basic that keeping the armed services happy is pretty much enshrined in the practice of any nation that has a large military force that it depends on to provide internal and external security, including the United States. Stiffing one’s armed forces, whether they are hired mercenaries or volunteers or generally friendly armed retinues of warlords like David, is an act of extreme stupidity. One thinks of the short epigram by Hilaire Belloc: “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.” The importance of respecting the source of military superiority should have been obvious to someone whose entire place within society came about by descending from a popular military hero.
What would a smarter man than Nabal have done when it came to dealing with David and his men? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Nabal had not been a mouth-breathing idiot of submoronic intelligence lacking completely in charisma or intellect but had been a person of reasonable strategic insight, at least to the point of being able to respect and appreciate the wisdom of the wife and servants who served him loyally despite his stupidity. First off, Nabal would have been well-served in getting to know as much about a fellow Judahite as possible, especially David’s being anointed by Samuel as the next king over Israel. A shrewd eye of David’s military talent probably would have sought to co-opt that military talent through having David conquer more wilderness to support more herds and increase the economic power and holdings of Nabal. Likewise, the knowledge that David would be king would also lead a local aristocrat to desire for the military leader to remember who helped him out when to make him an important figure in his administration, like keeper of the South or something like that. But Nabal wasn’t wise–he showed no curiosity in David’s destiny, did not appreciate the strategic value of staying on the good side of people with weapons, and was so foolish as to be unable to appreciate the sound advice of his wife or servants, who are all much wiser than he was. As a result, he died a fool’s death after having nearly brought on the destruction of his entire elite household. And for what? Simply to gratify his own pride by insulting the honor of David, a man who took matters of loyalty and honor pretty seriously, but who was at least a wise enough man to appreciate the wisdom of Abigail, which was more than Nabal had going for him.