What's in a Name?

Author: Leonard Greenspoon

 Many Israelite names reflected the circumstances of a child’s birth. Rachel called her last son, after whose birth she died, Ben-oni (son of my sorrow), a name that Jacob changed to Benjamin (son of the south or of the right hand). Other names showed parental hopes for their newborn, as in my own Hebrew name, Eliezer, “May my God (be or provide) help.”

What did an ancient reader think when he or she arrived at 1 Sam 25 and met a man named Nabal? His own wife, Abigail, who was “as clever and beautiful” as he was “surly and mean” tells us pretty bluntly: “My lord [that is, David], do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him” (1 Sam 25:25).

Would parents actually bestow the name “Fool” on their son? “Nabal” is an apt nickname for a thoroughly foolish man. Given the bizarre monikers that parents deliberately burden their children with today, it’s possible that Nabal was his given name.

As his exasperated and desperate spouse admitted, Nabal truly exemplified his name in all of its nuances and connotations. He is described as a very wealthy man who is celebrating a good year in the sheep business (25:1–2). David, at this point in hit-or-miss combat with King Saul, offered protection to some of Nabal’s shepherds. After the danger passed, David sent messengers to Nabal asking for something (any little thing), since it was a feast day and his men were likely hungry. Not only does Nabal refuse, but he insults David, David’s family, and David’s entourage (25:9–11).

Upon hearing Nabal’s witless invective, David prepares for an all-out assault against him: “Put on your swords! … May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to [Nabal]” (25:12, 22 niv). Abigail intervenes, unbeknownst to Nabal, and prepares food for David and his men. Through her good judgment, her beauty, and her kind words, she manages to forestall the massacre (25:18–31). When Abigail tells Nabal what she did, he is anything but happy (25:37).

But wasn’t Nabal in the right, refusing to pay “protection money” to David, who was a fugitive on the run from the (seemingly) rightful king? Lest we doubt that justice was served, the biblical text says that ten days after the events, “the Lord struck Nabal, and he died” (25:38 NIV). Served him right. Not long thereafter David proposes marriage to Abigail, and she accepts (25:39–42).

But let’s look more closely at the name “Nabal.” “Fool” is a perfectly appropriate rendering of the word, but it often carries with it the malignancy of true evil. It was more than foolish for Nabal to refuse hospitality to David who had acted spontaneously on his behalf—it was dangerous. And on a feast day, it was insulting. (The Israelites were expected to be hospitable to sojourners, especially on feast days.)

The word nabal (לבנ) in Hebrew appears as two nouns that also define this fellow. One of these nouns often appears in the expression “wine skin” (and is used once this way in 1 Sam 25:18 as a play on words). Nabal is characterized as a drunk. He was so drunk after the feast that Abigail knew she needed to wait until the morning when he had sobered up to tell him of her intervention with David. The biblical expression here is that she waited “until the wine had gone out of Nabal” (25:37). She waited until the wine skin that was Nabal was emptied of its contents.

The second noun means carcass or corpse. Surely, Nabal was a “dead man” when he crossed David. The same Hebrew consonants also make up a noun meaning “foolishness,” the very noun that Abigail used to describe her husband in her plea to David. The narrator’s description is filled with intentional dual meanings—he is a jokester. He wanted readers simultaneously to think of Nabal as a drunk, a fool, and a dead man. He was his namesake in every way.

Moreover, let’s face it: all was not well with Abigail, either. Her name is made up of the words for “my father” and “joy.” But what kind of joy did her father actually provide her? In giving her to Nabal it seems that he overlooked all of Nabal’s “nabal-ness.”

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 5