Bible Answer

Was Abigail submissive to her husband?

Reading in 1 Samuel 25, the story of Abigail shows her working behind her husband's back to appease David's wrath. The story appears to commend Abigail for her behavior, but I'm concerned she failed to submit to her husband's authority. How do you see that story?

Before we address Abigail's situation, let's review the Bible's teaching on submission. As believers, both husbands and wives are called to submit to the Lord in all things. James says:

James 4:7  Submit therefore to God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.

Our first priority is to submit to the Lord in all things. His demands and instructions come first. Secondly, husbands and wives are called to submit to each other as it pleases the Lord.

Eph. 5:21  and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

Furthermore, we are to submit to various earthly authorities, including government and church leadership:

1Pet. 2:13  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority,
1Pet. 2:14 or to governors as sent  by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.

Notice our submission should always be to the effect of doing what is right.  Furthermore, wives submit to husbands:

Col. 3:18   Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Eph. 5:22  Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
Eph. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself  being the Savior of the body.
Eph. 5:24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

1Pet. 3:1  In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be  won without a word by the behavior of their wives,
Pet. 3:2 as they observe your chaste and  respectful behavior.

Again, these commands to be submitted must be understood in light of scripture overall that calls for our behavior to be consistent with our submission to the Lord and to what is right.

In the Bible, submission involves honoring the authority God has given another person over us, whether a husband, elder, government leaders. Obviously, there can be circumstances when an authority over us asks too much of us, as when Daniel was asked to worship a false god, and in these moments we choose to honor God by refusing the unrighteous request, just as Daniel refused to worship the king. In those moments, we place ourselves in God's hands, as Daniel did.

So what is the right thing for a godly woman to do when her husband is engaged in ungodly behavior? This was the situation Abigail (and Sarah) experienced. In fact, 1Peter 3 uses Sarah, the wife of Abraham, as just such an example of how a woman may display godliness and submission to a husband even when he is imperfect and prone to sinful mistakes.

1Pet. 3:5 For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands;
1Pet. 3:6 just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. When Peter is talking about fear, he is talking about the fear of doing what is right.

Although Abraham’s request was sinful, Sarah put her hope and faith in the Lord and submitted to her husband anyway. Much like Abigail, she gave up of herself for the benefit of her husband, and she did so out of submission to Abraham and to protect him. Because she put her faith in the Lord in submitting to Abraham’s request, not giving into fear, and so God protected her.

In the same way, Abigail put her hope in the Lord and did what was necessary to protect her husband’s life. She did not give in to her fear of doing what was right, and so God protected her from David's men and from Nabal’s anger. Since we must all give an account to the Lord for our actions, we must be sure in our conscience that our actions are consistent with God's will and His word, and these women acted in confidence that they were serving the Lord and their husbands in the best way.

Both Sarah and Abigail are examples of women who chose a path that honored their husbands as best possible while also honoring God's word (and in Abigail's case, also honoring an anointed king!).  In both cases, God stepped in to rescue a righteous woman from her husband's misdeeds. The Bible never requires that a woman live in a state of "slavery" to her husband or tolerate physical abuse, nor does it demand that a woman violate the word of God to support her husband. It does call for men and women to honor the authorities over us by every way possible.

Therefore, should a woman be asked by her husband to do the wrong thing, she must seek the best possible way to submit to his authority without participating in his sin. If a husband demands his wife commit sin, she is right to refuse such a request to avoid the sin, but she should still look for other ways to submit and protect her husband, as Sarah did. 

If a woman is subject to physical abuse, she has a right to seek protection and relief. Similarly, if a husband is abusing children, a wife is within her rights to protect the innocent. In all cases, the wife should act to support her husband and lead him into repentance and godliness if she can. In the end, the woman's decisions must be guided first by love for God, followed by love for her husband. 

On the other hand, having an imperfect husband is never reason for a wife to withhold her submission altogether (as Sarah demonstrated). A wife may refuse to comply with her husband's requests only when they come into direct conflict with the Lord's word. Submission to any earthly authority should always fall in line with submission to the Lord.

So as we observe Abigail’s actions in 1 Samuel 25, we see that her motivation was to show respect and submission to her husband while also fulfilling the role God created for her as her husband’s “helper," which God assigned to woman in Genesis 2.

The Hebrew word for “helper” in Genesis 2:18, 20 is ezer neged, which translates “helper against/help who protects.” In the Old Testament, ezer describes aspects of God’s character – He is our strength, our rescuer, our protector and our help. The spiritual role of a wife it to be her husband's helper, which includes working against those things which might bring him harm. This is what Abigail did in the story of 1Samuel 25.

Also, it is important to understand how significant honor was in ancient Eastern culture. David's men had performed a service for Nabal, yet Nabal failed to recognize and compensate David for his work.  Such a failure could bring dire consequences in that culture.

In 1Samuel 25, David's men had provided protection and hospitality to Nabal's shepherds, which was a blessing to Nabal (1 Sam. 25:14-16), but Nabal did not return the gesture. Instead, he acted in foolishness and pride, which could have resulted in his death and the death of his household by David's hand (1 Sam. 25:17, 34).

After learning about her husband's mistake, Abigail took action to protect the family and her husband, which was in keeping with her responsibility as a helper to her husband. Abigail fulfilled her God-given role as his wife by attempting to compensate for her husband’s foolishness. She also fulfilled her cultural role of providing hospitality to David and his men. (1 Sam. 25:25). Furthermore, she acted without directly violating any of her husband's commands.

In Proverbs 31:12 we learn that a wife of noble character brings her husband good, not harm all the days of her life. Abigail was such a woman. She was an intelligent woman (1 Sam. 25:3), who was submitting to the Lord while trying to honor and protect her husband without sharing in his sin. Abigail was also honest with her husband (1 Sam. 25:37-38), and God protected her. In the end, she also honored and submitted to Israel's anointed king, thus saving David from the sin of avenging himself through murdering Nabal’s household (1 Sam. 25:33-34). The Bible commends Abigail for her actions.

In the end, we know the Lord takes her husband's life, but Abigail did not cause Nabal’s death. She knew Nabal was wrong, but she left room for God to be his Judge. God decided to avenge his servant David by killing Nabal (1 Sam. 25:22), and He did so because of Nabal own sin, not because of Abigail, for she acted in a godly manner and submitter herself to the Lord.

Abigail did her best to serve the Lord and to honor her husband. In this case, these roles conflicted to a degree. Her desire to be a godly woman by honoring David's men was at odds with her husband's sinful decision to spurn David's men. Like Sarah, Abigail had a difficult decision to make, but she put God's desires first. Still, eash woman accomolished this goal in different ways. While Sarah remained silent and allowed her husband's plan to go forward, Abigail took action to stop her husband's folly. In both cases, however, these women acted to obey God and to protect their husbands. They took opposite actions but obtained similar outcomes for similar reasons.

In summary, submission to earthly authorities is an important command in scripture, but it is not the highest command in the Bible. Submission to God and personal holiness are the highest call of every believer, both man and woman. When our submission to earthly authorities puts our obedience to God at risk, we must choose God over man. Abigail efforts to honor and protect her husband - including taking actions contrary to her husband's desire - were praised in scripture because they were done in obecdience to God, out of love and respect for her husband and in honor of the Lord's His anointed servant, David. Throughout, she acted with restraint and honesty, making every effort to demonstrate submission with godliness.

In the end, every believer must balance these principles like Abigail – by relying on the guidance of scripture and the Holy Spirit.