My last post was a painful exercise in looking for positive, redemptive lessons from Jacob’s family’s deceit. On the positive side, a few biblical characters stand out. Let me briefly share the stories of four of my favorites as case studies.
While tending the sheep of a wealthy man with huge flocks, a group of shepherds come upon a small army living off the land while hiding from King Saul. Even in a state of exile, constant vigilance and hunger, David’s militia doesn’t take anything from Nabal’s flocks; instead, they provide protection. Innocent as doves. So it’s not unreasonable when David decides to approach Nabal to ask ask for help. Nabal weighs the politics and chooses to respond with insult rather than generosity. David is incensed, and his men strap on their weapons for vengeance.
Thankfully, this dead man walking has a shrewd wife who immediately recognizes the danger to her family. Abigail acts decisively, shows discernment and averts the danger through a mix of smooth talk, gifts and persuasive argument. She also picks her moment to inform her husband of the threat. The news of his close call causes Nabal’s heart to fail. In the end, God avenges David, who then pursues this amazing, newly-minted widow as his wife. (1 Samuel 25)
When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon sacks Jerusalem and carries off exiles, he sets aside a group of young men to become eunuchs—young men selected specifically for a handful of traits. Chief among them are a demonstration of wisdom, because they are intended to join the magi, astrologers and highly-educated men who advised the king.
Among this group, Daniel and his friends stand out. The first scene in the book of Daniel describes Daniel’s oblique approach to a challenge. Rather than fight Nebuchadnezzar on his instructions regarding diet, Daniel proposes a 10-day test for him and his friends. It turns out vegetables can be healthier for you than the king’s fattening foods. Who knew? Daniel’s discerning action causes him to rise to the top of the group and gives him enormous influence with an oppressing king. (Daniel 1)
The story of Esther opens with Queen Vashti losing a direct challenge to King Xerxes’ authority, as she attempts to protect her integrity. The Jewish exile, Esther, becomes queen and proves to be a shrewd student of Vashti’s mistake and the corporate culture. After establishing her place in the kingdom, Esther learns of a plot that will destroy her people and threaten her own life. Rather than reproduce Vashti’s error, Esther takes a sideways approach.
She patiently enacts a moves management plan over three days, appealing to the king’s love for a lavish feast, using Haman’s weaknesses to trap him and then springing the trap at just the right moment. In her moment of favor, she reveals her ethnic identity and closes with a big ask to save her people. (Esther 4-7)
Rick Lawrence says Saul was one of the shrewdly brutal characters in the New Testament, and God chose him for that quality. He’d studied under Gamaliel and was therefore a sharp mind and a lethal debater who became a fierce Pharisee enforcer. God sent him where Peter and the other apostles couldn’t and wouldn’t, as a messenger to the Gentiles.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul says he becomes all things to all people that he might win some. Some examples of how he applies shrewdness in these early days of the Church:
- He preaches entirely different messages to Jews (Acts 13) and non-Jews (Acts 17). In the former, he shows his versatility with Moses and the prophets. In the latter, he draws from culture and quotes Greek poets.
- When he’s arrested by the Romans in the temple, and a Jewish mob forms, he speaks to the people in Hebrew (Acts 22:2), calming the crowd.
- Then he casually mentions his Roman citizenship once the Roman centurion stretches him out for a flogging (Acts 22:25), rendering the tribune paralyzed in indecision.
- The next day, as he stands trial before the council of Pharisees and Sadducees, he pushes on the exact issue that will turn them on each other: “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). The council dissolves in a great uproar.
Well, that was easier than sifting out positive lessons from evil examples! We’ll wrap this series up in my next post, drawing out some principles of shrewdness that might be most useful for a Christian leader in our context today.