Abishag the Shunammite

Abishag the Shunammite
Bathsheba and Abishag by the bed of aging King David

Abishag the Shunnamite. Find her story in the first biblical Book of Kings, chapters 1 and 2.

Who is Abishag?

Abishag is a beautiful young woman. King David’s courtiers hire her to arouse the king sexually. Some interpreters say: the courtiers think a sexually potent king is politically potent. (Of course interpreters think that’s part of the biblical mindset. Because powerful men in the Bible do flaunt their access to women.)

But King David isn’t interested in romance with Abishag. So, she stays on as his care giver. And she watches and listens as Bathsheba skillfully plays politics. The text explicitly says Abishag stays in the room when Bathsheba & David talk politics.

But David, it seems, has lost interest in governing. So he has not announced his successor. Solomon son of Bathsheba wants to be the next king. And so does his older half-brother, Adonijah son of Haggith. Bathsheba knows David loves her. And she wants him to crown Solomon. So she asks him, formally. And he makes it happen.

When Solomon becomes king, his brother Adonijah asks for a pardon. Solomon says, “It all depends on your behaviour.” Then, Adonijah visits Bathsheba. He says “I lost my bid for the throne. Can you at least ask Solomon if I can marry Abishag?” So, Solomon executes him.

And that’s the last we hear of Abishag.

It’s frustrating, isn’t it, when women are written into the stories so subtly? We know they’re especially important when they are called by name. But we don’t always get enough details to understand WHY they are important. We can only ask questions. And then try to answer them.

I Have So Many Questions

The story says that courtiers searched throughout the land to find Abishag. Really? Exactly what combination of qualities were they looking for?

Why does Bathsheba allow Abishag to stay in the room? It’s possible the courtiers insisted. Maybe they’re hoping to use her as a spy. But surely Bathsheba is more powerful than the courtiers. Does Abishag work for Bathsheba? Is Bathsheba Abishag’s mentor?

Why does Adonijah ask to marry Abishag? The story says he is very handsome; maybe he wants a beautiful wife. But, given the context, he probably has something more political in mind. Maybe he thinks Abishag was David’s concubine and that possessing her is a claim to David’s throne

In other words, maybe he is making a direct threat to Bathsheba and Solomon. But, given Solomon’s warning, a threat would simply be a suicidal move. Solomon’s got the public support and the soldiers.

Could it instead be his way of staying in the family? Maybe he sees how Bathsheba views Abishag as a kind of adopted daughter. And he is trying to ally with Bathsheba and Solomon.

Or does Adonijah perceive that Abishag is actually a political-operative-in-training? A courtier with months of solidifying relationships with the most powerful few? Maybe he wants to buy her wisdom, so to speak, through marriage.

In the story, Adonijah first asks Bathsheba. Then, she asks Solomon on Adonijah’s behalf. But she makes sure to do so in a public place, in the throne room, in front of witnesses. And Solomon reacts in the only face-saving way possible. He views it as a threat and orders Adonijah’s execution.

Why does Adonijah trust Bathsheba? Maybe he fails to think clearly. Or maybe he is drawn in by Bathsheba’s political skill. Maybe, somehow, even her enemies trust her.

Imagine Abishag’s Future

So, what does happen to Bathsheba’s protegée Abishag? Some say she is the woman Solomon loves in the Song of Songs (ch 1). Maybe his only real love, before his royal position turns marriage into a series of political arrangements.

Others say Abishag grows into a person of great self-determination. Or that she inspires her sister, the unnamed Shunammite disciple of the prophet Elisha (II Kings 4), with a spirit of determination.

I’m open to your thoughts and comments! Let’s read together between the lines to find the story.

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