The story of David and Abishag is the story of an old king and a beautiful young, unmarried teenage maiden. Not much is known about Abishag, her age, her family, and what she did while working for David. Also, not much is said about her role in Adonijah’s plot to assume the throne of David.
Abishag’s story takes place during David’s last days of his life, at a time when he was unable to get himself warm and retain his body heat. David’s old age and his illness would present several challenges to his ability to lead Israel as king.
The Young Woman from Shunem
Abishag was a young woman from the village of Shunem, a village located near Jezreel in the tribe of Issachar (Joshua 19:17–18). Abishag is introduced as a na‘arāh. This Hebrew word is generally used to designate a young woman of marriageable age. This indicates that when Abishag was taken to David’s palace she was a teenager. She is also called a betûlāh. This Hebrew word refers to an unmarried young woman who has not had sexual relations with a man. Abishag was a beautiful young woman. The Hebrew word refers to Abishag’s outward appearance; she was a beautiful in appearance. The biblical text does not say whether Abishag became David’s wife or his concubine. Either as a concubine or as a wife, David became her husband.
After Abishag was brought to the palace, Abishag became involved in the struggle of two men who had a vital role in the fight for the succession to the throne of David. During her early days in the palace, Abishag ministered to David as his nurse and as his concubine. After David’s death, Abishag is indirectly involved in the struggle between Adonijah and Solomon for the throne of David.
Abishag and David
The story of Abishag and David takes place during the last days of David’s reign. David was thirty years old when he became king, and he ruled over Israel for forty years (2 Samuel 5:4). Thus, the story of David and Abishag occurred when David was almost seventy years old. During his many years as a soldier in Saul’s army and then as a king over Israel, David was highly active in fighting against Israel’s enemies and enlarging his empire. However, as David grew old, his abilities as a fighter began to diminish.
One example of David’s old age diminishing his abilities as a warrior came during a battle against the Philistines. In a fierce battle against the Philistines, David became weak and exhausted, and a Philistine warrior named Ishbibenob, who was considered to be one of the descendants of the giants, made an attempt to kill David. One of David’s mighty warriors named Abishai came to help David. He fought against the Philistine and killed him. “Then David’s men swore to him, saying, ‘Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished’” (2 Samuel 21:17 NIV). Although the text does not mention how old David was when this event occurred, David’s men were concerned for his well-being and were afraid that he might be killed in battle.
In his old age, David suffered from an unknown ailment, “King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm” (1 Kings 1:1). Whether David’s illness was a circulatory problem or other unknown illness, David could not get warm during the winter’s cold nights. His servants tried to cover him, but his body could not retain heat.
Worried about the health of the king, his servants decided that the king needed a nurse to attend to his needs. They said to David, “A young virgin must be found for our master, the king, to take care of the king’s needs and serve as his nurse. She can also sleep with you and keep our master, the king, warm” (1 Kings 1:2 NET).
When the text says that David “did not know her” some people believe that Abishag was not David’s concubine and that there was no implication that David was impotent or that Abishag was brought to the palace to have sexual relations with David.
Gray writes that David’s authority as king corresponded to his virility. David’s impotence as a man was a reflection on his impotence as a king (Gray 1970:77). Thus, Abishag’s presence in the palace was a test to see whether David could continue as a king. “His failure to ‘know’ Abishag (1:4) indicates his failure as king and precipitates the fight for succession which follows. If Abishag’s function was to test David’s virility, then it is possible she was admitted into David’s harem either as concubine or wife” (Schearing 1992:1:24).
Brueggemann (2000:12) says Abishag’s role in David’s bedroom “is to arouse the king sexually.” He writes, “Because of the last phrase of v. 4, ‘did not know her sexually,’ it is probable that ‘not get warm’ means not to have an erection. Thus, the point of the opening paragraph is to report the king’s sexual impotence, his loss of virility, and therefore his disqualification as king.”
Another reason Abishag was brought to the palace was political. In the ancient Near East, the physical capability of the king was considered vital for him to discharge his duty as a king. In many ancient societies it was believed that the virility of the king was an evidence that he had the vigor to be a king. It is for this reason, as Nelson points out, that “Abishag became both a nurse for David’s failing health and the prescribed medicine for his impotence. David remains impotent, however, and this failure precipitates a political crisis to which first Adonijah and then Nathan respond.”
Abishag and Adonijah
The introduction of David as an old and sick man serves also to introduce the struggle between Solomon and his half-brother Adonijah to become the next king of Israel after David’s death. Adonijah ambition to become the new king after David began before the death of David. Adonijah began to display his ambition to be king when he gathered chariots and horsemen and a group of people and he declared, “I will be king” (1 Kings 1:5). Adonijah proclaimed himself king because David was old and sick, and apparently because he believed that David was near death.
Before David died, he named Solomon to succeed him on the throne. Once Solomon ascended to the throne and became king of Israel, Adonijah went to Bathsheba, the queen-mother. When Adonijah approached her, she asked him, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, ‘Peaceably.’ Then he said, ‘May I have a word with you?’ She said, ‘Go on.’ He said, ‘You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel expected me to reign; however, the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the LORD. And now I have one request to make of you; do not refuse me.’ She said to him, ‘Go on.’ He said, ‘Please ask King Solomon – he will not refuse you – to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife.’ Bathsheba said, ‘Very well; I will speak to the king on your behalf’” (1 Kings 2:13–18).
Adonijah wanted to marry Abishag in order to gain the throne by means of her. Adonijah believed that Solomon’s kingship was illegal. When Adonijah asked Bathsheba to ask Solomon for permission to marry Abishag, there was a hidden motive behind this request. By asking Abishag to be his wife, Adonijah was staking a claim to David’s throne. With his request, Adonijah was asking Bathsheba to betray her son and help him obtain the throne that he believed belonged to him.
As a queen-mother, Bathsheba understood the meaning of the request. She was aware that Adonijah posed a threat to Solomon’s kingship, and she had to act in order to save her son. When Bathsheba came before Solomon, she had a hidden motive in presenting Adonijah’s request. As the king’s mother and as the widow of a king, Bathsheba knew that Adonijah’s request was a veiled claim for her son’s throne and that his claim to the throne would remain as long as he lived.
Solomon also was aware of the hidden motives behind Adonijah’s request. After Bathsheba presented Adonijah’s request to Solomon, Solomon said to his mother: “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! For he is my elder brother; ask not only for him but also for the priest Abiathar and for Joab son of Zeruiah!” (1 Kings 2:22). In response to Adonijah’s request, he told Bathsheba, “Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life. Today Adonijah shall be put to death. So King Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died” (1 Kings 2:24–25).
The story of Abishag reflects the problems women faced in a patriarchal setting. Abishag was a teenager who was probably living in the house of her father when she was taken to go to David’s palace to live with him. Whether she went willingly or was forced to go, the text does not say. This young woman was taken before she could marry another man. She was a teenager taken from her home to marry an old man who was near death.
Abishag became a sex object to a man who could not have sex with her. Throughout her story, Abishag is silent, she never speaks about her feelings or about her situation. Abishag was brought to David in order to help him maintain control of his kingship. It did not work because of David’s impotence.
Abishag then becomes the focus of a power play for David’s throne when Adonijah makes an attempt to marry her. The power play for the throne did not work because another woman, Bathsheba, intervened to save the life and the throne of her son Solomon.
In the end, we know little about Abishag. From a teenager living in a small town in Israel to a woman who lived with a king in a palace in Jerusalem, her life became the focal point in the struggle between two men for the throne of her husband.
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Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Brueggemann, Walter. 1 & 2 Kings. Macon: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2000.
Gray, John. I & II Kings: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1970.
Nelson, Richard D. First and Second Kings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987.
Schearing, Linda S. “Abishag (Person),” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:24.
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