In Sermons: Abishag, King David’s Warm Bed
Written by Russell E Saltzman
And King David had advanced in age until now. They covered him, but he couldn’t keep warm. And his servants said to him: “My lord, king, may you have a little maiden to take care of you and take care of you. She can lie down beside you so that my lord, king, will be warm.” So they searched for a beautiful girl throughout the land of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The young woman was very beautiful, and she cared for the king. She served the king, but he had no intimate relations with her (1 Kings 1:4).
Why don’t Christians hear this in a sermon? Because it is embarrassing, even disgusting to our feelings. He proposes human trafficking and shows the omnipotence of elite entitlement. Abishog was summoned – it was not asked – and she was given no choice. The King’s men become a pimp for a young virgin, who in turn understands her lack of options.
It is also a somber reminder of the crumbling decay that the human body endures as it ages. No one, not even the mighty King of Israel, is immune. So it’s also a parable about how the great David, so beloved by the Lord, was turned into a quivering bag of bones.
David is no longer the mythical figure Michelangelo had so much envisioned—naked and with a taut body, the epitome of muscular precision and arrogant confidence slung over his shoulder and ready to meet the inept Goliath. Instead, this David falters in his unsteady gait, his powerful stride reduced to a temporary shuffling and wears with age so much that he can never quite feel the warmth. The story attacks our being, our perception of ourselves as eternally powerful.
Imagine this story today. I see a disturbing headline in the New York Post: “King David Sleeps With Teen.” His servants—as pimps—searched the kingdom and found a girl who was “very beautiful,” or as one translation puts it, “amazing.” But was she unknown to the king? Stunning women don’t usually pass the King’s eye. Ask Bathsheba.
However, while Abishag tended to attend to David’s needs, the text explicitly states that he “had no intimate relations with her.” This, we should wonder, is clearly not another incident in Bathsheba. Besides, the king is in no position to overcome lust.
David had eight wives, most notably Bathsheba, as well as a number of unnamed concubines, but the strength of the translation indicates that Abisheg was more engaged in home health care than anything else. Honestly, of all David’s wives and concubines, none were approached and none volunteered to cater to the old man’s needs, his hygiene, his personal restroom, and to provide a nocturnal embrace; Wives and concubines have limits.
Ultimately, Abishag became the reason Solomon ordered the execution of his older half-brother, Adonijah.
While King David was still alive – barely looking – Adonijah attempted to install himself as king. He got some wagons and a royal mule, and had 50 armed men “run before him” to the cheers of many. One might assume that the Armored Soldiers had some connection to Adonijah as king here and there. Never once, does the biblical narrator ask Adonijah, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
Here the prophet Nathan and then Bathsheba herself intervene. Together they assert that Solomon is David’s choice as his successor.
Adonijah’s men left him. The attendees whom he invited to his installation suddenly recall their previous engagements. Adonijah reasonably panics and flees to the tent of the Lord for refuge. From there he asks for forgiveness from Solomon, which is granted.
This should be the end of it, but it isn’t. Adonijah sends Bathsheba to Solomon asking for Abishag to be his wife. Suleiman, who is suspicious of yet another coup attempt by Adungia, promptly “takes it down”.
To emphasize the point, the narrator needlessly adds, “And he died.”
Now, what about Abishag? we do not know. The narrator never lets her speak for herself. Her life was for Solomon. He may have found a husband for her at some point, or she may have been returned to her father. Most likely she stayed and Solomon decided her sexual fate, as he does with all the other women in his house.
Someone should tell HBO. “Game of Thrones” had nothing to do with ancient kings and the machinations of the Bible.
Russell E. Saltzman’s writings have appeared in numerous Catholic print and digital publications. A Lutheran pastor for 37 years, he became Roman Catholic in 2016.