Abishag the Shunnamite

1 Kings 1: 1-27, 2:13-25

Abishag ©MicahHayns

The Award for the best name in the Old Testament goes to…

Abishag the Shunammite!*

She also had undoubtedly the strangest job in the entire Bible.

King David was very much past his prime. He was now an infirm old man and was so unwell that he couldn’t even keep himself warm at night. His servants tried to help by piling blankets on him, but this didn’t make any difference. They were worried for his life and so they came up with a plan.

They went out into the countryside of Israel and found a beautiful young virgin girl, probably around 12 years old. She was called Abishag and she was a Shunnamite from Isaachar.  

It was an interesting role description to say the least.

Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm.

1 Kings 1.2
David and Abishag by Pedro Américo, 1879

Abishag’s role was to care for the King during the day, and at night she was to lie next to him to keep him warm! Thankfully the text clarifies one aspect:

The girl was very beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually.

1 Kings 1.4

Like any lady-in-waiting or butler in a royal household Abishag would have seen a great deal from the sidelines without anyone paying her much attention, and she was in King David’s room to witness the drama over who would succeed the King to the throne.

King David’s eldest surviving son was Adonijah and he, having garnered support from a rogue priest (Abiathar), had announced himself as King without David’s blessing. He held a large celebration banquet with numerous royal officials and it seemed as if he would become the next king. David though had promised the throne to his younger son, Solomon, whose mother was Bathsheba.

A number of deathbed audiences ensued with both Bathsheba and Nathan pleading with the ailing King David to take control of the situation. He eventually does and Solomon was anointed by him as the next King. David died soon after and Solomon became the King of Israel. Abishag witnessed the whole thing from the edge of the room.

A little while later the ousted prince Adonijah returned to the palace and pleaded with Bathsbeba for the hand of Abishag the Shunnamite in marriage. She takes his request to Solomon who is furious:

 And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! 

1 Kings 2.22

Why is he so angry?

It’s likely that Solomon realised that Adonijah’s proposal was a last ditch attempt to obtain the throne. It showed that Abishag was considered part of David’s harem, and therefore a marriage to her would have been politically expedient for him. It backfired badly as Solomon was so enraged he had Adonijah killed and the Priest Abiathar removed from the priesthood.

We don’t know what happened to Abishag after David’s death. It is likely that she remained part of King Solomon’s Harem, which at around 700 wives and 300 concubines was rather large!

Reflection and Prayer

Abishag the Shunammite had a memorable name and was set apart in King David’s household for a particular role (even though that role was bizarre and is uncomfortable for us to read or imagine every being acceptable), but there were countless other unnamed women who were just one of the 1000 wives and concubines of King Solomon. What must their lives have been like? It’s very hard for us to imagine isn’t it.

As we reflect on Abishag’s story let’s remember in prayer all those who care for the elderly and those at the end of their lives: particularly nurses, home carers, those who work in nursing homes, hospitals and hospices. It must be particularly difficult at the moment and especially hard when family members aren’t able to be with their loved ones in their final days. I hope those in the UK joined the nation in #clapforcarers at 8pm last night – how wonderful to see!

A prayer for Nurses:

*my husband’s Joke..
Abishag the Shunnamite… or she might not!

Author: clarehayns

College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator of Christ Church, Oxford | Mum of three boys | wife of a juggler and magician | Council of Reference of ZANE - http://www.zane-zimbabweanationalemergency.com | enjoys board games, dog walking, films, eating out.

2 thoughts on “Abishag the Shunnamite”

  1. One might be excused for thinking, of Davod’s Harem consisted of such vast number of ladies, why did they have to seek outsde help?


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