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When we shift from Samuel to Kings, we start with this fairly benign story:

King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. His courtiers said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your Majesty and be his attendant; and let her lie in your bosom, and my lord the king will be warm.” So they looked for a beautiful girl throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite and brought her to the king. The girl was exceedingly beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and waited upon him; but the king was not intimate with her.—1st Kings 1:1-4 (NJPS)

She is mentioned once more incidentally (1st Kings 1:15). In the next chapter, after David's death, Adonijah asks Bathsheba to request Solomon to give him Abishag as a wife (1st Kings 2:13-18). She then delivers the request to Solomon:

So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him about Adonijah. The king rose to greet her and bowed down to her. He sat on his throne; and he had a throne placed for the queen mother, and she sat on his right. She said, “I have one small request to make of you, do not refuse me.” He responded, “Ask, Mother; I shall not refuse you.” Then she said, “Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to your brother Adonijah as wife.” The king replied to his mother, “Why request Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Request the kingship for him! For he is my older brother, and the priest Abiathar and Joab son of Zeruiah are on his side.”—1st Kings 2:19-22 (NJPS)

But why is asking for Abishag equivalent in Solomon's eyes to asking for the kingship? I see two options (neither of which seem compelling):

  1. Abishag's close relationship with David would link her (possible) husband to the throne.
  2. If Adonijah can manipulate Bathsheba, he could become the real power behind the throne.

After this, the text (and all of Scripture) cease to mention the woman. So what was her importance?

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3 Answers 3

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According to the Talmud, certain things specifically associated with the king’s person (his horse, e.g.) are forbidden ever to be used by a commoner. Specifically, the widow of a king is forbidden to marry anyone but another king. And if the next king is his son, she can’t marry him either—the laws in Leviticus still apply.

Avishag was not married to David, and so was not forbidden (by the laws of incest) from marrying any of David’s sons, but by the rules of kingship it was at least inappropriate for her, as David’s (literal) bed-warmer, to be married to anyone but another king. Had Solomon allowed the marriage, it would have seemed an implicit acknowledgement of Adonijah’s claim to the throne.

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Interesting. So it sounds like my option #1 wasn't as far from the mark as I had imagined. I suppose Abishag was important because she was neither fully David's (so a more foolish heir than Solomon might have let her go) but still closely associate with him. This also gives insight into the question of David's concubines who were violated by Absalom. –  Jon Ericson Apr 12 '12 at 16:21

At the outset 1 Kings, King David is near death and he hasn't explicitly chosen a successor. David's first three children, Amnon, Absalom, and the unnamed child from II Samuel 12 are dead, so Adonijah is next in line for the throne. Adonijah thinks he will be king and he has an entourage, but he doesn't have the support of the whole nation (1 Kings 1:5-10). Solomon is a possible heir and he has support as well, but he is only 12 years old and there is no obvious reason to prefer him over Adonijah. This question of succession threatens to throw the nation of Israel into civil war upon David's death.

According to the narrative, David's servants give him Abishag as a maidservant to "keep him warm." A maidservant is a ridiculous way of keeping David warm when they could have just as well given him more blankets or a better fire. Although the text isn't explicit about this, it's fairly obvious that Abishag is given to David in the hopes of birthing another son that will be a clear choice for the next king that the nation can rally behind.

In short:

  1. Abishag the Shunammite is important because until David finally chose Solomon as his successor, she was supposed to be the mother of the next king of Israel.
  2. Throughout II Samuel, David's kingdom was plagued with rebellions and fissures. Solomon rejects Bathsheba's request because as long as Adonijah is alive and identifies as part of the royal family he is a threat to the unity of the monarchy.
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To Support the claim that Abishag was assigned to perform the act of bed warming and not create another possible heir to David's throne, I refer to the Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible by Herbert Lockyer Sr-Editor. Abishag's entry reads:

a young woman from Shunem (ancient Israel)employed by David's physicians to care for him in his old age (1Kings 1:1-4,15) The treatment implies that through physical contact Abishag's youth could revive a dying David. The treatment failed.

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Thank you for this information. Can you say something about how that relates to the kingship? Why is asking for her equivalent to asking for the kingship if she was meant to be, effectively, a nurse? –  Gone Quiet Aug 30 '13 at 3:01

protected by Jon Ericson Sep 13 '13 at 14:21

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