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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Abishag: Beauty contestant and bedwarmer

King David was old, and cold. So his servants looked for a woman to lie in the bed as a human bed warmer. Abishag was chosen for this task. I Kings 1:1 - 2:25 tells us all we are going to know about Abishag.
The servants did not look for the warmest young virgin. (They didn't look for a warm dog, or a warm male, either.) Instead of looking for a girl with a perpetual fever, or just hot skin, they looked for the most beautiful. Why? We don't know. The most likely explanation is that they were hoping that her beauty would arouse the King sexually, which, presumably, would have warmed him physically. If that was their motive, it didn't work. The Bible specifically says that David "had no intimate relations with her." (1:4) The second beauty contest in the Bible is described in Esther 2:1-18. A previous post is on a subject related to the winner of that contest.

Servanthood: sometimes humiliating
It is hard to imagine a more humiliating job. Lie in the bed with an old man, and warm him up. I doubt seriously that that was the life that Abishag imagined for herself, growing up in Shunem. David probably drooled, at least when asleep. He may have been incontinent. Maybe he snored. Perhaps he was hard of hearing. He probably didn't know much about the subjects that a young woman would have liked to discuss. Perhaps he droned on and on, to anyone who would listen, about killing Goliath, and told other stories from his days of glory, over and over. He was not the Old Testament version of the knight in shining armor that young women supposedly long for. The Bible doesn't say so, but it is possible that Abishag was required to remove some or all of her clothing, so as to be a more effective bedwarmer. However, the Bible says nothing about Abishag's reaction to all this, except that "she took care of the king and waited on him," (1:4) and "attended him" (1:15). It's hard to imagine a more striking example of servanthood.

Let's don't forget Jesus, the even more striking example. Whereas Abishag got promoted to the palace, He was temporarily demoted from creator and sustainer of the universe (Colossians 1:16-17) to a servant's role (Philippians 2:6-11). While God does not call us to do something that is not for our ultimate good, He has not promised that we won't be called to humble, perhaps even humiliating, duties. When accepted in good grace, as coming from Him, they can be the most rewarding ones.

Someone else's tool
David's son Adonijah was a proud man, who coveted the kingship. He had himself put forward as king in David's place, while David was still alive. (David had, with God's blessing, already selected Solomon as his successor.) So David was persuaded to have Solomon crowned before his death, and Adonijah's rebellion fell apart. The persuasion took place in David's bedroom, with Abishag standing by, taking care of David. Adonijah was not killed at the time.

After David passed away, Adonijah asked Bathsheba, Solomon's mother, to do him a favor. That was to ask her son, King Solomon, to give him Abishag as his wife. Had they fallen in love? Probably not. It's hard to believe that Adonijah spent much time in David's bedroom, or that Abishag had had much time for courtship. Adonijah had probably heard of Abishag's reputation, and perhaps seen her. (Was she at the funeral? Would a servant have been allowed there?) No doubt, becoming the wife of a son of David would have been a major step up for a servant who had served as a human bedwarmer, whether or not love was involved. At any rate, Solomon saw this as an attempt, on Adonijah's part, to assert himself, and had him killed. (Taking a deposed king's wives was a sign that you were taking the former king's place. See II Samuel 16:21)

So Abishag, a servant girl, was a witness to palace politics, and even part of palace politics, while she was just doing her job. Sometimes that, too, could happen to us. We don't like it when it happens. We like to be in control. Jesus wasn't always in control, either. He was obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51). Before that, it seems, He was absolutely dependent on them, like any other baby. We, too, can be pawns in someone else's game, not in control, but eventually triumph, so long as our own motives are to be Christ's humble servant.

We don't know what else may have happened to Abishag. Perhaps she married someone in Solomon's court. Perhaps she became one of Solomon's many wives. Perhaps she went back home to Shunem. I like to think that she is beautiful still, but has gone to where there are no beauty contests, to serve a Higher King. If so, my prayer is that I join her, and the host of others.

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November 24, 2008. I corrected one grammatical mistake, added links to the scripture used, added some tags, and added the line below to this post on this date.

Thanks for reading!

* * * * *

On June 8, 2011, a kind friend referred me to an article, partly humorous, on Abishag in the Biblical Archaeology Review.


Bonnie said...

Interesting post, Martin, thanks.

Ish said...

I only wish I could be as selfless as Abishag, with her humiliating journey. But I suppose that one chooses what to live for. One can live for money, or things, or entertainment (all selfish things). Or one can choose to live for something, or someone greater than self. And maybe the journey of life is defined by that which we live for. If we live for self, than our lives can never be bigger, or more valuable than self. However if we live for something greater than self then maybe just maybe our lives will have an importance that transcends self.

Jackie Holden said...

I enjoyed reading this....

Roland. said...

I've been wondering for the past few days why Solomon reacted the way he did to Adonijah's request saying in 1 Kings 2:22, "Ask for him also the kingdom--for he is my older brother--even for him, for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah!" Solomon was livid and offended. Thankfully, your comment and reference to Absalom's taking of David's harem in 2 Sam. 16:21 helped clear that up. Given the cultural custom (new king takes old king's wives) and the fact that Adonijah was the older brother, it would certainly have cast doubt on David's true wishes for Adonijah to have David's last "wife." Thanks for your post--it was most helpful.

God Bless.

Martin LaBar said...

July 31, 2008: Thanks, Roland!

It's great to know that someone may occasionally read a post which is over three years old!

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for this commentary on abishag. I have been looking for caregiver relationships in the Bible for a caregiver support group I faciliate. It seems Abishag was the first recorded home health aide! I didn't follow Adonijah's request for Abishag, your certainly made that clear. Thanks so much!

Martin LaBar said...

November 25, 2008: Thank you for your comment, Anonymous, whoever you are. I am glad this post was helpful. I thank God for helping me write it.

I guess there's a good reason why blog posts are left available for years after they are posted.

I should add caregiving to the tags on this post.

Taneika said...

Interesting post! I was wondering/thinking about Abishag today and I ran across your blog!!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comment, Taneika.

There's probably not much out there on Abishag.

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Anonymous said...

I know that this is an old post, but I just wanted to say thanks for it. I bear Abishag as one of my middle names and am always looking for further expansion on my namesake.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Laoith. Part of your name? Amazing.

I'm glad when a six-year-old post gets read and commented on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Martin,

Thank you for your very interesting blog post. Sometimes it would be nice to have a little more information on some of the characters who have a short mention in the Bible.

I think, given the implications of Adonijah's request to marry Abishag that her ultimate role would have been as one of Solomon's wives or perhaps one of his concubines, not the wife of someone in his court.
For her to marry anyone else would have carried the same implications as a marriage to Adonijah.

Given her role as David's last "wife" I suspect that being one of Solomon's concubines would have been an unacceptable "step down" for court etiquette. Though that's only a guess. And, given Solomon's love of beautiful women... I hope he chose her as a wife.
Regardless, I'm sure she was well taken care of. I would like to think she had the pleasure of raising her own little children, but I guess we'll never know.

Martin LaBar said...

No, we'll never know.

I hope we see her in heaven!

Thanks, Carolyn.

Anonymous said...

Your article comes up in the first few after a simple aearch on Abishag.

David's great sin was with Batsheba who was also a "fair" woman.

I think this is to illustrate purity in a repentant David who had suffered for what he had done to Urijah The Hittite.

The young woman was left "undefiled" so we can be sure that her conscience was clear and that marriage would always be honourable for her, not having previously "known" a man.

It might also illustrate The Saviour's (Great David's Greater Son) pure love for the Church, undefiled, harmless, spotless, without reproach, cleansed by the One who bore "the iniquities of us all."

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Anonymous, whoever you are.

And thanks for your thoughts. The last paragraph of your comment is especially interesting.