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Women in the Old Testament: Abishag the Shunammite

Thursday, August 30, 2012
Abishag the Shunammite makes her appearance in the twilight years of King David’s life: a young woman, she cherishes and serves the dying King, whose enfeebled condition - lying in bed, unable to get warm, and surely close to death - contrasts with the beauty and energy of the youthful virgin. Somewhat passively (and no doubt with considerable horror), Abishag finds herself caught up in the royal politics concerning succession. The heir-apparent to the throne, Adonijah, David’s eldest remaining son after the deaths of Absalom and Amnon, inappropriately attempts to seize power from the weakened King, and is ultimately passed over in favour of the younger Solomon. After Solomon’s accession, a smarting Adonijah asks for Abishag’s hand in marriage. Bathsheba, the Queen Mother, intercedes for him with the King, but Solomon responds by having Adonijah put to death. 

At first glance, we might feel rather sorry for Adonijah. Abishag is, after all, a woman whose beauty is renowned throughout the land, and it seems quite natural that Adonijah - who has lost his inheritance - would want her hand in marriage. The earlier story of Absalom’s rebellion (2 Samuel 16:21-22), however, reveals the true nature of Adonijah’s request: the ‘possession’ of the royal harem was an oblique claim to the Davidic throne, and thus an act of treason against Solomon, and of blasphemy against the will of God expressed through the prophet Nathan. It is interesting to speculate why Bathsheba was apparently willing to make intercession for Adonijah, despite the insult it implied to her son the King. One theory could suggest tension in the royal harem between the Queen Mother Bathsheba and Haggith, the mother of Adonijah. Haggith too would have lost considerable status as a result of her son’s folly. There is, however, no evidence within the text that Haggith is involved in any way in Adonijah’s rather inept political manoeuvring. 

Abishag’s story is written in few words, but it is easy to imagine that she would have been a very significant figure in the last days of David’s reign. Conscious of this, some readers have sought to extend her role beyond where she is explicitly mentioned, finding her as the one beloved by Solomon in the Song of Songs (1:5, 6:13). The story of a May-December romance, of a beautiful young woman caught up in the politics of an Ancient monarchy, ending in the death of her hapless suitor, has of course excited writers of fiction over the centuries. Perhaps we can even see a reflection of Abishag, the jilted virginal bride, in Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. These fictional expansions should not be allowed to detract, however, from the very human and personal relationship that Abishag shared with David. Perhaps what makes her most extraordinary is also that which makes her profoundly ordinary: that she loves, that she cherishes and that she serves a fellow human being in his time of profound need. We do not have to look to the ancient world to see such extraordinary lives of heroic charity: a brief glance around the pews of our Churches will no doubt reveal many such ‘hidden’ saints.

Oliver James Keenan OP


Barry commented on 12-Aug-2020 09:30 AM
Beautifully told very well explained. Thank you.

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