Three weeks ago, I began a teaching series at Bedford Road on Solomon: The Tarnished Crown. Yesterday, I taught on Adonijah, the son of David who attempted to usurp the throne from Solomon.
There is never enough time to talk about all the people who pass through the biblical narrative. I would never finish a series if I looked at everyone’s life in-depth. That being said, there is one character that really only flits through the narrative of 1 Kings 1-2 who I think gets ignored.
As David lay shivering and dying, his advisors bring a young woman to him. She lies in the bed with him, serving as a human hot water bottle to keep him warm. Her name is Abishag, composed of two words – Avi, “my father,” and Shag, “the wanderer.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, names mean something. The God of the Scriptures is revealed to be Yahweh – “the one who is.” The great leader of the Exodus is Moses – “drawn out.” When Solomon was born, the prophet Nathan called him Jedidiah – “the beloved of Yahweh.” What does Abishag’s name tell us?
“My Father Is a Wanderer”
Shag is not wandering in the sense of just meandering. It is often used to reference straying and getting lost. The Psalmist prays, “With my whole heart I will seek you; let me not wander (SHAG) from your commandments!” (Psalm 119:10)
This at least hints that Abishag’s father was not faithful to her mother, perhaps a wayward, drunkard husband or a soldier who used her and then went off to the arms of other women during other campaigns.
If this is true, then what does it say about Abishag’s role in David’s last days? A fatherless young woman seeking to make her way in a harsh world where women were often mistreated and regarded as little more than livestock? We can only imagine.
Abishag was from Shunam, which appears only occasionally in the biblical narrative. But during the Philistine wars which found David serving the Philistines against Saul, the Philistines encamped there (1 Sam 28:4). The town was on the border of Israelite and Philistine lands. It was on the edge of the lands of Issachar, a frontier town if you will.
“A Young Woman, Very Beautiful”
The word “young woman (na-‘a-reh) is used to refer to a woman of marriageable age, usually a virgin (Gen 24, Deut 22). Because of the way the word is used, it is likely that she was not bethrothed to be married, which means Abishag was probably a teenager. Growing up in a home without a father as her protector (which means her mother may have had a less than savory occupation), it is likely that she was destined to spend her life either married off to someone she would not love so that her family could be provided for or plying her beauty as a prostitute.
What is more, Abishag is very beautiful (yepeh ‘ad-m’od). In fact, when David’s counselors search the kingdom, she is the most beautiful woman they can find. That she is both young and beautiful but unattached is again an indication of just how low her mother’s status must have been.
HESED Even Here?
With all that Abishag may have been destined to endure on her border town home, with her checkered parentage and great beauty, how extraordinary that she is lifted to the bedroom of King David? And how extraordinary that although she lies in the bed with him and serves him, David never sullies her sexually? This young, beautiful woman (and presumably her mother and family) were brought to Jerusalem and made part of the royal household.
Then, when Adonijah wanted to use her to rise to power, Solomon’s wisdom protects her. She is spared a marriage with a selfish, malevolent prince by Solomon’s decree.
We never know what happens to her after that. Historical precedence is probably that she remained in David’s house and was cared for as one of his widows, even though they never consummated a relationship. This was not uncommon in ancient kingdoms.
So, Abishag receives from both David and Solomon a grace she could have never hoped for. She deserved nothing from them; but they (whether they even knew it or not) became agents of Yahweh’s HESED toward her.