Yahweh’s HESED to Abishag the Shunammite

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.

“The Shunammite”

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.


The Book of Ruth

Those who know me also know about my on-again-off-again obsession with writing a book about David and the rise of Israel during the twilight of the Late Bronze Age and the birth of the Early Iron Age. One day, I will find the time and energy to write that book; but in the meantime, where is a series of expositional articles I wrote on the Book of Ruth, which serves as an introduction to the rise of David.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Part 14

Part 15

Part 16

Part 17

Joab the Psycho

I have mentioned before that our Sunday School ideals of David’s kingdom are painfully mistaken. David formed an uneasy alliance between Judah and Ephraim, which Ephraim often tried to violate. The  Ephraimites claimed that they were meant to rule because Israel (Jacob) had chosen Joseph to lead and had specifically blessed Joseph’s younger son Ephraim (Genesis 48). This claim was in conflict with David’s claim to rule which came from both Israel’s proclamation (Genesis 49) and Samuel’s anointing (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Sheba’s Rebellion

In the wake of Absalom’s failed coup, David returned to Jerusalem to the acclaim of his fellow Judahites but the Israelites, led by Ephraim, complained about the way that Judah welcomed him home. (2 Samuel 19) This led to a rebellion by a man named Sheba b. Bichri (שבע בנ-בכרי) who is initially referred to as being from the tribe of Benjamin (2 Samuel 20:1) but then later Joab says he is from the country of Ephraim (2 Samuel 20:21). Both Benjamin and Ephraim were troubled regions under David, and Joab seemed to be more than willing to equate them.

Regardless where Sheba was from, he led Ephraim and the other ten tribes in a rebellion against Judah and David.

David’s Cousin Amasa

In response, David sent his new commander Amasa to gather the Judahite soldiers. The first time we encounter Amasa in the narrative, he is leading Absalom’s armies in rebellion against David.

How did he manage to switch sides? And who was Amasa, and what was his relationship to David and Joab?

Amasa was David’s nephew through David’s sister Abigail. According to 1 Chronicles 2:13-17, David had six brothers and two sisters – Zeruiah and Abigail. The two sisters were the daughters of Jesse’s wife Nahash, and the fact that she is identified this way probably indicates that she was not the mother of David and his brothers.

Zeruiah mothered Joab, Abishai and Asahel. These three sons of Zeruiah, which is how they are always referred to in the narrative, were some of David’s closest friends and most ferocious warriors. Abigail and her husband Ithra had one son we know of, Amasa, who first appears in the narrative as the commander of Absalom’s armies.

This would make Zeruiah and Abigail David’s half-sisters and Joab, his brothers, and their cousin Amasa David’s nephews. Easily the most dangerous of this group of cousins was Joab.

Blood-Thirsty Nephew

Keeping track of who everybody is in the David narrative is tough, especially when they keep killing each other! In reality, it is pretty simple. Just remember that Joab kills pretty much EVERYBODY.

Joab’s brother Asahel was killed by Saul’s uncle Abner (2 Samuel 2:18-23). When Abner turned on the House of Saul and joined David, Joab took revenge upon him. (2 Samuel 3:26-30).

Then, when Joab led David’s armies against David’s son Absalom, Joab defied David and killed Absalom despite the fact that Absalom was helpless and could have been captured easily. (2 Samuel 18:9-15)

Joab’s brother Abishai recommended killing all the leaders of the factions that opposed David, which drew David’s scorn. (2 Samuel 19:22)

Because he had killed Absalom against orders, David replaced Joab with Amasa – who had been commanding Absalom’s armies. David sent Amasa out to put together an army to stop Sheba’s rebellion, but Amasa faieds to appear at the appointed time. Due to the press of time, David dispatched Joab to find the army and route Sheba.

When Joab found Amasa and stabbed him in the gut, leaving him to bleed to death on the side of the road. The spectacle was so gruesome that eventually, someone dragged Amasa off the road and covered him with a cloak.

Joab then led the combined army against Sheba, who had holed up in the town of Beth-Maacah or “The house of Maacah.” The name Maacah should sound familiar. She was Absalom’s mother, and this may very well have been a stronghold with affinities to her and her father, the king of Geshur.

An old woman inside the city talks with Joab, the population dispatches Sheba and sends his head to Joab. That rebellion ends a bit abruptly.

Joab is a paradox. He is both David’s closest friend and often the only person to tell him the truth in the midst of tragedy, but he also kills people with an almost psychotic fervor. He is a strange character indeed – loyal to David but also absolutely ruthless in his own interpretation of what that loyalty means.

Because of Joab’s reckless method of dispatching enemies – both real and perceived – he severely handicaps David’s influence over the tribes of Israel. He kills a number of men who could have proven worthwhile allies – Abner and Amasa are the ones we know about – which puts David in difficult straits. Eventually, Joab will even try to subvert David’s succession in favor of David’s fourth and oldest remaining son, Adonijah.

It is hard to judge Joab in light of history. In one sense, he was the strong arm that made David’s pre-eminence possible. But his actions also weakened that pre-eminence. History is full of these confusing characters with multiple dimensions. When we try to make them two dimensional, we lose the complicated interactions that make them so important.

Ittai the Gittite: A “Little” Help from Your Friends

As David is fleeing east from Jerusalem because of his son Absalom’s betrayal, he meets an old friend Ittai the Gittite. Ittai is planning to come with David, and the following conversation occurs:

DAVID: Why would you come with us? Go back and stay with Absalom. You’re a guest here. You just got here yesterday. I can’t drag you into this. Why don’t you just stay here?

ITTAI: As YHWH lives, wherever you go, that’s where ITTAI goes. If you die, I die. If you live, I live.

DAVID: Oh, you’re definitely coming then! (2 Samuel 15:19-22, my paraphrase)

Gittite means “from Gath”, the same Philistine city that Goliath was from. We all know that David had a long history with Gath. Beside the fact that he killed Goliath, David also spent quite a bit of time working as a mercenary general for the Gittites. Apparently, Ittai had become David’s friend during his service in Gath, and as the Philistines were fading from power, Ittai had brought his 600 man unit over to David in Jerusalem.

So here is a Philistine working for David, commanding other Philistines. And then we read the most fascinating thing about Ittai in a little tag that the chronicler throws in at the end of verse 22: So Ittai the Gittite passed on with all his men and all the little ones who were with him. (Emphasis mine)

“All the little ones”?

That obviously doesn’t mean children, so what is the chronicler getting at?

Ittai was a giant, like Goliath. He was a mighty man who commanded a contingent of “little ones”. This might even be a little joke, like calling a 6’6″ man “tiny” and the entire unit might have been giants OR Ittai commanded a contingent of both giants (“all his men”) and regular sized men (“all the little ones”).

One way or the other, one of David’s closest confidants and allies was a giant Philistine from Gath. In fact, during the battle with Absalom, Ittai will hold a command equal to Joab and Abishai, David’s cousins. (2 Samuel 18:2)

Can things get any more ironic in David’s life? As a shepherd boy, he brought down the giant of Gath in a contest of champions. As an exiled king, he is depending on a giant of Gath to protect him.

And people wonder why I spend so much time studying David.

Absalom the Usurper

For bedtime reading, our family has been reading through the David cycle in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course, this part of the Scriptures is my bread-and-butter. One day, I will write a book on David and it will sell like five copies – AT LEAST.

But I digress.

The other night, we started reading about Absalom, David’s third son, in 2 Samuel 13-15. Without getting into details you can read for yourself, David’s oldest son Amnon raped and shamed his Absalom’s sister Tamar. Absalom waited for years for an opportunity, then he tricked and killed Amnon. To escape David’s retribution, Absalom fled into exile in the city-state of Geshur and stayed there until David’s cousin and counselor Joab talked David into recalling him.

Once Absalom was back home, he patiently planned and executed a coup and drove David into exile. Ultimately Joab killed Absalom and reinstalled David as king. The whole story spans over six chapters of 2 Samuel and involves quite a bit of intrigue – some real cloak and dagger stuff.

It is like an episode of Jersey Shore: Iron Age.

The Geshur Connection

Absalom was David’s son through a woman named Maacah, the daughter of the king (Hebrew MLK) of Geshur, which was probably a neo-Hittite city-state in what was known as Bashan. This was the region north of Israel in what is today the Golan Heights. During the time of Solomon, the region was absorbed into Israel’s domain, but appears to have broken free shortly thereafter and was absorbed into the kingdom Aram (or Syria).

Last week, I posted some thoughts about Uriah the Hittite and the relationship between the Hebrews and the neo-Hittites. After considering Absalom and his mother, I have a feeling that the relationship between these two people groups was stronger than I originally supposed.

A Little Bit about the Name

Absalom is not strictly a Hebrew name. It arises from two root words: Av or “father” and Shalom or “peace.” It could mean “my father is peace” or “my father’s peace.” The second is more likely, as Absalom was born from the treaty marriage of David and Maacah.

Hebrew writers love irony, and while shalom means peace a very similar word shilluwm means “revenge”. In ancient Hebrew, there are no written vowels so both words appear as שלום. Consider that the Absalom cycle is preceded by the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and that Absalom’s life was defined by killing his own half-brother in retribution for his sister’s rape.

The idea that someone named “my father’s peace” would attempt to usurp his father’s kingdom as retribution for his treatment of others was something worth writing about. The literary value of the entire cycle is enormous.

Absalom Had Like SIX Stepmothers!

If I read the book of Ruth right, David himself was descended from some powerful chieftains in Moab. A number of David’s first wive’s came from powerful people as well.

  • Ahinoam, his first wife, was relatively insignificant and he probably married her before ascending the throne. (Amnon’s mother)
  • His second wife, Abigail, was the widow (and we assume the successor) of Nabal – a powerful man in Carmel, which is in northwestern Palestine.
  • Absalom’s mother was the daughter of the MLK of Geshur, which I have already noted.
  • His fourth and fifth wives, Haggith and Abital are unknown; and his sixth wife, Eglah, is simply called “David’s wife. (2 Samuel 3:2-5)
  • He also recalled Michal, Saul’s daughter who had been betrothed to him, but married another man. David reclaimed him as a wife, although whether he ever consummated that relationship could be a matter of discussion. (2 Samuel 3:12-16, 6:21-23)

Out of his first seven wives, David married at least three women of influence in the region. He married a number of other women, bedded even more concubines and had many other children. David was a playah.

His marriages were primarily about treaties with neighboring powers, consolidating strength in the vacuum left by the weakness of Egypt’s New Kingdom, the collapse of the Hittite state, and the disorganized but rising threat of the Assyrians to the northeast. David was attempting to build a significant power in the Levant, and you did that by extending peace to your neighboring city-states.

We often read and translate the Hebrew word מלכ or MLK as king, and rightly so. King is the closest English word that we have for it, but we should be aware that MLK was applied to the rulers of great empires as well as the chieftains of small people groups and essentially the mayors of city-states.

Absalom’s Play

When Absalom killed his half-brother Amnon, he was making a move to claim David’s throne. Amnon was the oldest brother son. That Amnon was an incestuous scumbag who raped his own sister and then abused her simply gave Absalom an excuse to act. (I think most translations handle this passage badly, but no matter how you read it, raping your sister was considered a detestable thing then just as it is now.)

There is no absolute indication that Amnon was David’s chosen successor, in fact the text of 2 Samuel seems to indicate that David had already chosen Bathseba’s young son Solomon (or Jedidiah as Nathan the prophet called him) as successor. But if you were going to seize power in a household with as many royal sons as David had, you started with the oldest son; and it is worth noting that when Absalom kills Amnon, David fears that Absalom has killed all of his sons (2 Samuel 13:30).

Today, we think of monarchy through the lens of the European idea of primogeniture – the oldest son inherits everything. It is a bit shocking to discover that this practice is a relatively recent innovation. In ancient Palestine, a son would be chosen to receive the BECHORAH, which is often translated as “birthright” in English translations. This was not necessarily the oldest son. It could be the oldest son of a chosen wife (as in the case of Joseph and Isaac), or the youngest son even (as in the case of David). It could also be bought and sold (as in the case of Esau and Jacob).

BECHORAH was a place of honor, but it was not necessarily for the first son. We could translate it as “made first among” and we would not be far off from the meaning.

If you were going to attempt to take the BECHORAH by force, you would have to start with your oldest brother. Killing the chosen successor (Solomon) would just bring down the king’s wrath and guarantee that one of your other brothers would take the throne. But if you killed your oldest brother with a valid excuse, you would be allowed to live and continue your work. This is exactly what happens with Absalom.

He kills Amnon and then claims he was acting as Tamar’s kinsman redeemer (which technically was David’s job as her father). That gives him the moral high ground against David, at least in the eyes of the people. Absalom then leveraged his position to solidify his place as a “righteous” man and overthrows his father who the people perceive as somewhat unrighteous.

This is hard for us to grasp because we think of David as this fantastic guy. In reality, his personal life was erratic at best. In this particular situation, it is pretty obvious that he has lost his grip on what is happening, and he is practically allowing Joab to run the kingdom for him.

Why Include This Narrative?

The narrative is far from flattering to David, and we must pause to realize that there is no religious reason to include it in the text. It certainly does not cast David in a positive light. So, why include it?

This is not a case of the righteous suffering for righteousness’ sake, but rather a king weakened by his own personal sins being ousted by a man who believed he was doing what was right. Absalom was not acting wickedly when he ousted David – not in his mind at any rate. David had failed the kingdom, and even he realizes that perhaps this is judgment upon him for his failures (2 Samuel 15:25-26).

Set aside all moralistic and religious interpretations, and you realize that this narrative serves a vital purpose in the story of God’s people. This narrative as well as the later Adonijah narrative (1 Kings 1-2) serve to explain why Israel was not a dominant nation at the time of its foundation. The alliances that could have ultimately created a strong nation with allies at its borders fell apart. Instead, Israel was the plump fruit waiting for the right usurper to pluck it, and this is exactly what happens in Israel and Judah. The nation divides after Solomon and remains two competing principalities for most of the next two centuries.

Judah particularly would struggle to find a foothold in the international scene until several centuries later. This would not have happened if the internal strife of David and his sons had not occurred. Although Solomon sought out other alliances (like his alliance with Egypt) to compensate, they ultimately failed him.

Uriah the Hittite

2 Samuel 11 contains a story that pretty much any Sunday School kid learned. King David commits adultery with a young woman named Bathsheba and they conceive a child. He then has her husband killed to cover up the sin. Of course, in chapter 12, Nathan the prophet confronts David and he repents.

Being a nerd, the part of the story that interested me was never Bathsheba and David. After all, that was just what happened back then. I was intrigued by her husband’s name – Uriah the Hittite.

What was a Hittite doing in David’s court? How did he manage to integrate himself into the Hebrew court enough that he was marrying a girl who lived in the palace complex? Just how stupid are Hittites that they can’t figure out the king is sleeping with their wives?

A little historical research reveals a lot. The Hittite kingdom fell apart in 1180 BCE as part of the Bronze Age Collapse. The encroachment of the Assyrians to their east eventually brought about a fragmentation of the Hittite sphere into a number of smaller kingdoms or city-states, largely under Assyrian domination or influence. The majority of the Hittite military seems to have headed elsewhere, serving as mercenaries in various other power bases.

Of course, the David narrative occurs two centuries after the collapse of the Hittite kingdom, so it is very likely that Uriah’s family had continued their military tradition and Hittite identity in the intervening years. His name means YHWH is light, so it is highly unlikely that Uriah was some kind of foreign mercenary. The worship of YHWH was restricted to the Judean highlands.

Do a quick search and you will discover that the Hittites are intertwined with the history of the Judean highlands.

  • Abraham purchased his family gravesite from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 49).
  • The Hittites are said to dwell in the mountains with the Amorites and Jebusites (Numbers 13:29, Joshua 11:3).
  • Judges notes that the Hittites remained in the land when the Hebrews moved in (Judges 3:5).
  • David has at least one other Hittite in his retinue (1 Samuel 26:6).

The presence of the Hittites in the Judean highlands and the fact that David seemed to associate with them lends to the very real possibility that these Hittites were in fact integrated into the Judean culture. They apparently spoke the same language, worshiped the same god and were considered part of society. Both Uriah and Ahimelech (1 Samuel 26:6) had the king’s confidence.

It is fairly clear that one group of Hittites wound up in the Judean highlands rather than in one of the neo-Hittite kingdoms that popped up after 1180 BCE. At least some of them became a part of the Judean society, although they maintained the title “Hittite” – probably in reference to their military prowess.

It would have actually have been a little odd if David did not have Hittites among his men. They were trained fighters who knew iron, which was something David was introducing during his reign. Men like Ahimelech and Uriah were vital to David’s rise in power.

Think about it. If you’re fighting a bunch of disorganized Canaanites or even opposing Ammonite cities, wouldn’t you want some Hittites helping you?

It is likely that Uriah’s marriage with Bathsheba was part of his compensation for service – a compensation to be claimed later and not presently. The indication of 2 Samuel 11 is actually that she was very young and had just gone through her first ritual purification, which means she was probably no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. Uriah had not had an opportunity to consummate his marriage with her, which is why David was in such a hurry to get him to do so. Otherwise, the Hittite contingent of his army would probably turn on him.

Everyone assumes David wanted to cover his sin because he did not want to get caught. I think it more likely that David knew his impropriety would prompt the Hittites to join his enemies and he would lose the advantage they gave him. David was no idiot.

Lame Men at the Table of the King

Last night, we read 2 Samuel 9 with our daughter. It is the account of King David taking his predecessor’s grandson Mephibosheth into his care. It is a beautifully composed story that transcends times and cultures.

Here is David, king by divine appointment and public acclamation. He has successfully defeated or pacified all competitors. He has established his capital at Jerusalem and is working toward unifying the religious life of the Hebrews for the first time in their history. And yet his chronicler devotes and entire section of the story to his care for Mephibosheth.

According to 2 Samuel 4:4, Mephibosheth was crippled at the age of five. Hearing the news of the death of Saul and Jonathan (Mephibosheth’s father) at the Battle of Gibeah, his nurse was carrying him away when she fell on him and most likely broke his back and left him a perapaligic.

Although we cannot be completely certain, the story in 2 Samuel 9 takes place at least seven years later, and probably closer to twenty years later. David has the time to seek out Saul’s family, and he finds out that a servant named Ziba has been secretly sheltering Mephibosheth. David sends for the young man and seeing him, he grants him a special place in the kingdom because of the love David had for his father Jonathan (2 Samuel 2:25-26).

It is a truly touching story – one that is worth far more than the couple of minutes it will take you to read it. David extends something more than grace to someone who he could, by rights, have killed. Mephibosheth was a potential rival.

But David’s love for Jonathan overrode any thoughts of succession and rule. When Mephibosheth came before him, David did not see the grandson of his enemy Saul. He saw only the broken body of the son of his greatest friend. For Jonathan’s sake, David gives Mephibosheth far more than he should have expected from him.

In the same sense, God gives us grace for Jesus’ sake. The Great King forgives the sins of the many who deserve nothing from Him – but not for their own sake. It is the Other’s merits that God sees when he looks at our broken bodies and shattered existences. Although we are damaged and in hiding, he exalts us to his table.

When we read the words of Psalm 23, we should see this moment.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

For some reason, when I read that line about “prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” I always thought it was some kind of boastful moment. I saw it as God feeding me in front of people who hate me, and I would be able to look across at them and say, “I win.”

But that’s not what is in view at all. We are Mephibosheth – unworthy of a seat at the table. But God invites us to eat there, as one of the many gathered there. My enemies are not those who have something against me, but those I had something against. I was God’s enemy; and he invited me to His table.

Now, I picture David singing this song with Mephibosheth sitting beside him. He sings it knowing that he is as unworthy to be king as Mephibosheth is to sit at the king’s table. It becomes a celebration not of victory but of our humbled circumstance – paraplegics sitting at the table of the Mighty King.

It is a powerful story indeed.