Abishag and King David
1 Kings 1:1-4 1 When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. 2 So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.”3 Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. 4 The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her.
Linen cloth recovered from Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea.
The account of Abishag is true and a part of Biblical history. The dialogue is a creation of the author, intended to bring this story to life and not to be attributed as part of the Bible. The listed Scriptures are the actual mentions of Abishag in the Holy Bible. The rest is my imagination.
“Where is the girl?” asked Yiftach. He had been out in the fields with the flocks all day and was tired. His daughter always had a cool pitcher of water or mint tea waiting for him. Abishag was his favorite child and though he tried to be discreet, everyone knew he loved her best of his seven children. Even the sons were less in Yiftach’s eyes than the youngest and last child.
Or-Lee, his wife answered, “Abishag is not feeling well. She is in the women’s tent today.” She looked aslant at her husband. His eyes grew large and his swarthy face paled a bit. He swallowed so that Or-Lee heard it.
“Oh no!’ he exclaimed. “Is it….well you know?” She nodded and Yiftach groaned. His baby was now a woman and their relationship must change forever. He had always allowed Abishag to remain in the tent with him and her mother as the little ones always did. But now that she had reached womanhood he must keep a proper distance. And she must be wed. Abishag would bring a large bride price because of her beauty. Men had approached Yiftach for years now requesting he look favorably upon them as a future son.
The youngest daughter had the blackest hair in the region, in the sun it shone with blue lights and curled softly over her shoulders and down her back, reaching the bend of the knees. And her eyes sparkled with life and laughter while intelligence shone from the almond shaped brown depths. The girl was slender as a reed and though she spent much time in the sun, her skin was golden brown and not parched and dry. Indeed she was a prize to be highly desired.
One young man in particular, Shimiy, had returned again and again requesting Abishag as a wife. Yiftach had always put him off but now he seemed to be the best of the lot. He lived here in Shunem, worked hard, was clean and handsome of face and he cared for his widowed mother. Yiftach’s mind whirled like a pebble in a sandstorm. But, enough, it could be settled later when his daughter left the women’s tent.
Abishag gripped her stomach and bit her lip to keep from crying out. The cramps were as bad as when she ate green apples as a little girl. Then too, she felt that her insides were twisting out of her body. A soft hand and a cool cloth were suddenly on her forehead. “It gets better in time with most women.” The sweet faced lady knelt behind Abishag and massaged her shoulders gently. “The first few cycles are the most painful until your body gets used to it.”
“I could never get used to this,” Abishag groaned. “I feel like death might be better than this every month.”
The woman smiled. “This is nothing. Wait until you are in labor and bringing forth a child. Now THAT is painful.”
“I saw my mother’s sister give birth. It was terrible and went on for three days. She almost died. But surely it isn’t worse than this.” The other woman had three borne children and knew the truth so she just grinned.
“Let’s not talk about it right now. This is your first menstrual cycle and all of us here will show you what to do. And your mother has told you what to expect, I know.” And they took care of the lovely young woman who was frightened and in pain until time came for her to be fully cleansed and she returned to her mother and father.
“The time has arrived that you must be married,” Yiftach stated as the family reclined at the evening meal her first evening back. “I shall begin to seek in earnest and it will be done by the time of harvest.”
“But Father!” Abishag wailed and threw herself into his arms. He pushed her away almost angrily.
“You dishonor us both girl!” he exclaimed. “You are no longer a child but a woman and must conduct yourself accordingly. It is unseemly to wallow on your father this way.”
The girl sobbed, but kept a proper distance. The rest of the family watched in surprise. Yiftach had always pandered to the girl’s every whim. This was certainly a time of change and everyone looked incredulous and a bit relieved to see their father taking control.
One year and two more seasons passed and Abishag was still unwed and unlikely to be anytime soon. The young man, Shimiy, had paid court to Abishag and she had grown to love him deeply. He was a gifted singer and played the lyre for Abishag while singing soft words of love that caused her to blush and her eyes to lower modestly. The lovers walked along the coasts, picking up shells and fall into the fields where she gathered wildflowers which were braided and made into a crown for her head.
“I can never give you a real crown, my love.” Shimiy told her as they quietly sat resting. “However you will always be my own personal queen and our home shall be lovely as the King’s palace with you there. The walls will have woven hangings and the beds covered with fine linens and silks fit for you to lie upon. And I shall lie with you and we will create many children. Your name will be remembered throughout history as the woman who was loved more than any other.”
Abishag treasured his words and saved them in her heart. At night, alone on her cot, she took them out and savored the gentleness therein. The girl who cried and protested at the loss of her childhood was becoming eager to experience life as a woman. “I have no desire for crowns and palace life,” she answered to Shimiy. “I pledge you my troth and there shall never be another in my heart. You are the one Jehovah has destined to be my husband.
A time was set for them to be married and preparations proceeded. Family members and neighbors in the community were amused to see the change in the young woman. She had transformed almost overnight into a dignified and hardworking student who shadowed her mother and learned the duties she would soon need to know.
Then Shimiy had grown weak with headaches that brought him to his knees. A myriad of physicians had not been able to give him relief and before long, Shimiy lost vision, became blind and lost the ability to walk. The last person he saw before darkness claimed him was his beloved Abishag. By the next harvest time, he was gone and all the tears in the world would not bring him back.
Abishag wept in her mother’s lap like a little child and vowed to remain unwed. Shimiy was the only man for her and she refused to even consider another. As the seasons changed she passed time in work and in prayer. The exuberant girl was now a gentle and subdued woman who walked as if she were broken inside. And indeed she was. A shattered heart pressed her every breath and she hurt all the time. “I am a widow now.” Abishag told her family. Her parents shared concerned glances over her head.
“That is ridiculous. You are only a young girl. You will love again. And many marry who do not even know their betrothed and go on to have a satisfying marriage.” Her father spoke sternly. But the sad girl refused to meet other men and her doting parents did not press her. So the days passed slowly in the village and in the country of Shunam. Times were changing and the political scene was too.
The king, David, was very old and rumors flew of his impending death. His face was seldom seen at the palace windows, his horse was never out of the stable, and no more sons had been conceived by Queen Bathsheba or the concubines. The royal physician went daily to the King’s bedside and stayed until late in the evening. Many fine types of linen were purchased and enough wool blankets to warm the entire town were carried to his Majesty.
In the marketplace, old men gossiped behind their hands and told of the King’s heroic days and feats of strength when he was a lad and his hair was red like the sun and his hands also were red with the blood of vanquished foes. Many women simpered behind their veils, lying that he had once glanced her way and tried to woo her into his bed. Everyone loved King David and longed to see him well, striding about and throwing money and favors out like rain. Alas, it was not to be.
Men from the palace fanned across the kingdom asking questions, searching for a perfect woman. It was said she was to please the King and all who heard were confused yet careful to make their daughters visible to the seekers. But one didn’t even care. She lived in dreams of days gone before and continued her work in assisting her father in caring for his home, animals, gardens and even counted his money. Abishag demurely raised her eyes when three soldiers burst into the marketplace and stood before the stall.
“Who are you? We haven’t seen you before.” the tall one spoke.
“My daughter is Abishag. Leave her alone. She is a gentle virgin and not for the likes of you.” Yiftach answered, stepping in front of his daughter to protect her from lecherous gazes.
“We have been sent from the palace to find a companion and nurse for the King. She must be beautiful, gentle, loving and a virgin. This young one will be with our lord until he takes his last breath and fulfill his every wish.”
Yiftach was outraged. “My girl is no harlot! Take your search elsewhere and leave us alone.”
The men glanced at one another and one said, “Ahem…well, let me explain. The king is old and weak. He has the allotted number of eighteen wives and cannot take another. And he no longer has….carnal urges. This nursemaid will be just that and no more is required of her. The matter has been promised by the King himself.”
Yiftach looked long and hard at the men and then at Abishag. “We will go with you to the palace to hear more of this and to see if you speak truth.” And they did. The King’s attendants told them everything and were open and honest concerning the King’s health.
“His blood does not flow well and the King is cold always. No matter the blankets we heap on his bed or the braziers lit in his bedchamber, he shakes with cold. We are seeking a girl who is beautiful to please his eyes, a virgin so his wives do not get jealous, she must have a soft heart and love the Lord our God because the King loves Him so. She must lie beside the King and warm him wither own young body. He cannot sleep because he shakes with cold. She will be his bed warmer.”
Abishag’s father looked at her and nodded his head. Yiftach knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime for his daughter and indeed the entire family. Their lineage would never be the same. This mild man was not stupid nor without ambition. He pulled her to the side and urgently whispered into her ear. “This is a fine chance for you to be secure and since you refuse marriage, your virtue will be safe and your maidenhood intact until you regain sense and accept a husband.”
She gazed at him for a long moment, then signaled her acceptance. Yiftach and the palace steward came to a mutual and satisfactory agreement and he left the palace. The King’s manservant immediately took Abishag to David. He was reclining on a raised pallet and covered with silks, linens and down pillows supported his grey head. The fabled eyes were still keen and he held himself proudly as he sat up to receive her.
“”Hello my dear. So you have been brought to care for me in my last days. You are very beautiful and you must tell me why a young girl would consent to lie with an old, dry man when she could be stirring the fires of passion in a young husband.” He motioned her closer and, knees trembling, she came to him. At his urging, Abishag told of her ill fated love affair with Shimiy. As he listened, his eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep. But he shivered as he slept and Abishag leaned down and pulled the covers up to his chin. However the man who slew a boastful, disrespectful giant when he was a boy of seventeen and killed lions and bears with his bare hands moaned in distress and curled into a ball.
Agishag’s own heart grew tender and she pulled his hands into her own and rubbed her young warmth into them. He still shivered. So she raised the clovers and slipped under and curled herself close to God’s chosen King of Israel. As she lay there, she wondered if the King would keep his promise to remain chaste in her presence. After a few minutes his shivering eased and the old man relaxed and laid his head upon her shoulder and slept deeply for the first time in months.
As the weeks and months passed, David grew weaker and yet his mind was clear and strong. Abishag heard the many pleas and court intrigues that passed daily before the ruler, yet kept her silence as she sat at the King’s feet. She learned who could be trusted and who spoke out of both sides of his mouth. Many whispered when David could not hear but they never considered Abishag for she was only a lowly servant, a handmaiden who warmed the feet of a king.
As they lay together at night, David and Abishag spoke at length of the days happenings. He grew to know her heart as she knew his devotion to his Lord. Her respect and awe of the King abounded and she held his bodily weakness in secret from all but the physician who attended the King. And he told her of his antics as a young shepherd boy who tricked his brothers and the times he climbed over cliffs to rescue a sheep. His recollections of lion killings made HER shiver when he described grabbing it by the hair so he could pull it close and beat it.
Her girlish heart came to love him and her grief for her lost love diminished. David told her of his own manly prowess and his sins because of it. Sometimes Bathsheba came into the bedchamber and though she was also aging, her beauty astonished Abishag. She understood why David had desired the woman.
One day Bathsheba came into the room where Abishag was ministering to the King. She bowed down before him and begged him to listen. Abishag saw David’s eyes grow soft and knew he still loved this woman he had murdered to obtain. Bathsheba was distraught because David’s son, Adonijah was acting as King. He planned banquets and feasts and invited everyone in power but his brother Solomon. David had promised the kingship to Solomon alone and Bathsheba want David to declare him as successor publicly.
David was furious and when the prophet Nathan repeated the tale as true, the King took an oath before his beloved wife that Solomon, her son, would be king after him and would sit on the throne. Bathsheba was delighted and relieved, bowing again before the King and proclaiming him long life.
Abishag was present when the King called priests and prophets to anoint Solomon as King of Israel although she never saw the actual ceremony. She heard of Adonijah’s fear when he learned of it and he was afraid his brother would kill him because he himself had sought to be king. But Solomon was wise and knew killing his brother would only cause trouble so he gave pardon and sent him home.
Months passed and Abishag settled into a routine of caring for her King. She now thought of him as a grandfather although she belonged to him as property. He never gave her cause to feel badly, ordered lovely clothing for her to wear and she ate the same foods as he ate. They lay together in innocent embrace and shared their hearts until the aged man began to fail. He knew his time was now short before he departed this life. So the giant slayer called his son Solomon, the new King, before him and instructed him as to his duties. He ordered Solomon to serve God well and rule as an honorable man who would leave an unforgettable legacy.
Abishag was astonished though when David remembered Joab who had betrayed him and committed vile murders. The tales made her blood run cold. Then David told Solomon to give Joab no peaceful death and to bring a bloody death to another deceitful man named Shemei. For the first time Abishag saw the warrior David had been in his younger days and was glad he was no longer that man.
Soon after this tirade, David died. He had been King over Israel forty years and many knew no other ruler. The people wept and grief ran like a river across the land. Abishag was prostrate with weeping and her heart was broken all over again. The pain was like losing Shimiy all over again. She continued to stay in David’s bedroom because no one thought to remove her. But one cunning man had a plan and it involved Abishag.
Adonijah went to the King’s widow Bathsheba and reminded her that he was originally to be king but David had appointed Solomon instead. He begged her support in asking for one favor from Solomon who could refuse his mother nothing. Adonijah wanted Abishag for his wife. Bathsheba was touched by his request and agreed to intercede on his behalf. She went before her son Solomon and begged a favor. Solomon promised her that he would grant her anything and not refuse her.
But when he heard of Adonijah’s request to marry Abishag he was furiously angry. Solomon understood the power of inheritance and dynasty. If Adonijah had King David’s concubine Abishag, he would strengthen his claim to the throne. Concubines by law became the inheritance of a man’s heir. Adonijah was still trying to become King!
Abishag was terrified during all this for many reasons. Adonijah would want her to become his wife in every way and would take her virginity. She would have to leave the haven that David had provided for her and go to his house. All of this treasonable talk that involved her also risked her life. If Solomon thought she was a traitor, she would be killed. She prayed for truth and justice to prevail.
And it did. Solomon swore to kill his older brother and calledBenaiah, the lion killer, before him and gave him orders that Adonijah was to die that very day. Benaiah struck and killed him before the sun set on that terrible day.
Abishag continued to live in King David’s palace and quietly grew older. She never married nor knew a man as her husband. Her story and dedication to Israel’s most beloved lived on though and as the years became centuries, she remains forever known as the girl who warmed the body and the heart of a monarch.
Abishag is only mentioned five times in the Bible. She was an unwitting witness to the historical passing of a King and the downfall of a traitor who would be ruler. Much has been speculated of Abishag and some believe her to be the bride written about in the beautiful Song of Solomon. This story is my imagined tale of this young woman who changed a kingdom and gave succor to a dying old man who had once been brave and strong. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
Biblical references for Abishag
1 Kings 1:3 3 So they sought for a lovely young woman throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king.
1 Kings 1:15 15 So Bathsheba went into the chamber to the king. (Now the king was very old, and Abishag the Shunammite was serving the king.
1 Kings 2:17 17 Then he said, “Please speak to King Solomon, for he will not refuse you, that he may give me Abishag the Shunammite as wife.”
1 Kings 2:21 21 So she said, “Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah your brother as wife.”
1 Kings 2:22 22 And King Solomon answered and said to his mother, “Now why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom also—for he is my older brother—for him, and for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah.”
Biblical Data: **according to archaic law, a man's concubines became the inheritance of his heir. 1 Kings 2:12-14
In Rabbinical Literature: David could not marry Abishag, since he had already the allotted number of eighteen wives (see Sanh. ii. 3, 21a). Although Abishag never became David's wife, yet, since by virtue of her personal service she belonged to the royal household, it was treasonable on the part of Adonijah to petition Solomon to grant him the Shunammite as his wife. It was not fitting for a subject to appropriate things or persons that belonged to royalty (ibid.). L. G.
Abiyshag (אֲבִישַׁג): Hebrew name meaning "my father is a wanderer" or "father of error.
Yiftach: Variant spelling of Hebrew Yiphtach, meaning “he opens” or whom God sets free”
Or-Lee (אוֹר-לִי): Hebrew name meaning “light is mine”
Shimiy (שִׁמְעִי): Hebrew name meaning "famous, renowned."
Hebrew Mint Tea
This is a wonderful drink to quench the thirst in Israel's hot climate. The hottest summer months (June through September) are opportunities to seek cooling beverages s to overcome the heat. The natural mint leaves which many Israelis grow at home are favored as a cooling addition to tea and vegetable salads. Abishag may have made and served this tea.
8 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. mint leaves
4 shakes lemon salt
5 cups boiling water
4 tea bags
In a teapot or carafe put sugar, tea bags, mint leaves, and lemon salt. Add boiling water, cover and let steep.
© 2011 Brenda Barnes