Epiphany III; January 27, 2019
I Kings 1:1-4
I'm going to tell you the story of Abishag the Shunammite, but first I'll give you my commentary. As I mentioned last week, I'm going to do a few sermons on topics related to questions of gender and sexuality. But I also realize that the most memorable sermons are the stories of people. So the bulk of what I'll do is tell you stories of people in the Bible, people whose experiences might call to mind issues facing us.
Abishag's story brings to my mind our society's struggle over the way men have used women, and especially young women. For one thing, her story highlights our tendency to evaluate women by their appearance. For many years I have been annoyed whenever I've heard an introduction like this:"Now I would like to introduce James, a brilliant leader and innovator. James' insight has done a lot for our company and we are grateful for his presence. And with him is his lovely wife Maria." Now, never mind that Maria has a PhD and has published in scientific journals; what is important about her is that she is lovely. Because of my own perverse sense of behavior, I have occasionally introduced people like this: "This is Maria, a biologist who recently was a guest lecturer at the Henry Doorly Zoo. And this is her lovely husband, James."
Examples of this sort of sexism are legion and if I continue I'll never get to the story of Abishag. So the first thing to call to your attention is the tendency to evaluate men by our accomplishments and women by their appearance. A second issue is that she is a young woman who is used by the political establishment as a pawn in their games. She is portrayed as having no will of her own; she does as she is commanded in Israel's dynastic struggle. Although the story-teller says that she never has sexual intercourse with the men in the story, her sexual identity is nonetheless critical to the way they use her for their power manipulations.
When I workshopped this story with a group of women earlier this week, they warned me against applying twenty-first century standards to a setting from some 3,000 years ago. That's a fair warning. It still steams me a bit that women are so often mistreated in the Bible, but I also realize that they may have had a fatalistic sense of that being their lot. I don't actually see Abishag tweeting with the hashtag MeToo. But I wish she would.
Okay, I hope that was enough to get you wondering what this is all about, so now I'll tell her story.
As I hope you know, King David was a remarkably successful ruler. Through perseverance, political acumen and fierce devotion to the Lord, he united a fragmented people and built a small empire. When he was young, men were in awe of him and women swooned over him. You've seen pictures or reproductions of Michelangelo's statue (or some of you travelers may have seen the statue itself) and so your picture of David is that tall, muscular, curly-haired youth. But, as happens to us, he grew old. As an old man, King David was pretty much confined to his bed, and no matter how many covers his attendants piled on him, he could not get warm.
So his political advisors had an idea. They suggested that the King should initiate a search for a beautiful young woman to become his attendant. Whatever other duties she might have, her primary duty would be to lie in bed with him to keep him warm. The King agreed, and the advisors had the kingdom searched for a beautiful young woman. In the town of Shunem, in the north of the kingdom, they found Abishag. She was brought to Jerusalem and put in David's bed with him. But, the story-teller points out, the King did not have sexual relations with her. Given David's history with women, his advanced age seems the most likely reason. Frederick Buechner's comment about this is "that in peace as well as in war there's no tragic folly you can't talk a nation's youth into simply by calling it patriotic duty" (Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who; Harper & Row, 1979; p. 3).
So Abishag attended to the King and was supposed to keep him warm. She doubtless had other duties, the sort a nurse or personal care-giver is accustomed to doing. And even though she had been recruited for her looks, perhaps she came to enjoy her life with the King. My favorite philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, says that she no doubt loved the King and held him close to her as he was dying (He has a chapter about her in La agonía del cristianismo – The Agony of Christianity). But let's not jump too far ahead; he's not dead yet.
King David had assured his eighth wife Bathsheba that her son Solomon would be the next king, but as he lay dying his eldest, Adonijah, declared himself king. Adonijah got the head of David's army and the Priest Abiathar to support him, along with most of his brothers and the nobility. But Nathan the prophet and Queen Bathsheba conspired to secure the throne for Solomon.
Bathsheba went to see the King. The story-teller points out that Abishag is present; she is attending to the King (I Kings 1:15). What was she doing? Emptying his bed pan? Fixing soup? Or perhaps she was in bed with him, trying to keep him warm. When Bathsheba comes in, nearly as old as David, she no doubt feels a little jealous of the young woman who is in her place. But she puts that behind her, remembering who she is, after all, and Bathsheba speaks to the King. "My Lord, I recall that you promised that my son Solomon would be King. But now Adonijah has proclaimed himself King. What are you going to do about it? If you don't do something now, then when you are dead Solomon and I will be outlaws."
Just then Nathan the prophet burst into the room (right on cue!). He said, "My Lord the King, apparently you have decreed that Adonijah should succeed you, but you did not tell me or the priest Zadok or that worthy soldier (I love this man's name) Benaiah son of Jehoiada. So, when did you decree that Adonijah should be King?" David stirred himself enough to speak; I imagine Abishag helping him to sit up and holding him steady. He then issued orders to his advisors, to the Prophet Nathan, to the other priests, and to the army. He abdicated on the spot, decreeing that Solomon was King. And the people threw a huge celebration.
Adonijah's supporters all abandoned him and King David was left, once again, alone with Abishag. Before long, David quietly died, perhaps – as Unamuno said – in the arms of Abishag, who then wept for him.
When Adonijah lost his bid to become King, he begged Solomon for mercy. The new King said that as long as he behaved himself, he would be allowed to live. But Solomon never forgot the possibility of treachery. One more event involving Abishag sealed Adonijah's fate.
With David dead, Abishag was out of a job. So Adonijah went to Bathsheba – Solomon's mother but not Adonijah's mother – and asked her a favor. "Go to your son for me," he said, "And ask him if I may have Abishag to be my wife." So Bathsheba, no doubt eager to have Abishag out of the palace, went to King Solomon, who welcomed her. He had a throne brought in to be set next to his, and his mother sat on the throne. "What do you want of me, Mother?" "I have a favor to ask of you." "Anything," he said. "Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to your brother Adonijah as his wife."
Solomon was furious. "You ask for him to be given Abishag! Why not ask for my kingdom as well? If he is married to my father's widow, and he is the eldest, then he will claim the throne for himself! So he has ensnared you in his plot against me; now he shall surely die!" And Solomon, true to his word, had Adonijah killed; he sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada (I love that name!) to do the deed.
And what then became of Abishag? No one knows. After all, she is only a woman, and once she no longer figures in the plots of powerful men, her fate is irrelevant. No, I don't believe that, but I fear that there are still many in the world who do. There was surely much more about Abishag than her beauty, and whatever else there may be about her and whether she was beautiful or not, her life matters in its own right. And though no one can tell me, I wish I knew the rest of Abishag's story.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master