Abishag? Abishag the Shunammite? If the name doesn’t ring a bell, do not despair. The young woman with this name makes only a brief appearance in the Hebrew Bible, in the first two chapters of the First Book of Kings, during the story of the succession of power from David to Solomon. Perhaps because of her role—to provide warmth to the aging (no, aged) David (1 Kings 1:1–4)—she has assumed far greater prominence in the post-Biblical, especially modern, world than she did in antiquity. Based on numerous references to her in the press, however, it is uncertain whether she would have been flattered, or flattened, by this enhanced notoriety.
According to some commentators (this particular example comes from The Times of London), Abishag was the first in a perennial series: “As for elderly men, the joys of young lovelies are obvious. Ever since the elderly King David was comforted by the young Abishag, men have loved young women.” While not wishing to criticize this writer for his turns of phrases, we cannot as easily overlook his lack of Biblical insight: It is precisely the fact that David was not sufficiently “comforted” by Abishag that signaled his impending loss of power and death.
In this sense, a writer for Thailand’s The Nation may be closer to the mark. In an article titled “A Different Goal for Pelé an Older Ball Game,” highlighting the soccer great’s activities as spokesperson about erectile dysfunction (E.D.), we read: “King David suffered the same fate [E.D.] after sending his loyal soldier, Uriah, into a suicidal battle so he could claim Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. This ploy angered the Lord, who punished David by taking away his sword, both literally and figuratively. He was forced to relinquish the throne after his advisers presented him with the young virgin Abishag, ‘but the king knew her not’ (1 Kings 1:4) because he was unable to perform.”
The spare Biblical account of 1 Kings gets drawn out and spiced up in all sorts of ways in its retelling. This is how a columnist for The Jerusalem Post relays the story as portrayed in a televised interpretation of Ya’acov Shabtai’s A Crown on the Head: “While wanting to get the crown off [David’s] head, they don’t grudge him other favors. They have brought Abishag the Shunammite to him in the hope that she will warm the old king enough to restore his potency, but all she does is giggle and chatter away in Shunammitish … habits which would undermine the sexual efforts of a far younger man than David.” Shunammitish? Now there’s a language that is ripe for revival.
Elsewhere, the hard-working Abishag is spoken of as “King David’s bed warmer” (The Jerusalem Post), “a teenage babe [to David’s ‘sugar daddy’]” (The Guardian of London) and “the king’s hot-water bottle.” The latter epithet, we learn from The Jerusalem Post, comes from a poem by Itsik Manger that begins (as recorded in Newsweek): “The witch that came (the withered hag) / To wash the stairs with pail and rag / Was once the beauty Abishag.” I don’t know about you, but for me this is all a bit harsh for a young lady who was just trying to get a day’s (or a night’s) worth of work done.
And what does the name Abishag actually mean anyway? Although there is a bit of uncertainty about this, it is clear that the first part (“Abi”), in common with the names of many Biblical characters, can be translated “my father.” The “shag” part appears to come from a root meaning to wander or go astray. Even with the possibly unsavory connotations of this name, some of us, myself included, may bemoan the fact that Abishag does not show up on any contemporary list of the most common names for baby girls. When asked why no one is named Abishag (or Job or Ham or Japheth) anymore, a correspondent for The Washington Post magazine opines: “Because those names sound stupid. Today we name our children Skylar, Jazlyn, Kaydence and Bristol.” With offense toward none and open-mindedness toward all, allow me to suggest that the world could probably use an Abishag or two just about now!
Abishag? Abishag the Shunammite? If the name doesn’t ring a bell, do not despair. The young woman with this name makes only a brief appearance in the Hebrew Bible, in the first two chapters of the First Book of Kings, during the story of the succession of power from David to Solomon. Perhaps because of her role—to provide warmth to the aging (no, aged) David (1 Kings 1:1–4)—she has assumed far greater prominence in the post-Biblical, especially modern, world than she did in antiquity. Based on numerous references to her in the press, however, it is uncertain whether she […]