Ilona Kraemer

The elderly David, having survived the devious plots of his son Absalom, is waited on by his most beautiful concubine, Abishag from Shunem, in this painting by contemporary German artist Ilona Kraemer. Despite her beauty, “the king did not know her” (1 Kings 1:4). David’s sexual impotence is a sign of his political impotence.

David’s weakness led to the chaos of a disputed succession, and, as always, women were a pawn. David had sworn to his wife Bathsheba that their son Solomon—David’s youngest—would succeed him. But an older son, Adonijah, still survived and was pursuing his own legitimate claim to the throne while David was still alive. Solomon reluctantly spared his older half-brother, but later, after their father’s death, Adonijah foolishly asked Solomon (via Bathsheba) for Abishag, David’s former concubine. In a society where women equaled power, this was too much of an affront—even if only symbolically—to Solomon’s rule, and so Solomon had Adonijah executed.

As Propp writes, however, the Israelite monarchy thereafter became much more orderly and lawful. The age of the primal horde, and of the alpha male, was over.