When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. 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.” Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her. Now Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, put himself forward and said, “I will be king.” So he got chariots and horses ready, with fifty men to run ahead of him. (His father had never rebuked him by asking, “Why do you behave as you do?” He was also very handsome and was born next after Absalom.) Adonijah conferred with Joab son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest, and they gave him their support. But Zadok the priest, Benaiah son of Jehoiada, Nathan the prophet, Shimei and Rei and David’s special guard did not join Adonijah.
A friend of mine, upon hearing about this story, commented that this is the passage that Religious Studies teachers should use to attract the average teenage boys’ interest in the Bible. My friend was assuming that the average teenage boy would be interested in the idea of a beautiful young girl being employed to keep an elderly king warm at night. Here we have the little-told story of Abishag the Shunammite, or as I think of her, Abishag the human blanket.
1 Kings does not wish us to dwell on Abishag’s story as the second part of the story of suggests. Next Adonijah, one of David’s sons, attempts to proclaim himself as king.
But this is to detract from the story of Abishag. I don’t suppose Abishag got to choose whether or not she wished to serve her king in this way. Perhaps as we are told David did not have sexual relations with her we are meant to assume that this was easy work. It seems unlikely considering David’s track record that he didn’t want to have such a relationship with Abishag.
I suspect that here we have a young girl who yes, made her king’s last days and weeks a little more comfortable, but who, herself, paid a high price for that. I imagine that she was groped regularly and wasn’t required to wear very much in order to give maximum impact in her task of keeping the king warm. I wonder too why none of David’s wives were willing (or asked) to take on this role?
As we enter the season of Christmas parties I wonder who the Abishags are of our day? Who is told that if they offer the boss a favour of some form that would go well for them? Who has no choice than to offer personal favours that they’d rather not? Who is told to ‘get on with it’ for “it’s not so bad”?
God of the vulnerable, we pray for people who are persuaded to do ‘work’ that demeans them.
We remember those for whom sex work is a Hobson’s Choice and they feel that they have no option. Forgive us as we kid ourselves that such a life is chosen.
We pray for those who work with abused people. Who bring perpetrators to justice. Who help individuals rebuild their lives. Amen.
The Rev’d Sarah Moore is President of the URC in Cumbria and a member of Carver Uniting Church.