Abishag of shunam

June 2020
“Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he could get no heat” kings 1,1 1
Abishag of shunam "Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he could get no heat" kings 1,1 1

The name “Avishag” has a unique mention in the Bible. 

The name is composed of the word “avi” (representing divinity) and the word “shag,” the meaning of which is not entirely clear.

Shunem – From the city of Shunem, located in the inheritance of Issachar, in the Jezreel Valley (conquered by David).

“And let her be a nurse” – Avishag the Shunammite is brought to King David to provide him warmth in his old age, and she becomes his nurse.

Attempting to understand the meaning of the word “nurse” =’sochenet’ in Hebrew

interpretations offer various possibilities while referencing similar words familiar to us from the Bible. Another known figure in the Bible who held the title “Sochen” is Shebna the steward, as mentioned in Isaiah 22. Shebna was a high-ranking official in the kingdom of Hezekiah, King of Judah.

Another proposal (by Rabbenu Avraham ben HaRambam and Radak) connects the word “sochenet” to the “store-cities”= “Arei Mischenot” (Exodus), where the storehouses were managed by the “nurse” who was responsible for the king’s treasury. This suggests that Avishag the Shunammite might have been a guardian of David’s treasures and/or a confidante close to the king.

“and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.'” kings 1 1 2, – The word “Sochenet” alludes to the Arabic word “sakhn,” meaning warmth.

Further expansion:

The Book of Kings describes the later years of David’s life. He is depicted as an elderly and ailing man, feeling cold and unable to be warmed. 

At this point, David has been ruling over Israel for 40 years, has been through numerous wars and conquests, has many wives, sons, and daughters, and possesses great wealth. Amidst all this, his bitter old age and loneliness are apparent.

His servants suggest finding a young virgin girl to be a nurse (‘Sochenet’) and provide him warmth.

The phrase “lie in thy bosom” there is a parallel to instances such as Nathan the prophet’s analogy to David, in the case of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, when he took her as his wife after the incident with Uriah the Hittite. “it did eat of his own morsel, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter” 2 Samuel Chapter 12 3

David’s response is not heard, and his servants find for him Avishag the Shunammite.

Amidst this void created by the monarchy’s uncertainty due to David’s condition, Adonijah, the son of Haggith, enters the scene. As is known, he is David’s eldest son. His older brother Amnon had been murdered by Absalom due to the rape of Tamar, and Absalom met his death through his rebellion against his father. In this context, Adonijah’s desire for the throne becomes evident. He is joined by Joab, the son of Zeruiah and commander of David’s army, as well as Abiathar the priest and other sons of the king except Solomon. They rally to Adonijah’s cause.

Opposing this faction that supports Adonijah’s ascent to the throne is a group that stands in favor of Solomon’s kingship. Among them are Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and a group of valiant men. Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet also align with them. All these individuals are oriented toward Solomon’s kingship.

Upon David’s death, Adonijah seeks to solidify his claim to the throne by requesting Avishag the Shunammite as his wife. Solomon, who possesses wisdom and discerns Adonijah’s intentions, takes action to secure his position. He arranges for the execution of Joab, the son of Zeruiah, and Shimei the son of Gera. He dismisses Abiathar the priest and ensures that Adonijah is no longer a threat. The narrative in the Book of Kings suggests that this story was written by the scribes of King Solomon, aiming to justify his actions.

In the Book of Chronicles, a more idealized description of the end of David’s life is presented. There is no mention of David’s harsh old age or the struggles over succession. David is portrayed as a strong and influential figure who speaks before the nation’s leaders about building the Temple, as a part of his legacy. Solomon’s kingship is presented as a divine choice, and the responsibility for constructing the Temple is placed in his hands.

In his book “David Maro’eh l’Mashiach” (pages 76-77), Zakovitz views the story of Avishag the Shunammite as a part of the narrative depicting the decline of David in his later years, reminiscent of the story of young David’s introduction to King Saul’s court, where he played the harp before him. Zakovitz elaborates on the similarities between the two stories: in both instances, the king’s servants suggest a solution. In the story of Saul, they say, “Let our lord now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp” (1 Samuel 16:17). In the story of David, they say, “Let our lord the king command that a young virgin be sought for our lord the king, and let her stand before the king, and let her care for him; and let her lie in your bosom, that our lord the king may be warm” (1 Kings 1:2). In both cases, the resolution revolves around the power of a young person to solve the problem. Both the young man (David) and the young woman are described as exceptionally beautiful, and both are positioned to serve their king.

Zakovitz draws these parallels to show how the narratives carry thematic similarities, perhaps suggesting a pattern in the biblical storytelling style and a deeper connection between the stories of David’s youth and his later years.

Facing the points of similarity, Zakovitz also describes the differences between the two stories. Saul suffers from a divine affliction, which leads to his predicament, while David is afflicted by the challenges of old age. Saul expresses his agreement with his servants’ proposal, while David remains silent. David is destined to inherit his throne and sit upon it, whereas Avishag is not to become the wife of the next king. The contrast between the two stories, one depicting David’s youth and the other his old age, prompts reflective thoughts. The hope and optimism associated with the image of the young David wane in the presence of the aged David’s wrinkled face. The elder David is not as good as the elder Saul. David, who once had no shortage of women during his prime, now needs the companionship of a caretaker like Avishag to provide him warmth, as he has stirred the emotions of people and women. These aspects will further unfold as the narrative progresses (Zuckermann, referenced source).

There is a tradition that identifies Avishag the Shunammite with the Shulammite woman in the Song of Songs. In the Septuagint translation of the Song of Songs, the Shulammite is translated as the Shunammite, and thus the identification is made.