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Abishag the Shunammite

ABISHAG THE SHUNAMMITE (Heb. אֲבִישַג; "the [Divine] Father (?)"; meaning unknown; of *Shunem), an unmarried girl who was chosen to serve as sōkhenet to King David. The term comes from a root skn, "attend to," "take care," and its noun forms can be applied to high officials in Hebrew (Is. 22:15) Abishag's role was of a lower status. She served as bed companion to David in the hope that her fresh beauty would induce some warmth in the old man (I Kings 1:1–4, 15), and as his housekeeper. The notice (1:4) that "the king knew her not" serves less to impute decrepitude to David than to inform the audience that there would be no other claimants to David's throne than Solomon and Adonijah. When Solomon became king, *Adonijah , whose life Solomon had spared although he knew him to be a dangerous rival, asked *Bath-Sheba, Solomon's mother, to intercede on his behalf for permission to marry Abishag. Solomon correctly interpreted this request for the former king's concubine as a bid for the throne (See II Sam 12:8; 16:20–23), and had Adonijah killed (I Kings 2:13–25). Some see in Abishag, who is described as "very fair" (I Kings 1:4), the Shulammite of the Song of Songs (Shulammite being regarded as the same as Shunammite).

In the Aggadah

The aggadah identifies Abishag as the Shunammite who gave hospitality to Elisha the prophet (PdRE 33). It relates that she was not half as beautiful as Sarah (Sanh. 39b). The fact that David did not make Abishag his legal wife is explained as due to his refusal to exceed the traditional number of wives (18) allowed to a king (Sanh. 22a, and Rashi, ibid.). Solomon's action is also vindicated on the grounds that the request made by Adonijah to be permitted to marry Abishag (I Kings 2:13 ff.) represented a true threat to Solomon's position, as it is only the king, and not a commoner, who is allowed to make use of the servants of the deceased king (Sanh. 22a).


Noth, Personennamen, index; Ginzberg, Legends, index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Cogan, I Kings (AB; 2000), 156; Z. Kallai, in: Z. Talshir (ed.), Homage to Shmuel (2002), 376–81.

[Elia Samuele Artom]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.