Many ancient customs are strange to modern readers of the Bible, especially those of us who have never lived in cultures embracing polygamy or absolute monarchy. The incident of Abishag sleeping—chastely—in David’s bed is definitely a puzzling story. We’ll start with the Scripture passage in which Abishag is brought to David:
“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” (1 Kings 1:1–4).
Even with extra blankets, the elderly King David could not generate enough body heat on his own to maintain a healthy temperature. A lifetime that had included being a fugitive, living in caves, being exposed to the elements, and fighting hard-fought battles had finally taken its toll on his aging body (see 1 Samuel 20:1; 22:1; 2 Samuel 21:17). David’s condition, called hypothermia, is not unusual in older people: toward the end of his long life, former President Ronald Reagan requested that his favorite electric blanket be returned from the ranch he had sold. Of course, no technology in ancient Israel would provide a continual source of warmth through the cool Judean nights. Only a human body had the capacity to do that.
David had four wives whose names we know—Ahinoam, Abigail (2 Samuel 2:2), Eglah (2 Samuel 3:5), and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:27)—and possibly others such as Absalom’s mother Maakah. This doesn’t count the concubines he had (2 Samuel 5:13). The natural question is, with plenty of female intimates to keep David warm, why did his attendants seek out a beautiful virgin stranger for the job? The following are several issues regarding Abishag’s “job description”:
1. Why a woman? A boy or young man would not have been considered for the job, in order to prevent even the appearance of David having a homosexual relationship (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13).
2. Why a young virgin? This quality ensured that whoever was chosen for the job wouldn’t be taken away from a jealous fiancé or husband, nor would she be a widow familiar with the sexual practices of the marriage bed. We don’t know what hopes and dreams Abishag had for her own life, but in the ancient world where uncertainty and struggle were lifelong challenges for most people, the honor of being brought into the king’s household would mean a lifetime of well-being and security for her and her family (1 Kings 4:27).
3. Why beautiful? Human nature never changes. Then as now, people prized physical beauty (Genesis 29:17; Deuteronomy 21:11; 1 Samuel 9:2; 2 Samuel 14:25; Esther 2:2–4). Kings had the privilege and power to surround themselves with beauty, and David’s servants likely thought to win his favor by bringing a beautiful woman into his palace.
4. Why not a queen or wife? A queen could not be ordered by mere servants to stay and keep the king warm through the night; she was above following the commands of those of lesser rank. To presume to direct the queen would be an affront to her royal dignity, and it would also reflect badly on the king.
5. Why not a concubine? Though concubines had a lesser status than wives, they, too, possessed a certain rank and dignity. Absalom demonstrated this fact when, as part of his attempted coup, he slept with his father’s concubines (2 Samuel 16:21–22). Moreover, the personal dynamics within harems were infamous for the jealousy and infighting they engendered. To select one wife or concubine over another would be a mark of favoritism that would likely incite resentment and squabbling in the household.
Abishag was neither a wife nor a concubine, but her position in the king’s household gave her such high prestige that David’s son Adonijah asked to marry her after the king’s death, but Solomon recognized this as an attempt by Adonijah to make himself king, and he had his brother executed (1 Kings 2:21–25).
Nowhere does the Bible approve of David’s state of affairs—just the opposite! God had warned Israel through Moses that any future king “must not take many wives” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Scripture does not say that Abishag’s presence in David’s bed was a good thing, nor does it present David as a good father. His many children by multiple mothers were a cause of great trouble for him and the whole kingdom (2 Samuel 13; 2 Samuel 15; 1 Kings 12:23–25). His own son and successor, Solomon, ignoring God’s clear warning, took his father’s excesses to a shocking extreme with 700 wives and 300 concubines who led him astray and turned his heart after other gods (1 Kings 11:2–4). The kingdom itself was divided and lost by Solomon’s son shortly after his coronation, barely one generation after the glory of King David (1 Kings 12).