Translation of 1 Kings 1:1-4 (Masoretic Text)

  1. And the King, David, was old. He came in the days. And they covered him with the blankets, but it was never warm for him.
  2. And his servants said to him, “let them seek for my lord, the king, a young woman, a virgin, so that she can stand before the king, and she can be for him an official and lay in your lap and it will be warm for my lord, the king.”
  3. And they sought a beautiful young woman in the whole territory of Israel, and they found Abishag the Shunamite, and they brought her to the king.
  4. And the young woman was beautiful, even greatly so. And she became for the king an official and she served him, but the king did not know her.

Comments on the Text

Two observations merit mention in verse 1. First, syntactically, it appears as if David was added as an afterthought. The subject “the king David” is unwieldy and probably the product of editing. One notes in this vein, that David essentially vanishes from the text after this verse, which consistently refers to “the king” without mentioning a name. Second, the final phrase regarding the king’s inability to be warm appears in the imperfect, suggesting that it should be understood as an iterative. It is not that he is not warm only once; rather, he is never warm.

The woman the king’s servants propose to seek should fulfill two functions: she should serve him as an official (the term is otherwise used for someone like a chancellor in Isa 22:15) and also lay in his lap. That’s an exceptional combination of distinct services, to say the least. Only the latter has to do with verse 1.

The woman they eventually find in verse 3 is said to come from the territory of Shunem, known otherwise in the Bible as a town in the north of Israel and ascribed to the tribe of Issachar. This town may be mentioned in Egyptian correspondence from the Amarna period. Any identification of the site is currently insecure. Interesting here is that the king’s servants seek a woman for him in the north of Israel. If this is about David, who should be from the south, we see perhaps something of an imperialistic tendency, perhaps even an implied overreach, suggested in this action. More importantly: Abishag is found and brought to David. It is never suggested that she came willingly, at best, only passively.

Verse 4 initially focuses on Abishag’s appearance and notes that she is especially attractive. That could only have merit for one of her supposed functions for the king. The text does not even mention her name here, describing her only as “the young woman”; older translations preserve readings like “maid.” The verse continues, noting that she serves the king in some official capacity. Nonetheless, she never speaks in the Bible. Finally, the verse (and this brief passage) conclude with the notice that the king did not know her, i.e., he did not have sex with her. Two (perhaps not entirely mutually exclusive) options bear consideration here. Is the text trying to preserve the dignity of the king or the woman by stating that there was no physical intimacy between them? Or is the text mocking the king, saying he was impotent (in every sense of the word)? This second option is especially poignant, if the text was always about David, who had a somewhat voracious appetite for women (though not as ludicrous as that of his son and successor Solomon).

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