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Daniel Bodi

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2023

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Abishag: King David’s Sokhenet

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TheTorah.com

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https://thetorah.com/article/abishag-king-davids-sokhenet

APA e-journal

Daniel Bodi

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Abishag: King David’s Sokhenet

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TheTorah.com

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2023

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https://thetorah.com/article/abishag-king-davids-sokhenet

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Abishag: King David’s Sokhenet

At the end of David’s life, he is old and cold, and his advisors find him a beautiful young virgin to keep him warm. They appoint her as sōkhenet, an administrator of the royal household, allowing her to play a key role as an official witness to the court cabal ensuring Solomon’s succession.

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Abishag: King David’s Sokhenet

David and Abishag, Bible illustration cycle, 1432-1435, Bohemia. IMAREAL at the University of Salzburg

The book of Kings opens with David on his death bed, old and sick. His courtiers decide to find him a young new woman to make him more comfortable:[1]

מלכים א א:א וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לוֹ. א:ב וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ עֲבָדָיו יְבַקְשׁוּ לַאדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ נַעֲרָה בְתוּלָה וְעָמְדָה לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וּתְהִי לוֹ סֹכֶנֶת וְשָׁכְבָה בְחֵיקֶךָ וְחַם לַאדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Kgs 1:1 King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. 1:2 His courtiers said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your Majesty and be his sōkhenet; and let her lie in your bosom, and my lord the king will be warm.”

The courtiers carry out this plan, and find the perfect beautiful woman:

מלכים א א:ג יְבַקְשׁוּ נַעֲרָה יָפָה בְּכֹל גְּבוּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּמְצְאוּ אֶת אֲבִישַׁג הַשּׁוּנַמִּית וַיָּבִאוּ אֹתָהּ לַמֶּלֶךְ. א:ד וְהַנַּעֲרָה יָפָה עַד מְאֹד וַתְּהִי לַמֶּלֶךְ סֹכֶנֶת וַתְּשָׁרְתֵהוּ וְהַמֶּלֶךְ לֹא יְדָעָהּ.
1 Kgs 1:3 So they looked for a beautiful girl throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite and brought her to the king. 1:4 The girl was exceedingly beautiful. She became the king’s sōkhenet and ministered to him; but the king was not intimate with her.

Abishag is David’s “sōkhenet,” a term which only appears in this unit,[2] and is often translated as relating to the sexual function noted in verse 2. Thus, Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki ca. 1040–ca. 1105) translates the term as מחממת “a warmer”,[3] while contemporary translations suggest:

  • “housekeeper” (Cogan),[4]
  • “hot-water bottle” (Wright),[5]
  • “heating pad” (Pope),[6]
  • “bedfellow” (De Vries).[7]

These interpreters are incorrect: sōkhenet means “administrator.”[8] It is the feminine form of the term sōkhen, which refers to a palace steward:

ישעיה כב:טו כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה צְבָאוֹת לֶךְ בֹּא אֶל הַסֹּכֵן הַזֶּה עַל שֶׁבְנָא אֲשֶׁר עַל הַבָּיִת.
Isa 22:15 Thus said my Lord YHWH of Hosts: Go in to see that sōkhen, that Shebna, in charge of the palace.”[9]

Abishag is also meant to be David’s wife, so she serves a dual purpose, i.e., it is in addition to her administrative function.[10]

Comparative Semitic philology and ancient Near Eastern texts reveal numerous cognates of the Hebrew term, all meaning “administrator”:

  • West-Semitic sākinu,
  • Amarna sōkinu,
  • Ugaritic sākinu,
  • Nuzi šākin bīti “household administrator.”

Akkadian šākintu, feminine form of šākinu, corresponding to Hebrew sōkhenet, appears in Neo-Assyrian documents designating the female administrator of the queen’s household at the royal palace. Neo-Assyrian šākintus were managing the wealth and the household of the Assyrian queens. Cuneiform tablets mentioning the šākintus were found in five cities: Assur, Nineveh, Kalḫu/Nimrud, Tušḫan and Til-Barsip.

In the period between 934–610 B.C.E., these documents name 23 households where šākintus were working.[11] When applied to Abishag, therefore, sōkhenet should be understood as a palace administrator of intermediary rank, comparable to the šākin bīti at Nuzi.[12]

Abishag is a Witness to the Appointment of Solomon

Abishag is more than a simple housekeeper; she wields administrative power. This helps explain her role later in 1 Kings 1. When Bathsheba goes to David to remind (or convince)[13] him of his promise to her that Solomon would inherit the throne, we are told that Abishag was present:

מלכים א א:טו וַתָּבֹא בַת שֶׁבַע אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ הַחַדְרָה וְהַמֶּלֶךְ זָקֵן מְאֹד וַאֲבִישַׁג הַשּׁוּנַמִּית מְשָׁרַת אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Kgs 1:15 So Bathsheba went to the king in his chamber. The king was very old, and Abishag the Shunammite he (sic!)[14] was ministering to the king.

In Ugarit, the sākinu appears as a witness in important royal transactions. Similarly, Abishag is a sōkhenet, and is present at the transaction that took place in the royal chamber between David, Bathsheba, and Nathan.[15] This makes her a key witness, with judicial authority, able to confirm that David pronounced a solemn oath instituting Solomon as his officially designated heir.

Female Witnesses: The Archaeological Evidence

At Nuzi, several female šākin bīti “house administrators” had seals and left seal impressions on the documents attesting to the commercial transactions they conducted.[16] Similarly, in Israel, more than a dozen seals found in the course of archaeological excavations bearing female names corroborate that women played a similar legal role.[17] These demonstrate that women took an active part in administering the production and trade of agricultural commodities.

Most significantly, a seal impression has been found on a jar handle bearing an inscription in paleo-Hebrew letters לחנה בת עזריה (lḥnh bt ʿzryh) “Belonging to Ḥannah, daughter of Azaryah.”[18] The inscription indicates that these seals were used for sealing legal transactions and not just worn as pieces of jewelry.[19] In the great majority of cases, stamped jars bear impressions of men’s seals, or of strictly official seals with no names, such as lmlk “Belonging to the King,” and yhd “Yehud” (province), but the Ḥannah seal confirms that already in pre-exilic times Hebrew women had the right to impress their seal on legal documents.

David’s Four Wives

It is not surprising that Abishag would double as an administrator and play a key role in the transfer of power to Solomon, given that the biblical narratives place a woman at each key stage of David’s life trajectory and political career.[20]

Michal—David enters the royal family by marrying Michal, Saul’s daughter (1 Sam 18:27).

Abigail—David becomes king of Judah in the city of Hebron where he reigned for seven years after marrying a rich widow Abigail, who was initially Nabal’s wife (1 Sam 25).

Bathsheba—Once David conquered the Jebusite citadel transforming it into the City of David, he abducts and sleeps with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his elite officers, Uriah the Hittite, instead of leading his army into war (2 Sam 11-12); he then has Uriah assassinated, aggravating his crime. This incident kicks off the family drama, in which Absalom rebels against David, who found himself on the brink of losing everything: his city, realm, and the allegiance of his people.

Abishag—On his deathbed, David must deal with the power struggle between his sons Adonijah and Solomon, with Abishag as a witness to the proceedings (1 Kgs 1–2).

In short, the Hebrew Bible places a woman at several very significant moments in David’s political trajectory. According to the Hebrew Bible, each of these wives play crucial roles in David’s life and career, and each receives a detailed narrative.[21]

The Four Women of Odysseus

David’s four wives can be compared with the four women in the Homeric Epic, Odyssey, about Odysseus’ ten-year homeward journey following the Trojan war:

Calypso—the nymph who enchants Odysseus and keeps him a prisoner on her island of Ogygia for seven years, hoping to make him her immortal husband.

Circe—another nymph, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs when they land on her island of Aeaea. Odysseus convinces her to change them back, stays with her for a year.

Nausicaa—a young princess who rescues Odysseus when he is shipwrecked on the coast of Scheria and helps him convince her parents to supply him with a boat for his return trip home.

Penelope—his idealized wife and queen, pushing off suitors and waiting for him when he arrives home.[22] Penelope is the Greek illustration of the Hebrew ʾēšet ḥayîl “the capable wife” or “strong woman” in Prov 31:10. The Septuagint renders this expression with with gunaika andreian, literally “a woman with manly courage” or “bravura”. In Od. 4.791–3 occurs the only Homeric lion-comparison describing a female character, Penelope being defined as “male lion” (leōn), a heroic warrior.[23]

The growth of biblical traditions about David’s wives and those found in the Odyssey followed a similar development. They began as oral narratives or songs. The David stories likely originated in the 10th century B.C.E., as short separate narratives, and were written down at King Hezekiah’s court in Jerusalem, by the end of the 8th century B.C.E. [24] The Odyssey likely underwent a similar process, from oral to written, but in both literary compositions, with a couple of centuries between these two phases of tradition transmission.[25]

The David Story and the Odyssey: Educating Young Princes

The David story is an ancient form of the genre known as Fürstenspiegel, or “Mirrors for Princes/Advice to a Prince”—didactic political writings aimed for the leadership class, popular in Renaissance times, though going back as far as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.[26] It probably began with the aim of educating young princes of the Davidic line, using the career of the founder of the dynasty as the object lesson. The narrative points out the errors a ruler should avoid and the strengths to emulate.[27] Similarly, the Odyssey describes the world of Greek noble men and women, prescribing how they should behave. The work has an educational purpose, highlighting the virtues the nobles should develop and practice.[28]

Both the Odyssey and David’s story include clear didactic lessons. For example, Odysseus’ long homeward voyage is a consequence of his hubristic act for which he suffers Poseidon’s unrelenting divine retribution.[29] David, as a result of his sin with Bathsheba, is also pursued by divine retribution, from the middle of the book of 2 Samuel to the end of his life.

Manipulator Is Manipulated

As he nears death, David, the master manipulator is himself manipulated by the same Bathsheba on his deathbed,[30] following a מידה כנגד מידה (middâ kĕneged middâ) “measure for measure” pattern, the retribution principle present first in the Hebrew Bible and then amplified in the Talmudic discussions.[31]

The narrative is the opposite of a royal encomium, which highlights only the king’s greatness, presenting him in the best possible light.[32] Instead, the narrative presents David as a feeble, old, impotent king with declining health, failing memory, and manipulated by the pro-Solomon political party ending in the death of yet another of David’s sons, Adonijah. Even on his deathbed, David undergoes the last jolts of divine retribution for the abuse of his royal power by abducting the wife of Uriah the Hittite. In 2 Samuel 11, David stole another man’s wife. In 1 Kings 1, Bathsheba stole the kingdom away from him for her son.[33]

Abishag in Context

Abishag’s role at David’s court is best understood within a larger ancient Near Eastern gendered cultural matrix of female royal and household administrators. She is a key witness and protagonist in resolving an acute political crisis at the crucial moment of David’s succession. As a key witness of the transaction between David, Bathsheba, and Nathan concerning Solomon, Abishag acquires legal or judicial power.

Without Abishag as the administrator of the king’s quarters, the pro-Solomon party would not have had easy access to the dying king, and Solomon likely would not have become king. It is only through the final political transaction between David, Bathsheba, and Nathan, the presence of Abishag as “household administrator” (sōkhenet), and a legal witness,[34] facilitates Solomon’s accession to the throne as David’s official and legal heir.

Published

November 10, 2023

|

Last Updated

February 27, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. Daniel Bodi is Professor of History of Religions of Antiquity at Sorbonne University in Paris. He earned his M.A. from Fuller Theological Seminary, M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in N.Y., Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the University of Strasbourg, France, and Habilitation-State Doctorate from Sorbonne University, History Department (’96). He published a monograph on each one of King David’s wives, The Michal Affair. From Zimri-Lim to the Rabbis (2005), The Demise of the Warlord. A New Look at the David Story (2010); (ed.), Abigail, Wife of David, and Other Ancient Oriental Women (2013). Abishag as Administrator of King David’s Household (2021) all published with Sheffield Phoenix Press. He also authored a Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel (2009) in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, an Akkadian grammar in French, Petite grammaire de l’akkadien à l’usage des débutants (2001) and Israël à l’ombre des Babyloniens et des Perses (2010).