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by Al Maxey

Issue #733 ------- October 11, 2017
Even the greatest king must at
last be put to bed with a shovel

An Old Russian Saying

King David and the Diatherapist
Strange Account of Abishag the Shunammite

I believe we can safely say, without any irreverence intended, that there are some very strange things found in the Bible. Part of this sense of strangeness is undoubtedly due to the fact that we are far removed, in both time and location, from the peoples and cultures in which these stories originally occurred. Thus, what may seem odd or even personally offensive to us, most likely had no such impact upon them. Conversely, if they were able to travel forward to our time and place, they would almost assuredly find many things shocking and even offensive that we do routinely and without a second thought. Thus, it is important to realize that when we read the Bible, and the Old Testament writings in particular, we are examining events and attitudes which are thousands of years in the past, and within cultures and societies very much unlike our own. This can pose a very real problem for biblical hermeneutists and interpreters, and certainly for the lesser trained students of Scripture. What are we to make, for example, of the wife of Moses flinging the foreskin of their child at her husband? Why was this such a "big deal" to this woman, and why did it almost cost Moses his life? Yes, it all seems rather "weird" to our modern minds, but in light of responsible study and further reflection, as well as intense investigation into how those people lived and viewed the world around them, it becomes far more understandable and far less unusual. With regard to this strange occurrence between Moses and his wife, I would urge careful and prayerful consideration of Reflections #34 ("Case of the Flung Foreskin"). Additionally, what are we to make of the Philistines sending an offering to the Israelites of five golden hemorrhoids and five golden mice? What on earth were these people thinking?! I have dealt with this strange story in Reflections #135 ("Five Golden Emerods: A Tale of Rodents and 'Rhoids"). Yes, the Bible is a fascinating book, and it does indeed contain some very, very weird accounts. Let's face it: studying the Scriptures is never boring!

Consider, for example, something that happened at the end of King David's life. I have never heard a sermon on what took place between David and Abishag. "I wouldn't touch that story with a ten foot pole," one preacher declared. He apparently felt he would be risking his position with the church if he dared to speak of it in a sermon, or even in passing in a class. Many of you reading this present study will likely never have heard of Abishag the Shunammite. She is rarely, if ever, mentioned. After all, how do you present a story about a 70 year old man sleeping with a 12 year old girl? Yet, the account is in the Bible, and it is actually a very important story, for this young girl plays a vital role in the rightful transition of power in ancient Israel. Had it not been for this bit of palace intrigue, during which Abishag became the focus of attention, Adonijah could possibly have ended up on the throne as Israel's third king rather than Solomon! The passage you have probably never heard a sermon on from your pastor, and which you may never have read, is 1 Kings 1:1-4. "Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, 'Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.' So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not" (KJV). The language of the KJV is rather archaic here, but I'm sure you get the picture!

David was old and feeble; he was dying. As is often the case with such persons, he had poor circulation and thus "he gat no heat" (he couldn't get warm; he was always cold). The physicians of that time were limited in their medical knowledge and understanding, and some of their remedies seem almost comical to us today. It made perfect sense to them, however, to treat the king's condition with an ancient form of diathermy (this is a field of medical therapy, pioneered more recently [in 1907] by the German physician Karl Franz Nagelschmidt; he coined the term "diathermy" by combining the Greek words "dia" and "therma," thus forming a term meaning "heating through"). If one is cold, and has poor circulation, then it was felt that the applying of something hot should take care of the problem. In King David's day his physicians' medical advice was to put something hot in bed with the king to keep him warm, and they determined the best "heat treatment" for the cold, feeble king was a warm-blooded, beautiful young virgin who could cuddle up to David in his bed and thereby transfer her warmth to him, and perhaps even, by her close, intimate contact, rouse the king from his growing lethargy. With David's permission, therefore, such a beautiful young virgin was sought throughout the land. A fair maiden by the name of Abishag, from the city of Shunem in Issachar, was chosen, and this girl thereby, through her service to the king, became one of the first known "diatherapists."

There are a number of things we need to examine, by way of establishing the context for this unusual action, so that we might have a better perception of why our God chose to include this narrative in the Scriptures, thus preserving it for the study of future generations. The first point of focus, of course, is the physical and emotional condition of King David, for it was this in large part which necessitated and prompted the actions and events that would follow. We know from the text that David was at this time about 70 years old (2 Samuel 5:4-5; he was 30 when he became king, and he reigned for 40 years, 6 months; it is interesting to note that of all the kings of Israel, only David, Solomon and Manasseh lived beyond the age of 60). "The Book of Kings opens with a sad scene. David the mighty hero of the books of Samuel has succumbed to the vicissitudes of his life and reign. He is an old man 'stricken in years.' The hardships of his youth, the wounds of battle, the sorrows of his later years, and perhaps disease as well have all taken their toll. Even though blankets were piled upon him, the old king was not able to maintain normal body temperature" [Dr. James E. Smith, I & II Kings, p. 64]. David had become quite feeble, and it appears he may well have been confined to his chambers, and even perhaps to his bed. "The king was now too feeble to rise from his bed" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 3, p. 8]. An incapacitated monarch was an invitation to insurrection; unless David could somehow be revived, both physically and mentally, he was at risk of losing the throne. "The king's impotence forms the backdrop for rival factions to make advances toward the throne" [Dr. Jesse Long, The College Press NIV Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, p. 58]. "This brief account of David's feebleness and apparent inability to act decisively is given as the backdrop to Adonijah's attempted coup" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 25]. Adonijah, who was the fourth son of David, born to him by the woman named Haggith (2 Samuel 3:4), "seized the opportunity of David's decrepitude to make himself king" [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3, p. 17]. He likely felt himself to be the legitimate heir, since his three older brothers (Amnon, Kileab, and Absalom) were apparently all deceased at this time, leaving him next in line to the throne. The problem, of course, is that David had already chosen Solomon, his son by Bathsheba, to assume the throne at his death. Thus, as David lay dying in his bed chamber, great "palace intrigue" was mounting all around him.

Something clearly had to be done, and quickly, or there would be a coup. The thinking of the servants who attended King David (Josephus identifies them as the king's personal physicians: "Antiquities of the Jews," book 7, chapter 14, section 3) was that the best course of action was to revive the king by any means possible. Their patient was cold: so let's warm him up; he was lethargic and disinterested: so let's arouse his spirit and reassert his vigor for life. Their solution? Place a beautiful young virgin in his bed with him! Problem solved on all levels, right?!! She'll warm the old king up both physically and emotionally. Although some students and scholars of Scripture hesitate to suggest a sexual component to this proposed "medical treatment" for David by his physicians, it nevertheless was almost certainly a factor (at least in their minds). "David's sexual incapacity may have precipitated these events, for in the ancient Near East the virility of the king appears to have been associated with his perceived ability to govern. ... Thus, the sexual overtones to their proposal stand out in the phrase 'let her lie in thy bosom' (somewhat obscured by 'lie beside him' in the NIV). 'Lying with someone' is a Hebrew idiom for sexual intercourse" [Dr. Jesse Long, The College Press NIV Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, p. 58]. "In the Septuagint translation we find the phrase, 'and let her excite him and lie with him.' ... Abishag acted in the double capacity of nurse and concubine" [Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, p. 246]. The Pulpit Commentary concurs with this, as do most scholars: "Though she was recommended as a nurse, they would naturally suppose she might be taken as a concubine" [vol. 5, p. 2]. Although most scholars agree that Abishag was given to the king as either a concubine or secondary wife, and that a part of the "treatment" for David's condition would be sexual in nature, this was not to be, for David himself refused to make use of this young virgin in this way. "The king knew her not" (1 Kings 1:4, KJV). The NIV reads, "The king had no intimate relations with her." Even more specifically: "The king had no sexual relations with her" [New Living Translation). We are not told whether this was because David was morally unwilling, or if he was physically unable.

Either way, Abishag remained a virgin during the time she attended to the needs of David. In this way, her service unto her aged master "conforms to a type of diatherapy attested in later literature" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 25]. Part of this later literature would be the writings of the ancient Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher Aelius Galenus (129-216 A.D.), perhaps better known today as Galen of Pergamum (the city in which he was born), who confirms it as a practice in Greek medicine (Methus Medicus 8.7). John Wesley (1703-1791) noted, "The same counsel doth Galen give for the cure of some cold and dry distempers" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. "There are similarities in modern emergency procedures for treating hypothermia, in which, among other things, the body heat of a healthy person is used to help warm the afflicted victim" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 26]. Even such expressions as "a three dog night" are based on the tenets of diathermy: a night so cold that it would require the heat of three dogs snuggled against a person to keep them warm. "It has been an acknowledged fact with physicians of all ages, that departing vitality may be preserved and strengthened by communicating the vital warmth of strong and youthful persons" [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3, p. 17]. It is also said "to have been prescribed by a Jewish physician to the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5, p. 2].

As for Abishag herself, we know very little. Although she is a rather minor figure in this narrative, her impact upon the persons and events unfolding around her, and upon the future of the nation of Israel, was enormous. She could be likened to a mere pawn in the "game of thrones" being played out in the royal court, with her presence on the board impacting the outcome of the game! It is stressed more than once that she was very, very beautiful, and that she was a virgin. Thus, she was physically stunning and appealing to the opposite sex (which would become evident following David's death). She was from the town of Shunem, which was one of the towns allotted to the tribe of Issachar (Joshua 19:18), making her a Shunammite. This village was "six miles east of Megiddo in the valley of Esdraelon" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 10]. Some biblical scholars, though not many, have "conjectured, ingeniously and not improbably, that Abishag is the 'fair Shulammite' of the Song of Solomon 6:13" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5, p. 2]. Others suggest she was perhaps the well-to-do woman Elisha met in Shunem some time later (an encounter described in 2 Kings 4:8ff). These, however, are mere speculations, although the latter is found frequently in Jewish lore [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 8]. It should also be noted that Abishag is described as a "young damsel/maiden." This is the Hebrew word "na'arah," which according to the writings of the ancient Rabbis refers to girls who are no older than twelve (or twelve and a half). There are a host of quotes from biblical scholars validating this aspect of Abishag's identity, and I would refer you to the web site "Discover the Truth," where this information is presented in great depth in three separate articles on King David and Abishag dated 9/17/2016, 9/21/2016, and 9/25/2016. Although it is shocking to our modern sensibilities to find a 70 year old man snuggling up in bed with a prepubescent child, such things were less shocking in distant cultures thousands of years in the past.

What is extremely important to understand in the account before us at the beginning of 1st Kings, however, is that it is strongly implied in the text that Abishag was viewed by the several parties involved in this narrative (Solomon and Adonijah especially) as either the wife of David, or at the very least one of his concubines and/or a member of his royal harem. That fact must not escape us if we are to truly understand what follows in this interesting piece of palace intrigue! More about this in a moment. While David is in bed, with Abishag ministering to him, David's son Adonijah sees an opportunity to become king. Thus, he begins making preparations to that end, and begins to make alliances with key figures in power, and to present himself to the public in as "kingly" a manner as possible (1 Kings 1:5-10). The prophet Nathan, though, seeing what Adonijah is plotting, goes to Bathsheba and says, "Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king without our lord David's knowing it? Now then, let me advise you how you can save your own life and the life of your son Solomon" (1 Kings 1:11-12). He tells Bathsheba to go into David's chambers and ask him to appoint Solomon king of Israel (apparently no official public proclamation of David's intent had yet been made, although he had promised Bathsheba that Solomon would reign after him). She would remind David of this promise, and also inform him of the actions of his son Adonijah. Nathan would then come in and affirm all that she was telling David. "So Bathsheba went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him" (vs. 15). Thus, Abishag was a witness to all that was taking place at this time. As a result of the news brought by Nathan and Bathsheba, David gave orders that Solomon was to be crowned king immediately, and this took place with great ceremony (1 Kings 1:28-40). When Adonijah heard what had happened he was terrified that he would be put to death by Solomon. Therefore, he fled to the altar and took hold of the horns of it, hoping that he would be spared in that place of safety (vs. 41-51). King Solomon did indeed agree to spare his brother Adonijah, and told him to go home and not cause any further trouble. David then "bowed in worship on his bed and said, 'Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has allowed my eyes to see a successor on my throne today'" (vs. 47-48).

Sadly, this was not to be the end of the story. Adonijah continued his plotting to take the throne away from Solomon. It was not long before David died (1 Kings 2:10). Shortly thereafter, Adonijah hatched a new plan: He would go to Bathsheba and try to get her to convince her son Solomon to give him Abishag as his wife. Seems like a harmless request, right? After all, she was just some pretty young virgin from the village of Shunem; who would miss her, right?! His request of Bathsheba is recorded in 1 Kings 2:13-18, and it is filled with syrupy sweetness hiding the vile venom underneath. Bathsheba fell for it; she didn't see through his deception. Thus, she went to King Solomon with Adonijah's request. Solomon, however, knew immediately what Adonijah was up to, and he was furious!! At this point we should stop and take note of what Adonijah was seeking to do when he asked to marry Abishag the Shunammite. Keep in mind that Adonijah was older than Solomon, a point Solomon immediately points out to his mother (1 Kings 2:22). Thrones typically went to the older son. Also, to the successor always went the possessions of the previous king, including wives, concubines and the royal harem. Had Abishag been nothing more than a young servant girl, there would have been no problem with letting Adonijah have her as a wife. However, if Abishag was, in fact, one of the wives or concubines of the previous king, then giving her to Adonijah, the oldest living son of the previous king, would be almost an admission of his claim to the throne. "After David's death, Abishag was involved in the intrigues of succession, when Adonijah, the oldest living son of David, asked for her hand. This was tantamount to asking for the kingdom, for it was a rule in the ancient East that the whole of a king's harem became the personal property of his successor" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 10]. "Evidently Abishag was considered the wife of David. Consequently, Adonijah's request involved pretensions to the throne" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 17]. Clearly, "Solomon regarded Abishag as David's wife" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 11]. "Solomon considered her David's wife when his brother Adonijah asked to marry her after David's death. Solomon interpreted the request as a step toward becoming king" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 7]. "Solomon saw that by marrying the king's wife he designed to revive his pretence to the kingdom" [John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

In 1 Kings 2:22-25 we find that "Solomon saw through the scheme and, probably startling his mother considerably, spoke rather vehemently: 'You might as well request the kingdom for him'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 37]. Bathsheba was clueless, but Solomon was very wise. He knew exactly what Adonijah was up to. "In asking for the hand of Abishag, he was almost certainly not pursuing romantic interests, but trying to secure for himself a claim to the throne. ... for possession of the harem was a title to the throne" [ibid]. This was a custom among a number of ancient peoples. "According to Herodotus (3.68), the custom existed among the Persians. The ancient Arabs had a similar practice" [ibid]. Josephus described Solomon's reaction to Bathsheba this way: "But the king was greatly offended at these words, and sent away his mother, and said that Adonijah aimed at great things; and that he wondered that she did not desire him to yield up the kingdom to him, as to his elder brother, since she desired that he might marry Abishag" [Antiquities of the Jews, book 8, chapter 1, section 3]. Therefore, Solomon ordered Adonijah to be executed, along with several who conspired with him. They were put to death immediately, thus securing the throne for Solomon, a man through whom would descend the Messiah! "Though this may seem harsh, it was clearly necessary since Adonijah was evidently still hoping to establish himself on the throne. To leave him alive with such ambitions would leave a festering sore in the kingdom" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 37]. Yes, the story of King David and Abishag, of Solomon and Adonijah and Bathsheba, is an intriguing one. In some ways, a weird one. But through all the strangeness and intrigue, we see the hand of almighty God directing the events of history to the ultimate attainment of His purpose! Praise God for His sovereignty and grace, which are clearly evidenced in history for those willing to see!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:
(Thoughts he shared on his Facebook page)

I wish I would have had the writings of Al Maxey, Patrick Mead, and Bobby Valentine when I was growing up, because the "Christian" influence on me at that time was heavily weighted on the ability to condemn others for not "accurately" understanding the Bible. Even though Al, Patrick and Bobby, as well as others, have helped me to better understand what it really is to be a Christian, the damage was already done because much of the JOY I should be able to have was stolen years ago by the legalists and their teaching. On another note: In 1982, Edward Fudge published his book, "The Fire That Consumes," and over the years it has become one of the most referenced books on the subject of final punishment as taught by the Bible. Al Maxey has since published his own book, "From Ruin To Resurrection" (with the Foreword written by Edward Fudge), in which he discusses the same topic, and it is a much easier read for me! After spending about 10 years reading and studying this subject, I now have to wonder why so many Christians continue to teach the old traditional views that contradict the Bible and defame our God. You would really like Al Maxey's book. He does a great job of putting everything together in an easier-to-read format than one finds in Edward Fudge's book.

From a Reader in Texas:

I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that I owe you a debt of gratitude that I will never be able to repay!! The bonds of legalism that have kept the door to my heart shuttered from the Holy Spirit have been thrown off, and I can now say, "Free at last!" I am free to bask in God's grace! Your writings have paved the way for my newly found freedom in Christ Jesus. Thank You, Al, for your bravery, fortitude, and hard work. You have offered a life-line to all of us who were drowning in the foul waters of legalism.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Would that all of my brethren and family could read and understand this simple, yet profound, message straight from the Scriptures that you gave to us in Reflections #732 ("The Priesthood of All Believers: The Who-When-How of Christian Service").

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Your Reflections article "The Priesthood of All Believers" is the best I have read on this, and I totally agree with you. More and more I'm convinced that when man "organized and institutionalized" the Body of Christ, with offices and officers in official church buildings, the Bride of Christ lost its identity. Sad!

From a Reader in Kentucky:

I did my Master's thesis on this topic (the priesthood of all believers). As you stated, each of us can go boldly before God, because we are all priests under the High Priest Jesus!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Ooohh, Bro. Al, you know the legalists are going to say that you are just trying to put women into the pulpit and into church leadership roles! Yes, they have decided for themselves that we are all equal ... but, men are more equal.

From an Author in Arizona:

Al, in your latest Reflections you wrote, "In this present dispensation of grace, every true believer is regarded by the Lord as a priest engaged in priestly service. And yes, that includes women!" AMEN, Al. My sentiment exactly. There are many priests (every believer), but only one High Priest (Jesus). My brother, as you know, I have for decades taught that the best route to take in our efforts to bring reform is to work from within "the system." You are making inroads within the system, so stay in there: you have my blessing! I truly understand your predicament. I have been attacked quite a few times for seeking this same reform. God bless you, Al. You are loved.

From an Elder in New Mexico:

Romans 1 & 2 raise interesting questions! Just how powerful is the cross? Is it possible that the blood shed by our Savior has the power to atone for the sins of those who have never heard the name of Jesus? Many sinners lived before the coming of Christ, and many have never learned of Jesus' sacrifice. Does that mean they are unable to experience salvation? Are infants born to those who have never heard of Jesus also without hope? My answer is "No." The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is far more powerful than what is typically proclaimed by modern preachers. Romans 1 tells us that all humans may see proof of God's existence in what He has created. They don't have to have Bibles to realize that God exists. Religion attempts to teach people that an unknown god may reward them for seeking him. Will God recognize and reward such misguided faith? Must they (or we) have perfect understanding before God will extend His grace? Is the sacrifice of Christ sufficiently powerful to atone for their lack of understanding (or ours)? Perfection in doctrine isn't a prerequisite for salvation, is it? We'd better hope it's not, or else we too will most assuredly be lost! We Christians are divided because we proclaim doctrines that deny the power of the cross. Father, forgive our arrogance. Help us repent and turn to You in humility, finally understanding we are saved only by Your grace!

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