Chick-fil-A’s Biblical Family of the Day

Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy: “We support biblical families.”

Today’s Chick-fil-A Biblical Family of the Day: David & Abishag (1 Kings 1:1-4).

King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. So his servants said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm.” So they searched for a beautiful girl throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually.

I always picture this passage being recited by a visibly nervous palace press secretary. He’s standing behind a bank of microphones in Jerusalem, dabbing a handkerchief against his sweaty forehead. “… She became the king’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually. We have no further comment at this time and we are not taking any questions.”

Then he hurries off, muttering to himself how this was the last thing the administration needed to deal with right after Censusgate.

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  • Jim Roberts

    And think how unnecessary this story would’ve been if the Israelites had domesticated cats. (We have a Norwegian forest cat who loves sleeping under the blankets in cold weather)

  • Magic_Cracker

    And let’s not forget Uriahgate, Gathgate, Absolomgate!

  • VMink

    And they thought Jonathangate was long in the past….

  • She became the king’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually.

    To be fair, if King David was so old and infirm that he couldn’t get warm even under blankets, it’s possible that he was old and infirm in, y’know, other ways.  So he might not have known her sexually for reals.

  • VMink

    ‘And then did Fluffy did shred the Tapestry, with his claws he did shred the Tapestry, and the LORD did say, “Bad cat, out of the temple!  No tuna!”  And of course did Fluffy remain; yea, did Fluffy not go out from the House of the LORD.  And the LORD did sigh and scratch Fluffy behind the ears.  And all was tranquil.  Until the fish incident.’  Kittionomy 3:18-20

  • That census story is very freaky…

    1. God’s angry with Israel
    2. God therefore makes David take a census.
    3. David takes census then realised it’s a sin.
    4. God punishes Israel for David’s sin which he made David commit even though it’s Israel he was angry with to start with.

     Does it lose something in translation or is it really that bizarre?

  • Lori

    That was hardly the only time that God told someone to do something and then punished them for doing it, so I’m going with “really that bizarre”.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Actually, for all he does for the Lord, usually at His behest, the Lord is consistently a total dick to David.

  • The_L1985

     The only time I can think of that he isn’t is that whole “killing Goliath instead of letting Goliath stomp you into the floor” thing.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Tho’ one can argue that it’s killing Goliath that sets every thing else in motion. Save for that, David would have spent the rest of his days tending sheep, and may have been the happier for it!

  • One of the problems with this story is that it is never explained what is sinful about taking the census in the first place! It’s not the first time a census was taken, and there’s no problem with it the other times. (Caveat: I Am Not A Bible Scholar, and I may simply be ignorant of a
    commonly accepted explanation. But casual Googling did not turn a
    plausible one up.)

    It’s relatively clear that it’s not some kind of Divine mystery, because other people in the story question it (so presumably they know what’s wrong with it), but it’s never spelled out.

    So I’m going to go with “something is lost in translation”… not linguistic translation, but cultural. That is, I’m guessing that contemporary readers would understand what was being implied-but-not-said here, but without that historical context we’re all just left scratching our heads.

    Whether that explanation would also make sense of God’s bizarre behavior here, I dunno.

  • Nicanthiel

    YMMV, but I’ve always read the situation, particularly in light of Joab’s wording of the answer, as David was looking to see how many soldiers he could form an army with and crush all his enemies (cause, y’know, God never once does that for him or anything). So, implictly, the sin would be pride, greed or vengeance, or all three.

  • Jurgan

     Yeah, that one confused me too.  There are a few explanations, but none of them make a lot of sense to me.  The best I could find was that David was doing it for his own ego (but then, God ordered him to do it?) and that the people themselves broke the law in the process of the census by not following the correct procedure.  Both of those explanations seem a bit weak, but I figure there must be some reason that made sense at the time.  Also, the Chronicles version of the story uses the excuse that “the devil made me do it,” but that seems even sketchier.

    A possible historic explanation might be that there was a real plague amongst the Israelites, and after the fact the people devised the explanation that it was based on something the king had done.  The same thing happened, according to legend, in Thebes because of Oedipus’s murder of his father.  There’s any number of explanations for why it was included in the Bible, but I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to take from it.  The moral seems to be that you should focus on God’s glory and not your own, so I’ll just leave it at that and not worry too much about the unfortunate implications.

  • Ursula L

    1. God’s angry with Israel

    2. God therefore makes David take a census.
    3. David takes census then realised it’s a sin.
    4. God punishes Israel for David’s sin which he made David commit even though it’s Israel he was angry with to start with.

     My guess is, God wants to punish Israel with the epidemic we later see.   But how would they know how badly they are punished, if the total punishment isn’t recorded?

    So God orders the census, which then allows David to quantify the full extent of the epidemic’s damage.  

    Being able to quantify the damage changes things.  Without the census, without statistics and numbers, then the epidemic is just disease, hitting people one person at a time, with the harm recorded on the individual and family level, maybe the level of a town or village.  

    With the census, the effect of the epidemic on the entire nation becomes known.  

    When God asks David about various punishments, David asks for a punishment that won’t affect him, personally.  But with the census, and being able to see the “before” and “after” numbers, David realizes the extent of harm the epidemic does.  

    The “evil” of the census is seen at the end – David knows the extent of the epidemic, how many thousands died, and suddenly choosing a “natural” disaster, one at God’s hand, such as disease, is no longer less evil than choosing the disaster of war and an attacking enemy coming after him personally.  

    The census also changes the way that the ruler knows the people.  Without such numbers, the ruler knows the names of tribes, the names of clans within tribes, various heads of major households.  It is knowledge of people that’s based on knowing people.  

    With a census, the ruler knows the people as numbers.  So many people in that town, so many people in that tribe.  

    David’s reign is a transformative time for Israel, on the cusp between having a decentralized government, organized around tribes and families and ruled by various judges chosen based on their individual reputation, to being an organized nation-state ruled by a king.  The census is a part of that change, when the central ruler can no longer know the people as people, but rather as numbers and statistics.  

  •  Tho’ one can argue that it’s killing Goliath that sets every thing else
    in motion. Save for that, David would have spent the rest of his days
    tending sheep, and may have been the happier for it!

    Thanks so much.  Now I want to go write a short story.  But I haven’t the time!

  • Jurgan

     Well, David wasn’t always that great, either.  The whole “murder a subordinate and steal his wife” incident, in particular.

  • Mike

    Regarding items 2 and 4:

    2 Samuel 24 is ambiguous. The translation is clarified in the parallel text of 1 Chronicles 21. God did not move David to take the census.

    God was not already angry with Israel, he became angry because of David’s actions. I see another side to this story in that Israel is also being made to suffer for David’s actions because they were the ones insistant on having a king in the first place.

  • Vermic

    “Abishag” is a badass name.  That’s not a name you give to the fairest maiden in the land, that’s the name of the many-horned demon who has captured said maiden, and you have to speak it backwards under a crescent moon to banish it back to the Seventh Stratum of Tartarus.

  • The_L1985

     This needs to be a story.  I think I’ll use Abishag for the name of a monster at some point.

  • Jim Roberts

    By the way, from what I’ve read of the other Semitic kings, the fact that David didn’t “uncover his feet” with Abishag was a BAD thing. A king who couldn’t satisfy a woman was weak and ripe for conquest.

  • Why can’t the fairest maiden in the land be a badass?

  • Darkrose

    Then, of course, there’s the apocryphal version:

    “For Fluffy went out from the House of the LORD, as he was commanded, but verily he did return, not in two days, or in three, but the very next day.”

  • Vermic

    I like to think the biblical Abishag (and yes, in 1000 BCE this was probably a very pretty name) was a badass.  She was, after all, part of palace life and given the shark-tank nature of the typical royal court, it was hardly uncommon for royal wives and consorts to be formidable individuals in their own right.  Abishag, I suspect, was nobody’s fool.  It’s not her fault if her boss was an old, possibly senile king who regarded her as little more than a human blanket.

    Wikipedia says some believe Abi was the subject of the Song of Songs, which if true at least offers a more illustrious place in history than “King David’s duvet”.

  • What I read about this was that they sent the maiden in to see whether the king could still get it up, since they viewed that test of “manliness” as part of the criteria for kingship.

    On a different note, Fred might want to consider making a tag for these posts, for ease of reference.

  • Fusina

     See, and now I’m picturing her all in black leather with a temporary tramp stamp (no tattooing, it was the LAW) and an awesomely cool black Harley chariot to tool around town in.

  • Well, David’s death does occur with suspicious promptness after his failure to know Abishag sexually.

    And Solomon murders the half brother he had promised his protection, because that brother had requested Abishag be given to him as a concubine, saying “he might as well have asked for the whole kingdom”.

    Just what symbolic significance did this girl have, anyway?

  • Alex H.

    I think it’s a plausible claim, actually — Viagra hadn’t been invented yet, and if David couldn’t keep warm, it’s a good bet his circulation wasn’t what it had been when he was cuckolding and murdering Uriah.

  • Ursula L

    Just what symbolic significance did this girl have, anyway?

    This is pure speculation.

    Going by various Old Testament stories, it seems to have been a custom in royal courts that a king would have a large harem.  This would include his wives and concubines, but it would also include other women, including young women considered “virgins” who were kept available for the king and whose male relatives might gain political power if she became a favorite of the king.

    This story very much reminds me of the story of Esther, where the king had people looking for beautiful young women to add to his harem.  The young women were subjected to a year-long beauty treatment, after which they’d be sent to the king for a night.  

    After that night, they were sent to a different (used and rejected) harem, where they’d stay unless the king happened to remember them and chose to ask for them again. 


    Within this context, a prince gaining control of the harem, and the young (virgin) women being prepared for the king, would mean that he’d gained control of the palace and the court, and that he was king.  

    It also might become symbolically important that if the old king lacked the ability to have sex with (rape) the woman of his choice, then the new king having sex with (raping) that woman shows that he’s taking up where the old king left off.  

  • Ursula L

    More thoughts on the fate of Abishag.  

    Marriages, in the context of the story of this part of the Old Testament, aren’t between a man and a woman.  They’re between a man and another man who gives the first man his daughter.  (Or, if the father wasn’t around, an older brother, or uncle, or another male relative.)  

    Now a man/father with a daughter or several daughters can use his daughters in various ways.  

    One way would be to arrange for the daughter to be married to a man of equal or slightly higher status than the father giving the daughter away.  This would be a safe bet.  Social, economic and political status of the prospective son-in-law is known.   Dowry and bride price, once calculated, are roughly equal, although in a non-cash economy, each is a different thing, with a woman bringing things like finished textiles to the marriage while a son-in-law gives the father-in-law livestock or other “manly” things.  

    Another possibility, particularly for a man with high social status but limited economic status would be to give his daughter to a man with high economic status but lower social status, the father using his high social status to gain economic status via his new son-in-law.   Another safe bet, particularly if the man/father is more interested in political calculations than immediate financial gain. 

    A third possibility is a high-stakes gamble.  Give your daughter to the king’s virgin harem.  If your luck is bad, she winds up in the “used and rejected” harem, and at least sure of basic food, clothing and shelter.  At best, she winds up a king’s favorite, and you gain a lot of political, social and economic power.


    David was old at the time of this story.  Perhaps seen as vulnerable to manipulation by a young and pretty woman in his harem, and her male relatives.  Certainly at a stage of life where sexual impotence would be equated with political and social impotence.     

    Abishag’s  relatives knew her to be pretty and young.  They would likely have been content to have her take her chances at becoming a particular favorite concubine of an old king.  One whose power was ripe for the taking by people with the right connections. One who kept up his household so that even if she was taken to the king to be raped for one night and then rejected, she’d at least have basic food and shelter in the “used and rejected” harem. 

    After David died, the politics and economics changes.  The relatives Abishag of  and of other young women in the “virgin harem” would not want the young women they gave to the harem to fall prey to any young prince who gained temporary control, but might also loos that control easily.  

    They’d want to hold out, to keep their daughter nominally “virgin” until they were sure that the person claiming control of the harem and the court and the throne had the actual power to back up that claim. 

  • Amaryllis

    I think I’ll use Abishag for the name of a monster at some point.
    In Chick-fil-A’s Poem-of-the-Day, Robert Frost beats you to it– because there’s nothing more monstrous than an ugly old woman, right?* — and offers some good advice:

    The witch that came (the withered hag)
    To wash the steps with pail and rag
    Was once the beauty Abishag,

    The picture pride of Hollywood.
    Too many fall from great and good
    For you to doubt the likelihood.

    Die early and avoid the fate.
    Or if predestined to die late,
    Make up your mind to die in state.

    Make the whole stock exchange your own!
    If need be occupy a throne,
    Where nobody can call you crone.

    Some have relied on what they knew,
    Others on being simply true.
    What worked for them might work for you.

    No memory of having starred
    Atones for later disregard
    Or keeps the end from being hard.

    Better to go down dignified
    With boughten friendship at your side
    Than none at all. Provide, provide! 

    * what, me bitter?

  • I had never heard the story of King David’s census before. I can’t help but wonder whether that’s part of why that deranged woman Michele Bachman was so opposed to the 2010 census that she urged her own constituents not to participate and flirted with sanctioning violence against census-takers.

  • Carstonio

    Reading the relevant passage in scripture, I’m not sure why the OT god found the census objectionable. I first heard of the story in Peanuts, when Snoopy was pretending to be a census taker and Linus quoted the story.


  • Carstonio

    That was just Bachmann playing demagogue. If she really believed the story, she would have been pleading with the Executive Branch and her colleagues to halt the census, warning of plagues, instead of treating the issue as one of purity.

  • mud man

    Personally, I think that when God talks to someone, that person doesn’t always hear it right. Humans have such a tendency to make up extra stuff.

  • mud man

    Think of it as redistricting. Land was patriarchally apportioned, never to be absolutely alienated: who does God REALLY want to have dominion here and there? So David is (trying to) upset a lot of “not-in-compliance” applecarts. Note that the whole deal with Abishag … wonderfully dissolute name, that … had to do with the succession dispute between Solomon and Adonijah, which involved a lot of intricate legitimacy stuff. 

  • wendy

    Was this so soon after her time with David that the half-brother could get Abishag pregnant and pretend it was David’s? 

  • alfgifu

    There’s one obvious reason why a census might be remembered as a Bad Thing: the king knows what you’ve got, so the king can take what he wants. See also: England, 1080s, the Domesday Book.

    There might be a point in here somewhere about good government (census so that tax levels can be set appropriately to pool resources to good effect and support those in need) and bad government (census as an inventory of all the juicy stuff the royal officers can grab whenever the whim takes them).

    I rather like the name Abishag – it rolls off the tongue well, and I have no problem picturing her as a great beauty. But then, I think Aelfgifu and Aethelflaed sound pretty neat as well, and my trusty bike is known as Freawaru, so I might not be the best judge.

  • Carstonio

    While that makes sense, we don’t know from the OT text if the Israelites’ god had the same objection. For all we know, the god might have just hated arithmetic.

  • alfgifu

    True. I suppose, from a Christian perspective, my natural instinct is to look for internal consistency in the character of God – where something is a bit bizarre, there’s clearly information that didn’t get recorded, so I’m trying to come up with a version that fits in with the rest of the Bible (including the character of Jesus). I’m not claiming any actual knowledge here, though.

    One of the underlying assumptions of that version is that God genuinely spoke two different messages. Another way of reading the same situation would be:David: “Guys, we’re having a census!”Israelites: “No, we really don’t want one of those.”David: “Er… God says so! Yes, that’s what happened! He told me just now!”Israelites: “Huh, funny old thing, God’s just told us that censuses are sinful and evil and bad and wrong, so we definitely can’t have one.”And then someone hedged their bets and wrote both versions up into the same story (or heard both stories later on and combined them, without thinking about the contradiction).

    I rather like using some of the weirder stories as a prompt for thought along these lines. I’m not trying to work out what actually happened: I’m enough of a historian to know that, without further evidence, it’s all a bit shaky.

  • The Guest That Posts

    Clearly, God hates census takers. Someone get me Fred Phelps on the line.

  • Actually, that’s more Michele Bachmann’s bailiwick.  (I think someone mentioned her already.)