1 Kings opens with a greatly aged King David, who is no longer able to keep his own body warm. As a solution, his court decides to find a beautiful maiden (because of course she has to be beautiful) upon whose bosom David might be warmed. They choose a woman named Abishag the Shunammite, and we are assured that she passed muster as far as beauty is concerned (no comment on her breast temperature, though, which I would have thought the more salient information). Perhaps in an attempt to make this sound a little less skeevy, the text assures us that, while Abishag tended to David, “the king knew her not” (1 Kgs 1:4), in the biblical sense, as it were. I’m not sure whether the comment is meant to provide additional evidence of David’s frailty (as Brant Clements of Both Saint And Cynic puts it, the verse could be implying that “the king’s sexual prowess has abated”), or to clarify that Abishag was brought in solely as a fleshy radiator and did not have any official status as royal wife/concubine.

Adonijah’s Succession

With David so weakened, it’s time for another one of his sons to make a play for the crown. This time, it’s Adonijah. If you will remember from way back in 2 Samuel 3, David’s sons are, in order of birth:

  1. Amnon, son of Ahinoam of Jezreel: Murdered by his brother, Absalom, for having raped their sister, Tamar.
  2. Chileab, son of Abigail: Never mentioned again after 2 Sam. 3:3. Presumably dead in infancy.
  3. Absalom, son of Maacah and grandson of Talmai, king of Geshur: Took the crown by force, then killed in the ensuing battle.
  4. Adonijah, son of Haggith.
  5. Shephatiah, son of Abital.
  6. Ithream, son of Eglah.
  7. Solomon, son of Bathsheba.

Based on the actions of Absalom and Adonijah, there seems to have been an assumption of primogeniture (and I’ve already mentioned my suspicion that Absalom’s murder of Amnon had more to do with his later power play than with Tamar). Given that the people wanted a warrior king who would defend the Hebrew nation against Philistines and other external threats, its perfectly conceivable that Adonijah honestly did believe that it was time for his father to retire and leave the ruling of the country to his eldest son.

And Adonijah wouldn’t have been alone in thinking that, as the text tells us that he had the support of Joab and Abiathar, the priest. He may even have had implicit approval from David, since we’re told that he gathered together chariots, horsemen, and fifty infantrymen as part of his retinue, and David never said a word in rebuke.

Either way, the whole succession narrative sounds positively Welsh in its messiness.

Adonijah’s ascent didn’t go uncontested, however. He was unable to get the support of Zadok, Benaiah, Nathan, Shimei, Rei (the only novel name in the list, my New Bible Commentary suggests that it may be “‘Shimei the friend’ following Josephus, since each of the other persons in the verse has a descriptive title,” p.325), and David’s “might men,” leaving most of David’s inner court against him.

We’re told that Adonijah made a sacrifice at the Serpent’s Stone, inviting all his brothers (except Solomon) and all the royal officials of Judah (except Nathan, Benaiah, or the “mighty men” – most of the people who refuse to support him). Interestingly, though not explicitly excluded, no mention is made of Israelite royal officials, suggesting that perhaps the confederation that had united the two halves of the Hebrew nation was, at least at this time, dissolved. The fact that he explicitly did not invite Solomon suggests that perhaps he had already identified him as a threat (or perhaps Solomon was invited, but he eventually became king and uninvited himself to place the brotherly rift firmly on Adonijah’s side).

Adonijah’s sacrifice appears to be a coronation ceremony, or else he was ordering it with the authority of a king, because his kingship seems to have been viewed as a fait accompli at this point.

Behind the scenes

Nathan turns to Bathsheba, convincing her that Adonijah’s succession puts her and her son, Solomon, in danger. Given Adonijah’s lack of support and the general violence with which succession has so far been taking place in this infant nation, his expression of concern seems quite legitimate. While primogeniture seems to be assumed, Israel/Judah is now on its fifth king and the other two eldest sons who were crowns were rather violently – and fatally – deposed. Getting rid of any other serious contenders would certainly be appealing to someone in Adonijah’s position.

Coronation of Pharamond, from Grandes Chroniques de France

Coronation of Pharamond, from Grandes Chroniques de France

What’s really interesting about the scene, if we accept Nathan’s sentiment as genuine, is that Nathan is the one who originally condemned David for his relationship with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12. Yet here he is, on Bathsheba’s side. However much guilt and punishment is heaped onto David for his lechery, none of the blame seems to be placed on Bathsheba (except the loss of her first child, though that is framed as a punishment for David – not for her, however much grief is splash damaged onto her by it). To me, this suggests that the author(s) did not understand Bathsheba’s participation in the affair to be consensual.

Nathan tells Bathsheba that Adonijah has become the king without David’s knowing, strongly suggesting that he as all but retired and is no longer paying any attention to the affairs of state. This inattentiveness could be why the names of inner circle are repeated so frequently – they were known because they were the ones doing all the work.

Nathan’s plan is to have Bathsheba approach David and remind him that he had promised her that Solomon would succeed him (which, if true, would explain the gaps in the courtier support for Adonijah, as well as any urgency Adonijah might feel in disposing of his little half-brother). Why then, she is to ask, is Adonijah the king? Then, while she is still speaking with David, Nathan will burst in and confirm the news.

When Bathsheba enters David’s chamber, we’re told that Abishag was in the middle of “ministering” to him (1 Kgs 1:15), which could not have been a particularly comfortable situation for Bathsheba. The scene reminds me of Lord Robert Arryn breastfeeding on his throne in Game of Thrones. Still, no mention is made of her reaction and she follows the plan. She seems to imply that the whole situation is caused by David’s failure to tell his subjects who will rule after him – a very legitimate accusation.

Finishing up, she tells David that she and Solomon will be “counted offenders” (1 Kgs. 1:22) when David is dead. It’s unclear whether she means that Adonijah will want to have them put well away from anywhere where they might cause harm, or because she intends to press for Solomon’s succession, which would make him a rebel if primogeniture is assumed without the old’s king direction. It is not explained why, if David hasn’t publicly declared Solomon his successor, Nathan knew of his apparent promise to Bathsheba.

When she is done, Nathan asks for an audience and tells David of Adonijah’s sacrificial ceremony and the support he has already gathered. He plays innocent, asking this is all part of a plan David has failed to mention to his servants (an accusation, since if this were truly what had happened, it would mean that David had put his followers in the position of having to choose between supporting a claimant against David, or failing to support David’s chosen heir).

As in Genesis 27, when Rebekah similarly secured a younger son’s inheritance, the plan works and David is moved into action.

Getting the right man for the job

David sends for Zadok, Nathan, and Benaiah, instructing them to bring Solomon to Gihon (on David’s own mule, no less!), so that Zadok and Nathan might anoint him as king. Certainly, crowning Solomon now, while David is still alive, would eliminate any confusion as to whom David supports. It would also force Adonijah to actually rebel against an anointed king if he intends to press the issue, rather than simply positioning himself as the heir apparent (as he seems to be doing, whatever Nathan and Bathsheba say). He intends to formally retire and have Solomon “be king in my stead” (1 Kgs. 1:35 – noting that he would rule over both Israel and Judah, while Adonijah only seems to have Judahite support).

My study Bible notes that Gihon would have been chosen because, while not visible from Enrogel – where Adonijah is having his festivities – is “well within earshot” (p.415). That means that when Solomon is anointed and they do the whole shtick of blowing the trumpet and proclaiming him king, it will be heard by Adonijah and all of his supporters.

They follow David’s instructions, accompanied by the Cherethites and Pelethites (who appear to be the royal guard – together with David’s mule, they are clear symbols of Solomon’s legitimacy).

As planned, Joab hears the uproar of Solomon’s coronation and asks about the noise. While he is still speaking, Jonathan, the son of Abiathar, approaches, and Adonijah assumes that he must be bringing good news. Jonathan disappoints, however, and informs Adonijah that his little brother beat him to the punch.

Adonijah’s guests, clearly realizing their mistake and the danger in which picking the losing side has placed him, tremble and scatter. Of course, whatever danger the guests are in would have been greatly multiplied for Adonijah, and he knows it. So he grasps at straws – or, rather, at the horns of the altar (my study Bible describes them as “projections resembling horns at the four corners of an altar” (p.415-426) in what appears to be a form of claiming sanctuary (a tradition that had clearly fallen out of favour by the time Exodus 21:14 was written). He refuses to release the altar until Solomon swears that he will not kill Adonijah with a sword – which seems absurdly specific, and gives Solomon a really obvious means to get away with killing Adonijah on a technicality.

Solomon agrees, but only if Adonijah is a “worthy man” (1 Kgs. 1:52). The meaning is unclear, but my New Bible Commentary says that “the term suggests a man of wealth, not one living on the king” (p.325). Whatever it means, Adonijah apparently passes the test, and he is sent home (suggesting, perhaps, that his remaining there would be compulsory).