The power of words: The biblical Abishag in contemporary American Jewish women’s poetry

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2 Kings 1:1–5, 14 recounts how a young virgin, Abishag the Shunammite, was brought to old King David to warm his cold bones. After the king’s death, Abishag functions as a pawn in Adonijah’s attempt to usurp his brother. Throughout the narrative none of Abishag’s emotions are revealed. Although numerous twentieth-century poets have addressed this biblical theme, I shall focus on those by American Jewish women poets. This approach is based on Helene Cixous observation that “woman must write woman”—in this case, women poets giving a female figure the voice she is denied in the biblical text. Demonstrating Cixous’ argument that women’s writing and freedom is bound up with their sexuality, they use Abishag to find their way from silence and passivity into independence and sexuality. From Glück’s submissive “Abishag” (1975), the little-known biblical figure develops into an independent woman in charge of her own destiny (B. Holender, 1991; E. A. Sussman-Socolow, 1999; D. Walders, 2005), working her way from a mere “warming device” into a sexy woman who uses her sexuality to tease the king (S. Kaufman, 1984) or dreams of different sexual relations (L. Barrett, 2007), her sexuality being bound up with her independence (S. Skolnik, 2011).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-36
Number of pages16
JournalStudies in American Jewish Literature
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.


  • Abishag the shunammite
  • Contemporary poetry
  • Gynocriticism
  • Jewish American women poets
  • Midrash


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