27 July 2016

Abishag: Pity is not Love

[Warning: mild sexual content]

1. Kings 1:1-4

Here I lie,
afraid, ashamed,
in the arms of a man
who can no more;
trying to give you
what you cannot take,
caught in an embrace
that cannot satisfy.

Ashamed of my thoughts.
Ashamed of my feelings.
Ashamed that I recoil
at the sight of your body.
Ashamed that I flinch
at the feel of your touch.
Ashamed of my daydreams
of younger men,
the temptation to seek
my fulfillment elsewhere.

I want to be a good wife,
to make you happy -
but it's trapping me
in unhappiness.
It hurts to watch you
frustrated with yourself,
trying and failing
to be a husband again.

It fills me with revulsion,
it fills me with pity -
how I wish I could respect you
and love you instead!
But pity is not love,
and it can't help me endure.
Pity is not enough
to keep me true to you.

How I wish
they could just let you be old
and live out your days
calm and at peace.
How I wish
you must not bear this pressure
of being a king,
a potent man to the last.
How I wish
we could just admit weakness,
that failure must not be a shame.
How I wish
we could just be friends,
talking, playing games,
not trying every night
to do what we cannot.

Here I lie,
afraid, ashamed,
in the arms of this man.
Pity is not love.


[25. July 2016 above the South China Sea]

I've read a few interpretations about Abishag (including a feminist one I rather liked according to which Abishag had some power in government). I based this poem mainly on a quote from the Interpreter's Bible which I found on Wikipedia:
[T]he Hebrews...believed that the fertility of the soil and the general prosperity of the people were bound up with the fertility of the king. David by this time was old and decrepit and his sexual vigor is called into question. Attempts are made to remedy the situation. The first cure is to heap clothes upon his bed in order to secure such physical heat as might render him capable. When this fails a search is made for the most beautiful woman in the land. Great emphasis is placed upon her [Abishag's] charms. The LXX supports this by translating in vs. 2, "and let her excite him and lie with him." The fact that the king did not have intercourse with her is decisive in the story. If David was impotent he could no longer be king.
I also felt (after having read the story of someone who married an old man she was caring for out of pity, and then felt guilty for feeling disgusted, unsatisfied or attracted to other men) that I wanted to write about this situation of being a young woman with many opportunities (Abishag was said to be very beautiful), in an unhappy relationship with an older man.

What I realised while writing (and it comes out in the second-to-last stanza, "How I wish...") was that the attempt to keep David potent, and the belief that he could only be a proper king if he was, is once again the kind of human thinking that won't allow for weakness - a way of thinking that is not (from my understanding of the Bible) God's way.

In an ethics class I read a book by Wolfgang Huber (German bishop and ethicist) in which he differentiates between the "olympic man" and the "Jesus man". Human thinking wants the "olympic man", the athlete, strong and able, healthy, successful. This is what David's people were going for when they tried to keep him sexually fit to the last. You're not allowed to get old and decrepit and weak - and if you do, in today's Western culture, you all too often get pushed out of society e.g. into an old-age home. Contrast to that the "Jesus man": Jesus on the cross, weak and suffering. Jesus on the cross means that we are allowed to be weak, that there is nothing wrong about not being completely fit, active and capable of everything. God allows us to be weak and to fail, it is not "bad" or sinful to fail. In fact Jesus' failure on the cross was His victory!

So we ought to change our thinking... David's and Abishag's relationship could have been so different, if he had been allowed to be old and impotent. And I believe this also says something about how men need to be liberated and emancipated too from wrong ideas about manhood (an issue which - some of you might be surprised - feminism has started touching upon) which focus too much on strength and power. There is nothing "unmanly" about weakness - and thinking it is will only cause difficulty when, like David, you are stuck in a position where you are weak and there is no way out. We need to accept ourselves instead of trying to fit some human standard. Because that human standard is not God's standard...

Picture by Pedro Americo

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