Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 1:1-31.
And Abraham was old, ba bayamim, and God had blessed Abraham in everything. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:1)
And the king, David, was old, ba bayamim, and they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. (1 Kings 1:1)
ba (בָּא) = he came; coming, coming in, arriving, entering.
bayamim (בַּיָּמִים) = in the days; at the time.
Ba bayamim is often translated as “advanced in years”; Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses “days” where English would use “years”. Ba bayamim could also be translated as “coming on in years” or literally, “arriving at the time”.
The term occurs only six times in the Hebrew Bible: once in this week’s Torah portion, once in the haftarah (above), and four times in the book of Joshua (including the variants bata bayamim (בָּאתָ בַּיָּמִים) = you have arrived at the time, and bati bayamim (בָּאתִי בַּיָּמִים) = I have arrived at the time).
Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And God said to him: You have grown old, bata bayamim, and a lot of the land left over/remains to take possession of. (Joshua 13:1-2)
God tells Joshua he must apportion among the twelve tribes all of the land that will someday be Israel. After Joshua has accomplished this, the book repeats:
…and Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and its chiefs and its judges and its officials, and he said to them: I am old, bati bayamim. (Joshua 23:1-2)
He then makes a farewell speech urging them to serve God faithfully in order to keep the land.
Both points in the book of Joshua where ba bayamim and a variation of the phrase appear, there is a task the old leader must do before he dies. I believe this is also true when the phrase appears in reference to Abraham and David.
Abraham is old, ba bayamim, when he is in his 130’s, wealthy, and at peace with his neighbors. He is also still vigorous enough to remarry, have six more sons, and live to 175. But when he becomes ba bayamim he arranges a wife for his estranged son Isaac, whom he and God have chosen as his successor, so that his tribe’s lineage and religion can continue.
(Later, he leaves gifts to his younger six sons, and sends them away from Isaac so there will be no dispute about the inheritance.)
When King David is ba bayamim, he is 70 years old and frail. But he, too, has a final task to accomplish: he must establish which of his surviving sons will be king now that he is no longer able to rule.
There are factions behind three different candidates: Adoniyahu, David’s oldest surviving son; Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba; and possibly David himself, if he can return to health.
Following the announcement that David is old and ba bayamim, the haftarah says:
And they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. So his avadim said to him: They will seek for my lord the king a virgin girl to stand in waiting on the king. And she will be a nurse for him, and she will lie in your bosom and make warmth for my lord the king. (1 Kings 1:1-2)
avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, employees, courtiers.
Some commentators claim that the king’s courtiers only want a girl to provide warmth, but in that case, why do the avadim specify that the king’s new bed-warmer must be a virgin?
Other commentary claims they want someone to stimulate David’s flagging sexual energy. If a virgin gets pregnant on the job in the closely watched king’s bedchamber, it will prove that David is still virile enough to rule. So the king’s avadim select a young woman who is both a virgin and beautiful, who can both warm him and stimulate him.
And they sought a beautiful girl through all the territory of Israel, and they found Avishag of Shunem, and they brought her to the king. And the girl was very beautiful, and she became an attendant on the king, and she waited on him. But the king did not know her intimately. (1 Kings 1:3-4)
The king’s courtiers are probably disappointed. If David’s kingship were extended, they could continue with their own positions in the palace. A new king might fire them, or worse.
And Adoniyahu, son of Chaggit [David’s fourth wife], was aggrandizing himself, saying: I will reign! And he made himself a chariot and horsemen with fifty men going before him. (1 Kings 1:5)
And he spoke with Yoav son of Tzeruyah, and with Evyatar the Priest, and they supported Adoniyahu. But Tzadok the Priest, and Benayahu son of Yehoyada, and Natan the Prophet, and Shimi the Friend, and the fighting men who were David’s, were not with Adoniyahu. (1 Kings 1:7-8)
Tzadok, Natan, and their faction prefer Solomon, Bathsheba’s son. King David himself has no idea what is going on.
So Natan asks Bathsheba to go to David and remind him that he once promised her Solomon would become the next king.
And Bathsheba came to the king in the inner chamber. And the king was very old, and Avishag of Shunem was waiting on the king. And Bathsheba knelt, and she bowed down to the king. And the king said: “Mah lach?”
Mah lach (מַה־לָּךְ) = What is the matter? (Literally, “What is for you?”)
These are the first words David speaks after the Bible tells us he is ba bayamim. He is too miserable to find out what is going on in his kingdom, and too sick to be interested in sex (though he once had eight wives and ten concubines). But he rouses himself when Bathsheba comes for an audience.
She reminds David about his promise, and tells him that Adoniyahu has made himself king behind David’s back. Then Natan comes in, bows, and asks David why he made Adoniyahu king without telling his loyal servant Natan.
Alert at last, King David swears Solomon will be the next king, and gives instructions to make it happen. The story continues after this week’s haftarah with a scene in which the people celebrating Adoniyahu’s kingship hear another crowd blowing shofars and shouting “Long live King Solomon” at the Tent of Meeting. Solomon gets to the throne first.
When King David is old and ba bayamim , he is too feeble to complete his final task on his own. His avadim get him a new concubine, while his son Adoniyahu schemes to seize the throne. King David’s succession has almost slipped out of his control when Natan and Bathsheba induce him to give orders about the next king—something he should have done before he was reduced to lying in bed shivering.
When we grow old, some of us find that we have tidied up as we went along, and nothing remains to be done. But some of us are ba bayamim, arriving at the time when we must finish a task before we die. May we all be aware of our own time and achieve what we need to.
And when the time comes, may each of us die not like David, but like Abraham.
And Abraham died at a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)
(I dedicate this post to my mother-in-law, Mildred Carpenter, who died last week at age 96, surrounded by her family, leaving nothing undone.)