Skip to content


June 30, 2017

For those who read their Bible as history, this will come as a shock. But we have long known that David was just a tribal chieftain and ‘the City of David’ just a backwater of little importance other than strategically.

David is one of the most celebrated characters in the Bible: the brave young man who defeated Goliath, the first king of a united Israel, the composer of the beloved Psalms, and, for Christians, the messianic forerunner to Jesus. And yet for all the glory we attribute to David’s legend, the historical reality is both fascinating and disturbing.

Baden reveals that, in David’s case, the Bible is political spin, “the goal of which is to absolve David of any potential guilt and to show him in a positive light.” The biblical account of David’s rise to power is a political apology—an answer to the contemporary charges against him, which included implication in murders and regicide Through deep textual analysis, Baden reveals how the historical David has been painstakingly and successfully diminished, replaced by the portrait of a glorious king we are now familiar with. In reality, he was an ambitious, ruthless, flesh-and-blood man who achieved power by any means necessary, including murder, theft, bribery, sex, deceit, and treason. As Baden makes clear, the historical David stands in opposition not only to the virtuous and heroic legends, but to our very own self-definition as David’s national and religious descendants.

To question David’s legend opens up a debate about what it means to be a descendant of David–be it nationally, ethnically, or religiously. In The Historical David, Baden confronts this challenge, bringing the historical David vibrantly to life, and ultimately revealing that the flesh-and-blood man was far more complex and interesting than the mythical king.

He believes that the first, less than glowing account was written soon after David’s death (1010–970 BCE.). According to Jewish tradition, the book was written by Samuel, with additions by the prophets Gad and Nathan but modern scholarly thinking is that the entire Deuteronomistic history was composed in the period c. 630–540 BCE

The Books of Chronicles whitewash him. Some identify the date of Chronicles to have been during the mid-fourth century B.C. because of style, vocabulary, and genealogies.

The earliest possible date for the book is 538 B.C. when Persia was established over Babylon and Cyrus issued the decree for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the temple (2 Chron. 36:20-23)

There seem to be parallel stories about David’s origin – that he was Saul’s amour bearer and that he was sought out and crowned by Samuel. The Goliath story us expunged from the Septuagint.

The superscription to each psalm needn’t mean that some were written by David – if they were, then others were said to be written ‘by the conductor’.  More likely, they were arranged by him as he assigned jobs to the levites for future temple worship.

How Baden reads the Bible as the primary source for his David and deconstructs it at the same time can be tortuous. His obsession with historical veracity sometimes forces him to take the more difficult path when an easier explanation is available, or even to abandon his own historical method. One example: when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Bible says he offered sacrifices every six steps. Baden expends some effort trying to understand how this could have been. Animals sacrificed every six steps couldn’t have been burnt offerings, writes Baden; nor does the text mention an altar. He concludes that the listing of numerous sacrifices is typical of his ostentatious David. The sacrifices were “pure show.” Baden could be right when he suggests that David feigned the procession to demonstrate his piety. Yet, by Baden’s own approach — finding historical subtexts in texts overlaid with ideology — we should be discounting the story anyway. How does he know that it is the historical David who wanted to show off his piety and not the later writers who wanted to cast David in a pious light?

He’s very dogmatic in coming to conclusions based on mere assertions of conjecture.

I wish he’d use the term ‘ Western Wall’ instead of ‘Wailing Wall’

The author: People of all places and times have a vested interest in glorifying their founding figures. In America, we do this with George Washington (think crossing the Delaware or the cherry tree), often setting aside some of the less pleasant aspects of his life (think slave-owner). The national uproar over the revelation of Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemmings revealed pretty starkly the investment we have in viewing our forefathers in a uniformly positive light. If, as Americans, we care to this degree about our secular founders, how much more strongly do Jews and Christians feel about David, who is a national, ethnic, and above all religious founder?

David not as a character in the Bible, but as a living, breathing man in the early first millennium BCE. Archaeological and historical work has gone a long way toward filling in the gaps in our knowledge of this period, though there is always more to be done.  But we are no longer at the mercy of the Bible in trying to reconstruct the world that David inhabited. We know plenty about ancient Israel and its neighboring cultures – especially their politics, economy, and religion – and this knowledge allows us to make at least some reasonable guesses as to what sort of life David would have lived.



“Not a word of the David story—and perhaps the entire Bible—is intended solely to describe things as they truly were.”

“Most likely, it was David who gave the Philistines the idea to attack from the north rather than from the south”

“Far from being unreasonable, Saul was prescient. His fears were justified. Even as the Bible describes him as mentally unstable, the history it records proves the opposite.”

“The only sensible historical conclusion is that David really did participate actively in the death of Saul.”

With this realization the traditional image of David is irrevocably altered. The lyre has dropped from his hands; these magnificent songs, full of joy and suffering, hope and faith, have vanished from his throat and pen. […] Without them, the David we have inherited as a culture becomes something of an empty vessel.

We are remarkably fortunate to have an example of this genre from the centuries just before the Bible began to be written. In the thirteenth century BCE, a Hittite king named Hattugili promulgated an account of how he came to rule.’ Hattugili was the younger brother of the reigning Hittite monarch, a position of significant power but one that did not lead to the throne. Hattugili’s brother had a son, and so the kingship would by rights pass to Hattugili’s nephew, thereby skipping Hattugili. HattiAili explains in this text how he had been in charge of the Hittite armies under the reign of his elder brother, and how he enjoyed success after success in battle, with the divine assis­tance of his patron goddess. Evidently his nephew, upon gaining the throne, saw Hattugili’s military victories, and the favor the goddess bestowed on him, and became envious, or perhaps nervous. The new king took away many of the properties that Hattu§ili had previously been granted, and soon enough, according to Hattugili, “He sought my destruction.” Hattugili, however, claims to have shown great re­straint: “Out of regard for the love of my brother I did not react at all.” When he did eventually take over the kingship, by capturing his nephew in battle, he did so not just of his own accord, but with the blessing of the deity, who “had already early foretold kingship for me,” and of the populace at large: “All of Haiti supported me.”

What we have here is a man who had no right to the kingship; who was a great military leader, aided by divine providence; whose successes aroused the envy of the king; who was unjustifiably pursued by the king; who proclaims his innocence; who is beloved by his deity and by the people of his land; and who, despite his station, becomes king. To anyone who knows the story of David, this should sound

familiar. What Hattugili says for himself is almost exactly what biblical authors say on David’s behalf, as we will see in detail. – Hittite text has been called “The Apology of Hattaili.” Many lars have seen fit to describe the narrative of David’s life as “The ogy of David,” for, similarity of details aside, it serves the same purpose: to demonstrate the greatness of the protagonist and his God-given right to the throne despite what we would expect happen in the normal course of events.

Most Bibles read “cave” for “stronghold” here, but it has long been recognized that this is a text-critical error. Note that in the continu­ation of this brief episode, in 22:4, David’s hideout is referred to as a “stronghold.” It was therefore most likely a fortified settlement (see McCarter, I Samuel, 357). This unfortunately renders the modern tourist attraction of the “cave of Adullam” rather more symbolic than historical.

There is nothing historically objectionable about the idea that avid and Jonathan were lovers. We need not suppose that David was gay, in our modern understanding. It is clear enough that were we to pply such contemporary labels, we would be more justified in calling him bisexual, considering his multiple marriages and explicitly sexual attraction to Bathsheba. But any such terms—homosexual, bisexual—are inappropriate when describing people in the ancient world. Sexu­ality as we understand it today is a social construct, a category im­posed on people to define them within a larger cultural system.” No such categories or constructs existed in the ancient world. There was no notion of a person being “gay” or “straight.” People engaged in heterosexual or homosexual acts in various degrees.'” Much of the time these were, by the standards of their contemporary societies, entirely unobjectionable—consider the famous example of Alexander the Great. Even the Hebrew Bible, despite what many people think, has virtually nothing to say on the matter—only two verses in Leviti­cus, from the hand of a priestly author with a particular agenda who did not speak for the entirety of ancient Israelite culture. If David and Jonathan were lovers, there is no indication that anyone at the time would have batted an eye over it, much less been morally outraged—certainly the Bible seems to be unbothered by its own hints in that direction.

At the same time, the Bible does not intend explicitly to condone a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan, as some have suggested.

If the word habiru has a familiar sound to it, there may be a reason. Scholars have long surmised that it is from the term habiru that we get the word “Hebrew.”” The most common explanation for this ety­mology, which would not put the Hebrews in a particularly flattering light, is that some proportion of the early Israelite population that settled the small villages of the central highlands of Canaan were of habiru background, perhaps escaping the social structures of the major city-states. The emerging Israelites may have been seen as habiru, not because of their banditry or mercenary-activities, but because they ex­isted outside of the mainstream centralized societies. It is perhaps for this reason, as many have noted, that in the Bible it is often foreigners who describe the Israelites as Hebrews, rather than Israelites using the term themselves. One such example is found in our story: when the officers of the Philistine army see David and his men, they ask Achish, “Who are these Hebrews?” (1 Sam. 29:3). If what they mean is “Who are these habiru?” they could hardly have put it more accu­rately. David’s story very closely parallels that of Idrimi, the Mitanni prince. David was once a prince, or very nearly so—he was, according to the Bible, the king’s son-in-law. He was forced from his position of power into the wilderness of Canaan, where he found a group of outlaws ready to make him their leader. And now, with that same band, he was on the verge of making his triumphant return to power.

THE DAVID OF THE wilderness resembles a figure out of a classic Western film. He is not the righteous sheriff, however, as we might expect. Instead, he is the unscrupulous outlaw, willing to do what­ever it takes to survive and gradually gain power. This period is one of extortion, theft, homicide, and—with the death of Saul—regicide. Though David’s actions are far from admirable, we may acknowledge that he is not unskilled in the art of survival. He enters the wilderness as an outcast, with nothing and no one to call his own. He is able to gain a following, avoid capture, find a safe haven among the Philis­tines, and even make a living—albeit by raiding the towns of Judah. And, when the opportunity finally arises to open the way to the king­ship, David makes the most of it.

David’s choice of Hebron as his new residence, and in fact as capital in Judah, was a strategic one. The city sits squarely in middle of the hill country of Judah, in one of the highest areas of region. Already a thousand years before David, Hebron was the m significant city in what would eventually be called Judah. It was a cultic site and, more important, a royal city encircled by a ma wall, an administrative center from which the surrounding area controlled.’ The significance of Hebron in the region is evident prominence in the early biblical traditions: it is in Hebron that am dwells and that the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried the exception of Rachel). When Moses sends spies to go explore hill country,” they go to Hebron. For someone with royal aspira­there could be no more symbolic place to be anointed than in ancient royal city of Hebron.

What is not obvious at first glance is just how odd it is that David uld have relocated to Hebron at all. Since we know he will become g there, the move seems natural. Yet this is the same David who, er than two years earlier, was unable to find even temporary shelter among the inhabitants ofJudah. Towns and regions far less important Hebron—Keilah and Ziph, for example—were all too happy to David aside. Yet suddenly, and without comment, David is able settle himself, his family, and all of his men and their families in e of the largest and most important cities in Judah. Something has changed.

In fact, two significant transformations have occurred since David last found himself in the hills ofJudah. The first is the defeat and death of Saul. When David first entered the wilderness, Saul was powerful enough both to regularly send search parties after David and to be viewed by the Judahites as the better bet, so to speak—to all appear­ances, Saul and his army had the upper hand in the conflict against David and his ragtag militia. Keilah and Ziph were able to refuse David’s advances because they knew that Saul would support them if necessary. With Saul’s death, however, there was no longer a greater force to stand behind the Judahites’ denials of David. The second change is the rise in David’s military power during his time among the Philistines. No longer a relatively ill-equipped gang scrounging the wilderness for supplies, David and his men now had a comfort­able home base, ample supplies from their many months of raids, and almost certainly improved arms thanks to the Philistines whom they served.

It was still no more than a collection of backwater villages scattered in the wilderness among the hills. And though Judah would come to valorize David as its glorious founder, it came into being not by choice, but by coercion. It existed by force of David’s will—a will that he exerted with a heavy hand and a strong arm. Judah’s glory years were still to come. And, in fact, there is one further piece of the puzzle that makes the moment of Judah’s creation even less trium­phant.

When we think of David becoming king in Judah, we see in this the beginning of the great nation of Israel. We read the story through the lens of what followed, the history of Israel from David to the present. What is forgotten is the political situation after the death of Saul, and more important David’s own position. Saul’s death may have been David’s doing, one way or another, but Israel was defeated by the Philistines. It was the Philistines who had the power in the region. And David was, for all intents and purposes, a vassal of the Philistines. As we have seen, he established his power from that po­sition. The death of Saul did not change that fact, and neither did David’s move to become king of Judah.

We may imagine a scenario in which David, seizing his opportunity, left the embrace of the Philistines to establish himself as the king of a new independent state of Judah. In such a case, we may also imagine the Philistines’ response. They had overwhelming military advantage, especially with the collapse of the northern kingdom after Saul’s death. David had been their loyal subject—they could har have allowed him to go off on his own and found a rival kingd right in their backyard. In short, there would have been a significant Philistine response, and one that inevitably would have wiped Ju off the map before it even had a chance to defend itself. And yet n of this happened. David ruled over Judah in Hebron for seven y and during that time, there is not a word of any Philistine aggression. How can this be explained?

The answer is as obvious as it is unpalatable: Judah, David’s new kingdom, , was effectively a Philistine territory. For his entire tenure in David remained a loyal vassal of the Philistines.’ This may to hear, but it makes perfect sense. Without the northern m to protect it, Judah was entirely at the mercy of the Philistines. ­David—born in Judah, though long since having abandoned attachment to it—had been acting as a Philistine mercenary in region for more than a year and had proved himself capable. We even imagine that rule over Judah was David’s reward for having d the Philistines finally defeat Saul. There is no notice in the text David turned against his Philistine masters when he became king of Judah. The Philistines seem to have accepted his kingship without plaint In fact, the period of David’s rule in Hebron seems to e been one of newfound peace—which is entirely sensible, since Philistines had defeated the northern kingdom and were now in control of the southern region through David. Judah would one day independent, but it was created as a Philistine territory and led by Philistine vassal.

Support for this reconstruction may be found in the Bible itself. The entire narrative of David’s anointing in Hebron and reign over Judah is absent from Chronicles. If this was a high point of his royal career, as it would seem to the modern reader, why would Chronicles, which goes to such lengths to glorify David even above and beyond what we find in Samuel, not mention a word of it? Why is this period of David’s career treated as an embarrassment—ignored out of ex­istence, just like the unseemly events of his time in the wilderness? Something about this story must have seemed unacceptable to the authors of Chronicles. Whether it was the historical recollection of what David’s Judahite kingdom really was or a keen reading of the story in Samuel, Chronicles seems to have understood that this os­tensibly glorious moment was anything but.

Meribbaal provided an opportunity for David demonstrate the opposite: that David had never been anti-Saul, that the previous deaths were merely the result of circumstance. en the chance to display royal generosity, David could point read-to Meribbaal. Thus the Bible presents David as asking, “Is there one still left of the House of Saul with whom I can keep faith for sake of Jonathan?” (2 Sam. 9:1). No one could accuse David of king to obliterate Saul’s name from history. His care for Meribbaal uld prove his affection for the traditions of the north.

David summoned Meribbaal to him, an invitation that undoubt­y would have been terrifying for the young man. After all, the last northerner to be personally invited to see David was Abner, and the previous heir to the throne was Ishbaal—both now dead. Meribbaal could have no idea what David’s intentions were. Thus he made his fealty to David as clear as possible. Upon arriving, he “fell on his face and prostrated himself” (2 Sam. 9:6), in the standard Near Eastern gesture of subjugation.” When David spoke his name, Meribbaal’s response was equally abject: “At your service” (9:6). But Meribbaal need not have worried. David had no intention of harming him and told him, “Don’t be afraid, for I will keep faith with you for the sake of your father Jonathan” (9:7). Then, in an act of ostensible generos­ity, David laid out the terms of this faithfulness: “I will give you back all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you shall always eat at my table” (9:7).

Most readers understand this as true kindness: David is promising to care for Meribbaal, even perhaps to treat him as part of the royal court. David’s actions are, however, less altruistic than they appear. By decreeing that Meribbaal would eat with David “always,” David was in essence confining hiin to house arrest in the palace. Though Meribbaal would not die, he would be a glorified prisoner, kept con­stantly under David’s watchful eye. This practice of royal house arrest is known from elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In fact, ironically, it is precisely what happens at the end of the Davidic dynasty. In the very last verse of the books of Kings, after the kingdom of Judah has been destroyed by the Babylonians and its leaders killed or exiled, we hear of the fate of the last surviving Davidic monarch, Jehoiachin. Jehoiachin, who had long been imprisoned in Babylon, was released from his cell and brought to the court of the Babylonian king Evil­merodach. There, “he ate before [the king] always, all the days of his life” (2 Kings 25:29). The parallels between that story and the story of Meribbaal are apparent. The Babylonians had conquered Judah, just as David had vanquished the north. There was no surviving ad­ministrative structure to support the return of the Davidic monarchy, just as there was no structure to support the return of Saul’s family to power. And just as the Davidic monarchy would never resume after the house arrest of Jehoiachin, so Saul’s line would never regain the throne after the confinement of Meribbaal. In both cases the histori­cal status of the royal line is acknowledged, but at the same time a firm statement is made that that royal line’s time has passed. David’s actions toward Meribbaal are only an outward show of generosity. In fact, they are a death sentence for the House of Saul.

What should we make, then, of David’s promise to grant to Mer­ibbaal all of Saul’s land? This appears to be a kindness, as Saul’s royal lands would have been quite considerable, at least by the standards of ancient Israel. Yet this too is deceptive. After all, Meribbaal, confined to David’s court, could hardly take advantage of the property. In fact, David did something quite clever here. He struck a deal with a man named Ziba, Saul’s former steward: “You and your sons and your ser­vants shall work the land for Meribbaal and shall bring in its yield to provide food for your master’s grandson to eat” (2 Sam. 9:10). That is, Saul’s landholdings may belong nominally to Meribbaal, but they will be worked by Ziba and his family, who are thereby indebted to David. What’s more, this arrangement means that even though Meribbaal is eating at the king’s table, he is not eating of the king’s food. He is, in effect, paying for his own imprisonment. Again, David has turned an ostensibly kind gesture to his own benefit.

ONE OF DAVID’S FIRST acts upon becoming king of Israel was to conquer Jerusalem and establish it as his new capital. It was a smart choice. Jerusalem was an ancient city, and in fact an ancient capi­tal city.’ Archaeological discoveries have revealed that the city was probably inhabited as early as the fourth millennium BCE.2 Its loca­tion, atop one of the higher hills in the area and fed by a reliable water source, made it a natural place to settle. There are references to Jerusalem in Egyptian texts from the twentieth century BCE, and in the fourteenth century BCE Jerusalem was the capital of a significant territory in the hills of Judah, complete with a king (albeit a vassal of Egypt). As with his choice of Hebron in Judah, David’s choice of a capital had historical and cultural resonance.

Before David arrived, however, Jerusalem and its surrounding area had fallen under the control of a people known as the Jebusites. Like the Gibeonites, the Jebusites were a non-Israelite population. They were well enough ensconced in Jerusalem that the expansion of the Israelites throughout the surrounding region was not sufficient to displace them. This is reflected in the biblical account of the conquest, in which, among the lists of the many regions Joshua conquered, we find the notice that “the people of Judah could not dispossess the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Josh. 15:63). Thus Jerusalem goes unmentioned in the stories of Saul’s reign, because, like Gibeon, it was not part of Saul’s kingdom. For David, this presented an op­portunity: rather than make his capital in part of Saul’s former terri­tory, or in the backwater of Judah, he could establish his own place, one with historical power but without any baggage from the Saulide legacy. Moreover, David could capture Jerusalem with his personal militia, rather than with any Judahite or Israelite help, and there turn the city into something of a private royal fiefdom—rightly call the “City of David.”‘

Jerusalem was also well located for David’s purposes. As David was the first king to rule both Judah and Israel, it was important he choose a capital that would not appear to show favoritism toward either. Jerusalem is situated almost directly on the border between the two. The obvious modern analogy is the choice of Washington, D.C., as the new capital of the United States, positioned as it is on the line between the northern and southern states. We see David’s choice of Jerusalem as almost divinely inspired, since we know that the city became the spiritual capital of the Judeo-Christian faith. The Bible, written after Jerusalem was well established as the holy city of Israel, takes the same perspective. But for David, the choice was purely tacti­cal, a considered political move.

The actual conquest of the city is narrated quite briefly in the Bible. As David and his forces were strong enough to withstand the attacks of the Philistines, it is reasonable to assume that the capture of Jerusalem was a relatively straightforward affair. What is perhaps lost in the brevity of the narrative is the way that David undid centuries of Jerusalem’s independence. We are accustomed to thinking of the Jebusites as the enemy—after all, they are frequently listed as one of the indigenous nations that the Israelites were to dispossess during the conquest and are therefore aligned with the Canaanites. Yet in reality, the Jebusites had lived peacefully among the early Israelites for generations, and Jerusalem had been a proud and independent city for millennia. It is not surprising that David should have wanted it as his capital, nor that he would have taken what he wanted. But if we put ourselves in the place of the Jebusites, we may recognize just how sudden and violent an upheaval the conquest of the city was. It is hard to mourn a people who no longer exist. But the Jebusites, like every other ancient populace, had their own culture, their own his­tory, their own narratives that had been cultivated for centuries. The mutual understanding between the Jebusites and the Israelites was undone in the flash of an eye. The creation of David’s kingdom meant the destruction of the Jebusites. In fact, the Jebusites would become a metaphor for an obliterated people. In the book of the prophet Zechariah, the destruction of the Philistine cities is predicted, and of Ekron it is said, “Ekron shall be like the Jebusites” (9:7). David cr ted a new nation, but in doing so he wiped another clean off the . The Bible, and the traditions that emerged from it, consider this fled by the results, by the transformation of the city into Israel’s rious capital. But if it happened today, we would call it genocide. The modern tourist walking the streets of Jerusalem’s old city can feel the power of the ancient site. As one passes through one of e seven gates embedded in the mighty walls, a few short turns lead the Temple Mount, where the Wailing Wall supports the enor­ous platform on which the temple once stood, now dominated by e Dome of the Rock. From the top of the Temple Mount one can see the full panorama of hills and valleys all around, and one can sense how this place would have been the center of the kingdom. It all ap­pears utterly befitting the capital city of the great David.

What most people do not realize, however, is that the Jerusalem they visit and worship in today has virtually nothing to do with the Jerusalem of David. The Wailing Wall is from the first century BCE, built by Herod the Great. The walls and gates are from the sixteenth century CE and were constructed by the Muslim conqueror Suleiman the Magnificent. The tourist site known as David’s Tomb is a me­dieval building in very much the wrong location for David’s actual burial site. The old city is not David’s city.

David’s city does remain, however, though few visitors find their way there. David’s capital comprised what is now known as the City of David, a small spur to the southeast of the Temple Mount, outside of Suleiman’s walls. It doesn’t have the appearance of a great capital. For one thing, it is covered with private Israeli and Arab homes, with archaeological excavations only gradually revealing the ancient struc­tures beneath. What’s more, from top to bottom it is little more than half a kilometer in length, and from side to side, no more than a quar­ter of a kilometer. It is a tiny area. This was the Jerusalem that was settled and fortified in the millennia before David, and it was from here that a large swath of the hill country was governed in the second millennium BCE. Compared with the great imperial capitals of Egypt and Mesopotamia, or even with the relatively enormous cities of the Philistines, the Jerusalem of David’s time was incredibly small. Its size reminds us that the sort of magnificence we associate with kings and capitals today was not necessarily a feature of early Israel.’ After all, Saul ruled from underneath a tree in his hometown.

One of the major reasons that capitals both ancient and modern tend to be larger than the average city—or tiny village—is that they need space to house and support all of the officials required for the task of governing. The more extensive the administrative structures, the more expansive the physical structures. Thus the tininess of David’s capital tells us something important about the nature of his administration. Despite ruling over a far larger territory than any Is­raelite before him, David did not fundamentally change the nature of Israelite leadership in a single generation. He imposed no national programs of taxation or construction—the types of programs that re­quire robust centralized oversight. Such programs were foreign to Israel, literally: Israel’s only experience with enforced taxation and labor would have been during its very early history, even before it was truly Israel, when Canaan was a vassal state of the powerful Egyptian empire.° Since it had come into its own, however, Israel had survived without that sort of centralized authority, and even after the monar­chy was instituted this did not change. At most, Saul would on oc­casion require the towns under his authority to provide troops fo military actions. David was very much in the same mold.

Indeed, like Saul, David maintained a limited administrative struc­ture, surrounding himself with only a handful of people whom he fe he could trust (2 Sam. 8:16-18; 1 Chron. 18:15-17). Just as Saul army commander was a relative, his cousin Abner, so too David ch a kinsman, in this case a nephew, as his commander: Joab, the son Zeruiah, who according to Chronicles was David’s sister.’ Choos a family member as chief military officer was prudent: as we seen, the most likely source of a coup was from the ranks of the and so having a relative in that position assured some degree of 1 alty. At the same time, by selecting a kinsman who was not in direct line of succession, David could also be secure in the knowledge that Joab would never have a rightful claim to the throne. Aside from Joab, David’s cabinet consisted ofJehoshaphat, a “recorder,” probably something of a foreign minister; Shausha (also known as Seraiah), a scribe; and Benaiah, the head of David’s personal bodyguards. There was also Adoram, who was in charge of forced labor—though this probably refers to the labor performed by foreigners David defeated, rather than by Israelites. Rounding out the list were David’s two main priests, Abiathar and Zadok, both of whom had joined David back when he was living in the wilderness.

As in the case of his kinsman Joab and his old supporters Abiathar and Zadok, when it came to his most important military forces, David stuck to people he knew and trusted and who had been with him for some time. His bodyguards, known as the Cherethites and Pelethites, were probably of Philistine origin, as their titles, derived from Greek, suggest.’ They were joined by six hundred soldiers from Gath under the leadership of a man named Ittai, who had been with David since his days in Ziklag. David’s core soldiers, in other words, were his old Philistine compatriots, trustworthy perhaps precisely because they were foreigners. David’s administration was minimal, which accords with the lack of any major national projects attributed to him.

The structures of government would change, in fact, only with Solomon, who seems to have recognized the opportunity that David’s newly created united kingdom offered for the imposition of central­ized authority. It is Solomon who created a taxation system for the nation and who imposed forced labor on the populace for the con­struction of new monumental buildings—with, as we will see, disas­trous consequences. If it was a conscious decision at all, David was undoubtedly right to maintain the relatively simple mode of authority with which Israel had long been familiar. His power was an imposition upon the people no less than Solomon’s, but David’s kingship, like Saul’s, probably did not affect the everyday life of most Israelites. Still, David had achieved something beyond Saul, and he was not content to rule from beneath a tree as Saul had.

The rabbis of the Mishnah saw exactly what was going on here: in discussing the fact that David walked behind the bier of Abner, they commented, “That was but to pacify the people” (m. Sanh. 2:3).

in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, David was after more than the Israelites’ faith—he was after their wallets as well. To make Jerusalem a viable center for sacrifice, one key ele­ment was required: a public altar on which to offer the sacrifices. The biblical story of how David came to build this altar, in 2 Samuel 24, is complex and decidedly theological. God, rather bizarrely, incited David to take a census and punished him for it by bringing a plague on Israel. When the plague reached Jerusalem, God stopped it just as his messenger of destruction was at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. In thanks, David chose this spot as the place where he would build an altar and bought the property from Araunah.

What is commonly agreed is that avid did not build the temple. The question that the biblical authors ek to answer is, why not?

In truth, this question is relevant only from a later perspective, when the temple was the center of Israel’s religious existence and David was recognized as the greatest king in Israel’s history. Modern scholars have fallen sway to the same forces, often going to lengths similar to those of the biblical authors to explain why David didn’t build the temple. From the historian’s perspective, the question may be answered relatively simply: David did not build the temple—or, better, a temple—because he had no need to do so. He had the ark and an altar, and thus both the enticement for pilgrims and the means by which they could offer their sacrifices. A physical temple was un­necessary, and, what’s more, David may have seen a temple as poten­tially drawing the revenues from the cult away from the royal ourt. Without a physical temple, the priesthood in Jerusalem was under David’s control: appointed by him and maintained by him. And, at least according to one passage, David’s own sons served as priests—a common reality in the ancient world but an embarrassment to later biblical texts such as Chronicles, for which the idea of anyone from a nonpriestly lineage serving in the cult was unthinkable. The Jerusa­lem cult was a family business, and David had no reason to create any structures that might take on a life of their own. The Bible wants us to believe that David would have built the temple if he could have. The real question should not be “Why didn’t David build the temple?” but rather “Why would David build a temple?” If David didn’t build the temple, it is because he had no desire to.

By inaugurating the Israelite cult in Jerusalem, David accom­plished something of lasting value, an achievement that still resonates today. Like the unification of the northern and southern tribes, the establishment of Jerusalem as the religious center of Israel changed the course of history.

The largest view we can realistically maintain of David’s king­dom, then, is not very different from what it was at the beginning of David’s reign. It could hardly be called an empire—it was no stron­ger than the Philistine and Aramean peoples to its west and north. And compared with Egypt and Mesopotamia, it remained a virtual nonentity—note that David is never said to have had any diplomatic contact with either of those two great superpowers at any time during his reign, nor is there any record from those civilizations of David’s reign. Israel under David remained what it had always been: a minor state, largely confined to the central hill country of Judah and Israel.

The current area of the modern state of Israel, small though it may be, is in fact perhaps larger than that of David’s Israel. Certainly the coastal plain, almost all the way up to Jaffa, would not have been under David’s control. On the other hand, the West Bank would have been David’s heartland, even extending a little into what is now Jordan. But the Davidic empire of tradition, stretching from the border of Egypt up to the Euphrates, is a gross exaggeration. The biblical account is propagandistic, and that propaganda has been ac­cepted as fact for thousands of years.

To give David credit where it is due, however, simply maintaining the newly expanded borders of his kingdom was achievement enough. He left a territory secure enough that it could endure, at least for the most part, for many generations. For a small kingdom with few natu­ral resources at its disposal, a widely scattered populace, and no tradi­tion of statehood, this is impressive. But it is not the Davidic empire of tradition. Such an empire never existed.


. With only a few exceptions, some or all of every book in the Hebrew Bible is rooted in David’s kingdom and David’s cult. More than most people realize, the Bible is really David’s book.

It is possible, then, to look at the results of David’s actions—a nation, a holy city, and, in the Bible, the basis of the Judeo-Christian religions—and conclude that these ends are more valuable than the means by which they were achieved. This view is especially tempting since we continue to live under the influence of David’s accomplish­ments. But this also makes it susceptible to charges of cultural ego­centrism. In a thousand years, if the Jlideo-Christian traditions have fallen victim to the same fate as almost every other religion in history and disappeared, will historians still consider David’s actions justifi­able? Even today, what might a person outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition think of David? We need not be proud of him merely be­cause we are part of the culture he helped to create.

In fact, as we see more clearly what David did on the way to creat­ing our culture, we recognize that his actions, far from being uniquely guided and approved by God, are at times virtually indistinguishable from those of his ancient Near Eastern contemporaries. This should have important ramifications for how we view ourselves. We can no longer maintain that Judaism, or its religious descendants, is excep­tional by virtue of its divinely ordained origins. Had the Arameans, or the Assyrians, or the Hittites survived rather than the Israelites, they would be telling the same story we are. Our existence and self-importance are no more due to David than the nonexistence and lack of importance of the Hittites are due to Hattugili. Judaism emerged from a cultural landscape in which it, and its founding figure, were anything but unique. We may not blame earlier generations for at­tributing Israel’s survival to divine salvation, but neither should we feel free to perpetuate the propaganda of the past to inflate our own sense of self-worth over other peoples. We come from entirely unex­ceptional origins. If we are to consider ourselves special in the world,  it will have to be because of who we are and how we act today—not because of David, and certainly not because of how he acted.

THOUGH IT IS TEMPTING to throw David’s sins into the dustbin of history, it is irresponsible to do so. The past matters. If David’s histor­ical existence is irrelevant, if all that matters is the biblical depiction, then the Bible becomes a mere storybook and David no better than a fictional character. Ironically, by recognizing the fundamentally liter­ary nature of the biblical account, we can recognize the historical re­alities standing behind it. There was a David. He lived in a particular place and time, and his actions changed the world. We cannot accept the results he achieved without accepting the rest of him as well, the man in full. We cannot wish away our intimate association with the historical David and with the crimes he committed. We can, however, come to terms with it and with what it means for us.

The ambivalence we feel about David, when faced with the need to balance his lasting achievements against the reality of his behav­ior, parallels other modern feelings of moral uncertainty. The United States has long grappled with the guilt of driving millions of Native Americans off of their ancestral lands. Columbus Day has changed from a national day of celebration to one of soul-searching. And yet we are proud to be Americans, to call this land our home—just as we are proud to call Jerusalem our spiritual capital, despite the native Jebusites who were wiped off the map for it to become so. The Civil War ripped apart the fabric of American society, exposing the deep cultural differences between the northern and southern states and inflicting wounds that still have not entirely healed 150 years later. Yet we recognize the lasting value of holding the Union together by force—just as we recognize the lasting value of David’s creating by brute force, against popular will, a unified Israel. Among the most sig­nificant debates at the time this book was being written was the issue of targeting and killing those considered to be enemies of the state.

Although we morally abhor the notion of state-sponsored murder, we are also aware that a case can be made that the continuing existence of the nation may be at stake—just as a case can be made that Judaism and Christianity as we know them may not have existed had David not murdered those who stood in his way. Moral ambivalence is a good thing, especially when it comes to the distant past. It tempers our pride in the present with the recognition that a price was paid to reach this point. It forces us to ask whether we would have made the same choices, knowing what we know now about how those choices turned out. And it permits us to accept what happened without wish­ing that it had to have been that way. Moral ambivalence is, in short, the sign of a maturing—if not yet fully mature—society.

The David of history was who he was and did what he did—and there is nothing we can do to change that. The David of legend, how­ever, is a cultural construction. He is a product not of historical reality, but of our own self-definition, and that of those who have pre­ceded us. Recognition of the disconnect between the historical David and the legendary David is crucially important. The very fact that we have reconstructed David is meaningful. When we understand his humanity—when we see David clearly as a product of and a par­ticipant in a world very different from our own—the choices we have made in our own systems of values and behavior are brought into sharp relief. Our national and religious founding figure did things of which we cannot approve, things that we cannot accept as part of our cultural fabric. This is to our credit. We should be proud of the fact that we find the historical David difficult, even repelling. Our morals and actions are not mere replicas of those of the ancient world, de­spite our deep attachment to the people and events of that world. They are, rather, our own. We are not constrained by the past—we re-create it in our own image. If we are fundamentally opposed to the model of the historical David, it is because we have grown as a cul­ture. Our values take precedence, and, as the historical David clearly shows, this is demonstrably for the better.

Return to the home page


From → Biblical

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: