David, King of Judah (Not Israel)

The traditions claiming that David ruled over a “united kingdom” of Israel and Judah emerged much later. If I am right on this point, the most popular legends about David are the creation of generations who lived long after him. David’s slaying of Goliath, his exploits in the court of Saul, his relationship to Jonathan and Michal, his fate as a fugitive, his military triumphs abroad, his affair with Bathsheba, his civil war with Absalom, his succession by Solomon – all these colorfully depicted episodes were created by later generations of writers.

See Also: David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

By Jacob L. Wright
Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible
Emory University
July 2014

Two Narrative Strands

The most curious feature of David’s biography as we have it in the Book of Samuel is his stint as a mercenary warlord. Several chapters depict how David commands a corps of soldiers-of-fortune. Yet instead of offering his martial services to King Saul of Israel, he serves in the employ of the Philistines – Israel’s archenemies.

The one who directly enlists David’s services is named Achish. This Philistine ruler governs the city-state of Gath, situated on Judah’s western border. David’s charge is to provide protection for Achish and to yield to him a portion of the goods that he and his men collect during their raids in the Negeb (the arid region in the south of Judah extending to Eilat on the Red Sea). In return Achish grants David and his men permission to settle in the town of Ziklag.

David’s mercenary activities pose a problem. In the most familiar episodes of his life, he makes his way steadily toward the throne of Israel by valiantly combating the Philistines.

He begins his kinetic career in idyllic solitude, tending the sheep of his father Jesse. Because of his bravery and martial skills, which he acquired in duels with predators that attacked his herds, he catches the attention of King Saul’s court. He quickly makes a name for himself in Israel’s ranks as an accomplished Philistine-slayer. Among his more remarkable claims to fame is the triumph over the Philistine champion Goliath. Later, as he collects foreign foreskins to win the hand of Saul’s daughter, he takes down another (two) hundred Philistines.

Now if Achish, as the ruler of a Philistine city-state, had caught wind of David’s penchant for killing Philistines, would he have been eager to make him his bodyguard? Most likely not. Here the Book of Samuel contains a deep disparity. What are we to make of it?

Taking the disparity seriously and following it throughout the Book of Samuel, we can discern two very different narrative strands. One strand presents David serving valiantly in Saul’s forces, arousing the king’s jealousy, and then going on the lam. Eventually he seeks asylum with Achish at Gath. But the Philistine ruler soon hears about David’s feats as a soldier in Israel’s ranks. Fearing for his life, David feigns madness and makes an escape (1 Sam 21:11–15).[1]


The other narrative strand knows nothing about David’s relationship to Saul. Instead, it portrays David as a mercenary warlord. In this strand too he interacts with Achish at Gath. Yet instead of running into trouble with the Philistine king and then absconding, David gets along with him splendidly and ends up serving him for a lengthy period.

Let’s consider for a moment the second strand. In an episode from it (1 Sam 31), a band of camel-mounted Amalekites make a raid on David’s town of Ziklag, seizing all valuables and livestock as well as women and children. After catching up with the raiders, David and his men recover their wives and children together with the purloined property. His army declares the recovered goods to be “David’s spoil.” Later he sends part of the booty to the elders of Judah, saying, “here is a gift from the spoil of the enemies of Yhwh!”

This tale depicts David’s exceptional political acumen as a warlord. By distributing the spoils strategically, he makes Judah’s leaders beholden to him and secures widespread allegiance. The rewards of David’s shrewd benefaction are reported several chapters later, where the Judahites come to make David their king:

After this David inquired by oracle of Yhwh, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?”

Yhwh said to him, “Go up.”

David said, “To which [town] shall I go up?”

He said, “To Hebron.”

So David went up there along with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel.

David brought with him his men, every one with his household, and they settled in the towns of Hebron.

Then the people of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the House of Judah. (2 Sam 2:1–4a)

In the versions of Samuel that have been transmitted to us, this little section is severed from the longer story of how David recovered the purloined goods from the Amalekite raiders and shared them with Judah’s elders. The text that stands between the two is the chapter-long narrative of Saul’s final battle with the Philistines and his death on Mount Gilboa. That account has nothing to do with David and his men.

Examining closely the seams connecting all these texts, we can witness how the editors of the Book of Samuel combined what appear to have been originally separate accounts of David and Saul. Thus they placed the Saul material right before the short paragraph that tells of David moving to Hebron and being made king of Judah. The editors’ intention was to set the record straight and to defend David’s name: According to the new narrative that they created, David had not mounted the throne of this secessionist state while Saul was still ruling as Israel’s king. He did not become king of Judah until after Saul died.

What we see from this survey is how easy it is to untangle separate accounts of David and Saul. In most cases, the editors of Samuel have juxtaposed these sources without thoroughly blending them, so that the David material has nothing to do with Saul, and vice versa.

Their juxtaposition of the sources could leave false impressions. For example, one source depicts Saul dying in a battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. Another source presents David fighting for Achish, a Philistine ruler. Reading them together, one might suspect that David had a hand in Saul’s death. The editors went to great lengths to correct this impression. In an elaborate pre-battle scene, they report that Achish discharged David and his men right before the Philistine forces march off to fight Saul and the armies of Israel.

Surveying the literary depictions of David throughout the Book of Samuel, we can identify three types of passages:

A) Those that relate solely to David.

B) Those that relate solely to Saul.

C) Those that relate to both David and Saul.

If divided into these three categories, the oldest versions of the David account would have to be identified with those of type A. The versions of this older account know nothing of the interactions with Saul or of David’s rule over Israel. Instead they present David as warlord who consolidates the kingdom of Judah. Texts that belong to this older account include:

David’s rescue of Keilah (1 Sam 23:1–5*, 13a, [14a])

His encounter with Nabal and Abigail (1 Sam 25:2–29, 31–42)

His service as a mercenary for Achish of Gath (1 Sam 27:2–3a, [5–6], 7–11)

The sharing of war spoils with “his friends” (1 Sam 30:26b–31)

The episode at Ziklag (1 Sam 30:1b–2, 8–18a, 19–20)

His move to Hebron where he’s anointed king over Judah (2 Sam 2:1–4a, 11)

The lists of his wives and children at Hebron (2 Sam 3:2–5)

His capture and occupation of Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:4, 6–11*)

Possibly also:

David’s military success against his former Philistine employers (2 Sam 5:17b–25)

Several episodes included in 2 Samuel 6 – 9 and 10–12

The names and legends of his warriors in 2 Samuel 23

Not all of these passages were composed at the same time. For example, various statements that refer to David’s wives may belong to a secondary stratum of the account.[2] But conspicuous traces of editorial work, as well as common phraseology, suggest that these texts were drafted, and later expanded, as part of an independent history that recounts David’s consolidation of a Judahite kingdom.

In keeping with conventional parlance, I refer to this early source as the HDR, which stands for the History of David’s Reign/Rise. On analogy to my HDR, I assign texts of type B to an independent history of Saul’s reign, which I dub the HSR (History of Saul’s Reign/Rise).

HDR = The History of David’s Reign/Rise

HSR = The History of Saul’s Reign/Rise

According to the thesis argued in my book, the authors of the Book of Samuel synthesized the HDR and the HSR and composed a great deal of material to connect them. They wove together these separate filaments in such a way that the episodes of David as a warlord become his adventures during his flight from Saul. This redactional shift has left unmistakable traces in the language. For example, David’s original “roving” (hithalleḳ) as a desperado becomes his “fleeing” (baraḥ) as a fugitive from Saul’s court.

Introducing David

What can we say about the beginning of the HDR? This is an exceptionally thorny problem.[3] It’s possible that those who combined the David and Saul histories deleted the introduction. I worked under this assumption for many years. But reading through these biblical texts one evening in a Tel Aviv cafe, I stumbled upon a promising possibility. It’s a line that one can easily miss, because it is imbedded within the Goliath story and appears long after the reader has already been introduced to David.

Now David was the offspring of an Ephrathite from Bethlehem in Judah named Jesse, who had eight sons.... David was the youngest. (1 Sam 17:12a, 14a)

Remarkably, when we eliminate all the material that has to do with Saul in the immediately following chapters, we come across another line that is closely linked to this piece of biographical data:

And everyone who was desperate, in debt, or discontent gathered to him and he became captain (śār) over them. Those who were with him numbered about 400. (1 Sam 22:2)

By reporting that David is the youngest of no fewer than eight sons, the narrator signals to the reader that he stood very little chance of inheriting much property. One would therefore expect David to seek another way of making a name for himself. Throughout history – and still common today among some aristocracy – younger sons have sought careers in the military (and the clergy). With little chance of inhering much property in family of eight boys, it is not surprising that David becomes a warlord, forming a private army from renegades, discontents, and social outcasts.

Readers have often observed the analogies between David’s story and that of another warlord in the Bible – Jephthah. This figure from the Book of Judges is the son of a prostitute. In dispute with his father’s sons, he is forced to relinquish his rights to an inheritance and flees for his life. Far away from his home, on the margins of civilization, a band of desperadoes (literally “empty” or “desperate men”) gather around him, and he leads them on raids of martial adventure:

Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was Jephthah’s father. Gilead’s wife bore him other sons, and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house, for you are another woman’s son.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Desperadoes gathered around him and went raiding with him. (Judg 11:1–3)

Years later the Ammonites attack his country. As they prepare for war, the elders seek out Jephthah and persuade him to be their commander. The former outcast agrees on the condition that he would be the leader of Gilead.

This legend reminds us of the statement that “everyone who was in dire straits, in debt, or discontent” gathered around David, and he became their “captain.” The outcasts are the same troops with whom he makes a name for himself on his way to becoming king of Judah. Just as Jephthah becomes a powerful warlord and later the head of Gilead because of a conflict with his brothers over their father’s inheritance, David becomes the lord of a large corps of troops because he stood little chance of inheriting a patrimony. And just as Jephthah uses his private army to advance to the head of his society, David carves a kingdom for himself with his band of soldiers.

This opening to the oldest David account, in its length and literary style, bears striking resemblances not only to the Jephthah legend but also to the biography of Idrimi, a figure who ruled the city-state of Alalakh (on Turkey’s southern coast) in the fifteenth century bce. That biography describes how Idrimi, after a dispute, flees to the land of his mother. Later he goes to Canaan. There many gather around him and make him their captain. In the end he returns to assume the throne of his ancestral home in Alalakh.

The many analogies to careers of Jephthah and David are obvious. In 1976 two biblical scholars working at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ed Greenstein and David Marcus, published a careful study that synoptically juxtaposes the accounts of David, Jephthah, and Idrimi, illustrating their many points of overlap.[4] One of the commonalities includes the passage just cited that describes how the destitute gathered around David as their captain. Yet Marcus and Greenstein did not find an introduction in the David narrative corresponding to Idrimi’s and Jephthah’s beginnings: Idrimi is forced to flee after some dispute, just as Jephthah is chased away after a falling-out with his brothers. In the column for David, there is a blank space.

The line that I isolated – reporting that David is the youngest of eight brothers and thus, by implication, stood to inherit little if anything from his father’s estate – is a perfect candidate for that parallel introduction. As such, a biblical and an extrabiblical parallel confirm the plausibility of my reconstruction.

Creating Judah

One could perhaps argue that the authors conceived the HDR as a prelude to the account of David’s succession to Saul’s throne. But the complete absence of references to Saul, his family, and the people of Israel – even in later portions that have been added to it – suggests that the authors were not cognizant of any connections between David and the kingdom of Israel.

The HDR orients David’s horizon in territories south of Hebron, northward toward Jerusalem on the border of Benjamin, and westward into the Shephelah. In other words, this older narrative does not present David as ruler over core territories of the northern kingdom of Israel.

One can still feel the polemical force of the HDR. It affirms that the important Philistine city-state of Gath did not create Judah as a marionette state and that David did not owe his Judahite throne to Achish, Gath’s king. Although David begins in the employ of Achish, he exploits his patronage to assault the enemies of the Judahites along with the Jerahmeelites, or Kenites (or Kenizzites) – populations of what would become the kingdom of Judah (1 Sam 27:8–12).

Rather than rising to power as a Philistine puppet, David forges a kingdom on his own initiative and according to his own political vision. He consolidates a state out of various regions, cities, and clans, all of which unite under the banner of “the House of Judah.”

The account implies that the kingdom’s population includes Calebites, Jerahmeelites, Kenites (or Kenizzites), and formerly independent cities, while excluding the Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites. All these clans are frustratingly obscure, but several appear repeatedly within our texts, and I will discuss them later.

The HDR’s authors take pride in showing how David consolidated the kingdom of Judah. If this is the greatest feat they could ascribe to him, it follows that they didn’t know about his more impressive achievements, such as his rule over the much larger state of Israel.

Their silence in this regard warrants what will be for many a surprising conclusion: The traditions claiming that David ruled over a “united kingdom” of Israel and Judah emerged much later. If I am right on this point, the most popular legends about David are the creation of generations who lived long after him. David’s slaying of Goliath, his exploits in the court of Saul, his relationship to Jonathan and Michal, his fate as a fugitive, his military triumphs abroad, his affair with Bathsheba, his civil war with Absalom, his succession by Solomon – all these colorfully depicted episodes were created by later generations of writers.

The HDR would have presented numerous problems for later Judahite readers who saw themselves as members of the people of Israel, especially for those living after the Assyrian conquest of Israel (722 bce). Many of the biblical texts that we examine here likely originated as responses to this political catastrophe. Their authors portray David making his debut in the service of Israel’s king, provoking his animosity and fleeing from him, and then eventually mounting his throne. We may safely regard these texts as editorial attempts to fuse what were originally two independent accounts (the HDR and HSR). As synthetic texts, they harmonize the histories in ingenious ways.

But the authors of Samuel could only achieve so much by adding material to the older sources. This is where the Book of Chronicles comes into play. Its authors, working in the late Persian or Hellenistic period, resorted to the radical option of text eradication. They erased most remnants of the oldest David and Saul accounts, creating in the process a “revisionist history” that portrays the representatives of Israel (not solely Judah, as in Samuel), after Saul’s death, coming to David at his home in Hebron. There the people anoint David king over the people of Israel. Chronicles describes at length how the nation’s leaders take part in this momentous event. Lest there be any doubt that these leaders represented the entire nation, we are told, “All the rest of Israel were of one mind to make David king.”

Thus, in the older sources, a warlord manages – through both political calculation and brute force – to become king over “the House of Judah.” In the later history of Chronicles, we have an innocent darling who is spontaneously anointed king by the entire nation of Israel.

Chronicles thus completely erases the memory of this hero’s origins as a warlord serving in the employ of a Philistine ruler. It has nothing to say about how he greased the palms of the Judahite elders so that they would confer to him the scepter of royal rule. And it wipes out all traces of the older memories in which David first reigned as king of Judah before assuming the throne of Israel. According to this alternative view, there was no kingdom of Judah until much later, when Rehoboam and Jeroboam cleaved Israel into two separate states.

Confederations of Israel and Judah

Let’s now take a closer look at the earliest accounts of David’s reign. I’ve claimed here that the authors who composed the Book of Samuel drew selectively from the independent histories of David (HDR) and Saul (HSR), while also significantly expanding and recontextualizing them. Much later the authors of Chronicles radically reworked this history. Although based on the narrative from Samuel, their new account eliminates most of the remnants of the HDR and HSR. What remained were just a few fragments, and even they have been thoroughly reworked.

Much of twentieth-century biblical research occupied itself with the problem of Israel’s origins. Today an increasing number of historians agree that the Bible’s authors took many centuries to flesh out their understanding of Israel as an expansive, heterogeneous, yet unified people. Even so, many still tend to historicize the biblical account. In doing so, they follow a long-established pattern in scholarship.

Thus both the progressive German historian Julius Wellhausen (d. 1918) and the conservative Israeli historian Abraham Malamat (d. 2010), who worked a century after Wellhausen, claimed that King David managed to revive Israel’s unity after it had dwindled away during the “Period of the Judges.” The way in which both Wellhausen and Malamat situate David in Israel’s history is little more than a selective retelling of the biblical story. Many, if not most, scholars now consider the “Period of the Judges” to be an unalloyed historiographical construction.

More troublesome is the manner in which Wellhausen and Malamat force the biblical accounts to fit their reconstruction. These accounts attribute the reconsolidation of Israel to Samuel and to Saul – yet not to David. In fact, the Book of Samuel depicts David tearing asunder Israel’s unity in the process of creating the kingdom of Judah. Only Chronicles, a very late biblical work, presents David as the catalyst of Israel’s unity. In claiming otherwise, one adopts its revisionist perspective.

A more elaborate model for the origins of Israel and Judah was advanced by two of the most influential biblical scholars of the twentieth century: Albrecht Alt (d. 1956) and Martin Noth (d. 1968). They claimed that the various tribes that settled in Canaan united into a large alliance or confederacy of tribes called Israel. Noth compared the confederacy to “amphictyonies” from the East Aegean. Both Alt and Noth, and their many students, saw the “Israelite amphictyony” as more religious (or cultic) than political in character. Even so, they identified the confederacy as the direct precursor to the later kingdom of Israel.

Furthermore, according to Alt and Noth, Judah was much more centralized than Israel. Although it is said to have begun as a confederacy, called “Greater Judah,” it differed from Israel in that it was more statist in character. It was also smaller, including only six tribes, all from the southern hill country: Judahites, Calebites, Othnielites, Kenites, Jerahmeelites, and Simeonites. Only two of these tribes – the Judahites and Simeonites – are included in the Bible’s canonical catalogue of Israel’s twelve tribes.

For the many scholars who have embraced Alt’s and Noth’s reconstruction, the question has been whether the confederacy of “Greater Judah” constitutes the work of the historical David or antedates his achievements. Sigmund Mowinckel and Roland de Vaux argued that David created “Greater Judah,” while Alt and Noth claimed that this confederacy existed before David.[5]

This debate, which has persisted over the course of the twentieth century, rests to a considerable extent on an uncritical reading of selected passages from the Book of Samuel. Chief among them is the register of cities that received a share of David’s war booty:

When David came to Ziklag, he sent part of the spoil to the elders of Judah, his friends, saying, “Here is a gift for you – part of the spoil of Yhwh’s enemies.” It was for those in:

Bethel, Ramoth of the Negeb, Jattir, Aroer, Siphmoth, Eshtemoa, Racal, the towns of the Jerahmeelites, the towns of the Kenites [alternatively: Kenizzites], Hormah, Bor-Ashan, Athach, Hebron – all the places where David and his men had roamed. (1 Sam 30:26–31)

Alexander Fischer from the University of Jena argues that this register must have originated long after the reign of David. Fischer points to the evidence that the sites listed in the register were not occupied until the late eighth century BCE. If he is correct – as I think he is – the thesis of “Greater Judah” forfeits one of its most important intrabiblical proofs.[6]

Although the register doesn’t date to the time of David, it may have belonged to early editions of the HDR. Notice how it forms a continuation (or what cuneiform scholars call “join”) to the account of David’s time in the service of Achish (1 Sam 27:2–3a, 7–12a, and 1 Sam 30:26–31).

Read together, these passages report the various places where David sent a share of the booty that he had captured on his raids. The mention of “the towns of the Jerahmeelites and the towns of the Kenites (or Kenizzites),” even if it might be an editorial gloss, links back nicely to the locations David mentions in his response to Achish. Also, the concluding summary (“and to all the place where David and his men roamed”) dovetails superbly with the account of David’s service in the employ of Achish. Yet it makes much less sense when read in its present context – at the end of the lengthy episode describing the Amalekites’ raid on Ziklag.

That episode at Ziklag provides a new context in which to understand David’s distribution of war spoils to the elders of Judah. Instead of seizing wealth during his depredations of southern territories, he recaptures goods that the Amalekite marauders had taken when they assailed Ziklag. If we remove the lines that integrate the account with the larger narrative of the book, it would begin by reporting how a band of Amalekites made a razzia on Ziklag and then are pursued by David and his men (1 Sam 30:1b–2, 8:18a, 19–20).

What follows this account is the register of cities just discussed. A primary objective of the episode is to explain the origins of the goods that David distributed among Judah’s elites who later place him on the throne. Its authors make it clear that David had not purloined these goods during his unsavory expeditions as a mercenary in the service of a Philistine. Rather, he had heroically recovered them from “the enemies of Yhwh,” who in turn had seized them as war spoils on their raids in “the Negeb of the Cherethites, and in the [territories] that belong to Judah, and in the Negeb of Caleb.”[7] In keeping with its heroic portrayal of Judah’s first king, the account may have originally presented Ziklag as a town that David rescues, similar to his liberation of Keilah. The possibility that Ziklag may have been located in the Negeb, rather than in proximity to Gath, lends weight to this suggestion.

So we can see that the register of cities that received a share of David’s war spoils is not a late supplement. Although the passage likely does not derive from David’s time, we have good reason to believe that it belongs to the older portions of the HDR. An excerpt from the independent Saul history (the HSR) now severs those older portions that were once tightly linked. Yet prior to the insertion of the Saul material, the earliest narrative of David’s life transitioned directly from this account of him sharing his war spoils to the passage in which he is anointed king over the “House of Judah.”

What all this means is that the oldest source related to David is very much concerned with Judah’s political constitution.

Dating Our Sources

Yet how old is this oldest source? To answer the question, we need to consider several factors. To begin with, the authors do not adopt the “canonical” view according to which Judah is one of Israel’s tribes. Rather, they tell how originally autonomous regions and unrelated clans consolidated under the banner of “the House of Judah.” What catalyzes their consolidation is not an ancient kinship (that is, their identity as “children of Israel”), but rather shared political and economic interests. Perennial raids by common enemies imperil these interests. It is David who rids the region of the menace. He gives the elders of the resident clans a generous share of the spoils. Predictably, the same group later crowns him king.

In presenting Judah as patchwork kingdom with regions, cities, and clans, each with their own identity and agendas, the authors of the HDR probably were not drawing on memories from the time of David or even reconstructing the period as they imagined it. More likely they were mirroring the political character of Judah during the ninth and eighth centuries bce, when Judahite collective consciousness was beginning to emerge.

Judah assumed a major role in the southern Levant after the defeat of Israel in the late eighth century bce. During this period, Jerusalem underwent massive growth. If the city does not figure prominently in this early history of David’s reign, it is likely because the authors knew that it had only recently become Judah’s capital. For ideological reasons, later tradition claimed it was the capital already in the days of David, the founder of the Judahite state.

The HDR is, as we have seen, preoccupied with Judah. Even passages that can be identified as supplements do not have the northern kingdom of Israel in their field of vision. Instead they are entirely consumed with Judahite concerns, seeking to show how originally unrelated clans and regions came together to form a political unity, with Hebron at its center. Long after the destruction of Israel in 722 bce, many would not have been interested in affirming commonalities with Israel. Even so, the HDR’s inattention to Israel says much about its origins.

The silence suggests that this source was completed before the Assyrian conquest in 722 bce. After Israel’s defeat, and probably already in anticipation of it, many Judahite authors eagerly put forward the Davidic monarchy and Jerusalem as the rallying point for the inhabitants of the erstwhile kingdom of Israel.

One product of their activity is the synthesis of the independent Saul and David histories that we find in the Book of Samuel. That synthesis created the many episodes in which Saul seeks David’s life – the episodes most relevant to the study of war commemoration that we are about to undertake. What drives the composition of a good portion of these texts is a concern not only to show that David and Judah are part of Israel, but also to assert David’s solicitude for Saul or his ascendancy – morally and politically – over him.

Saul may have originally only represented the territory of Benjamin, but in time he came to stand for Israel, just as David represents Judah. David treats Saul with respect and deference, spares his life more than once, mourns his death, and performs acts of benefaction for his household. These narratives summon Israel to join Judah by showing that Judah’s royal dynasty is the one chosen by Israel’s God to rule – an election that David himself manifested repeatedly vis-à-vis the reigning king.

All these texts bespeak Judah’s self-consciousness as the successor state to Israel. As the youngest of eight sons, David is an underdog. Yet he is divinely chosen to replace Saul at an early point. However, he does not manage to mount the throne until much later – after years of wars with Israel, culminating in the death of Saul and his sons. Only then does Israel embrace him as king. The correspondences to Israel’s and Judah’s political histories are undeniable.

These texts, which combine and synthesize the HDR and HSR, must have been written before 586 bce. They reflect attempts by the Davidic dynasty to address communities in the north. Asserting their authority over “all Israel,” they affirm that Israel’s kings had broken away from Jerusalem and the divinely chosen royal line. But those who still lived in the land could now return to it, especially now that Assyria had deported these illegitimate rulers.

While it is possible that this literary activity predates Israel’s demise in 722 bce, it is not likely: Until this time, Judah’s kings were much weaker than those in Israel, and they were not in the position to expect Israel’s population to recognize themselves as their legitimate rulers.

The oldest story of David’s life presents him carving out, and ruling over, the kingdom of Judah—not Israel. If I am right on this point, the most popular legends about David are the creation of generations who lived long after him. David’s slaying of Goliath, his exploits in the court of Saul, his relationship to Jonathan and Michal, his fate as a fugitive, his military triumphs abroad, his affair with Bathsheba, his civil war with Absalom, his succession by Solomon – all these colorfully depicted episodes were created by later generations of writers.


[1] The next verse, found in the following chapter, begins with David leaving from somewhere: “David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam and when his brothers and all his father’s house heard, they joined him there.” The original referent of “from there” is likely not the court of Achish but rather Nob, where David visits the priest Ahimelech (21:1–10). Here we can see how the author neatly inserted this episode with Achish into an existing framework.

On the Philistines in the Bible and Israel’s history, see the brilliant article by Peter Machinist, “Biblical Traditions: The Philistines and Israelite History,” in E.D. Oren (ed.), The Sea Peoples and Their World: A Reassessment (Philadelphia: University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, 2000), pp. 53-83.

[2] See 1 Sam 25; 27:3; 30:3, 5, 18; 2 Sam 2:2. In this older history, David begins with two wives (1 Sam 25:43, 27:3, 30:5, 2 Sam 2:2) and then takes on others (3:2). But he is not yet married to Michal, in contradiction to 1 Sam 18–19! The contradiction is explained redactionally in 1 Sam 25:44 and 2 Sam 3:13ff.

[3] The Book of Samuel introduces David to the reader not just twice but several times, and each in different ways:

– 1 Sam 14:52, 16:19–22 (expanded with 16:14–18, 23);

– 1 Sam 17:12–39*;

– 1 Sam 17:55 – 1 Sam 18:4.

The oldest introduction is likely the third one: Later in this story Saul has no idea who David is and asks his general about him: “When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, ‘Abner, whose son is this young man?’ Abner said, ‘As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.’ The king said, ‘Inquire whose son the stripling is’” (1 Sam 17:55–56).

[4] “The Akkadian Inscription of Idrimi,” JANES 8 (1976): 59–96.

[5] For an overview of this discussion, see H. J. Zobel, “Beiträge zur Geschichte Gross-Judas in früh- und vordavidischer Zeit,” in Congress Volume Edinburgh 1974 (Vetus Testamentum Supplements 28; Leiden: Brill, 1975), 253–77. A related issue in past research is whether the Judahite coalition already saw itself as somehow related to the larger Israelite amphictyony or whether the union of these two groups was David’s achievement.

[6] Alexander Fischer, “Beutezug und Segensgabe. Zur Redaktionsgeschichte der Liste in 1 Sam. XXX 26–31,” Vetus Testamentum 53 (2003): 48–64.

[7] A somewhat conflicting statement is found in 1 Sam 30:16b. These statements likewise do not match precisely 1 Sam 27:8–10. Even so, it’s not necessary to ascribe these differences to multiple authors. The Ziklag episode is likely an early addition to the older HDR. It is closely connected to the insertion of a supplement that tells how David received this town from Achish (1 Sam 27:5–6). The secondary nature of that supplement is reflected not only in the tight connection between vv. 3a and 7 but also in the fact that vv. 7–12 present David returning to Achish and do not presuppose his residence in Ziklag. The Ziklag episode as reconstructed here does not present the town as David’s residence (but rather as a town that David rescued, similar to Keilah); as such, it would predate the insertion of 27:5–6.

Comments (8)

Starting at the end: is it certain that propaganda for the House of David would be written while it was still in power, before 586, rather than later by those who wished for its restoration?

#1 - Martin - 07/02/2014 - 16:07

Out of curiosity, how does one deal with the traditions of the 8th century prophets that seem to perceive Judah as a part of Israel? Esp. Isaiah 7:17 which seems to attest an "Ephraim breaking away from Judah" tradition. Is that passage generally considered a late redaction? I'm an archaeologist so I don't know the ins and outs of the source criticism.

It seems to me that the Davidic dynasty couldn't just invent an "Israelite" identity for themselves out of whole cloth as a convenient response to the fall of Samaria; otherwise nobody would have believed it. However much the memory of the Davidic dynasty as "Israelite" must have been complicated by other, overlapping identities, there needs to be a germ there. Perhaps some of the more influential tribes/clans of 8th century Judah (specifically, Benjamin and Ephrathah) would have identified as "Israelite," while those to the south would not have? Ephrathah sounds like Ephraim after all, suggesting a relationship.

#2 - Robert M. Jennings - 07/02/2014 - 16:37

A very interesting essay! May I ask about the possibility that the story was created not by the Davidic dynasty in its time of power but by 'restorationists' of a later time?

#3 - Martin - 07/08/2014 - 16:27

Robert, I do not claim that the Davidic Dynasty invented an Israelite connection ex nihilo. To the contrary. The process began early and was very complex. I treat it in my book.

Martin, yes I agree that some of this was done by restorationists after 586.

Thanks to you both for the good questions!

#4 - Jacob Wright - 07/11/2014 - 20:10

I bought your ebook and find your whole approach fascinating. In teaching I Samuel, (even before reading your book) I had already posited the idea that the book should have been called the book of Saul and II Samuel the book of David. Unfortunately the ebook does not include information about Caleb, who I also find a fascinating character whose history I have been tracing from the Pentateuch, Joshua and early Judges. Rabbinic literature claimed that he married Miriam (using genealogy from Chronicles) and from them descended the Davidic dynasty. Clearly they too sensed something important going on with the Calebites. I'm sorry that you did not include this material in the ebook.
Naomi Graetz

#5 - Naomi - 07/13/2014 - 15:38

Thanks Prof. Graetz for your comment! The move by the rabbis to link Caleb and David draws, as you say, directly on Chronicles but also, as I show in my book, on the oldest parts of the David story. The later biblical and rabbinic tension sought to resolve the deep tension between the Calebites and the Judahite state and its Davidic rulers. Unfortunately many modern scholars have taken the evidence of Chronicles and read it back into the book of Samuel.
As for the ebook, it was already over 250 pages. It would have been 400 pages if I had included the Caleb chapters.
I am very honored that you have spent time with both versions!
Kol tuv, JW

#6 - Jacob Wright - 07/13/2014 - 16:44

What, no mention of the Septuagint? How thorough of a study can you make it with only the MT, which has proven adulterations?
In the Septuagint, when David confronts Goliath, did King Saul already know him? How can you know the Hebrews if you don't know their Greek translation?

#7 - Caleb Trevithick - 08/04/2014 - 19:28

Caleb, I would encourage you to purchase the book.

#8 - Jacob Wright - 08/05/2014 - 00:36

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