Society and the Promise to David: Reading 2 Samuel 7

Society and the Promise to David: The Reception History of 2 Samuel 7:1-17 (Oxford University Press, 1999).

The literary legacy of the Promise to David continues in each new social context and each new Jewish community.

By William M. Schniedewind
Professor Biblical Studies and Northwest Semitic Languages

    The Promise to David is a central text to both Jewish and Christian traditions. Through it, Israel would define itself as a nation, as a people, and as a religion. The idealization of Davidic kings, as well as the Jerusalem temple, was already firmly situated within the Promise by the late Judaean monarchy. In fact, it was so firmly situated that the destruction of these institutions precipitated something of a constitutional crisis during the Babylonian exile. Did the Promise fail? Not as long as it could be read and reinterpreted.

    My book, Society and the Promise to David: A Reception History of 2 Samuel 7:1-17, follows the different ways that this promise was read from the inception of the Davidic kingdom down to early Christian times. When any text is central to a people or a nation, like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, the history of its interpretation can serve as a window into the history of that people. One analogy in American history can illustrate. The landmark Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Ed., 1954) that overturned "separate, but equal" (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) educational facilities for races as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees all citizens "equal protection of the laws," reflected a changing American social landscape. The different interpretations of the Constitution in 1896 and 1954 reflected the changing social context of the interpreters. The text had not changed, but the readers and their social context had. The Promise to David was such a constitutional text for the ancient Jewish people.

    To understand the history of the interpretation of the Promise to David, we must delve into its social and historical context. This begins in the tenth century bce when the settled pastoralists who came to be known as Israel were coalescing into an early state under Saul, David, and Solomon. This transition from pastoralists to rural agrarians and finally toward an urban state was tumultuous. Social anthropologists have noted that emerging states require a Common Ideology to hold them together. The Promise to David was this Common Ideology for ancient Israel. It gave divine sanction to the politics of a United Monarchy. It provided an ideology through which the diverse clans and tribes of the central hill country and Galilee were unified.

    The Promise to David was not completely successful. Biblical traditions, for example, attest a deep internal conflict with the concept of monarchy (e.g., 1 Sam. 8). Twice during the description of David’s reign we hear the cry of rebellion against the house of David. The first is Sheba’s rebellion where he states, "We have no portion with David, no inheritance with the son of Jesse! Everyone to his own tent" (2 Sam. 20:1; cf. 1 Kings 12:16). The words used here— portioninheritance, and tent—reflect a tribal society. Alongside the political tensions were religious tensions that resulted from the transition from a religious system centered on family piety and alliance to the tribe to an official state religion and temple. The movement of the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 5–6), for example, would be critical in securing religious legitimacy of the new national temple.

    One question that can be raised, especially in view of the critiques by the so-called "minimalists" who date the composition of the Bible to the Persian Period or later, is how do we know this text dates to the early monarchy? A close reading of this text and the interpretations of it will make such a late dating quite infeasible. For instance, so basic was perpetuity to the Promise, "your throne shall be established forever" (verse 16), that it is inconceivable that this text originates after the destruction of the kingdom and the exile. Indeed, one of the burdens of later interpreters would be to explain how "forever" did not really mean "forever."

    The social and religious issues that arise out of the transition from a tribally based organization into a monarchy are also addressed in the Promise (2 Sam. 7:6). God objects to a permanent building built of cedar as something never requested of the tribal leaders of early Israel. The tribal leaders are described as "shepherding" the people, and David subsequently is taken from the pasture and the sheep to rule over Israel. The main point in allowing kingship seems to be that it coincides with "appointing a place for my people Israel and planting them so that they may live in their own place" (verse 10). These issues would have been most relevant to the emerging Israelite monarchy. One may ask whether we want to paint the authors of the Bible as charlatans spinning a yarn of promise, contradiction, and reinterpretation or as readers struggling to come to grips with a text that helped shaped their national identity.

    The Promise easily divides into two separate prophecies in verses 4–7 and 8–16. The first prophecy is formally marked by the divine messenger formula "Thus says the Lord" (verse 4), and the second also begins with a repetition of the divine messenger formula in verse 8. At the very least, the repetition of the messenger formula sets verses 8–16 apart from verses 4–7 as a separate literary unit. The first unit deals with David’s request to build a temple, a request that is rebuffed by God. The second unit is the promise to build a dynasty for David. The two prophecies are juxtaposed, yet there is no tension in meaning; rather, the two parts play on one another. The LORD says in verses 4-7 that David will not build a temple (bayit) for God, but in verses 8-16, the LORD promises to build a kingdom (bayit) for David. The two parts are rhetorically joined by a clever pun using the Hebrew word bayit, which usually is translated "house" but can also have the sense of "dynasty" (as in "house of David," in the now famous Tel Dan inscription). Rather than David building God a house (i.e., temple), God will build David a house (i.e., dynasty).

    An editorial tension is introduced between the two literary sections of the Promise in verse 13a. There, the temple is introduced into the second part, borrowing from the meaning of the word house in the first literary part (verses 4-7). This verse, which proclaims that Solomon will build the temple, apparently undoes the rejection from the first part without explaining why God suddenly reverses himself. Several places elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible offer explanations for this. For example, in 1 Kings 5:16-19, Solomon claims that David could not build the temple "because enemies surrounded him" but that God gave rest to Solomon so that he might build the temple. This, of course, contradicts 2 Samuel 7, which states that the occasion for David’s request to build the temple was that God had given him rest from his enemies (2 Sam. 7:1)! Other explanations given elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., 1 Chr. 28:3) only serve to highlight the sudden reversal in 2 Samuel 7. This reversal, of course, is critical to the legitimacy of the Jerusalem Temple.

    Why is there no explanation for the sudden reversal? I argue that this is because verse 13a is a later Josianic/Deuteronomic insertion (ca. 620 BCE). During the Josianic religious reformation, the sanctified and rededicated Jerusalem temple became the centerpiece of Jewish religion. However, one of the constitutional texts of ancient Israel, the Promise to David, had apparently rejected it. This, however, was to be a matter of interpretation. Later interpreters argue that only David was refused permission to build (though this is clearly not the explanation given in 2 Samuel 7:6-7), but this new interpretation needed to be clearly indicated within the Promise to David itself. This was accomplished through formal editorial and exegetical devices. The passage may be outlined as follows:




12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.

Josianic/ Deuteronomic Insertion:

13 He shall build a house for my name,


and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

A framing repetition, "I will establish his kingdom," allows an interpretative addition that explains that David’s son will build a temple. The temple thus becomes part of the Promise to David. This later interpreter has further marked the addition using the pronoun "he" (hu’); such pronouns often introduce interpretative comments into biblical texts. A particularly apt, though later, example of the use of a pronoun to introduce a later interpretation can be found in the Dead Sea Scroll 4QFlorilegium (4QFlor: 174), which uses "he" (hu’) to introduce its own interpretation of 2 Samuel 7. Citing verse10, where God promises "I shall establish a place for my people," the Qumran reader interprets this "place" as an eschatological temple (l. 2): "It (hu’) is the house that He shall build for you in the last days." In 2 Samuel 7, the use of the pronoun in verse 13a, along with the framing repetition, doubly marks an interpretative comment, which puns on the meaning of "house" to justify the Solomonic temple.

    Who was responsible for this exegetical comment in verse 13a? When was it made? We could just as well ask when was the Bible written because the answer is the same. The Bible was largely, though not entirely, written down during the late Judaean monarchy, i.e., during the late eighth through early sixth centuries BC. It was then, and not during the Persian period, when the social and administrative infrastructure existed to compose a large body of literature in Hebrew. The impoverished and depopulated Persian period was no setting for a literary renaissance (see, e.g., Neh. 5:1-5). The Persian administrative infrastructure, whatever existed in the largely forgotten province of Yehud, was trained in Aramaic, not Hebrew (see, e.g., Ezra 4-7). This, then, is why the late books of the Bible (such as Ezra-Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther, Chronicles) show heavy Aramaic linguistic influence or are even partly written in Aramaic. In order to fully understand the interpretation of the Promise, we must digress into the social history of the late Judaean monarchy when the conditions were ripe for the extensive composition of literature.

    Although the monarchy introduced a centralized system into Palestine, it did so unevenly. The north was the center of the urbanization, whereas the south remained, to a great extent, a village culture. After Sennacherib’s invasion, this picture shifted. Larger cities became the focus of more settlement, and smaller villages and farmsteads disappeared. Before the eighth century, Judah had an insulated economy with few significant foreign cultural influences. By contrast, a century later (in the period of Josiah), Judah had an open economy and a wide variety of cultural influences. Late Judaean society became more politically and administratively centralized. There was also an increase in literacy, especially mundane literacy typical of merchants and craftsmen. The villages and tribal elders were disenfranchised by the centralization and urbanization of Judaean society. The Josianic reforms would address just these issues.

    It is in this context that we must read the Deuteronomistic History and its interpretation of the Promise to David. Earlier, I suggested it was a Deuteronomic and Josianic author who incorporated 2 Samuel 7 into the Deuteronomistic History and added verse 13a. A telltale sign of this author can be seen in the expression "for my name," which appears almost exclusively in Deuteronomy and deuteronomic literature. This expression first reflected YHWH’s exclusive claim to the temple. Putting one’s name on something stakes a claim to exclusive ownership. The kings of the Ancient Near East would put display inscriptions on temples with their name and the deity’s name to claim ownership. In the Josianic reforms, YHWH would claim exclusive sovereignty over Jerusalem and its temple. This was part of the rejection of other religions and cultures that had "invaded" Jerusalem in the wake of the Pax Assyriaca. The use of the expression "for his name" became one of the typical expressions of the Josianic reformation.

    The addition of verse 13a highlights the importance that the Temple would now play in all future interpretations of the Promise to David. This shift of focus would require reinterpretation of the "place" (maqom) that is mentioned in 2 Samuel 7:10. At first glance, it would seem to refer to the land that YHWH was giving Israel. However, this runs counter to a central Deuteronomic theological issue. In Deuteronomic theology, the idea of a place is always associated specifically with the "place that YHWH would choose" for his temple (e.g., Deut. 12:5; 1 Kings 8:16; 2 Kings 21:7).

    Later in the Deuteronomistic History, we find another citation and interpretation of 2 Samuel 7. While castigating Manasseh for incorporating the religion of the north, i.e., the religion of King Ahab, and so defiling the temple, the historian writes, "the LORD had said to David and to his son Solomon, ‘In this House and in Jerusalem, which I chose out of all the tribes of Israel, I will establish My name forever. And I will not again cause the feet of Israel to wander from the land that I gave to their fathers...’" (2 Kings 21:7-8). When did the LORD say this to David and Solomon? The second part of the reference concerning "the feet of Israel no longer wandering" draws on 2 Samuel 7:10, but the idea that he chose Jerusalem clearly depends on an extrapolation of Deuteronomy 12 and the reading of 2 Samuel 7:10 in 1 Kings 8:12ff (i.e., Solomon’s Prayer). Was this reading simply clever manipulation? Not at all. It must have seemed patently obvious to any pious reader of Deuteronomy 12 during the Josianic period that the place God ultimately chose was Jerusalem!

    The exile thrust the Promise into crisis. How could David’s sons inherit the throne of an eternal, yet now defunct, kingdom? Where would the physical presence of YHWH dwell now that his temple had been destroyed? Most importantly, how could "Israel" still be God’s people? The fate of the Jewish people would now be tied to the Promise to David. In the words of Second Isaiah, "I will make with all of you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David" (Isa. 55:3). In this union, the seeds for "collective messianism" were born. The return to Zion rekindled aspirations for the restoration of the monarchy, but it was the priests who wielded power in the exilic and postexilic Jewish community. As a result, the vision for restoring the Davidic monarchy imagined a curious duality: the Davidic Branch "shall build the Temple of YHWH and shall assume majesty, and he shall sit on his throne and rule. And there shall also be a priest beside his throne, and harmonious understanding shall prevail between them" (Zech. 6:13).

    The exile also forced a relocation of the God of Israel. He could no longer dwell in the destroyed temple. Apparently rationalizing the temple’s destruction, an exilic theologian reasoned that only his name dwelled there, not the Deity himself. The God of Israel dwelled in the heavens, not in an earthly temple. Quoting 2 Samuel 7:5’s rejection of the temple, Isaiah 66:1 would ask how could a temple contain God? The temple was irrelevant because the God of Israel did not live in a temple; rather, as Ezekiel so pointedly argues, God dwelt among his people. The exile provided the context for a universalization of the God of Israel. The exile uprooted both a people and the Promise. When Cyrus the Mede (ca. 539 bce) allowed the Jews to return, the exilic rationalization of the Promise had added a dramatically new layer to its legacy. Would God now dwell again in a rebuilt Jerusalem temple? Didn’t God dwell in heaven? The exile broadened the literary horizons of the Promise and, with it, of Judaism itself.

    The literary legacy of the Promise to David continues in each new social context and each new Jewish community. In Alexandria and Qumran, among Pharisees and early Christians, the Promise had its own import that spoke to the social situation and historical context of the individual community. Part of the measure of the Promise to David’s ongoing vitality would be its ability to coax each generation of new readers into fresh interpretations. Texts like the Promise to David that deal with issues of vital importance to a community attract commentary, whether by editorial insertions and revision or by complete rewriting. By tracing a history of interpretations, we piece together an intellectual history of ancient Israel and early Judaism. For the most part, this intellectual history is a history of literary elites, i.e., of those who read, interpreted, and passed on the literary traditions of ancient Israel to the next generation. Through the lens of 2 Samuel 7, the Promise to David, we gain a glimpse into the intellectual history of ancient Israel and early Judaism. Throughout the literary history of the Promise, the symbiotic relationship among text, reader, and society evolves. 

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