King David: A Biography

Author argues for a more realistic portrait of David than the one found in tradition.

By Steven McKenzie
Associate Professor,
Rhodes College,
Memphis, Tennessee

Western art and literature evince an enormous fascination with the figure of King David. The trend begins with the Bible itself, which devotes more literature to David than to any other character (including Moses and Jesus!), and continues to the present. The last decade has witnessed the publication of at least six books on David (Halpern, Kirsh, Landay, Steussy), including my own, King David: A Biography, and a heated debate on the question of his very existence. Contending that no one had yet undertaken to write a real biography of David (purported biographies tended to be devotional retellings of the biblical story), I set out to fill that void. I did so recognizing that any such biography was actually a portrait or holograph based on my interpretation of the available sources.

The evidence for the historical David outside of the Bible is meager. A fragmentary Aramaic inscription found at Tel Dan in 1993 and 1994 dating to ca. 850 BCE, mentions “the house of David” in reference to the kingdom of Judah. A similar reference to “the house of David,” has been perceived (and partially reconstructed) by Andre Lemaire in the Mesha stele from ancient Moab. Another recent proposal by Kenneth Kitchen that the Egyptian Shoshenq (Shishak) relief mentions “the highlands of David,” is doubtful. At best, these inscriptions refer to the Davidic dynasty or its province (Judah) and say nothing about the person of David. Nor can any archaeological artifact be associated with David with any degree of certainty. Though some archaeologists contend that architectural remains from the tenth century BCE indicate the existence of a central authority like that described in the Bible for the reigns of David and Solomon, they would have to be reconstructed even if their names were not given in the Bible. The Bible, therefore, remains our primary source for any portrait of the historical David.

There are three corpora of literature relating to David in the Bible:

(1) Almost half (73) of the 150 Psalms contain headings associating them with David. In English, the typical heading is rendered “a psalm of David.” But the headings are widely recognized as later additions by scribes attempting to connect them with well-known biblical figures. Also, the meaning of the Hebrew preposition translated “of” (le) is ambiguous and might be translated in a variety of ways (“dedicated to David,” “belonging to David,” “for the David collection”) that do not imply authorship. Indeed, some psalms bearing “a psalm of David” heading contain internal references to later events or institutions that make Davidic authorship unlikely. Hence, no psalm can be attributed to David with certainty, and aside from the headings, they contain no information about David’s life that is useful for historical reconstruction.

(2) The book of 1 Chronicles offers a retelling of the David story contained in 1-2 Samuel from a different theological vantage point. With few exceptions, it contains no new information about David and therefore cannot be regarded as an independent source.

(3) Any reconstruction of David’s life, therefore, is necessarily dependent on the material about him in 1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2. The books of Samuel and Kings are part of a larger work referred to as the Deuteronomistic History. Most scholars believe that the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings (the Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible) were originally written as one giant history of Israel (the division into books occurred much later). This history evaluated Israel according to the program laid out in Deuteronomy. It was, therefore, a theological history or historical theology. It was probably completed shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, since this is the final event recorded in 2 Kings.

Its author/compiler, the Deuteronomistic Historian or Dtr for short, incorporated older stories and traditions into his work. Scholars have attempted to isolate older sources about David and sometimes refer to the “History of David’s Rise“ underlying much of 1 Samuel and the “Succession Narrative” or “Court History” behind most of 2 Samuel, though the existence of these documents has been called into serious question in recent years. Whether from an older source or not, scholars have long recognized the apologetic tone of the David story, especially in 1 Samuel. His deeds are consistently justified in the face of accusations that might be leveled against him. Chief among these is the suspicion that he usurped Saul's throne and assassinated those who stood in the way of his political advancement.

My method in trying to write David’s biography begins with the assumption that the accusations against which the literature in Samuel-Kings so obviously tries to defend David has a basis in historical reality. I adopt two working principles. The first is skepticism, which means questioning the historical value of any claim of the biblical portrait of David that is patently ideological or literary in nature. The second is analogy, i.e., that David’s deeds would have been analogous to those of other human beings and of Middle Eastern rulers in particular. I therefore, see the author of the David story in Samuel and Kings as a “spin doctor” and propose reading the story “against the grain” of the author’s presumed intent.

I constantly ask how David may have benefited (cui bono) by the turns of events described in the Bible and what his true motives may have been, based on similar actions of other monarchs. I also look for peculiar features of the narratives that may lead to a different picture of what really happened. Reading the David story in Samuel and Kings with these principles in mind yields a very different -- and I would argue, more realistic -- portrait of the man than the one found in tradition. In the space of this summary article, I cannot explain the reasons for my historical judgments about David but can only synthesize the overall portrait of him to which my analysis led.

David was not a poor, rural shepherd boy. He came from a prominent family in Bethlehem, Judah. He was the youngest son of Jesse, a respected elder of Bethlehem and a wealthy man with significant holdings of land and livestock. The shepherd image for David derives from a common metaphor for rulers in the ancient Near East, not from historical sources about his origins. Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps, however, David struck out on his own--perhaps forced by economic circumstances brought on by a population increase and diminished arable land.

David cultivated a variety of skills for survival. He seems to have been a person of considerable intelligence and charm but was also extremely ambitious and ruthless. He may have come to Saul initially as a musician, charged with driving away evil spirits and bringing good fortune. The position of court musician was a standard one in the ancient Near East. The tradition that David occupied this position was apparently used by the biblical writer to depict Saul as unstable and haunted by “an evil spirit from Yahweh.” It also gave rise to the further tradition of David as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” and the author of many of its songs.

David quickly gained renown for his military skill. He may even have joined Saul as a mercenary. He distinguished himself in battle against the Philistines and soon rose to become a commander in Saul’s army. One tale of David’s personal victory over a Philistine champion became legendary, though the name Goliath was an accretion to that story (cf. 2 Sam 21:19). David’s success and personal charm gained him popularity and a loyal following among those he commanded. He may even have cultivated close personal relationships with Saul and his family. David’s success and popularity in the army gave him the power to be a threat to Saul, and he had the ambition to try to usurp the kingship. Saul perceived the threat and moved against him. But this may have been a reaction rather than a first strike. The vigor with which the apology in the Bible asserts David’s innocence against Saul strongly suggests that he was in fact involved in a plot against him. But before Saul could capture him, David escaped, perhaps with inside help.

David fled from Saul to the rugged Judean wilderness, which had long given refuge to outlaws and fugitives. There he became the chief of such a group. Through force of arms he gained control over an expanding area in the Negev and in Judah. His assassination of the Calebite chief, “Nabal,” and his assumption of the man’s wealth and status brought him to the threshold of the kingship of Judah. When the elders of Judah anointed David king, they were merely giving official recognition to the de facto control he and his outlaw band were exercising over most of Judah. David combined the tribe or clan of Judah with that of Caleb and perhaps others so as to form the larger domain (later the nation) of Judah.

During the time that he ruled in Hebron, David was a rival chieftain to Saul. David joined forces with the Philistines and eventually succeeded in effecting Saul’s downfall. There is reason to suspect that he engineered Saul’s death. He then provoked war with Saul’s figurehead successor, Ishbaal. The war ended when David made a treaty with Abner that brought the army of Israel over to his side. David then arranged for the assassinations of both Abner and Ishbaal, leaving the elders of Israel no choice but to capitulate to him as their new king.

As king, David sought to consolidate his power by defeating his one-time allies, the Philistines, and by destroying Saul’s heirs. He kept Meribbaal (Mephibosheth) alive, perhaps out of affection for Jonathan, but mainly because his lameness removed any real threat he may have otherwise posed. Indeed, the fact that David did not have Meribbaal executed may have given rise to the entire tradition about David’s friendship and treaty with Jonathan. Still, David kept even Meribbaal under palace arrest and made sure that neither he nor Michal produced grandchildren to Saul. David also took steps to enhance the unity between Israel and Judah. These included establishing a neutral capital in Jerusalem and giving the ark, Israel’s principal religious artifact, a new home there. David gradually adopted the trappings of Middle Eastern monarchy and at the same time expanded his own hegemony to create a small empire in Palestine.

David maintained power in the same way he had attained it in the first place--by removing anyone who was in his way. This included his two oldest sons, Amnon and Absalom, both of whom came to violent ends when they stood to replace their father. David’s power came at a price for his people as well. There was conscription and taxation to support the king’s projects, military and domestic. David probably confiscated other lands, as he did those of Meribbaal, in order to reward his supporters. This was a king who took what he wanted as in the story of Bathsheba. The story of Absalom’s revolt indicates that there was widespread discontent with David and sectionalism fostered by his unequal treatment of Israel and Judah. As usual, David regained control by military means. Ironically, at the end of his life David himself became the victim of others’ political maneuvering. His own son, Solomon, used contrived orders from David to launch a coup against the presumed successor, Adonijah, and to get rid of the members of the old regime (Joab, Abiathar) who supported Adonijah. Bathsheba herself may have orchestrated the coup.

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