The classic, heroic figure of King David is the most dominant of many different figures we have of David. The story of the shepherd boy David’s rise from his rejection and flight in to the wilderness to become king of all Israel reflects a long tradition of ancient Near Eastern royal inscriptions from the Bronze Age to the Persian period.
By Thomas L. Thompson
University of Copenhagen
April 4, 2019
David and Yahweh’s Beloved
Although King David is one of the richest and most varied literary figures of the Bible, we have no direct historical evidence that he ever existed. Neither archaeology nor any contemporary written inscriptions proves the existence of such a king, ruling in Hebron or Jerusalem during the 10th century BCE. Archaeological evidence for ancient settlements of the Judean highlands hardly support the existence of even a small kingdom in this region, let alone a multi-regional state and monarchy. Archaeology has not yet found any settlement in Jerusalem, significant enough to be the capital of a small patronage kingdom, let alone an empire. Nor has archaeology found any widespread agricultural settlement in the southern highlands, which could have supported a functioning kingdom during the period that the Bible gives to David. There is also no known historical kingdom of Judah before the late-9th century, BCE. The David we know from the Bible as a literary figure, on the other hand, embraces, as we will see, a considerable range of themes, and is, perhaps, the richest figure in biblical literature.
All the historical evidence we have that might be linked to the biblical figure of David comes from three fragments of a late 9th century, Aramaic inscription, found during the excavations of Tall al-Qadi in the Jordan rift, which both mentions a king of Israel and, the name bytdwd. Most scholars translate this “House of David” and understand it as a regional dynastic name of the then, contemporary, kingdom of Jerusalem, similar to the dynastic name, Bit Humri (“The House of Omar”), which had controlled Israel in the hill country of Samaria. On the other hand, the word dwd, can also be understood as signifying “the beloved,” an epithet of the god Yahweh, which appears on the contemporary Mesha stele, connected with the Israelite town of Ataroth in the Transjordan. In this case, the name bytdwd might well be understood as related to Jerusalem, but as the “House (or “temple”) of the Beloved,” referring to the temple or the holy city of Jerusalem, much as the Accadian name of Jerusalem, Uru-salimu (= al-Quds). If the Tell el-Qadi inscription is genuine, the place name bytdwd can be understood as a “temple” or “holy place of Yahweh”, much as the ancient Bronze Age name of Jerusalem, Uru-salimu, refers to “The place of the divine Salem”). The place-name bytdwd, with the element byt (= ”house” or “temple”), may or may not refer to Jerusalem, but it reflects well the form of the names for such a holy place, as we also find in regard to the geographical names Bethel (“the House” or “holy place” of the divine El”) or Beth Shemesh (“the house” or “holy place” of [the sun-god] Shemesh”).
In regard to the possibility that the name bytdwd might refer to David, one should consider that the biblical story about David plays ironically with his unique personal name (Dwd). Yahweh chooses his ”beloved” David to be king: a description which is passed on to his son, Solomon, in his role as “Yahweh’s beloved” (2 Samuel 12:25). So, too, in the story of David’s rise to power, David is portrayed as the man “Yahweh sought after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). David is also portrayed as the opposite of Saul, who had been a rich man’s son, a handsome man beyond comparison. Saul is described as a head taller than any other. He was the kind of man, “men would choose” to be their king (1 Sam 9:1-2)! However, when David is chosen to be king, he was far from the heir of a rich man, nor was he either handsome or tall. He was the youngest son with seven older brothers; one who was set to watch sheep! He was a “pretty man”: red-cheeked with beautiful eyes. On the other hand, David was filled with the spirit of God while Saul was filled with an evil spirit, which David could cure by playing the lyre for Saul and, for this, even Saul loved David as did Saul’s son Jonathan and his daughter Mikal.
The Heroic King (1 Samuel 17-31)
The classic, heroic figure of King David is the most dominant of many different figures we have of David. The story of the shepherd boy David’s rise from his rejection and flight in to the wilderness to become king of all Israel reflects a long tradition of ancient Near Eastern royal inscriptions from the Bronze Age to the Persian period. The basic tale-type, in which the autobiographical “Testimony of the Good King” dominates, presents an ancient story of the king’s rise to power through a heroic struggle against misfortune and rejection. It begins with the future king’s rejection by his patron and exile from his home in the wilderness. In his exile, the hero rises to leadership and prosperity through his own strength and abilities. Showing strength and great courage against impossible odds, he once again finds favour with his god, who brings him home to become the king and saviour of his people. The Bible’s narrative begins with the story of the Philistine giant, Goliath, threatening the Israelites to a duel. The challenge from the giant so terrifies the best of Israel’s soldiers that disaster threatens. King Saul promises his daughter Mikal in marriage to the man who can kill the Philistine giant. Taking up this challenge, against all odds, the little shepherd boy, David prays to God to give him courage and kills the giant with a single stone from his sling. The people are so overwhelmed with this unexpected victory that they sing and dance in joy. Saul makes David the commander of a thousand soldiers and David responds with victory after victory. Singing out all the more in their joy, the women begin to glorify David’s victories. “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” This angers Saul so much that he sets a plot against David. He offers David his daughter, Mikal, as his wife, in reward for killing the giant, but “generously” asks the penniless David for no bride-price. Rather, in secret, he lets David know that a bridal gift of 100 Philistine foreskins would please the king most! David—ever as naïve as he is courageous—is pleased to be given this great opportunity and—echoing his great victory over Goliath—returns alive from this new life-threatening challenge with his impossible two hundred Philistine foreskins. Of course, the women cheer David’s victories and love and praise him and Saul grows to hate David all the more!
King Saul, David’s patron forces him into exile in the wilderness. Here, David collects a band of outlaws. The conflict between Saul and David continues until the death of Saul and his sons, when David is finally recognized as his successor. The ancient tale type which the story of David’s rise to power follows has more than 20 known examples, the oldest of which dates back to the Middle Bronze Age.
The Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Man (2 Samuel 11-12; I Kings 21)
One of the strengths of the stories about David is their opposition of vice and virtue. Among the best examples is the triplet story of the rich man who steals the one thing the poor man possesses. The first example of this theme opens with the successful and rich King David walking on the roof of his palace, while his soldiers are at war. This rich man sees the beautiful Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers: the Hittite Uriah, bathing. David sends for the woman, lies with her and she becomes pregnant. Fearing that his betrayal will be discovered, David writes to his general, Joab, to send Uriah home to his wife that David might hide the parentage of the coming child. Uriah, however, is—unlike David—a good and faithful soldier and, aware of the discomfort of his comrades in the field, refuses the comforts of his home and wife. David writes a second letter and secretly orders his general to place Uriah in a position of great danger that he might be killed. The murder is successful and allows David to marry the dead-man’s widow, who bears him a son. The story closes with the stereotypical judgments of bad kings: “What David had done was evil in Yahweh’s eyes”.
The second tale is itself a response to the first. The prophet, Nathan, was sent by Yahweh to David to tell him a simple parable about a poor man who had but a single lamb whom he dearly loved. A rich man took that poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guests and they ate it. When David heard the story, his judgment was clear and swift: “That man must die and the lamb replaced four-fold!” Nathan then discloses that the rich man was, in fact, David, when he took Uriah’s Bathsheba! The prophet Nathan closes the scene with Yahweh’s judgment, who curses David and his future dynasty. The sword that had killed Uriah will forever hang as a divine curse over David’s House. The story closes with David repenting and Yahweh forgiving David, while the child grows sick and dies. Bathsheba bears David another son, whom he names Shlomo (= Solomon: “Man of peace”), for David longed for peace. Yahweh, however, would rather name the child yedidyah (= “Yahweh’s beloved”, for god loved this child as he had once loved David.
It is most interesting that the Bible’s third version of the rich man and poor man parable marks the reign of Ahab, the 9th century king of Israel and his wife Jezebel. Ahab—in the Bible’s judgment—was the very worst of the evil kings of Israel. While Ahab, with the help of his wife, plays the role of the rich man. The poor man is Naboth, who has a vineyard beside Ahab’s palace in Samaria. At first, Ahab offers to buy Naboth’s vineyard. Naboth, however, refuses to sell the vineyard because it had been his family’s inheritance. Ahab becomes very unhappy and depressed until his wife promises him that she will get the vineyard for him! Like David, she too sends letters to create a secret plot in the king’s name. In these letters, she accuses the poor man, Naboth, of the crime of “cursing God and king”. Naboth is charged of this crime and stoned to death. As soon as Ahab hears that Naboth is dead, he takes possession of the vineyard. In this version of the story, Yahweh also sends the prophet Elijah with his judgment of the king and his reign, declaring Jezebel and Ahab’s fate and the destruction of their dynasty.
David as a Figure of Humility (2 Samuel 24):
The figure of David in the story of his rise to power is itself followed by a complex moral narrative about David’s humiliation and his fall from grace. This story, which is centred in a tale of David being betrayed and hunted by his own son, closes in a dramatic tale of the king, taking on his defining role of piety as the humble and compassionate ruler of his people! This story of good king David opens with David tempted by Yahweh, to have a census taken though it was forbidden, that he might measure the strength of the army of Judah, which he controlled, against the much greater army of Israel. David’s decision clearly echoes the ironic demand for unwavering, absolute obedience to “Yahweh of the Armies”—ever eager to go to war. David takes the census and stands condemned for his disobedience. He is given a choice of punishment: three years of famine, three months at flight from his enemies or three days of plague. It is again with irony that David’s choice links his fate to that of his people. Divine mercy is preferred to the mercy of men! Accordingly, David chooses three days of plague and the punishment falls on his people. In fact, the angel of plague rages so terribly, that, as it turns to threaten Jerusalem, Yahweh, himself, repents the evil he has created! Amid this terror, David finally understands the humility that being king demands. He complains to Yahweh that though he had sinned, his people had been innocent! Finally accepting the submission implicit in ancient Near Eastern literature of a king’s role as shepherd and protector of his people, David begs Yahweh to turn his anger rather against David and his father’s house rather than the innocent! A humbled and repentant David now recognizes his own tyranny as the Bible’s primary narrative about David closes on the central question of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology asking whether a king knows how to feel compassion. This closing story marks David with the humility necessary to his role as measure of a good king, which is fundamental to the narratives to come, which judge the evil kings of Israel and Judah (1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 24).
Stories about David’s Ancestors (Genesis 38; Ruth 1-4)
Among some of the most unique narratives, in which David plays a role, are two short, moral romances which are closely related to each other in plot, theme and structure. Both close on segments of David’s genealogy. The first links David to his ancestor Judah and echoes central aspects of the foregoing Jacob and Esau narratives, which also evoke some of the central historical conflicts and ethnographic ties of Jews and Idumeans. It is a moral tale about Jacob’s son, Judah, the eponymous ancestor of the Jews and his Idumean daughter-in-law, who is the wife of his eldest son. Her name, Tamar (=”palm tree”) is, historically, a place name from the arid Judean and Edomite deserts. The story deals boldly with themes of incest, adultery and prostitution with which Tamar seeks to overcome Judah’s refusal to protect the inheritance of his eldest son. It also, with the best of biblical literature, celebrates the greater virtue of the foreigner. It is not the patriarch of all Jews, but Tamar, the Idumean, who demands obedience to the Torah and maintain the future life-line of the first born. The climax of the story, in which Judah demands that his daughter-in-law be stoned to death for her adultery is silenced by Tamar’s dramatic presentation of evidence, exposing Judah’s duplicity. The importance of Tamar’s exposure is underlined as the story closes on a celebration of the greatness of the twin sons, which Tamar bears to Judah: Perez and Zera, who—much like Jacob and Esau—fight with each other in Tamar’s womb to become the first-born.
A doublet of this story is told of another foreign woman, a Moabite, whose name was Ruth. This is a cue name, illustrating her central role in the narrative: “the faithful one”, a name which epitomizes her faithfulness to her mother-in-law, Naomi (= “pleasant”) that her mother-in-law’s life might be made pleasant. The story opens with a famine, which leads Naomi’s husband to take his wife and their two sons from Bethlehem to the land of Moab, where they live as “strangers in the land”, marking the story’s theme. Her husband, Elimelek, dies and Naomi’s sons marry two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. A decade later, Naomi’s sons also die and Naomi considers returning to Bethlehem as the famine there is over. She advises her daughters-in-law, however, that they might best return to their families to find husbands and good lives for themselves. Orpah does so, but Ruth, true to her name, declares her faithfulness to Naomi: “not even death will part me from you.”
Arriving in Bethlehem, they find that there is a kinsman of Naomi’s dead husband, whose name was Boaz (= “strength”: the name of a pillar of the temple) living there. Ruth agrees with Naomi’s suggestion that Ruth follow him into the fields during the barley harvest that she might glean after him, and win his favour. Once in the field, Ruth works hard “without resting, even for a moment” and Boaz, in his turn, instructs his servants to see that she get an appropriate excess from the harvest and be protected from molestation.
Naomi then decides to find a permanent home for Ruth and so instructs her on how to win Boaz’s heart, a plan, which ends in Boaz declaring his willingness to marry Ruth and redeem the land of Naomi’s husband. Ruth bears Boaz a son, whom Naomi nurses as if it were her own child. The child is named “Obed” and the story closes on a genealogy, which places him as the grandfather of David and traces him back to Perez, Judah and Tamar’s son. Both of these stories further a socially critical philosophy and ethic, based in the Torah’s centre, which demands the love of the stranger in the land, providing David with a genealogy, steeped in the virtues of faithfulness, integrity and ethnic tolerance.
David as Founder of the Temple in Jerusalem and its Cult (1 Chronicles 10-29)
While such presentations create an interesting and provocative background for David, there are other biblical texts, which reflect a considerable reinterpretation of the heroic figure in the story of David’s rise to power. A substantial and detailed revision in 1-2 Chronicles is introduced by a genealogical narrative, tracing David’s ancestry back to the first man, Adam, by way of Adam’s son Seth. In this revision, the figure of David is also recast in a narrative, which centres its attention on Jerusalem and its temple, forming a story, which is utopian, rather than heroic. This figure of David is chosen by God from the creation and it seeks to interpret the mythic “new world” “new temple” and “new Israel” of the prophets, which rise from the ashes of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians (597-587 BCE). The expansive genealogical introduction to this narrative is directed towards finding mankind’s way back to the “tree of life” from the garden story. In the revision, the tree of life stands in the temple of post-exilic Jerusalem.
David’s story here follows the genealogy, which traces the history of all mankind through lists of the families of the “tribes of Israel,” particularly those who return to Jerusalem from exile. The narratives, which expand this genealogy, attribute in detail the planning of the new temple, its song and its cult to David. It closes with a genealogy of King Saul, ending in his defeat at the hand of the Philistines, his suicide and the abuse of his corpse in shame and disgrace: a metaphorical reflection on Judah and Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians. Saul’s successor David is chosen by god to be the new shepherd of the post-exilic people in Jerusalem. This revised David is ever great and virtuous, attracting men of great valour, who defeat the Philistines decisively. The ark of their God is taken immediately to Jerusalem in preparation for the future temple. Priests are appointed to prepare its song, music and sacrifices. The story closes with David’s final plans for this temple his son is to build.
An Inspired David: Singer of Songs (for example Ps 3; 7; 18)
We also find a different David in the Psalter: one who is marked as the composer and singer of many of its 150 songs. This figure has its ultimate roots in the role of David as a young man in Saul’s court as the singer and player of the lyre, the David with such talent for sweet music that he could soothe the madness of Saul’s hatred and drive away the evil spirit, which possessed him. This David also has identifiable roots in the revised figure of David as composer and director of songs to be sung in the temple, which we find in the Book of Chronicles. In the psalter, itself, this role of David is implied by the title lines used to introduce many of the songs: “To the choirmaster; for flutes; a song of David” or “To the choirmaster; with stringed instruments; according to the melody: a song of David.” Many songs bear no other title than the simple “song of David,” presenting the song as written or sung by David. Some 13 songs bear headings, which set their context within the life of David. These headings mark them as songs originally sung by David during very specific times of crisis in his life, all but one of which can s be identified in 1-2 Samuel’s story of the heroic David’s rise to power. The narratives suggested by these titles use the song to interpret the piety fostered by a scene from the David story. One of the settings places the song as one that David had sung, “when Nathan, the prophet, came to him after he had gone into Bathsheba”. This is certainly not the easiest scene to promote the “way of David” in piety! Nor is David threatened by one or other of his usual enemies. He is threatened by god’s judgment for the murder of his faithful soldier! It is the song, far more than the scene in David’s story, which strikes notes of piety. David’s crime is deeply regretted with motifs of true humility and repentance firmly in place.
These contexts are also closely interrelated and all participate in the well-known ancient Near Eastern discourse on the “theology of the way”, which is so wonderfully illustrated in the first song of the Psalter to mark its dominant theme. This theology is based in the absolute dichotomy between “the way of God” (with variations, such as “the way of the righteous”, “the way of David.”) and “the way of the evil one”, “the way of men” or “the way of sin”, and the like. In the theme-setting first song of the Psalter, those “who delight in Yahweh’s Torah” and “meditate on it day and night” stand as opposed to “sinners, who will not stand in the judgement” and “who do not stand in the assembly of the righteous.”
David as Messiah (1 Samuel 2:1-10; 2 Samuel 1: 19-27; 2 Sam 22; 23:1-7)
The earliest example in ancient Near Eastern literature of the mythic figure of the king and priest, son of god, saviour of his people and judge over his enemies, appears in the 18th century, BCE Egyptian “Hymn to Amon-Re”. The eschatological myth of the messianic kingdom, which brings about an eternal reign of peace and justice finds early examples in the 13th and 12th century, BCE. The Egyptian enthronement songs of the pharaohs, Merneptah and Ramses IV celebrate “the good news” and the “happy day” of a new world of peace and Justice, which is also celebrated in both Jewish and Christian literature (Ps 104; Mark 1:1).
The stories of David are interpreted by four major messianic songs, sung by or about the prophet Samuel, or the kings, Saul and David (1 Samuel 2:1-10; 2 Samuel 1;19-27; 2 Sam 22:2-16 and 2 Samuel 23:2-7). The first of these is sung by the pregnant, Hanna, who is to give birth to the prophet Samuel. It is a thanksgiving song to Yahweh for saving her the shame of her barrenness. It is a classic example of the reversal of fortune, which announces the messianic kingdom of peace and justice. The narrative uses the song as a prelude, celebrating the saving-grace that should have been. The second of these songs is a lament sung by David over Saul and his son after they had been killed by the Philistines. It serves as a thematic challenge of the role of the hero at the very beginning of David’s reign, questioning the heroism in David’s role as king. The third song is a thoroughgoing, classic messianic song drawn directly from the Psalter. It celebrates Yahweh’s protection of the king and his reign. Thunder, storm and lightning thunders from the heavens as Yahweh protects his king from his enemies. It is God, who makes the king strong and protects him. He is the king’s shield and fortress. As in all ancient Near Eastern royal ideology, the divine protector of the king is the true king and patron over the people and the king is his servant. The song closes with the commitment: “He will bring the king great victory and will be faithful to his Messiah, to David and his family: forever!” This song is followed by “David’s last words”, presenting David as the mythic, messianic David, singing of Yahweh as “Israel’s rock”. The song points ahead to the final judgment of kingship and the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. It is here that the eternal character of David’s dynasty is conditioned on “justly ruling over men and governing in fear of God”! This condition prepares the reader for David’s warning to Solomon of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the end of David’s dynasty.
Jesus as Messiah and Son of God (Matthew 1;1-17; Luke 3:23-38)
The Old Testament figure of David and the New Testament figure of Jesus are the most frequently used forms of the Messiah in the Bible. This is supported by the genealogical traditions of the gospels, which link David with Jesus as his ancestor. Jesus bears his identity as Messiah with the titles “son of David” and “son of god”. The New Testament presentation of Matthew’s genealogy (Matthew 1:1-25) presents a list of Jesus’ ancestors from fathers to sons, following the summary title: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Jesus’ ancestry is then given in three groups of fourteen names each: “from Abraham to David: 14; form David to the deportation: 14 and from the deportation to the Messiah: 14.” This genealogy from Abraham to Joseph is based on the threefold number value of the name of David in Hebrew (dwd, with d = 4 and w = 6, so dwd = 4+6+4 = 14)! The genealogy closes on “Joseph, the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born who was called the Messiah.” The genealogy closes with the mythic story of Jesus’ birth by his virgin mother, impregnated by the spirit of God. Jesus is not presented as “son of Joseph” but as “son of David” and “son of God”.
In a much later Gospel (Luke 3: 23-28), a genealogy begins with Jesus, when he was 30 years old and beginning his ministry. This genealogy implicitly acknowledges the myth of the virgin birth by merely stating “Jesus was “the son of Joseph, as it was thought.” The genealogy then presents Joseph as son of Heli” and proceeds from son to father. A simple, repetitive form: x, the son of y; the son of z, creates a continuous linked chain of names drawn from Old Testament texts. No generation is stressed over another, until the genealogy closes strikingly with “the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God”, marking the entire genealogy, with David holding the 42nd generation (3 X 14 = 42), and the genealogy bearing the ancient messianic identity of “son of God!”
Other Messiahs. Elisha, Hazael and Jehu, Cyrus and Job (1 kings 19; Isaiah 45 and Job 29).
Although the figure of the Messiah has been most emphatically defined by the stories and songs of David and although David and Jesus are most frequently identified as being “the Messiah”, they are hardly the only figures in biblical literature that are described with this role. The role of the high priest is also defined as “anointed” for his eternal role in the temple. In the story of the prophet Elijah and the evil king of Israel, Ahab, Yahweh orders Elijah to go to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king over Aram. He must also anoint Yehu to king over Israel and, finally, must he anoint Elisha as prophet after Elijah. “Those that escape Hazael’s sword, Jehu must kill and those who escape Jehu’s sword, Elisha must kill.” Here, these three carry out the Messianic role of judgment over evil. At a pivotal point of the prophet Isaiah’s very central story of Yahweh’s judgment over Israel and Judah, a song presents the Persian King, Cyrus as one whom Yahweh will call as his Messiah. Yahweh shall take his right hand and lead him into battle against Babylon. Although Cyrus does not know Yahweh, Yahweh will call him to bring judgment over Babylon and restore his people in Jerusalem.
There are several other figures in biblical tradition who might fulfill one or more roles of a messianic figure. The Book of Job, for example, captures this figure when it epitomizes Job’s memory of having been “like a king” over his people. Though the identification as Messiah is not made as Job looks back nostalgically, to the time when God was with him, nevertheless, he lived and cared for his people, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and saving the poor and the oppressed. “I was eyes to the blind and feet to the crippled; I was father to the poor and helped him I knew not.” At the center of this discourse on his past life, Job pauses and epitomizes this “song for the poor man” with an old Egyptian version of the Medieval, Christian messianic figure of Saint George and the Dragon: “I broke the fangs of the evil one and forced him to drop his prey from his teeth.”