David as a Tribal Hero

See Also: Near Eastern tribal societies during the 19th century: Economy, society and politics between tent and town (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013).

By Eveline van der Steen
School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology
University of Liverpool
February 2014

The Near East has always been rich in oral traditions, from the earliest known periods, right up to the 20th century. Oral traditions are a vital source of information for largely illiterate societies (as most societies were until recently), and in the Near East religious restrictions on creative expression resulted in a flourishing culture of poetry, singing and storytelling. One particular genre, that of heroic epic cycles, has had a revival in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the rise of Arab nationalism created an awareness of the importance of its own traditions. Poetry and storytelling became features on prime time radio and television, and in Syria and Egypt adventure movies were produced featuring the tribal hero Antar.

In the past, governments and religious authorities were suspicious of these oral traditions, which flourished under the radar of the ‘official’ literature. Religious scholars condemned the tribal stories as lies and vulgar fantasies, detracting from the true words of the Qur’an, while political rulers condemned the oral traditions of the lower classes as rebellious and tried to suppress them.

Heroic epics form a specific genre of tribal culture. They consist of a cycle of stories, evolving around one hero. In that sense they form part of a world-wide tradition of epic literature, which also includes, for example, the Homeric cycles or the Arthurian legends. Many of the individual stories that make up the cycle are based on general themes also found in other cycles.

Professional storytellers usually specialised in one heroic cycle. They would travel from camp to village to camp and entertain their audience for a small reward. Their storytelling was a continuous reinvention of their hero’s exploits, interacting with their audience, and dipping into their large pool of narrative themes. In the towns they would frequent the coffee houses and return evening after evening to continue their stories. The names and exploits of the heroes Antar, Baybars or Abu Zayd were part of the cultural knowledge of every Arab, in town, village or camp.

Analysis of these epics by Peter Heath discerns four major themes:

  • Birth and rise of the Hero. Heroes are almost always off at a bad start. Either their birth is surrounded by misunderstandings, or they have a disadvantaged youth, a barrier to overcome on their way to heroism. At the same time there are prophetic signs pointing to their special destination.
    One of the barriers a hero has to overcome is that of acceptance by his own tribe. Rejection often results in the hero going off into the wild and becoming a robber, in order to prove himself to his tribe.
  • Love stories. In heroic epics love and marriage rarely follow a smooth path. Love stories are a much loved way to show off the hero’s qualities. A common theme is that of the impossible dowry, demanded by unreasonable fathers-in-law as a way to get rid of the hero. Accidental (often erotic) encounters in unusual places and circumstances are also favourite.
  • Once he is established as a hero, the hero’s main purpose in life is to protect and serve the society that has proclaimed him their champion. He saves his tribe from dangers, and makes it famous and honoured throughout the land, through his heroice exploits. At the same time, he has his own code of honour, which sometimes clashes with the code of conduct of the tribe.
    Interestingly, most heroes are also accomplished poets.

  • The death of the hero usually gives rise to new stories, often of revenge, involving his offspring.

These themes can all be found in the story cycles Antar, of Abu Zayd and of Baybars, the great tribal heroes. They can also be found in another, much older story cycle, that of David in the Old Testamant books of 1 and 2 Samuel.

The origins of the David cycle have been discussed by many scholars since the 19th century. Most scholars assume a late origin for the stories, some questioning the historicity of the sources and of David himself. Others, such as Baruch Halpern argue for an early origin for the texts, emphasising the intense humanity of David, as well as his larger than life personality.

The development of a heroic epic, from often very old origins, through a continuous interaction between storyteller and audience, into a full blown narrative, often over hundreds of years, makes the question of how old it is meaningless. Its hero may be hundreds of year old, the story itself was reinvented yesterday. David may well have been a historic figure (Baybars certainly was, and Antar probably), the stories about him were shaped, and reinvented over a long period of time.

The David cycle follows the dramatic development of the heroic epic:0

  • David started at a disadvantage: that of the youngest son in the family, and, as his father pointed out, of no importance. Primogeniture was more important in the biblical genealogies than in those of the Arab tribes, where succession was not based on primogeniture. At the same time, his glittering career was prophesied by Samuel.
  • During his youth David distinguished himself, killing lions with his bare hands, and fighting a giant. As a consequence, David acquired the sword of Goliath, which, in the original stories, may well have had magic qualities.
  • David was looked down on by his own father and brothers. He was also first accepted, but later rejected by Saul. Saul’s jealousy forced him into hiding, but even then David strove to gain acceptance from him. The theme of recognition by the father and the tribe has here been lifted to a higher plane: from family and tribal succession, to that of the royal family and future kingship. David’s friendship with Jonathan can also be seen in the light of this acceptance: with the king’s son as his emotional and spiritual brother, David was identified with the royal circle.
  • When he was cut off from this royal circle, David collected a band of outlaws, and went raiding with them.
  • The love stories in David’s life are the stuff of romance. His courtship of Michal includes the theme of the impossible dowry, frequently found in the epics. Abigail was the brave and wise woman who came to apologize for her foolish husband Nabal, who refused to fall for one of David’s protection rackets. The laws of heroic romance dictate that David and Abigail should fall in love. Conveniently Nabal died a few days later and they could marry.

    Bathseba was the manipulative beauty, who arranged an unexpected, erotic encounter, bathing on the roof. She also schemed to put her own son on the throne after David’s death.

  • King David served his people by delivering them from their enemies and expanding the country to its greatest extension ever.
  • Stories of other heroes are interwoven with that of the main hero: Saul and Absalom are heroes in their own right. The story of Goliath may have been ‘borrowed’ from another story cycle, which featured a hero named Elhanan.
  • David’s personal code of heroic honour regularly transcended, even violated the tribal code of conduct, when he refused to kill Saul on several occasions, and when he protected and revenged Saul’s family and followers, against the accepted codes of the tribe.
  • David’s reputation as a poet was such that practically all the poetry in the Bible has been ascribed either to him, or to his no less heroic son, Solomon.
  • Competition over the leadership of the confederation of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah forms a major tribal-political theme in the narrative, pervading both the ‘rise to the throne’ and the theme of David’s kingship.


True to the nature of oral tradition, the stories themselves were flexible, fluid and changed in the telling, through the personal perspective of the narrator and his interaction with the audience. So the ‘final’ version of the narrative cycle must have created a world recognizable to the audience: in which the hero was the king of an established kingdom, founder of the dynasty, with a well-defined power and territory, but where the constituent tribes played a major role. It conforms to Jan Assmann’s (1995) definition of cultural memory, and the role it plays in cultural (or ethnic) identity. By retelling and reinventing them, these stories, and their reshaping into one major heroic epic became a symbol, an expression of Israelite identity, part of a nationalist revival. By adapting the context of the stories the audience could identify with its past, and ‘reconstruct’ it. By introducing or emphasizing the role of Yahweh in the interaction with David, the editors added a normative function to the epic, which is a vital part of cultural memory: prescribing a code of conduct through memories of a shared past.

Comments (7)

Does this model fit Gilgamesh, Heracles, Achilles, Aeneas, Beowulf or (to get historical) Alfred, our only 'Great' king, particularly well?

#1 - Martin - 02/07/2014 - 18:13

As Bernd Jörg Diebner wrote almost 40 years ago:
\"You cannot prove it, but it is a fact! Figure of speech as substitute for method in OT studies.\"

#2 - Niels Peter Lemche - 02/09/2014 - 22:21

Martin: I'm actually working on this sort of thing for my PhD research. The David story belongs to a type-pattern which Marshall Sahlins has referred to as the "stranger-king." So do Gilgamesh, Aeneas of Troy, Brutus of Britain, and various other kings.

The "tribal hero" is one variation of the larger type--David fits this, Gilgamesh not so much. But Gilgamesh fits the "semidivine hero" variant of the ideal type. These variations bleed into each other. The basic element is the alterity of the hero as a justification for his authority. Transgressing the normal boundaries of acceptable behavior (as both David and Gilgamesh do) becomes an element of legitimate heroism. Romantic relationships with the daughters of local elites (David) and/or with goddesses (Gilgamesh) are another element. Association with the forces of the wilderness, also an element.

Check out the chapter, "The Stranger King, or, Dumezil Among the Fijians" in Sahlins's "Islands of History." For more recent elaborations of the model, focusing more heavily on how the hero domesticates the forces of alterity, see "The Whole is a Part: Intercultural Politics of Order and Change" in "Experiments in Holism" and "The Stranger King, or, The Elementary Forms of the Politics of Life" in a 2008 issue of "Indonesia and the Malay World."

#3 - Robert M. Jennings - 02/11/2014 - 04:24

Also, for more local variations on the stranger-king type-myth, involving the use of genealogies which include tribal heroes in a Mesopotamian context, see J.J. Finkelstein's "The Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty" and Piotr Michalowski's "History as Charter." Also the Ur III Dynasty claimed kinship with Gilgamesh and various Mesopotamian gods via the "Sacred Marriage" ritual.

These myths of the transgressive hero who possesses and defeats the power of alterity, with a love story as part of it are not purely subaltern literature; ruling dynasties throughout most of history used them as legitimizing tools. The rise of modern nation-state nationalism largely relegated them to subaltern status, although the Hashemites of Jordan, at least, still retain a stranger-king narrative as one of the bases of their legitimacy--they're descended from Mohammed via Emir Abdullah of Mecca who led the Arab Revolt against the Turks in WWI; Emir Abdullah and his descendants possess the powers of (British) alterity and defeated the powers of (Turkish) alterity and transgressed traditional social relationships both between tribes and with Ottoman Empire; prestigious foreign marriages throughout the dynasty (American; British-Palestinian). Interesting how even historically accurate modern myths conform to this pattern.

#4 - Robert M. Jennings - 02/11/2014 - 04:49

You could add Servius to your list quite plausibly, I think.
However, I'm a bit sceptical about the idea of interpreting literary texts, written by people who were well acquainted with previous literary texts (which is how I would regard SamKings),in terms appropriate for folklore.
Virgil's Aeneas, for instance, is both a stranger and a member of a royal family, genus ab Iove summo. His story is a commentary on the story of Caesar Augustus.
I'm somewhat sceptical about David's allegiance to 'the tribe'. What is his tribe, Judah or Israel or both? Why does he get close to the Philistines when it suits him? This is not a commentary on a specific historical character like Augustus but an essay on what it means to be God's elect and as such not a folktale but a theological essay.

#5 - Martin - 02/12/2014 - 20:09

Martin--I think it's both and. David's lack of allegiance to any tribe is part of his transgressive character of the hero. It has the elements of a stranger-folktale that has been retrofitted for dynastic legitimacy (i.e., stories about David's crimes were traditional and could not simply be erased, but they could be integrated into a theological essay justifying them).

The fact that a cycle of legends about David was transmitted and altered for theological and propaganda value does not necessarily negate the basic structural elements within it that are common to folklore worldwide. Even the Aeneid, which if I'm not mistaken was a de novo composition (not traditional folklore) and clearly was Augustan propaganda, still retains these structural features. These are patterns of literature that span genres. Modern fantasy has them as well (Tolkein and "Game of Thrones" are both chock-full of stranger-kings). Alterity and its incorporation into the social order via its own transgressions of it is a powerful literary motif.

#6 - Robert M. Jennings - 02/16/2014 - 02:01

If, indeed, the low chronology model is accepted and both David and Solomon are seen as accounts of a collective memory, can someone point to articles discussing the theological reasons why such accounts would be created over two centuries (thereabouts) later?

Putting it differently, to what problem or situation in the life of the community would these stories provide an answer?

#7 - Floyd L Jennings - 03/27/2014 - 19:49

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