“How many are the ways we remember David—that striking, brash lad who strides confidently upon the stage of history and, with one well-aimed shot of the sling, launches a career that has bedazzled generations for 3,000 years. We know David as majestic king and lowly shepherd boy, as valiant warrior and soothing singer, as ruthless killer and passionate lover, as enraptured dancer and pious saint.”
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Thus begins the new book called King David and his Reign Revisited by Prof. Jacob Wright of Emory University.
David is the most popular of the Biblical kings but the only archaeological evidence of his existence is a stele dating from the 9th century BCE which recounts the victory of an Aramean king (most likely Hazael) over the King of Israel and over the "king of the House of David."
That first and only evidence of David was discovered in fragments in the seasons of 1993 and 1994 at the northern Israelite site of Tel Dan. Various claims, such as finding David’s palace in Jerusalem (or elsewhere) are controversial, to say the least. It being politically impossible to excavate in certain areas of Israel, all scholars can do is dig through the Old Testament, equipped with linguistics, epigraphy and logic, seeking evidence of the oldest versions of the tales.
There are glaring discrepancies within these narratives, but Prof. Wright has some interesting ideas about how they can be resolved.
For one, the authors of the Davidic accounts seem to have gone to great lengths to demonstrate David’s innocence, Wright suggests. For example: "David is not in the ranks of the Philistine armies when Saul and his sons die in battle on Mount Gilboa. On the contrary, he is deeply grieved at the news of their death, executing the messenger who conveys it, rending his garments in anguish, fasting, and teaching a dirge to his fellow Judahites.”
In another case, when David's right-hand men wiped out Saul’s house, David was enraged and punished them, Wright points out.
And then there are texts critical of David. “Imagine that the Davidic court had commissioned a group of scribes to compose an account of David’s life that vindicates his conduct vis-à-vis Saul’s household. Would these scribes have ever thought to submit a work to their royal patron that contains a shedload of passages describing David’s raw ambition, failures, and ruthlessness? Had they done so, they would have rightly feared for not only their livelihoods but also their lives,” says Wright.
Most probably these censorious texts were written after David’s death, suggest Wright, and can be better understood in the context of rivalry between Israel and Judah in ancient times, with David representing the kingdom of Judah, and Saul that of Israel.
The earliest accounts of David are in the Book of Samuel, which describes David’s establishment of the Judahite kingdom. There is no mention of Saul or of the kingdom of Israel, no note of the infamous affair with Bathsheba, the rape of Tamar, the wars with Absalom - "basically nothing that makes David famous. Which is strange, because the most famous act of David’s life had to do with Saul’s war with the Philistines and his victory over Goliath," Wright says.
If anything instead of offering his services to King Saul of Israel, David works for Achish the Philistine ruler, Israel’s archenemy! Another conundrum. David’s alliance with the Philistines is problematic because he gained the throne of Israel by fighting against the Philistines, propelled by King Saul
Now if Achish, as the ruler of a Philistine city-state, knew of David's aggression against the Philistines, why would he have hired him?
Wright suggests that two very different narratives can be discerned in the Book of Samuel. In one, while serving in Saul’s army, David arouses the king’s jealousy. He has to go into hiding, and finds asylum with Achish, the ruler of Gath. Achish finds out about David’s feats as a soldier for Saul; in fear for his life David pretends to go mad and flees (1 Sam 21:11-15).
The other narrative has David as nothing more than a mercenary warlord, and doesn't mention Saul. In this passage he interacts with Achish at Gath but instead of running away from him, David gets along with him splendidly and ends up working for him for quite a long time.
Cleaning up the Davidic account
Then in 1 Sam 31, we learn of an Amalekite raid on David’s town of Ziklag. David catches up with the raiders and recovers the kidnapped women, children and livestock as well as booty. He sends half of the booty to the elders of Judah, as a sign of allegiance. After this episode YHWH orders David to settle in Hebron, where the people anointed him king over the House of Judah (2 Sam 2:1-4a).
It is here that Wright points out another interesting discrepancy.
“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," he says. 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,” he says.
Evidently the editors of the Book of Samuel glued together what appear to have originally been separate accounts of David and Saul.
“By putting the Saul material right before the short paragraph that tells of David moving to Hebron and being made king of Judah, the editors’ motive 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,” Wright says.
In fact, Wright states, the oldest versions of the Davidic accounts had no connection with those of Saul, nor of David’s rule over Israel. Wright suspects these texts were drafted, and later expanded, as part of an independent history that recounts David’s consolidation of a Judahite kingdom.
David the desperado and the missing piece of history
Wright believes the Samuel authors merged the history of David’s reign with that of Saul’s. Thus the episodes of David as a warlord become his adventures during his flight from Saul. “It is visible in the redactional shift, which left unmistakable traces in the language to biblical scholars. For example, David’s original “roving” (hithallech) as a desperado becomes his “fleeing” (barach) as a fugitive from Saul’s court,” he says.
One day as Wright was sitting at a Tel Aviv café reading through biblical texts, as one does, he stumbled upon a promising possibility, which he realized could point to the beginning of the history of David’s reign - a section that appears to be missing.
"It’s a line that one could easily miss, because it is embedded within the Goliath story and appears long after the reader has already been introduced to David. It begins “Now David was the offspring of … Jesse, who had eight sons. . . . David was the youngest. (1 Sam 17:12a, 14a).
Now, weed out the Saulite material in the immediately following chapters: there comes another line linked to this piece of biographical data. “And everyone who was desperate, in debt, or discontent gathered to him and he became captain over them. Those who were with him numbered about 400." (1 Sam 22:2).
Why are these lines significant? Because if David was the youngest of eight sons, clearly he would inherit nothing, and would have to pursue another path towards wealth and power. Younger sons had two choices, the clergy or the military. David opted for the military, becoming a warlord, and forming an army of renegades and all sorts of other disenfranchised and unpleasant individuals.
David, the prequel
Could the history of David’s reign be just a prequel to his accession to Saul’s throne?
“The complete absence of references to Saul, his family, and the people of Israel—even in later portions —suggests that the authors were not cognizant of connections between David and the kingdom of Israel. But he is connected to 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," says Wright.
It also affirms that the Philistine city-state of Gath did not create Judah as a puppet state, and David did not owe his Judahite throne to Achish, Wright concludes.
David may have begun in the employ of Achish, but he exploited the Gath king's patronage to assault the enemies of the Judahites (1 Sam 27:8-12).
“Rather than rising to the throne thanks to the Philistines, as Saul’s accolyte and YHWH's chosen king - David built a kingdom at his own initiative out of various regions, cities, and clans, all of which united under the banner of the House of Judah,”Wright concludes.
Anointed by God? Apparently, only in retrospect.