The Book of Samuel

The Book of Samuel tells of the rise of the Davidic monarchy

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The Rise of David

This "man after his own heart"--David--began his career in Saul's employ, and is depicted as Saul's rival in the hearts and minds of the people. Saul understandably felt threatened by this upstart, and pursued David, who had his own regiment of supporters, throughout the deserts. Two episodes in the conflict between the House of Saul and the House of David highlight the tension between morality and expediency:

1) During the pursuit, David caught Saul unawares in a cave, and cut off the corner of his cloak instead of killing him (I Samuel 24). David claims to have acted morally, saying "See that there is no evil or sinfulness in my hand, and I have not sinned against you, and you are hunting for my soul to kill me," in I Samuel 24:12. But this action was also politically advantageous to David. Firstly, because the act of cutting the corner of someone's cloak was not a neutral one: It signified the end of the wearer's kingdom (II Samuel 15:28); and secondly because David's chances of gaining the public's support probably depended upon his not being seen as Saul's murderer.

2) Saul was killed in battle with the Philistines (for whom David was working at the time, though the text recounts that he did not participate in the battle).  One of Saul's surviving sons, Eshbaal, was named king over the northern tribes of Israel, while David was appointed king by the tribe of Judah, in the area south of Jerusalem. But David quickly took over the northern throne as well: Rebels murdered Saul's son, and David's general Joab murdered Saul's general, the power behind Saul's son. David took pains to distance himself from each of these murders, and publicly punished the rebels who killed Saul's son.

On the face of it, David cannot be convicted of the destruction of the House of Saul.   However, some modern scholars have raised the question of regicide on David's part, which is a matter of some discomfort, given that later biblical tradition (e.g., Chronicles) and rabbinic tradition have tended to idealize David, and to portray him as an unwaveringly moral character. Part of the scholarly evidence suggesting David's responsibility is that one may read, in this part of the book, an anti-Davidic political subtext.  The narrative seems to go a long way out of its way to raise, in order to discount, all the evidence needed to suggest David was responsible for the fall of Saul's entire house.  In any case, David had the means and motive, and his public objections to the Saulide deaths serve primarily his potential legitimacy to sit on Saul's throne.   The fact that the other Saulide heirs who might have threatened David's kingship are later executed for an obscure crime (II Samuel 21) seems to support this conjecture. 

Others contend that David genuinely deplored the violent deaths of Saul, his son, and his general.  In any case, whoever was responsible, David did profit from the elimination of the rivals to his rise to power, and as a result of these deaths, David became king over all of Israel.

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.