"King David Playing the Harp" by Gerard van Honthorst (Google Art Project)

The Many Faces of King David

David was a warrior and an artist, a lover and an adulterer — and also Israel's greatest king.

The Bible tells the story of David’s reign in detail (1 Samuel 16 to 1 Kings 2:11), reflecting its importance as well as its length. David “reigned over Israel for forty years, seven and a half in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem” (c. 1009/1001-969 B.C.E.). His long reign was later regarded as Israel’s “golden age”; David himself was seen as the model king.

David’s later glorification may seem paradoxical in light of the fact that he was a Bethlehemite, from the tribe of Judah, and not from any of the original, northern tribes (Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin). Furthermore, David was one of Saul’s adversaries, who had been banned because he was considered the personal enemy of the first Israelite king. Moreover, at the time of Saul’s death, David was serving as a mercenary in the army of the Philistines, Israel’s bitter enemy.

David and Saul

According to 1 Samuel 16:1-13, David was the youngest son of Jesse. The prophet-priest Samuel “anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”

The Bible offers two accounts of how David became part of Saul’s household. In the first, Saul takes David into his service as his “armor-bearer” (1 Samuel 16:14-23). In the second version David, having killed the Philistine champion Goliath in single combat (1 Samuel 17), is officially presented to Saul as a hero. The biblical account of David’s rise to power may well represent an amalgamation of different traditions concerning the early relationship between David and Saul.

In any event, with the support of his friend Jonathan (Saul’s son), David was “made…a commander of a thousand; and David marched out and came in, leading the army. David had success in all his undertakings; for the Lord was with him: (1 Samuel 18:13-14.).

A War Between Their Houses

This happy situation did not last. David was soon accused of conspiring against Saul (1 Samuel 22:8). David decided it would be prudent to flee to the hill country […] After some time hiding in various locations throughout Judah as Saul pursued him, David sought refuge in Philistine territory […] During this period David tried to maintain good relations with the leaders of the territory of Judah by fighting Judah’s enemy, the Amalekites (1 Samuel 27:8, 30:1-31). His efforts proved fruitful. After Saul’s death at the battle of Mt. Gilboa,

David went to Hebron in the territory of Judah and his two wives also, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel. And David brought up his men who were with him, every one with his household; and they dwelt in the towns of Hebron. And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah. (2 Samuel 2:2-4)

A long war ensued between the house of Saul and the house of David (2 Samuel 3:1). But in the meantime, a disagreement soon split Abner [commander of Saul’s army] and Ishbosheth (Eshbaal) [Saul’s son]. Both of them were killed, apparently as a result of personal vengeance (2 Samuel 3-4). The way was open for David to become king of all Israel […]

King David, the Warrior

The Philistines could no longer remain indifferent in the face of the unification of their longtime enemy. They attacked twice in the central hill country… But David defeated them both times ( 2 Samuel 5:17-25). The Philistines then gave up their efforts at military expansion.

After driving off the Philistines, David was free to attack the Jebusites of Jerusalem and take the city which until then had remained in Canaanite hands. “And David dwelt in the stronghold [of Jerusalem] and called it the City of David” (2 Samuel 5:9).

King David, the Yahwist

Jerusalem soon became not only the political capital of Judah and Israel, but also the religious center of all Israel. To accomplish this, David brought the Ark of the Covenant to the City of David (2 Samuel 6). This was the Ark that, according to tradition, had accompanied Israel in the Sinai, that had rested in the tabernacle at Shiloh before being captured by the Philistines and that had remained in storage at Kiriath Yearim after being returned by the Philistines. When David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, the religion of Yahweh became a unifying factor, strengthening the bond between Judah and Israel.

From the beginning of his career, David showed himself to be a fervent Yahwist. His religious devotion was confirmed by the presence in his retinue of the priest Abiathar and the prophet Gad. David’s devotion to Yahweh probably made it easier for the leaders of Israel to accept him as their king.

King David, the Expansionist

David cemented his relations with various political and national groups through marriage. His wives included Abigail of Carmel; Ahinoam of Jezereel; and Maacah, daughter of the Transjordanian king of Geshur (2 Samuel 3:2-5).

Militarily, David had already developed a cadre of well-trained troops when he fled from Saul. These devoted soldiers were ready to follow him anywhere, and in fact did follow him from the wilderness of Judah to Gath, Ziklag, Hebron, and finally Jerusalem. These troops became his personal guard and the core of his regular army. His nephew Joab served as chief of the army.

After checking the Philistine advances on Israel’s western border, David was free to expand his kingdom to the east. There he defeated the Moabites, who then became a vassal state, paying tribute to David (2 Samuel 8:2). David also fought with the Ammonites, although the precise sequence of these wars is unclear.

By gaining control over international trade routes, the Israelite kingdom became an economic power. David became rich from the spoil and tribute brought to Jerusalem. Even the Phoenician king of Tyre, Hiram, started trading with him, especially after David made Jerusalem his capital. (2 Samuel 5:11-12).

The expansion of David’s kingdom altered the status of Jerusalem. From a small declining Canaanite city-state with a territory of a few square miles, it became — probably with little physical change – -the capital of the united Israelite and Judahite kingdoms. These kingdoms, after David’s victories, extended far and wide. The borders of the united kingdom stretched from Dan to Beersheba, but its many administrative territories and vassal states reached far beyond. David’s kingdom may have been a strong chiefdom or a kind of empire at this point, but it was still not well organized with a strong central administration.

King David, the Administrator

At least toward the end of David’s reign, there was a kind of cabinet in Jerusalem in which David’s general Joab played an important role.

The spoils of war, the levies from administered territories, the tribute of vassal kings–all flowed into David’s royal treasury. Further, the produce of the royal lands filled the royal coffers (1 Chronicles 27:25-31). Justice was administered at the local level by the elders of the cities; but appeals could now be taken directly to the king (2 Samuel 14:15).

David planned to build a new Temple in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 7) and organized a census, probably as a basis for administrations, taxation and conscription (2 Samuel 24:1-9). Both the Temple project and the census met internal opposition. Even the prophet Gad, one of David’s oldest and most loyal companions, opposed the census.

The guiding principles of this united kingdom were organization and centralization. But the process of centralization really only began toward the end of David’s reign. It was later applied more broadly by his son and successor, Solomon.

Reprinted with permission from Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, edited by Hershel Shanks (Biblical Archaeology Society).

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