The Sins of King David:† A New History.† By Gary Greenberg.
Good David and Bad David
But the word of the Lord came to me
[i.e., David], saying,
Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and hast made great wars:
thou shalt not build an house unto my name, because thou hast shed
much blood upon the earth in my sight. (1 Chronicles 22:8.)
Modern impressions of King David depict him
as a young boy of unsurpassed courage, a pious and humble man who triumphed
over many adversities, a goodly king whose heart was with the Lord and compared
to whom all other monarchs fall short. He is portrayed as the progenitor of a
dynasty that would one day rule over the
Following strict biblical chronology, King David came to the throne at about 1061 b.c., but the biblical data presents many problems, including textual contradictions and problematic synchronization with the dates of known events from non-biblical records. Most scholars propose moving the start of his reign forward about fifty or sixty years, somewhere between about 1010 and 1000 b.c.
Davidís predecessor on the throne was Saul,
the first king of
David and Saul came from different families
and rival political entities that shared territorial borders, Saul from the
tribe of Benjamin and David from the tribe of
His dynasty ended in 587 b.c. when
In the second century a.d.,
after the Romans banished the Jewish people from
These views of King David, burnished over millennia by armies of theologians and religious teachers, have made David the most beloved character in all of the Old Testament and, theologically, the most important. But how much do we really know about this man?
Archaeological Sources for Davidís History
Historically, we have not a shred of archeological or textual evidence contemporaneous with David showing that either he or his son Solomon ever even existed, let alone what kind of men they were. Neither David, nor Solomon, nor the kingdom of Israel over which they ruled, appear in any of the records recovered from the time of their reignsónot in Canaan or from the many nations and peoples with whom they interacted or over whom they allegedly ruled.
The earliest reference to directly mention Davidís name dates to sometime in the ninth century b.c. Found on a stone monument at Tel Dan, in the far north of ancient Israel, the partially readable Aramaic text appears to describe a victory by a king of Aram over both an Israelite and Judahite king, and also makes reference to a "House of David." Dating to at least a century after Davidís death, it doesnít directly prove that David existed, only that a House of David, whatever that was, did. But it provides strong circumstantial evidence for Davidís existence as it seems to imply the existence of a dynasty named after King David.
A prominent Egyptologist named Kenneth
Kitchen has also claimed to have found an Egyptian text that contains the
geographical name "The Heights of David" as one of the territories
conquered by Pharaoh Sheshonk during his invasion of Judahite territories. His claim is controversial and his
reading of "Heights of David" is widely challenged, but if he is
correct, and the reference is to David, then the text would date to shortly
after the reign of Solomon, because Pharaoh Sheshonk
is identified with the biblical Pharaoh Shishak, who
One other inscription, also dating to sometime in the ninth century b.c., notes the payment of three shekels to the House (or Temple) of Jahweh, which may be a reference to the Temple of Solomon, but might just refer to a local shrine or altar.
While there are other inscriptions from the
ninth century b.c. and later
that shed light on biblical history, they do not directly or even indirectly
corroborate the existence of David or Solomon. This lack of evidence, however,
should not be too surprising in that the time frame set by the bible for the
United Monarchy falls into a historical dark age throughout the ancient Near
East. From about 1100 to 900 b.c.
we lack substantial material evidence throughout the region, from
Prior to the time of David, we have only one
direct reference to
The steleís reference to
Other Sources for Davidís History
The absence of archaeological or epigraphical evidence for the time of David and Solomon leaves the bible as our earliest, and for all practical purposes, only, meaningful source of information about their reigns. The biblical accounts of the United Monarchy come from the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. From a historianís point of view, these biblical records present some difficult problems.
The books of Samuel (which contain the stories of Saul and David) and Kings (which tell of the transition from David to Solomon) are believed to be primarily the work of a single author or school of writers, who began the historical account with the Book of Deuteronomy, and continued through the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Scholars refer to this set of biblical books as the Deuteronomist history, and the author or authors as the Deuteronomist or Deuteronomists.
The Deuteronomist history probably took near-final shape during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (639-609 b.c.), with a small addendum tacked on to cover the brief post-Josiah period leading to the capture of Jerusalem, and some possible additional editing in later years.
1 and 2 Chronicles, which also present a
history of the United Monarchy, belong to a later literary cycle, and are
generally dated to sometime after the Persians defeated
Other than the Deuteronomist and Chronicles histories of David and Solomon, we have no other significant historical source, and it is these books that planted the seeds from which sprouted Davidís glowing reputation over the centuries. But the books of Samuel and Kings were written more than three hundred years after Davidís reign and Chronicles perhaps another century or two after Samuel and Kings, and all of the works are heavily biased in favor of David and Solomon. For the historian, therefore, the factual reliability of the bible for this period presents a number of difficult problems, not the least of which is the lack of contemporaneous corroborating evidence.
Interestingly, though, buried deeply within the Deuteronomist history we find another very different picture of David, far more negative and derogatory than the present view. Portions of this other Davidic image are sometimes explicitly set forth, such as in the story of how he arranged to kill Uriah the Hittite in order to cover up his adulterous affair with Uriahís wife, Bathsheba, a crime so heinous that even biblical authors commented on it. "David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite." (1 Kings 15:5. Emphasis added.) On other occasions, some of Davidís alleged terrible sins are either dismissed as untrue, glossed over, explained away, covered up by obfuscation, or misrepresented as the acts of others. It is sometimes necessary to read between the lines to extract the truth.
The Negative Image of David in the Bible
At the head of each chapter, I have placed a biblical quote that preserves accusations against David in connection with that chapterís subject matter, and have collected these quotes together in Appendix A. While the collection is not exhaustive, it does reflect the hostility toward Davidís reign that existed among some of his enemies, and it might be useful to scan through them before continuing.
A careful reading of the biblical sources
shows that David was never the widely popular monarch depicted in popular
images and religious texts. On at least two occasions, popular rebellions nearly
cost him his crown. One, led by his son Absalom, arose in Davidís southern home
The same studies will also show, contrary to
the biblical image and popular belief, that Saul was not a manic-depressive
paranoid, imagining false schemes by David to steal his throne, but a popular
and well-balanced king who accurately understood what David was about and who
took responsible actions to curtail Davidís treasonous and disloyal behavior to
In this book, I intend to examine this other history of David. This examination will show that David was a corrupt and ambitious mercenary who committed treason against Israel by working with its enemies to seize the throne from King Saul; an ambitious and ruthless politician who initiated, sanctioned, or condoned murder and assassination as a way to eliminate political rivals, royal or otherwise; a Philistine vassal who used an army of malcontents to terrorize and conquer the Kingdom of Judah while Saul was still on the throne; a usurper who went to war against Israel after Saulís death and imposed himself as king over the nation of Israel by military force; a cruel and unjust tyrant who used foreign mercenaries to centralize power under his direct control and who oppressed the people of Israel with high taxes and forced labor; a military imperialist who waged wars of conquest against his neighbors and exposed the peaceful Israelites to military counter-attacks that left many dead, wounded, or widowed; and the beneficiary of tales and legends that made him the doer of other peoplesí heroic deeds, such as the false claim that the youthful David slew the Philistine giant Goliath when in fact the original story told of a soldier in Davidís army doing the deed long after David had become king.
The Biblical Debate over David
Scholars have long noted what appear to be many "apologetic" portions of the David history in 1 and 2 Samuel, stories and comments designed to rebut or refute charges made against David by others, or to account for incriminating pieces of evidence (such as David having possession of Saulís crown and bracelet almost immediately after Saul is killed). I prefer to think of the Book of Samuel as the equivalent of a criminal defense lawyerís summation on behalf of a client, occasionally trying to explain away criminal evidence, citing testimony by character witnesses, impugning the integrity of hostile witnesses, and sometimes taking facts out of context or changing the order of events.
The central debate in the bible over King
David revolves around his relationship to the House of Saul. From the northern Saulide perspective, David was thought to have betrayed
King Saul by aligning himself with
To this Saulide litany can be added some additional accusations of wrongdoing that can be corroborated by the biblical accounts, including: the adultery with Bathsheba; arranging for the death of Uriah, Bathshebaís husband; the failure to punish his son Amnon for raping Tamar; the general lack of justice from Davidís court, which resulted in the alienation of his home base in Judah; the murders of Absalom and Amasa by Joab, Davidís closest and most trusted aide; the taking of a census in Israel, a sin so theologically horrible that the Chronicler attributed it to an act of Satan; and Davidís support for Solomon over Adonijah as successor on the throne, Adonijah being the rightful heir by the then-current standards.
While much of the evidence against David has no doubt been suppressed, some of it has survived in the biblical texts (for reasons explained below). It includes: the acknowledgement that David served a Philistine king and offered to join with him in the fight against Saul and Israel; the admission that David had good relations with Nahash, the king of Ammon, a man defeated by Saul and Israelís bitter enemy; Samuelís endorsement of David as Saulís replacement while Saul lived; indications that David became king over Judah while Saul still ruled over Israel; Davidís possession of Saulís crown and bracelet immediately after Saul died; a full account of the Bathsheba and Uriah story; an account of the rape of Tamar by Davidís son Amnon and Davidís reaction; accounts of the murders of Abner, Amasa, and Absalom by Joab; the immediate appearance in Davidís court of Eshbaalís assassins with the murdered kingís head; the execution of several of Saulís children by hanging; the story of Absalomís revolt against Davidís failure to provide justice in Israel; an account of Davidís census sin; and the story of Solomonís succession to the throne.
In response, the Deuteronomist historians argued that: God took the throne away from Saul and gave it to David so Samuel was justified in endorsing David as king over Israel; while Saul was alive David remained loyal to king and country but Saul had a paranoid and unjustified fear that David sought to displace him as king; twice David had the opportunity to kill Saul and failed to do so; David joined with Israelís enemies only because Saul drove him out of Israel and hunted him down and David needed protection from Saulís unwarranted persecution; Joab acted independently and without authorization in his various acts of murder; King Saul committed suicide after being wounded in battle and it was only by coincidence that someone found Saul dead and brought the crown and bracelet to David; David did not authorize the assassination of Eshbaal and he put the murderers to death; David loved his children too much and couldnít bring himself to punish them for wrongdoing, even when one of them rebelled against him; God wanted Saulís children executed in order to end a famine caused by wrongdoing in Saulís lifetime; David was not responsible for ordering the census in that God wanted it done as a punishment for Israelís wrongdoing; and David may have been unfairly taken advantage of by Solomonís supporters while he was sick and dying.
Before we begin our analysis of the charges, counter-charges, and evidence, let us first look at how evidence of Davidís wrongdoings came to survive in biblical accounts designed to present him as the ideal king.
Why the Negative Image of David Survived
Why do some negative images of David appear
directly in the biblical text while others are so deeply buried, obscured, or
hidden from view? To answer that question we must know something about the
political and religious issues that divided
Prior to the institution of monarchy in
Israel, the nation was governed by a priesthood centered in the city of Shiloh,
located approximately in the central portion of Israel in the territory of
Ephraim (later to become the capitol of the kingdom of Israel after the break
with Judah). Many Israelites came to believe that the priesthood had become
corrupt and demanded that a king be appointed to give them judgments and to
defend them against aggressors. This caused a significant religious and
political feud to break out between the
The leader of the
Samuel, in an attempt to preserve Shilohite influence, proposed a compromise, suggesting that
it would be proper for
During Saulís reign, David of Judah had become a popular military hero among the Israelites, perhaps even more popular than Saul. The king perceived David as a threat to his rule (rightly or wrongly to be discussed in later chapters) and to his family dynasty and sought to kill him. David fled from Saulís camp and carved out an outlaw existence as Saul chased after him. What David did during this period will also be the subject of later chapters.
When Saul died in battle against the
Philistines, civil war broke out between the forces of David and the House of
Saul. After a period of conflict that saw Davidís chief opponents assassinated,
David became king over a united
When David died the
Again the Shilohites
were disappointed. Jeroboam refused to recognize the authority of the
priesthood and allowed almost anyone who wanted to become a priest to become
Geo-political realities and some
archaeological evidence indicates that the northern
Having worked with, supported, and endorsed David as king, the Shilohites had to defend themselves against northern attacks associating them with the crimes some influential northerners believed David had committed against the House of Saul. This required that the Shilohites tread a narrow path between the hostilities separating north and south. On the one hand they wrote about the weaknesses of David that demonstrated the need for a king to submit to Godís will. On the other hand they erected an elaborate and sweeping defense against the anti-Saul crimes attributed to David, especially where the Shilohites were thought to have a role. As a by-product of the defense, it became necessary to cite some of the anti-David evidence that had to be refuted. In other instances they tried to recast old stories in a new light.
The literary layers of the Deuteronomist and Chronicles histories show that a variety
of written accounts circulated throughout ancient Judah and Israel, some from
the Judahite scribes defending David and/or Solomon,
some from proponents of the Shilohite and northern
prophets, some from those hostile to David and/or the Shilohite
priests, and others from those hostile to Solomon. The Book of Chronicles, for
example, cites such works as Samuel the Seer, Gad the Seer, and the Prophecy of
Ahijah (a Shilohite
priest). These works would have been well known to the intelligentsia
In 722 b.c.,
however, political realities changed. The Assyrians defeated and destroyed the
northern kingdom of
The survival of
About a century after the disappearance of
The inclusion of many of the negative materials in the Deuteronomist history strongly suggests that Davidís reputation must have still suffered significantly from the negative legacy passed on from the north. Itís most likely that many of the facts underlying some of the charges against David were well known, to northerner and southerner alike, although disagreements over what those facts implied would have remained a lively source of debate.
At the same time, the Deuteronomists shared the Shilohite idea that a kingís first duty was to God and that the king must yield to Godís word. The Deuteronomists, functioning within a Davidic dynasty, had two major problems to tackle. As with the Shilohites, they needed to defend David against those charges that undermined his legitimacy as king and that also led to a divided kingdom, while at the same time demonstrating that even a good king had weaknesses that required him to be guided by the word of God.
In that context, they adopted many of the Shilohite arguments defending David against northern accusations and integrated them into their history of Davidís kingdom. At the same time, they preserved examples of how Davidís personal weaknesses led to wrongdoing when he failed to consult with the men of God. So, charges that David assassinated Saul and other political opponents were challenged with contrary evidence, while personal failings, such as in the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah, were kept as illustrations of how even a good king needs guidance from the men of God.
In the Deuteronomist
history of the kings that ruled over
Perhaps twenty to thirty years after the Deuteronomist history of David had been written, the Hebrew
nation suffered another blow. In 587 b.c.
Some seventy years later,
The Chronicles history almost completely whitewashed whatever remained of Davidís negative reputation, scrubbing out details that would reflect badly on their hero, adding material that would enhance his reputation, and occasionally contradicting the Deuteronomist version of events. For historical sources, the Chronicler often relied on the Book of Samuel, often sharing identically worded passages. But, the writing of Chronicles was also influenced by other source material.
We should note that where the Deuteronomists were concerned with a theology that subjected the king to the word of God, the Chronicles theology saw David as the man chosen by God to forever lead the Israelites. It is probably fair to say that the cleaned-up image of David in Chronicles played a major role in transforming him into the all-purpose hero that transcended some of the hesitations present in the Deuteronomist account.
Subsequent to the writing of Chronicles
Israel passed through a conquest by
From then on, Davidís reputation flourished as his sins were ignored.
The Argument Ahead
Because of the lack of contemporaneous corroboration, some scholars consider the biblical history of the United Monarchy useless for determining what happened and argue for a very late writing for all of the biblical accounts, sometime well after the fifth century b.c. Most, however, find that literary and stylistic analysis of the bible, together with some of the corroborating archaeological and epigraphic finds and parallels, enables various textual strands and threads to be separated from others, occasionally providing chronological clues and sequences in their assembly. The political contexts and conflicts within many of these strands suggest that they must have been written within certain historical time frames as opposed to others, and indicate that some of the Davidic history may have been written close to, or not long after, Davidís reign, while other pieces appear to have been written much later.
This is not the place for a detailed scholarly analysis of the arguments involved. Many lengthy and complex treatises have been written on the subject and there is still a wide range of disagreement over what conclusions can be drawn. Therefore, let me set out my own perspective.
I am one of those who believe that there are
many political layers of text in the histories of David, some of which, in
context, would only have been written to serve certain political purposes, and
that they would only have been relevant in certain historical circumstances. In
my view, much of the Davidic history underlying the biblical sources was
written during or shortly after the United Monarchy and reflected either
accusations of wrongful conduct committed by various political factions or
responses by those accused of such actions. The body of writings produced a
mixture of truth, falsehood, and ambiguity. This collection of writings
Over time, rival factions continued to argue and debate these issues, picking and choosing what they thought would enhance their own point of view, and applying personal political spin to make their case. By accident of history the particular texts that have been preserved in the bible, though reflecting the biases of the particular authors, maintained many of the opposing traditions. This no doubt occurred because polemic necessities often required that the writers cite the particular charges they wanted to refute.
For most of the last two thousand years, theologians, Christian and Jewish, ignored, dismissed, or reinterpreted those portions of the bible that showed David in a negative light. Driven by the idea that David was Godís chosen king, a man after Godís heart whose descendant would one day rule Godís kingdom on Earth, efforts were made to purge all inconsistent images from the public mind. Even where the biblical authors acknowledged Davidís misdeeds, as in the Bathsheba affair, new extra-biblical ideas were introduced. One theologian, for example, concluded that David was morally right in killing Uriah, Bathshebaís husband, because Uriah disobeyed the kingís command to return to his home and have relations with his wife. This general approach elevated Davidís reputation to its present misleading heroic status.
In the last century, however, a number of scholars belonging to what is called the Literary-Critical school of biblical analysis have taken a fresh look at the biblical stories of David, often examining some of the negative images in the bible, and frequently trying to unravel the written skeins that weave through the biblical texts. While for the most part they still give David the benefit of the doubt wherever possible, they have uncovered many useful insights into the origins of the biblical texts and the meanings of various puzzling passages. In many instances they are forced to admit, contrary to the popular impression, that much of Davidís image is mere myth, based on royal propaganda and inconsistent with the underlying truth. Unfortunately, these views are restricted mostly to scholarly journals. Such scholars rarely express such contrary opinions to the general public.
In the chapters that follow we will examine various claims and arguments made by different factions, rise above the special pleadings, and reconstruct a reasonably accurate history of King David and the United Monarchy. The history revealed will radically disagree with traditional religious teachings and standard academic treatments. It will show that David, Solomon, and the priest Samuel were not the heroic figures we thought they were, and it will rehabilitate the reputations of many of those falsely accused of wrongdoing, such as Saul, Absalom, and Jeroboam. By careful reading and logical analysis, we will separate much historical fact from a good deal of biblical fiction.