One of the best‐known biblical characters, David is a curiously elusive figure. The Bible tells of his carving out an empire unmatched in ancient Israel's history. Elsewhere, however, in historical records from near that period (tenth century BCE), he is not so much as mentioned. He is known to generations of scripture readers as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1 KJV) and the man whom God had chosen (1 Sam. 16.12; 2 Sam. 10.5). Yet his story in the books of Samuel pivots on the episode of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah.
The Books of Samuel and Kings.
David's story emerges primarily in the books of Samuel, concluding in 1 Kings 1–2. Scholarly attempts to reconstruct the history of the composition of these books remain highly speculative. On the one hand, there is general agreement that the final form of the work belongs to the period of exile in the sixth century BCE. On the other hand, dates for individual component units of the work vary from near the time of the events depicted to the time of final compilation, a span of some five hundred years.
Few critics, however, would deny David a significant place in the history of the ancient Israelite state. Recent scholarship views him as a paramount chief with a genius for mediation, a man supremely able to command diverse tribal, economic, and cultic allegiances and to consolidate them into the centralized power needed for the formation of a nation‐state.
According to Samuel and Kings, this youngest son of a Bethlehem farmer is sought out and anointed by the prophet Samuel on behalf of the Lord (1 Sam. 16). He gains access to the court of Saul, first king of Israel, initially by virtue of his musical prowess (1 Sam. 16.14–23) and then by defeating the Philistine champion Goliath (1 Sam. 17)—there is some inconsistency in the plot here. Jonathan, Saul's son, loves him. A period of deadly rivalry with Saul, however, ensues. During this time, he marries Saul's daughter, Michal, and establishes his own independent military power as an outlaw in the Judean wilderness and as an ally of the Philistines (1 Sam. 18–30).
After Saul's death (1 Sam. 31), David becomes king over Judah in the south (2 Sam. 1–2) and then over Israel in the north (2 Sam. 3–5), hence king over “all Israel.” In 2 Samuel 5–10, he is depicted as coming to the peak of his power: he wins victories over external enemies, including the Philistines, establishes Jerusalem as a capital and a cult center, and is assured by the prophet Nathan of an enduring dynasty (2 Sam. 7). His dealings with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11–12), however, elicit divine denunciation, conveyed by Nathan. Rape and murder now erupt within David's own house (2 Sam. 13–14), his son Absalom rebels, and civil war ensues (2 Sam. 15–20).
A coda of short stories, anecdotes, and poetry (2 Sam. 21–24), connected to what has preceded by theme and allusion rather than by plot, caps the books of Samuel. The main plot itself is brought to a close with the story of David's death and Solomon's succession at the beginning of the next book (1 Kings 1–2).
This story of David belongs to the larger story, told in Genesis through 2 Kings, of Israel's origins, nationhood, and eventual removal from the Promised Land. David's story belongs with the account of the emerging nation‐state's attempt to adapt religious and political institutions, especially leadership, to changing circumstances. His story is also part of the story of Yahweh's attempt to maintain or re‐create a relationship of loyalty between deity and people. The people's desire for a human king is taken as a rejection of divine sovereignty. Thus Saul, designated by God at the people's insistence, must be rejected in favor of David, the one whom God has chosen freely (1 Sam. 13.14).
In a sense, the reader's first glimpse of David comes even earlier in 1 Samuel (2.1–10). The childless Hannah gives thanks for the gift of a baby (Samuel) and speaks, prophetically, of the king, the “anointed one” (see Messiah) to whom Yahweh will give power. As the child is a special gift to the woman, so the kingdom is a special gift to David. Both gifts are freely given by God.
Giving and grasping lie at the story's heart. At critical moments David seems to allow choice to rest with others, especially Yahweh. At those moments he moves with a favorable tide; he may provoke a reader to contemplate forbearance, to consider providence as reality (e.g., 1 Sam. 14 and 26; 2 Sam. 15–16). At other times he falters, unwilling to take the risk, or to accept injured esteem issuing from rejection (e.g., 1 Sam. 25; 2 Sam. 11–12). In these instances, a reader may be confronted with a more familiar reality, the reality of deceit, greed, and violence that makes many judge the David story in Samuel realistic and plausible.
God gives David the kingdom, the house of Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Sam. 12.8). David's life, however, has a private as well as public dimension. What happens, privately, in his own house (palace and family) impinges on the nation. While his mighty men are besieging Rabbah, the Ammonite capital, David seizes Bathsheba (2 Sam. 10–12). Thus, as the one house (the house of Israel) is secured, another (the house of David) begins to crumble. In the brutal story of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom that follows, first Tamar, David's daughter (2 Sam. 13), then both family and nation will be rent (2 Sam. 14–20).
The kingship arose out of the people's search for security, but security readily generates corruption. David's son, the builder of Yahweh's house, falters in turn: the great Solomon falls prey to the expanding glory of his own house (see 1 Kings 11). Kingship—even Davidic kingship, Yahweh's gift—turns out to be no talisman (see 1 Sam. 8 and Deut. 17). In Yahweh alone, the story suggests, is true power and security to be found. The larger story (Genesis—2 Kings) ends with the house of Yahweh ruined, the people dispersed. A brief note about the house (dynasty) of David concludes the work (2 Kings 15.27–30): the exiled Davidic king sits powerless in the house of his Babylonian conqueror, like Mephibosheth, grandson of Saul, in the house of David (2 Sam. 9.13). The wheel has turned full circle. The promise of an enduring house for David seems, in 2 Samuel 7, to be unconditional. It turns out to have limits; Yahweh, after all, is unwilling to be taken for granted.
The New Testament designation of Jesus as “son of David” has predisposed many Christian readers to idealize the king. Yet David in Samuel and Kings is a complex character. Often, to be sure, the narrator elicits for David the admiration of readers—as the heroic slayer of Goliath (1 Sam. 17), for example, or the man who twice spares Saul, his persecutor (1 Sam. 24, 26), or the king who denounces Joab for killing Abner, the enemy general (2 Sam. 3), or who grants life to the cursing Shimei (2 Sam. 16, 19). Yet, equally, the narrator opens other possible perspectives even in these same narratives; David is a man with an eye for the main chance, adept at clothing his power‐seeking and self‐interest in the rhetoric of piety and morality, but exposed for all to see in the story of Bathsheba and Uriah.
The undercutting of the hero is ubiquitous. The account of his incarceration (“until the day of their death”) of the ten concubines whom he abandoned to be raped on the roof of the house he fled hardly conjures a character of courage or responsibility (2 Sam. 15; 16; 20). The story of Solomon's accession in 1 Kings 1 pictures the king in gray tones as the dupe of a Solomonic faction's power play. His dying charge to Solomon (1 Kings 2.1–9) to kill Joab, his long‐serving general, and Shimei, to whom he had granted pardon, evokes admiration only for its tidy ruthlessness. Or the coda to 2 Samuel (chaps. 21–24) may prompt a reader to ponder, for example, the difference between Rizpah's courage and David's compliance (2 Sam. 21), or the incongruity between David's treatment of Bathsheba and Uriah and the psalmist king's proclamation of his innocent righteousness (“I was blameless before [Yahweh] and I kept myself from guilt,” 2 Sam. 22.24). Is this perhaps not righteousness but self‐righteousness, not piety but hypocrisy? Even the tale of the slaying of Goliath, the foundation story of the heroic David, is placed in question by the coda. Without warning, tucked in amongst miscellaneous anecdotes, is the narrator's devastating remark that it was Elhanan who slew the mighty Gittite (2 Sam. 21.19).
In the subsequent narrative (1 and 2 Kings) David is viewed as a standard by which most other kings are judged unfavorably (e.g., 1 Kings 14.8; 15.3–5, 11), yet even these passages harbor a sardonic quality. David, the narrator informs us, “did what was right in the sight of Yahweh and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15.5). That little word “except” is powerfully subversive.
In Samuel and Kings the tensions in the depiction of David are never resolved. They are, perhaps, what give him life.
The Books of Chronicles.
1 and 2 Chronicles offers quite a different version of David's life. This work is later than Samuel‐Kings, composed perhaps in the fifth century BCE, and draws upon a version of those books which it revises and supplements.
After a genealogical prologue, the main story line starts (1 Chron. 10–12) with the death of Saul and David's crowning as king of all Israel; gone are the divisions between north and south. Jerusalem is taken. A great muster of mighty men is transformed into a cultic congregation conducting David and the ark to the new capital with singing and celebration (1 Chron. 12–16). Battles (1 Chron. 14; 18–20) and plague (1 Chron. 21) are mentioned but bracketed by this greater purpose of establishing the place where Yahweh will be worshiped. From 1 Chronicles 22 to the end of the book and David's death, the focus is upon worship. David gathers the congregation once more and issues plans for the building of Yahweh's house and the organization of those who will sustain it. Priests and Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, commanders of this, chief officers of that, all are ordered to such an end. It is in ordering and implementing the great praise due to God that David finds life in the Chronicler's narrative.
Elsewhere in the Bible, the theme of a promise to continue David's line (the Davidic covenant) surfaces, for example, in the prophecy of Isaiah 9.7 and in Isaiah 55.3–4, a message of hope addressed to the Judean community in exile. Otherwise, David's presence is most marked in the Psalms where many of the psalm titles use the term lĕdāwīd—of, to, or about David.
Modern scholars (and a few in ancient times) have generally considered these psalm ascriptions to be later additions to material that is itself mostly post‐Davidic. Most interpreters over the centuries, however, have read the psalms in the light of these Davidic titles. In western iconography, for example, David is instantly recognizable as the man with crown and harp or psaltery, David the psalmist king; in popular culture he is often found with these attributes as the king of spades in playing cards. The image connects with the story of David's coming to Saul's court in 1 Samuel 16, but much more with 1 Chronicles, where the king's concern with the promulgation of music in the temple worship is such a dominant theme (see also Amos 6.5). Moreover, one psalm is shared by both the Psalter and 2 Samuel (Ps. 18 = 2 Sam. 22).
Davidic authorship of the psalms has a special attraction for those who would flesh out the inner life of David, especially the David of Samuel‐Kings whose piety is so tenuously pictured. Thus Psalm 51, linked by its title to the crucial Bathsheba episode, may be read as a window into the soul of the great king. His repentance, indicated in the narrative with but a few words (2 Sam. 12.13), is here paraded impressively. Problems of interpretation remain, however. The last verses of Psalm 51, for example, conjure a postexilic context (sixth century BCE or later) and strain any reading that takes the poem too literally as the outpourings of the tenth‐century king.
The New Testament.
The New Testament shows little interest in the personality of David, though the account of Jesus' plucking of the ears of grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2.23–28 par.) explicitly recalls David's taking the holy bread from the priest at Nob (1 Sam. 21) and is in character with the David of the books of Samuel. In the Gospels, Jesus is linked to the royal dynasty of Judah and to the Davidic covenant by both genealogy (Matt. 1.1–17; Luke 3.23–38) and address—he is called son of David, mostly in the context of healing/exorcism stories (e.g., Matt. 15.21–28; 20.29–34). Above all, in the New Testament, David is author—and prophet—of the psalms (see, e.g., Mark 12.36; Acts 1.16–20), which are interpreted where possible as messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus.
David M. Gunn