Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

King David in History and Tradition

Posted by foryourfaith on August 9, 2010


King David is one of the most beloved figures in the Hebrew Bible. He’s also one of the most enigmatic. Much has been published about him in recent times.

Questions About the House of David

David founded a dynasty that was destined to rule from Jerusalem for the next four hundred years. Even after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE, ending the long line of Davidic Kings, many of the people of Jerusalem and Judah continued to hope for a return to the days of the House of David. So it’s not surprising that David received so much attention in the biblical materials or that there was an obvious effort to present him in a favorable light.

The Hebrew Bible devotes forty-two chapters to David and portrays him as God’s chosen, the true and righteous king. Then there is a second extended biblical account in Chronicles that begins its history of Judah with David and devotes twenty chapters to his reign. Finally, David is associated by tradition with the Book of Psalms, where thirteen of the individual psalms are connected with particular moments in his career.

A number of basic questions face anyone trying to study David’s reign and the period of the United Monarchy. Can archaeology or other sources shed light on the transition that took place in Israelite society? Does archaeology actually indicate that a mighty kingdom existed, such as was described in the biblical sources? To what extent are the elaborate commercial and political relations described in the Bible actually reflected in the archaeological remains? Unfortunately, the extra-biblical evidence is sparse, often controversial, and does not provide unequivocal answers to these questions.

David’s History

The story of David reads like a modern soap opera: plenty of sex, violence, and struggle for power. David, before being anointed king by Samuel, fought famously with Goliath. Samuel met with David’s father, Jesse, who brought all of his sons to see Samuel. Samuel asked if all of Jesse’s sons were actually there. One was not and had to be called in, namely David, who was tending the flock.

David started out as a minstrel for Saul during Saul’s melancholy period, but was rapidly promoted to armor bearer. He then had his first successes as a young warrior and commander, so that the women sang that Saul had slain thousands, but that David had slain ten thousands. There was the famous friendship between Saul’s son Jonathan and David, which eventually led to the mistrust of Saul as Saul became increasingly unstable. There was a quarrel, after which Saul tried to kill David. David ran away and returned to Judah, his homeland. He became a mercenary, leading his own troops.

David lives as a warrior, a kind of a bandit, an outlaw who was tolerated rather than admired. He operated in large part with Saul pursuing him. David even entered into the service of the Philistines, albeit temporarily. After Saul was killed, David became king, and his kingdom assumed a different character from that of Saul’s. Saul came from a tradition of charismatic leaders, but he didn’t have a permanent foundation among the tribes. He had no real residence, and no effective administration. David, on the other hand, obtained a residence and a very effective administration. But he wasn’t necessarily a charismatic leader in terms of ruling from God, by God, and of God. He was a warrior, supported by his troops, independent of the tribes, and he became king over the territory. He ruled over a nations, which was limited, and yet was going to expand quite fast.

David first ruled from Hebron, for about seven years. He had expanded his territory to the north, and in expanding to the north, he decided that the city of Hebron was no longer suitable for his capital. He wanted a city that was politically and geographically neutral and one that was relatively isolated. Jerusalem itself is high up in the Hill Country, but it was not at the crossroads of any great trade routes. It was geographically separated from most of David’s territory. From his new capital, David could rule both north and south, so the formulation of his kingdom seems to be David’s foremost achievement. David’s capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, somewhere around the year 1000 BCE, may be among the ten most important conflicts in Jerusalem’s history – and there have been more than one hundred battles fought for control of Jerusalem over the past four thousand years.

The Capture of Jerusalem

David’s capture of Jerusalem is what brought Judaism to the city and began the long association of the city with three of the great religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In about 1000 BCE, the Jebusites controlled the city. The city was protected on three sides by deep ravines, so it was only from the north that David could capture the city.

The text of 2 Samuel presents a number of different difficulties in translation, especially with the Hebrew word “tsinnor.” In the King James Version, this is translated as “gutter,” but in the Revised Standard Version, “tsinnor” means a water shaft, and the implication is that David’s soldiers, in particular his right-hand man Joab, climbed some sort of water shaft from near the Gihon Spring and thereby entered the city.

However, the New English Bible translates “tsinnor” as grappling iron, and others translate “tsinnor” as ladder or other meanings. Recent archaeology conducted in the vicinity of the Gihon Spring, on the eastern side of Jerusalem, has shown that the Canaanites built fortifications, towers, and walls to protect the Gihon Spring, the only water source for Jerusalem. These constructions would have been already eight hundred years old by the time David came along, and they are perhaps the tsinnor that allowed Joab to climb up through the water system and enter the middle of Jerusalem around midnight. He and his men would have killed the guards at the gate and opened the gates to Jerusalem. Then David and his men would have marched in. thus Jebusite Jerusalem became Israelite Jerusalem.

At this time, Jerusalem lay only on the easternmost of two spurs of land running side by side. It was this eastern ridge that David captured. Over time, Solomon would expand up to the north on that ridge, and then, over the centuries, the city would expand to the west, gradually filling in the ravine to the middle and taking over the western ridge as well.

Once he captured the city, David promptly brought the Ark of the Covenant there. He put it in a tabernacle and danced around it, then got in trouble for doing so. Eventually, the Ark was moved on top of the rock on which Abraham supposedly was going to sacrifice Isaac. This is the rock that today is inside the dome of the rock, and which lay inside Solomon’s Temple. Indeed, Solomon built his Temple, among other reasons, specifically to house the Ark of the Covenant. Bringing the Ark to Jerusalem made the city not only David’s political capital, but also the religious capital for both David and, later, Solomon.

Archaeology has been unable to pinpoint structures that definitely belong to David’s Jerusalem, aside from recent claims by Eilat Mazar to have discovered David’s palace. There is not much that can be conclusively said to date to the tenth century in Jerusalem, and so there has been an ongoing debate about the size and extent of David’s Jerusalem, and his entire kingdom, for that matter. So far there is no archaeological evidence that Jerusalem was anything more than a modest highland village during the time of David and Solomon. It is true that there is little evidence for what Jerusalem looked like in the tenth century BCE, but many see the downgrading of David and Solomon as rather ominous, as part of a political agenda that gives ammunition to people who might be anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

The other aspect that David’s capture of Jerusalem has given rise to is the political ramifications. Indeed, the original battle fought between David and the Jebusites three thousand years ago for control of Jerusalem is still being fought today, mostly because the modern Israelis claim to be descendents from the Israelites and the modern Palestinians claim to be descendants of the Canaanites and the Philistines. So the modern political and physical battles between Israelis and Palestinians echo the original battle between David and the Jebusites.

Once David captured the city, he fell in love with the famous Bathsheba after seeing her bathing. The union of David and Bathsheba resulted in the birth of Solomon, who continued his father’s process of expansion of the kingdom and who ruled over the United Monarchy.

Mentions of David

In 1993 and 1994, three fragments of an inscription in old Aramaic were discovered at the site of Tel Dan, in the north of Israel. If the restoration and translation of the inscription are correct, it contains the first mention of David or rather the House of David, found outside the Bible.

The three fragments mention the House of David as well as the kings of both Israel and Judah. It is now clear that the inscription should be dated to about the year 842 BCE. This is the first time that the name David has been found in any ancient inscription outside the Bible, and it would therefore be the oldest extra-biblical reference to Israel apart from the Merneptah stele, which dates to 1207 BCE.

The critical letters in the inscription are the ones that are usually translated as “House of David.” Some scholars have said that this is not the meaning and that it means “House of the Uncle,” or “House of the Beloved,” or even “House of the Kettle,” but these claims are spurious and may be dismissed.

There may be other inscriptions that mention David. There’s the so-called Mesha stele, which may contain a mention of the king of Israel and the House of David, but this inscription is broken and much debated. There may be another mention down in Egypt in a list left by King Shishak (Sheshonq) of Egypt.

All of these inscriptions have been reinterpreted recently, and so there might be more mentions of David than thought before. On the other hand, a group of scholars referred to by others as biblical minimalists (some call them the Copenhagen school) tend to argue that the history of Israel, Judah, David, and Solomon is all made up.

Biblical Minimalism

Biblical minimalists take the view that the Bible is a narrative of mythology interwoven with some historical elements, and that trying to read the Bible as a historical text in the modern sense of the term is doomed from the start. They say this because the Bible is written in a tradition of storytelling and religious worship, not with the intention of relating facts. They say that the united Monarchy and the figures of David and Solomon are legendary and not historical at all. In short, biblical minimalists say that the bible is nearly irrelevant for constructing the history of ancient Palestine and especially of the ancient Israelites.

Essentially, biblical minimalism arose out of the need to account for the major discrepancies between the Bible and what archaeologists have dug up in Israel and Palestine. How much can archaeology prove or corroborate the biblical account? The arguments about the legitimacy of David and whether or not he existed are part of this debate, which is one of the most fiercely debated issues in biblical archaeology.

Biblical stories paint a picture of David in intense detail. On the other hand, there is no archaeological evidence to prove any of this and, until the finding of the Tel Dan stele, there was no extra-biblical evidence mentioning David whatsoever. It is now thought possible, however, that the House of David may also appear in the Mesha stele, and in Shishak’s inscription as well, so there is now good evidence that someone named David actually did exist. But whether it is the biblical David or some other David is still being argued. It is a topic that continues to generate controversy.


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2 Responses to “King David in History and Tradition”

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