This chapter focuses on the texts that discuss David’s kingship: 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1–2, and Psalm 132. David’s rule was of critical importance to ancient Israel, and he became the archetypical king for Israel because of his piety, modesty, and skill as a general, a poet, and a politician. This chapter traces his ascent to the throne, his rule, and his eventual decline and death in 1 Kings 1–2.
Since 1 and 2 Samuel were originally one text, the overall narrative continues to develop seamlessly. Furthermore, a number of different sources were utilized in 2 Samuel’s composition. Chapters 1–5 continue the “History of David’s Rise,” and chapter 6 concludes the “Ark Narrative.” Beyond these sources found in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2 primarily draw from another hypothetical source called the “Succession Narrative.” This source is so named because it presumably was composed as an explanation of how and why Solomon became David’s heir.
2 Samuel begins with the news of Saul’s death reaching David. David then is proclaimed king by the tribe of Judah, and he makes the southern city of Hebron his capital. Saul’s son Ishbaal controls the north, but he is soon assassinated and David becomes the king of all Israel. David then moves the capital farther north to Jerusalem, to which he brings the ark. With Israel secure, David initiates campaigns against the Philistines and the Ammonites. Although he is victorious militarily, his exploits in Ammon coincide with an adulterous affair with Bathsheba. This is the turning point for the narrative as the Deuteronomistic historians use this episode to mark the long decline of David. Because of David’s illicit affair, God punishes David, and he now is at the mercy of events that are out of his control. Most notable is the revolt of his son Absalom, who successfully usurps his father’s power for a time. Eventually, Absalom is killed in battle and David returns to the throne. The narrative ends with David as a senile and powerless figure who is controlled by his court. It is through these events that Solomon eventually becomes king of Israel.
After Moses, David is the most important figure in the Hebrew Bible. He is also the most fully developed character; we have a full description of his victories and failures, his strengths and weaknesses. David was a gifted warrior and an able statesman who controlled both his own people and the Philistines. Moreover, David is often celebrated for his ability as a poet and musician. Jewish tradition credits him with the composition of innumerable songs, including many of the psalms. In addition to these positive characteristics, the “Succession Narrative” shows David’s negative qualities. He did not always act in a kingly fashion and is described as a sinner who arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband. Furthermore, he is an indulgent father who would not punish his sons no matter what their transgression. Although 1 and 2 Samuel present a mixed and complex description of David, he was a successful monarch overall who had an enormous impact on the course of Israel’s history and identity.
The other major characters in the narrative are David’s sons. We are told that there were seventeen sons in all, though few feature prominently in the narrative. Many are eliminated as possible successors during the course of the narrative, indicating the importance of having many sons for guaranteeing the continuance of the royal line. Amnon was the oldest son and should have been David’s successor. However, his duplicity and the rape of Tamar led to his murder at the hands of Absalom. As mentioned earlier, Absalom plays a major role in the narrative, but because of his ambition, he too is eventually killed at the hands of David’s soldiers. David’s eventual successor was Solomon, the second child of David and Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 12.24 suggests his future prominence when the prophet Nathan, under Yahweh’s instructions, names him “Beloved by Yahweh.” Although Solomon is mentioned in 2 Samuel, he is not crowned as king until 1 Kings.
As with the earlier works we have encountered in our study of the Old Testament, there are no external data to support the events described in 2 Samuel. However, the alliance between Israel and Tyre described in 2 Samuel is supported by a later source, marking the first time that we have a direct chronological correlation between biblical and nonbiblical sources. While it is likely that David was one of the most powerful monarchs in the region at the beginning of the tenth century BCE, it appears that the descriptions of his exploits are exaggerated. However, this period does mark a “golden age” of Israel, a time when Israel was at the height of its influence, prosperity, and security.
As we saw in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel gives us insight into the importance of several institutions within ancient Israel. Rivalries between Saul and David expand into family rivalries between both houses, eventually resulting in the virtual extermination of Saul’s line. This feuding or blood vengeance also plays out within the house of David, as Absalom feels compelled to seek justice for his sister, Tamar.
The narrative also describes some innovations in administration under David’s direction. While some of these changes may have been continuations of Saul’s administrative efforts (such as the maintenance of a standing army), some seem to reflect historical events dating back to the time of David. Specifically, the two lists of officials may reproduce actual archival accounts preserving the names and functions of David’s appointees. Another innovation is the census, which demonstrates increased centralization and expansion of monarchic authority.
Perhaps the most important innovations are in the realm of religion. Like Saul before him, David exercised ever-increasing control over religious institutions. Perhaps most important was David’s order to move the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. This gave the ark new prominence as a symbol of religious and military might. Furthermore, by placing the ark in the midst of the new capital, great steps were taken toward the centralization of religion in one location. David’s appointment of priests is also indicated, suggesting that the priesthood had fallen under the control of the monarchy.
Implications for Our Study
While we can never know much about the historical David based on the limits of the sources, his legacy is unquestionable. David is a towering figure in the Bible whose activities had a profound and lasting impact not only on Judaism but also on Christianity and Islam. Although 2 Samuel often describes David as sinful, ineffective, and opportunistic, he is still an overwhelmingly positive figure in the Bible, and he is the standard by which all later kings will be measured in Israel. Although the actual account of his life ends in 1 Kings 2, David continues to have an enormous influence in the later biblical texts, since he is credited with the foundation of the royal line and the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital. In the chapters that follow, we will see how David’s accomplishments and innovations left their mark on Israel.