David, King

David, King

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

He commits adultery and then has his lover's husband murdered. His legend is probably the most edited story in literature. Most Sunday-school teachers leave out the bad parts, and most pastors censor the verses not fit for Sunday morning consumption. Thus, by an unspoken conspiracy of the "keepers of the story," David is perhaps the most well known and revered but least understood character in the Bible. He has somehow managed a positive legacy. He wallowed in the sewer, but three thousand years after his death he still smells like a rose. As a leader he was right up there with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But he makes Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and John Kennedy all look like Boy Scouts.

How did he do it? Well, it helps to have good biographers. The consensus of modern biblical scholarship suggests that much of the Bible was put together from existing documents during his reign. Probably a lot of editing went on to cast him in a good light. The constant refrain during the book of Judges, for instance, that "there was no king and every man did what was right in his own eyes" goes a long way to setting him up as the hero who put Israel back together again. The last few chapters of Judges even put Saul, David's predecessor, in a bad light, possibly to bolster David's image by comparison.

But did the man at the center of the biblical stories really exist? Up to a few years ago the only witness was the Bible. Even the book of Leviticus demands two witnesses in a court of law. But archaeology has come to the rescue. "The House of David" has been discovered to have been a reality, for the words are found on no less than commercial bills of sale with no religious ax to grind. Evidence shows that people were trading with his merchants and doing business with his kingdom.

So we can turn to his biography with a fair amount of confidence that, except for a few exaggerations, the story emerging from the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles is probably close to describing the historical figure. But there are problems. The author of 1 Samuel 17:50, for instance, tells us a youth named David killed Goliath with his slingshot. A few pages later, 2 Samuel 21:19 credits a man named Elhanan with the same deed. Were David and Elhanan one and the same, or are there two separate traditions at work here? Some Bible scholars have theorized that "David" is a title, and not a name. But that's a pretty far-ranging theory for such scant evidence. The truth is, we just don't know the answer. So the best guess now is that although editors, called "redactors," may have been at work, their honesty compels us to take what they wrote at face value. After all, if they had wanted to paint a strictly laudatory picture, they would have glossed over a lot more of David's foibles and his downright lewd, illegal behavior.

He was born in Bethlehem about a thousand years before his even more famous descendant, Jesus. His father, Jesse, was the grandson of Boaz and Ruth, whose story is told in the book bearing her name. The book of Luke lists forty-two generations separating David and Jesus (Luke 3), Matthew only twenty-eight (Matthew 1). But, to be fair, the two genealogies trace different sides of the family.

When we first meet David he is a shepherd, the "runt" of Jesse's litter. The prophet Samuel shows up one day on a secret mission from God. Saul, the appointed first king over Israel, is not working out. Samuel knows enough to find the new king's home but doesn't know which son is God's choice. Jesse, showing even less spiritual acumen than Samuel, leaves David out tending the sheep, figuring that he is not even in the running. Little did he know the kid with the unnatural red hair was going to grow up to be a giant-killer.

When Jesse musters the family sons, Samuel comes up empty. "Are these all the sons you have?" he asks (1 Samuel 16:11).

"There is still the youngest," says Jesse, "but he's out tending the sheep."

Recognizing David as the chosen one, Samuel anoints him king, but no one thinks to tell King Saul, who continues blithely on, fighting Philistines and running the kingdom into the ground. David, meanwhile, goes back to tending sheep. He will not assume his position as king until the death of Saul, years later.

When we next hear from him he is carrying food to his brothers, who are now fighting in Saul's army. The Israeli troops are bunkered down on a ridge facing the Philistine troops across the valley. In keeping with a rather sensible practice of the time, the Philistines had invoked the honorable custom of single combat, their champion against their opponents', winner take all. The only problem was that the Philistine champion was a nine-foot-tall giant named Goliath. Given his considerable size and reputation, no one wanted to take him on.

Until David, that is. "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" (1 Samuel 17:26)

Everyone knows what happened next—the young kid with the slingshot slew the nine-foot Philistine giant, and David became not only the most famous soldier in Israeli history but one of the most charismatic warriors in the history of the world. His fight became the universal symbol of every battle between entrenched power and the "little guy."

David appears next in quite a different guise. Saul is troubled by some kind of fit that is only soothed when David plays gentle music on the harp. The Bible makes it plain what's going on. "An evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul... and he was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had left Saul" (1 Samuel 18:10-12). David was forced to flee when Saul tried to kill him. He rapidly became leader of his own band of troops, pursued by Saul throughout the hill country of Israel, always eluding him, but refusing to do him harm. After all, Saul was, according to David's reasoning, God's king.

Here, however, an interesting debate now rages. David and Saul's son Jonathan were best of friends. Jonathan served as David's spy, keeping David informed of Saul's plans and movements. But how close was their relationship? At Jonathan's memorial service, David preached the eulogy (2 Samuel 1:25-26):

How the mighty have fallen in battle! ... I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.

Was Jonathan being "outed" at his own funeral? When the Bible says "the souls [of Jonathan and David] were knit together" (1 Samuel 18:1), is it implying a physical relationship as well, or at least a romantic one? According to Jonathan Kirsch in his book The Harlot by the Side of the Road, "these words from Holy Scripture were recently invoked in a debate in the Knesset, the national legislature of Israel, over the rights of gay men and women under Israeli law. Yael Dayan, daughter of another war hero of Israel [Moshe Dayan], succeeded in drawing the ire (and raising the blood pressure) of some of her fellow members of the Knesset by "outing" David; she argued, on the strength of David's eulogy of Jonathan, that the two were gay lovers."

David subsequently proved himself to be a rather lusty heterosexual fellow. But the debate persists, another example of how almost any opinion can be buttressed with biblical proof texts if you look hard enough. The truth is, we'll never know for sure if David was bisexual.

Sexual orientation aside, David eventually became king over Israel. He was the one who conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city. Before this it was a Jebusite hill fortress. Ever since it has been called the City of David (2 Samuel 5:9). He soon brought the Ark of the Covenant to what would be its resting place in Solomon's Temple, defeated virtually all his enemies, and expanded the size of Israel to borders previously undreamed.

But one day he realized he had no new challenges and found himself bored. Enter Bathsheba.

"In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war," David decided to stay home (2 Samuel 11:1). Armies fought in the spring and summer, when they could be supplied by living off the land, but David was by this time too important to risk on the battlefield.

The Bible says that "one evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of his palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing" (2 Samuel 11:2). It was Bathsheba. It is a matter of debate who tempted whom, but the result was that Bathsheba became pregnant with David's child. Her husband was off fighting the wars David had stayed home from. So David quickly sent for him and tried to get him to sleep with Bathsheba so she could say the baby was his. But Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, turned out to be more honorable than David. He wouldn't go home to the comfort of his wife while his men were sleeping alone in tents, out in the field.

The next day, David tried to get him drunk. But a tipsy Uriah was more honorable than a sober David. There was only one thing left to do to prevent scandal. David sent Uriah back to the front carrying his own death sentence. Uriah's commander was ordered to put him in the thick of the fighting and then draw all the troops away. Death followed, of course, and every man in the army must have known something was up.

In the famous confrontation of 2 Samuel 12, Nathan, the king's chaplain, persuaded David finally to do the honorable thing. He confessed to his people, begged God's forgiveness, and married Bathsheba. The child born of the union died, the opinion of the editors of Samuel being that this was David's punishment for his sin. But the next child born to them is Solomon, leaving one to wonder. People had to have heard rumors about David's relationship with Bathsheba while she was married to another man. And the people of the kingdom might not have followed Solomon if he had been born the child of an illicit affair. Was the story of the first child's death included to clear Solomon of blame, setting the scene for his rule?

David had other family problems as well. His son, Absalom, murdered his halfbrother Amnon for committing incest with their sister, and later he attempted to overthrow his father. David was actually forced to abdicate for a brief time, fleeing Jerusalem rather than fighting an attempted coup and being forced to kill his own son (2 Samuel 15).

The rest of David's story is one sordid event after another. Perhaps David was never quite the same after he realized the depth of depravity he had discovered in his soul. His final days are even worse. In his old age he found it difficult to stay warm at night, so a beauty contest was held. The winner got to sleep with the king to keep him warm, but the chroniclers are quick to point out that "he knew her not" (1 Kings 1:4).

Probably one of the most depressing scenes in the whole Bible is depicted in 1 Kings 2, where David meets with Solomon, who is about to be his successor. The two of them plot revenge against all the people David didn't want to kill while he was alive, but wanted to make sure followed him right after he died.

Finally, when we just don't want to hear any more about this side of David, he "rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David," after having ruled Israel for forty years.

What are we left with? What is David's final legacy?

Was he an honorable youth? Yes. He was above reproach when he was young. There is no reason to doubt the facts since subsequent stories reveal plenty to criticize.

Was he a good general? Absolutely. His bravery is without question. His tactics have been studied by military leaders. His ferocity was tempered by compassion, though not nearly as much as we might like to hear about. But then again, those were brutal days.

A fine musician? Although many of the Psalms attributed to him were undoubtedly written by someone else, including almost certainly the beloved Twentythird Psalm, there is enough substance left to say he certainly deserves his reputation as "the sweet singer of Israel" (2 Samuel 23:1).

Was he a shrewd politician? Most certainly. Between the lines of his fascinating story lie treaties and political alliances that laid the groundwork for his son Solomon's rule, the historical high point for Israeli influence.

Was he a devoutly religious man? If we can separate religion from morality he was one of the most profoundly religious persons not only of his day but of all time. He continually poured out his heart to God. He wore his feelings on his sleeve and wasn't afraid to show others his heartfelt devotion. Is it any wonder God called him "a man after my own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14)?

But speaking about morality—the temptation at this point is always to shrug the shoulders and say, "Well, those were different days." And they were. But that's why David manages to keep his reputation so spotless. The truth is, he was at times the most immoral character in the Bible, and that's saying something. He was capable of fits of rage during which he seemed to be bathed in blood. Sometimes he was capable of great mercy. Other times he demonstrated the heart of a ruthless terrorist, killing merely for shock value. He knew nothing about human rights when it served his purpose to be brutal.

He is a fascinating character and a fitting subject for the many books and movies he has inspired. From the standpoint of religion, psychology, warfare, music, poetry, politics, and human development he is a deep mine that will yield riches when approached carefully and plumbed with diligence. And whether or not he ever wrote the words, his memory comes alive whenever we hear, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.... Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 23).

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Third and favorite son of David, king of Israel and Judah.
Its authorship was formerly ascribed to Solomon because of the opening textual reference to " the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, " but it is now generally assigned to an unnamed author of the 3rd century bc.
In the Old Testament, the handsome and rebellious third son of David, king of Israel, who " stole the hearts of the men of Israel " and plotted to become king in his father's stead (2 Sam.