Ruth Margalit noted:
The biblical King David of Israel was known for his diverse skills as both a warrior and a writer of psalms. In his 40 years as ruler, between approximately 1010 and 970 B.C.E., he united the people of Israel, led them to victory in battle, conquered land and paved the way for his son, Solomon, to build the Holy Temple. Almost all knowledge of him is derived from the books of the Prophets and Writings: Samuel I and II, Kings I and Chronicles I.
David was the eighth and youngest son of Jesse from the kingly tribe of Judah. He was also a direct descendent of Ruth the Moabite. David began his life as a shepherd in Bethlehem. One day, the prophet Samuel called him out of the field and anointed him without the knowledge of the current king, Saul. David simply returned to his sheep. His first interaction with Saul came when the king was looking for someone to play music for him, and the king’s attendant summoned the skilled David to play for him. Saul was pleased with David and kept him in his service as a musician.
The first time David publicly displayed his courage was when, as an inexperienced boy armed with only a stick and a few stones, he confronted the nine-foot, bronze armored Philistine giant, Goliath of Gath. After skilled warriors had cowered in fear for 40 days, David made a slingshot, invoked God’s name, and killed the giant. After this, Saul took David on as commander of his troops and David formed a close friendship with Saul’s son, Jonathan.
David was successful in battle against the Philistines and this aroused the jealousy of Saul, who tried to kill David by throwing a spear at him. David stayed with Saul, however, and Saul offered him his own daughter, Merav, as a wife. He later reneged on his promise, but offered David his second daughter, Michal, in exchange for the foreskins of 100 Philistines, a price that David paid.
Saul’s jealousy of David grew and he asked his son Jonathan to kill David. Jonathan was a friend of David’s, however, and hid David instead. He then went to his father and convinced Saul to promise not to kill David. Saul promised, and David returned to his service. This promise did not last and, after Saul attempted to kill David a second time, Michal helped David run away to the prophet Samuel in Ramah. David returned briefly to make a pact of peace with Jonathan and to verify that Saul was still planning to kill him. He then continued his flight from Saul, finding refuge with the king of Moab. On the way, the priest Ahimelech of Nob gave David a weapon. When Saul heard this, he sent Doeg the Edomite to kill 85 of the city’s priests.
In the course of his flight, David gained the support of 600 men, and he and his band traveled from city to city. At one point, in Ein Gedi, David crept up on Saul while he was in a cave, but instead of killing him, cut a piece from his cloak and confronted Saul. Saul broke down and admitted that David would one day be king and asked David to swear that he would not destroy Saul’s descendants or wipe out Saul’s name. David swore to this, but it did not stop Saul from continuing to pursue him. Finally, David and his supporters joined the service of Achish, the Philistine king of Gath who entrusted David with control of the city of Ziklag. Under Achish’s employ, David raided the cities of nomads who harassed the Jews and gave the spoils as gifts to the leaders of Judah to win their support for him against Saul.
Eventually, while David was out battling a tribe called the Amalekites, Saul and Jonathan were killed on Mt. Gilboa in a fight with the Philistines. David mourned, and then began a new stage in his life, as king of Judah. He moved to Hebron, along with his wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail of Carmel, and his followers. The people of Judea were grateful to David for saving them from desert raiders while he was in Ziklag, and they appointed David king.
Meanwhile, Abner son of Ner crowned Ish-Boshet son of Saul king over the tribes of Israel. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel fought, with David’s dynasty growing stronger as Saul’s grew weaker. Finally, after Abner had a fight with Ish-Boshet, Abner approached David and made a pact with him, which allowed David to unite the two kingdoms and rule over all of Israel. As Abner was leaving David, however, David’s advisor and army commander, Joab, killed Abner without David’s knowledge. Soon, Ish-Boshet was also killed and the tribes of Israel anointed David as their king. David was 30 years old at the time, and had ruled over Judah for seven years and six months. Over the years, he had taken more wives and had many children. He had also made pacts with kings of various surrounding countries.
David’s first action as king was to capture what is now the City of David in Jerusalem, fortify it and build himself a palace. When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king and was threatening their hegemony, they attacked, spread out over the Valley of Raphaim and captured Bethlehem. David retaliated and, in three battles, forced the Philistines out of Israel.
Once David had established the safety of his kingdom, he brought the Holy Ark, which had been passed from city to city, to Jerusalem. He then wanted to build a temple to God and consulted Nathan the prophet. Natan replied to David that God would always be with David, but it would be up to David’s son to build the Temple because David had been a warrior and shed blood.
David then began fighting wars against Israel’s neighbors on the east bank of the Jordan. He defeated the Moabites, the Edomites, the Ammonites and the Arameans. These wars began as defensive wars, but ended with the establishment of a Davidic empire that extended over both sides of the Jordan River, as far as the Mediterranean Sea. David enforced justice in his empire and established civil and military administrations in Jerusalem, modeled after those of the Canaanites and Egyptians. He divided the country into twelve districts, each with its own civil, military and religious institutions. He also established Jerusalem as the secular and religious center of the country. Each district paid taxes to Jerusalem and the people began to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem each year on the holidays of Passover, Shavout and Sukkot.
Despite this flawless reign on a national level, David had many problems in his personal life. One day while the men were at war, David spied a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, from his rooftop. He discovered that she was married to Uriah the Hittite, but this did not stop him from sending for her and getting her pregnant. He then recalled Uriah from battle and pretended that Uriah was the father of Bathsheba’s baby. Uriah refused to go home to his wife, so David sent Uriah to the front lines of battle, where he was killed. David then married Bathsheba. When confronted by Nathan the prophet, David admitted his sin. In punishment, Bathsheba’s child died and David was cursed with the promise of a rebellion from within his own house. Bathsheba and David soon conceived a second son, Solomon.
David’s personal strife continued when his son Amnon raped Tamar, Amnon’s half-sister. Absalom, who was David’s son and Tamar’s brother, then killed Amnon. Absalom fled, but David could not stop thinking about him. Finally, Joab convinced David to allow Absalom to return. Absalom was a handsome man and became popular with the people of Israel. Then, 40 years after Samuel had anointed David king, Absalom, along with 200 men, journeyed to Hebron with the intention of rebelling against his father and taking over his kingdom. He had the support of the men of Hebron who were insulted by the removal of the kingdom from Hebron to Jerusalem, the elders whose status was undermined by parts of David’s policy and the Benjamites who wanted to avenge Saul’s family.
David feared that Absalom would return and conquer Jerusalem, so he and all his followers fled the city, leaving only 10 concubines to guard the palace. David told the priests Zadok and Abiathar to remain in the city along with his friend and now spy Hushai the Archite. Meanwhile, Absalom reached Jerusalem, took over the city and slept with David’s concubines. Hushai befriended Absalom, advised him, and told the priests to send messengers informing David of Absalom’s plans. David gathered his troops and then killed 20,000 of Absalom’s Israelite soldiers, including Absalom himself. David returned to power. A second revolt broke out at the hands of Sheba son of Bichri, but with the help of Joab, David succeeded in crushing this rebellion as well, and in killing Sheba.
Eventually David grew old and had to stop fighting. He constantly felt cold and could not get warm. At this point, Adonijah, David’s oldest son, declared himself king. David, however, had promised Bathsheba that her son Solomon would be king, and publicly anointed Solomon. Fearful of retribution Adonijah ran to the altar in Jerusalem, but Solomon pardoned him and sent him home.
David delivered a last set of instructions to his son, telling him to follow the words of God and to repay in kind specific people that had either wronged David or helped him. David then died after 40 years as king, 33 of those in Jerusalem. He was buried in the City of David.
David was a poet and the rabbis believe that David wrote the Book of Psalms, or at least edited it. Throughout his life, David prepared for the construction of the Holy Temple by setting aside the necessary physical materials, commanding the Levites and others in their duties for the Temple, and giving the plan for the Temple to Solomon. It is then fitting that according to tradition, the Messiah, who will build the third temple, will be from the Davidic dynasty. Today, Jews pray daily for the coming of the
Messiah, son of David.
Sources: Barbara Cohen, David: A Biography. Clarion Books, New York: 1995.
David, Encyclopedia Judaica.
Scriptures: Samuel I and II, Kings I, Chronicles I. Jewish Publication Society translation, (New York, 1985).
Ruth Margalit, “In Search of King David’s Lost Empire,” The New Yorker, (June 29, 2020).