Books of Samuel

Tomb of Samuel

“The Books of Samuel tell the story of the transition from the period of Judges to the monarchy… The transition of monarchy was a major development, which marks a new era in the history of Israel.” Samuel Study, Section One

The story of the Hebrew people moves from the time of nomadic tribes governed by Judges who emerged in the time of crisis to the era of Israeli monarchy.  The central characters are Saul, David and Solomon, well known for their special connections with God, their leadership, and temple building.  Jewish law, documented in Deuteronomy, is woven into the lives of these leaders.  These stories practically beg for historical/archeological validation; unfortunately, that “proof” has not been found.

Nevertheless, these important Biblical characters are presented as realistic and complex human beings.  They deal with all manner of human emotion, temptation, failure and redemption.  We can learn about the traditional stories of the Hebrew people and how their heroes shape their tradition as well as how people handle the good and bad events that life presents.  We also learn about God’s hand and voice in the world.  Studying these stories and thinking about the way modern life presents similar challenges informs our own spirituality.  An interesting and nourishing study!

Meet Our Professors

Joel Baden

Professor of Hebrew Bible

Professor Joel Baden is a specialist in the Pentateuch, Biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. He is the author of the numerous articles, essays, and books on individual pentateuchal texts, critical methodology, and Biblical Hebrew; future projects include commentaries on Deuteronomy and Exodus. He holds degrees in Judaic Studies (BA, Yale), Semitic Languages (MA, University of Chicago), and Hebrew Bible (PhD, Harvard).

John J. Collins

Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation

John J. Collins, a native of Ireland, was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago from 1991 until his arrival at YDS in 2000. He previously taught at the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has participated in the editing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is the general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible series. He holds degrees from University College Dublin (BA, MA, and an honorary D. Litt.) and Harvard University (PhD).



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

I. Introduction

The Books of Samuel tell the story of the transition from the period of the Judges to the monarchy. In the earlier period, when there was no king in Israel, the tribes were ruled by charismatic figures, who emerged in time of crisis and then, supposedly, continued to rule for forty years. The rule of these judges is schematized in the biblical text. The overall impression is that tribes rallied around a leader in time of crisis, but that these leaders had no institutional authority over all of Israel. The transition to monarchy was a major development, which marks a new era in the history of Israel.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, scholars have regarded the Books of Samuel as part of the Deuteronomistic history. This history was composed of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. It was dubbed Deuteronomistic because kings and leaders were typically judged by the standards of the Book of Deuteronomy. This is most obvious in the Books of Kings, where the kings of northern Israel are routinely condemned for allowing worship outside of the central sanctuary of Jerusalem. There is also a very clear editorial hand in the Book of Judges. The Books of Samuel also show signs of Deuteronomistic editing, as we will see regarding the kingship, but the editorial layer is not so heavy-handed. These are some of the most sophisticated and subtle stories in the Hebrew Bible.

The two books of Samuel were originally one book in Hebrew. They are copied on a single scroll in the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were divided in Greek and Latin manuscripts because of the length of the book. The Greek translation (the Septuagint, or LXX) reflects a longer form of the text than has been preserved in Hebrew. For a long time, scholars thought that the translators had added to the Hebrew text. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, preserve fragments of a Hebrew text that corresponds to the Greek. It now appears that the Greek preserves an older form of the text, and that some passages were lost in the form transmitted in Hebrew.

Three figures dominate the books of Samuel: Samuel, Saul, and David. 1 Samuel begins with the birth and early career of Samuel. Chapters 4-6 deal with struggles between Israel and the Philistines. Samuel does not appear at all in those chapters, but he takes the lead in a battle against the Philistines in chapter 7. Chapters 8-15 deal with the beginnings of the kingship under Saul. Then David appears on the scene, and he dominates the remainder of 1 Samuel and all of 2 Samuel.

There are several tensions and duplications in 1 Samuel. In chapter 8, the desire to have a human king is taken to imply the rejection of Yahweh as king. Yet the first king is anointed at Yahweh’s command. In chapters 10 and 11 there are different accounts of the way in which Saul is chosen. There are also different accounts of his rejection in chapters 13 and 15. There are two accounts of how David came into Saul’s service, in chapters 16 and 17. David becomes Saul’s son-in-law twice in chapter 18. David defects to the king of Gath twice, in chapters 21 and 27, and he twice refuses to take Saul’s life when he could have done so (chaps. 21 and 27).

Older scholarship identified two strands in 1 Samuel. One, in chapters 9:1 to 10:16; 11; and 13-14, had a generally favorable view of the monarchy. The second, in chapters 7-8; 10:17-27; 12 and 15, had a negative view. The second layer was thought to correspond to the Deuteronomistic edition. Other scholars, however, think the situation is more complex. The negative view of kingship may be older than Deuteronomy, and there may be more than one Deuteronomistic edition. It is clear, however, that different sources were combined in the 1 Samuel, and that they entailed different views of the kingship. Deuteronomistic passages have been recognized in the oracle against the house of Eli in 1 Sam 2:27-36 and 3:11-14, in Samuel’s reply to the request for a king in 8:8, and especially in Samuel’s farewell speech in chapter 12.

2 Samuel also incorporates sources that have been only lightly edited by the Deuteronomist. The key Deuteronomistic passage is the account of the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7, although here too an older source is being adapted. 2 Samuel 9 to 2 Kings 2 is often identified as the Court History of David, or the Succession Narrative. The account of the rebellion of Absalom reads like a distinct source. 1 Kings 1-2 is an account of the rise of Solomon to the kingship.

Despite all these tensions, however, the Books of Samuel present an engrossing story that compares well with any narrative that has come down to us from the ancient world. More than most biblical books, they sketch their characters vividly and provide complex and realistic accounts of human motivations.

History or fiction?

The most pressing question for a reader of these books concerns the expectation we should bring to them. They tell a story about a pivotal period in the history of Israel. This story is realistic. It has none of the mythical characteristics that we find in the early chapters of Genesis, or in the story of the Exodus. Battles are not decided by divine intervention. The leading characters have credible human motives for what they do. Accordingly, many scholars have assumed that the story these books tell is basically historical. To be sure, the details cannot be verified. But many a History of Israel has been written on the assumption that the story is essentially reliable.

For much of the twentieth century, the historical reliability of the Bible seemed to be supported by archeology. Biblical scholars of a conservative bent thought they could support the historical reliability of the Bible by archeological work. This approach was associated especially with William Foxwell Albright, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who dominated Old Testament scholarship in North America in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Albright was by no means a fundamentalist. He was incomparably learned in the cultures of the ancient Near East, and he hoped to put Old Testament scholarship on a scientific basis. His student, John Bright, wrote a magisterial History of Israel that attempted to correlate the biblical text with what was known of ancient Near Eastern history from other sources. Eventually, however, the attempt to support the Bible by archeology backfired. Too many important incidents in the Bible were not corroborated, or even seemed to contradict the archeological evidence. Consequently, a movement of “minimalist” biblical historians arose who were unwilling to give historical credence to any biblical story that could not be corroborated by archeology.

The failure of archeology to corroborate biblical stories was devastating in the case of a book like Joshua, where centerpiece stories such as the capture of Jericho and Ai would have seemed to lend themselves to archeological verification. If there is no archeological evidence of the destruction of the walls of Jericho in the appropriate period, this raises a fundamental question about the nature of the biblical narrative. The Books of Samuel, however, pose a somewhat different problem. The main place where one might look for archeological verification of the biblical stories is Jerusalem, where David allegedly established his kingdom and where Solomon would build his temple. Unfortunately (or not!) much of Jerusalem is off-limits for archeologists, especially the area now covered by the Temple Mount.

Nonetheless, there has been vigorous debate among archeologists as to what Jerusalem was like in the tenth century BCE, the supposed time of David. “Minimalist” archeologists and historians, such as Israel Finkelstein, have argued that Jerusalem was no more than a “cow town” in this period – a provincial backwater that could not possibly have been the center of a great kingdom. At one point, some of the more skeptical historians questioned even the existence of David and his kingdom. That extreme position was refuted, in the eyes of most scholars, by the discovery of an Aramaic inscription at Tel Dan in northern Israel, in 1993-4, which mentioned the “house of David.” The inscription dates to the second half of the ninth century BCE, and confirms that the kingdom of Judah was known as “the house of David” at that time. At the other end of the spectrum Eilat Mazar, who comes from a line of famous Israeli archeologists, has claimed to have found the palace of King David, in the area called “the city of David,” outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Her claim has been greeted with widespread skepticism. She has found an impressive ancient structure, but it seems impossible to determine whether it was built by King David or by one of his Canaanite predecessors in Jerusalem.

In fact, little if anything in the Books of Samuel lends itself to verification or falsification by archeological means. As a result, scholars have tried to assess the plausibility of the stories. Can we think of reasons why someone would have invented a given story? This enterprise, however, is inevitably subjective, and explanations that seem plausible to one scholar may not always seem so to another. Without external evidence to verify or falsify the biblical stories, the question of historicity is moot. On the one hand, we cannot have great confidence that events happened as reported. On the other hand, we must realize that new archeological evidence is constantly coming to light, and we cannot preclude the possibility that evidence supportive of the biblical story may yet be found.

Ancient prose fiction

In the meantime, it is probably better to read the Books of Samuel as “ancient prose fiction,” in the phrase of Robert Alter, rather than as history in the modern sense. No one doubts that Julius Caesar existed, but the value of Shakespeare’s play about him does not depend on its historical accuracy. David most probably existed too, but the stories told about him are impossible to verify. Their value does not lie in their historical evidence, but rather in the ways in which they dramatize human nature.

There is much about the Books of Samuel that can be appreciated if we read them as simply as stories. Saul is a tragic figure, who seems at first to be destined for greatness but is brought down by his own character flaws. His relationship with Samuel is fraught, and highly suggestive of the mistrust and misunderstandings that take place at a time when power and authority are in transition between different institutions and between two strong-willed figures. David emerges as one of the most complex and captivating figures in the Bible. On the one hand, he is ruthless. He is a mercenary figure, who engages in extortion and does not hesitate to have people murdered if they stand in his way. On the other hand, he is often a sympathetic figure, quick to repent of his sins (or at least to appear to repent). He is most sympathetic when he is vulnerable, and when he suffers through the tragedies that beset his own family and his laments for his friend Jonathan and for his son Absalom are moving. It is the great merit of the Books of Samuel that they do not represent any of the leading characters as simply saintly figures. They all have their flaws, and they are more engaging for the fact that they are portrayed realistically.

The importance of David transcends the story of his own lifetime. He is the king who receives the promise of an everlasting dynasty. His dynasty lasted for more than 400 years. When it was eventually ended by the Babylonians, the promise gave rise to the hope for a messiah, a king who would restore a kingdom that would never be destroyed. The idea of a messiah was important for Judaism, and even more so for Christianity. The different understandings of the messiah provide one of the most fundamental reasons for a parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. In the Books of Samuel, however, we are dealing not with the messiah but with the historical, or legendary, figure of David, without whom there would have been no idea of a messiah at all.

Further Reading:

P. K. McCarter, 1 Samuel (Anchor Bible 8; New York: Doubleday, 1980); 2 Samuel (Anchor Bible 9; New York: Doubleday, 1984).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Is it important whether the stories in the Books of Samuel are historical or not? If so, why?
  2. Is it important that David is not depicted as a saintly figure, but as a complex and all too human character?
  3. What light to these stories shed on the institution of the monarchy, and its strengths and weaknesses?



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

II. The Origin of Kingship in Israel

Samuel is the last of the judges, but he is also an atypical judge.  In many ways, he anticipates the prophets in their relationship with the later kings of Israel and Judah.

The birth of Samuel is reminiscent of that of Isaac and more immediately that of Samson. His mother, Hannah was unable to bear a child, but the Lord answered her prayer. Consequently, the child is given as a gift to the Lord, to remain at the sanctuary, in Shiloh, and to live as a nazirite. Nazirites were supposed to refrain from alcohol and from cutting their hair, and were not to become ritually impure by contact with corpses. (See Numbers 6:1-21). When Samson is conceived in Judges 13, his mother is told to abstain from any fruit of the vine, from strong drink, and from any unclean thing. Samson, famously, does not cut his hair, and loses his strength when his hair is cut on the instruction of Delilah. The prayer of Hannah, in which she praises God for raising the lowly from the dust, is similar to the Magnificat, the prayer of Mary in Luke 1:46-55.

While Samuel is still a boy, he experiences a prophetic call, in 1 Samuel 3. At first, he thinks he is being called by the priest Eli. When Eli explains to him what is happening, the Lord reveals to him that he is about to destroy the house of Eli, because of the corruption of his sons. Subsequently, the sons of Eli are killed in battle against the Philistines, and Eli falls backward and breaks his neck when he hears the news. The extinction of Eli’s family creates a vacuum in leadership.  Samuel steps forward to fill the vacuum in chapter 7, when he calls on Israel, in good Deuteronomistic fashion, to put aside foreign gods.

The Ark

The story of Samuel is interrupted in 4:1b -7:1 by an episode in which he plays no part. This appears to be an independent source, incorporated by the Deuteronomist. It tells of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines. The ark is variously called the ark of God, the ark of YHWH, the Ark of the Covenant, or the ark of testimony. The association of the ark with the covenant is typical of the Deuteronomistic writers. In Deut 10:1-5, Moses is told to make a receptacle for the stone tablets of the covenant. The story in 1 Samuel, however, makes clear that it is no mere box. It is the symbol of the presence of the Lord. When it was carried into battle, it was believed that the Lord himself had entered the battle. So, the Philistines initially react with dismay, and declare that “gods have come into their camp.” In the Book of Numbers, 10:35, the chant uttered when the ark set out was “Arise O Lord, let your enemies be scattered.”

The Philistines, however, overcome their initial dismay and actually capture the ark. The capture of a people’s god or gods was not unusual in the ancient Near East. When one people captured the city of another, they typically carried off the gods, represented by statues as booty. Even the god of Babylon, Marduk, was carried off in this manner. This was meant to show the superior power of the gods of the victors. The vanquished typically claimed that their gods had let themselves be captured because of anger with their own people.

The story of the ark, however, has a positive ending for the Israelites. The Lord asserts his power by mysteriously destroying the statue of the Philistine god Dagon and inflicting the people with a plague. The Philistines promptly send the ark back. Nonetheless, it is significant that the Israelites begin to ask for a king shortly after this episode. The old charismatic religion of the Judges was not adequate for dealing with the Philistines. 

The request for a king

After the story of the ark, Samuel emerges as a leader. Like Eli, he functions as a priest. He secures the success of the Israelites in battle by offering sacrifice. The Lord responds with thunder, and this is enough to put the Philistines to flight. This is the Deuteronomistic ideal of how to fight a battle. Compare the capture of Jericho, where the Israelites have only to perform a ritual and God wins the battle for them.

Samuel, we are told, judged Israel all the days of his life. He is not a military leader like the earlier judges, however. Rather, he is a circuit judge, who goes around from town to town and administers judges. His sons, however, like the sons of Eli, are corrupt, and take bribes, and so the people refuse to accept them as judges. So, they ask Samuel to appoint a king to govern them, like other nations.

Samuel’s reaction is negative, and the initial reaction of the Lord seems to be negative too: “they have not rejected you, but have rejected me from being king over them.” It will later be clear that that the choice of a human king does not entail a rejection of the Lord at all. For much of the Hebrew Bible the king is the Lord’s representative on earth. Samuel, however, does his best to discourage the people from asking for a king. He tells them what the ways of the king will be: he will take their sons for his army, their daughters for his service, the best of their lands and a tithe of their produce. But the people are not deterred, and Samuel proceeds to anoint Saul as king.


There are two accounts of the anointing of Saul. In the first story, Samuel appears as a seer, which is to say a kind of prophet, who has second sight. Saul goes to consult him when he is trying to find missing donkeys. Samuel designates Saul as king by pouring a vial of oil on his head. The king would be known as the Lord’s anointed (Hebrew mashiach, which gives us the English word messiah). Anointing with oil had various connotations. It was thought to give strength and to purify, and it could also be done for pleasure. It is not clear why kings were anointed in Israel. Kings were not anointed in Mesopotamia or in Egypt, but they were among the Hittites, who lived in Asia Minor or modern Turkey. It is usually thought that the Israelite custom was taken over from the Canaanites, but there is no clear evidence of Canaanite usage. Other people are also anointed in the Hebrew Bible, most prominently the High Priest, and Elijah is told to anoint Elisha as prophet in his place, in 1 Kings 19:16. The king, however, is the Lord’s anointed par excellence.

According to the second account of the election of Saul, he was chosen by lot (1 Sam 10:20). The procedure is paralleled in Joshua 7, in the story of Achan, who was found to have violated the divine command by taking booty. First, the lot is cast among the tribes, then among the families in the designated tribes, then among the individuals in the designated family. When Saul was indicated by lot, he could not be found, because he had hidden himself in the baggage. When he was discovered, he was seen to be head and shoulders taller than everyone around him. Then he was acclaimed by the people. The qualification of height, and sheer size is quite credible in the selection of a popular, tribal, leader.

Saul as leader

Saul is soon given an opportunity to prove his mettle. Nahash of Ammon besieged Jabesh Gilead, east of the Jordan. When the people asked for terms, he demanded that he gouge out the right eye of every man, to inflict disgrace on Israel. When this news reaches Saul, he is coming from his field behind his oxen. He may have been designated king, but he had not yet assumed the trappings of royalty. Saul cut the oxen in pieces and sent pieces throughout Israel, threatening to do the same to the oxen of anyone who did not come out to support him. He then mustered an army to defeat the Ammonites. At this point in his career, Saul may have the title of king, but his modus operandi is no different from that of the judges. He is a charismatic figure, who derives his authority from the force of his personality rather than from institutional office.

The ascent of Saul is now confirmed by the apparent retirement of Samuel. “See, it is the king who leads you now,” he declares, “I am old and gray.” Samuel protests his innocence of the kind of corruption of which his sons were accused. He has taken no one’s donkey, and accepted no bribe.” He then sets out the conditions under which the monarchy is acceptable: “Here is the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked . . . If you fear the Lord and serve him and heed his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well; but if you will not heed the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king” (1 Sam 12:13-15). This formulation, which clearly subordinates the kingship to the Law, is quintessentially Deuteronomistic. Another Deuteronomistic motif is found in 1 Sam 10:25: Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord. All of this recalls the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20. The people are told that when they would come into the land and ask for a king like all the other nations, they may indeed have a king, but subject to certain restrictions. He must not be a foreigner, and he must not acquire either horses (for warfare) or wives in great number. (The contrast with Solomon is implicit). Moreover, “when he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes. . .”

This is the Deuteronomic ideal of kingship. It was not the historical reality. Several psalms celebrate the king as God’s representative, with no hint that the arrangement is conditional. Psalm 2 is typical in this regard. There God tells the king: “you are my son, today day I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7). God has set the king on Zion, his holy hill, and laughs at those who would challenge or attack him. This psalm, to be sure, was composed long after the supposed time of Samuel, possibly after Jerusalem survived the siege by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BCE. But the Books of Samuel also were composed, or at least edited, long after the time when Samuel was supposed to have lived in the tenth century BCE.

An older generation of scholars thought that the kingship in Israel was originally conditional, as described in 1 Samuel. They reasoned that kingship was adapted from the leadership of the Judges. But even though Saul originally acted much like a Judge, the institution was fundamentally different. The main difference was the right of succession. Judges did not pass their leadership on to their sons. Another difference that would develop early on was the presence of a standing army, so that the king did not have to rally the tribes for every crisis. Even from an early point, kingship was understood by analogy with the kings of other nations, more than by the precedent of the Judges.

Moreover, the terms in which the conditional character of the kingship is described in 1 Samuel are clearly Deuteronomistic. The way of the king set out in 1 Sam 8 is clearly informed by hindsight. The corvée, or forced labor, was an issue already in the time of Solomon. In Deuteronomistic theology, the downfall of the kingship was due to failure to keep the law. The Books of Samuel claim that this principle was clearly enunciated at the beginning of the monarchy, most clearly by Samuel in 1 Samuel 12. But in fact, the Deuteronomic law was first formulated in the reign of King Josiah, one of the last kings of Judah. The idea that all kings were judged by their fidelity to that law was anachronistic and only formulated in retrospect.

1 Samuel, then, lays out a theology of kingship in conformity with Deuteronomy. But the stories are also interesting as a study in human psychology, even if they fictional. Samuel initially takes the demand for a king as a personal rejection. Even when the Lord explains to him that he should not take it personally, he seems to resent the new authority conferred on Saul. His self-justification in chapter 12, in which he pleads his innocence of corruption, does not address the misdeeds of his sons, which are mentioned in 8:3. Despite his apparent retirement in chapter 12, Samuel continues to meddle in the affairs of Saul in the following chapters, like an unwilling retiree who is unwilling to let go of his power. This story may be a fiction, like an historical novel, but it is an intriguing study in the psychology of leadership in a time of transition.

Further Reading:

McCarter, 1 Samuel, 49-221.

P. D. Miller and J. J. M. Roberts, The Hand of the Lord: A Reassessment of the ‘Ark Narrative’ of 1 Samuel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1977

Questions for Reflection:

  1. The stories of Eli and Samuel illustrate the tendency for families who inherit leadership roles to succumb to corruption. Is this problem endemic to political leadership?
  2. What were the pros and cons of kingship? Why did the people opt for it, even when they were warned of its costs?
  3. Is Samuel’s objection to the kingship based on concern for the people or on his own reluctance to relinquish power?



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

III. Saul and Samuel

The shadow of Samuel still hovers over Saul in the early part of his short and ill-fated reign. The tension between the two comes to a head in two incidents, reported in 1 Samuel 13 and 1 Samuel 15.

The incident at Gilgal

The first incident concerns the preparation for a battle against the Philistines. Saul was instructed by Samuel to wait seven days; then Samuel would come and offer sacrifice. Samuel was late, however, and Saul was concerned about the morale of his soldiers. The Philistine army, we are told, was like the sand on the seashore in multitude. When the Israelites saw them, people hid themselves in caves and cisterns. Some crossed the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul waited the seven days, but when Samuel had not arrived he presumed to offer the sacrifice himself. No sooner did he do so than Samuel appeared and told him: “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue.”

This is clearly a theological reading of the failure of Saul’s kingship. According to the Deuteronomists, success comes from keeping commandments and failure from disobedience. As a prophet, Samuel speaks for God and is not to be questioned. Also, implicit in the story is the assumption that success in battle depends on ritual rather than on strategy or force of arms, but the efficacy of the ritual depends on the obedience of the performer. It does not matter to the Deuteronomist that half the army is deserting. The important thing is that Samuel must be obeyed, and the sacrifice must be offered properly. Saul’s action, in this episode, is not arrogant or unreasonable. He waits seven days, the time indicated by Samuel, but he is a pragmatist. In the circumstances, his judgment seems unduly harsh.

The clash between Saul and Samuel can also be viewed in less theological terms. There is a blatant conflict of interest between the two men as to which of them is ultimately in control. Samuel seems unwilling to yield power to the younger man. He seems to set Saul up in this incident, by arriving late, and refusing to acknowledge the problem he had posed for Saul. All of this is plausible psychologically, although we have no way to verify whether it has any historical basis.

There is also a conflict between two theologies in this story. Samuel represents an ethic of unconditional obedience, while Saul represents a moderate pragmatism. From the viewpoint of the Deuteronomists, the trouble with kings was that they took things into their own hands instead of deferring to the word of God as revealed by the prophets. But the word of God is always mediated by human agents who have their own interests in the proceedings. In this case, the word of God, as pronounced by Samuel, confirms the authority of Samuel over Saul. The claims of figures like Samuel to speak for God must be viewed with some suspicion in view of their own interests.

The Amalekites

The conflict between Saul and Samuel is resumed in chapter 15.  Samuel orders Saul to attack Amalek and slaughter every man, woman, and child, and even the animals. This is called the herem, or ban, which is invoked a few times in the Book of Joshua. The slaughtered victims are considered as sacrificed to a god. The custom is attested outside of Israel in ancient Moab, on the Moabite stone, erected in the ninth century by King Mesha, who boasted that he took Nebo from Israel and slaughtered all the inhabitants, “for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.” One practical implication is that no one can take booty for himself. The ritualized slaughter enhances the sense of solidarity in the group perpetrating the killing. It is uncertain whether this practice was actually implemented in ancient Israel. Some of the instances in the Book of Joshua, such as the capture of Jericho, are clearly fictional. In the case of the Amalekites, the slaughter is said to be punishment for the fact that the Amalekites had opposed Israel when it came up out of Egypt. The herem or ban could also be undertaken on human initiative. In Num 21:1-3, the Israelites respond to a setback at Arad by making a vow to the Lord that “if you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.” The fulfillment of the promise shows that people as well as property were involved. If the custom seems brutal, even savage, we would do well to remember that modern warfare is hardly less savage, and perpetrates destruction on a much larger scale. This is not to lessen the offence of the herem. The fact that modern warfare may be even worse does not excuse the savagery of biblical slaughter. Neither does the fact that some of the incidents are fictional lessen the offence. What is shocking to the modern reader is that the herem is allegedly demanded by God. We cannot suppress the suspicion that the human desire for bloodshed is foisted onto God. The case of the herem should give us pause before we accept something as a divine command just because it is reported as such in the Bible.

Saul partially complies with Samuel’s command, but spares the king and the best of the animals to offer them as a formal sacrifice to the Lord. Saul apparently thought that he was complying with the spirit of Samuel’s command, but that he had some discretion as to exactly how he should fulfill it. Samuel, however, is not satisfied. “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,” he asks, “as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). The prophet Hosea likewise says, in the name of the Lord: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Hosea and Samuel agree that sacrifice is no substitute for right conduct, but they have different views as to what right conduct entails. For Hosea, it is steadfast love and the knowledge of God. For Samuel, everything comes down to obedience. He proceeds to hew the king, whom Saul had held back for sacrifice, in pieces.

Here again, the story suggests a power struggle between Saul and Samuel. Saul’s transgression was not flagrant. He claimed, credibly enough, that he was abiding by the spirit of the command. Yet he does not challenge Samuel’s authority, or his claim to speak for God. He confesses that he has sinned and asks for pardon (15:24-25). But there is no pardon forthcoming. Samuel tells him that he has rejected the word of the Lord, and that the Lord has therefore rejected him from being king. This was the last encounter between Saul and Samuel. We are told that Samuel grieved for Saul (15:35) but he seems to be upset because he could not control Saul rather than out of genuine sympathy for him. The Lord, too, we are told, was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. (In Gen 6:6 the Lord was sorry that he had made humanity on earth). There is a certain irony in the Lord’s regret in 1 Samuel 15. Just a few verses earlier, in 15:29, when Samuel told Saul that the Lord had torn the kingdom from him, he added: “Moreover, the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.” Yet we find that he does change his mind about the choice of Saul as king. The God of Hebrew Scripture is not as immutable as Samuel makes him out to be.

Should Jonathan die?

The two stories of conflict between Saul and Samuel in 1 Samuel 13 and 15 frame another story that is indicative of changing values. In a battle against the Philistines, Saul laid an oath on the troops, cursing any man who tasted food before the enemy was defeated. (Recall the oath of Jephthah in Judges 11, which also seeks to influence the outcome of a battle by making a promise to God). Saul’s son Jonathan was the hero of the battle up to this point, but he was unaware of the oath, and ate some honey. When he is told of the oath, Jonathan shrugs it off: “my father has troubled the land; see how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if today the troops had eaten freely of the spoil taken from their enemies” (14:29-30). His response represents a moderate pragmatism, in contrast to the traditional piety of oaths and vows. Jonathan questions the efficacy of oaths as a means of success in battle. It would be better if the troops were well fed.

In this case, Saul is cast as the defender of the ethic of obedience. He declares that if Jonathan is guilty, he must die. This story, however, ends very differently from that of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges. Jonathan is not executed. He is not saved by divine intervention, as Isaac was in Genesis 22, but by the intervention of the troops: “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he has worked with God today.” In this case, pragmatism wins out. The Deuteronomistic editor prepares the way for this outcome by declaring that Saul’s oath was rash (15:24). The oath sworn by Jephthah in Judges 11 would seem to be at least as rash, but it is not explicitly said to be so. In traditional religious practice, even rash oaths are binding.

The stories in 1 Samuel 13-15 convey a sense of a society in transition, where deference to custom and to religious authorities collides with a growing sense of pragmatism and human responsibility. The Deuteronomist clearly sides with Samuel in his conflict with Saul, but the stories are not simplistic. It is still possible to see both sides of the issues. The fact that the story of Jonathan, which affirms the pragmatic waiving of the death penalty, is sandwiched between the two stories where Saul is condemned for disobedience, allows us to deconstruct the message of the Deuteronomist, and to see that it is too simple to put all the blame on Saul.

Prophecy and kingship

The fraught relationship between Saul and Samuel is replayed many times in the later history of Israel and Judah, in confrontations between kings and prophets. The first such confrontation takes place already in 2 Samuel between David and Nathan, but Nathan is exceptional insofar as he does not simply denounce the king but gets him to pass judgment on himself. Later in the Deuteronomistic history we have the cases of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah is even more confrontational with Ahab than Samuel is with Saul. Think, for example, of the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21. In the prophetic books, Amos sets the tone in his preaching against Jeroboam II, although he does not confront the king in person. Jeremiah is relentless in his critique of the last kings of Judah. See Jeremiah 21-22. Among the prophets who were active under the monarchy, only Isaiah appears to have had a working relationship with the king of the day.

The stories of Saul and Samuel represent the Deuteronomists’ view of the problematic relationship between kings and prophets. In all the later cases, there is some substantive issue of justice involved. Nathan accosts David over the murder of Uriah the Hittite. Elijah confronts Ahab over the murder of Naboth. Jeremiah accuses Jehoiakim of making his neighbors work for nothing and not giving them their wages. In the case of Samuel and Saul, however, the only issue is obedience. No doubt, the Deuteronomist would have considered murder and social injustice as violations of the Law, but the prophets do not usually frame their accusations in those terms, but focus on the substance of the charge. The Deuteronomist, in 1 Samuel, frames the issue in more formal theological terms, in accordance with his belief that failure to obey the Law was what led to the downfall of the monarchy.

Further Reading:

McCarter, First Samuel, 222-71.

D. M. Gunn, The Fate of King Saul (Sheffield: JSOT, 1980).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Should obedience to a religious authority always take precedence over pragmatic considerations?
  2. Are oaths and vows always binding, regardless of the consequences?
  3. What should be the role of a prophet over against the leaders and rulers of a people?



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

IV. The Rise of David

Our introduction to David comes in three forms. First are the allusions at the end of Saul’s reign to the king that will succeed him: the one to whom God will give the kingdom that he has torn from Saul; as God puts it to Samuel, “a man after my own heart.” Through these oblique references, we are prepared, as readers, for the rise of a new leader in Israel, superior to Saul in worth. The description of David as a “man after God’s own heart” makes its way also into the New Testament, where it is cemented in Christian tradition as the description of David, the ancestor and forerunner of Jesus. (It should be remembered, however, that the notion of Jesus as being of the Davidic line is merely the early Christian appropriation or continuation of the ancient Jewish tradition, beginning already in the later books of the Hebrew Bible, that the messiah would represent the renewal of the Davidic monarchy.)

The second introduction to David comes in 1 Samuel 16, the story of Samuel going to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to find and anoint the new king of Israel. This story is, in essence, the Cinderella story: the prophet arrives, and is presented with each of Jesse’s sons in descending order of age. Each is declared inappropriate, until there are none left—none except the youngest, who is out with the flock. When David is brought in, Samuel declares him the Lord’s chosen, and proceeds to anoint him, albeit in secret. We then pivot to the court of Saul, where, just as David is invested with the spirit of the Lord, an evil spirit from God descends upon Saul. By seeming happenstance, one of Saul’s advisors knows of a young man—David—who can play the lyre to soothe Saul’s spirit. David is brought to Saul, comforts him with music, and is taken into Saul’s service permanently, as the king’s arms-bearer.

This episode serves as the first step in the longstanding tradition that David composed the psalms: here we have the future king established as a musician. The image of David with the lyre is one that appears regularly in art, although most often in depictions of David as the aged king playing the lyre upon his throne. It should be noted, however, that it says nowhere here, nor in fact anywhere else, that David actually composed the psalms. Later in the book of Chronicles we are told that David arranged for the singing of cultic hymns in the future Temple; again, it does not say that David wrote the psalmic liturgy, only that he was responsible for initiating it as part of Israel’s worship. The text to which tradition usually turns for proof of Davidic authorship of the psalms is the psalms themselves, many of which—73 of the 150 in the Hebrew Bible—bear a superscription commonly translated as “A psalm of David.” Yet scholars have long recognized that the Hebrew preposition rendered as “of” in the phrase “of David” can have many meanings, but “written by” is not one of them. The phrase “a psalm of David” may well have originally meant something more like “a psalm about David,” or perhaps “a psalm of the royal court,” in which “David” stands for the monarchy. It is clear that these superscriptions are not original to the psalms to which they are now attached: the Septuagint has more such superscriptions than the Hebrew text; the Dead Sea Scrolls also have more. (In fact, both the Greek text and the Dead Sea Scrolls contain psalms, even ones with the Davidic superscription that are not in the Hebrew at all.) The psalms were an open and expanding corpus well into the late first millennium BCE, and the David superscriptions were likewise later and expanding additions to the corpus.

Our third introduction to David comes in the story of Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, undoubtedly the most famous narrative about David’s life in the entire Bible. It is evident that this narrative is of a separate origin from that of the anointing and lyre-playing in the previous chapter. The Goliath story reintroduces us to David and his family, as if we had not met them all before. It begins with David back home with his father, rather than at the side of Saul—even though Saul, being in battle against the Philistines, presumably would have needed his trusty arms-bearer. Most strikingly, at the end of the chapter, Saul reveals that he has no idea who this young man is: he asks his general, Abner, “whose son is this?” and Abner likewise doesn’t know. At the end of the Goliath story, Saul sends word to Jesse that he will be taking David into his service permanently—precisely as he did at the end of the preceding chapter.

What we have, therefore, is a doublet: two stories that begin and end in the same places (David with his father to begin, and David in Saul’s service at the end), and that serve the same narrative function: to get David into Saul’s court, where he will proceed to make a name for himself. Whether either is true is perhaps somewhat beside the point: the biblical authors use these stories to make clear that David is worthy of the throne, whether through secret anointing or, in the Goliath story, through stepping into the king’s role as the champion of his people, fighting the giant while Saul quivers on the sidelines, and proclaiming one of the great lines in the Bible: “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts.”

That said, there is also good reason to think that the Goliath story may well be fiction, or at least highly fictionalized. The problem is not the presence of a giant—in the Hebrew text Goliath stands over nine feet tall, but in the (probably more accurate) Greek version he is just over six feet: tall, especially for that time and place, but not unnaturally so. The problem with the Goliath story is that, according to the Bible, someone else actually killed Goliath. Later in the David narrative we are presented with a list of David’s warriors, each of which, in a style reminiscent of Homer, is described with a one-verse narrative about his great martial exploits. Among these is Elhanan, from Bethlehem—David’s hometown—who, we are told, killed Goliath the Gittite, whose spear had a shaft like a weaver’s beam. It is safe to assume that no author thought it appropriate to take David’s most famous triumph and ascribe it (in highly abbreviated form) to a character who never again appears in the story; it makes far more sense that someone took a brief account of a relative nobody and expanded it to become the shining moment of David’s early military career. (Amusingly, the author of Chronicles recognized this problem and solved it by telling us that Elhanan did not kill Goliath, but rather the brother of Goliath—who similarly had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s beam.)

These two opening chapters of the David story serve an important narrative purpose, one that colors all the events that follow. We know, by the time Samuel is done anointing him and David is done killing Goliath that this young man will be the next king of Israel. We thus read everything else that happens in this light, and with this expectation—even though, in fact, the ascent of David to the throne is entirely unexpected in historical terms. He is not of the royal line; he is a nobody from a small backwater town. In the ancient world, such a person could become king only via usurpation, or a coup. This is, of course, not the story that the Bible presents. David was anointed by God’s prophet—thus, when Saul has died on the battlefield, we are not surprised when the wandering Amalekite who plunders Saul’s crown proceeds to bring it to none other than David. But we should be surprised, as perhaps many Israelites living at the time were, that David should become king after Saul. These opening chapters prepare us for this unusual eventuality.

Once David is ensconced in Saul’s court, the story immediately goes down two divergent paths. On one side, we have Saul who is insanely jealous of David’s successes and repeatedly attempts to kill him, certain that David is a threat to his dynastic monarchy. On the other, we have literally everyone else: Saul’s son Jonathan, Saul’s daughter Michal, the army, and the Israelites at large, all of whom, we are told repeatedly and in various ways, love David and support him.

Perhaps most remarkable of all these characters is Jonathan: the crown prince, destined by birth to be king after Saul. Of all the people in the world of the story, Jonathan is the one who should be most concerned about David’s possible challenge to Saul’s rule. And yet we are left in no doubt that Jonathan in fact is the one who loves David most of all. Over and over we are told that Jonathan loves David—and as readers, if Jonathan loves and trusts David, we are obligated to do so as well. But Jonathan does more than love his potential rival. One of Jonathan’s first acts after the defeat of Goliath is to give David his clothes and arms. This is not simply a case of friends trading baseball caps: this is the prince of Israel giving his royal clothing and his royal armor to David. The bestowal of royal garb is a symbolic abdication of Jonathan’s position in favor of David. This sense is heightened by the way that Jonathan speaks to David: deferentially, even asking David to treat him and his house with kindness once Saul is gone—as if Jonathan fully expects that David, rather than he, will become the next king.

Jonathan’s relationship with David has become a standard icon for homosexual interpretation of the Bible, and with good reason: some of the language that is used of their love is decidedly romantic rather than merely platonic. Yet the Bible does not dwell on this aspect of the story; if it is there, it is no more than an understated element of the tale. The text neither condones nor condemns homosexuality here. Rather, the focus is on the way that Jonathan stands in place of the reader, guiding us as to how we should think of David’s future kingship: as anticipated and welcomed, even by the man whose role David will be taking over.

On the flip side of the coin is Saul, whose constant attempts to kill David punctuate the entirety of David’s time in Saul’s court. Saul is very clear that he thinks David to be a threat to his kingship. He says to Jonathan, “As long as the son of Jesse lives on earth, neither you nor your kingship will be secure” (1 Sam 20:31). Saul is jealous of David’s successes on the battlefield—previously Saul’s claim to fame—and of David’s consequent popularity. All of these emotions—jealousy, suspicion, rage—are presented by the authors as utterly irrational. They are the work of the “evil spirit from the Lord” that seizes Saul. The rhetorical device being used by the biblical authors here is apparent: everyone in Israel loves David except for the one person who is explicitly marked as crazy. The possibility that David is any sort of threat is expressed solely by the man who has already proven himself unworthy and who suffers from irrational fits. In other words: if you think that David was actually trying to take the throne from Saul, you’re agreeing with the Bible’s most famous head case.

The biblical authors are not merely telling us the story of David’s time in Saul’s court. They are using this period of David’s story to make clear to us that during that time David was an honorable and loyal servant of the king, one whose successes were only in Saul’s service and who was loved by all. Indeed, one of the infrequently remarked upon aspects of this section of the story is that although everyone in Israel seems to express their love for David, at no point does David express love for anyone else, Jonathan and Michal included. We get the picture of a man who rides the waves of fortune, who arrives at his position of popularity and strength through no ambition of his own. We are ensured that David was no threat to Saul or Saul’s kingdom.

And yet, in the end, it is hard not to conclude that despite the biblical attempt to portray him as crazy, Saul’s fears could not have been more prescient. David would, in fact, become king after Saul. David would, in fact, be a threat to Saul’s descendants. It is true: as long as David lived, neither Jonathan nor his kingship were secure. Saul comes off as paranoid, but he is a good example of the adage that sometimes paranoid people are right: someone is actually out to get them.

Despite the biblical authors’ repeated and reinforced claims that David was in no way ambitious for the throne, it is a simple fact that no one in the ancient world, and perhaps no one in all of history, has become king without wanting to be king. No one stumbles onto the throne. And though the story tells us that David was anointed by Samuel, we should remember that even in the world of the story that anointing was done in secret, known only to Samuel, David, and David’s father and brothers. It is never mentioned again. Thus, we might put ourselves in the shoes of the ancient Israelite living in these times, and wondering how it is that David should have become king after Saul. It would, without knowledge of the prophetic anointing, be impossible to imagine such a thing without concluding that David had wanted it, had been ambitious for it, and had positioned himself appropriately. The chapters of the Bible that narrate David’s time in Saul’s court can be read as a response to such a conclusion: in fact, David did not want the kingship, was not ambitious for it, and simply rode the waves of fortune to the position he eventually attained. Whether we take the biblical version at face value or consider it to be a tendentious retelling depends on where we situate ourselves with respect to the nature of the Bible and the biblical record as a whole.

Further Reading:

McCarter, I Samuel, 273–345

Steven L. McKenzie, King David: A Biography (Oxford, 2000), 47–88

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How much of our understanding of David’s character is contingent on the first two chapters of his story?
  2. How would it change our perception of David if we thought that he really did want to replace Saul on the throne?
  3. How does the character of Jonathan act as a cipher for the reader?



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

V. The Character of David

The period between Saul driving David out of the royal court and Saul and Jonathan’s deaths on the battlefield at the end of 1 Samuel is the least well known part of David’s life and career. It is also the time when the characterization of David as a “man after God’s own heart” is most challenging to maintain. Under the threat of Saul’s repeated attempts to kill him, David flees to the wilderness of Judah, a geologically forbidding territory. The landscape ranges from brush-covered hills all the way down to the Dead Sea, inhospitable terrain from start to finish. This is the region to which those seeking to hide from the authorities, for various reasons, have often gravitated. This is where the rebels fled during the Jewish revolt against Rome, to Masada; where the self-proclaimed messiah Bar Kochba and his followers hid; where the Qumran community went to establish themselves in opposition to the priestly leadership in Jerusalem; where many monasteries have been built to find seclusion. We should thus not be surprised that when David arrives there, he surrounds himself with a group of unsavory characters: “everyone who was in straits and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was desperate” (1 Sam 22:2).

Although David and his men are portrayed as simply trying to survive in the wilderness, it is telling that none of the inhabitants of the scattered settlements in Judah were particularly enthusiastic about having him around. On multiple occasions, David arrives in a region only to have its inhabitants immediately inform Saul of David’s whereabouts: “If your majesty has the desire to come down, come down, and it will be our task to deliver [David] into your majesty’s hands” (1 Sam 23:20). These episodes seem to undermine to a certain extent the attempt of the biblical authors to convince us that all Israel loved David, to the point even of wanting him as king; it seems that a good portion of Israel, even David’s home territory of Judah, didn’t want him even as a neighbor.

David and his men are the closest approximation we have in the Bible to a well-known ancient Near Eastern social group known as the hapiru. Throughout the ancient Near East in the second and first millennia BCE we have reports of this group, the membership in which can be tricky to pin down. Hapiru seems to have been a word not for an ethnic collective, but rather for bands of social outcasts that organized themselves militarily. The hapiru would occasionally raid towns and cities, and sometimes were hired as mercenaries. They were almost invariably looked down on, in large part probably because they had no established homeland, or were not welcome in what had once been their native regions. This description fits David and his men very well. It should be noted that many scholars have tried to make an etymological connection between hapiru and “Hebrew,” raising the possibility that the marker “Hebrew” speaks to the semi-nomadic origins of the Israelites. Although this identification is often challenged, it is noteworthy that even in the Bible the term “Hebrew” is almost always a label used by foreigners of Israel, rather than by Israel of itself.

The story that best exemplifies this role for David and his band of ne’er-do-wells is 1 Samuel 25, the encounter with Nabal and Abigail. Nabal, we are told, is an immensely wealthy man. David sends some of his men with a message: “Your shepherds have been with us; we did not harm them, and nothing of theirs has gone missing…please give your servants and your son David whatever you can” (1 Sam 25:7–8). This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a protection racket worthy of any modern mafia. Nabal, to his credit (though also to his misfortune), declines, insulting David as a runaway slave. David’s response is equally recognizable as that of a mob boss: “David said to his men, ‘Gird on your swords’” (25:13). And David, with four hundred armed men, approach Nabal’s home, intending, even by David’s own admission, to kill Nabal and all his men. Regardless of how positively we may view David, and regardless of how desperate he and his men may be imagined to have been, this is hardly the behavior of a “man after God’s own heart.”

David, however, is spared from killing Nabal by the intervention of Abigail, Nabal’s wife, who intercepts David before he reaches the house and provides him with the goods he had requested. More than that, though: she also seems to be totally cognizant of David’s future kingship: “When the Lord has accomplished for my lord all the good he has promised you, and has appointed you ruler of Israel…” (25:30). This appears to be a reference to Samuel’s anointing of David back in chapter 16, but this is narratively impossible: no one outside of David’s immediate family, and Samuel, knows that the anointing took place, or of the divine promise that David would be king. (It is for this reason that in Jewish tradition Abigail is counted among the biblical prophetesses of Israel.) The story ends with a remarkable moment of deus ex machina: although David praises Abigail “for restraining me from seeking redress in blood by my own hands” (25:33), Nabal still dies: “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal and he died” (25:38). This pleases David: “Praised be the Lord who championed my cause against the insults of Nabal and held back his servant from wrongdoing; the Lord has brought Nabal’s wrongdoing down on his own head” (25:39). As a denouement, Abigail, upon the death of Nabal, agrees to become David’s wife, and leaves her home to accompany him in the wilderness.

This story is unusual for several reasons. Foremost, perhaps, is the direct divine intervention into the narrative, which is almost unique in the David story. Abigail’s apparent knowledge of David’s anointing is equally interesting. Both contribute to the aim of the biblical authors here: to remind us that David is the hero (and Nabal the enemy); and that despite his ostensible inclinations, David was not at all responsible for the death of Nabal—even though, at the end of the story, Nabal is dead; and David is walking away with all of Nabal’s possessions including Abigail.

In 1 Samuel 24 and 26 we find two parallel stories, so close as to really be considered doublets. These are the stories of David coming upon Saul when the king is at a moment of vulnerability, when David, given the chance to kill the king and be rid of the pursuit once and for all, declines to do so, instead taking something from Saul—a piece of his cloak, his spear—as proof of his noble intentions. The purpose of these stories is abundantly clear: to ensure that Saul, and perhaps even more so the reader, knows without a doubt that David has no interest in regicide. “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my lord—the Lord’s anointed—that I should raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed” (24:6). “The Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed!” (26:11).

It should be remembered that the Bible is not an eyewitness real-time report. When these stories were written, David had become king, and Saul had died. The narratives clearly recognize this eventuality, even having David allude to it in advance: “May the Lord judge between you and me! May he take vengeance upon you for me, but my hand will never touch you” (24:12). “As the Lord lives, the Lord himself will strike him down, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go down to battle and perish” (26:10). The biblical authors seem to be responding again here to what may well have been a popular perception of how Saul died—that is, at the hands of David, who, after all, became king in his place. We have here two stories that stress, to the point of redundancy, that David did not want to kill Saul—and that when Saul died, it would be by God’s hands, not by David’s. In a sense, the authors’ stress on this point is what drives the perceptive reader to wonder whether there might not be some truth to the perception that David was, at least partially, responsible for Saul’s death. At the very least, the way that the story is told suggests that there were some contemporaries of David or of the authors, who thought that to be the case.

Perhaps the most striking and unexpected moment of David’s time in the wilderness comes in 1 Samuel 27, when, faced with the constant pursuits of Saul, David and his men decide that their best plan of action is to offer themselves as vassal mercenaries of Israel’s greatest enemy: the Philistines. From almost any perspective, this is borderline unthinkable. Since the time of the judges, the Philistines had been a constant threat to the very existence of Israel. Saul was recognized as king over Israel almost entirely because he was able to fight off the Philistine advances and protect Israel’s territory. David himself became famous by defeating the Philistines in the battle against Goliath. And yet here is Israel’s greatest hero, going over to the enemy side and offering his services, which are happily accepted by King Achish of Gath (the very hometown of Goliath).

In scholarship on the historical Jesus, scholars developed certain criteria for which parts of the story could be taken as containing at least some historical veracity. One of those is known as the “criterion of embarrassment”: the idea being that if someone were to invent the story from whole cloth, they never would have included an episode that was so embarrassing to the protagonist. If the story has the main character doing something that seems at odds with what we might expect from a national hero, then it is likely that there is a grain of truth in it. David working for the Philistines—not just for a few days, but for nearly a year and a half—is just such an episode. Many scholars maintain that there was no historical David, that he was merely an invention of a later Israelite community, a purely fictional founding figure. This aspect of his story, however, stands as strong evidence to the contrary. Who, inventing a founding hero from scratch, would have him go work for Israel’s arch-enemy? We can be almost certain that David did in fact spend time among the Philistines.

It was, in fact, while David was in the employ of the Philistines that Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle against those selfsame Philistines. The Bible goes to great lengths to show that despite being a Philistine vassal David was not anywhere near the battlefield when Saul and Jonathan fell. And yet it is hard to believe that he had no part in their deaths—especially because days later Saul’s crown was, literally, in David’s hands.

After Saul’s death, the argument for David’s lack of ambition for the throne evaporates from the narrative. Starting at the beginning of 2 Samuel, David is nothing but ambition: having himself crowned as king of Judah, then waging a war of aggression against the remnants of Saul’s kingdom in the north, held by Saul’s general Abner and Saul’s son Ishboshet, and eventually becoming king over all Israel, north and south. At almost every step along the way, people around David—Saul, Jonathan, Abner, and Ishboshet, not to mention Nabal—die violently, always to David’s clear material benefit. Yet in every instance, David is narratively absolved of the deaths. Sometimes this absolution is a bit heavy-handed, especially in the case of Abner. In 2 Samuel 3, Abner comes to David to make peace. Upon the conclusion of their conversation, we are told, “David dismissed Abner, who went away unharmed” (2 Sam 3:21). The next verse reminds us that “Abner was no longer with David in Hebron, for he had been dismissed and had gone away unharmed” (3:22). The next verse has Joab, David’s general, arriving to discover “that Abner son of Ner had come to the king, had been dismissed by him, and had gone away unharmed” (3:23). When Abner is killed by Joab, therefore, we can be sure that David had nothing to do with it. And if we weren’t sure already, the biblical authors go on to have David say it: “Both I and my kingdom are forever innocent before the Lord of shedding the blood of Abner son of Ner. May the guilt fall upon the head of Joab” (3:28–29). And if that weren’t enough, the authors say it again: “That day all the troops and all Israel knew that it was not by the king’s will that Abner son of Ner was killed” (3:37). This chapter is the ultimate example of the biblical authors protesting too much. By the time they have finished repeating themselves, the savvy reader can be fairly certain that David had everything to do with Abner’s death, even if he didn’t wield the sword himself.

Once he has gained the throne, the next few chapters of David’s story in 2 Samuel concentrate (except for 2 Samuel 7 dealt with in the next session) on David’s accomplishments as king: his conquest of Jerusalem and establishment of the City of David, the installation of the Ark of the Covenant there, and David’s successes in war against Israel’s neighbors by which the borders of Israel were expanded. For the most part, these chapters are narrated in a relatively straightforward manner, and are not among the most often read or well-loved of the David saga. Yet it is in these chapters, with these acts, that David cemented his legacy in history. The combination of Judah and Israel into a single nation, though it lasted only two generations before reverting to its traditional split, created an idea of Israel that lasted up to the present. Whenever we think of Israel as it is currently shaped, we are thinking of the Israel that David created. Indeed, whenever the Bible refers to the twelve tribes of Israel or to any combination of Judah with the other tribes that is a reflex of David’s kingdom and could not have been even conceived of before David. When we think of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as the world’s holiest city, that too is David’s doing. These royal accomplishments are what sealed David as the founder of Israel in so many respects.

It is worth asking, then, as we consider David’s character: to what extent is our appreciation of David contingent not on what he did, but on how he went about it? If we suspect that David may not have been a “man after God’s own heart,” does that negate what he actually accomplished for Israel, for history, for us?

Further Reading:

McCarter, I Samuel, 354–444

McCarter, II Samuel, 55–276

McKenzie, King David, 89–152

Questions for Reflection:

  1. To what extent is David’s character explained by situating him in the context of the real-world ancient Near East?
  2. How important is it to understand the bias of the biblical authors, beyond the simple retelling of the story, in reading the Bible, here and everywhere?
  3. What aspect of David’s life is most important? What he accomplished, or who he was as a person? How is the answer to this related to the Christian tradition that David was an ancestor of and model for Jesus?



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

VI. David and the Kingship

The rise of David reaches its climax in 2 Samuel 5, when he is proclaimed king over all Israel at Hebron. He quickly moves to capture the city of Jerusalem, which was still in the hands of the Jebusites. Jerusalem was built on a hill. The Jebusites boasted that even the blind and the lame could defend it. David sent men up the water shaft to penetrate the defenses. Jerusalem was an ideal capital for David, since it was easy to defend, and it was not previously associated with any Israelite tribe. It now became known as the City of David.

David proceeds to link Jerusalem with Israelite tradition by bringing up the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was the traditional symbol of the presence of Yahweh. Its presence in Jerusalem made the old Jebusite city the focus of Israelite worship. David dances ecstatically before the ark, in an ostentatious display of his piety. His wife Michal, daughter of Saul, rebukes him for exposing himself in the presence of his servants, and David promptly rejects her. He had married Michal to form an alliance with the house of Saul, but Saul and his family had lost their political relevance. David did not lack for marital company. He had taken more concubines and wives after his acclamation as king at Hebron.

The Promise to David

2 Samuel 7 is a key passage, not only in the Deuteronomistic History but in the whole Hebrew Bible. In this chapter, David receives a promise from the Lord that will serve as the foundation charter of his dynasty, and will ultimately become the basis of messianic hope in both Judaism and Christianity.

David was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies. The Lord, however, had no temple, but only a tent-shrine. Accordingly, David worried that his own house of cedar was grander than the shrine of the Lord. Kings in the ancient Near East often boasted of founding temples. It is an anomaly that David failed to do so. This story provides an explanation, and implicitly an apology for David. David, we are told, wanted to build a temple, but the Lord, through the prophet Nathan, let him know that he did not want one: “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought the people of Israel up from Egypt.” Instead, the Lord offers to build David a house, in the sense of a dynasty. His son will reign after him. While his descendants will be punished for their iniquities, the kingdom will not be taken away from them as it was from Saul: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; you throne shall be established forever” (7:16).

The play on the double sense of “house” is central to this oracle. David may not build a house, or temple, for Yahweh, but God will build a house, or dynasty, for David. It was not unusual in the ancient Near East for the founder of a dynasty to build a temple for his patron god. The anomaly here is that God rejects the offer. One might suppose that the passage is written to explain why it is Solomon, rather than David, who builds the temple. But 7:13a, which says of David’s son that “he shall build a house for my name,” is widely recognized as a secondary insertion. Not only does it interrupt a passage about the future kingdom, but it is marked as an insertion by a technique called “repetitive resumption,” – the phrase that immediately precedes the insertion is essentially repeated after it: “I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” The idea that the temple is a house for Yahweh’s name is a trademark of Deuteronomistic theology. It would seem, then, that a Deuteronomistic editor inserted the reference to Solomon building the temple, and that the basic oracle was older. It should also be noted that the Deuteronomist provides a different explanation for David’s failure to build the temple in 1 Kgs 5:3-4: “David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him.” The premise of the oracle in 2 Samuel 7 is that the Lord had given David rest from his enemies.

The oracle is a virtual charter document for the Davidic dynasty, and it was presumably promulgated and transmitted by the royal court. Some scholars have argued for a date in the time of David, before Solomon built the temple, on the grounds that the oracle rejects the proposal to build a temple. Such an early date is not strictly necessary. The oracle does not reject the idea of a temple in perpetuity. There had already been a “house of God” at Shiloh, but it either was or contained a tent shrine. The temple proposed by David, and eventually built by Solomon, was of a different order. In fact, it made practical sense for David to refrain from building a new, elaborate, temple. He had just conquered Jerusalem, a traditional Canaanite (Jebusite) city. He had moved the tent-shrine to his new capital, but had not altered the shrine itself. David needed to maintain continuity with the traditional cult of the tribes. A temple could be built a generation later, when the Israelites had gotten used to the monarchy and its new capital in Jerusalem.

The role of the Deuteronomistic editors in the composition of 2 Samuel 7 is controversial. On the one hand, the promise to David is certainly important for the Deuteronomistic view of Israel’s history. Also, despite the tension with 1 Kings 5, the notion of “rest” is typically Deuteronomistic. Compare Deut 12:10 (“When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around . . .”). So is the statement that God “brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt” (7:6), and the reference to the period of the Judges. Accordingly, some scholars argue that 2 Samuel 7 is simply a Deuteronomistic composition, although it may have been composed in stages, or had secondary insertions. The idea that the kingdom would last forever cannot have originated after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, but it could have been part of a composition in the time of King Josiah, a few decades earlier. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the Deuteronomists would have invented an unconditional promise that the kingdom would last forever. In Deuteronomistic theology, covenants are conditional. The success of the king depends on his observance of the Law. The idea that God had promised David an everlasting dynasty by the oracle of Nathan was probably an established tradition in Jerusalem long before the time of the Deuteronomists. The formulation of the promise in 2 Samuel 7, however, has been edited by the Deuteronomists, possibly in more than one stage.

The Davidic covenant

While 2 Samuel 7 is often called the Davidic covenant, the word covenant is not actually used in this chapter. (God’s promise to David is called a promise in Ps 89:3). The oracle is more accurately described as a divine promise. The nearest biblical analogy is provided by the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, which also has the form of an unconditional grant. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, and that he would give them the land between Nile and the Euphrates. All that was required of Abraham was that he believe, or trust, in the promise. David is not given any specific commandments either. Nathan’s oracle provides for punishment if the king misbehaves: “When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love away from him as I took it from Saul (7:14-15). Punishment for transgression is in line with Deuteronomic theology, but we find similar provisions in ancient Near Eastern treaties, which sometimes provide that even if a king is executed his son might be allowed to succeed him.

The relationship between God and the king is defined in 2 Samuel 7 as that of father and son: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Sam 7:14). There is no suggestion that the king does not have a human father. The relationship is presumably one of adoption. Egyptian royal ideology made a stronger claim that the king was begotten by a god, and was in fact the incarnation of the god Horus. The king of Judah is said to be begotten by God in Psalm 2:7, and is even addressed as “god” (elohim) in Psalm 45. The Deuteronomistic formulation in 2 Samuel 7 acknowledges the tradition of divine sonship, but demythologizes it somewhat by suggesting that the king could be chastised. The idea that sons should be chastised is a favorite theme of the Book of Proverbs.

Messianic hope

The Davidic dynasty lasted for some 400 years, but it did not last forever. It was ended by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. For a time, there was hope that a king from the line of David would be restored, but that hope gradually faded. This gave rise to a situation of cognitive dissonance, a discrepancy between how things actually were and how they were supposed to be. As a result, the hope arose that God would redress the situation, at some indefinite time. “The days are surely coming,” says Jeremiah, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely” (Jer 23:5). A later addition to the Book of Jeremiah reflects the frustration caused by the fact that this oracle was not fulfilled. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David . . .” (Jer 33:14-15). And what time is that? God’s good time, which is not known to humanity. The Branch of David who would eventually arise is called the messiah, or anointed one. In Jewish expectation, his primary role would be to restore the kingdom of Judah or Israel.

There is very little messianic expectation in the later books of the Hebrew Bible. It was not at all a factor in the Maccabean revolt. The early apocalyptic writings, in the books of Daniel and Enoch, place their hopes in a heavenly deliverer, such as the archangel Michael. There was a resurgence of messianic belief in the first century BCE. This was partly in reaction to the Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees, who had set themselves up as kings although they were not descended from David. It was partly in reaction to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BCE. The hope was for a messiah who would be a warrior king and drive the Romans out of Judea. The renewed messianic expectation is attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls and some other non-canonical Jewish writings, such as the Psalms of Solomon. It is impossible to say how widespread this expectation was. It was probably variable, in the sense that it rose in some situations and subsided in others. The followers of Jesus claimed that the promise to David was fulfilled in him. Jesus did not, however, restore the kingdom of Israel as the messiah was supposed to do, and so his followers came to believe that he would come again to complete his work.

The Davidic king could be called “messiah,” or anointed one, as he is in Psalm 2:2, and could also be regarded as the Son of God. He was not, however, a messianic figure in the eschatological sense, and he was clearly a human being, even if he was exalted above other human beings. These titles took on new significance in early Christianity. The messiah came to be regarded as a unique individual, rather than as someone who would restore the kingship, and Son of God took on an ontological connation, and was also taken to refer uniquely to one figure. Nonetheless, the title “Christ” is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew mashiach, or anointed one, and the idea that Jesus was Son of God was entailed by the belief that he was the messiah.

David himself is not transformed by the promise. He remains a fallible, sinful, human being, but he also remains an engaging and sympathetic figure. It is the merit of 2 Samuel that it depicts David not just as a figurehead for the kingship but as a creature of flesh and blood.

Further Reading:

McCarter, 2 Samuel, 190-241.

Adela Y. Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 1-33.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Why did David not build a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem?
  2. What was the nature of the covenant between the Lord and David? What was required of David?
  3. How far, and in what sense, was the promise to David fulfilled?



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

VII. Bathsheba

After David and Goliath, probably the most famous story about David is his affair with Bathsheba, the beautiful woman he sees bathing on the roof. This episode, in 2 Samuel 11–12, marks a significant pivot in David’s life: his rocket-like rise to power is interrupted by his most flagrant abuse of that power, and his reign is never the same again.

The story begins by setting us in the time of the year when kings typically go out to battle, which is to say, the spring, after the rainy season has passed. David, however, does not go to war, but stays at home, letting his general Joab go and fight the Ammonites on his behalf. In his free time, with his warriors all off at battle, David happens to be wandering on his roof, surveying his city, when he sees a woman bathing. This is no innocuous detail: bathing was not just for cleanliness, but for purification. Women would bathe upon the conclusion of their seven-day purification period following menstruation. This ritual bath marked the beginning of a woman’s period of highest fertility. Thus, when David sends for her and sleeps with her, we are already on notice that she is likely to have become pregnant from the encounter.

When David is informed that Bathsheba is pregnant, he sends for her husband, Uriah—who is one of David’s chief warriors, and is fighting alongside Joab in Ammon. David invites him to the palace, where the king instructs the soldier to “go down to your house and wash your feet” (11:8). Washing the feet is a well-known euphemism for having sex; thus, David here is encouraging Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, in the hopes that her pregnancy will be attributed to her husband, rather than to the adulterous king. Had Uriah followed David’s instructions, no one would have known that the child was David’s, and his affair with Bathsheba would have been a one-time event of no consequence. But Uriah, it turns out, is far nobler than David: he refuses to go to his home: “The Ark and Israel and Judah are located at Succoth, and my master Joab and your majesty’s men are camped in the open; how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife?” Despite repeated efforts on David’s part, Uriah maintains his stance, and avoids Bathsheba entirely. We can see that Uriah here is being presented as a foil to David. While David stays home from war and sleeps with whomever he likes, Uriah abstains from sex even with his wife, desiring only to be where his fellow soldiers are.

David then decides that the only course of action is to have Uriah killed. He sends Uriah back to the battlefield with a message for Joab, instructing Joab to put Uriah in the front lines during an assault, then have the army fall back and leave Uriah exposed. (That is, Uriah carries his own death sentence with him, an aspect of the story that only highlights David’s brutality.) This is indeed what happens, and when the messenger returns with the news that some men, including Uriah, had been killed, David’s response is heartless: “The sword consumes this one and that one.” In other words, David was willing to let innocent men die in order to cover up his ordered murder of Uriah, yet another innocent man.

David takes Bathsheba into his palace and makes her his wife—one of his many wives, not counting his many concubines as well. She then bears David a son, which precipitates the arrival of the prophet Nathan to teach David a well-deserved lesson. He tells David the parable of the poor man and his beloved lamb, which is stolen from him by a rich man who had no need of it. Among the most famous lines from the David story is the one that Nathan the prophet delivers upon the conclusion of his parable of the poor man’s lamb. Having convinced David that the rich man in the parable should be punished for his treatment of the poor man, Nathan rounds on David: “You are the man!” (12:7). It is an interesting aspect of David’s character that while the Bible goes to great lengths to exculpate him from blame in so many moments, he is equally unable to recognize when he has actually done something wrong. Repeatedly, and most prominently in this case, David has to think that the story is about someone else before he is able to see where the fault lies. He learns his lessons only in parables.

The parable is followed by the oracle of punishment that Nathan levels against David. Because David evidently thought that everything he had—everything that God had given him—was not enough, God will take away what he had once given. “I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes” (12:11). David recognizes his guilt— “I stand guilty before the Lord!” (12:13)—and Nathan tells David that the king himself will not die as punishment for his crimes. Rather, the child that Bathsheba bore will die in David’s place.

Embedded in this prophecy is a recognition of the course of historical events: David, despite what he did with Bathsheba and to Uriah, did not die immediately afterward, or even for a long time afterward. Yet the biblical concept of “eye for an eye” demands that someone die for the murder of Uriah. Perhaps the Bible invokes here the well-established concept of transgenerational punishment here: that the sins of the fathers are imposed on the sons, a longstanding mechanism for explaining how, on the one hand, those that sin seem to live long and fruitful lives, while those who seem innocent are afflicted for no apparent reason. Whatever the case, there is a definitive moral quandary presented by this story: we must reckon with the death of a complete innocent, a child too young even to be named.

The moral problem here is somewhat mitigated in the text by the remarkable period of mourning that David undertakes: not after the child has died, but while the child is still alive. David fasts for seven days in the hope of persuading God to relent, but to no avail. When the child does actually die, David does the opposite of what is expected: he gets up, bathes, anoints himself, changes his clothes, and proceeds to begin eating again. He explains to his servants the reason for his strange behavior: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may have pity on me, and the child may live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will never come back to me.” This is one of the most heart-rending passages in the entire Bible, and an acute description of the suffering endured by those who experience the sickness and death of a child. Yet underlying it is the recognition that the child did not deserve to die at all. It is hard to avoid the image here of a vengeful and capricious deity, one who exhibits as little regard for innocent life in punishment as David did in the original commission of the instigating sin.

Before Nathan’s arrival, the story seems to be intended to explain the paternity of Bathsheba’s child. Indeed, all the emphasis to this point is on how the child could in no way be Uriah’s. We might expect, then, that this is the birth story of Solomon, for whom, more than perhaps anyone else, authenticating his Davidic paternity would be an important issue. Yet it turns out that this is not the case at all. After the unnamed child dies, as Nathan foretold, David and Bathsheba have a second child: this is Solomon. His birth is narrated in a single verse (12:24). He will disappear from the story entirely, along with Bathsheba and Nathan, until the beginning of the book of Kings.

There is something suspicious about this, which has led some scholars to argue that what we have here is a story in two layers: one in which there was but one child born to Bathsheba, and one who lived: Solomon. This would account for the emphasis on paternity, which is, after all, a concern for the dynastic lineage. This original tale would have jumped directly from David taking Bathsheba into his palace at the end of chapter 11 to the notice of Solomon’s birth in the second half of 12:24: “She bore a son and she named him Solomon.” The parable of Nathan and the death of the first child (and the introduction of the idea of a second son) would have been added later, perhaps as a means of explaining how it was that David could have simply gotten away with such a hideous crime, perhaps to justify the subsequent revolt of Absalom and decline of David’s power, and perhaps to further ensure that there could be no doubt about Solomon’s paternity: if he is the second son, he is absolutely David’s.

As with some other parts of the David story we have discussed to this point, the criterion of embarrassment may be applied here. We can once again ask the question: if an author were inventing the David story altogether, would this episode be in it? Surely not. Indeed, we have at our disposal something quite close to proof along these lines. At the end of the fifth century BCE, the book of Chronicles was written. Some six hundred years after David lived; the authors of Chronicles were under no constraints to tell the story of David in accord with what actually happened, or in response to what any of David’s contemporaries were saying about the king. They had complete freedom to write the David story as they saw fit, to extol David as a nearly perfect king. And thus, we should not be surprised that, according to Chronicles, the Bathsheba affair never happened. In 1 Chronicles 20, we see the almost verbatim repetition of the beginning of the Bathsheba story: the notice that at the time when kings typically go out to battle, David stayed home while Joab when to fight for him (1 Chr 20:1). What follows is not the Bathsheba story, however—the narrative jumps right to the end of 2 Samuel 12, to the defeat of Ammon and David’s seizing of the crown of the Ammonite king (1 Chr 20:1–2//2 Sam 12:26–30). In fact, Chronicles tells none of the potentially embarrassing aspects of the David story: there is no flight from Saul, no time in the wilderness, no Nabal and Abigail, no service to the Philistines. There is no Goliath story either, nor any war against the descendants of Saul. Chronicles presents a whitewashed David, a perfected David. This is what it looks like when an author is not beholden to certain evidently well-known facts about David. In contrast, we can see how the authors of the books of Samuel are forced to admit certain facts about David, while simultaneously trying to spin them in David’s favor.

The Bathsheba episode is unique in the David story. Although many people die around David, as we have seen, he is never held responsible for any of their deaths—except for Uriah’s. And although every single one of those deaths materially benefits David in his quest for power, Uriah’s is the prominent exception. It is this combination of unusual responsibility and purely personal agenda that makes the story so resonant. What we see here is a king at the very height of his power falling into the all too frequent trap of abusing that power for his own desires. In modern America, this trope is immediately recognizable, in the easy examples of Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, and so many others.

For many readers over the millennia, the Bathsheba episode has served to humanize David, to make him, if not a role model, then at least a biblical figure with identifiably human tendencies and faults. There is some irony in this: the rest of the biblical account of David seems to try quite strenuously to make it clear that David did not in fact have such faults, not even the fault of ambition. Yet here David is undoubtedly to blame. This is the only moment when God directly castigates David for his actions. And it marks the beginning of David’s slow decline. As Nathan says, “The sword shall never depart from your house” (12:10). From this point forward, David will not sit peacefully on the throne but will have to fight to maintain it with all of his power.

Further Reading:

McCarter, II Samuel, 277–313

McKenzie, King David, 153–61

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Although we may all admit that the episode with Bathsheba paints David in a bad light, to what extent does it contribute to the humanizing of this biblical hero? Can we imagine a David without the flaws evident in this story?
  2. What are the moral implications of the death of David and Bathsheba’s firstborn son?
  3. Why is such an entirely accusatory story included in the narrative of David’s life?



Yale Bible Study

The Books of Samuel

VIII. David’s Decline

Although the David narrative reads as a continuous story for nearly two books of the Bible, it tends to lurch somewhat from theme to theme. The opening chapters are about David and Saul (and Saul’s family), in which David is pure success; then there is the period in the wilderness, where David struggles somewhat and is forced to take desperate measures; then the establishing of his monarchy, containing his accomplishments as a statesman and the consolidation and growth of his power; then the Bathsheba interlude where his power is abused. Now, in the final chapters of his story, we are introduced rather suddenly to David’s sons, who have gone entirely unmentioned until now. Many scholars identify this portion of the narrative as a once-independent literary piece, known as the Succession Narrative, as it deals primarily with the question of how Solomon came to succeed David on the throne: through the progressive elimination of his older brothers. Whether this theory is correct or not, the recognition that these chapters are about the issue of dynastic succession is surely accurate. We may also note that the eventuality of Solomon’s accession to the throne is never really in question. First, because the text as it currently stands must have been finalized after Solomon had, historically, succeeded David; but also, because even in the one verse narrating Solomon’s birth, in 2 Samuel 12:24, we are told that “the Lord favored him.” We should read these chapters therefore not as dramatic narrative with an unexpected ending, but rather as explanation: how is it that Solomon, fourth in line for the throne, was the one to actually get it?

David’s eldest son is Amnon, who is featured in 2 Samuel 13. He is a faintly pathetic figure, characterized almost entirely by his incestual infatuation with his half-sister Tamar. Amnon tricks Tamar into tending him as he pretends to be ill, and rapes her. There are two noteworthy aspects of this horrific episode. First, Tamar’s response to Amnon’s advances reveals something of the social system in ancient Israel. She does not object to the idea of sleeping with Amnon, or even becoming his wife, despite their half-sibling relationship; rather, her objection is to the forcible nature of Amnon’s intentions. She says, “Please speak to the king; he will not refuse me to you” (13:13). The shame that Tamar bears is the social stigma of having been deflowered outside the bonds of marriage. Had Amnon wanted to simply marry her, their relationship would have been socially acceptable. The second aspect of the story worthy of attention is the psychological insight afforded by the biblical authors regarding Amnon. As soon as he has slept with Tamar, we are told, “Amnon felt a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing for her was greater than the passion he had felt for her.” What we see here is all too familiar: the rejection of that which was once so desired upon having finally gained it. In both respects, Amnon is made out as an utter cad, undeserving of his father’s crown (despite the close resemblance between Amnon’s actions and those of David with Bathsheba).

Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, takes his revenge on Amnon by having him killed—thus eliminating the first of David’s sons in the line of succession. We may observe the strong set of parallels between the Amnon-Tamar story and narratives from the patriarchal cycle. Foremost among these, of course, is the other Tamar, in Genesis 38, who is similarly the victim of sexual impropriety. But we should also be conscious of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, and of the brief notice regarding Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son, who sleeps with Jacob’s concubine in Genesis 35:22. It is because of this act of filial sexual deviance that Reuben is disinherited by Jacob in Genesis 49; it seems not coincidental that Amnon is similarly removed from the succession for his act of filial sexual deviance.

David forces Absalom to flee for his life, although only for a period: eventually, David brings Absalom back into the fold, with encouragement from Joab. (Joab, like Nathan, knows that the only way to convince David that he has made a mistake is to explain it to him as a parable; thus, he sends the wise woman of Tekoa to get David to implicate himself.) But upon Absalom’s re-entrance into David’s life, in 2 Samuel 15, he begins to act against his father. He puts on the trappings of kingship: a chariot, horses, and runners. He intercepts those who have come to the king to seek justice, and declares (to each one of them!) that he would rule in their favor. In this way, we are told, “Absalom won away the hearts of the men of Israel” (15:6). Eventually, Absalom makes his way to Hebron—the very city where David was first declared king—and effectively declares a coup. “The people supported Absalom in increasing numbers” (15:12). The speed with which Absalom is able to turn the people away from David belies the claims elsewhere that the Israelite population loved David and everything that he did. In fact, we should remember that David became king by force, certainly in the north, where he defeated Abner and Ishboshet to gain the throne. Whether Absalom promised a new kind of leadership, or merely a change from David, it is clear that the people seemed to prefer anyone to David.

David also recognizes just how quickly he has lost control of his people, and he and his court abandon the palace to Absalom and flee across the Jordan. In the process of this departure, a man named Shimei launches into a verbal assault on David: “The Lord is paying you back for all your crimes against the family of Saul, whose throne you seized!” (16:8). This accusation seems to represent what must have been a common view of how David became king—indeed, it seems to be the view that the biblical authors argued so strenuously against in 1 Samuel. David, in his moment of greatest weakness, sees that he does not have the power to fight back—at least, not yet. Shimei’s insults ring out, unanswered, as David abdicates the throne.

In the ancient world, as even in modern dictatorships and autocratic societies, there could be only two possible outcomes in a coup attempt. Either the ruler or the usurper must die: neither, if victorious, can allow the other to live. (Modern examples are abundant; the succession of rulers in contemporary Egypt may be the closest example, formally as well as geographically.) Thus, Absalom’s revolt was destined to end with either Absalom king and David dead, or David king and Absalom dead. Both would have known this; Absalom seems not to have any inclinations in any other direction, and while David may tell his men not to kill Absalom, he too would have known that it would have to end that way. Thus, when David does end up victorious, we should not be surprised that Joab kills Absalom. Whether David instructed him to do so or not, Joab was taking the only real course of action available to him. The possibility that David knew Absalom would die does not, of course, diminish the remarkable pathos of his wailing upon being told that Absalom is dead: “My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!” (19:1). David’s second son has now been removed from the succession.

With Absalom dead, David once again ascends to Jerusalem and retakes his crown. But it is not as easy as it was before: his power has been proven to be shakier than it once was, and the populaces not nearly as supportive, or at least malleable, as they once were. This seems to be particularly the case in the northern kingdom of Israel, represented in the story by a rebel named Sheba, who proclaims the famous words, “We have no portion in David, no share in Jesse’s son! Every man to his tent, O Israel!” (20:1). This rebellious call reminds us, and the inhabitants of Israel, that David is from Judah, that the northern kingdom had a long history of independence, and that there was little advantage to be gained from remaining part of David’s now weakening monarchy. Although Sheba’s rebellion fails, and Sheba himself does not survive, his words would echo later at the end of Solomon’s reign, when the united monarchy of David would split back into Judah and Israel, never again to be reunited.

The story of David’s life has a significant gap in it: from the end of Absalom’s revolt we effectively jump to the end of David’s life in the first two chapters of 1 Kings. There is no notice that any substantial time passes—at least, nothing happens that should take very many years—yet at the beginning of the book of Kings we are presented with a very different David from the forceful man we have grown accustomed to. The book of Kings begins with this description: “King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm.” David will never rise from his bed again. And it is in this situation that the question of succession becomes most pressing: who will lead the kingdom in David’s stead? There are only two contenders remaining: Adonijah, who is next in line for the throne, and Solomon—who has not been mentioned at all since his birth back in 2 Samuel 12.

Adonijah would seem to have the stronger claim. Indeed, he, like his brother Absalom before him, takes on the trappings of kingship: chariots, horses, and runners. Yet this is not treated as a coup, by David or by anyone else. In fact, David’s two most trusted advisors throughout his reign, his general Joab and his priest Abiathar, give their support to Adonijah. We should probably understand this as a de facto co-regency, a common system in the ancient Near East for transitioning power between an aging ruler and the next in line. Yet there were some, evidently, who were unhappy with this new reality: foremost among them the prophet Nathan, who has also not appeared since Solomon’s birth.

Nathan’s role in Solomon’s accession to the throne is interesting, as it draws attention to the role that Nathan plays throughout David’s life. Though he is most famous for delivering the oracle against David in the Bathsheba story, we may observe that Nathan appears only three times in total: in 2 Samuel 7, in 2 Samuel 11, and here in 1 Kings 1. In all three, the focus of Nathan’s activity is not really David, but Solomon: in 2 Samuel 7 Nathan tells David that his son (Solomon) will be the one to build the Temple; in 2 Samuel 11 we have the story of Solomon’s birth; and here we have Nathan advancing Solomon’s interests in the crown. Though Nathan looks to be David’s royal prophet (as, for example, Isaiah was the royal prophet to Hezekiah), it might be more accurate to see Nathan as Solomon’s prophet.

Nathan looks to take advantage of David’s weakened state. He instructs Bathsheba to tell David that the king had, at some point in the past, declared that Solomon would be his rightful heir. “Did not you, O lord king, swear to your maidservant, ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne?’” (1 Kgs 1:13). This conversation, so far as we know, never actually happened; indeed, Nathan seems to admit as much when he says to Bathsheba, “While you are there talking with the king, I will come in after you and confirm your words” (1 Kgs 1:14). David is old, his body weak and his mind muddled; Nathan and Bathsheba are planting a false memory. The plan works: David confirms Solomon as the king, and instructs his general Benaiah, his priest Zadok, and Nathan to take Solomon and have him anointed.

In theory, this would create a relatively balanced situation: both Adonijah and Solomon would have one general and one priest on their side, and both with legitimate claims to kingship, be it by birth order or by royal decree. Yet Solomon has one other group on his side that will end up swaying the decision: David’s private militia, known as the Cherethites and the Pelethites. These were the forces that David mustered to defeat Absalom, and they had been the source of his authority throughout his reign, and probably even before that, in the wilderness. Now they were on the side of Solomon, and Adonijah would have known that he had no chance of standing up to them. Thus, when he hears about Solomon’s anointing, Adonijah runs for sanctuary, leaving Solomon with the sole claim to the crown. Even in the biblical account, it should be noted, Solomon comes to power essentially via a coup.

The final speech of David’s life, in 1 Kings 2, comes in two distinct parts. The first four verses are different in type from absolutely everything that we have seen so far in the David story. David’s first words to Solomon on his deathbed are completely out of character: they are, rather, purely Deuteronomistic language: “Keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and following his laws, his commandments, his rules, and his admonitions as recorded in the Torah of Moses” (2:3). Nowhere has David elsewhere referred to the Torah of Moses; nowhere has he seemed particularly keen on following any divine laws, written or otherwise. These verses are an indisputably Deuteronomistic insertion into the story, preparing the reputation of David as the most righteous king, the one against whom, in the heavily Deuteronomistic book of Kings, all the rest of Israel’s kings will be judged. The second part of David’s speech is his instructions to Solomon regarding the various personalities left over from David’s regime. Joab and Shimei are condemned to death; Barzillai the Gileadite is to be rewarded for his loyalty. It is difficult to read these instructions and not picture the movie The Godfather, with the new rising capo swearing to take care of his father’s unfinished family business.

David’s decline begins with the Bathsheba episode, where his power reaches its apex before, as it turns out, overreaching. From there on it is a slow weakening: the deaths of his sons, rebellions against his rule, both internal and external, and eventually his feeble death, confined to his bed.

Further Reading:

McCarter, II Samuel, 314–518

McKenzie, King David, 161–89

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How might we understand the parallels between the stories of David’s sons and the patriarchal narratives, especially the removal of the three eldest sons (of David and Jacob, respectively) in favor of the fourth (Solomon and Judah, respectively)?
  2. How do David’s sons, especially Absalom and Solomon, learn lessons in gaining power from their father?
  3. How do these chapters contribute to the overall picture of David and his reign? What part do they play in the later traditions of David that view him as beloved and powerful?