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Through a close and critical reading of biblical texts, ancient history, and recent archeological discoveries, Steven L. McKenzie concludes that David was indeed a real person. This David was not the humble shepherd who slew Goliath and became king, however, but was a usurper, adulterer, and murderer—a Middle Eastern despot of a familiar type. McKenzie shows that the story of humble beginnings is utterly misleading: "shepherd" is a metaphor for "king," and David came from a wealthy, upper-class background. ...
Through a close and critical reading of biblical texts, ancient history, and recent archeological discoveries, Steven L. McKenzie concludes that David was indeed a real person. This David was not the humble shepherd who slew Goliath and became king, however, but was a usurper, adulterer, and murderer—a Middle Eastern despot of a familiar type. McKenzie shows that the story of humble beginnings is utterly misleading: "shepherd" is a metaphor for "king," and David came from a wealthy, upper-class background. Similarly, McKenzie reveals how David's ascent to power, traditionally attributed to popularity and divine blessing, in fact resulted from a campaign of terror and assassination. While instituting a full-blown Middle Eastern monarchy, David was an aggressive leader, a devious politician, and a ruthless war chief. Throughout his scandalous reign, important figures who stood in his way died at convenient times, under questionable circumstances. Even his own sons were not spared. David's story, writes McKenzie, "reads like a modern soap opera, with plenty of sex, violence, and struggles for power."
Was There a King David?
"Do we, the late-born, really know anything at all about someone who lived in the past?"
—Grete Weil, The Bride Price
The November 21, 1997, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education contained an unusual article. The Chronicle monitors trends in higher education, typically reporting on matters like tuition costs, tenure, and the impact of technology. The lead for this article on the cover read, "Did King David Exist? Bitter Divisions Among Biblical Scholars." Even more provocative was the one-line synopsis: "Biblical scholars get nasty in a transatlantic debate over whether King David existed." The article lived up to its billing, with quotations from biblical scholars and archaeologists characterizing one another as "fundamentalist," "minimalist," and "anti-Zionist," and each others' views as "scandalous," "absurd," and "insanity."
The heat of this debate reflects the emotion that many people feel—one way or the other—about the Bible and its main characters. But beyond the emotion and personal conflicts, the article also makes clear the two major questions that must be answered before a biography of David can begin: (1) Do sources outside of the Bible indicate that David really existed or give additional information about him? and (2) How may the Bible be used to reconstruct David's life? These two questions are the topics of this chapter and thenext.
More than a decade before the firestorm of controversy erupted on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a scholar penned these words in an article titled "The Historical David":
The Bible is our only source of information about David. No ancient inscription mentions him. No archaeological discovery can be securely linked to him. The quest for the historical David, therefore, is primarily exegetical.
This statement may seem surprising. You would think that a person as famous and active as David is in the Bible would have left plenty of indications of his historical existence for archaeologists to dig up. You would also expect to find him mentioned frequently in the records of the ancient countries he conquered or had dealings with.
The scholar who wrote those words, P. Kyle McCarter, is not one of the so-called minimalists who deny David's historical existence. Yet he must concede that there is little concrete information about David outside of the Bible. It is easy to see how one might suspect that there never was such a person and that the story about him in the Bible is fictional. But McCarter and others like him also have good reasons for believing in a historical David. McCarter's statement, therefore, provides a useful structure for surveying the evidence outside of the Bible that bears, pro and con, on the question of the David of history.
"No ancient inscription mentions him"
During the past two centuries, thousands of ancient documents from hundreds of sites throughout the Middle East have been excavated. They provide information about history, politics, religion, laws, customs, and almost every other aspect of life in the ancient world. However, the vast majority of these documents have come from Egypt and Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia), both of which were in stages of rebuilding in 1000 B.C.E., the approximate time of David's reign according to the Bible's chronology. This means that their contact with other countries was limited during this period. In Mesopotamia this era has been called a "dark age," and we have fewer records than for other periods.
The relative paucity of documents from this period may help to explain why no mention of David was found for such a long time. But in the summer of 1993 he finally showed up. The occurrence of David's name in a newly discovered inscription led to the publication of new readings for two previously known inscriptions. Thus, McCarter's statement that "no ancient inscription mentions [David]" is no longer true.
The Tel Dan Stele
The new discovery was a piece of an inscribed monument or "stele." It was found by accident, as such things usually are, at an archaeological dig in the ruin ("tel") of the ancient city of Dan in northern Israel. It had been reused as building material for a later wall and was near the wall's base. You can imagine the excitement of the person who found it. She was walking along looking at the ground when something about that one stone caught her eye. She knelt to take a closer look and noticed the lines of markings cut into the rock. She recognized it as writing of some kind and immediately called the project director.
The fragment measured 32 by 22 cm. at its widest point. It was broken on all sides except the right margin, so the size of the original monument could not be determined. It was made of basalt, which was a very expensive stone in antiquity. Since it would have been costly to produce, the monument could not have been erected by just anybody. It was most likely the work of a king (Fig. 2).
There were thirteen lines of writing preserved on the fragment in an early form of the alphabet. The letters were clear and elegantly inscribed. The language was instantly recognized as Aramaic, the mother tongue of ancient Syria. As with Hebrew, the writing went from right to left. It was the ninth line that caught the collective eye of the first readers. There were the consonants that spelled out the name of David: DWD.
But the name did not stand alone. It was part of a larger word rendered "house of David." This was one source of the controversy generated by the inscription in the first year after its discovery. The occurrence of David's name was not as obvious as it had appeared at first. The same letters used to write his name could have other meanings as well, especially since Aramaic, like ancient Hebrew, was written without vowels. One common proposal was that the phrase actually meant "temple of (a god named) Dod." The broken piece did not preserve enough of the original context to decide between these two (and other) possible readings.
Much of the controversy, however, ended a year later, almost to the day, when the same person who had found the initial fragment spotted two more pieces. Together, they filled in parts of eight of the thirteen lines found the previous year. The original translators read all three pieces together as follows (the portions within brackets are reconstructed and are not actually on the inscription):
1 [... ...] and cut [...]
2. [...] my father went up [against him when] he fought at [...]
3. And my father lay down, he went to his [ancestors] (viz. became sick and died). And the king of I[s-]
4. rael entered previously in my father's land. [And] Hadad made me king.
5. And Hadad went in front of me, [and] I departed from [the] seven [...-]
6. s of my kingdom, and I slew [seve]nty kin[gs], who harnessed thou[sands of cha-]
7. riots and thousands of horsemen (or: horses). [I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab]
8. king of Israel, and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin-]
9. g of the House of David. And I set [their towns into ruins and turned]
10. their land into [desolation ...]
11. other [... and Jehu ru-]
12. led over Is[rael ... and I laid]
13. siege upon [... ]
It is obvious that the inscription is badly broken. Still, the two new fragments have provided additional context and helped to clarify the date and setting of the inscription. The monument was erected by one of the kings of Aram (ancient Syria) a little before 800 B.C.E. Dan was the northernmost city of ancient Israel and bordered on the territory of Aram (Map 1). The Bible uses the expression "from Dan to Beersheba" several times to refer to the full extent of Israel (Judg. 20:1; 1 Sam. 3:20; 2 Sam. 3:10; 17:11; 24:2, 15). The two new fragments mention the names of Jehoram, king of Israel, and Ahaziah, king of Judah, both of whom the author of the inscription claims to have killed. This claim contradicts the Bible, which credits the Israelite general Jehu with the two assassinations (2 Kings 9-10). The contradiction is further reason for considering the inscription genuine. A modern forger would almost certainly parrot the Bible rather than inventing a blatant contradiction to it. The context of the references to these two kings makes it relatively certain that the phrase in line nine means "the house of David."
However, "the house of David" was a title for the nation of Judah or its ruling dynasty. It tells us nothing about David the person or his life. Its occurrence in the Tel Dan stele does seem to support the Bible's claim that David was the founder of the country of Judah and its ruling family. The inscription was written within one hundred fifty years of David's lifetime. It is much closer than anything we had before and shows that David was not a late fiction. But a century and a half is still enough time for legends to develop, especially in a culture without photographs or newspapers. So we must be cautious. The Tel Dan inscription does not prove that David was a historical figure, though it does seem to tip the scales in that direction. Unfortunately, the other two inscriptions are just as ambiguous if not more so and add further complications.
The Mesha Stele
The Tel Dan stele prompted the announcement of the discovery of the same expression, "the house of David" in another, previously known inscription. The Mesha stele or Moabite stone is the greatest tragedy in the history of archaeology in Palestine (Fig. 3). It was found intact in 1868 among the ruins of Dibon, the ancient capital of Moab, the country on the other side of the Dead Sea from Israel (Map 1). It was the most spectacular artifact ever found in Palestine, and the European powers were quickly embroiled in a bitter competition to acquire it. The Bedouin tribe that controlled it felt threatened by its presence and decided to get rid of it. They hoisted the stone in the air and dipped it alternately in fire and water until it broke in pieces. Most of the inscription of more than thirty lines was later reconstructed from recovered fragments and a "squeeze" (an impression left on plaster-soaked paper). The squeeze was also fragmentary, having been torn away in the middle of a gunfight before the stone was destroyed. Both the reconstruction and the squeeze have been in the Louvre Museum in Paris ever since.
The monument was commissioned by Mesha, king of Moab, sometime in the latter half of the ninth century (850-800 B.C.E.), so it is contemporary with the Tel Dan stele. In its inscription Mesha tells how he broke free from Israel after many years of subjugation. There is a story about Mesha in the Bible (2 Kings 3) that sounds similar. But it is not clear that it describes the same battle as the Mesha stele.
The basic content of the inscription has been known since the last century. However, for the past few years, the French scholar André Lemaire has been studying both the monument fragments and the squeeze. Living in Paris, he has a unique opportunity to examine it closely and repeatedly. He hopes, therefore, to solve some of the problems of the reconstruction and produce a definitive edition of the inscription.
Lemaire has now found what he believes to be an additional occurrence of the expression "the house of David." The phrase occurs near the end of the inscription in line 31 (out of 34 at least partially preserved lines). The inscription is too long to reproduce in its entirety, but the relevant lines are as follows:
And the house [of Da]vid dwelt in Horonen [..........] and Kamosh said to me, "Go down! Fight against Horonen." And I went down, and II fought against the town, and I took it; and] Kamosh [resto]red it in my days.
Since the monument is broken at that point, only about half of the phrase is visible, and it remained undeciphered until recently. Lemaire says he has confirmed the presence of the entire phrase on the original inscription. According to his reading, the statement, "And the house of David dwelt in Horonen" is followed by an order from the Moabite god Kamosh to fight against it. Horonen (also called Horonaim in the Bible, Isa. 15:5; Jer. 48:3, 5, 34) was a city southeast of the Dead Sea in what the Moabites considered their country. In other words, having broken free from Israel, King Mesha is being ordered to war by his god to take back the territory around Horonen, which Judah had annexed. There are a few words in line 33, but the inscription is basically missing from that point on. Presumably, Mesha reported successful completion of Kamosh's order. As in the Tel Dan inscription, therefore, "the house of David" on the Mesha stele would refer to the nation of Judah or its royal family.
The presence of David's name on the Mesha stele is obviously less certain than in the Tel Dan inscription. One of the letters of his name is missing, and the immediate context is less clear because the inscription breaks off shortly thereafter. But even if we assume that Lemaire's reading is correct, the same reservations hold for the Mesha stele as for the Tel Dan inscription. Neither contains any direct information about David's life or person. They do seem to accord with the Bible's depiction of David as the founder of the nation and dynasty of Judah—"the house of David." Based on their testimony, combined with the Bible's, the assumption that David was a historical figure seems reasonable. The third inscription introduces a complication.
The Shoshenq Relief
The Tel Dan inscription inspired another sighting of David's name on a long-known text. That text is the relief of Pharaoh Shoshenq (called Shishak in the Bible, 1 Kings 14:25-27) carved on the temple of Amun in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. The relief hails Shoshenq's raid into Palestine in the year 925 B.C.E. It contains a long list of names of places that Shoshenq claims to have captured.
The British Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has very recently suggested that David's name is in that list. The name occurs in an expression that Kitchen translates "highland/heights of David" (Fig. 4). The immediate context, he says, is a set of places in southern Judah and the Negev (the southern part of Palestine) where, the Bible reports, David was active when he was fleeing Saul (1 Samuel 21-30). The area, Kitchen concludes, must have been known by David's name.
This occurrence of David's name is even less certain than the one on the Mesha stele. Much of the relief is damaged and illegible. Of the names that can be read, many cannot be identified for certain with any known sites in Palestine. Not all scholars agree with Kitchen that the names on the relief reflect any consistent geographical order. In addition, the Egyptian word translated "highland/heights" is rare, and its exact meaning is uncertain. In an earlier publication Kitchen himself calls the reading of these words "obscure."
Kitchen's reasoning is curious. It is highly unlikely that the highlands of southern Judah and the Negev bore David's name simply because he spent time there. The term "the highland of David" for this region does not occur in the Bible or anywhere else. If this interpretation were correct, it would indicate the opposite of what Kitchen intends. The "highland of David" would most naturally refer to an area within the territory of a clan or tribe. "David" in this expression would then be a clan or its land—like Benjamin, Ephraim, or Judah—not an individual at all. If "David" could refer to a clan or region, as Kitchen's reading suggests, then he may never have existed as a historical figure. The character of David in the stories about him might be an abstraction of the clan treated as its ancestor—what biblical scholars call an "eponymous" ancestor or tradition.
Eponymous traditions are common in the Bible. In Genesis 10, for instance, the nations and peoples of the known world are treated as individuals in a genealogy that goes back to Noah and his sons (note Egypt and Canaan in v. 6 NRSV). In Gen. 25:19-26 the nations of Edom and Israel are treated as individuals, Esau and Jacob. In Genesis 29-30 the twelve tribes of Israel are described as the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel. But outside of Kitchen's interpretation of the Shoshenq relief, "David" was never the designation for a clan or region. The biblical stories about David differ from those about eponymous figures such as Jacob and his sons. There is no hint that David ever represented the dynasty or the nation of Judah. Rather, all the stories are about him as an individual. They deal with the drives, motives, and deeds of an individual man rather than the representative of a group. Kitchen's reading unintentionally highlights an important distinction between the name David and the expression "house of David." The latter is a political designation and refers to the dynasty or kingdom of Judah. But the name David in the Hebrew Bible always refers to the individual. David is the founder of the dynasty known as the "house" or "seed" of David.
The occurrence of David's name on the Shoshenq relief, then, is uncertain. Kitchen's explanation of it is highly speculative and causes more problems than it solves. On the other hand, "the house of David" on the Tel Dan and Mesha steles most naturally refers to the nation or dynasty established by the individual named David. Neither of these inscriptions tells us anything about David or proves that he actually lived. But the fact that they mention him by name as an important figure within such a relatively short period after the years considered to be his lifetime makes it unlikely that he was a complete fiction.
"No archaeological discovery can be securely linked to him"
This part of McCarter's statement remains true today. There have been no new archaeological discoveries in the last ten years that can be securely linked to David. A recent textbook on the archaeology of Palestine by the Israeli archaeologist Amihai Mazar illustrates McCarter's point. Mazar mentions the following archaeological sites as possibly connected to David:
1. The "City of David" is an area about 100 yards south of the walled "Old City" of Jerusalem (Map 4 and Fig. 5). Its name was given to it by archaeologists who identified this area as the site of part of David's Jerusalem; nothing found there names David, though. The site's most prominent feature is an enormous "stepped stone structure," preserved to a height of 16.5 meters, which likely served to support a large building on the crest of the hill (Fig. 6). Its excavator dated the structure to the early tenth century B.C.E., the presumed time of David, and suggested that it supported David's citadel, which the Bible calls the "Ophel." There are also the ruins of a few other buildings at this site that archaeologists generally agree date to the tenth century. But none of these—including the stepped stone structure—have any demonstrable connection to David.
2. A deep tunnel on the same hillside as the "City of David," called "Warren's Shaft" after its discoverer, has often been related to the story of David's conquest of Jerusalem. "David had said on that day, `Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack'" (2 Sam. 5:8, NRSV). But the meaning of this passage is uncertain. Another recent translation renders it very differently: "Whoever smites a Jebusite, let him strike at the windpipe." Is David telling his men how they can enter the city to attack it (how would he know this?) or is he saying that they should fight to kill the Jebusites rather than to wound them? In other words, the passage might not be referring to a water tunnel at all. Furthermore, that water tunnel may not have existed in David's day. It began as a natural fissure, but the date of its enlargement by human hands to serve as part of Jerusalem's water supply system cannot be determined. Comparable systems from other cities are all from later periods.
3. The destruction of a number of sites in different parts of Palestine at around 1000 B.C.E. has been attributed to David. These include Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley, Tel Masos in southern Judah, and the Philistine cities of Ashdod and Tel Qasile on the Mediterranean coast. The Bible makes reference to David's conquest of the Philistines (2 Sam. 8:1 = 1 Chron. 18:1) but does not mention these places specifically, and David's personal involvement at these sites cannot be shown.
4. Mazar mentions a series of fortified enclosures scattered throughout the central region of southern Palestine (the Negev) as probably tied with David. Some archaeologists think they were Amalekite "fortresses" destroyed by Saul and David. Others say they were built by Saul or David to control the region. The precise date these enclosures were built and their purpose are uncertain, and their connection with David is only supposition.
5. Mazar suggests that five inscribed arrowheads found near Bethlehem belonged to a class of mercenary bowmen who could have been affiliated with David. This proposal is very speculative. There is no real evidence of the existence of this guild of bowmen or of David's involvement with them.
This brief survey well illustrates and confirms McCarter's statement. The links drawn between David and archaeological discoveries made to date are far from secure. Certainly none of them could be used to prove that David existed. At the same time, the lack of certainty about their connections with David does not disprove his historical existence either. This point can be illustrated by surveying the evidence regarding the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of David and Solomon where the controversy about archaeological evidence for David has concentrated.
The lack of remains from the site known as the "City of David" that can be confidently connected with the time of David (ca. 1000 B.C.E.) should not be seen as decisive evidence that he didn't exist, for several reasons. First, Jerusalem is occupied today, making it impossible to dig anywhere and everywhere in the city. So we still do not have a complete picture of the city's occupational history. Furthermore, Jerusalem has been constantly occupied since the time of David and before. It has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, and each time the building materials from previous occupations were reused. It is not surprising, therefore, that few substantial architectural remains from as far back as David's reign have been found.
Also, we know of Jerusalem's existence long before David from a set of documents known as the "Amarna letters," found at the site of el-Amarna in Egypt. They are letters written during the fourteenth century B.C.E. between the rulers of Canaanite city-states and the Egyptian pharaoh. Jerusalem was one of those city-states. It is mentioned several times in the letters, and its king was one of those who corresponded with the pharaoh. Jerusalem with its environs, therefore, was already a site of some importance at that time. So there is no reason to doubt that Jerusalem was in existence some three hundred years later for David to conquer and inhabit. The size and nature of the site, however, are uncertain. What kind of place did David conquer, and what sort of capital did he make of it? Was it a thriving city or only an administrative center over a small region or state? In trying to answer these questions, we will have to examine critically what the Bible really says (and does not say). The Bible may exaggerate or reflect circumstances that actually pertained at a later period. But we must also be careful not to define cities in the ancient Middle East by modern, Western standards.
The Kingdom of David and Solomon
Though the Bible credits David with building activity only in Jerusalem, it ascribes a great deal of building both in and outside of Jerusalem to Solomon. So, the reigns of David and Solomon are usually treated together when it comes to archaeological evidence, particularly from architecture. Archaeologists have sometimes said that the evidence would force them to invent the figures of David and Solomon if the Bible did not give their names. The evidence they have in mind consists of architectural remains from the tenth-century cities of Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. These remains indicate the existence of a central government that planned and executed such projects. Most would identify this government as the united monarchy of David and Solomon. The buildings are Solomonic. But David conquered the territory and established the central authority that made it possible for Solomon to carry out his construction. The majority of archaeologists continue to endorse this perspective despite recent attempts to date the "royal cities" a century after Solomon.
However, archaeologists and biblical scholars alike have raised questions about the real extent of David's kingdom. As Mazar puts it, "It thus has to be emphasized that even the traditional chronology hardly justifies the description of the United Monarchy as an `empire' or even a developed state." As with the city of Jerusalem, in considering the size and nature of David's kingdom (as well as the length of his reign) we will have to read the Bible carefully, keeping in mind the possibility that it contains exaggeration and anachronisms. But again, kingdoms and empires of the ancient Middle East are not modern ones. The notion of a Davidic empire spanning the Middle East, for example, may come more from interpretation of the Bible than from the Bible itself. A close reading of the Bible in its context, balanced with the evidence from archaeology, can give us a more accurate picture of what David and his reign were really like.
Other Contributions of Archaeology
McCarter's statement that no archaeological discovery can be securely linked to David is correct. But to leave it at that would be to misunderstand the nature of archaeology and the contribution it can make to a study of David's life. You might even call this short-sighted view of archaeology the Indiana Jones perspective.
Indiana Jones is a mixed blessing to archaeologists. On the one hand, he excites public interest and attracts young people to the field. On the other hand, he perpetuates a major misconception about what archaeology tries to do. Indiana Jones is always after the big-ticket artifact that will prove the truthfulness of a religious legend. Near the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he tells his colleague, Marcus Jones, that the search for the ark "represents the reason you and I got into archaeology to begin with."
In its early days, archaeology was a lot like an Indiana Jones movie. "Excavations" were really treasure-hunting expeditions to Middle Eastern or Mediterranean countries. They were often sponsored by European governments seeking to enhance their international prestige. The great museums of today are filled with treasures that were plundered by such expeditions in the last century. The discovery of characters and events mentioned in the Bible was a driving force behind such expeditions. And it is still a primary motivation for today's excavations.
Over the past few decades, however, the field of archaeology has experienced great change. This change is the result of archaeologists starting to work in the "New World" of North, Central, and South America. Archaeology was formerly a discipline practiced in the "Old World" of Europe, Asia, and Africa. But when archaeologists began to excavate in the Americas they found that they had to adapt their theories and techniques to a different set of circumstances.
Unlike the classic Old World civilizations, native American sites had no texts—at least none that anyone was able to decipher at the time. In order to learn all they could from the material artifacts alone, archaeologists had to rely on sophisticated scientific analysis for clues. The tiniest mollusk, pollen sample, and rodent bone became subjects of intense study for the information they might yield about ancient climate, geology, horticulture, and domestication of animals. These things, in turn, could tell much about the human occupants—what they ate, how they dressed, why they moved around. The archaeologists also looked to the fields of anthropology and sociology for help. In order to determine the function of artifacts they dug up, they made comparisons with other cultures. They also searched for patterns shared by all human societies as a way of explaining developments among a particular group of people.
Old World archaeologists soon realized that the new methods could be very useful to them as well. The new methods opened up entirely new areas for research. Archaeology had previously focused almost exclusively on the upper classes and on political history. The new methods allowed archaeologists for the first time to concentrate on the everyday existence of the common people. They could also focus on segments of the population whose place in society had been previously neglected. It became possible, for example, to study the role of women in ancient cultures in a more complete and detailed way than ever before.
King David, of course, was a member of the upper class. But according to the Bible he rose to that status from humble or at least common roots. Even without specific artifacts definitely tied to David, archaeology still contributes to our biographical portrait of him in at least three ways. First, it supplies an everyday context for the Bible's stories about David. Information from archaeology brings the period to life and allows us a glimpse of what daily life in Palestine at David's time was like. It helps us to understand such things as what people wore and how they made their clothes, how they traveled, what they ate and how they grew and produced food, and what tools and weapons they used and how wars were fought.
Second, archaeology tells us about the even broader environmental and economic context of David's life. One archaeologist has shown how environmental and economic factors may have played an important role in David's ascent to kingship. An increase in the population at the beginning of Israel's Iron Age put a strain on natural resources and on the agricultural economy. As the youngest son, there would not have been much inheritance left for David when he came of age. He would have been forced, therefore, to leave home in search of a means of livelihood. He found it in military activity—at first in the service of Saul and then as leader of his own outlaw band of mercenaries eluding Saul.
This leads to the third kind of information that archaeology can furnish for David—cultural parallels. In this case, it is actually anthropology or sociology rather than archaeology that is the source. Anthropologists have looked to other cultures, especially in the Middle East, for light on how and why monarchy developed. They have determined that societies follow patterns of leadership as they grow in size and complexity. One such pattern runs: tribal leaders to chiefs to a king. Saul and David were both chosen by tribal leaders. Both ruled over a confined area that could be called a chiefdom. David is described as going further and building a kingdom in Israel and then an empire in Palestine. This matter will be discussed in detail in Chapter Seven.
Anthropologists have also noticed that the steps by which David gained power according to the Bible were similar to the careers of other Middle Eastern despots. One scholar has compared David's ascent to power with that of Ibn Saud, the founding king of Saudi Arabia. He could also be compared to other, more recent and more infamous Middle Eastern dictators, like Saddam Hussein. Both were clever politicians and military commanders. Both led outlaw bands that rivaled the ruling family. Both eventually replaced their rivals, leaving a trail of dead bodies behind. Both gained and retained power through military force.
This comparison may seem offensive at first. But it must be remembered that David and Saddam are culturally much closer to each other than either is to Westerners. They share outlooks about politics, society, and perhaps even religion that are quite different from those that prevail in the West. The concepts of elective democracy and frequent, peaceful transition of power were unheard of in David's day and are still foreign to much of the Middle East today. Rulers have always been installed for life. Comparisons between David and modern Middle Eastern rulers help to isolate the motives for his actions and suggest some of the personality traits that led him to achieve what he did.
Archaeology is sometimes thought to produce "hard," objective evidence in contrast to the Bible, which must be interpreted. But this is a misconception. The foregoing discussion shows that archaeological evidence is subject to interpretation just as the Bible is. Archaeology has not yet proved David's historical existence. But it has not disproved it either. The evidence is interpreted differently by different people. The assumption that David was a real person remains a viable and defensible one. The references to his name in inscriptions add some weight to this assumption, as do the "Solomonic" cities. Parallels with other cultures may help us to understand the process behind David's rise to power and the motives for some of his actions. Archaeology provides background and context for the David stories and thus for our biography and can be interpreted as lending credence to David's historical existence.
"The quest for the historical David, therefore, is primarily exegetical"
Despite archaeology's contributions, on the whole we must affirm McCarter's statement: "The Bible is our only source of information about David"—at least our only direct source. Without the Bible we would barely know David's name, have only a vague idea of who he was, and know almost nothing of what he did. The Bible alone details his actions, reports his conversations, and explains his motives. David's biography, therefore, relies primarily on the Bible.
Biblical scholars use various guidelines for interpreting the Bible, just as archaeologists do for understanding artifacts. The biblical literature about David cannot be taken at face value as biographical, because it has a very complicated history of development. Also, the writer(s) who put together the final product were primarily interested in David not as a historical figure but as a religious model. The historical information contained in the Bible has to be exegeted or "drawn out" from its stories. This would remain a useful enterprise even if we were to determine that David was not a historical person. We are simply asking what conception of David lies behind the stories about him in the Bible. As a next step in the biography of David, therefore, we must consider the nature of the biblical material about him. We must also detail the methods and principles to be used for extracting biographical information from it. That is the task of the next chapter.
|Introduction Images The Need for a Biography of David||1|
|1 Was There a King David? Extrabiblical Sources||9|
|2 Royal Propaganda The Bible's Account of David's Life||25|
|3 Was David a Shepherd? David's Origins and Youth||47|
|4 Who Killed Whom? The Goliath Story and David's Career as|
|a Soldier in Saul's Army||69|
|5 Holy Terrorist David and His Outlaw Band||89|
|6 Assassin David's Reign as King of Judah||111|
|7 The Cost of Kingship The Policies and Changes of David's|
|8 Like Father, Like Son The Bathsheba Affair and Absalom's|
|9 Poetic Justice The Last Days of King David||175|
|10 Finished Portrait A Synopsis||185|