Thursday, July 14, 2011

Portraits of a King

Since my previous post was of an old Berkeley-days paper, I thought I'd share another one, which reuses some of the material from the previous one:

In reading and comparing the narrative of Samuel-Kings in the Deuteronomistic History and that of Chronicles one is struck by the differences in the story which are presented to us – both sometimes in the material recounted and in the way the material is put before the reader. One especially interesting point of comparison is the figure of David in these two histories. Each presents David in a different light, for differing reasons, and presents some slightly different material not included in the other. In this paper I hope to make a beginning in the process of answering the questions how Samuel-Kings and Chronicles respectively view David, discussing how the material the Chronicler chooses to omit or add shows his view of David as it differs from Samuel-Kings. We will first look at the accounts of David’s rise to the throne and then his court history and the succession of Solomon to his throne.

Let us look first at the books of Samuel. The first king of Israel is Saul, who by any light should have made a great king – he was chosen by God through the prophet Samuel and by birth seems especially fit to be king. His father is a prominent man and though Benjamin is one of the smallest tribes, it is centrally located and thus in an ideal position to provide leadership to the land. Saul even looks the part of a king (see I Samuel 9-10). All of this only serves to show how much Saul falls short of being the ideal king by protecting the people and obeying Yahweh.

Despite apparently every advantage, Saul is flawed and fails as king. He disobeys in religious areas such as the time when he sacrifices an animal from impatience while waiting for Samuel. When Samuel arrives, the prophet declares that Saul’s kingdom will end and that God will choose some other king (see I Samuel 10:8, 13:7-14). Saul also fails to kill Agag the enemy king and all the livestock which were to be destroyed (I Samuel 15) and so is rejected by Yahweh. To make matters worse, Saul even consults a witch (I Samuel 28), at which time the apparition of Samuel declares David king and Saul’s dynasty soon to be destroyed by the Philistines (note, not by David, as some might have thought, which is further emphasized later). He even slaughters God’s priests, while David receives one with the ephod and all (I Samuel 22).

Here we begin to have hints of apologetic – a justification of David’s rise to the throne – Saul was a bad king and so Yahweh, who chooses the king, picked someone else. Indeed, David is anointed by Samuel at the command of God – David is the right person for the job of king (I Samuel 16). David is, after all, a man after God’s own heart and is promised a never-ending dynasty (I Samuel 7). This particular piece functions well as a polemic against the detractors of the Davidic dynasty, emphasizing that they are the rulers chosen by God himself.

In comparison to Saul’s situation, David is extremely disadvantaged. His family does not seem to be as well off and he is in fact the youngest of eight sons – and it is generally the oldest that is normally the one who ascends to greatness (or who becomes a king). Indeed, David does not seem at first be the one to whom the kingship over Israel should go to – he is not even one of Saul’s sons. Thus we have this defense of David’s rise and kingship.

Saul also fails as king in being leader of his people, doing such things as imposing unnecessary hardships on his own fighting men (I Samuel 14:24-45). Later, he becomes afflicted by fits of madness due to an evil spirit and even more than once tries to kill his own heir, his son Jonathan (I Samuel 14, 20:32-33). To emphasize Saul’s failure, the Spirit of Yahweh departs from him. So David comes into Saul’s court and serves him well, providing him with a necessary service – his playing of the harp is of such a virtue as to calm Saul as he is afflicted with the evil spirit. His harp playing, having such almost supernatural abilities, helps display David’s quality as a hero (I Samuel 16:14-23).

Saul wrongs David in various ways, trying to get David to be killed in battle, and ends up driving David into hiding. He owes David a daughter in marriage (apparently this is what was promised to the man who defeated Goliath in I Samuel 17) but does not give her to him. Again David is promised Saul’s oldest daughter Merab, but she is given to someone else when the time comes for her to be married. Saul’s youngest daughter Michal, meanwhile, loves David and so Saul finally gives this daughter to David in marriage - and after he does give David one of his daughters, he takes her and gives her to another man (for all this, see I Samuel 18, 25:44).

Saul is concerned for the security of his line and his own well being against the threat he perceives in David. David, meanwhile, does in fact only further the security of Saul and his line to the very end and takes care of them – David is portrayed as but a faithful servant. Even when Saul becomes his enemy, David goes so far as to rebuke his men for even suggesting that they kill Saul – he will not raise a hand against Saul, despite many opportunities to do so (see I Samuel 24:1-15, 26:1-12). He even fights against Saul’s foreign enemies while hiding in the land of the Philistines (I Samuel 23:1-6, 27:8-9).

In his service and in his military success as a warrior-hero, David gains great renown and the love of the people. The Bible emphasizes that he had great success in all that he did, since Yahweh, his divine benefactor (something important for an ancient hero to have, which of course also marks him as a hero – and the proper king), was with him. Even Saul’s family turns in favor of David and loves him intensely – including even the crown prince and, of course, Saul’s daughter, the princess Michal. This success scares Saul, since it emphasizes his own inadequacy and the fact that Yahweh is no longer with him (see especially I Samuel 18). David is the good leader, but Saul is not.

Thus Saul, in his jealousy, sees David as a danger to his kingship and dynasty, declaring his suspicions in an outburst against his son Jonathan (I Samuel 20:30-31). There he proclaims that if David is not killed, he will inherit the kingdom of Israel instead of Jonathan himself. So David is forced into the fringes of society as an outcast and man on the run. But in this David gains a large following, even though forced into an appearance of evil by staying with Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, and leading what looks like a band of outlaws (I Samuel 22:1-2, I Samuel 27). Thus David’s qualifications as a leader come out, especially fit for the heroic warrior-king he is meant to become. But again it is from this apparent evil that David rises into his position, as only he is fit to do.

David has taken on the identity of royalty through his identification with Jonathan – who in turn, as heir, is identified with Saul. This is done when Jonathan makes a covenant with David and gives him his robe, tunic, sword, bow, and belt (I Samuel 20). It is probable that the robes were Jonathan’s royal robes – such a transfer evoking a certain legal symbolism in which there is a transfer of Jonathan’s position as crown prince to David (McCarter, I Samuel, p.305).

All this leads David into the threat of death from his opponent Saul. At first, in a fit of madness, Saul tries to pin him to the wall. Then he tries to get David killed by sending him off on missions against the Philistines, even offering a daughter of his in marriage as an incentive to lure David on to what Saul probably thought was certain death (I Samuel 18). But as the hero, David as usual succeeds in what he does and achieves great victories. Merely by being a hero, David is under the wrath of Saul – leading Israel in battle under God’s favor, as Saul, being the king, should have been doing. Finally Saul actively pursues David and tries to kill him continuously but David, as a hero, is always able to escape.

Through all of this, we see the hero David moving closer and closer to his opponent’s role. Being forced into the fringe he displays his transcendent qualities by using this to come into power “through the back door” as it were. Thus there are one or more transformations involved and an intimate identification of the hero with the one that he is to replace – by identification with Jonathan, entering into Saul’s family by marriage to Michal, and so on. David is thus the true king despite appearances, the one who will succeed where Saul failed. The narrative is meant to show this and that David was faithful to Saul all along.

Other things explained are that David did not kill Nabal but that God did (I Samuel 25), Nabal being evil anyway, and that David did not fight Israel nor did he engage in the battle in which Saul was killed (I Samuel 29). David therefore was not responsible for Saul’s death in any way – Saul in fact killed himself (I Samuel 31). In fact, David executes the man who claims to have slain Saul and weeps both for the king and his son (II Samuel 1). David is so spotless that the fortuitous deaths of Ish-bosheth son of Saul, his rival for the kingship in the north, and his commander Abner are not perpetrated by David but are in fact expressly against his will (II Samuel 3.4). He even takes care of the remaining son of Jonathan (II Samuel 9), and the later killing of Saul’s other descendants is not really David’s fault at all (II Samuel 29:1-14).

A large part of the Samuel narrative thus serves an apologetic function, legitimizing David’s rise and explaining what might otherwise look bad. David is a hero – a warrior, musician, and leader – who transcends normal limitations, taking on Saul’s position by divine choice and succeeding so far where Saul failed.

Chronicles, in the meantime, leaves out most of the story of David’s rise. It first relates Saul’s death in battle, leaving out all other narratives concerning Saul, and declares that Yahweh handed the kingdom over to David because of Saul’s wickedness (I Chronicles 10). David is portrayed as immediately becoming king (though remnants of the memory of his reign in Hebron are retained in particular places like I Chronicles 29:27). I Chronicles 11:1-3 is parallel to I Samuel 5:1-5 yet excludes mention of his reign in Hebron – an example of the Chronicler’s exclusion of all materials which might cast any shadow on David or suggest that there was a struggle or uncertainty in David’s rise. II Samuel 5:1 has “all the tribes of Israel came to David,” reflecting the reality of separate tribal or sociopolitical entities coming together to recognize David. Meanwhile, I Chronicles 11:1 has “all Israel gathered together to David,” stressing the unity of the people as a whole in making this unanimous decision to elevate David. Emphasis is on David as the one who unites all Israel as a people.

The tragic years in David’s life begins with II Samuel 11-12, where David commits adultery and murder (though this tempered by his repentance). I Chronicles 20:1-3 covers the same period, only it excludes II Samuel 11:2 through 12:25 as well as material in the rest of 12 which might make David look bad. I Chronicles includes therefore only the attack of Rabbah and not the story of Bathsheba for which the story of that battle provides a frame. It basically relates II Samuel 11:1 and then moves straight to the material in II Samuel 12:26-31. I Chronicles relates basically only one story that might reflect badly on David, leaving out all others in order to portray David as an ideal figure. This negative story is found in I Chronicles 21, but it is emphasized that Satan incited David, David repented, and that through this the site of the temple was purchased. It is this connection with the temple that seems to provide the reason for the story’s inclusion.

Samuel-Kings, on the other hand, provide quite a bit of material that might reflect negatively on David – or at least on his family – besides the Bathsheba story. David’s sins of murder and rape are continued in his family when the eldest son Amnon rapes his sister and then is killed by the next in line for the throne, his brother Absalom (II Samuel 13). Absalom later tries to usurp his father’s throne (II Samuel 15-18), but is killed by Joab. This seems to indirectly produce another rebellion, which is quickly crushed (II Samuel 19-20). Murder and rape thus beget murder and rape and rebellion against David, who is perhaps portrayed as not always being a very good father and that it is failure in this among other things that leads to his family troubles.

Adonijah is apparently next in line for the throne and intends to succeed his father, supported by much of the court, including Joab and perhaps all of David’s other sons (see I Kings 1). The succession is clearly disputed, as there is a contingent that is in favor of Solomon’s kingship. David meanwhile is presented as impotent, possibly in more ways than one, and is perhaps senile as well – a shadow of his former self. He is old and probably close to death. Through the influence of Bathsheba and Nathan, David declares Solomon king and Adonijah’s bid for kingship is abruptly ended.

For some, these narratives mentioned from Bathsheba onwards suggest that they were originally written against David but were reworked to allow a positive reading and apologetic use (Van Seters actually believes that they formed an antimonarchic narrative which used the Deuteronomistic history rather than the other way around – see Van Seters, pp.287-290). P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., however, believes that they served as a court apologetic (see McCarter, II Samuel, pp.13-16). The tension and ambiguity in the text derives from its nature as apologetic – the author could not deny publicly known faults of David or things that went on and so had to make a version of the stories to explain them as best as possible. The way to deal with it would not be to exclude it or to make overly obvious distortions and so this is why the narratives appear as they do.

The narratives provide a warning for future leaders and shows why Solomon rather than a more “rightful” son was made king – Solomon was the divine choice and the others proved their inadequacy. Amnon raped his sister, so was murdered. Absalom was a murderer and rebelled against his father and so died. Adonijah is presented like Absalom in I Kings 1-2 (see McCarter, II Samuel, pp.9-13) – he is handsome like Absalom (compare II Samuel 14:25 and I Kings 1:6), has similar chariots and horses and runners (compare II Samuel 15:1 and I Kings 1:5), declared himself king (compare II Samuel 15:10 and I Kings 1), and tries to symbolically assert authority through taking David’s women (Absalom with David’s wives in II Samuel 16:22, and Adonijah with Abishag in I Kings 2). The Absalom narrative thus functions, among other things, to put Adonijah in a bad light as the same as Absalom and thus unworthy to be king, Solomon being the right choice. If this is a valid reading, it shows that this is thus another defense of the continued Davidic dynasty.

In Chronicles, by contrast, we see no hint of a deteriorated David. He is still presented spotless, without a troubled family or kingdom. David is the creative and energetic agent of Solomon’s ascent to the throne – no mention is made of Nathan or Bathsheba. David appears fully in control of both himself and his surroundings. No disputation over the succession occurs – Solomon’s acclaim is unanimous and unchallenged, even by David’s sons – in stark contrast to the same events in I Kings (I Chronicles 29:22-24). All Israel is again brought together in unity by David, who passes on leadership to Solomon, thus transitioning the Israelites into their next stage of life in the land.

David is presented in Chronicles as the one who planned and prepared the temple (I Chronicles 22, 28, 29:1-9). He also was the one who prepared for the temple cult (I Chronicles 23-26). David is thus Chronicles’ Moses – founder of nation and cult, to be revered and looked back to. Such places as I Chronicles 22:13 and 28:19-21 are direct echoes of Deuteronomy 31 and Joshua 1, where Joshua is commissioned by Moses to continue God’s work in leading the people into the enjoyment of the land (see also Brettler, pp.35-38). So here Solomon is commissioned by David to continue God’s work in prospering the nation, continuing what David started by building the temple and developing the nation and cult. David thus lays the foundation for a people and it is up to future generations like that of the Chronicler to complete the task by maintaining temple worship, uniting the people of God, and so on. In the same way Moses began the people and it is up to later generations to uphold the law and maintain the cult and so on. Moses laid out the plans for the tabernacle, David for the temple.

The Chronicler seems to want his readers to look to David as to Moses and be encouraged to help continue the work – worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem as the center of a restored people. David is thus used by the Chronicler for his political and theological purpose – he is an icon, an ideal person to be looked to. Jacob M. Meyers reports, “The Chronicler sees Jerusalem as the authentic place of worship, the returnees as the legitimate successors of the people of Judah and the cult personnel, and the community established by them as the true Israel” (Myers, p.xxxvi). The Chronicler’s picture of David thus serves as a vehicle for hope of a national unity in a restored community of all Israel, focused around the second temple and the new community that already exists there. As such, the Chronicler is open to and eager for the inclusion of the north in this community by their allegiance to the temple and its standards and practices (as evidenced in his concern for the north in his genealogies and in his treatment of Hezekiah’s Passover, which included northerners, in II Chronicles 30).

Chronicles might then be the Chronicler’s history for and to create such a community – the community has begun in the current group at Jerusalem but will be made into the community it was meant to be by the influence of Chronicles. According to Norman Gottwald, the community at Jerusalem in this time had no political power to enforce religiocultural views outside its borders except by persuasion, its persuasive power resting on ideological and pragmatic grounds (Gottwald, p.239). Without political power to create conformity, this must come by other means – and Chronicles is the Chronicler’s way of achieving this. Thus Chronicles is not so much interested in David as a real person with problems and enemies and personal complexities but as more of an idea to look to. He is dealt with more for the theological role the Chronicler could give him than as a real person.

Samuel-Kings deals with David in all his complexity as a national and historical figure – all his ambiguities, faults, and dark days. David is presented as flawed, despite his greatness. Yet he is a hero, God’s chosen king, a man after God’s own heart despite deep flaws. He is a warrior and a leader who deteriorates sadly with age yet is never seen by the author as fully and finally rejected by Yahweh as Saul had been – David is God’s king for Israel, and thus his dynasty, despite its detractors, is ordained by God.


Brettler, Marc Zvi, The Creation of History in Ancient Israel, Routledge; New York: 1995.

Gottwald, Norman, The Politics of Ancient Israel, Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky: 2001.

McCarter, Jr., P. Kyle, I Samuel, Doubleday and Company, Inc.; Garden City, New York: 1986.

McCarter, Jr., P. Kyle, II Samuel, Doubleday and Company, Inc.; Garden City, New York: 1984.

Myers, Jacob M., I Chronicles, Doubleday and Company, Inc.; Garden City, New York: 1965.

Van Seters, John, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History, Eisenbrauns; Winona Lake, Indiana: 1997.

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