Of the historical David we know next to nothing. This article is about the literary story of David in the biblical account
in 1 Samuel 16–1 Kings 2. This account ranks among the finest literature in the Hebrew Bible for its scope, intricate plot, subtlety, and complexity of character development. It presents David as the man chosen after God’s own heart to replace King Saul.
The story of David’s rise (1 Samuel 16–2 Samuel 8)
He is anointed king over Israel in 1 Samuel 16:6-13, and described in 16:18 as ‘skilful in playing [the lyre], a man of valour, a man of war, prudent in speech, a man of good presence and the LORD is with him’. This description well fits the picture given of David in the account of his rise to the throne. Although he encounters setbacks when Saul’s jealousy and attempts on his life force him to flee the court and when he puts his reputation with his people on the line by seeking refuge among their enemies, the Philistines, everything works out to his advantage (in 1 Samuel 24 and 26, despite appearances, it is clear to the reader that David is not a traitor). After Saul and his son Jonathan are killed in battle, the kingdom passes from Saul’s house to David without serious incident, as members of Saul’s house are progressively eliminated without blame attaching to David.
The character of David in the story of his rise
The David of 1 Samuel 16–2 Samuel 8 is a public persona. The biblical narrator offers no insight into his thoughts or feelings, leaving the reader to form an opinion about him from what he says and does. His repeated declarations of trust in God, beginning with his defeat of Goliath (1 Samuel 17), like his refusal to raise his hand against Saul because he is the anointed king (1 Samuel 24 and 26) and his reaction to the news of Saul’s death (he has the man who claimed to have killed Saul put to death, 2 Samuel 1; see also 2 Samuel 4:10) may all be utterly sincere but they also have the effect of making David look good in the eyes of the people he will some day rule. In addition, David has a close relationship to God. He inquires of God directly and receives unqualified support (for example, 1 Samuel 23:2-4; 30:8; 2 Samuel 2:1; 5:19, 22-24). In 2 Samuel 5-8 David reaches the height of his fortunes as king over Israel and Judah. He extends his power, makes Jerusalem his capital and brings the ark of the covenant there. The crowning event occurs when he receives the promise of an eternal dynasty from God through the prophet Nathan.
The story of David’s reign (2 Samuel 9–1 Kings 2)
David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah marks a dramatic turning point in his fortunes (2 Samuel 11-12). In the story of David’s reign, two themes feature prominently. One is the theme of crime and punishment: the sword will never depart from David’s house. His children re-enact, as it were, his crimes. His son Amnon rapes Tamar, David’s daughter and Amnon’s half-sister, reflecting David’s adultery with Bathsheba; his son Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, kills Amnon in revenge, echoing David’s murder of Uriah. His relationship with his father irreparable, Absalom leads a revolt against him that threatens the very foundations of the kingdom, and fulfils the prophecy of 2 Samuel 12:11-12, before meeting his death. A second revolt against David’s rule, led by a man from Saul’s tribe of Benjamin, is also put down, but these examples of unrest point to deeper problems with David’s management of his kingdom.
The character of David in the story of his reign
David is a considerably more complex character in the account of his reign than in the story of his rise. His reactions to the disasters that befall his house as a result of his sin show David the father at odds with David the king and reveal a tension between the public David and the private David. Yet, in spite of all the reader learns about David’s private life, many questions about his motivations are left unanswered. Changed too is David’s relationship to God. His early direct, seemingly uncomplicated access to God gives way to a more uncertain relationship, where David cannot be sure of divine aid but rather can only hope for it (2 Samuel 12:22; 15:25-26, 31; 16:12). When he abandons Jerusalem to Absalom, however, he does more than simply leave matters in God’s hands; he also sends the priests Abiathar and Zadok back to Jerusalem with the ark to act as spies, and he enlists Hushai to defeat the sound counsel given to Absalom by Ahithophel (15:27-29, 32-36) .
The succession to David
The question which of David’s sons will rule on the throne after him introduces the theme of succession. Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah die violent deaths at the hands of family relations, and the kingdom is established in Solomon’s hands. Whether or not David, on his deathbed, is duped into proclaiming Solomon king is not entirely clear.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. David Remembered: Kingship and National Identity in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, England: Eerdmans, 2013.
Borgman, Paul. David, Saul, and God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Exum, J. Cheryl. “David: The Judgment of God.” Pages 120-49 in Tragedy and Biblical Narrative: Arrows of the Almighty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.