David – Overview

This topic is still being developed and updated

Overview

David HaMelekh is probably one of the most beloved, but also one of most complex, of all Biblical figures. He is simultaneously poet and politician, savior and killer, devoted father and adulterous husband.  He can be harsh and exacting with loyal followers, yet he is often merciful and forgiving of opponents. David unites the nation into one kingdom and is promised a continuous dynasty, yet his reign is marked by rebellion after rebellion.  He makes Yerushalayim both his political and spiritual capital, demonstrates great faith in and love for Hashem, but he is forbidden from building the Mikdash. How is this composite of opposites to be understood?

Warrior

David rises to fame first and foremost as the nation's savior:

David and Golyat

How did the inexperienced, unarmed, and unarmored David manage to overcome Golyat the giant?

  • Hashem's aid – David's words to Golyat, "אַתָּה בָּא אֵלַי בְּחֶרֶב וּבַחֲנִית וּבְכִידוֹן וְאָנֹכִי בָא אֵלֶיךָ בְּשֵׁם י״י" suggest that David was simply trusting in Hashem's aid, recognizing that wars are not won by might but by God.1
  • Military strategy – It is possible that David was not merely relying on a miracle but had a strategy in mind as well. Recognizing that he could not win in hand to hand combat, David fought from afar with an unexpected slingshot,2 taking Golyat by surprise. Golyat's girth and massive amount of armor made him slow,3 while David had speed on his side, allowing him to kill Golyat while he was still down.
  • Natural weaknesses of Golyat – It is also possible that Golyat was terrifying, but not particularly adept at fighting.  If his height was due to the disorder known as acromegaly (gigantism), it was likely accompanied by weakness of muscle, poor peripheral vision, and swollen joints, all of which would be major disadvantages in battle.
  • Combination – Likely, David's success was a mixture of the above factors. David did his best and then left the rest to Hashem, who might have used natural means (Golyat's disorder) to lead David to victory.

Conquest of Yerushalayim

How did David manage to conquer the strongly fortified Yerushalayim? The answer apparently lies in David's words, "כׇּל מַכֵּה יְבֻסִי וְיִגַּע בַּצִּנּוֹר", but what is the "‎צנור"‎4 and what role did it play in David's plan?

  • Weapon – The Septuagint understands the word צנור  to refer to a dagger-like weapon, presenting David as simply telling his men to kill off the blind and lame mentioned by the Jebusites.
  • Tower – RashiShemuel II 5:8About R. Shelomo Yitzchaki and RadakShemuel II 5:8About R. David Kimchi, instead, assume that it refers to a tower and that David was telling his men to capture the city's fortifications.
  • Water tunnel –  Modern scholars suggest that the word refers to a water tunnel via which David hoped his men would enter the city and conquer it from within (thereby circumventing the problem of the city's walls). This might be supported by the word's only other appearance in Tanakh, "תְּהוֹם אֶל תְּהוֹם קוֹרֵא לְקוֹל צִנּוֹרֶיךָ כׇּל מִשְׁבָּרֶיךָ וְגַלֶּיךָ עָלַי עָבָרוּ" (Tehillim 42:8). Recent excavations in Ir David have uncovered a massive tower dating to the Middle Bronze Period which served to protect the Gichon Spring and a fortified subterranean passage which connected the city to its water sources.5 It is possible that Yoav's task was to penetrate the city via the tower and tunnel.6

Wars of Conquest

David embarks not only on defensive wars but also on wars of conquest, expanding Israel's borders and turning Israel into an empire. Perhaps surprisingly, commentators differ in their evaluation of this enterprise:

Politician

David is a master politician, adept at the art of deal making and compromise:

Uniting the Kingdom: Alliance with Avner

In Shemuel II 3, when Avner approaches David to make an alliance, end the civil war, and hand over the kingdom, David makes the deal contingent on Avner returning Michal.  What prompts David's request?  Is such a personal demand appropriate when dealing with politics?

Treatment of Opponents

One of the policies that marks David's reign is his repeated show of clemency to his opponents. For example, despite Shaul's continuous attempts on his life, he refuses to kill him. Though Avner had backed Ishboshet and even served as his chief general, David willingly makes peace with him. Though Amasa served as Avshalom's general-in-chief, David not only forgives him, but even appoints him as his own general. Finally, despite Shimi's curses, David swears not to kill him.  How should David's actions be understood and evaluated?

  • Altruism – Hoil MosheKings I 2:8About R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi maintains that David's merciful attitude was purely altruistic and is to be commended. In fact, he suggests that when David, on his deathbed, asks Shelomo to seek revenge, this represents a change of heart and is a stain on David's reputation. [See David's Deathbed Instructions to Shelomo.]
  • Political agenda – Alternatively, one could argue the exact opposite, that David was not altruistic but self-serving. He felt that a policy of co-opting his enemies by rewarding them served him better than punishing them would have.8 
    • Positive – Some would argue that this was the correct route, following the dictum "איזו גבור בגבורים... מי שעושה שונאו אוהבו"‎.9 
    • Negative – Others, though, might argue that it is not always right to reward one's enemies10 and that perhaps a harsher, more punitive policy would have been proper and even more successful.

Choice of Yerushalayim

What made David choose Yerushalayim as his capital? Was David's selection of the city due to political considerations, military concerns, or economic needs? To what extent did the city's religious significance play into his decision? {for a full discussion of the issue, see Choice of Yerushalayim.]

  • Religious significance – Yerushalayim was picked as David's capital for its religious significance. The city was considered holy and Divinely chosen already from Creation
  • Security considerations – David chose Jerusalem as his capital due to a combination of strategic factors, including its defensibility, central location, and availability of water resources.
  • Political needs – MalbimShemuel II 5:6About R. Meir Leibush Weiser claims that David's choice was predominantly motivated by a political agenda, serving as part of his effort to unite the various tribes, and especially Yehuda and Binyamin, into one centralized nation.

Poet

Musician

Sefer Shemuel attests to David's musical abilities, describing how David was chosen to play the harp to calm Shaul when plagued by the "evil spirit".  Shemuel II 22Divrei HaYamim I 16 and Tehillim further attest to the many songs / prayers David composed in praise of Hashem.11 Later sources elaborate on both David's musical pursuits and harp:

Author of Psalms

Bavli Bava BatraBava Batra 14bAbout Bavli Bava Batra attributes the writing of the Book of Psalms to David together with ten elders. This is supported by the conclusion of Psalm 72 which reads, "כָּלּוּ תְפִלּוֹת דָּוִד בֶּן יִשָׁי", suggesting that most, if not all, of the previous psalms were authored by him.12  Many other psalms also mention David either in the heading or body,13 implying that these too might have been composed by David or at least written in his honor. 

Many psalms explicitly refer to events from David's life, including his flight from Shaul,14 his desire to build the Mikdash,15 conquest of enemies,16 his sin with Batsheva17 and flight from Avshalom18.  The following chart lists these psalms and the chapters in Shemuel to which they refer:

Psalm Event Reference
3 Flight from Avshalom Shemuel II 15-17
14, 53 Interactions with Naval Shemuel I 25
18 Salvation from enemies and Shaul Shemuel I 21-30
30, 132 Desire to build the Mikdash Shemuel II 7
34, 56 Salvation from the Philistines in Gat Shemuel I 21:10-15
51 Sin with Batsheva Shemuel II 11-12
52 Doeg informs on David to Shaul Shemuel I 22:7-23
54 The Zifim inform on David to Shaul Shemuel I 23:19-19
57, 142 David's hiding in the cave Shemuel II 22 or 24
59 Shaul attempts to kill David in his home Shemuel I 19 11-17
60 David's wars of Conquest Shemuel II 8
63 David in Midbar Yehuda Shemuel II 22

Unique Traits

Recognition of Hashem

One of the traits that distinguishes David is his constant recognition of Hashem. He demonstrates time and again that he understands that it is Hashem, not the king, who is the ultimate authority, and that all success is due to Him and not man:

  • David and Golyat – See above that David's ability to fight Golyat without weapon or armor stemmed from his knowledge that wars are won by God, not by man.
  • Battle in Emek Refaim - The commentary attributed to R. Yosef KaraShemuel II 5:24About Attributed to R. Yosef Kara suggests that Hashem tested David in his battle with the Philistines to see whether David would fear man more than God.  He told David to wait to fight until he heard rustling in the trees despite a potential counter-attack in the interim. David passed the test, remembering that victory is not dependent on human might and strategy but on Hashem.
  • David and Michal – See Michal and David's Argument and the discussion below that the argument between the two might have stemmed from their differing perceptions of kingship, with David emphasizing that his position as king did not elevate him above the nation, for all are equal before God, the true King.
  • David's Song (Shemuel II 22) – David's reliance on Hashem and recognition of Him as the true savior is is one of the main themes of David's song of praise at the end of Sefer Shemuel.  See, for example, David's words, " יְהֹוָה סַלְעִי וּמְצֻדָתִי וּמְפַלְטִי לִי",  "כִּי בְכָה אָרוּץ גְּדוּד", "הָאֵל מָעוּזִּי חָיִל.‎  These mirror the message of Channah's song in the beginning of the book, "כי לא בכח יגבר איש". [For elaboration on the relationship between the two songs, see Channah's Prayer and David's Song.]19 
  • Rejection of Shaul – See Shaul's Sin in Gilgal and Shaul's Sin in the Battle with Amalek that David's recognition of Hashem as the ultimate authority and King might be what distinguished him from Shaul, meriting him kingship while Shaul lost it.

"לאהבה את שונאך"

See the discussion above regarding David's clemency towards his enemies and whether or not this is a policy to be admired.

"יֹדֵעַ נַגֵּן וְגִבּוֹר חַיִל וְאִישׁ מִלְחָמָה וּנְבוֹן דָּבָר וְאִישׁ תֹּאַר וַי״י עִמּוֹ"

When choosing a musician for Shaul, the servants describe David as being "יֹדֵעַ נַגֵּן וְגִבּוֹר חַיִל וְאִישׁ מִלְחָמָה וּנְבוֹן דָּבָר וְאִישׁ תֹּאַר וַי״י עִמּוֹ".  David was not only gifted in the musical arts, but also a man of courage, versed in war, intelligent, and good looking.  Last, and most importantly, Hashem was with him. Apparently, Shaul was looking not simply for a musician but for a man of many talents who could represent the palace honorably in all manner of fields.

Possible Sins / Flaws

David and Batsheva

Shemuel II 11 recounts the story of David's sin with Batsheva without any attempt to obscure the king's objectionable behavior. According to a simple reading of the verses, David commits adultery with Batsheva and then has her husband, Uriah, killed in battle so as to marry her and cover up the sin. Given that David is reputed to be an upright figure, how are we to understand his actions?  Moreover, if he really committed such heinous crimes, how is it that David did not lose his kingship? [For discussion, see David and Batsheva.]

Counting the Nation

Shemuel II 2421 tells of David's decision to count the nation and the consequent plague that killed 70,000 people. Though the narrative implies that the census was the cause of the catastrophe, it is not clear what sin was transgressed that led to such a severe punishment. How was David's census different from the many others in Tanakh which were conducted without disastrous consequences? [For elaboration, see David's Counting of the Nation.]

"דָּם לָרֹב שָׁפַכְתָּ"

In relaying why he was refused permission to build the Beit HaMikdash, David says, "וְהָאֱלֹהִים אָמַר לִי לֹא תִבְנֶה בַיִת לִשְׁמִי כִּי אִישׁ מִלְחָמוֹת אַתָּה וְדָמִים שָׁפָכְתָּ", attributing the refusal to the "blood spilled" by David.  What blood is referred to and why was it problematic? [For more, see Why Couldn't David Build the Beit HaMikdash.]

Family Life

David and Michal

David and Michal's relationship has an auspicious beginning, with the text twice sharing Michal's love for David. Somewhere in the middle though, things sour and the two squabble.  When David dances in front of the ark, Michal watches from the window and is filled with scorn. A heated exchange follows in which both put down the other, with David rubbing in how he was picked as king in place of Michal's father, Shaul.  How did love morph into mockery? What lies at the heart of this spat and what does it betray about David and Michal's relationship?

  • Dispute over monarchic behavior – Midrash Shemuel25About Midrash Shemuel suggests that the dispute stemmed from differing attitudes towards kingship. Michal felt that a king must  be above the people, viewing David's mingling and dancing with the nation as unbefitting the dignity of the office. David, in contrast, felt that before God, the true King, he really was no different from anyone else in the nation and that to truly honor God, he needed to put himself on par with them.
  • Dispute over marital relations – Several modern scholars,24 in contrast, maintain that Michal's outburst related to her personal, family life with David. Seeing him dance with the maidservants highlighted the problematic nature of in their relationship. While Michal had hoped the marriage would be built on love, David viewed it as a tool for political gain. For elaboration, see Michal and David's Argument.

Comparisons to Other Figures

Setting up foils is often a useful method to highlight the unique aspects of a character or story. What can be learned about David from the following comparisons?

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