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The Exegetical Quest for the Historical David :: McKenzie

McKenzie, Steven L. King David: A Biography. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Since the most that can be concluded from the archeological evidence concerning King David is that he existed and likely established a dynasty in Palestine, the search for the true person of King David is mainly exegetical (23-24).  At this point, McKenzie does his readers the favor of presenting his assumptions and approach to the Bible before he begins to reconstruct the life of David.  Since the Bible “is not ‘pure’ history but rather a theological history” with an agenda to instruct a later audience, the author operates on two key principles: 1) a general skepticism based on the assumption that historical revision is almost certainly present in the text and 2) the principle of analogy that “the past was basically analogous to the present and to what is known of similar societies and circumstances” (27, 43-44). 

“Recognition of the apologetic nature of the History of David’s Rise and the Court History” is essential for historical reconstruction (35).  The author of 1-2 Samuel goes out of his way to “overstress” the innocence of David in the deaths of Nabal, Saul (and the obliteration of any possible competent heir to his throne), Abner, Ishbaal, and even David’s own sons—all of which were powerful men (or a potential threat to David’s throne) whose death just happened to be key to David’s rise to, and maintenance of, his power (28-45).  The author assumes based on his two principles of skepticism and analogy that “the accusations against David that the History of David’s Rise and Court History sought to explain away were probably historical” (45).  With this conviction, McKenzie proceeds to give a detailed historical reconstruction.

David was a nobleman of upperclass (e.g. Jesse was an Elder of Bethlehem who owned many sheep, the Lyre was an instrument of the aristocrats) who was forced by economic pressures on his family due to an overpopulation problem in Palestine to, as the last of many sons, find a way to make a living for himself apart from his fathers household.  He was a warrior from his youth but may have originally made his way into the royal household as a musician and eventually, through military service, became Saul’s armor bearer (47-67).  Although the famous “David and Goliath” story is legendary, David probably had impressive military skills and youthful ambition that led him to a place of prominence within Saul’s army.  In fact, he was so successful that Saul began to fear that he would overthrow him—and he did.  After David’s failed attempt to usurp the throne, Saul was forced to go on the offensive “while he still had the upper hand” but David escaped Saul and hid out in the Southern parts of Judah with a band of outlaws (69-88). 

David and his band of rebels raided and pillaged settlements in southern Judah and eventually took over most of southern Judah when David plotted with Abigail to kill Nabal, who was likely the chief of the Calebites—the closest thing to a king in southern Judah (97).  “The pattern of events surrounding Nabal’s death” in the apologetic account (i.e. the biblical account) become the exact same pattern for the death’s of all those who pose a threat to David.  They all die under questionable circumstances “at a time that is very convenient for his political ascent” (100).  Later in the biblical story David teams up with the Philistines (who are the enemy of Saul) and just happens to be away retaliating an Amalekite raid on Ziklag when Saul dies in battle (104).  Even though David’s innocence is stressed, he ends up with Saul’s royal apparel and soon Abner’s life is taken by his military general, and soon Saul’s heir, Ishbaal, is assassinated in his own home and his head is brought to David (111-125).  The Bible pictures David as mourning greatly over each of their deaths, even killing those who had a hand in the death of Saul and his son (though curiously not punishing Joab for killing Abner).  The author concludes: “The more the writer denies David’s participation in Saul’s downfall, the more a critical reader suspects it” (104).

Once David was in power, he moved the capital from Hebron to Jerusalem and brought up the ark because Jerusalem was neutral territory.  It had never been occupied by Judah or Israel, thus it was a potential middle ground between Judah and Israel politically and could better unify the north and the south (132-135).  David immediately puts to death Saul’s heirs, conquers the Philistines, builds a palace, accumulates a harem, maintains and grows his army, taxes the people and forces labor on the northern tribes, acted as a supreme judge in legal cases, instituted a feudal system according to his redivision of Israel into twelve provinces (which ignored tribal lines) “for the purpose of conscription and taxation” (129-152).

Because the people of Hebron were sore about David’s moving the capital away from them and believed that Hebron should be the central place for Yahweh worship and because bitterness developed in Israel over taxation and forced labor (after all, they were a conquered people), Absalom was able to pull off an almost successful rebellion against David by capitalizing on the people’s sense of being oppressed.  In this account, David’s innocence is stressed by his having nothing to do with Absolom’s plot to kill the first heir to David’s throne Amnon and by his appearing too tender hearted to execute proper punishment on his own son when he kills Amnon and even when he attempts to take David’s throne by force.  The blame is placed on “the sons of Zeruiah” for killing Absalom.  Sheba’s revolt, though less serious, was dealt with in exactly the same manner as the story of Abner’s death—Joab greets Amasa (the general) with one hand and stabs him in the belly with the other.  David executes Amasa “as he had done before to Nabal, Saul, Abner, Ishbaal, Amnon, and Absalom” (171).  The story about Bathsheba was not original, McKenzie argues, but is used to explain Absalom’s rebellion as a punishment from Yahweh for his abuse of power in his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his ordering of the death of Urriah (154-173). 

The last episode of David’s life is a great irony because he appears in a piece of apology for Solomon, which places the responsibility for the bloodbath that accompanied Solomon’s rise to power on David, who supposedly gave Solomon direct orders to “execute Joab for his assassination of Abner and Amasa and to take vengeance on Shimei” (183).  The author also thinks Bathsheba had a greater deal of influence over this transition of power then the text would admit (175-184).  


Extrabiblical Evidence for King David

McKenzie, Steven L. King David: A Biography. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

The first part of King David attempts to answer two questions: 1) “Do sources outside of the Bible indicate that David really existed?” and 2) “How may the Bible be used to reconstruct David’s life?” (10).  Although one might surmise that someone as famous and powerful as King David would be greatly attested in the “thousands of ancient documents from hundreds of sites throughout the Middle East” that have been excavated in last two centuries, the truth is that “there is little concrete information about David outside of the Bible” (10).  To be fair, however, the time period in which our author places the rule of the Davidic Kingdom (ca. 1000 B.C.E.) is known as a “dark age” because there is relatively few records from this period of Mesopotamian history than for other historical time periods (10).  “The relative paucity of documents from this period may help to explain why no mention of David was found for such a long time” (11).

Before the summer of 1993 scholars could claim there was not a shred of historical evidence for the historical David outside the Bible.  However, this is no longer true.  Three artifacts have since been discovered that appear to confirm the historicity of King David: 1) the Tel Dan Stele, 2) The Mesha Stele (11-18), and 3) The Shoshenq Relief.  The Tel Dan Stele is simply an inscribed monument (or “stele”) found in the ancient ruins of the city of Dan in northern Israel.  This monument was crafted from a very expensive stone and “was most likely the work of a king,” “clear and elegantly inscribed” (11).  Thought to have been erected by an Aramaic King in ancient Syria sometime before 800 B.C.E., the monument makes reference to “Jehoram son of Ahab, King of Israel” and “Ahaziahu son of Jehoram, king of the House of David” (12).  Both Kings are biblically attested (2 Kgs 9-10) and the language of the “House of David” also parallels the biblical language about the Davidic Kingdom (1 Sam 20:16; 2 Sam 3:1, 6, 1 Kgs 12:19, 26, 2 Kgs 17:21; 2 Chr 10:19; 21:7; Neh 12:37; Ps 122:5; Is 7:2, 13; 16:5; 22:2; Jer 21:12; Zech 12:7-12; 13:1).

The Mesha Stele was a Moabite Stone found in 1868 among the ruins of Dibon (the ancient capital of Moab) that also makes mention of “the house [of Da]vid.”  Even though this monument is “less certain” than the Tel Dan Stele because it is broken and the full phrase is only partially visible, it apparently “would refer to the nation of Judah or its royal family” (14).  The Mesha stele and the Tel Dan inscription together “seem to accord with the Bible’s depiction of David as the founder of the nation and dynasty of Judah—‘the house of David’” (15).

The third discovery known as the Shoshenq Relief hails Pharaoh Shoshenq’s raid into Palestine in 925 B.C.E. in a carving on the temple of Amun in Thebes.  In the context of a list of places that Shosenq claims to have captured in southern Judah and the Negev (the stronghold of the Davidic Kingdom) a phrase appears that the British Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen renders “highland/heights of David” (15).  The reference in this third piece of historical evidence is more disputable and may not refer to King David at all, though some have understood it that way.  In light of the three aforementioned discoveries, the claim that there is no certain reference to David in history is a distortion of the facts (16).  In addition to these inscriptions, there are also archeological sites that are possibly linked to David (17).  This leads the author to conclude:

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 (23).


“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.”

– McKenzie (19)

Book Review :: King David: A Biography by McKenzie

The following is my introduction to a three post-series on the following book:

McKenzie, Steven L. King David: A Biography. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

While this post is an introduction, the first post will be about the quest for extrabiblical sources on King David, the second will be a look at McKenzie’s reconstruction of the Historical David and the third will be a brief response to his approach.   

McKenzie’s book consists of a critical analysis of extrabiblical sources for the life of King David, a critical exploration of the historical relevance of the biblical account of King David and a reconstruction of the life of King David that views the genre of biblical literature about him as royal propaganda. The biblical accounts paint a picture of King David as a humble and gentle man rising to power by the providential hand of Yahweh whose greatest moral flaw was his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of the King Uriah.  McKenzie paints a quite different picture of David as a ruthless powerlust who did whatever it took to rise to, and stay in, power—even to the point of killing his own sons when they became a threat to his throne. 

On the one hand, the author “take[s] the Bible seriously” not only by acknowledging the historicity of the Davidic Kingdom against skeptics, but also by attempting to support his more “realistic” and therefore more “historical” picture of King David with clues in the Bible itself (7, 46).  On the other hand, the author takes a critical approach to the Bible by considering the objective as a quest for the historical David that can only be accomplished by separating historical fact from the literary presentation of David’s life in the biblical account.  Combining a stance of skepticism with critical analysis of the biblical narrative our author views the historical David as an oppressive and ruthless King, and the biblical stories of David are understood to be an attempt to clear David of specific accusations and paint him in the best possible light “as a model king who always ‘did what was right in Yahweh’s eyes’” (34).

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