Sorry for the lack of posts the past couple weeks. Sickness took me out for a full week, and I wasn’t much in the mood for reading the Bible while bed-ridden (I prefer trashy paperback novels).
The books of Samuel (which probably were originally a single document, as the copy found at Qumran is) mark, in my best judgment as an armchair historian, the first material in the Bible that actually contains some real history. My understanding of the archaeological and textual evidence is that David is the first biblical figure we can be reliably sure was a real person, and the question of the historicity of David and the book of Samuel works well as a paradigmatic example for understanding the related issue of the historicity of Jesus and the gospels, a topic I’m much more proficient in discussing.
The best evidence for David’s existence is the Tel Dan Stele, an inscription dated to the 9th century BCE (between one and two centuries after David probably reigned) which mentions both Israel and their ally, the king of “The House of David,” who are both enemies of whomever wrote the inscription. While this is of course no biography, it confirms at the very least that there was a king named David.
When reading through Samuel, one is immediately struck by the disparate visions of David: much of the material is downright reverent of Israel’s idealized king, while there are also many instances of David’s failures both as a king and as a servant of Yahweh (his selfish reasons for bringing the Ark to Jerusalem; his seduction of Bathsheba and downright evil attempt to have her husband killed, etc). Some of David’s misdeeds are equal to or greater than those of the previous king, Saul, who was an abject failure by any metric.
The Deuteronomist, probably the final major redactor of this material, makes his own feelings on kingship clear in 1 Samuel 8:11-18, one of my favorite passages from the entire Bible:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen…and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
This is framed as a warning from the prophet Samuel, the last of the Judges, to the people of Israel who are demanding a king “…like the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5b). As Kugler and Hartin put it, “[the Deuteronomic writers’] understanding of God’s relationship with the people entailed an entire people’s responsibility to the divine; the David-Zion theology required only God’s recognition of one individual” (Kugler-Hartin 151).But the Dueteronomic redactors had to contend with the fact that David had by this time (during or after the Babylonian Exile) become a sort of folk hero, with legends (such as the battle with Goliath) and heroic attributes (his mastery as a musician) having sprouted up around him, which makes sense given the social and political conditions the Jews faced during the Exile. Given the later development of a Davidic Messiah who would deliver the people of Israel from foreign rule, a process which probably began during the Exile, it seems clear that David had become a “once and future king” archetype, much like the later King Arthur of England. The rule of this king from the distant past had become idealized and then projected onto the future.
So what can we know about the real, historical king David? Not much, and much less even than Jesus a millennium later. The traditions about David, while originating much earlier in some cases, were not recorded until centuries later (with Jesus it was only decades) and conflict glaringly with what we know from archaeology. Jerusalem, for example, was a tiny village of only a few hundred people at this time and could not have been the seat of a great kingdom.
But much like the gospels, the aim of the authors, transmitters, and redactors of these stories was not what we would consider history in the 21st century. The Deuteronomist knew no more about the historical life of David when writing his polemics than did the originators of the myths that idealized him. The point was to epitomize a defeated people’s hope for future self-determination under a divinely-blessed king with a historical name that almost everyone would know, not to record what really happened half a millennium earlier.
David was probably a chieftain of a Canaanite tribe that either conquered or originated from Jerusalem. They were definitely not monotheistic, although they probably were monolatristic (they worshiped only Yahweh while acknowledging the existence of other Canaanite gods). David perhaps even conquered some of the surrounding areas and established a petty kingdom centered in Jerusalem that would later evolve into the kingdom of Judah (perhaps he even named it Judah). They almost certainly did skirmish regularly with the Philistines. David probably did have a successor named Solomon who built some type of temple to Yahweh.
These types of things are safe assumptions because they make sense with what we know of the cultural-historical matrix of that time and place. Anything else (Saul, Bathsheba, Goliath), although possibly historical, is just not knowable pending new archaeological evidence.
The historical questions, however, are best left in the back of your mind as you read Samuel. The actual meanings of the stories are about kingship, God’s will for His people, and the continuing and evolving covenant between them.