The David Dossier Chapter One: The Nature of the Historical Writings




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The David Dossier
Chapter One: The Nature of the Historical Writings

Can we know anything at all about David? Did he exist?

A major preliminary question is whether it is possible even to attempt to reconstruct the history of the time of David, let alone to recover the personality and character of David. During the 1990s the current of ‘revisionist’ historians grew ever stronger and more dominant. The patriarchal stories were seen as a construction after the exile to provide a parallel to the story of the return from exile, a crossing of the desert to take possession of the land at divine command by strangers from Mesopotamia, namely Abraham from Ur and Jacob returning from Aram-Naharaim. As early as 1983 John van Seters had written, ‘This study has shown that the Court History [the major Succession Narrative in 2 Sm] was not contemporary historical reporting but a post-Deuteronomic work of quite a different kind’ (In Search of History, p. 355), namely ‘a post-exilic response to Deuteronomy’ (p. 361). It can also be seen in terms of comparative folk-lore. Thus Hans M. Barstad (‘History and the Hebrew Bible’ in Lester L. Grabbe, ed., Can a ‘History of Israel’ be Written?, Sheffield Academic Press 1997, p. 37-64) argues that in the ancient world national histories have various myths which always, or at least normally, feature in the construction: a myth of migration to a land, a myth of origins or settlement, the myth of a golden age (this features in Israelite history in the age of the Davidic Empire), a myth of degeneration, and a myth of regeneration (in biblical history, the era of Ezra and Nehemiah). Such a pattern serves as the unconscious model for Israelite history, but does not necessarily imply that all factual truth is absent. Such optimism would hardly be echoed by Philip Davies (in his article ‘Biblical Historians, ancient and modern’, p. 110) who claims that ‘Historians cannot write a critical history in which a ‘patriarchal age’ and an Israelite ‘conquest of Canaan’ figure’.

Even more radically, in the same collection Niels Peter Lemche (‘Clio is also among the Muses!’, p. 123-155) sees the early history of Israel as a projection backwards of a certain view of twentieth century history: in the 1920s the great biblical historian Albrecht Alt saw the history of Palestine in terms of Jewish immigration to the British Mandated Palestine. The ancient Israelites were the Jews, the inferior Canaanites the dispossessed Arabs. Alt’s basic idea was that ‘the Palestinians or Canaanites were no more than a wretched bunch of idol worshippers who were really not worth paying attention to’ (Lemche, p. 139). Consequently that American doyen of archaeologists and historians in the 1930s, William J. Albright, ‘accepts genocide if only the victims belong to an inferior race’ (Lemche, p. 135), and this was linked to a ‘conviction that the religious beliefs of the Canaanites were limited to fertility rites, unlike the religion of the Israelites, which focused on ethics and morality’ (p. 136). For Lemche this is to rob a whole area of its history and dignity, especially unjustifiably since in 1992 Philip Davies and Thomas Thompson ‘showed that the ancient Israelites themselves were also fictitious creations of the imagination of the biblical historians’ (p. 138).

In the same vein, but concentrating on our period, Philip Davies holds (The Origin of the Ancient Israelite States, Sheffield Academic Press 1996, the papers given at a conference held in 1995 in a Jerusalem about to celebrate its 3000 years) ‘the issue is whether such a figure as the David of the Bible existed’ (p. 15), to which Lemche’s answer will be negative, since even on the biblical evidence there was no Judaean state in the tenth century, despite the portrait of David’s huge empire (p. 18). So Diana Edelman contends, perhaps more positively than some of the other participants would accept, that the literary picture of Saul provided by the Books of Samuel is compounded of and based on:

A story underlying 1 Sm 9.1-10.16, ‘How Saul took control of a segment of Mount Ephraim’ (p. 153).

A saying, twice repeated 1 Sm 10.11-12; 19.24, ‘Is Saul one of the prophets too?’

Two popular songs, 18.7; 21.12 ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’, and the Lament over Saul and Jonathan, 2 Sm 1.19-27 (note that Saul is nowhere given the title of ‘king’). According to Edelman, p. 151, ‘most of the information [in 1 Sm 28-31] is a creative imagining of events based on the information in the lament’.

A little administrative list, 2 Sm 1.9, that Saul was ‘king of Gilead, of the Asherites, of Jezreel, of Ephraim, of Benjamin and indeed of all Israel’.

Such literary analyses are combined with an appeal to the lack of confirmation of the biblical story by any evidence outside the Bible. At this time, it is claimed, resources were simply inadequate for any desire to or possibility of preserving historical records. Jerusalem was a mere undeveloped hamlet. Extra-biblical evidence can only be archaeological, and this is in short supply. Recently, however, two inscriptions have provided strong evidence for the historic importance of David.

Inscriptions testify to the lasting importance of David

The first inscription to be discussed is the Mesha or Moabite Stone1. This is a victory-inscription commemorating triumphs of Mesha over the king of Israel and the House of David in Transjordan. The empire won by David, according to the Bible, on the eastern shore of the Jordan did not last, and this inscription records its whittling away. The earlier part of the inscription records Mesha’s victories in the territory of Gad and Reuben, north of the River Arnon. (The biblical account in 2 Kgs 3.27 gives a different angle: the Israelites simply withdrew, in horror at Mesha having sacrificed his own son). Attention then moves south, to Horonen, south-east of the Dead Sea, in the territory controlled by Judah. André Lemaire has restored the crucial sentence before the inscription breaks off as ‘and the House of David dwelt in Horonen’ (line 31). Clermont-Ganneau attained the outline b**wd (** representing two illegible letters). Subsequent scholars advanced to bt*wd. Now Lemaire2 claims to read a missing d, making btdwd or ‘House of David’. This would constitute an important indication of the continuing reputation of David’s dynasty in about 850 BC, a testimony to the overriding and continuing importance of David in the constitution of the kingdom of Judah. It is notable that the dynasty of David remains stable throughout the history of Judah, while in the northern kingdom of Israel, lacking the tradition of David, dynasties change with striking rapidity.

To the Mesha Stone has now been joined the David Inscription from Tell Dan. This monumental victory-inscription in Aramaic was discovered in 1993 at Tell Dan on the extreme northern border of Israel, and two other missing pieces a year later.3 The writer claims that with the help of the (Syrian) god Hadad he has destroyed thousands of chariots and horses of the King of Israel. On the next line stands -k bytdwd. This is most plausibly read – remember that Aramaic, like Hebrew, writes only the consonants, not the vowels - as the final letter of ‘king’ (melek), followed by ‘of the House of David’. There are difficulties, chief among which are:


  1. A word-dividing dot stands between all the words except bytdwd. One would therefore expect byt.dwd. It is, however, quite possible that this expression is considered a single word, by analogy with ‘Israel’, the other country mentioned.

  2. There is not a neat parallel between the two kings. One would expect either ‘Israel’ and ‘Judah’ or ‘House of Omri’ and ‘House of David’. A similar unevenness occurs in the Mesha Stone, and it seems fair to consider both as testimonies to the greater importance of the Davidic dynasty in the southern kingdom of Judah than even of Omri in the north.

  3. It has been claimed that dwd is a local deity. But none of the claimed inscriptional instances of the word as the name of a deity offers more than the most fragile support (see Hans Barstad and Bob Becking in ‘Does the Stele from Tel-Dan refer to a deity Dod?’ in Biblische Notizen 77 (1995).

One of the subsequently-discovered fragments gives us the clue to who these two kings were, by means of two fragmentary word-endings, rm and jhw (i.e. -ram and -yahw), each followed by br, i.e. bar ‘son of’, which shows that they are the ending of names, each about to give also the father’s name. The only two contemporary kings who fit these data are Jehoram of Israel (reigned 850-845) and Ahasjahu (usually spelt in English ‘Ahaziah’) of Judah (845), and indeed 2 Kings 8.28-29 records that these two made war together against Hazael of Damascus, and that Jehoram was wounded in the battle. The chief deduction, however, to be drawn from these two inscriptions is that David was remembered nearly two centuries later in the mid-ninth century with sufficient vigour for Judah to be known as ‘the House of David’.


The Nature of the biblical Sources

The ‘revisionists’ claim that the composition of the Books of Samuel dates from several centuries after the events described. The final edition is, without doubt, part of the great Deuteronomic History which views the whole history of the period from the ‘Settlement in Canaan’ under Joshua to the Exile from the optic of fidelity to Yahweh’s commands (which brings success) and infidelity (which brings disaster, eventually the Exile to Babylon). Similar phrases and motifs occur throughout this history – perhaps most clearly characterized in Judges 2.11-16, 1 Sm 8 or 2 Kings 23.24-27. The completion of this history is usually placed late in the period of the Exile or soon after the Exile. The question is, however, how ancient and how reliable were the sources used in the composition of this history. For the later period of the monarchy court records were used, as is shown for example by 1 Kings 22.46, ‘The rest of the history of Jehoshaphat, the valour he showed, the wars he waged, is this not recorded in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?’ For the earlier part of the story the sources are much more folk-loristic. So much of the account of the Settlement given in the Book of Joshua is culled from aetiological myths explaining, with very doubtful historicity, features of the landscape or customs, e.g. the capture of Jericho (Joshua 6) or Ai (Joshua 8 – the very name means ‘Ruin’), the name Ramath-Lehi = ‘hill of the jawbone’ (Judges 15.17), the special status within Israel of the inhabitants of Gibeon (Joshua 9). Many of the stories of exploits in the Book of Judges are typical of the swashbuckling exploits of popular folk-lore (e.g. Ehud in Jg 3, much of the cycle of Samson in Jg 13-16).


Amid these, however, and at the opposite extreme, are fragments of ancient poetry, often quite extensive, whose verse-form would have made them more easily and more exactly memorable; they may be presumed to be contemporary with the events they celebrate. The Song of Deborah (Judges 5) could hardly have been composed later, for it gives a very different picture of the real relationship between the tribes in the early years of the settlement from the fraternally united twelve-tribe league which was later to become a standard construct. Even names of the tribes are different: Simeon and Judah are not mentioned, and ‘Machir’ (Jg 5.14) appears to be one of the tribes. Other fragments of poetry are noted as having been preserved in the Book of the Just, such as the poetic version of Joshua’s victory over the Amorites (Jos 10.12-13), David’s Lament (2 Sm 1.18) and Solomon’s Prayer (1 Kings 8.12-13 LXX).
To come to the story of David itself, two different major sources exist, which must be considered separately. The first concerns the kingship of Saul and the rise of David, the second David’s own reign. The first, confined almost entirely to 1 Samuel (splaying over into the first chapter of what has now been divided off as 2 Samuel), is marked by a series of doublets.

  • Twice Saul is appointed king, once anointed privately by Samuel (9.1-10.13), once publicly selected by lot (10.17-27).

  • Twice Saul is rejected by God through Samuel on rather inadequate ritual grounds, once for himself sacrificing when Samuel fails to keep his appointment (13.8-14), once for failing to sacrifice all the Amalekite captives and their goods (15.10-33).

  • Twice Saul, assaulted by an evil spirit, attempts to spear David to the wall while David is attempting to soothe him with music (18.10-11; 19.9-10).

  • Twice Saul offers David his daughter in marriage, each time in an attempt to keep David under his own control, and each time David responds with a statement of his own unworthiness. Once the daughter is Merab (18.17-19), once Michal (18.20-27).

  • Twice Jonathan intervenes with Saul on David’s behalf, devising some slightly obscure messaging system in the countryside (19.1-7; 20.1-42).

  • Twice David takes service with Israel’s enemies, Achish king of Gath, once diverting suspicion by playing the madman (21.11-14), once settling in happily and setting up his own double-crossing activity (27.1-12)

  • Twice David, pursued in the desert by Saul, spares Saul in humiliating circumstances, grounding his restraint on a prohibition of striking the Lord’s anointed (24; 26)

  • Twice the death of Saul is recounted, once directly, in which case the mortally wounded Saul falls on his own sword to escape capture (31.1-7), once in the message of the Amalekite warrior who claims to have killed him at his own request (2 Samuel 1.1-10).

Attempts have been made to divide these into an A and B source. Halpern sets up a table, p. 277-9, but neither here nor in his commentary, p. 263-76, does he – to my mind – succeed in delineating a pattern which would distinguish two sets of material (e.g. one more favourable to Saul than the other, one more hostile or hesitant towards the Philistines, one in which the direction of affairs by God is clearer), let alone that one is earlier than the other. In addition, there are occasions when not two but three versions occur. The young David is introduced three times, once as picked out for anointing by Samuel - a typical conventional legend of the discovery of a boy-hero, at variance with the later anointings as king of Judah at Hebron (2 Sm 2.4), then as king of Israel at Jerusalem (5.3). On one occasion David is introduced to court by Saul’s retinue as a young musician to charm the troubled king’s moods (1 Sm 16.14-23). On another occasion he comes before Saul, quite unknown, as part of the single combat with Goliath (17)4. The taunt-song, ‘Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands’, is used three times (18.7; 21.12; 29.5) in different circumstances. The popular saying, ‘Is Saul one of the prophets too?’, occurs twice in wholly different situations (10.10-12; 19.20-24). Unless some clear pattern can be found to bind these stories together into two clearly-differentiated series, it seems better to assume that there were simply different popular traditions current and circulating about David’s rise to power, which were then gathered together.


On the other hand, it has long been claimed that the second major source, comprising the latter part of the story, the so-called Succession Narrative (2 Sm 9-20 plus 1 Kings 1-2), originally isolated by L. Rost in his 1924 book Die Überlieferung von der Thronnachfolge Davids, must be a single near-contemporary account. Different authors have made different estimates of where this homogeneous account begins. Rost saw it as running from the comment in 2 Sm 6.23 that Michal, David’s wife, remained childless to the final comment that Solomon was secure on the throne in 2 Kings 2.46. A strong case is made out by Kiyoshi Sacon5 that the subject-matter (David’s political advancement narrated from a personal and sexual angle, echoing particularly the sexuo-political intrigue of the final section in 1 Kings 1-2) and the concentric structures of 2 Sm 3.6-4.12 unite this section to the narrative.
There are also differences between scholars on the purpose of the narrative. Rost saw its purpose as being to glorify Solomon. For him the clue to the central interest of the whole account is given in the repeated question, ‘Who shall sit upon the throne of David?’ L. Delekat, however, in 19676 reversed this process, with the claim that the purpose of the narrative was to shake Israel’s loyalty to Solomon by showing that both David and Solomon exercized power in an arbitrary and unfair manner. David Gunn goes further: he refuses to comment on the date or historicity of the narrative, treating it solely from a literary point of view. For him there is no particular political or moralistic Tendenz in the story. In his article, ‘David and the Gift of the Kingdom’ (Semeia 3, 1975, p. 14-45) he argues that the author concentrates on ‘a picture of the rich variety of life’, since ‘his judgement is tempered by his sense of the intricacy and ambivalence of the situations that confront his characters’ (p. 36). An important theme of the story is the contrast between public and private life: David remains passive in receiving the kingdom through the efforts of others, surrenders it to Absalom without a struggle, receives it back almost unwillingly, and finally passively acquiesces in Solomon’s succession. This passivity stands in sharp contrast to David’s scheming ambition in the stories of 1 Samuel. Within 2 Samuel the striking contrast, is between David’s political and private life, for in his private life he behaves energetically in his pursuit of Bathsheba and his elimination of her husband, and then the whole story becomes dominated by his indulgent affection for his children. Consequently it may be doubted whether the story is correctly named ‘The Succession Narrative’; more apt would be simply ‘The Court Narrative’, as in the article of the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Accordingly, Dunn concludes both this article and – three years later - the book King David, genre and interpretation (Sheffield, JSOT Supplement 6, 1978) with the same sentence, ‘This is the work of no propagandist pamphleteer nor moralizing teacher: the vision is artistic, the author, above all, a fine teller of tales’ (p. 111).
One puzzling feature which must be explained if any political Tendenz is claimed is the difference between to final two chapters (1 Kings 1-2) and the earlier material. The literary techniques employed leave no doubt that the ultimate author is the same. The politico-moral Tendenz of the final two chapters, is, however to legitimate Solomon’s accession to the throne and to excuse Solomon for the systematic liquidation of David’s old guard, putting the blame squarely onto David himself, wizened and defenceless as he now is. The overall purpose of the earlier account is to win the reader’s affection for David, warts and all. Is there a radical break between the sources used by the author of ‘the Court Narrative’ in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, which remains visible even through his skilled re-shaping of the material?
Would the shaping of the story for a political propagandist end imply that the account, although admittedly making a political and dynastic point, is historically unreliable? The detail and characterization of the personalities involved can, it is claimed, stem only from a contemporary who knew the personalities intimately, normally held to have written at the court of King Solomon. In any case, whether a political Tendenz has affected the writing or not, it is important to point out that superb story-telling and characterization are not the preserve of historical writers, but can equally well typify a work of fiction. At the other extreme, if David Gunn is correct, that it is ‘a story told for the purpose of serious entertainment’ (The Story of King David, p. 62), how much veracity should be expected? In the narrative (as pointed out be Eissfeldt) private conversations are relayed, as between between Amnon and Tamar in her bedroom, and presented with balance and artistry. The incident may have occurred, but imagination and literary skill have certainly contributed to its telling. Occasional details suggest that the author may not be so totally contemporary as was once thought. One or two anachronistic hints slip in, as when David goes to ‘Yahweh’s sanctuary’ (12.20), though the Temple had not yet been built. There are indications that the events took place some time before, as the remark about Tamar’s dress, ‘for this was what the king’s unmarried daughters wore in days gone by’ (13.18). (Similarly in 1 Sm 27.6 a certain distance is suggested by the note that ‘Ziklag has been the property of the kings of Judah to the present day’).
Strong and detailed arguments for the basic historicity of the David accounts in the Bible are presented by Baruch Halpern in his book David’s Secret Demons, messiah, murderer, traitor, king (Eerdmans, 2001), p. 57-72, before he goes on to represent David as a mass murderer or serial killer. It is important to distinguish Halpern’s historical data from his interpretations. On the one hand Halpern, driving the hermeneutic of suspicion to its ultimate, maintains that many of the basic facts presented in the biblical narrative are untrue or at least twisted. David never served under Saul (p. 283). The connection of David to both Saul and Jonathan relies primarily on David’s Lament, which is ‘part of David’s alibi for Saul’s death’ (p. 284) for which David was in fact responsible. Typical of Halpern’s method is the cui bono? argument, for example in the insidious suspicion that David provoked the revolt of Absalom: it ‘could not have turned out better if David had planned it… since he profited from it, one ought to wonder’ whether he provoked it (p. 380). On the other hand he does bring to light a host of arguments to show that the sources for the David story are contemporary.


  1. Places names are indicative. Neither Bahurim nor Nob, important in the David story, feature in the lists seventh-century lists of Joshua 18.21-28 (p. 64); they must have lost their importance by then, or even ceased to exist. A number of David’s heroes come from the Negev, which was settled in the time of David, and where neither earlier nor later archaeological traces have been found (p. 65, backed up by William G. Dever, in Tomoo Ishida, p. 285). Similarly Gath, a powerful city in David’s time, becomes increasingly unimportant archaeologically after the tenth century (p. 69).

  2. Many of the names in the accounts are of the type which occur on inscribed objects like arrow-heads from this period but not later, e.g. Hushai (2 Sm 17), Naharai (2 Sm 23.37). By contrast the names compounded with the divine name ‘Yah’, popular in later centuries, are rare (p. 71). How many children were named ‘Glen’ and ‘Stacy’ a generation ago, how many ‘Albert’ today?

  3. Spellings of names and other words is characteristic of those found on early inscriptions, and markedly different from those of later, especially post-exilic, times (p. 59-62). Where does a text featuring ‘color’ and ‘worshipers’ originate? The unit of weight pym (1 Sm 13.21) occurs on archaeological objects of this period, but not after the Exile (p. 57-58). Similarly a twenty-first century story would scarcely include shillings and pence.

In the last analysis it seems that the author of this material was close enough to the events he reports to give an accurate account. At the same time, the artistry with which he reports the events makes it clear that his purpose is ‘serious entertainment’ (David Gunn). What does this ambiguous phrase mean? What is the relationship between the two terms? If the seriousness of the entertainment does not lie in a political purpose, is its purpose to show the mixture of personal and private motives, laudable, attractive and generous, self-seeking, repellent and shameful, which lie behind a political figure’s decisions?


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