As the character whose name appears more often in the Bible than that of any other human being, and whose story is the 'longest continuous story' (Marcus)[1], David occupies a central place in the biblical compilers' world of ideas and images. In David we encounter a leader whose rise and decline are a match for any modern example.

As a youngest son and a shepherd, he rises from powerless beginnings; his youth is marked by unparalleled success as soldier and incipient leader; he is loved by women and by Jonathan, the crown prince (who should be his rival); he miraculously escapes death on numerous occasions in his flight from Saul; his path to the throne is enabled by overzealous subordinates, whose bloody deeds on his behalf somehow do not reach as far as their master; and ultimately he is able to unify a tribal society, secure lasting peace, and create a new order based on a triad of dynasty, royal city and temple. What a success story! Yet at the very moment that worldly success betokens divine and human approval of David, his own actions topple him from the summit. He commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband Uriah murdered in II Samuel 11 and is condemned and punished in chapter 12. Immediately, a grave series of events follow, rape and murder perpetrated by and among David's own children, that themselves lead to a terrible and costly revolt.

Detail from Rembrandt
"The Reconciliation of David and Absalom"

Thus, in broadest perspective, the portrayal of David in Samuel, far from being an idealized hero account, is predominately one of struggle. It is not even a full biography (see Smith)[2] but is dominated by what Buber rightly characterizes as "two great stories of flight." That is, the Bible's central human character spends more time in running than he does in victory parades or on the throne. By the end of the book David is back in Jerusalem, restored as king ' but just barely, and it comes to shock to the reader when we encounter, in the opening of the Kings, a David who is enfeebled in virtually every area that he had previously mastered: military leadership, sexual prowess, and decision making. Only in political ruthlessness does he retain any of his old flair, and that surely cannot be viewed as a virtue.

David's story in Samuel thus illustrates a wider truth: the fate of the Bible's characters is one means through which it confronts the areas of personal responsibility and of leadership's most problematic aspect, the abuse of power. No one in the Bible gets away with anything, not Jacob, the ancestor of Israel, not Moses, the liberator and lawgiver himself, and not even the charismatic and beloved David, as much as he is said to 'strengthen himself in YHWH his God' (I Sam. 30:6) and despite the fact that he is credited in biblical tradition with writing some of the world's great religious poetry in the Psalms.


[1]Marcus, David. "David the Deceiver and David the Dupe." Prooftexts 6:2 (May 1986), 163-71 [back]

[2]Smith, Morton. "The So-Called 'Biography of David'." Harvard Theological Review 44 (1951) 167-69. [back]


Everett Fox 'Give Us A King! Samuel, Saul and David: A New Translation of Samuel I and II.' New York: Schocken, 1999. ISBN: 0-8052-4160-4

KING DAVID Table of Contents




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