Chapter 5. Monarchy

Song of the Vineyard
by B. Davie Napier

Chapter 5. Monarchy


See him whom Yahweh has chosen.

I Sam. 10:211

Originally one book, and presenting a relatively poorly preserved text, the books of Samuel include:

I 1-15 The fortunes of Samuel, Eli, and the Ark; and Saul to the point of his rejection by Samuel.

I 16-II 8 Narratives of Saul and David.

II 9-20 Events of David’s reign (with I Kings 1-2).

II 21-24 An appendix — a collection of miscellaneous pieces.

We are by now familiar with the "literary" phenomena of a composite text which meet us again here, betraying both the plurality of underlying sources (we shall simply use the symbols A and B for relatively early and late material) and the strong editorial hand of the deuteronomic historian(s), DH, responsible for the unified structure of the block, Deuteronomy-Kings. We are not surprised, then, by duplicate and even triplicate episodes: the fall of Eli’s house, 2:31 ff. and 3:11 ff.; Samuel’s anointing Saul once privately, 9:26 ff., and twice publicly, 10:17 ff. and 11:15; Saul’s double rejection by Samuel in theological but not circumstantial duplicate narratives, 113, 15 and 20:42b the repeated episode of David’s sparing Saul’s life, 24:3 ff. and 26:5 ff.; the duplicated account of his seeking refuge from Saul with the Philistine Achish, king of Gath, 21:10 ff. and 27:1 ff.; the account of Goliath’s dispatch by David, I 17, and again by Elhanan, one of David’s distinguished soldiers, II 21:19 (the Chronicler in I Chronicles 20:5, seeks to harmonize the contradiction by adding to the account of Elhanan’s exploit the words Lahmi the brother of Goliath). And the hand of DH will be recognized: we know something of the character of his piety and we shall see evidence now of his strong bias in favor of the southern, Judean half of the short-lived united monarchy.

Prelude to Kingship

I 1-8

The story of the making of monarchy is introduced with the somewhat idealized account of the birth and early years of Samuel, I 1-3. This is the most appropriate beginning since it is he who plays the role of king-maker in Israel. In the utterly tragic figure of old Eli and in the loss of the ark, the symbol of God’s presence, from the central sanctuary at Shiloh (probably destroyed by the Philistines in this time), we are further prepared for the establishment of monarchy in Israel: it was Philistine aggression, far too powerful to be checked by the resources of a loose tribal confederation, which precipitated the chain of events leading through Saul and David to a unified and extensive, if short-lived, Israelite kingdom.

We do not know the ultimate point of origin of the Philistines. They must have settled sometime around 1200 B.C. in the coastal plain between the Mediterranean and the Judean hill country. There is some evidence of their earlier more or less temporary residence in the Aegean Islands and Asia Minor; and they, or related "maritime people," actually threatened twelfth-century Egypt, as we know from records of Ramses III (C. I 175-1144). It is dear in any case that during the twelfth and eleventh centuries they formed a powerful pentapolis made up of the five tightly coordinated city-states of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (the last not yet identified), which ultimately gained control of most of Canaan west of the Jordan. The name Palestine is derived from their name, Philistine.

Do not fail to note the theme of these chapters. Unlike the conditions prevailing earlier, the various tribes of Israel are now all reduced by the same enemy; and it is this external threat which ultimately leads to the Israelite monarchy. Philistine control was in some respects minimal and relatively unoppressive, and therefore the threat was not to their existence but to their peace in the full sense of that word — their fulfilled existence. Note also in this prelude to kingship, I Samuel 1-8, the following features of the narrative.

"The Song of Hannah" in 2:1-10 is later than its context (the institution of monarchy is assumed already in verse 10) and can be removed without injury to itself or the story. In this respect, and others, it compares remarkably to the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:46-56. The presence of both of these psalm-like pieces in present context simply testifies again to the faith of the believing community that the life of God impinges on the course of human events with power, purpose, and compassion.

Note the starkly portrayed tragic dimension in old Eli shamed by his sons, 2:22 ff., in broken relationship to Yahweh, 2:27-36, and dying in the anguished knowledge that his sons have been killed and the ark stolen by the Philistines. There is tragedy also in the very words of Philistine to Philistine, 4:9, and in the bitter scene of the birth and naming of the child Ichabod, Eli’s grandson, 4:19-22. It is not an unrelieved sense of tragedy: Israel records with humor and glee in I 5-6 the humiliation, in the presence of the ark, of Dagon, god of Philistia, and the humiliation by a plague of the Philistines themselves, regarded as a result of having the ark in their midst. Note also the realistic ancient conviction of taboo reflected in the story of the ark’s return to Bethshemesh (6:19 ff.; not to Shiloh because, we suspect, the Philistines had already destroyed it).

Finally, note in these and subsequent chapters the dual, if not conflicting, representations of the person and role of Samuel and of the whole concept of monarchy. Predominantly in chapters 7-8, and also in 10:17-25 and chapter 12, Samuel is a gigantic figure, possessing the greatest attributes of Moses, Joshua, and the most distinguished of the Judges; he is himself adequate for the needs of Israel. This view of Samuel goes naturally hand in hand with a totally negative judgment of the monarchy, a judgment which regards it as a grave mistake perversely instituted by sinful Israel against the will of Yahweh and contrary to the judgment of Samuel.

Saul and Samuel

I 9-15

According to a second point of view (predominantly, 9-11 and 13-14), Samuel is a seer, a clairvoyant — we might call him a professional occultist. Correspondingly, the monarchy is seen as the will of Yahweh, declared and implemented through Samuel. This representation of the immediate premonarchic time no doubt draws from originally older and more intimately informed narrative strands from what we have called the A stratum. We are nevertheless sure that the present composite narrative constitutes a fuller and even more accurate history. There is every reason to believe that Samuel was in fact a man of many roles — seer but judge; clairvoyant but also prophet; and at the same time king-maker of ambivalent feeling and motivation.2 There is every reason to believe that while subsequent disillusionment with kingship in Israel is reflected in B strands of the narrative, an element of sheer realism is also preserved: that is, that there were contemporaneously in Israel Yahweh loyalists, prophets, and others who regarded monarchy as a pagan innovation borrowed from and patterned after the related but generally estranged kingdoms of Moab and Ammon and as such a flagrant rejection of the traditional ways of the tribes of Israel and of Yahweh himself. And on the essential point of faith, the composite narrative is at one with itself; consenting or disapproving, honored or aggrieved, it is Yahweh and Samuel who are directly responsible for Saul’s quasi-kingship and David’s ultimate creation of full monarchy. In Israel’s ancient faith, Yahweh does not impose his will arbitrarily upon his covenant people in the midst of history’s course, but in the course which they elect, he effects by one means or another his own historical purposes for them. He may approve or disapprove of the monarchy which they will have; but he will take it and use it successfully for his own ends.

The whole deuteronomic history of Samuel-Kings is a remarkably varied story on a single theme. For his own purposes, Yahweh created a people, as he created a world, out of chaos. The intention of divine purpose and meaning was frustrated by pride, by the rejection of given order. And the order which Yahweh would create and sustain becomes thus reduced again to the chaotic out of which, however, Yahweh will nevertheless effect his covenant purpose. This is the theological theme repeatedly sounded throughout Samuel-Kings — in the narratives of Israel under the Philistines, of Saul, of David, of Solomon, and of the succession of the kings of Israel, North and South, to the tragic closing of Israelite monarchy.

See this portrayed vividly and with doubled emphasis in the Samuel-Saul cycle. Saul is surely one of history’s greatest and most tragic men. By his courageous heart, his valiant leadership against Philistia, and his faith that he is Yahweh’s man, he achieves a position of strength and prominence among most of the tribes of Israel quite exceeding that of any previous "judge" but clearly short of full kingship. In chapters 13 and 15 (theological but not precisely episodical duplicates) he is publicly rejected by Samuel-Yahweh; and with the traumatic knowledge that his cause is no longer Yahweh’s cause or that Yahweh’s cause is no longer his cause, that magnificent man, the courageous heart, the valiant leadership are seen to shrivel, disintegrate, and atrophy. Who can say whether the theological judgment is "right" or "wrong"? We who read of him are nevertheless moved to repeat the lines of David’s lament mourning Saul’s death — "How are the mighty fallen!" (II 1:19, 25, 27)

David and Saul

I 16-31

At Yahweh’s behest Samuel anoints David in a strictly private ceremony: this is Samuel’s (and therefore Yahweh’s) man for the future (16:1-13, B). Saul, deprived of Samuel’s support and no doubt aware of his own inadequacy and Israel’s against Philistine aggression, suffers from severe depression and ironically finds the antidote to his illness only in David’s musical gifts (16:13-23, A). David comes to Saul with an incomparable recommendation — "skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence"; and as if this were not enough, the further word that "Yahweh is with him" (16:18). This is of course no incidental comment. This is the point of the narratives: Yahweh is with David. All that is recounted in the progressively deteriorating relationship of David and Saul is intended to illustrate this theme. This is true of the tale of David’s conquest of Goliath (in this clearly composite work, David is quite unknown to Saul in this chapter, 17). The theme that David is Yahweh’s man dominates the David-Jonathan relationship and, with greater or less direct control, determines the editor’s selection of available narratives which deal with the intricate and tragic Saul-David relationship.

The story is its own best commentary. The greater part of the second half of I Samuel is assigned to A, which is simply to say that, by and large, we suspect that these episodes in the lives of Saul and Jonathan and David are accurately informed. They are certainly brilliantly narrated and take the point of view which holds David to be Yahweh’s man, the man on whom the Yahweh-blessing firmly resides. Some modern interpreters feel that every move of this uncommonly gifted man was calculated in terms of its political expediency in achieving his own ambitious ends.3 Certainly David was ambitious. Undeniably he was a man of almost uncanny political astuteness. Nor do we doubt that some of his acts of magnanimity were also calculated to his own advantage. The total political accomplishment of David still stands as a nearly incredible feat, and let no one be so naive as to suppose that this kind of performance is carried out anywhere, in any time, by unadulterated goodness and nobility of character. These biographical notes on the life of David acknowledge and illustrate David’s moral ambivalence and even duplicity, and yet at the same time present a man who, as the sons of men go, is superior not only in the qualities of winsomeness and shrewdness, but also in the solid virtues that issue from a dominant integrity.

The Full Accession of David

II 1-8

Saul’s death (I 31) hardly warrants the term suicide unless the narrative deliberately falsifies the facts in order to spare the reputation of Saul — and this is unlikely. He and his sons, including Jonathan, die in a cause they know to be doomed even before that final battle with the Philistines begins; and Saul, this figure of stark tragedy drawn in heroic dimensions, makes his exit from Israel’s history with his essential stature of greatness still intact. If the moving lines of the lament (II 1:19 ff.) over the death of Saul and Jonathan are in fact David’s (as appears to be probable) it becomes more difficult to maintain the interpretation of David as a man of unmitigated, calculating ambition. These words are more than a lyrical garland tossed toward Saul’s adherents in an effort to win them (although we do not suppose for a moment that David was unaware of the positive political implications of his public and phenomenally articulate grief). Genuine sorrow and a profound sense of personal bereavement are undeniable in the lines of the lament; David’s love and affection for father and son are unmistakably attested.

We repeat that the narratives here are their own best commentary. This is the unimpeachable stuff of history, history at its best — history articulated and shaped by the very participants in the narrated events and unabashedly interpreted from an internal and involved standpoint, from a position within the history. The participants — David and his contemporaries in Israel — believe that David is Yahweh’s man, coming now to the leadership of Yahweh’s people, in Yahweh’s land, to form Yahweh’s kingdom, and (always implicitly at the core of the Yahweh faith) to fulfill Yahweh’s purposes in history. Such a record requires no commentary but only an alert, sympathetic, and sensitive hearer-reader. David, endowed of Yahweh, possesses in these years and through these episodes a kind of Midas-touch. The Philistines, with whom he has earlier been allied, stand confidently by while this old friend is elevated to tribal kingship in Hebron over the small confederation of southern tribes (2:1-4). Internal events in Israel all operate, by accident or manipulation, in David’s favor (chs. 2-4). Now the northern tribes request that David assume rule over them; and a narrator gives us his own and what he obviously believes also to be David’s interpretation of the whole astonishing sequence of events:

David perceived that Yahweh had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel. (5:12)

The last major Canaanite (Jebusite) city-fortress, Jerusalem, is taken (5:6-10) and the Philistines, asleep on their feet or successfully lulled by the political charm and machinations of David, suddenly come to (5:17-22). Now the ark is brought to the new capital of Jerusalem (6:1-16: this reminds us of the narrative of the ark’s earlier potent taboo during and following its Philistine sojourn) and David secures Saul’s daughter Michal, this time surely in an act predominantly politically motivated. The editor adds, from the B complex of narratives, the David-Nathan-Yahweh conversations over the question of a temple in Jerusalem (8:1 ff.; cf. I Chron. 28:11-19).

This remarkable section on David’s full accession to political kingship over the tribes of Israel and the land of Canaan is summed up and also favorably judged in the words of II 8:15:

So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and equity to all his people.


Evil out of your own house.

II Sam. 12:114

The block of chapters II Samuel 9-20, with its original conclusion in I Kings 1-2, has been justly described as the prose masterpiece of the Hebrew Bible. This is the written work of a highly articulate, gifted, and informed historian who shared as colleague and participant the days of David’s mature years. In this remarkable biography every detail is authentic and unimpeachable. And yet, as tends to be true of Old Testament history, this is obviously written not merely for the sake of preserving a history of the life of David, the King, but in order to extract from the history its essential meaning in the Yahweh-faith. The historian himself passionately believes that the sequential events in these years of David’s reign are fundamentally shaped by the covenant fact of Yahweh’s decisive involvement in the life of Israel and his efficacious impingement upon the life of history. In this sense, therefore, this too is in the nature of prophetic history, that is, history in which the historian, wittingly or involuntarily, acts as spokesman for and interpreter of the Yahweh-faith. Here as in the Saul cycle of stories the historical turning-point is theologically conceived: both Saul and David are seen to suffer anguished reversal of fortune not in terms of causality, not as the result of mere circumstance, not as blind historical accident, but precisely as the judgment of Yahweh, the negative response of Yahweh to the mis-response of the king to the covenant Lord of Israel. Saul is expelled from the kingdom for what is twice represented as an act of unwarranted pride (1 Sam. 13 and 15); the theological "plot" is closely parallel to the story of the Garden in Genesis 3. David’s reversal takes the form of alienation within his own communities — family, city, and kingdom — as a result of this violent desecration of community (II Sam. ll);and here the theological scheme parallels that of the story of the Brothers in Genesis 4. We shall see in the next section that the reign of Solomon is similarly interpreted as turning on an act — apostasy — in violation of the Yahweh-faith (I Kings 11), in response to which Yahweh brings to violent, tragic rupture the unity of Israel. And this too has its parallel in the Yahwist’s prelude to the Old Testament in the story of the Tower, Genesis 11.

And so, for all the intimacy and accuracy of the present record of David, this is not what we would call "objective" history, since the decisive force is without question deemed to be outside and above the plane of history, in the person of Yahweh, who, although effectively involved in history, is himself suprahistorical.

The Situation

II 21-24; 8-10

David has attained the pinnacle. His achievement, we think, is the work of a devoted man — devoted certainly to David, but also in uncommon and laudable measure to Israel and to Yahweh. We do not try to maintain that he has reached the summit utterly clean and quite untarnished. Narratives constituting an appendix to the books of Samuel (II 21-24, interrupting the original unit of II Samuel 9-20 plus I Kings 1-2), remind us of the degree to which David was a product of his own time, and a full-fledged member of the political race (see, respectively, II Sam. 24 and 21:1-4). Both stories are authentic, and come from David’s earlier years. The former describes how David incurs the active displeasure of Yahweh by taking a census. It is useless to speculate on the "why" of this episode — are population figures deemed to be nobody’s business but Yahweh’s, or is there implicit condemnation of the possibly sinister ends of census-taking, namely, heavy taxation and conscription? In any case the story reminds us again of the strong sense of group solidarity in the ancient East and specifically in ancient Israel. In the narrative of II Samuel 21:1-14 even the most ardent supporter of the winsome David must read with suspicion David’s consent to and implementation of the slaughter of the surviving males of the house of Saul (save only one, to whom we will come in a moment). Equally suspect is the rational for this purge (designed, of course, to put David above political reproach), and David’s calculated gesture of rapprochement with the adherents of Saul in the final disposal of all the mortal remains of the male Saulides (II Sam. 21: 12-14).

David’s variously motivated ambition is attained. He has trained and fought with a mighty band of warriors (geborim), some of whom on occasion have saved his life (21:15-17) or tilted with Philistine giants (21:18-21); and once, in a moving episode of mutual loyalty and admiration between men and leader, three of their number risked seemingly probable death to answer David’s longing for the cool water of Bethlehem’s well (23:13-17). Philistia on the coast and Moab across the Jordan are subdued (8:1-2), and more remote potential enemies are unable to offer David any serious threat (8:3-14). The sole male survivor of Saul and Jonathan is, in a gesture at once magnanimous and politically astute, brought into the king’s household, to "eat at the king’s table," live on the king’s bounty — of course under the constant surveillance of the king’s staff (ch. 9). With the situation thus in hand both without and within the kingdom, the narrative of chapter 10 adds the advice, and brilliantly illustrates it, that in the person of Joab, David has a commander-in-chief not only of fabulous competence, but possessing an admirable quality of Yahweh-faith in the bargain (see 10:12).

What a beautiful day David has had!

Spring Night in Jerusalem

II 11-12

"It happened late one afternoon when David arose from his couch. . ." (11:2). It is spring, "the time when kings go forth to battle." But David has sent Joab against the Ammonites while he, the king, "remained at Jerusalem" (11:1).

There is no combination of situation and season comparable to Jerusalem in the spring. Other cities of renown have laid claim to pre-eminence in this regard (e.g., "Paris in the spring"); and we have met personally the ravishing coincidence of April or May in Athens and Rome, Washington and New York, in Atlanta and San Francisco, in Cairo and Damascus, in Munich and Berlin, in Nanking and Shanghai and Kobe and Yokohama. Each of these has its peculiar excellence under spring’s invasion, but nothing exceeds the intoxication of Jerusalem in early April, a condition lyrically and erotically memorialized by an uncommonly articulate resident of Jerusalem some centuries after David:

Arise, my love, my fair one,

and come away;

for lo, the winter is past,

the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth,

the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtledove

is heard in our land.

The fig tree puts forth its figs,

and the vines are in blossom;

they give forth fragrance.

Arise, my love, my fair one,

and come away.

(Song of Solomon, 2:10-13)

An idle, aging king in the heady, evening air of a Jerusalem springtime; the beautiful Bathsheba and her incorruptible husband Uriah; the king’s prompt, efficient, confident steps to cover the results of his lustful intoxication; Uriah’s integrity as soldier and his unwitting and ultimately fatal frustration of David’s self-protective scheme merely by the virtue of his extreme loyalty to his compatriots still in the field; David’s unhesitating but premeditated resort to murder; the complicity of Joab, always intensely, blindly loyal to David; and continuing this picture of the king’s total moral collapse in steps of progressive deterioration, David’s calloused words of reassurance to Joab, "Do not let this matter trouble you . . ."; and at last the consummation of the whole sorry episode when Bathsheba is added to David’s harem and another son added to his progeny. Here, too, one might murmur, "How are the mighty fallen!"

Such behavior by the king in ancient oriental monarchy was nor, we think, so common as is sometimes alleged. On the other hand, it appears certain that the total historical response to this in Israel, and, particularly, within Israelite Yahwism, was unprecedented and unique. It remains one of the distinctive aspects of Israelite monarchy that it was not deemed to be absolute. In Israel the only absolute is Yahweh, and repeatedly Yahweh’s spokesmen, the prophets, assume in Yahweh’s name a role of authority above even the king’s authority to rebuke, condemn, and declare judgment upon the king.

"The thing that David had done displeased Yahweh" (11:27); and the prophet Nathan is Yahweh’s instrument for checking and containing the swollen pride of David (ch. 12). David’s response to the prophet’s incisive, devastating parable is not the response of a monarch to a brash subject or courtier, but, in this case in full contrition, of a covenant man to the Word: "I have sinned against Yahweh!" The sentence of death, which David himself has meted out, is removed; but the faith which gives form to the biography regards the harassed remainder of David’s life as the fulfillment of an irremovable and unalterable judgment. For lust, arrogance, covetousness, adultery, calculated competence iii compounding wrong, for deliberate murder, and for highhanded indifference to this wholesale shattering of covenant commandment — for all this, you shall know now the kind of violence you have perpetrated on Uriah, and the same loss of sexual prerogatives which you inflicted upon him. All this evil will come against you out of your own house! see 12:7-12).

The child conceived in that spring night in Jerusalem did not live, and something of the strength of the old David is heard in his courageous response to the death (12:20-23). This sequence, which is the turning point in David’s reign, closes with Solomon’s birth to David and Bathsheba (12:24), and David’s triumphant "conquest" of the Ammonite capital across the Jordan, a farce set up by the loyal Joab (12:26 ff.).

The Grotesque Triangle

II 13-14

David is to be succeeded by his (and Bathsheba’s) son Solomon, whose despotic, ostentatious reign (contrary to the still glowing Solomonic legends) leads directly to the rupture of the united Israelite kingdom. But, at least in the understanding of David’s historian, the real turning point, not merely in the life of David but in the life of the kingdom, is in the center of David’s reign. Ultimate responsibility for the collapse of the united monarchy must fall upon David, whose failure is seen as essentially a failure of faith, a moral failure in the broad sense — a failure to act according to covenant faith and in covenant righteousness. And again, the order and meaning which Yahweh would impart to Israel is reduced to chaos by the failure of faith, by the response of unfaith.

The anguish that is now David’s — an anguish produced out of his own house — is at least as profound as that of the tragic Saul. There can be no doubt (at least I do not doubt) that, in his encounter with the prophet Nathan, David felt the full force of his own despicable role in the David-Bathsheba-Uriah triangle. But if time began to ease his guilt, it was a short-lived reprieve, for in the intimate circle of his own children the primary components of his own heinous behavior are enacted. Amnon, David’s oldest son and heir-apparent, vents a sexual aggression more rampant than his father’s not upon another man’s wife but upon his own half-sister Tamar, David’s daughter and the full-sister of Absalom. Not only does David see his own sexual arrogance manifested in one of his sons, but he must also witness in another son that driving political ambition which he had held in check to some degree. But in Absalom it becomes a ruling and ultimately uncontrollable passion. In a grotesque modification of the triangle in which David played so wretched a role, these traits in his sons lead to the same bleak end — murder. In the Amnon-Tamar-Absalom triangle, David’s son Amnon is both the perpetrator of incestuous rape and the victim of homicidal passion — he is, then, David and Uriah. David’s daughter Tamar plays the role of violated woman, the victim of her brother. And David’s son Absalom re-enacts David’s role of murderer, unleashing against a brother the same calculated passion of David against Uriah. Amnon blocked Absalom’s way to the throne: in both cases, then, the victim threatened the aggressor. Amnon-Tamar-Absalom: "evil out of your own house."5

Son with a Chariot

II 15-20

The winsomeness of the younger David is incarnate now in Absalom. The deep hurt which Saul knew from his "son" David (see I Sam. 24:11,16), David knows in full bitter measure. Absalom is utterly without scruple, a man in whom the vile passions against which David had certainly struggled are in full control.

And he is David’s son. Were David and his advisers at any time unaware of Absalom’s intentions? The structure of David’s court may have been relatively simple (II 20:23-26 and 8:16-18), but it was obviously an exceedingly competent organization. If David’s normally shrewd and sensitive political faculties were stupefied by his doting love for Absalom, we can hardly expect the same of his advisers, one of whose gifts in counsel is boldly likened to the very oracle of God (II 16:23). Under the circumstances, we can only suppose that David’s evacuation of the capital, Jerusalem, before Absalom’s advance from Hebron in the south (a shrewd choice by Absalom: it was from Hebron that David had earlier moved the capital) must have been voluntary and, we suspect, imposed by the king arbitrarily upon a strongly disapproving Joab and army, and indeed the whole of David’s staff.

One may repeat here yet again that the text is its own superb commentary. We do not miss the loyalty of David’s mercenary troops (15: 19-21); the narrator’s conviction of the mature quality of David’s faith (15:25 f.; 16:12); the essential gentleness of David in these most wretched hours (16:5-14); the brilliant, carnal symbol of Absalom’s irrevocable usurpation (16:20-22) and its portentous recall of the David-Nathan encounter (II 12:11-12); the arch Old Testament realist, the remarkable pragmatist Ahitophel (17: 1-23); Joab, who always acts like Joab (18:10-15; 19:1-7; 20A-13); David’s pathetic concern, implicit throughout, for the defiant son (18:1-5); the moving grief of a father’s utter brokenness in the loss of his son (18:33); the reassertion in this critical time of the old and always fundamental north-south cleavage (19:11,41-43); David’s profound and probably chronic annoyance with the crude, brash, "muscular" ways of Joab and his brothers, the sons of Zeruiah (16:10; 19:22; see also 3:34b; 3:38 f.); and finally, in a kind of pausal summary before the last scene of David’s reign in I Kings 1-2, the statement of David’s very modest bureaucracy (20:23-26; cf. the extensive elaboration of this structure under Solomon, I Kings 4:1 ff.).

This is the brilliant story of David’s mature reign in which order becomes chaos in the form of evil out of David’s own house. We, who stand outside the covenant faith of ancient Israel. may want to question or to alter the historian’s interpretation of these episodes and events in the king’s life, but we must first acknowledge his interpretation: the king, the kingdom, and the reign — all these that might have been but for the violation of the covenant community, the Yahweh faith, and Yahweh himself. What might have been was not, because of the failure of faith.


II SAMUEL 21-24; I KINGS 1-11

For David’s sake.

I Kings 11:12

We looked in the preceding section at three of the component pieces in the appendix to the book(s) of Samuel (II 1-4). In addition to these (census, 24; blood revenge upon the house of Saul, 21:1-14; and the water of Bethlehem’s well, 23:13-17) we find two lists of David’s geborim, his mighty men, the most distinguished of his soldiers (Uriah is one of them, 23:39), in 21:15-22 and in 23:8-39, of which the third episode just mentioned is a part. These two lists were no doubt originally a unit, broken by the insertion of two psalm-like pieces attributed to David.

The second of these, 23:1-7, appears to be a late composition and purports to be the last words of David. The first, chapter 22, also appears, with a few minor differences, as Psalm 18.That it cannot be in its present form a composition of David is on every hand agreed; but whereas most scholars of preceding generations confidently assigned the psalm to a much later age (some as late even as the second century B.C. there is now strong support for the view that this psalm had its original formulation (subsequently expanded, to be sure) if not from David, then from the time of David or very close to David’s time. It takes its place among a considerable number of psalms which may be called Royal Psalms, setting forth (as, for example, Ps. 72) the ideal of righteous kingship under Yahweh which had its origin and, always in tradition, its supreme expression in the Davidic covenant.6

The Acts of David’s Dotage

I 1-2

This is the continuation and conclusion of that superb performance of the historian’s art, II Samuel 9-20. Not in the Old Testament nor anywhere else have we anything comparable to this intimate, eloquent, profoundly moving tragedy of three thousand years ago.

The opening episode (I Kings 1:1-4) is emphatically not in deference to popular taste for smutty or racy details from the life of a public figure. The narrator brilliantly conveys the senile condition of the king and at the same time introduces the innocent figure of the warm-bodied, beautiful young woman whose strong appeal to Adonijah precipitates Adonijah’s death and secures his younger half-brother Solomon’s accession to the throne.

As always it is the genius of this narrative that it leaves the reader quite on his own in the assessment of motives and the interpretation of details. Tradition vastly magnifies Solomon, the successor to David; and it is easy to assume the illegitimacy and/or the "wrongness" of opposing claimants. Adonijah sounds and looks like another Absalom but with the significant exception that his father’s life is finished and that he has no intention of usurping his father’s place. And he is the next in line (1:6). It is a point in his favor that he enjoys the support of Joab and Abiathar the priest: it is difficult if not impossible to think that either of these would have supported him if David himself were on record in support of another candidate. We doubt, then, that the Solomon conspiracy of Nathan, Bathsheba, Zadok, and Benaiah had David’s support as they claimed (1:13). David’s senility is successfully put to their uses, and Solomon, son of Bathsheba, is made king. It may be significant that Nathan, who masterminds the plot and its execution, is not here represented as acting at the behest of the Word of Yahweh as twice earlier he is (II Sam. 7:4 ff. and 12:1 ff.). If David authorized the bloody purge to remove all real and potential threats to Solomon’s position, it was "authorization" from the surviving body of the already departed David, from the irresponsible lips of an old man in advanced senility.

One must recall in chapter 2 that verses 3-4, 10-12, and 27 are editorial additions from the hand of DH (that is, the deuteronomic historians who fashioned the block Deuteronomy-II Kings from numerous sources). Otherwise, it is a calculating and merciless Solomon whose "hatchet-man" Benaiah dispatches in cold blood first Adonijah, then Joab, then Shimei. We are not reading too much into this remarkable narrative of II Samuel 9-20, 1 Kings l-2, when we read the present concluding line, "So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon."

The Solomon Legend

I 3-10

Negative evidence against Solomon and his reign is overwhelming. All the more remarkable, then, the persistence and extravagance of what may be called the Solomon legend. The unknown author whose distinguished work of history we have been reading leaves us now. This is material from a variety of other sources. Chapter 3 gives us a highly idealized and stuffily pious account of the wisdom of Solomon. This hard-fisted "fascist" who in the preceding chapter wipes away his potential opposition in a smear of blood appears now a Jekyll to his previous Hyde. To put it mildly, 3:7-9 is out of character: ". . .I am but a little child: I do not know how to go out or come in"(!). Even more out of character are God’s words (perhaps significantly not Yahweh’s) in verses 11-14: ". . . none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you . . . no other king shall compare with you all your days." One could believe that Yahweh might speak so in irony! And one could then also read a meaning certainly not intended by the legend in the following verse: "And Solomon awoke, and behold it was a dream."

But so that we, the readers, will know that this is a dream of substance, the story continues with the famous illustration of the King’s wisdom in the disposition of the case of the disputed baby. This legend intends to portray not only the king’s wisdom but his accessibility to the meanest of the population — a claim for Solomon, we suspect, even further from the truth. And the essential Solomon legend now moves in a gusty crescendo to its fabulous climax in 4:20-34.

The Solomonic legend continues to be sounded through the more reliable accounts of his prowess as builder and patron of the arts. Solomon was ambitious for the kingdom — of Solomon; and relative to anything ever known in Israel, at least, his public works’ program was incredibly lavish and, no doubt to the discerning, ostentatious and pretentious. Under Solomon Israelite art and architectural forms were largely nonindigenous. His alliance with Hiram king of Tyre (in reality, kin of all Phoenicia), provided Solomon’s Israel with the resources of a people singularly advanced both economically and culturally; and Solomon’s costly but no doubt magnificent building program, including the Temple, employed Hiram’s architects, designers, and engineers. Two great pieces of prophetic composition lyrically extol the superior virtues of Tyre, the capital and symbol of Phoenician culture (Isa. 23 and Ezek. 27).

The legend of Solomon is not without foundation in fact, as we shall see in a moment; and some of the legend’s accretions are superb creations, instructive to the life and faith of Israel and emanating from deep within it. Such is the character of the long speech and prayer put on Solomon’s lips on the occasion of the dedication of the Temple (I Kings 8:12-61). This is the work of DH at DH’s best, drawn in part from the living liturgy and prayers incorporated in the whole Temple institution. If the language of the speech and prayer sometimes appears crassly materialistic by our standards, we must not miss the sensitivity, the depth, and, in the best sense of the word, the sophistication of the theology especially apparent in verses 27-50. Tradition is right in ascribing this to the Solomon of the legend, since indeed such a Solomon might well have prayed for the future of his own people that in every evil contingency Yahweh would hear and would forgive, renew, and restore the life of the people.

Solomon and the Kingdom of David

I 3-11

David’s problems emanated largely from the very considerable community of his own household. David was at his weakest and most inept in these relationships. But the vast structure of the kingdom — indeed, the empire — was securely maintained throughout his reign by his brilliant capacities as political administrator and, of course, by the superior military establishment under Joab. Solomon possessed neither. He conspicuously lacked the political comprehension and sensitivity of David; and while he elaborated the physical facilities of the Israelite military,7 the fundamental security of the Davidic kingdom was critically undermined, probably early in Solomon’s reign, by a resurgent Edom under Hadad to the south (I Kings 11:14 ff.), the establishment of incipient Syrian power in Damascus under Rezon to the north (11:23 f.), and, from the very center, the early insurrection of the Ephraimite Jeroboam (11:26-28) who, upon Solomon’s death, played a leading role in the North’s secession from Israelite union. The kingdom survived Solomon’s reign intact and may even have appeared stronger and more extensive than under David’s administration. But Solomon permitted the foundations of the kingdom to deteriorate while he built upon them a spectacular superstructure.

David was content with the limits of the old Jebusite city of Jerusalem. Solomon extended the city to the higher hill immediately to the north where he constructed his own extensive royal residence and its probably incorporated royal temple, the renowned Temple of Solomon. It was built over or upon a great rock, sacred from time immemorial and held in tradition to be the scene of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac — a rock now enclosed in the magnificent Arab Dome of the Rock in today’s old walled city of Jerusalem.8

Solomon’s ambitious and far-flung building programs were, of course, terribly costly — one might say, fatally costly. The personnel, equipment, and maintenance of the royal establishment became exceedingly heavy and elaborate (see I Kings 4:1-28). Legends of Solomon’s vast wealth and wisdom are based upon fact. As an avid patron of the arts, Solomon collected in Jerusalem priceless treasures from all over the world (10:14-25), many of them no doubt transported in ships of his own fleet (9:26-28 and 10:11 f.). His "wisdom" consisted, we suspect, in his profligate and ultimately self- flattering sponsorship of native and imported "wisdom" artists — articulate writers and reciters of a kind of prephilosophical moral philosophy current in the Near Eastern world of the tenth century and preserved, in essential character at least, in Proverbs, in many of the Psalms, and, in a different vein, in the Prologue and Epilogue of job (Job 1-2; 42:7-17).

All of this had to be paid for out of Israelite pockets, with Israelite sweat and blood and tears. The pious statement 9:22 belies itself — it is the protest which confirms the reality of what is denied:

But of the people of Israel Solomon made no slaves; they were the soldiers, they were his officials, his commanders, his captains, his chariot commanders and his horsemen. This has always been a great dream — an army made up entirely of officers, a construction gang composed only of overseers, an enterprise employing only executives. But, all Israel paid, and paid dearly, to satisfy Solomon’s prideful ostentation; and in paying so dearly, the original kingdom of David was destroyed.

The Solomon story is very different in kind from the David story. The sources are more impersonal, further removed, and sometimes ill-informed. The embellishment of legend is incomparably greater. The final history is an editorial creation in which a work called "The Book of the Acts of Solomon" (11:41) is no doubt the source of reports of Solomon’s varied administrative actions, but which freely incorporates long current lore about that fabulous reign, and here and there the candid editorial judgment of DH. Nevertheless, Yahwism’s theological judgment and interpretation of the reign are no less apparent here than in the stories of Saul and David. Unsuppressed by glowing legends of unqualified Solomonic utopia, it is both the explicit and implicit conclusion of the whole Solomon story that Solomon was apostate: by his total performance as king he repudiated the Yahwism of Israel and of his father David. David’s kingdom, so runs the perceptible judgment of the Old Testament texts, remained the covenant kingdom of Yahweh. For all his acknowledged weaknesses, David remained to the end a Yahweh man, the Israelite leader of covenanted Israel. But the Solomon story is the Babel story all over again, the story in which Yahweh is repudiated in grossest fashion ignored: ". . . let me build myself a city and Temple, and let me make a name for myself . . ." Solomon’s sin is apostasy, as the strongly editorial lines of chapter 11 make clear. And consonant with the immutable position of Yahwistic prophetism, whose primary proposition is always the effective impingement of divine life upon history, the meaning of Solomon’s reign and of events subsequent to it is discerned in the scheme of sin and judgment: like Babel, apostasy results in the rupture of human community. The same Yahweh faith which in Genesis 11 historizes the myth, here clothes history with the myth. Israel’s Yahwism understands the failure of the Davidic kingdom to hold together all Israel as a failure of faith. Israel (of course, always in the person of her king in whom all Israel is embodied) must be a Yahweh-covenant people or no people, she will be a Yahweh-community or a Babel, she will be what Yahweh created her to be or chaos.



1. Cf. I Chron. 15; Ps. 132.

2. Samuel’s ambivalence is discerningly portrayed in D. H. Lawrence’s play, David, available in Religious Drama I, M. Halverson, ed., Living Age Books, New York.

3. Cf. M. Noth, History of Israel, trans. S. Godman (from Geschichte Israels, 2nd ed.), New York, 1958, pp. 178 ff.

4. Cf. Ps. 13.

5. For a fuller commentary on this, and other narratives of the united Israelite kingdom, see B. D. Napier, From Faith to Faith, New York, 1955, pp. 108-155. The most distinguished, now classic, study in this area is L. Rost, Die Ueberlieferung von der Thronnachfolge Davids, Stuttgart, 1926.

6. Cf. A. R. Johnson, Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel, Cardiff, 1955, p. 15 also E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, New York, 1958, pp. 234-239.

7. The builder Solomon was at work as far south as the Gulf of Aqabah at the port city of Ezion-geber, as we know from I Kings 11:26 and from excavations of his copper mines there. His extensive stables at Megiddo, one of his fortified cities (I Kings 9:19), have also been uncovered. See further Noth, op. cit., pp. 206 ff.; G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology, Philadelphia, 1957, pp. 129 ff.

8. Any precise reconstruction of the temple is impossible, although Ezekiel 41 may offer tangible assistance where I Kings 6 is deficient. See G. F. Wright’s attempt at reconstruction and his vivid description in Biblical Archaeology, op. cit., pp. 136 ff.