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King David


The festival of Hanukah celebrates the triumph of Judah Maccabee. And he saw himself as the reincarnation of King David, the giant slayer. But David was a very complex and multifaceted character. He was the beloved handsome, singer of psalms, shepherd, musician, fighter, and king.

A thousand years after he lived, the rabbis of the Talmud re-created him in their image, as a Talmudic scholar, taught halacha by Achitophel and praying at midnight. And the Jewish people, in general, turned him into a messianic leader to whom we pray three times a day and who will redeem and restore the Jewish people to an idyllic, but totally unhistorical past.

The Book of Samuel is the main Biblical source for what we know of David. And it is a fascinating study in human nature, power, and authority. Above all the challenges, the corruption and the cruelty of politics.

At first, we have a very sympathetic, carefree shepherd and musician, who rose to fame by killing Goliath, marrying the king’s daughter and establishing a deep friendship with his brother-in-law Jonathan. But then things turned sour. King Saul lost the support of Samuel. Samuel anointed David as his successor. Saul turned on David and tried to kill him. He pursued David relentlessly. David, one step ahead, had several chances to kill Saul. But he would not harm the anointed one. He and his family went into exile.

After the death of Saul and Jonathan on Mount Gilboa, David returned and was appointed King of Judah in Hebron. The other tribes remained loyal to Saul’s dynasty, his surviving son Ishboshet, and his general Avner. For six and a half years David ruled over only one tribe supported by his uncle Yoav, a strong, powerful but hot-tempered fighting man.  

Avner’s dissatisfaction with Ishboshet led to his assassination.  Avner approached David to unite the tribes and they agreed terms.  On the way back to seal the deal, Avner’s men met Yoav’s. Avner staged a tragic and bloody confrontation. But then tried to avoid the conflict boiling over. He withdrew. Yoav’s brother Asahel pursued him.  Avner warned Asahel to turn back. But when he refused, Avner killed him. Yoav could not forgive Avner and he killed Avner in cold blood (as he will do again later with his own nephew Amasa).

David was distraught. He feared the northern tribes would blame him and sabotage the reconciliation. He had to make a huge show of mourning Avner’s loss. But he could not punish Yoav because he was too powerful. The limits of power. But at least now David united the tribes, Jerusalem the capital.

David was magnanimous to Saul’s memory. He sought out the remnant of Saul’s family, his grandson the cripple Mephiboshet and returned Saul’s property to him and brought him into his palace. He repeatedly showed deference to Saul’s family and even put up with being cursed by Shimi ben Geyra. But then towards the end of his reign, he inexplicably accepted the claim of the Gibeonites that Saul had many of them killed and handed over seven of Saul’s remaining descendants to be killed and left unburied. The picture of Ritzpah, Saul’s concubine, sitting, weeping, protecting their bodies for months is one of the most moving episodes in the book. This is one of several cases where David acted inconsistently and against Torah Law.

There was the notorious Bath Sheva affair. She was the wife of one of his generals Uriah the Hittite. While Uriah was away at war, David slept with Bath Sheva and got her pregnant  (as if he hadn’t enough wives already). He tried to cover it up by inviting Uriah back to Jerusalem. Uriah refused to co-operate so he had him killed and again Yoav was his hatchet man. This led to the dramatic confrontation with the prophet Nathan who accused David of betraying his obligation as king to uphold the religious standards of the Torah. For the first time, David had to contend with the moral limitations of power. 

David’s reaction in contrast to other absolute rulers was extreme penance. This new religious phase led to his desire to relocate the Tabernacle and desire to build a Temple (which was denied him). His public display of religious fervor as the Ark is brought into Jerusalem incited his wife to rebuke him for being such a populist (perhaps a religious fanatic too). 

The final phase of David’s life was plagued with family crises. His sons were spoilt, arrogant and competing for power. Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. David did not respond. Tamar’s brother Avshalom took the law into his own hands and killed Amnon. David’s response was to send Avshalom into exile. Yoav contrived a reconciliation. Instead of gratitude, Avshalom manipulated the ongoing tensions amongst the tribes and led a rebellion against his father. He crowned himself in Hebron and marched on Jerusalem. David fled.

Yoav mustered support. David, in front of everyone, had instructed Yoav to spare Avshalom. The two sides confronted each other and Avshalom was defeated,. He fled. His magnificent mane of hair got caught up the trees. Yoav killed him in defiance of orders. David was distraught. “ My son Avshalom, Avshalom my son, I would rather have died instead of you.” Yoav was furious. He attacked David for mourning the loss of a man who would have killed them all had he won. For the first time, David demoted Yoav. 

The tension between the tribes continue. Sheva Ben Bichri rallied the northern tribes again against David. David put his nephew Amasa in charge of the army. Yoav, could not take the demotion. He killed Amasa in cold blood. But under the circumstances, he was given control again.

Sheva Ben Bichri’s headquarters were the citadel town of Avel Beith Maachah.  Yoav besieged the city. He negotiated its surrender through a wise woman who convinced the people to sacrifice Sheva Ben Bichri. 

But this did not solve David’s problems. He had failed to control his own family or make the necessary provisions for succession. In the Book of Kings, as David was dying another son Adoniya crowned himself and David was forced to intervene in support of Solomon. On his deathbed, he instructed Solomon to deal with Yoav. The ongoing failure to deal with the divisions between the tribes would eventually lead to the disaster of two failed kingdoms, the loss of the Temple and exile.

What was David’s legacy? There is, of course, the body of David’s religious poetry and obvious spiritual devotion. This more than anything else would cement his reputation as the greatest of Jewish leaders after Moses. But at the same time, his reign illustrated the pressures of maintaining power, ruling a fractious society where pragmatism often conflicts with morality. 

This process of initial triumph followed by disasters was repeated again, seven hundred years later by the Hasmonean dynasty whose rise (and fall) Chanukah reminds us of. Judah Maccabee was also a dynamic and principled fighter, willing to risk his own life for the cause of Israel’s survival against powerful enemies, both ideological and military. His brothers established a dynastic succession. But they too failed to sustain their religious commitment, to prepare for succession and restrain their spoilt sons. Their dynasty too collapsed and lead to the destruction of the Second Temple. In the end, it was the survival of our spiritual tradition that ensured our legacy.

I am no fan of monarchy. I don’t want to see it restored. What I pray for is the dream of a better world, politically as well as religiously. The rabbis always hoped that the third attempt at establishing a Jewish state would be forever. And that it would combine power with moral and spiritual values. We have not yet got our third Temple, but we do have our third State. I only pray the current political divisions do not stymie national unity, and that we will not go the same way as the first two attempts!

2 thoughts on “King David

  1. As ever, a fascinating exegesis, Jeremy: a great summation of the powers of human nature, love and worship. Perfection, it seems, does not exist, nor will it ever. We must just do the best we can. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

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