All major Biblical personalities are described as being imperfect beings. It was not until the challenges of other religions deifying their founders, that Judaism followed suit. In the Talmud, some claimed that men like King David were saints in a rabbinic mold. “Whoever said that King David sinned, is mistaken” (TB Shabbat 56a).
David certainly was a complex character. Weren’t they all? But no one more so than he. Yet he is unique. He figures prominently in our daily prayers. He is the credited author of much of the Book of Psalms, the ideal ruler who combines statecraft and spirituality, the symbol of messianic fervor and hopes. He is the emblem of an ideal future in addition to the heroic figure of the past. Not to mention the subject of Michelangelo’s magnificent sculpture.
We meet him first as a handsome young man, with a gift for music. A shepherd by day and a star by night recruited to play in the royal palace of Saul and help soothe his dark side. But then David is transformed from a pretty aesthete into a daring, confident man ready to take on Goliath. He is enrolled in the army where he distinguishes himself several times against the Philistines. King Saul had promised him to his eldest haughty daughter Merav, but out of pique then gives her to someone else. David anyway is happier with the younger daughter Michal who has fallen in love with him. He develops a very close friendship with Saul’s eldest son Jonathan. David is popular, which brings Saul’s wrath down on him and he hurls a spear at his head (misses of course).
David had to flee, aided by both Michal and Jonathan. He goes on to live a life of a fugitive, constantly on the run. He gathers around him a small band of disaffected, dispossessed young men and women. Pursued by Saul and his allies, he has several opportunities to kill the King and yet he refrains out of respect for the status of the monarchy. Even though he knows that he has been anointed to succeed Saul, he keeps it to himself. Perhaps word had got out and that was why Saul hated him. And yet time and again he takes strong action against anyone who disrespects Saul or the monarchy.
His beautiful, moving dirge for Saul and Jonathan after they were killed on Mount Gilboa is one of the most magnificent, pieces of poetry in the Bible. And he goes out of his way to recognize and support the remaining members of their family. It was only after the death of Saul and Jonathan that he openly presents himself as a successor, even though Saul’s remaining son Ish Boshet, still claimed the throne under the military protection of Avner.
The country is divided. David has the biggest tribe of Judah. But Ish Boshet still has the loyalty of most of the other tribes. David is king only in Hebron and the south. It is only when Avner was offended by Ish Boshet’s refusal to let him wed his father’s concubine, that he plots to depose him and join David. When two of Ish Boshet’s inner circle assassinate him, hoping to gain David’s favor, he has them executed for killing the son of Saul, despite their rivalry. It took David seven years ruling in Hebron, until he was able to become king of an undivided nation, uniting the tribes under his leadership in Jerusalem.
Throughout his reign, he struggles with constant attempts to undermine him both from within his own family and outside. He surrounds himself with advisors from amongst the priesthood, and the prophets. He realizes he has to appease powerful allies like Joab his kinsman who he was not strong enough to control. He distances himself publicly from crimes committed by those around him. Yet he intentionally sends Uriah the Hittite to his death to cover up adultery with Bathsheba. He has eight wives ( and many concubines) but he insisted on reclaiming his first wife Michal whom Saul had married off to Palti Ben Laish. The scene of Palti walking behind Michal weeping as she was taken from him is one of the most moving episodes in the Bible.
Possibly his biggest mistake is his failure to discipline his sons. Two of them rebel against him. He does not punish Amnon for raping his sister Tamar and it was left to Absalom to take the law into his own hands. Perhaps this was what encouraged Absalom to rebel and drive his father out of Jerusalem. David’s supporters rallied round and yet he begged Joab to save Absalom’s life which he ignored. David mourned Absalom with another moving dirge.
In the end, he defeats his external enemies, secures his realm, and establishes a strong powerful dynasty. It was only on his deathbed that he asked to be avenged against those who attacked or undermined him and his supporters to be rewarded.
But there was another side to David that explains his unique position in Jewish history. He accepted that he was not above the law, and he respected the religious institutions, consulting prophets and priests throughout his life and accepting their rebukes. He moved the Ark from its temporary locations. His public religious fervor in dancing it up to Jerusalem impressed by his sincerity, except Michal his wife, who thought it beneath his dignity. He wanted to build the Temple, but the prophet Nathan told him there was too much blood on his hands.
Whether he composed all of the Psalms or only some of them this identification of David with such spirituality places him amongst the poetical as well as spiritual giants. The power and emotion of the poetry are to this day central both to Judaism and Christianity. And his position as the central Messianic figure even if it was originally only about restoring the monarchy, has come to signify the hope and dream of peace on earth for everyone to this very day.
He is the first character in the bible of whom there is some objective archaeological evidence. Regardless of the historicity or not of David, he is, alongside Moses, the most significant symbol of Judaism and its ongoing contribution to human civilization. For me, he represents the humanity in us all, the capacity for good and bad, and the realization that no matter what our successes or failures, no one is perfect.