Biography of King David, Biblical Jewish Leader

Statue of King David by Nicolas Cordier in the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

King David (c. 1000 BCE) was the Biblical ruler of ancient Israel. The son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah, David initially gained attention through the killing of Goliath. Although historians agree that David was probably a real person, there is little evidence of his life outside of the Bible.

Fast Facts: King David

  • Known For: After Saul, David was the second king of the Israelite kingdom.
  • Born: c. 1000 BCE in Bethlehem, Israel
  • Parents: Jesse and Nitzevet (according to the Talmud; only Jesse is named in the Bible)
  • Died: Unknown (according to the Bible he was 70 years old at the time of his death)
  • Spouse(s): Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maachah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, Bathsheba
  • Children: Amnon, Chileab, Absalom, Adonijah, Shephatiah, Ithream, Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada, Eliphalet, Tamar

Early Life

According to the Bible, when David was just a young shepherd he was called to play music for King Saul in order to cure his melancholy. David later gained fame as a youth after he killed the giant Philistine Goliath with his slingshot. Saul made David his armor-bearer and son-in-law, and Saul's son Jonathan became David's loyal friend. Saul then appointed David the head of his army, a move that made David one of the most beloved leaders in the land. David's growing popularity eventually became a cause of concern for Saul, who feared that David would crave more power and desire to depose him. Saul made plans to have David killed; however, his son Jonathan warned David of his father's plans and David was able to escape to safety, hiding out for some time in the wilderness. Later, David and Saul made peace with each other.

Rise to Power

After Saul died, David rose to power by conquering Jerusalem. The northern tribes of Israel voluntarily submitted to David, and David became the second king of the united Israel (historians, however, doubt that this united kingdom actually existed). He founded a dynasty, centered in Jerusalem, that remained in power for about 500 years. David brought the Ark of the Covenant into the center of the Jewish nation, thereby infusing the Jewish national home with religion and a sense of ethics.

By creating a nation for the Jews with the Torah at its center, David brought the work of Moses to a practical conclusion and laid the foundation that would enable Judaism to survive for thousands of years to come, despite the efforts of many other nations to destroy it.

Kingship

After conquering Jerusalem, David expanded his kingdom by defeating the Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, and Philistines. As the king, David had an affair with a woman named Bathsheba, whose husband David later plotted to have killed in battle. Bathsheba gave birth to a son, Solomon.

Sometime later, another of David's sons, Absolom, launched a rebellion against him. Absolom's army met David's at the Battle of the Wood of Ephraim, which resulted in Absolom's defeat. Although David commanded his officers to spare Absolom's life, Joab—the leader of David's army—killed Absolom after the battle. David entered a period of mourning before returning to Jerusalem.

Death

In his old age, David made arrangements for his son Solomon to succeed him as king. He died in Jerusalem at the age of 70.

Depictions in Art and Literature

One of David's most famous acts—the slaying of Goliath—is depicted in Caravaggio's "David and Goliath," a Baroque work in which the Jewish king—then a young boy—is shown towering over the body of the fallen giant. David was also immortalized in Michelangelo's eponymous statue, one of the most iconic artworks of the Renaissance. The 17-foot statue makes David seem larger than life, the ideal of strength and masculinity. Other depictions of David can be found in Joseph Heller's "God Knows," a novel written from the perspective of the Jewish king; Geraldine Brooks' "The Secret Chord;" the 1951 film "David and Bathsheba;" King Vidor's "Solomon and Sheba;" and the 2013 miniseries "The Bible." David's conflict with his son Absolom inspired William Faulkner's 1936 novel "Absolom, Absolom!"

Historical Evidence

Much of what is known about David comes from Biblical texts, many of which were written or revised years after his death. While scholars agree that there was a historical Jewish ruler named David, there is little consensus about the other details of David's life. Some scholars, for example, believe that David was merely a local chieftain and that the legends about his life were created by later generations who wished to embellish their own history. Archaeological evidence indicates that at the time of David's rule, Jerusalem was less a kingdom than a village, meaning the scope of his power was likely exaggerated. Other scholars believe that David's authority may not have been sanctioned by the larger community—there is a possibility that he maintained his power by killing his political enemies. He may have been less of a beloved leader than a ruthless prince devoted to preserving his own power.

Legacy

Along with Abraham and Moses, David is one of the most famous Jewish leaders. The Bible describes him as courageous and strong in war as well as an intelligent statesman, faithful friend, and inspiring leader. He was skillful at playing musical instruments and gifted in his ability to write Psalms (Tehilim), or songs of praise to God. In his relationship with God, he was pious. Mistakes he did make can be attributed to his rapid rise to power and the spirit of the times in which he lived and ruled. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah (Mashiach) will be one of the descendants of David.

Sources

  • Alter, Robert. "The David Story: a Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel." W.W. Norton, 2000.
  • Kirsch, Jonathan. "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel." Ballantine Books, 2001.
  • McKenzie, Steven L. "King David: a Biography." Oxford University Press, 2001.