The Book of Samuel

The Book of Samuel tells of the rise of the Davidic monarchy

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A "House for God"

One of David's first acts as king was to seek to build a "House for God" in which the ark of the covenant might be housed (I Samuel 7:2). Perhaps because of the various political machinations to which David was to some degree connected, God refused to allow David to build this house. (No reason is given for God's refusal in the book of Samuel, but in I Chronicles 22:8, the blood that David is said to have spilled is cited as the reason.) In II Samuel 7:12-13, God tells David: "I shall establish your seed after you who shall go forth from your loins and I shall make steady his kingdom. He shall build a House for My name." Thus this task fell to his son Solomon, but David did establish Jerusalem as the royal city and political capital of Israel.

As king, David established Israelite hegemony in the land of Israel. The Philistines and the trans-Jordanian kingdoms of Edom and Moab were subdued, and several of the Aramean kingdoms became vassals or allies of David. I Samuel 8:15 tells how David "would dispense justice and righteousness to all of his people."

Critiques of David

The text centers David's greatest failings in the personal realm. II Samuel 11:1 tells how "at the turn of the year, at the time when the kings go out [to war], David sent Joab and his servants with him, and all of Israel, and they destroyed the Ammonites, and encamped upon the city of Rabbah, while David dwelled in Jerusalem." The verse contains an implicit critique of David for remaining in the city, while his devoted servants are "toughing it" in the battlefield. 

The next verse sharpens the critique: "At evening, David rose from his bed and walked upon the roof of the king's house, and saw a woman washing from upon the roof." Nothing explicit is said to criticize David for unmanly behavior in avoiding going to war or for laziness, but the way the verses juxtapose the Israelites encamping on Rabbah with David remaining in Jerusalem and arising from his bed at evening gives the reader the impression that David behaved badly.

The woman washing was Bathsheba, whom David took into his own bed. He caused her husband--who was one of David's military officers--to be killed in battle, and then tried to conceal both his adultery and the murder. However, this account of the beginning of David's downfall does not justify the utilitarian value of this cover-up, and condemns David's moral failings. A prophet acting as God's emissary announced David's punishment to him: "The sword shall not depart from your house for ever" (II Samuel 12:10).

This prophecy was fulfilled in David's last years, as one son raped his half-sister and was killed for his crime by another son (II Samuel 13), who later rebelled and attempted to usurp David's throne (II Samuel chapters 15-19).  A further rebellion broke out in the north, threatening the fragile union of North and South (II Samuel 20) foreshadowing the union's complete breakdown  after Solomon, leaving only Judah in the hands of the Davidides.

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.