King David is one of the most important figures in Jewish history. Born in 907 BCE, he reigns as king of Israel for 40 years, dying at age 70 in 837 BCE.
There is so much that can be said about him. Some people like to focus on the warrior aspect ― the chivalrous warrior fighting for God ― but when his persona and accomplishments are considered as a whole, it is his spiritual greatness that shines most of all.
David's first and foremost drive is to have a relationship with God. We get the glimpse of the beauty of his soul when we read the Psalms, most of which he wrote. Who doesn't know:
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want ... (Psalm 23)
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear ... (Psalm 27)
I lift my eyes to the mountains ― from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth ... (Psalm 121)
Even when we consider his military conquest, we see that the driving force behind them was his attachment to God. The hereditary bloodline of King David will become the only legitimate royal bloodline in Jewish history. From David will come all the future kings of Judah and ultimately, at the end of history, the Messiah. This idea of a God-ordained monarchy will be copied by many other nations throughout history and will serve as the basis for the concept of "the divine right of kings" in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.(1)
The Conquest Of Jerusalem
We know historically that the story of Israel during this entire period of time ― from the Exodus onward ― is the story of a tiny nation sandwiched between the two great ancient civilizations, Egypt and Mesopotamia (which was ruled at various times by the Assyrians, Babylonians or Persians).
When David takes the throne, Egypt and Assyria are both on a significant decline. They're not in any position to expand, which leaves a vacuum in the middle where Israel is located, and Israel is allowed to expand unmolested by these other great empires.
Thus David is able to subdue, at long last, the Philistine threat and to conquer the remaining Canaanite city-state ― Jerusalem ― that the Israelites have thus far not been able to conquer.
(For the 440 years since the Jewish people first entered the Land of Israel until the time of King David, Jerusalem has remained an unconquered non-Jewish city in the heart of a Jewish country. It is a city-state inhabited by Canaanite tribe called Jebusites (the Arab village of Silwan, just south of the walls of the Old City, is located there now). It is heavily fortified, yet despite its seemingly impregnable appearance, Jerusalem has one weakness ― its only source of water is a spring outside the city walls. The spring is accessed from inside the city by a long shaft carved into rock.
The Book of Samuel and the Book of Chronicles describe how David's general, Yoab, climbs up a tzinor (literally "pipe") enters the city and conquers it. Some archaeologists speculate that this might refer to the city's ancient water system ― whose source was the Gihon Spring ― which is a tourist attraction in "David's City," outside the walls of today's Jerusalem.
The first thing that David does after he occupies the city is make it his capital. And here we have to pause and ask: Why Jerusalem?
Certainly there were more suitable sites for the capital of Israel. Jerusalem does not adjoin any important body of water nor is it located on any trade route. All the capital cities in the world are built near oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, or at least near a major trade route.
(There are major trade routes crisscrossing Israel at this time. There is the Kings Highway, which is one of the major trade routes in the ancient Middle East, running from the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea to Damascus. And there is also the Via Maris, "Way of the Sea," which runs from Egypt along the Mediterranean coast then through Israel and on to Syria.)
Logically, the capital of Israel should have been on the Mediterranean Sea. Ideally a place like Jaffa (next to today's Tel Aviv) would have made the most sense.
So why Jerusalem?
The reason why Jerusalem has to do with a very unique aspect of the Jewish people, and why the children of Israel became a nation in the first place.
Normally, nations become nations by living in a piece of real estate for a long period of time, developing a common language and a common culture. Take the French for example. They didn't all wake up one day and decide they liked wine, cheese and croissants. A group of people over a period of time moved into a common piece of real estate (which later became known as France), and shared a common language. After a shared period of national experience, they coalesced into an identity known as the French. More or less, this scenario works for every nation.
The Jews became a nation shortly after escaping slavery in Egypt. They were not yet in the land of Israel, they were camping out in no man's land, in the desert, at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Jews became a nation there, when they made a covenant with God, promising "we will do and we will hear." The nationhood of Israel is defined, first and foremost, by its communal relationship with God and by the Jewish people's historic mission.
And it turns out that there is no better place to relate to God than Jerusalem.
After David makes Jerusalem his capital, he buys the upper part of the hill above the northern boundary of the city from its owner Aravnah, the Jebusite. The purchase is recorded in the Bible in two places (2 Samuel 24:24 and 1 Chronicles 21:25).
This hill is Mount Moriah and what it may lack in physical size, it more than compensates for spiritual greatness.(2)
From the earliest period of Jewish history, the Patriarchs of the Jewish people recognized the tremendous spiritual power of Mount Moriah. This is where Abraham, sensing God's presence, went up to offer Isaac as a sacrifice and later remarked as the Bible records:
"The Lord will see," as it is said to this day, "On the Lord's mountain, He will be seen." (Genesis 22:14)
This is where Jacob dreamt of a ladder going to heaven, and said:
"How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Genesis 28:17)
No wonder this is a spot that every major conqueror in all of human history has wanted to own. (Jerusalem has been conquered or destroyed 36 times in 3,000 years.)
Today on this spot stands an Islamic structure known as the Dome of the Rock. Under this golden dome is an exposed piece of the bedrock of Mount Moriah-metaphysically known as the even shatiya, literally, "drinking stone." Water and spirituality are synonymous, and the Torah is known as mayim chayim, "water of life." According to Judaism, the world is spiritually nourished from this spot, this stone-which is the metaphysical center of the universe.
This is the place where God's presence can be felt more intensively than in any other place on the planet earth. Therefore, this is the logical place to build a permanent resting spot for the most holy object that the Jewish people have ― the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.
The Site of the Temple
King David wastes no time bringing the Ark to Jerusalem. And it is an occasion of great communal happiness. In ecstasy David dances wildly at this celebration. For this he is condemned by his wife Michal, the daughter of Saul, who had stuck with him through thick and thin and who even saved his life when King Saul wanted to kill him. But now Michal attacks David, ridiculing his behavior (2 Samuel 6:16-23):
"How glorious was the king of Israel today, who was exposed today in the eyes of the maidservants of his servants, as one of the boors would be exposed!"
David ― who had thought nothing of his own honor in his gladness that he had made a special connection with God, ― responds in astonishment:
"Before the Lord I will make merry. And I shall behave even more humbly than this, and I shall be lowly in my eyes; and of the maidservants of whom you have spoken, by them shall I will be held in honor."
The story concludes with the punishment visited on Michal for her harsh condemnation of the man chosen by God to be Israel's king:
And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.
Although David brings up the Ark of the Covenant to Mount Moriah, he is not allowed by God to build the Temple. A number of reasons are given. One is that the Temple is a house of God and a house of peace and David has a lot of blood on his hands from subduing the enemies of Israel. However, he is promised that his son will build it.
Now David has a number of sons by several wives, some of whom give him serious trouble. One, Amnon, rapes his sister, Tamar. Another, Absalom plots against David and tries to have him deposed. But there is one special boy, Solomon, born from David's relationship with the beautiful Bathsheba.
David and Bathsheba
The story of David's relationship with Bathsheba (II Samuel Chap. 11) is one of the most misread stories in the Bible, and we have to be careful in reading it as if it were some kind of soap opera. In summary, however, this is what happens.
Restless one night, David is pacing the roof of his palace from where he has a view of the homes and gardens in the city below(3). And there he spies a beautiful woman bathing. She is the wife of one of his generals, Uriah, the Hittite, who is away at war.
David sends for Bathsheba and spends the night with her. When she becomes pregnant, he commands that Uriah be placed on the front lines, where he dies in battle. David then marries Bathsheba.
At this point, the prophet Nathan is sent by God to reprove David. (See 2 Samuel 12.) He says that he has come to inform the king of a great injustice in the land. A rich man with many sheep, stole the one beloved sheep of a poor man, and had it slaughtered for a feast.
Furious at what he hears, King David, declares, "As God lives, the one who has done this deserves death."
Responds the prophet, "You are that man!"
David is humbled. "I have sinned before God," he says.
This is an enormously complex story and there is much more here than meets the eye. Technically, Bathsheba was not a married woman since David's troops always gave their wives conditional divorces, lest a soldier be missing in action leaving his wife unable to remarry.(4) However, the Bible states clearly that David acted improperly, and the Sages explain that while David did not commit adultery in the literal sense, he violated the spirit of the law(5).
As noted in earlier installments, the Bible takes a hyper-critical position of Jewish leaders. It never whitewashes anyone's past, and in that it stands alone among the records of ancient peoples which usually describe kings as descendants of gods without faults.
David's greatness shines in both his ability to take responsibility for his actions and the humility of his admission and the repentance that follows. This is part of the reason that the ultimate redeemer of the Jewish people and the world will descend from David's line ― he will be "Messiah son of David."
Shortly thereafter, Bathsheba gives birth, but the child becomes deathly ill as the prophet Nathan had predicted. David goes into a period of prayer and fasting, but the child dies nevertheless. David realizes that the death of the baby and later the revolt of his beloved son, Absalom (II Samuel 15-19), were divine punishment and also served as atonement for his actions. David "pays his dues," repents for many years and is ultimately forgiven by God.
Before long Bathsheba is pregnant again. And this time, she bears a healthy child ― who is named Solomon, and who will be the golden child, gifted with unusual wisdom.
1) Many peoples around the world have taken this idea one step further and actually claim that their royal family and even they, themselves, are actual descendants of the ancient Hebrews. One fascinating example are the Makuya sect in Japan who claim that there is an ancient connection between the Japanese and the Jews and that the Royal family of Japan is actually descended from King David.
Another example is the British. For seven hundred years, every king and queen of England was crowned king while sitting on a throne mounted on a large block of limestone. The stone is called the "Stone of Scone King Edward I (1239-1307) stole the stone from the Scots (It was returned to Scotland in 1997). Scottish tradition held that the stone was the "pillow" that Jacob rested his head on when he had his dream. It was used as a coronation stone by the early Hebrew kings and was kept in Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem After the destruction of the First Temple in 422 BCE, the stone eventually found its way first to Ireland and later to Scotland, . As outrageous as this idea may sound it shows us the centrality and importance of the Davidic line in history.
2) It is often mentioned that the Western Wall is the holiest spot in the world for the Jews. This is simply not true. The Western Wall is merely a retaining wall built around Mt Moriah by Herod the Great more than 2,000 years ago. The holiest spot is Mt Moriah itself. Today this holiest of places is hidden behind the Western Wall and under the Moslem shrine called the Dome of the Rock. 3) For more details see Talmud, Sanhedrin 107a
4) Talmud, Shabbat 56b
5) See Talmud, Sanhedrin 107b. As a prophet, David saw that Bathsheba was destined for him. (Solomon's birth and kingship are proof of this point). The issue was not that Bathsheba was meant to be his wife, but rather how he acquired her.