I am reading Joel Baden’s The Historical David. I have come to the point where David conquers the old kingdom of Saul in the north. Here is a summary of the events as Baden sees them:
The situation is that the Philistines defeated and killed Saul, after which David took Hebron in the south and created Judah by bringing together the Calebites and several other communities. David ruled as king of Judah from Hebron. In the north Saul’s cousin and general, Abner, attempted to put things back together and make a little-known son of Saul, named Ishbaal, king.
It is hard to know the timing and sequence of events, but David probably moved against the north early. There were some indecisive battles. Abner slept with a woman from the royal harem, which was a sign of an attempt to seize power. So the seeds of rebellion were sown in the north.
David’s general, Joab, finally killed Abner. Then some northerners tried to win favor with David by killing Ishbaal. So David took the old kingdom of Saul. In a near repeat of the anointing of David as king of Judah at Hebron, we read:
So all the elders of Israel came to the king to Hebron; and king David made a league with them in Hebron before the LORD: and they anointed David king over Israel (2 Samuel 5:3 KJV).
For the Philistines, this was a move too far. They now sought to curb David and battles ensued.
David then did as ancient kings usually did and moved to eradicate the house of Saul–but carefully, because he did not want to alienate everyone who had been loyal to Saul.
Baden sees a lot of spin going on in the stories in 2 Samuel. Certainly the story of Abner slaying Joab’s brother (2 Samuel 2:23) is there to give Joab a personal motive for killing Abner. This tends to absolve David. The text (2 Samuel 3:28 ff.) shows David as unhappy with Abner’s death, but he never disciplines Joab. On the other hand he has the assassins of Ishbaal executed. This probably really happened and became the basis for the invented story of David executing the Amalekite who brought him Saul’s crown.
Baden argues that the story of the Gibeonites demanding revenge against Saul’s family (2 Samuel 21) is another invention. He thinks the Gibeonites were never part of Saul’s kingdom. David brought them into his and used them as an excuse for killing more of Saul’s family.
The Gibeonites are indeed a mystery. But is the report that Saul engaged in some sort of pogrom against them unlikely?
So, while recognizing the spin in 2 Samuel, I am a little less prone to think the more legendary material is invented rather than exaggerated or bent.
On the other hand, I am surprised that Baden takes the Bible’s generalization of the Philistines at face value. The Bible treats the Philistines as a monolithic polity. In fact, the Gaza Philistines had no central government. They were five independent city states. David had close ties with Gath. But I do not see the evidence that he was allied with the “Philistines” as such or that he fought against the Philistines as such. The Bible may even have included all Sea Peoples, including those settled around Dor, under the blanket name of Philistines. But David, in battles against the Philistines, may have been allied with some of them and fighting against others. The situation was probably much more complicated than the Samuel books suggest.
Nevertheless, Baden gives us a historical perspective on how important what David accomplished was.
. . .David achieved something entirely new: the consolidation of the kingdoms of Israel in the North and Judah–which he had created out of nothing–in the south. For the first time in history, a single kingdom spanned the length of Israel, from Dan in the north to the Negeb desert in the south. For the first time, Israel was united. This was a moment of truly world-changing import. The idea of the people and land of Israel that we find throughout the Bible and beyond, and that is realized to this day in the modern state of Israel, is authentically due to the person of David (p. 140).