I wrapped up my consideration of Joel Baden’s The Historical David. But I am still thinking about David’s career. One way of thinking about David is that the Bible uses him as a bad example and as part of the reason for the eventual divine judgment that fell upon his city and his dynasty.
David Noel Freedman’s The Nine Commandments: Uncovering the Hidden Pattern of Crime and Punishment in the Hebrew Bible made the case that by separating the Torah from the historical books we have missed a continuous story about how Israel broke each of the Commandments one by one. Some of Freedman’s case I find unconvincing. However, its strongest parts are the connection of David’s behavior to the breaking of the commandments against adultery and murder. So is an idealized portrait of David something the devout have imposed on the Bible?
Part of the nativity story is the connection of Jesus to David. I like the way Eugene Peterson’s Message interprets Romans 1:2-4:
“The sacred writings contain preliminary reports by the prophets on God’s Son. His descent from David roots him in history; his unique identity as Son of God was shown by the Spirit when Jesus was raised from the dead, setting him apart as the Messiah, our Master.”
“His descent from David roots him in history” Yes. But that is not what gives him his “unique identity”.
History concerning David is up in the air now. This is mostly because of the fortress or city overlooking the Elah Valley, Khirbet Qeiyafa. The excavation of this site has been controversial. The current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has an article by Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor and Joseph Baruch Silver (pp. 37-43 January/February 2017) that responds to some criticism of Garfinkel’s interpretation by Israel Finkelstein and Alexander Fantalkin, whose article is helpfully available here.
One paragraph in the BAR article shows what is at stake:
“Some scholars view King David’s kingdom as a simple agrarian society, sparsely inhabited, with no fortified cities, no administration and no writing. These scholars find it very hard to accept the new discoveries as Qeiyafa, which have completely dismantled these hypotheses” (p. 41).
I am among those disconcerted by Garfinkel’s discovery of a sophisticated outpost, dated to about 1000 BCE by radio carbon testing on 27 olive pits.
Garfinkel’s own understanding is that this was an administrative center of David’s Judah on a par with Jerusalem and Hebron.
There are other interpretations.
Nadav Na’aman now believes this was a Canaanite site.
Finkelstein accepts that there was an Israelite fort there in the Iron Age, but argues that the gates and other signs of sophistication should be dated much later. (This is what the new BAR article briefly refutes.)
A French scholar, Emile Puech, sees the Elah fortress as constructed by King Saul. He bases this on his translation of a badly damaged inscription found there. He translated one line as “The men and the chiefs/officers have established a king”. He thinks this could only be Israel’s first king, Saul. I don’t see why it couldn’t refer to David’s (or even Absalom’s) proclamation as king at Hebron–accepting Baden’s understanding that Judah was not an ancient tribe, but a new creation of David. But we are uncertain how to read the inscription and Puech’s translation is in doubt. See here.
Because of few pig bones at Qeiyafa contrasted to many down the road at Gath, we should probably see the fortress as an Israelite site. But its relationship to Gath is what gives me pause. David had a close relationship with Gath as a vassal or ally. One could even claim that Gath propped up his regime. At the time of Absalom’s revolt, David was supported by at least 600 troops from Gath (2 Samuel 15:18). So why would David need a big fortress over against Gath?
1 Chronicles understood that David had already conquered and subdued Gath. So Gath would have been David’s vassal. But 1 Chronicles 18:1 is a doubtful interpretation of 2 Samuel 8:1 which has David subduing some Philistines, not Gath. In the light of Qeiyafa, maybe we should give the Chronicles version more respect.
Or perhaps Saul, who is portrayed as at war with Gath, did build this place, and the idea that his own headquarters were under a tree in Benjamin is a folk tale.
I am very curious about what conclusions we will ultimately reach about this.