King David

King David was the second king of the united Kingdom of Israel. Initially he ruled only over the tribe of Judah, but later his rule extended to all the other tribes. King David ruled during the first third of the 10th century BCE.

Abel Pan, David, pastel, c. 1952. Courtesy of the artist's family.

King David’s life is mainly described in the book of Samuel, which depicts him both as a public figure – King of Israel, successful in all that he did, who earned the love of his people – and as a private individual – husband and father, who did not have great satisfaction from his children, and whose family life was troubled.

David is described in the Bible as a red-headed shepherd, “bright-eyed and handsome” (1 Samuel, 16:12), who, without fear (and without weapons), stood up to the Philistine, Goliath; he was a fighter and conqueror, “a stalwart fellow and a warrior”; and an intelligent statesman – “and the Lord is with him” (verse 18). While still a shepherd, he was chosen by God to be king, and anointed in secret during King Saul’s reign.

He established a united kingdom, made Jerusalem his capital, and earned God’s promise that his kingdom would remain in his hands and those of his dynasty for ever: “Your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). David was also the “sweet singer of Israel,” who composed psalms and lamentations, and was a skilled musician.

David was the youngest son of Jesse, a farmer from Bethlehem, in Judah, and the great grandson of Boaz and Ruth  the Moabite.

David shepherded his father’s flock, and was known for his bravery in protecting it against wild animals. He was also known as a musician and poet, and so was brought to King Saul, who suffered from depression and from whom the spirit of God had departed, to raise his spirits by playing the harp. Saul liked the young David, and made him his armour bearer. In time, Saul appointed David as an officer in his army.

One of the stories about David describes how he killed the Philistine giant, Goliath, who had mocked the army of Israel (1 Samuel, 7:1-18). Goliath was armed and shielded from head to foot, but David saw that his forehead was exposed, and the rock that he launched from his slingshot was aimed there. With courage and faith in God, David was able to kill the giant. This act of bravery was the first that made the young hero’s name famous.

What is the role of the story of David and Goliath in shaping the character of David? See "Elements of history and realistic description of these valley battle of David and Goliath" (in Hebrew) to help you.


Nahum Gutman, David Playing before King Saul, gouache and collage. © Gutman Family. In courtesy of The Nahum Gutman Museum of Art, Tel Aviv.

Subsequently too, David stood out in the wars against the Philistines, who had harassed Saul for much of his reign. David’s victory over Goliath gave him the status of a winner, loved by his people, but also aroused Saul’s envy of him and led to a deterioration in his relationship with David. At the same time, Saul recognized that it was David – and not himself – who was God’s chosen. Saul even gave him his daughter Michal – who had fallen in love with David – as a wife. Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son, was David’s closest friend. The story of their loyal friendship of one of the most beautiful stories in the world’s literature.

But Saul (who was ill) began to suspect David of wishing to kill him and take over the kingdom, and David was forced to flee. David’s attempts to convince Saul that he was not trying to undermine his rule or trying to kill him had no effect.

Following the terrible battle at Gilboa, in which Israel was defeated and Saul and three of his sons were killed, David became king of Judah, in the city of Hebron, where he reigned for seven and a half years. During that period, the other tribes were ruled by Ish-Boshet, Saul’s son. It was only following the murder of Ish-Boshet that representatives of the other tribes approached David, and crowned him king over the whole of the united Kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel, 5:1-5).

Gustav Dore, David mourning for Avshalom.

One of David’s first acts, after becoming king of Israel, was to conquer Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and make it his capital and the religious center of the kingdom. David wanted to build a House of God in Jerusalem, but God rejected his request, instead informing him that it would be his son, who would inherit the kingdom after him, who would build the Temple. God also promised that David and his descendants would rule “forever” (2 Samuel, 7:16). David defeated his old enemies, the Philistines, and through conquest expanded the borders of the kingdom greatly. David instituted a centralized administration in his kingdom, with a single religious and administrative center, in the City of David in Jerusalem. Upon his death David left his son Solomon a large, strong and well-organized kingdom.

The Bible mentions some of King David’s wives, among them women whom he married for purely political reasons, as well as numerous children.

In his old age, having had enough of war, David sought to live in peace, and enjoy the fruits of his victories. However, trouble from within his own family embittered his old age. He coveted a married woman, Bat-Sheva, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who had fought bravely and loyally in David’s army. David gave orders that led to Uriah’s death, and married Bat-Sheva. David’s sin with Bat-Sheva was a kind of watershed in his personal life: although he accepted the rebuke of the prophet Nathan, and repented, his punishment came from within his family: “Therefore the sword shall never depart from your House… I will make a calamity rise against you from within your own house” (12:10-11). Amnon, his first-born son, dishonored his half-sister Tamar, and as a result Avshalom, Tamar’s brother, killed him. Avshalom was forced to flee, out of fear of David’s vengeance, but through the influence of Yoav, David’s general, the king allowed him to return. But Avshalom held a grudge against his father, and incited the residents of Hebron to rebel against the king. David, who was taken by surprise by the revolt, fled across the Jordan. Avshalom did not act immediately, and this gave David time to call up  his more experienced forces, and they easily defeated Avshalom’s untrained army. Yoav, David’s general, killed Avshalom, who had fled, with his own hands, in spite of David’s express orders not to harm his son. A secret war over inheritance of the kingdom disturbed David’s last years. The people saw Adoniyah, the eldest of David’s sons following Amnon and Avshalom, as the heir apparent. But Bat-Sheva sought the kingdom for her son Solomon, the king’s youngest son, and David acceded to her request.  Solomon was anointed as king in a festive ceremony during his father’s lifetime.

Nahum Gutman, David and Goliath, 1938, ink and gouache on paper. © Gutman Family. In courtesy of The Nahum Gutman Museum of Art, Tel Aviv.

King David reigned for forty years; he was seventy years old when he died, and he was buried in Jerusalem.

Tradition attributes the composition of the Book of Psalms to King David. Christianity and Islam also venerate David, in particular as the author of the Psalms. According to the Jewish tradition, the Mashiach will be descended from King David, and Christianity believes that Jesus was also descended from him.

There are major disparities between the way in which King David’s character is portrayed in the Bible, as opposed to his character in rabbinic legend. There are also significant differences between the way David is portrayed in different books of the Bible itself – in the Book of Samuel as opposed to the Book of Chronicles.

In the Book of Samuel (1 and 2), King David’s life story is described in detail. David’s personal life, from which he had little satisfaction, is also described extensively. As he appears in the Bible, David had many positive characteristics, but also serious shortcomings. He was a man of strong emotions and impulses, which sometimes led him to act injudiciously. He was courageous and energetic, wise and tolerant when necessary, a man of deep religious feeling and a poet.

On the other hand, the text of Chronicles omits the embarrassing events and acts of his life, including the episode with Bat-Sheva, Amnon and Tamar, and Avshalom’s revolt. Regarding the apparent bias in the Book of Chronicles, Rashi comments, “That which is not written here… is out of respect for David, for this book does not wish to relate anything disrespectful of the House of David” (Rashi’s commentary on 1 Chronicles, 2:9).

In rabbinic sources, David is “a figure closer to their own world, the world of Torah and the commandments.” In the Midrash, King David is described very differently from how he is described in the books of Samuel and Kings, but closer to the character of David in Chronicles and the Psalms. In the rabbinic texts, and hence in Jewish tradition and the consciousness of the Jewish people, David becomes an outstanding leader, a spiritual giant and a scholar, “a figure whose spiritual basis clearly overrides his earthy, physical basis.” According to the rabbis, David observed the commandments strictly, studied Torah day and night, and was also a prophet and a judge.

The Midrash fills in the gaps in the Biblical narrative, and tells of the David’s birth and childhood. He was born already circumcised – a sign of the future role for which he was already designated; in his childhood he prophesied his victory over the Philistine Goliath, and the role that he would have in building the Temple, a prediction to which his father reacted scornfully. The reason for David’s selection as king is not explained in the Bible, but the Midrash explains that God chose him to lead Israel because of his proven ability as a shepherd: “One who knows how to shepherd the flock… let him come and shepherd my people” (Shemot Rabbah, 2:2).

The episode of David and Bat-Sheva is discussed extensively in rabbinic sources, in an attempt the absolve David of guilt and prove that he did not sin: “Whoever says that David sinned errs” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 56a). Even if he sinned, the blame is directed at Bat-Sheva, who tempted him, as opposed to the way it is described in the Biblical narrative, which portrays her as a passive participant against an all-powerful king. Thus, the Bible places the responsibility and punishment on David. In any event, according to the Rabbis (and the Bible too), David paid for his sin and was punished. The Midrash explains that David suffered the penalty that he unknowingly decreed for himself in the parable of the poor man’s sheep, and he lost four children: Bat-Sheva’s first son, Amnon and Avshalom, and, in a sense, Tamar, since she remained childless. The Midrash also emphasizes David’s remorse, and his repentance, following which God forgave him for his sin. From that time on, David became a symbol for penitents: “He who confesses and gives them up will find mercy (Proverbs 28:13) – this applies to David” (Midrash Tehillim, 100:2).

David Polus, The Shepherd David Playing the Harp, 1935, Kibbutz Ramat David. Photo:Dr Avishai Teicher Wikimedia Commons

We will never be able to know who King David really was – does the text in the Book of Samuel do him an injustice, or are Chronicles and the rabbis being kind to him, by leaving out his negative characteristics and actions?


Why do you think there are differences between the various versions?


Would there also be different versions of descriptions of people from later periods, or even from our own times? Explain.


Have you ever encountered a situation in which you have heard totally different things about someone from different people? (It might have been about a classmate, a neighbor, a relative, or someone famous…)