Jeff Berger —
Recently I read Baruch Halpern’s biography about King David of ancient Israel/Judah called David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (2001). It was a difficult book to read, as are most books about the Old Testament, but I recommend it to anyone who is interested in biblical history. One reason why it’s so difficult to read these books is because of the fragmentary nature of the Old Testament. Interpreting the Old Testament is a lot like trying to fit together a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing. Most people would be suspicious of any theory that explained the missing pieces, but Baruch Halpern is well qualified to imagine what might have happened. In 2001 he held the Chaiken Family Chair in Jewish Studies at Penn State University where he was also a professor of ancient history, classics, ancient Mediterranean studies, and religious studies. From 1992 to 2007 he led archaeological digs at Tel Meggido in northern Israel and today he is a professor at the University of Georgia.
I became interested in the history of ancient Israel partly because I was raised Jewish, although I became an atheist later in life. I have long been interested in history, but only this year did I turn to the study ancient history (the Bronze Age and Iron Age). The biblical books are a good source for historical information, but they were not written for the purpose of teaching history to future generations. Rather, the main purpose of much of the Bible was to indoctrinate people to believe in a monotheistic God named Yahweh. I find it difficult to read the Old Testament because it teaches a warped sense of morality based on the idea that there is nothing more evil than polytheism—more evil than murder, slavery, torture, rape, incest and fratricide, just to mention a few heinous crimes that the Old Testament condones. In order to extract the history from the myths, I would have to re-interpret every other sentence about what the Lord said as being the words of a charlatan. This is why I rely on scholars such as Halpern to interpret the Bible for me. Not that I’m saying Halpern is an atheist; in fact, reading Halpern it is difficult to distinguish whether he thinks some crimes of men are acts of free will or acts that were Yahweh’s responsibility.
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Halpern’s book about King David focuses on the two Books of Samuel, which Halpern explains was likely written during the lifetime of King Solomon, who was David’s son and successor. According to the Bible, David reigned over Judah for 7 years in the late 11th century BCE and then another 33 years over Israel as well. Solomon then reigned for 40 years over both Judah and Israel during the 10th century BCE. These years, together with the reign of King Saul prior to David’s reign, are known as the 100 years of the “United Monarchy.”
Quite possibly the Books of Samuel were written prior to the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses). It is possible that these two books were authored by Solomon, or at his direction, during the 10th century BCE. Thus, these books reveal Solomon’s biases and political objectives. Halpern explains who Solomon’s audience was; his audience was the people of Israel who hated Solomon and his father. One of the clues to their hatred is the fact that immediately upon Solomon’s death, Israel and Judah split into two countries and never reunited again. In fact, it would be generous to call them rivals. “Enemies” would be more accurate; they were always enemies. Halpern argues that the most important country that David conquered as King was not any of the Transjordanian countries to the east of Israel, nor Philistia to the west, nor any of the Aramaic city states to the north. Nor was it the Amalekites to the south. Rather the most important country that David conquered was Israel itself.
And yet curiously, King David is revered in Jewish tradition, which envisions Jews as waiting for a messiah whom they believed would be descended from David. David was thought to be like the George Washington of the Jewish religion. Under his kingship, the territory of Israel/Judah reached its zenith, though the extent of his realm was often grossly exaggerated. Also exaggerated was the sense of Israel and Judah as being “united” in the benign sense of the word. Israel was no more happy about David being their King than Tibet is about having been conquered and occupied by the Chinese.
As the title of Halpern’s book suggests, David was a murderer. In fact, Halpern calls him a “serial killer,” though I would liken him more to the original “Godfather” and Solomon to “Godfather 2.” Furthermore, Halpern charges him with being a “traitor.” But traitor to whom? He was a traitor to Israel. Why? Because prior to becoming King of Judah he was a captain in the Philistine army that was the enemy of Israel. In fact, Halpern suggests that David may have been a Philistine, which if true would mean that he wasn’t a traitor to Israel but rather a loyal soldier of Philistia.
Who were the Philistines? Scholars agree that they came from the Mediterranean Sea, probably from the island of Crete. They arrived around the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 12th century BCE, as the Bronze Age transitioned into the Iron Age. In fact, they were largely responsible for introducing iron into the Near East. In many ways they were probably a more advanced civilization than the Hebrews whom they confronted in Canaan/Palestine. My only foreknowledge of the Philistines before reading Halpern’s book was based on the story of Samson and Delilah—especially the French opera version of the story by Saint-Sean. In that story the Philistines were the antagonists of the Jews, who were the protagonists. But after having read Halpern’s book, I’m not so sure who the good guys and the bad guys actually were. Maybe they were all bad guys or maybe the Philistines were the good guys.
Prior to David becoming King of Judah, Saul was supposedly King of both Israel and Judah. However, Saul fought with the Philistines throughout his reign and never really governed because there was no central administration. Saul was eventually killed by the Philistine army while fighting in the Jezreel Valley of northern Israel. But the Philistines weren’t Saul’s only enemy. Saul had attacked Ammon (in Transjordan) and all “natives” of Israel whom the Israelites (they weren’t called Israelis then) considered to be non-Hebrews. Religion didn’t seem to matter to them as much ethnicity. In other words, they were xenophobic. They didn’t like anybody who was not exactly like them. By making so many enemies, they created the opportunity for King David to make allies who, together with other factions who had been vassals of the Philistines, formed the basis of David’s army.
David was born in the small village of Bethlehem near the village of Jebus. During his youth, a Philistine garrison occupied Bethlehem and Jebus was occupied by non-Hebrew Canaanites. The central city of Judah, which was controlled at that time by the Hebrew priests, was Hebron in the far south of the Canaan hills. Samuel was the Judahite priest who lived in Hebron. He played a role in choosing Saul to be King of Judah in order to defeat the Philistines. Samuel introduced the boy David to Saul. David eventually married Saul’s daughter, making Saul his father-in-law, but their relationship soon soured. Why? Probably because Saul didn’t trust David since he was working for the Philistines. David was captain of a Philistine garrison in the border town of Ziklah—bordering the south of Judah and the Negev desert that was largely occupied by Amalekite nomads. The Philistines and Hebrews both considered the Amelekites to be troublesome raiders. Thus, in the Books of Samuel, Solomon’s “alibi” for his father being in the employ of Philistia was that David limited his activity to fighting a common enemy of Israel and Philistia.
Eventually the priest Samuel turned against Saul and towards David, supposedly because he became unsatisfied with Saul’s religious attitude. (There is no specific information about what made Samuel unhappy with Saul.) We’ll never know the truth about the religion of any of these people, but the Books of Samuel indicate that David never did fight against the Philistines or any of its vassal city states. Soon after David became King of Judah, however, he conquered Jebus and renamed it Jerusalem. From that day forward, it was the capital city of Judah, sitting at the boundary of Judah and Israel. After the monarchy split apart, the city of Samaria became the capital of Israel.
The Books of Samuel make it appear that Philistia was happy when David became the ruler of both Judah and Israel. But evidently Israel was not so happy. Towards the end of David’s reign (probably when Solomon was a little boy), David’s own son Absalom led a revolt against his father. Absalom was led mostly by disaffected Israelites. They were displeased either because of their xenophobia—that is, either David was himself considered a foreigner—or because David’s army consisted of foreigners. They might also have blamed David for Saul’s death. Or rather than being about xenophobia, the Israelites may have been resentful towards a central government that had never existed before. Halpern believes that the Israelites were an anti-tax constituency. They certainly weren’t interested in funding construction of David’s palace or temple in Jerusalem, nor providing labor to David.
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To understand my characterization of David as the “Godfather,” I need to discuss his personal life. The first Book of Samuel tells the story of how he extorted payment from Nabul of Carmel, “a gentleman in the wilderness of Judah.” Halpern says that David was working on a “protection racket,” forcing Nabal to pay him to prevent David from preying on his sheep. Nabul refused to pay and David threatened to kill him. But Nabal’s wife Abigail begged David for mercy. David complied, but in time Nabal conveniently collapsed and died of natural causes. David took Abigail to be his second wife and took control of a substantial estate in Judah. (Abigail also happened to be the same name as David’s half-sister, which may or may not have been a coincidence.) Thus, Solomon did not accuse his father of being a murderer in this case, but he did seem to accuse of him of racketeering.
Halpern also accuses David of contracting others, such as his commander Joab, to exterminate Saul’s family in mafia-like fashion. And then there was the problem of David’s own children. Amnon raped his own half-sister named Tamar and eventually Absalom killed Amnon. These deaths weren’t so much David’s fault, but he did nothing to punish Amnon or Absalom. Even after Absalom led the Israelite revolt, David supposedly asked Joab not to kill Absalom. But Joab killed him anyway. After David died at age 70, Solomon would later kill Joab in retribution for Joab supporting Solomon’s brother as the new King. Solomon also killed all of his rival brothers. And all of these murders are admitted in the Books of Samuel, as if this was acceptable moral behavior.
Thus, Solomon (in the Books of Samuel) provided alibis for his father in each of the instances of death among the people whom David was associated. However, there was one murder that Solomon could not excuse. While King in Jeruselem, David committed adultery with Bethsheba, whose husband Uriah was in David’s army. After the act of adultery, David got Joab to arrange for Uriah to be killed in battle and then took Bethsheba as his wife. Such is the accusation in the Books of Samuel. Halpern explains that Solomon had no reason to make this accusation if the Israelites didn’t already believe it to be true. But Uriah was a Hittite whom the Israelites probably didn’t like, which made this one murder politically acceptable.0
And that story finally brings me to the ultimate objective of the Books of Samuel. By authoring his own book in the 10th century BCE, Solomon wanted to convince the Israelites to support him as King, and in order to do that he had to justify his father’s actions. In Halpern’s interpretation of the story, Solomon seems to have failed in that effort and the immediate collapse of the union upon Solomon’s death seems to indicate a lot of resentment towards Judah.
The rest of the Old Testament had a similar objective. The Pentateuch created the notion that the people of Israel and Judah were from the same genealogical tree. After Assyria destroyed Samaria in 720 BCE and exiled its leaders, no Israelite existed who could offer Israel’s interpretation of history. Subsequently the Judahites concocted a history that justified their right to the land formerly occupied by their enemies. No doubt northern Palestine was more valuable land than southern Palestine. The Judahites even stole the name of Israel. The Judahites were exiled from Palestine to Babylonia during the early 6th century BCE, but the Persians allowed them to reestablish themselves in Palestine (about 50 years later) in much the same way that Britain enabled the Jews to reestablish themselves in Israel during the 20th century. History certainly has a way of repeating itself.
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In concluding, I should note that I haven’t touched on the religious aspects of the disputes between Israel and Judah. But the history of the next 200 years after Solomon’s death suggests that polytheism continued to be strong in both countries. Whenever a more extreme form of the cult of Yahweh emerged in either country, it created a backlash from discontented polytheists. The extremists of the cult of Yahweh were against freedom of religion. In the late 7th century BCE, King Josiah of Judah decided to centralize all religious authority in Jerusalem, taking away power from the parochial priests. This created mass discontent among the people throughout the land. Thus, we can see that long after David’s reign the resentment towards central authorities, especially when that authority banned certain freedoms and taxed the people to pay tribute to that authority. However, Halpern also explains that in the Books of Chronicles, possibly written around King Josiah’s time or during the Babylonian exile, the Judahites rewrote the history of David to make him look even better. But because 300 to 400 years had passed since David’s death, the only original sources of information that these authors had at their disposal were the Books of Samuel with all of its missing jigsaw puzzle pieces. And unlike Baruch Halpern, those Judahites were not archaeologists.
Jeff Berger (Author) – Tech writer, public speaker, and engineer. He earned Masters degrees in statistics and operations research from the University of California, Berkeley, and was employed by IBM for more than 30 years. He developed an interest in history and economics during the 1990’s and now wonders if he might have chosen the wrong career.
2 thoughts on “David’s Secret Demons”
Another interesting article, Jeff!
Yup Jeff, trying to interpret ancient puzzles with so many missing (or distorted) pieces is a real challenge. (Kind of the mega version of trying to piece together Bad Bad Leroy Brown’s work enforcing his Southside of Chicago turf!)
Because the historicity of the peoples who became The Hebrews is so Swiss Cheese porous between the early 3rd century BCE into the times you cover, the mythical nature of a “Chosen People” and a “from the line of David” Jewish Messiah becomes even more tenuous to accept as unvarnished reality. Nonetheless, fascinating stuff to explore and conjecture on.
Bottom line for humanity is to attempt to extract the necessary & timeless lessons our past contains, and hopefully apply our mind juices & elbow grease to salvage our wounded world & work toward not just forming a better one but transforming major portions of it if we are to leave a heritage of any worth for future generations . . .
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