King David (reigned 1010-970 BC) was the second king of Israel and one of the most famous men of the Hebrew Bible. The king was said to have united the both kingdoms of Israel and Judah and ruled over them as the united monarchy. The life of David is mostly chronicled throughout the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. Some of the most important and well-known events of the life of David include his rise from a shepherd to attaining the throne of Israel, his battle with the giant named Goliath, and his conquering of the ancient city of Jerusalem.
The tradition of David’s life starts in his youth. David started out as a young shepherd who cultivated sheep, a typical occupation of his time. Early on, David became interested in music, especially of playing the lyre, and would be soon accredited with writing many psalms in both his youth and his reign as king over Israel.
As Saul, the current king of Israel began to sin, God began to torment him. Through the advice of his servants, Saul had come to the belief that he required a musician to play for him in order to ease him of his anguish. One of his servants said that they may be aware of such a man to help him, the son of Jesse, David. Thus, Saul requested David to become his personal musician, where he would perform his musical tunes in order to help calm Saul. Saul quickly came to trust David, making him into one of his armor-bearers. David had become a member of Saul’s court, and so Saul requested David to play the lyre for him when he felt tormented, which would help calm and ease him.
Fight Against Goliath
Soon after David began playing the lyre for Saul, Israel found itself in a war with the Philistines. The Philistines held a camp at Ephes Dammim, located between Sokoh and Azekah, and the forces of Saul were based in the Valley of Elah, slowly advancing in order to confront the Philistines.
Suddenly, the champion of the Philistines, a man named Goliath (whose hometown was Gath) emerged, towering in height over every man nearby. Goliath was said to have been wearing full-body armor made of bronze and equipped with both a javelin and a spear. Every morning and every evening for forty days, Goliath came forwards to taunt the Israelites and challenge any single man willing to fight him head on. Goliath claimed that if his opponent won, the Philistines would become servants of the Israelite’s, but if he won, the Israelite’s would become servants of the Philistines.
“Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” (1 Samuel 17.8-10)
Such a form of battle is common in ancient practice, where a single duel would decide the fate of the war in order to minimize the number of casualties both sides take.
The three eldest sons of Jesse (David’s older brothers) were also in this war. Jesse, their father, asked David to go to the camp of Saul’s army with some grain and bread to give to his elder brothers. David got to the camp, and when he was looking for his brothers, Goliath again emerged and uttered his regular defiance. In bravery, David wished to personally deal with Goliath. Saul attempted to stop him, telling David that he was still in his youth and not experienced enough for this battle, but David countered by saying that he had killed a lion and a bear when protecting his sheep, and therefore was able to fight Goliath. Saul, convinced by David’s arguments, allowed him to fight.
David and Goliath approached each other, and after remarking some angry words against each other, Goliath began stampeding towards David. David took out a sling and struck Goliath in the head with a stone, and then used a sword to kill the weakened Goliath. David became victorious, and this allowed the Israelite’s to defeat the Philistines and then plunder their camp. David, in his victory, took the head of Goliath to Jerusalem. Seemingly an out-of-the-ordinary act at first, an explanation as to why David did this with Goliath’s head is provided by Hoffmeier;
…it might be suggested that David’s purpose in taking Goliath’s head to Jerusalem reflects the common Near Eastern practice of humiliating one’s enemy by displaying the remains of the fallen hero, chieftain or king, and announcing the good news of an enemy’s defeat. David’s actions in several instances show that he was shrewdly trying to consolidate his claim to the throne after being anointed by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:13)… By taking the giant’s head to Jerusalem David was not just announcing his victory over Goliath and the Philistines, but was also putting the Jebusites on notice that just as he defeated the Philistine champion, Jerusalem’s demise was only a matter of time. (108)
The Psalms of David
David, in the traditions found in the Book of Psalms, Old Testament, and the New Testament, is attributed to have written over 70 of the 150 Psalms. Psalms, in specific, are short songs written in devotion towards God in the Bible. Early on in the biblical account, we are told that David was a man who could play the lyre and conducted music for Saul, and so it is easy to see how and why David would become interested in composing music in devotion to God. In specific, David is attributed to having written Psalms 3-9, 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, and 138-145. In addition, the New Testament attributes Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25), Psalm 45 (Heb. 4:7), Psalm 69 (Rom. 11:9), and Psalm 95 (Heb. 3:15) to David.
I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your unfailing love and your faithfulness, for you have so exalted your solemn decree that it surpasses your fame. When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me. (Psalm 138.1-3)
Historically speaking, it has not been proven that David actually wrote any of the psalms attributed to him, leading many modern scholars to reject Davidic authorship in the Book of Psalms. Other scholars believe that David’s early reputation as a musician and author of songs (as found in the early 8th century BC document, the Book of Amos, 6:5) makes it possible to associate David with writing some of the psalms attributed to him. At best, this aspect of David’s life remains unclear.
David in the New Testament
In the New Testament, David is mentioned several times, almost always in the context of being an ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Jews had believed that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, and they believed he would symbolically reign on David’s throne. In all the Gospels, Jesus is said to be a descendant of David (e.g. Matthew 1.1, 12.23; Mark 10.48; John 7.42; Luke 18.38), and this is repeated in the Book of Romans (1.3), II Timothy (2.8) and the Book of Revelation (5.5). David also has an important appearance in Hebrews 11, which is considered the New Testament “hall of fame” for men in the Old Testament who have done many righteous deeds before God.
David Becomes King
After his battle with Goliath, David quickly built an impressive reputation and soared through the ranks of the military with his countless successful militaristic adventures, pleasing his fellow Israelite’s. Soon enough, David even formed a great relationship with a man named Jonathan, the son of King Saul.
Saul began to notice this, and one day, after yet another fantastic military victory lead by David, Saul heard his men chanting the phrase “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Quickly, Saul became increasingly afraid of David, believing that he could take his throne. As Saul’s fright of David grew, he gave his daughter Michal to David in marriage and watched as David’s adventures and victories continued mounting.
Saul’s fear quickly turned into action, and Saul commanded his attendants and Jonathan to try to kill David. Jonathan greatly loved David, and so decided to warn him of his father’s plans. David, thanks to Jonathan, was able to escape and hide in safety in a Philistine land. Saul pursued David and even attempted to personally kill David multiple times, but every time David would acquire the advantage over Saul, acquiring the opportunity to kill him, but instead spared Saul’s life every time. Caught up in another war with the Philistines, Saul himself ended up losing his life, paving the way for David to become king over all Israel.
David’s Leadership over Israel
At the age of 30, David entered into Hebron, where all the tribes of Israel gathered and anointed him king over Israel (c. 1010 BC). David, who now ruled over the kingdom of Judah, immediately moved to take Jerusalem, which was held by the Jebusites. David was able to defeat the Jebusites and conquer Jerusalem and renamed the fortress located there as the City of David. It is easy to see why David would choose Jerusalem as his stronghold, as it was a politically neutral territory since it was never allotted to any of the twelve tribes of Israel. Soon after this happened, he began building a friendly relationship with Hiram, the king of Tyre, which lead to Hiram helping David build his own palace.
At this point, David now was setting his eyes on the Ark of God (also known as the Ark of the Covenant). The Ark of God was located in Baalah, a Judean city, and so David marched into Baalah in order to take the Ark and move it into the City of David. In the midst of these events, however, one of David’s servants mishandled the Ark, causing God to strike his servant dead. David feared God on that day and did not take the Ark, rather, it stayed with a man named Obed-Edom. David, however, did not give up, and so he tried to take the Ark again after three months, this time succeeding. David managed to bring the Ark to the City of David, and he became so joyful that he started to dance before God.
Eventually, was lurking, especially from the nearby Philistines. Throughout David’s reign, he defeated the nations of Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Philistia and others. Perhaps one of the greatest moments of David’s life was the birth of his son and heir, Solomon, destined by God to take the throne of Israel during the older years of David (c. 970 BC). And thus, the life of the king comes to an end.
Historical Background of David’s Life
In 1993 AD, excavations were being directed by the archaeologist Avraham Biran in the ancient site of Tel Dan. Tel Dan was located in northern Israel and at the base of Mount Hermon. In 1993, the surveyor of excavations at Tel Dan, Gila Cook, discovered what would become a very important artifact for the determining whether or not David truly existed. In the vicinity of Tel Dan, a basalt stone was found, containing an inscription that dated to the middle of the 9th century BC. The inscription on this stele contained thirteen lines of writing in the Early Aramaic script.
This fragment is known today as the Tel Dan Inscription. On the 9th line of the text, the Tel Dan Inscription mentions the ‘House of David’ (bytdwd), a phrase believed to reference the dynasty of Israel established by David. Soon after publication, this finding was challenged. Scholars immediately began arguing about the translation of the text. Those who did not share the view that the Tel Dan Inscription refers to a historical David preferred a translation of the original Aramaic where, rather than mentioning David, the inscription actually mentioned a deity named Dôd, and some even went as far as to question the authenticity of the artifact itself. However, scholars soon came to the conclusion that the Tel Dan Inscription is authentic and that it mentions a monarch named David. Susan Ackerman gives a full summary of the scholarly debate and argument on the Tel Dan Inscription;
According to the revisionist account, however, the evidence of the Tel Dan stele is to be dismissed either as fraudulent (a forgery planted in the remains of Tel Dan by someone attempting to play a joke on the excavators), or as referring not to the “house of David” but to the “house of [a god] named Dôd.” This reading is achieved by adding vowels to the steles btdwd so that it reads bêt-dôd rather than bêt-dāwīd and then understanding the bêt-dôd by referring to a place or temple name, analogous to, say, the place and temple name bêt-‛el, or Bethel (the “house of God” or “house of [the god named] El”). The revisionist argument concerning forgery is dismissed by most as patently ridiculous and even seems, as several scholars have pointed out, intended as a gratuitous insult directed against the excavation director at Tel Dan, the esteemed Avraham Biran. The latter argument, concerning the reading “house of [a god named] Dôd,” while at one point plausible, is now judged to be extremely unlikely, given that the second of the two Tel Dan fragments (Fragment B), found a year after the discovery of Fragment A, quite arguably contains, in line 7, the name Jehoram, son of Ahab, who reigned from ca. 849-843 BC over the northern kingdom of Israel… This royal name is followed, moreover, in line 8, by what seems to be the name of Ahaziah, son of Jehoram… who, according to the biblical account, was the king over Judah, the southern half of Israel’s divided kingdoms, during part of the time that Jehoram ruled in the North… Such a concentration of royal referents in lines 7-8 virtually demands that the reference to bytdwd in line 9 be read as a referring to the royal “house of David” of which the southern King Ahaziah was a scion. (156-157)
So, although once debated, Grabbe notes that today the Tel Dan Inscription “is now widely regarded (a) as genuine and (b) as referring to the Davidic dynasty and the Aramaic kingdom of Damascus” (333).
In 1994, a single year after the initial discovery and publication of the Tel Dan Inscription, two well-known epigraphers André Lemaire and Émile Puech independently came to the conclusion that the Mesha Stele also likely mentioned the House of David, and this inscription also dates towards the middle of the 9th century BCE.
Our records for David are by no means entirely conclusive, however, they represent an important segment of the archaeological verdict on whether or not David was truly a man in the past, and seem to tilt the argument in David’s favor.
Another issue regarding the history of the life of David is the extent of his kingdom. David’s power had been characterized by some scholars as stretching over a simple and agrarian society that barely had control past the boundaries of Jerusalem. Although technology has greatly advanced, when an archaeologist wants to find out what happened in an ancient city or kingdom, he must still do things the old-fashioned way. Get a team, get some funds, and get digging. This is exactly what Yosef Garfinkel from the Hebrew University and Sa’ar Ganor from the Israel Antiquities Authority did in the ancient site of Khirbet Qeiyafa from 2007-2013 AD. The findings at this site have become very important to modern scholars concerning the debate over the expanse of David’s kingdom.
Khirbet Qeiyafa is located about 30km southwest of Jerusalem on top of a hill, covering an area of about 2.3 hectares and surrounded by a roughly circular city wall stretching approximately 600m. According to radiocarbon tests conducted by the excavation team, the city was occupied in the period of c. 1020 – 980 BC, about the same period as David’s reign. Khirbet Qeiyafa had a centralized administration stretching over 10,000 square feet, requiring over 200,000 tons of stone to construct. Qeiyafa also has various important architectural features, including two four-chambered gates (one in the south, one in the west of the site) and a gate piazza next to each of these gates. This city, if part of the kingdom of Judah under David would indicate that David possessed a kingdom larger than scholars had previously thought, and he may have been a substantial king.
The majority of scholars believe that Khirbet Qeiyafa is, in fact, a Judean site. However, there have been a few scholars who have sought to identify it as Philistine or Canaanite, especially since it is located on Israel’s border with Philistine. The evidence, however, favors the identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa as Judean, for some of the reasons that include the following;
- Urban Planning – The “urban planning of the site [Khirbet Qeiyafa] includes the casemate city wall and a belt of houses abutting the casemates and incorporating them as a part of construction” (Garfinkel, Ganor, Hasel 55). These urban planning features at Khirbet Qeiyafa are typical of Judean sites, including Beersheba, Tell Beit Mirsim, Tell en-Nasbeh and Tell Beth-Shemesh, making Khirbet Qeiyafa more reminiscent of Judeans site in this respect
- Diet – In a typical Philistine site, up to 20% of the bones found will be from pigs, and pig is also a common diet in many Canaanite sites as well. However, pig bones are usually not found at any Judean sites as Jewish beliefs held that pigs were unclean, and so could not be eaten. No pig bones have yet to be found at Khirbet Qeiyafa
- Jars – Judean cities typically have a large number of impressed jar handles. At Khirbet Qeiyafa, 693 impressed jar handles have been found. Such a high quantity of impressed jar handles are not found in sites at Canaan or Philistia
- Cult – Sites in Canaan and Philistia are usually filled with hundreds of cultic figurines, however, there is an enormous absence of such figurines at Khirbet Qeiyafa. Only three figurine items have been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which are similar to the two found at Moza (another Judean site)
- Metal tools – Most of the tools found at Khirbet Qeiyafa are made of iron, which had been adopted by Judah at its time, whereas Canaanite sites at the time were still using copper and bronze
Thus, the information we have allows for the identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa as a Judean site, and because it is powerful and heavily fortified, the director of excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa has, therefore, concluded the following about its implications for the account of David’s Judean kingdom;
“The location of Khirbet Qeiyafa and the data uncovered clearly demonstrate that it was a Judean city and not a Canaanite or Philistine one. Nor did it belong to the northern Kingdom of Israel. The new radiometric dating support the biblical narrative about state formation in Judah. The archaeological data and the biblical text both indicate that a new social organization developed in Judah in the late eleventh/early tenth century BC… On the other hand, in the biblical tradition this period is the era of King David. This narrative, like any historical narrative, suffers from various shortcomings but can no longer be rejected out of hand. In the late eleventh/early tenth century BC a small kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, began to develop in the hills of Jerusalem and Hebron. It’s founding father was David.” (Garfinkel, Kreimerman, Zilberg 236)
Thus, archaeology has shed considerable light on not only the existence of David but the expanse of his kingdom, which it continues to do in several smaller findings throughout Israel. For example, excavations in the Timna Valley (located in southern Israel), currently being excavated by Erez Ben-Yosef from the Tel Aviv University, have found foreign fabrics dating to the time of Solomon’s reign. Such fabrics indicate that the kingdoms of David and Solomon participated in complex trading networks. Another finding in 2016 AD was that of a large palatial building dating to the reign of Solomon (10th century BC) found in the royal city of Gezer, which may be a reflection that the Solomonide kingdom could have had some wealth, and the time of Solomon may have its own implications for David’s reign.
Another archaeological finding that was able to shed some light on the life of David, rather than his rule, has actually come from the land of the Philistines. In 2005 AD, at excavations in the hometown of Goliath, the Philistine city of Gath (modern day Tell es-Safi), a Semitic inscription dating to the 10th-9th centuries BC was found, bearing an Indo-European name that highly resembled ‘Goliath’. Although the name is not exactly equivalent to Goliath, nor is the person’s name to be directly identified with the Philistine giant Goliath, Aren Maeir, the head of excavations at Tell es-Safi says that this inscription reveals the following;
“What this means is that at the time there were people there named Goliath. It shows us that David and Goliath’s story reflects the cultural reality of the time.”
So, did David truly slay Goliath? Perhaps this cannot itself be certainly known one way or another, however, the story seems to possess authentic historical memories, explicitly showing the great importance archaeology has been to historians in uncovering the mysteries of the ancient world. Although, it is true that David was said to have captured Gath sometime after he became king, despite there being no evidence for a destruction of the city of Gath during the time of David. Either David temporarily captured Gath, but did not destroy the city (unlike Hazael, who captured and destroyed Gath in the 9th century BC), or simply did not capture Gath at all contrary to the biblical record. The only thing that can be certain is that David did not destroy Gath.
David was definitely a profound figure, which is something that most scholars seem to be able to agree on despite the differences they maintain when reconstructing the historical background to his famous, and perhaps even infamous deeds. His reputation has broken beyond the boundaries of his home in ancient Israel and has extended over numerous cultures. Today, all three Abrahamic faiths honor David as an extraordinary man, whose reign is considered by many to be the pinnacle of ancient Israel’s history.
Émile Puech, “La stèle araméenne de Dan: Bar Hadad II et la coalition des Omrides et de la maison de David,” Revue Biblique 1994.
André Lemaire, “House of David; Restored in Moabite inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review 1994.
Aren Maeir et al, “A Late Iron Age I/Early Iron Age II Old Canaanite Inscription from Tell es-Sâfi/Gath,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 2008.
Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh,” Israel Exploration Society 1993.
Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “The Tel Dan inscription: a new fragment,” Israel Exploration Journal 1995: 13.
David Noel Freedman, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Eerdmans, 2000), 318..
Igor Kreimerman, Peter Zilberg and Yosef Garfinkel, Debating Khirbet Qeiyafa (Israel Exploration Society, 2016).
Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Touchstone, 2002).
James Hoffmeier, “David’s Triumph over Goliath: 1 Samuel 17: 54 and Ancient Near Eastern Analogues,” Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature 2011.
Lester L. Grabbe, Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2007), 333..
Susan Ackerman, When Heroes Love (Columbia University Press, 2005), 156-157..
Yulia Gottlieb, “The Advent of the Age of Iron,” Tel Aviv 2010.