The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. By Joel Baden. Video. Yale Divinity School, January 28, 2014. Livestream.
The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. By Joel Baden. New York: HarperOne, 2013. Pp. 320. Amazon.com.
How King David predicted modern Judaism. By Joel Baden. CNN, October 12, 2013.
Most American Jews consider Judaism to be mainly a matter of culture and ancestry, according to a recent poll. An even higher percentage describe themselves as emotionally attached to Israel. For this we have one person to thank: King David.
The Israel we know today is a nation that David created virtually out of thin air. Before David, there were two territories, Israel to the north, and Judah to the south.
By sheer force of personality—and, to be fair, substantial military strength—David combined these two lands under a single crown (his). Not only had this never happened before; no one had ever thought of it before.
Although the Bible makes it sound as if everyone loved David, and were desperate to follow him, this wasn’t really the case. David took power by force.
The people of Israel and Judah became part of David’s kingdom because he conquered them—they had no choice in the matter. Their only option was to abandon the land that they had held for centuries. And in a tight real estate market—every family believed that they had eternal rights to their property—moving was pretty much out of the question.
We tend to think of Israel in biblical terms: the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land of the 12 tribes. These concepts were created in the wake of David’s reign.
Everywhere that the Bible speaks of Judah and Israel together—the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest—we encounter the ramifications of David’s actions.
The borders of the modern state of Israel today are, roughly, David’s borders, or at least those attributed to him by the biblical authors. (For the record: the West Bank was part of David’s kingdom; the Gaza Strip was not.)
And at the center of Israel, both ancient and modern, is the holy city of Jerusalem. This, too, is David’s doing. Before David, Jerusalem was a long-standing independent city-state, belonging to a long-lost people called the Jebusites.
Recognizing that its central location would be perfect for the capital of his newly united state—the ancient equivalent of Washington—David conquered it and wiped out its former inhabitants.
Because David is credited with founding the Temple in Jerusalem—although Solomon built the actual structure, David chose the site, set up an altar, and laid the conceptual groundwork—it’s natural enough to assume that there was some religious motivation at work.
But, in fact, David’s aim in inaugurating a site of worship in his capital was more economical than spiritual. Temples were sites of commerce—Jesus knew this—and having a culturally significant relic, in the form of the Ark of the Covenant, was sure to draw the people in.
Every lamb sacrificed in Jerusalem meant profit for the sanctuary, and for the king who controlled it. Every pilgrim meant a night’s stay in a local bed and breakfast (all fully taxable, of course).
David used belief as a lure to draw in the masses. But he didn’t care much what his people believed. The creation of the unified kingdom of Israel wasn’t based on shared religion.
The inhabitants of the north had very different practices from those in the south. And none of them was following Jewish law—the laws hadn’t been written yet, and wouldn’t be for centuries.
What united the people of David’s kingdom was, quite simply, that they lived there. It was a political state, not a religious one.
Israel then, like today, was primarily a political entity, and only secondarily a religious one. Those who considered themselves attached to Israel believed and practiced a whole range of things, or not; just like those who are attached to Israel today.
A Pew poll released earlier this month demonstrates the continuing pull of David’s Israel. Millions of American Jews financially support the modern state of Israel, either through donations or through tourism.
We feel the pull of the land, the sanctity of the ancient streets of Jerusalem. We fly El Al, we stay at the hotels, we eat at the restaurants, we pay to enter various sites.
That is: We’re still doing just what David wanted us to do. We are precisely the Jews who David envisioned—believing whatever we want, just so long as we spend our money in Israel.
King David: A Biography. By Steven L. McKenzie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Myth and Reality of King David’s Jerusalem. By Daniel Gavron. Jewish Virtual Library. Originally published in Hebrew in Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters, No. 102 (May 1996).
Remembering King David. By Jacob L. Wright. ASOR Blog, February 14, 2014.
How We Know When Solomon Ruled. By Kenneth A. Kitchen. Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 27, No. 5 (September/October 2001).
David and Hazael: War, Peace, Stones and Memory. By Gershon Galil. Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 139, No. 2 (July 2007).
What Archaeology Tells Us About the Bible. By Christa Case Bryant. NJBR, October 15, 2013. With related articles.
Archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel Announces Discovery of King David’s Palace at Khirbet Qeiyafa. NJBR, July 20, 2013. With related articles.
Israel’s King Solomon, whose wealth and wisdom have become the stuff of legend (and in the judgment of some scholars greatly exaggerated), died in 922 BC after a reign according to the Bible of nearly forty years. The king’s death was a moment of grave crisis for the Israelite monarchy created by Solomon’s father King David some 80 years earlier. Through war, diplomacy, treachery, and occasional cruelty, David had succeeded in forging a disparate group of loosely confederated highland tribes, clans, independent villages and Canaanite city-states, under constant threat from their richer and more powerful Philistine neighbors, into a new bureaucratic dynastic state: Israel. David’s Israel, with its new royal capital Jerusalem, was the first independent territorial state under local leadership ever to emerge in the land then called Canaan, later to be called Eretz Yisrael or Palestine.
David, in the judgment of Joel Baden, his most recent biographer, “was a successful monarch, but he was a vile human being.” He is the pivotal figure of the Bible and the central political figure in Jewish history: the founding father of the Israelite nation who established Jerusalem as the focus of Jewish, and later Christian, religious faith, achievements which reverberate to the present day. The historical David was a masterful political leader and military strategist. He was also a cunning Near Eastern warlord and despot in the mold of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, who was transformed over the course of several centuries into the ideal king of the Judeo-Christian tradition, “a man after God’s own heart,” and the prototype of the Messiah. This process began during Solomon’s reign with the writing of an apology for David’s life and actions, a masterpiece of literature and propaganda later incorporated into the biblical books of Samuel. The Israel reborn in 1948 was the deliberate re-creation of David’s Israel in modern guise. As Joel Baden writes, the founders of the Zionist state “chose the name of David’s unified nation, linking the emergence of Israel in the twentieth century CE with the emergence of Israel in the tenth century BCE. . . . Geographically, politically, and ideologically, the Israel we know today is the embodiment of David’s legacy.”