I was a rather unusual teenager in quite a number of ways.
For one thing, I hated shopping.
I never wore makeup–on principle–and rolled my eyes at the way my peers spent hours preening in front of the mirror.
While most girls my age spent their vacation time at the mall, the movies, or the beach, I was happiest cooped up in my room… writing novels.
Like the teenage girls they were, my friends swooned over the likes of Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, and… I can’t even remember who else was popular at the time. That’s how much I cared!
I, on the other hand, was a King David fangirl.
Yeah. The one from 3,000 years ago.
You see, the more I learned about him, the more I admired and identified with him. He was a poet-musician-warrior-prophet-king who was crazy in love with God. He played the lyre, felled a Philistine giant with a single stone, danced like a maniac in celebration of God’s glory, and cried his heart out in public on many occasions. He made some terrible mistakes, but he owned them. He was a badass with a sensitive and highly spiritual soul. His political actions set the stage for the most prosperous golden age in the history of the Jews, and he was the progenitor of what may have been the longest continuous dynasty of communal leaders in the history of humankind.1
Both of the upcoming holidays, Jerusalem Day and Shavuot, have a connection to King David. So I shall take this opportunity to unleash my inner fangirl, and tell you all about my favorite Biblical character. 🙂
Okay, so it turns out I can’t actually tell you all about him. I started writing my merry way through the juiciest moments of his life story as told in Samuel I, and by the time I got halfway through the Goliath story, this letter was already 1,000 words long!
So I’ll have to give you the highlights.
David, son of Jesse, was born in Bethlehem during the period of Samuel the Prophet. He was probably a child when the first king of Israel, Saul, was ordained. When Saul fell out of God’s favor for failing to carry out a commandment, God ordered Samuel to ordain David–then still a kid whose family apparently didn’t think much of him–as the new king. The Bible describes him as “ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome.” Some interpret “ruddy” as meaning he had red hair, and you can see him depicted that way in many paintings. Most likely, though, it means he had a reddish complexion. Rosy cheeks, if you will.
Anyway. Soon after David’s secret ordination, King Saul felt the spirit of God leave him, and became quite depressed. Someone suggested finding a musician to play music and lift his spirits. Long story short, David became the first Royal Music Therapist.
Then the whole fiasco with Goliath happened–a story I assume you are at least somewhat familiar with. After his stunning defeat of the Philistine warrior, David became quite the rock star among the Israelites. He married the king’s daughter Michal and became best buddies with his new brother-in-law, Jonathan. (I believe these days we call it a “bromance.”) But Saul started to suspect David of trying to topple him from the throne, and started trying to kill him.
Michal and Jonathan helped David escape, and he ran into the wilds of Judah, hiding out in the desert with a little band of followers.
David spent the next period of his life scurrying around the Judean Desert trying to avoid getting caught and killed by Saul. There were a few close calls, and some confrontations that ended with Saul saying he was sorry and then changing his mind the next morning. (I believe these days we call it “bipolar.”) But David never attempted to take power during Saul’s lifetime and never dreamed of harming him. Heck, he cried like an idiot when he so much as tore the corner of Saul’s robe in a cave in Ein Gedi.
Anyway, Saul was finally killed in battle in the Gilboa, along with his sons, including David’s best friend Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen” is a famous line from David’s heartbroken lament for Saul and Jonathan, recorded in the final chapters of Samuel I.
With the old king dead, David began his rise to power. First he ruled over Judah from the city of Hebron. (Remember, Jerusalem was still under the Jebusites at this point.) Gradually the rest of the kingdom accepted him as their king. He proved very capable in battle and eventually conquered Jerusalem and established it as the eternal capital of Israel. (That’s where Jerusalem Day comes in. Shavuot is traditionally considered to be the birthday, and death day, of King David.)
There are many more stories to tell from Samuel II, but the most important one is the Bathsheba scandal. You may have heard this story too. It stands as an example of something unique about the Bible as a historical document: it does not gloss over the mistakes and sins of our great leaders. What happened is this: King David was looking out his window one night and he saw a woman bathing on her rooftop. He was so overcome with desire for her that he ordered her brought to the palace, and when he discovered that she was married, he arranged for her husband to be placed on the front line of the battle, basically assuring his death. When the husband did inevitably die in battle, David married Bathsheba.
Not a pleasant story. Especially if you compare it with Saul’s sin. All Saul did was have pity on an Amalekite king and some sheep. David committed adultery and murder! Why was Saul’s kingdom torn from him, then, while David’s wasn’t?
Most sages argue that the difference is in their responses.
When Samuel came to rebuke Saul, Saul got defensive and insisted that he had done nothing wrong, and only admitted that he had sinned after Samuel informed him that God had decided to discontinue his dynasty.
In contrast, when Nathan the Prophet came to rebuke David, David immediately said “I have sinned before the Lord!” He took responsibility and owned his actions. He did real teshuva. He did suffer consequences for his sin–the death of his firstborn son from Bathsheba, and the turmoil in his household (the rape of Tamar, the rebellion of Absalom, etc.)–but God did not take the kingdom from him or his descendants.
There is another important figure in the Bible who exhibited this kind of accountability: David’s ancestor Judah. On two notable occasions,2 Judah showed a willingness to own up to his mistakes and accept the full consequences of his actions. Tradition has it that it was this character trait of Judah’s that made God choose him as the progenitor of the Davidic line.
I think the Bible makes a powerful statement through this. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is whether you try to make excuses and justify yourself, or whether you take responsibility, own your mistakes, and try to learn and grow from them. That, says the Bible, is the mark of a true leader.
When King David died, he passed the kingdom to his son, the wise King Solomon, who built the first Temple and ruled over Israel during a period of great prosperity and peace. We believe that the Messiah will be a direct descendant of King David, because God promised him that his dynasty would endure for eternity.
And now, I can’t finish a post about King David without mentioning the book of Psalms.
Tradition has it that the Psalms were composed by David, and if you read through them you will see that many of them begin with a statement about the author (usually David) and sometimes about the circumstances under which the psalm was written or for what purpose. Bible critics will argue that it was written much later by other poets, who used the context of King David’s life to lend their work legitimacy, but it’s impossible to prove or disprove. I’d like to believe that he did write at least some of them.
Either way, I think the spirit of this Biblical figure is encapsulated within the wrenching and uplifting words of these remarkably raw poem-prayers.
When you open up a book of Psalms, you find the full range of human emotion laid out before you: from ecstasy, gratitude, and hope, to terror, despair, and loneliness. You find expressions of ultimate closeness and oneness with God alongside explicit expression of doubt and fear of abandonment. The fact that David could say both “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23) and “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) makes me feel a little less alone in trying to reconcile those two sentiments that battle it out within me from time to time.
So… yes. King David was my teen crush and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.
P.S. I’m thinkin’ this could be the first in a series of posts about important Jewish historical figures, called Awesome Jews of History. Is there a Jewish historical figure (or two… or five) that you’ve been curious about? (And by you, and mean you, Josep, and also you, blog readers!) Let me know!
P. P. S. Heck yeah, of course I dressed up as King David for Purim one year! Or at least… my interpretation of him as a kind of Biblical rock star. 😛
1. Though the sovereignty of the Jews was ended after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews always maintained a special status for those descended of the Davidic dynasty, and chose their leaders from their number. During the Gaonic period in Babylon, up until around 1,000 C.E., Jews were governed by the Exilarch, who was a descendant of the Davidic line. Thus, one could say that the House of David ruled the Jewish people for more than two thousand years.↩
2. The first was during the scandal with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 37:26); the second, and more well known, was when Joseph framed Benjamin, and Judah took responsibility and offered to go to jail in his stead (Genesis 44:18-34).↩