David in the Bible: archaeology of the story

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Ancient helmet

Ancient warfare

Ark of the Covenant, reproduction

Ark of the Covenant

David, statue by Michelangelo

David's story


Beautiful young woman from the Fayum coffin portraits

Bathsheba's story

Giant wrestler with small boy

The young David






David: tribal leader and king

  • David was a charismatic leader who rose from obscurity to become king of the twelve tribes of Israelites. 

  • He reigned from circa 1004 - 965BC. 

  • Despite his great fame, there are no archaeological remains that can be linked directly to him. But we know his story, and we know the two main cities he lived in: Jerusalem and Hebron

David and Goliath

David's most famous weapon was the slingshot. It was a basic weapon common among soldiers and herdsmen at the time. As the story of David and Goliath shows, it could inflict fatal damage if used skillfully. It was an easily made, cheap, efficient projectile weapon used in the same way as a bow and arrow

Since it was made of perishable materials such as wool. palm fiber rope or leather, no slings have survived from ancient times. But excavations around Israelite cities usually unearth hundreds of round sling stones, ranging from 2-3inches (5 to 7.5 cm) in diameter. An adult man could fling a stone that reached a speed of 100-150miles per hour (160-240km per hour).

Photograph of a boy using a sling-shot

Photograph illustrating the way to hold a slingshot in preparating for hurling the stone

How to hold a sling

David:Bible archaeology:Elah valley,traditional site of battle between David and Goliath

The Elah Valley, traditional site of the confrontation between David and Goliath. The stream where David found sling-stones is bottom right of the large hill in the center of this photograph.

Goliath, one of the Bible's great bullies  Bible Villains

Tactics, the army, military equipment in the biblical period  War in the Bible

David plays the harp

Historians have suggested that harps were invented when huntsmen in the ancient world strummed the string of their bow in time with songs or poems.

Music had an important place in the life of ancient times - 

  • in religious liturgy

  • to provide a rhythmic beat for group activities and work groups to make work in unison more pleasant

  • as an accompaniment to all important individual and national events. 

Israel's music owed a debt to the Canaanites. The organization of guilds of professional musicians, begun in the early stages of the monarchy under David and Solom, was probably copied from Canaanite practice.

David:Bible archaeology:ivoryplaque,Megiddo,harpist playing for king

In this ivory plaque from Megiddo, a harpist plays before the throne of the King, 
just as David played the harp to soothe Saul's anxiety.

Golden lyre/harp excavated at Ur in ancient Sumeria

Golden lyre/harp excavated at Ur in ancient Sumeria; David's harp was basically the same design, 
but of simpler materials and construction

Egyptian wall relief of a harpist

Egyptian wall relief of a harpist


The Pool of Gibeon

The well shown below may be the Pool of Gibeon mentioned in the fight between David's and Ishbosheth's twelve chosen men:  

'Abner said to Joab "Let the young men come forward and have a contest before us." Joab said "Let them come forward." So they came forward and were counted as they passed by, twelve for Benjamin and Ishbaal (Ishbosheth) son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. Each grasped his opponent by the head, and thrust his sword in his opponent's side; so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, which is at Gibeon.'   

The pool is about 35ft. deep, with a stairway leading down into a tunnel which gives on to a subterranean pool. This would have provided essential water during a seige. 

Photograph of the excavated Pool of Gibeon

Photograph of the well at Gibeon

For more on this, see David's Story


Jerusalem/Jebus: David's city

David:Bible archaeology:Jerusalem Jebus, map of city at time of David

A plan of the city of Jerusalem/Jebus at the time of David

Aerial view of Jerusalem; the shape of Jebus is clearly visible in the bottom right of the photo

Aerial view of Jerusalem; the shape of Jebus is clearly visible in the bottom right of the photo

Jebus, at the bottom right of drawing, was the original fortress captured by David. It lay on a rocky outcrop, with the valley falling away around it. 
The village attached to this fortress was to the north, and is shown in the drawing above by the upper walled section - though this area was probably not walled until some time during the reign of David's son Solomon. Jebus sat on a large expanse of rock, and had some buildings and a threshing floor - the rocky surface was suitable for threshing.

David:Bible archaeology:Excavations stepped stone structure 10thC BC foundation for walls.jpg (102892 bytes)

The Stepped Stone Structure, an excavation at Jerusalem that may be the remains of a retaining wall 
for a fortress built on the narrow spur of rock (see 'Jebus' on the plan of Jerusalem)

The Stepped Stone Structure is the only area in Jerusalem thought to date from the reign of King David, circa 10th century BC. Its strong foundations may have supported large stone walls which have since disappeared. The stones may have supported the walls of David's citadel, the fortress of Zion (2 Samuel 5:7-9) - though this point is hotly debated by archaeologists.

See Jerusalem for architectural models, ground plans and reconstructions of the Temple of Jerusalem through the centuries.


The Ark of the Covenant

David:Bible archaeology:Shrine of Anubis,Tomb of Tutankhamun 

The Shrine of Anubis from the Tomb of Tutankhamun

David:Bible archaeology:Gold coffin with winged guardians,Tomb of Tutankhamun

A photograph of the side of the gold outer coffin from the Tomb of Tutankhamun

There have been many elaborate reconstructions of the Ark of the Covenant but in all probability the Ark was similar to the Shrine of Anubis found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun. 

The Shrine in Tutankhamun's tomb was a portable wooden shrine covered with gold leaf, surmounted by an image of Anubis; the Ark was a portable wooden shrine covered with gold leaf, surmounted by two cherubim. The word 'cherubim' is probably related to the Assyrian word 'karabu', a protective spirit. In Assyria this spirit was represented as having a human head, the body of a lion, and wings.

The Shrine of Anubis was found wrapped in cloth. When the Ark of the Covenant was carried, it was covered by some form of wrapping - animals skins and a blue cloth, to hide it from the eyes of the people around. It would have been wrapped like this when David accompanied it into Jerusalem.



David: his life and career

Early Years

David was born in Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah, between 1040 and 1030 BC. He was the youngest son of Jesse who, according to tradition, was the grandson of Boaz and Ruth. David's early years were spent as a shepherd but later he joined the entourage of Saul, Israel's first king. The three different accounts of how this came about all follow the passage in I Samuel 15 where Samuel upbraids Saul for disobeying God's commandments and prophesies that his kingdom will be given to another. David then makes his appearance, each time in a way which emphasizes one of the qualities on which later ages loved to dwell, making it difficult to assess the historical accuracy of each account.

In the first passage (I Samuel 16:1-13), Samuel is divinely inspired to anoint David as king, thereby stressing his position as a man deliberately chosen by God. 

In the second (1 Samuel 16:14-23), David is recommended to Saul as a skilful musician who can charm Saul's black moods. This story lays a basis for the later legends about David as Psalmist. In fact, quite apart from the Psalms, there seems no reason to doubt that David was an extraordinary musician and poet. Samuel's role in the rise of David is also entirely plausible. 

The third account, David's slaying of Goliath the Philistine champion (1 Samuel 17) presents David as already a warrior-hero. Although the reference in II Samuel 21:19 to Elhanan as the slayer of Goliath seems to cast doubt on this story, it appears to come the closest to the actual events that probably led up to David's entry into public life. In any case, this took place during the troubled period of partisan warfare against the Philistines who were at that time in control of most of central and northern Palestine.

At first, Saul appears to have been favourable towards David and to have encouraged his career, giving him a command in the army. However, before very long, the younger man's reputation and prestige far outshone those of the king (I Samuel 18:7). 

Saul became increasingly jealous of David. When the question of a marriage between David and Saul's daughter Michal arose, Saul asked as a "marriage present", not money but a hundred Philistine foreskins (18:25) presumably hoping to finish David off in this way. Instead, the full number were duly presented and the couple were married. Saul continued to make attempts on David's life, however, forcing him to flee from the court.

The Political Refugee

The record of this period of David's life is made up of fragments from a variety of different sources. For a time he seems to have headed a band of outlaws very reminiscent of the Habiru in their contempt for authority and settled communities. 

At first David and his companions were shunned by his kinsmen who resented their depredations, but they were given some help by the priesthood of Nob. These priests were descended from Eli and belonged to the priestly family which officiated at Shiloh. The assistance they gave David aroused Saul's suspicion and anger and led to a senseless massacre at the sanctuary (22:11-19).

As a result, the priest Abiathar joined David's band, bringing the cult objects with him (22:20-23), thereby raising David's popular standing considerably. His stronghold was joined by many malcontents. The group acted as an irregular border force, protecting villages and herds against the Philistines and other raiders (23:1-5; 25:1-42). 

Meanwhile, David tried to improve his position by making marriage alliances with the leading families of the borderlands (25:42-43). 

Eventually, David sought refuge with the Philistine Achish, king of Gath (again there are two versions of this incident: 21:10-15 and 27:2-12), who allowed him to settle at Ziklag as a vassal ruler.

The Philistines gathered their forces for a major assault on the Israelites under Saul (996-995 BC), but David and his men were not called on to take part (28:1-2; 29:6-11). The battle ended with the defeat of the Israelites and the death of Saul and his sons.

The Kingdom at Hebron

The Second Book of Samuel opens with David's lament over Saul and Jonathan (II Samuel 1:17-27) and David's move to Hebron, the tribal and cultic centre of Judah (cf. II Samuel 15:7 ff) and close to Bethlehem, David's birthplace.

At Hebron, David was anointed king over Judah (II Samuel 2:4). In the interim, Saul's commander Abner had crowned Saul's son Ishbaal (Ishbosheth) king of northern Israel at Mahanaim (II Kings 2:8-10). 

After Saul's defeat and death, the Philistines appear to have recognized two separate vassal kingdoms in western Palestine: the area which David ruled from Hebron and the northern territory which acknowledged Ishbaal (2:9). After some desultory fighting, David defeated Ishbaal, apparently without any intervention by the Philistines. With Ishbaal dead, the northern tribes of Israel accepted David's leadership and, by the eighth year of his reign, he felt himself strong enough to make a bid for independence and the unity of his kingdom.

Between Judea and the larger part of the kingdom of Saul, lay the mountain enclave of Jerusalem still occupiedby the Canaanite clan of the Jebusites. While this remained, political and military control of a united Palestine was impossible. David attacked Jerusalem, the hero of the battle being his commander, Joab. By creating a diversion within the city he enabled David and his men to break through its defences and capture the stronghold.

At Jerusalem

Jerusalem became the personal territory of the king, held by right of conquest by David and his personal army. It was outside the general political organization of the country and was, quite literally, "the City of David", an urban city-state, in direct succession to the Jebusite regime. As such, it was not identified with the southern tribes like Hebron, nor with the northern state of Israel. Instead it was neutral ground from which David could reign over a united 'People of Israel'.

Judean and Israelite settlers joined the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, all of them acknowledging David as king and accepting his retinue of courtiers and mercenary soldiers. To put the seal on his position, David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in a great ceremony (11 Sam. 6:1-19), thereby establishing his royal residence as the religious as well as the political and military capital of the new integrated state of Judah and Israel.

David had turned to the Philistines for refuge when he was a political fugitive from Saul, but that did not mean that he was prepared to continue as a Philistine vassal once he had taken over the leadership of the kingdom. Hostilities against the Philistines were resumed. 

In two battles at Ba'al Perazim and Rephaim near Jerusalem, they were defeated and forced to withdraw to the coastal plain, after which they ceased to be a serious menace. According to II Sam. 8:1, David "subdued the Philistines". This he probably did, making them tributary to him, but he never actually annexed their territory. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Philistines received enough support from the Egyptians (in spite of Egyptian weakness at that time) to deter him from even making the attempt. The coastal towns never became Israelite territory. In the 8th-7th centuries BC they reappear as an independent group.

David did, however, accept Philistines for the professional army of mercenaries which he had been training ever since his early days as an outlaw leader. Philistine professionals were even enrolled in his own personal guard.

The Expanding Kingdom

Having quelled the Philistines, David attacked the last strongholds and enclaves of the native Canaanites in the north: Megiddo, Beth-Shean and Ta'anach. These were reduced, putting David in control of the integrated kingdom, comprising the territory of all the tribes. 

He then undertook a series of campaigns against the peoples around his borders, the "oppressors" of the tribal territories east of the Jordan and in the south. First the Ammonites were defeated and subjugated, then the Moabites and Edomites, from whom Ezion Geber was captured, giving the Israelites their first outlet on the Red Sea.

The most remarkable territorial expansion was David's defeat of the Arameans and his annexation of Damascus. This took place during the reign of the Assyrian Ashur-rabi II (1014-974) when Aramean pressure kept the Assyrians fully occupied in northern and eastern Syria, leaving them no time for military adventures further south. Eventually the Assyrians succeeded in expellingthe Arameans from the region of the Euphrates but, under the rule of Hadadezer of Damascus, -the Aramean states of Aram-Zobah and Beth-Rehob united. At the end of the11th and beginning of the 10th c. BC they gained control of the whole of Northern Syria and much of Transjordan.

When David defeated Hadadezer (II Sam. 8:3-8), the erstwhile vassal states of Aram-Zobah were transferred to the suzerainty of Judah. David incorporated all the territories of Hadadezer's federation into his kingdom. Its borders then reached from the Jordan to the frontier of the Hittite kingdom of Hamath in northern Syria Aram-Zobah's traditional enemies. Even this kingdom acknowledged David's overlordship of the Syrian lands (11 Sam. 8:3-12; I Ch. 18:3-11) and Judah's sphere of influence was assured as far as the Euphrates. 

The kingdom ruled by David and, later, Solomon, became the strongest power between the great empires of Mesopotamia, Hamath and Egypt. It is not certain whether its frontiers reached the shores of the Mediterranean. The Phoenician towns on the Syrian coast, especially Sidon and Tyre under Hiram I, remained independent but they signed treaties of friendship with David and were probably subordinate to him.

Through military victories, diplomacy and matrimonial alliances with neighbouring royal houses and the leading families of his own kingdom, David had forged a mighty kingdom. It seems, however, that in spite of his overwhelming prestige, the old rivalries between the southern and northern parts of his kingdom continued. 

Eleven years before his death, after nearly thirty years of almost unchallenged supremacy over the Israelites, a major crisis flared up over the question of the succession. David's son Absalom seemed the most likely successor but, impatient perhaps and discontented because David never officially named him his heir, Absalom rebelled against the king and led a revolt intended to dethrone him (II Sam. 15).

Absalom set himself up in Jerusalem, but at a pitched battle fought at Mahanaim, David's forces were victorious. Absalom was killed when, fleeing from the battle, the long hair for which he had been famous became entangled in the branches of an oak. David mourned the death of his son, although with Absalom's defeat, the tribes all rallied to David and he returned triumphant to Jerusalem.

The Latter Years

The years that followed were some of the most productive of his whole reign. Far-reaching reforms were undertaken in national institutions and administration and these continued until the end of David's 40 years as king (967 BC). A second rebellion, instigated by a certain Sheba, was a later attempt to wean the northern tribes of Israel away from their allegiance to the Davidic house of Judah, but this too was put down and Sheba killed.

Towards the end of David's reign (973 BC), a royal commission headed by Joab was appointed to carry out a census of the people (II Sam. 24; 1 Ch. 21). It was followed by a plague and occasioned great resentment among the people.

Some six years later (967 BC), David began preparations for building a central sanctuary in Jerusalem. Although actual building did not begin until Solomon's time, it was David who chose the site of the future Tenple; the threshing floor of Araunah, the Jebusite, where he believed that God had appeared to him. David purchased the place and had the plans drawn up and the materials assembled before his death (circa 964 BC).

The Bible records that David was warned not to try to put up the building, but the reason may have been the bad precedent of the Shiloh sanctuary (which was considered a temple). The Ark had been housed there when the Philistines destroyed the sanctuary and captured the Ark. Equally, David's people may not yet have been ready to change the ancient custom whereby the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a "tabernacle and in a tent" as in Shiloh.

The Cultural Revolution

The country's unification and, expansion naturally had its effect on its culture. People who had hitherto been united by religion and the tribal traditions of the Covenant found themselves part of an organized state. The transfer of the religious centre to Jerusalem enhanced the prestige of the monarch, at the expense of the priesthood. Yahwism became the official state religion in a way which gave a different emphasis to a situation which had, of course, also been true before. One effect of this institution of an official religion within a united state was that the priesthood was organized under the Chief Priest, Abiathar. He, Zadok and the other leading priests were made royal officials, members of David's court in Jerusalem (II Sam. 8:17-18).
David also laid the foundations for the division of the country into districts and its administration through a sequence of officials.

David as Poet and Musician

Biblical tradition relates that David initiated a cultural and literary revival which was continued by Solomon. He is revered in this tradition as the author of many of the Psalms. While some scholars consider that this role was imposed upon David by later ages, others hold that there is no reason to doubt that he was a poet and a musician. This school of thought finds the Laments over Abner and over Saul and Jonathan sufficient evidence for the claim, quite apart from the Psalms, which are not his work. 
Even so, there can be no doubt that much of the poetry of the Psalms was the direct product of the literary activity and renewed interest in ritual and liturgy of David's time. He and Solomon can justly be credited with providing a vital impetus for a spiritual and literary renaissance among their people.

International Cultural Relations

The national unity which David brought to the Israelite tribes within Palestine also had repercussions on the international scene. Under David, the Israelites came into contact with the major powers and currents of civilization, particularly with the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon (II Sam. 5:11; I Ch. 14:1). They were a far more sophisticated people, the leading traders of the Mediterranean, with a highly developed art, architecture and literature and theirs became the predominant influence on Israel's cultural development.

The Bible records the fact that the Phoenicians supplied the craftsmen to build David's palace and, later, Solomon's Temple. Archaeological research has since demonstrated just how strong was the influence of the Phoenicians in the process of civilizing Israel which David began. The Phoenicians were Canaanites and, naturally, the Israelites were strongly influenced by the people of the land both negatively and positively. They shared a common language and indeed many of the citizens of the state were Canaanites. 

The impact of their ideas and fashions in all secular spheres probably offers a partial explanation for the bitterness with which the prophets had to fight to keep religion free from the same influences. This religious aspect developed long after David's reign, but its foundations were laid during his lifetime. They were an unexpected offshoot of the measures of economic and commercial expansion which produced the prosperity of Solomon's reign.

David's Character

The personality of David as he is generally pictured is a fascinating mixture of historical fact and romantic legend. What seems certain is that the David of history was a figure of heroic stature, a powerful fighter, commander and ruler, combining personal charm and courage with the fierceness his age demanded and the sound judgment and determination of a successful leader and administrator. The realism with which II Samuel and I Kings present David's weaknesses as well as his virtues is a good indication of the early date of the traditions concerning his life and kingship. 

Even when his actions were in flagrant contempt of the Law (e.g. his conduct in relation to Bathsheba) the record was carefully preserved. In this particular case it was closely linked with the question of the succession to the throne. 

In the course of time, Jewish national tradition invested his name with a halo of mystic associations . and divine prestige until David became a powerful religious symbol and his descendants the pivot of centuries of messianic dreams. This attitude endowed him with every ethical and religious virtue. The idealistic approach is very apparent in the treatment of kingship, statehood and national religion in the Books of Chronicles, where the David of pious legend really emerges. 

David's real importance in Israel's religious history, however, was as the founder of the sanctuary of Zion and its organization. His religious role was magnified and expanded by later generations until Jewish tradition could claim "King David still lives" (Rosh ha-Shanah 25a) and the theology of the Qumran sectaries, Christianity and Islam could all venerate David as a figure of towering religious significance.

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible


King David - Old Testament  - Archaeology of The Bible - Bible  Study Resource:  David, Boy Shepherd, Musician, Warrior and King   
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