Why David Is So Important to Me
Most people think of Moses or Abraham as the most important person in the Hebrew Scriptures, but I think it is actually David. He is the keystone of the entire narrative. He is called the ‘sweet songwriter of Israel’ not because he was the Byron of the Bronze Age but because he composed the liturgy of the worship of YHWH at Jerusalem.
David united Israel under YHWH. He, the leading chieftain of Judah, won the acclaim of the other tribes and became king over all the tribes. What’s more, he united them and managed to expel the Philistines, which was something that not even Egyptian pharaohs could pull off.
That is not just a bit of an impressive accomplishment – it is one of those historic moments that happen once every few centuries. What’s more, there are kings who have done less whom we have more archaeological and textual evidence for their existence.
(For example, in the 6th century CE, a man named Mahendravarman built a kingdom in India. It was a powerful kingdom that built massive works, but he had no chronicler and he is known only from inscriptions. The same could be said for hundreds of unifying kings like David.)
David, unlike so many other kings, not only had a record made but he also gave the people of Israel a common language and a common narrative to unite them. This makes him more unique than any king of his period or possibly of any period.
The Bronze Age Collapse
The narrative of David’s reign sits in the middle of a period known as the Bronze Age Collapse. It marks the end of the Bronze Age in the Levant, and when kingdoms re-emerge around 950 BCE, they are very different from their predecessors. A good online starting point is this Wikipedia article which discusses a lot of things that were going on at this point in history.
Judah and Ephraim
I only alluded to the tension between Judah and Ephraim. This tension is actually one of the themes of the Hebrew Scriptures, and I am a bit surprised that no one seems to pick up on it (in academic circles). Everyone acknowledges the division between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. It is also very common to recognize that Israel was often called Ephraim, but I have not yet seen a work where the two are clearly distinguished throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Both tribes claimed primacy based on their patronymic ancestors – Judah being a son of Israel and Ephraim being the chosen son of Joseph (who was the son of Israel). Time and time again, the two of them appear in juxtaposition. This later truly manifests in the prophetic literature, especially in the book of Ezekiel.
The table below shows the ways that these two tribes developed alongside each other.
|Tribe||Judah יהודה||Ephraim אפרים|
|Meaning||יהוח be praised (Gen 49:8)||Dual of אפרתה (fruitful, Gen 49:22); it is a play on words, indicating the ‘double’ of Ephrath|
|Origin||The 4th son of Israel; the ‘righteous’ son of Leah (Gen 29:35)||The 2nd son of Joseph (who was Israel’s chosen son through Rachel)|
|Blessing||Receives the birthright after his older brothers are disqualified; incest with Tamar, so unclean until David||Receives Israel’s deathbed blessing meant for Manasseh as Joseph’s successor|
|Wilderness Camp||East (Num 2:3)||West (Num 2:18)|
|Spy in Canaan||Caleb (Num 13:6)||Hoshea/Joshua (Num 13:8)|
|King at Division||Rehoboam, son of David||Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:26)|
|State||“Divine right” of בות דוד, claim an unbroken succession back to David||“Might Makes Right” but according to archaeology, still claimed to be בות דוד, at least until Omri|
|Original Capital||Bethlehem was the burial place of Rachel & Jacob; Hebron, the burial place of Abraham & Isaac||Israel camped at Shechem with his sons; later built up by Jeroboam as his capital|
|Divided Capital||Jerusalem, taken by David||Samaria, purchased by Omri (1 King 16:24)|
|End||Taken by Babylon (586 BCE) & restored||Taken by Assyrians (702 BCE) & lost|
I cannot overemphasize how important the rivalry between these two tribes is to the development of the Hebrew Scriptures. You can actually see it in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are anecdotal stories supporting both tribes’ claim to supremacy. You could even argue (and I happen to believe this) that the books of Joshua and Judges show the ‘occupation’ of Canaan from the perspectives of Ephraim and Judah respectively.