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Kings Saul and David

The Israelites disrupted Philistine caravans bringing goods from the desert, and the Philistines established military outposts between their cities and the Israelites. Around the year 1050, the Israelites combined their forces for the first time and confronted an army of Philistines near the Philistine outpost at Aphek – the Philistines with iron weapons and horse drawn chariots, the Israelites riding into battle on donkeys. According to 1 Samuel 4:2, the Israelites lost the battle. Israelite elders wondered why their god had allowed this, and they sent for the Ark of the Covenant, proclaiming that it would "deliver us from the power of our enemies."

According to modern scholars the two Books of Samuel were written long after the events they describe. The archaeologist Israel Finkelstein writes that "according to many scholars" the books appeared in substantially their present form in the late seventh century BCE." note13  The gap of centuries between the events and the writing is said to have allowed inventions that suited the priestly scribes doing the writing – as is common with story telling. But this, it is pointed out, does not mean that the story is entirely false.

Deuteronomy's narrative describes the Ark as having been brought to the camp of the Israelites, but the Ark failed tot deliver the Israelites from the power of their enemies: the Israelites were defeated again. The Philistines captured the Ark and took it with them to their city in Canaan – Ashdod. But, according to the Old Testament, this angered "the Lord" and he "ravaged and smote" the Philistines of Ashdod and its territories with tumors.

After the Israelites had lost two battles, another Nazirite rose as leader among them. This was Samuel – a holy man, an oracle and a soothsayer. Samuel was urged by tribal leaders to appoint of monarch, a warrior king to better unite them. Samuel appointed Saul. It was the kind of kingship that the Canaanites had, but for the Israelites it was a new institution.

The First Book of Samuel, 9:15, describes Saul as the Lord's choice. And in chapter 10 it describes Saul as one the Lord's prophets.

But Canaanite influences remained, matching the claim by modern scholars of the blend of worship between the Israelites and other Canaanites. Saul appears to have been close to the worship of the Canaanite god Ba'al. He named one of his sons Eshbaal (meaning Ba'al exists) and another son he had named Meribaal (meaning Ba'al rewards).

David enters the Story

Saul successfully engaged the Philistines in at least three battles, which were followed by the Philistines withdrawing their garrisons from around Israelite territory. With Saul was a former shepherd boy named David, who was attached to Saul's court as a musician and shield bearer. A Philistine named Goliath stepped forward from a Philistine army that was challenging Saul's army, and Goliath, according to 1 Samuel 17:4, was six cubits (nine feet) tall. As was custom in ancient times, David believed in the power of the god of his people. The Bible describes David as saying to Goliath, "I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied." The size of a man often led people to ignore his vulnerability. Not so David. According to the story he took up the challenge and slew Goliath with a rock to his forehead, and the rest of the Philistine army, perhaps suddenly believing in the power of David's god, withdrew. David rose in standing as a warrior, and in further warfare his standing exceeded that of Saul. As reported in 1 Samuel 18:6,7:

When David returned from killing the Philistines...the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy and with musical instruments. And the women sang as they played and said: "Saul has killed thousands. And David tens of thousands."

According to the Old Testament, King Saul, an imperfect man despite being a prophet, was jealous of David and tried to kill him, and David fled from Saul and his agents to a cave in the "southern wilderness," near Hebron. There, David gathered around him a band of adventurers and debtors. He was already married to Saul's daughter, and now he took another wife – the daughter of a local, wealthy herdsman. This marriage brought him more local support. And for more advantage David allied himself with the Philistine king of Gath, Achish.

Battle of Gilboa

An artist's imagined Battle of Gilboa artists imagined Battle of Gilboa

At a battle beside Mount Gilboa, overlooking the Plain of Jezreel, the Philistines apparently lured Saul and his army down from the high ground. And the Philistines, with their chariots, horsemen and Canaanite allies, overwhelmed Saul's forces. In the battle three of Saul's sons were killed. And rather than be taken prisoner, Saul fell on his sword. When the Philistines found Saul, they cut off his head and posted it for display in the temple of their god, Dagon. They fastened his body to the wall at the town of Beth-shan. And the Philistines took possession of the greater part of Canaan.

Saul was succeeded by his fourth son, Eshbaal, who ruled over territory that had been greatly reduced in size by the Philistines. War between the forces of David and those of Eshbaal ended with Eshbaal dead and David anointed priest-king in place of Eshbaal. From Hebron, David and his army ventured out to make his rule over Israel a reality. David is described as having captured the Amorite town of Jerusalem and various other towns.

When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king of Israel, they turned against him, but David triumphed in his war with the Philistines, succeeding where Saul had failed. By force of arms, David is described as expanding his rule – while the great powers of Assyria and Egypt were too preoccupied to challenge his expansion. According to the Old Testament, David conquered Edom, which extended south to the Red Sea, David gaining Edom's mines of copper and iron. He conquered Moab, rich with cattle. He conquered Ammon, and he conquered northward to Damascus and beyond to the Euphrates River – which bordered the Assyrian Empire. And, like other conquerors, as David conquered he took booty and demanded tribute.

David's Rule

Samuel anoints David

Samuel anoints David. (Art from the third century.) David's rule was part of the authoritarian of ancient times. His subjects prostrated themselves in his presence, and like conquerors before him, he claimed to be the agent of his god.

Written centuries after the events described, the Biblical narrative puts David's rule between 1048 and 1007 BCE. A consensus among scholars today puts David's rule as between 1005 to 965 BCE.

According to the Old Testament, David's subjects prostrated themselves in his presence. Like conquerors before him, he claimed to be the agent of his god. David called himself the son of God. He acquired the trappings of a potentate and ruled in splendor, including a large harem. In addition to Saul's daughter and the wife he had taken while at Hebron, he took wives from his conquered territories, ostensibly to help bind his empire together. Among the women he took was Bathsheba, the wife of a local neo-Hittite (a neo-Hittite being someone having the Hittite culture that survived the disappearance of the Hittites). And soon Bathsheba was to be the mother of David's son: a child named Solomon.

In the Old Testament, David is described as bringing to Jerusalem the Ark of the Covenant and proclaiming his intention to build in Jerusalem a temple to house the Ark, connected to the worship of Yahweh. But David, like Saul, appears to have been close to the worship of the Canaanite god Ba'al. He gave one of his sons a Canaanite name: Beeliada. David's "leaping and capering before the Lord" with music accompaniment, described in Chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel, has been described as a part of Ba'al worship. Polytheistic outlooks acknowledged a multiplicity of paths to truth or salvation, and no evidence exists that David, Saul or others influenced by Canaanite religion knew of the commandment said to have been given to Moses that "You shall have no other gods before Me."



The Old Testament (New American Standard)

The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, by Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazer, 2007

Ancient Israel, an anthology edited by Hershel Shanks.

Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From, (summarized on this site and at, by William G. Dever, 2006

Did God Have a Wife? by William G. Dever, 2005

What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It,, by William G. Dever, 2001

Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, by Edward Shanks, 1999

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Neil Slberman and Israel Finkelstein, 2002

David and Solomon, by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, 2007

The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archeology and the History of Early Israel, by Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, 2007

Authors of the Bible: Who, When, Where, What and Why, by Fred Glynn, 2006

The Early History of God: Yahweh and the other deities in ancient Israel, by Mark S. Smith, 2002

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, 2009

The Origins of History, by Sir Herbert Butterfield, 1981


"The Bible's Buried Secrets: archeology of the Hebrew Bible," Public Broadcasting (PBS)

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