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Who was David?

He had it all: good looks, musical talent, physical strength, and boundless bravery. He slew a fearsome giant when he was just a young shepherd. Later in life, as king, David unified Judah and Israel under the united monarchy. But did he have it all? The biblical texts themselves, from 1 Samuel through 1 Kings, complicate our answer. They portray David uniting the tribal cultures of his time but harboring only division in his family life. He sleeps with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, then sends Uriah off to battle, where David knows he will die. Adultery, rape, incest, and murder happen on his watch in his household, yet psalms of incredible pain and beauty are attributed to him (though history does not affirm Davidic authorship of any psalms). Later, the New Testament writer Luke was keen to point out Jesus’ genealogical ties to David.

Different parts of the Hebrew Bible offer varying views of David—the youth, the man, father, husband, king, political force, and legend. The main narrative about David (in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel and 1 Kings) tells of David’s ascension from being the youngest of seven brothers to lyre player, shield bearer, and consoler in the royal court of Israel’s first king (Saul). It tells of David’s training as a musician and warrior, his selection to be Israel’s next king, the establishment of a unified kingdom under his rule, and the battle for succession within his own family. 

Some other biblical books (especially the prophets) focus on the Davidic dynasty—his political legacy—more than on the man himself. Poetic references to David (Ps 18 and Ps 34) offer a third view, a more personal and critical glimpse at a flawed leader who led a life of intrigue and controversy in both his private and public lives. Finally, Chronicles, in its postexilic attempt to re-create Israel’s golden age, focuses on David the glorious religious leader without a single mention of his flaws.

How have Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claimed David?

David is such an important character in the biblical narratives about his time and in the history of Israel that whatever variations exist in his biblical profile have proved important and provocative ever since.

Even beyond the Bible ideas of exactly who David was and why he was significant are not fixed. The rabbinic commentaries of ancient Jewish scholars debate the genealogical connection of David to Ruth: some deny a Moabite lineage (concerned that it might taint David); others shrug it off. That same rabbinic tradition gives us both the association of David with the psalms—the “man for all seasons” premier singer of sweet songs—and the idea of David as a second Moses. In both cases, David appears more as glowing leader than as flawed man.

The New Testament imports the motifs of betrayal and trust associated with David into the Jesus stories and explicitly connects Jesus to the genealogical line of David, king of the Jews. Indeed, the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as the son of David, and Jerusalem, the city of David, is central to the entire Gospel of Luke’s depiction of Jesus. Finally, Islam portrays David as the prophet and author of the Zabur (Psalms) while denying any culpability when it comes to the stories of Bathsheba and Uriah.

The multifaceted David of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam finds little indisputable support in the silent soil thus far sifted by archaeologists. The most relevant artifact discovered so far is the Tel Dan Stela, a basalt fragment with an Aramaic inscription that refers to a “king of Israel” and that may also mention the “house of David.” The association remains tantalizing but unproven. Consequently, current scholars debate the very existence and kingship of David, a united monarchy, and David the psalmist.

This complexity and, at times, contradiction in sacred texts and traditions about David are part of what make him so fascinating. Each description emphasizes different aspects of his person or legacy, so that, like good cinematography, we see both shadow and light to find that each reveals the other. Perhaps we see better into the human condition when our heroes are flawed than we do with those who “have it all.”


  • Kent Harold Richards

    Kent Harold Richards is the former executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Interpreting Hebrew Poetry (Augsburg Fortress, 1992; coedited with David L. Petersen) and Method Matters (SBL, 2009). He is president of the consulting firm, Strategy Points.