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Many moons ago, in a time of great darkness, Madonna said that she was "a material girl in a material world"…
And, many moons before that, King David was a Deuteronomistic guy in a Deutoronomistic world.
That might sound kind of complicated—but it just means that the same editors involved in putting together the Book of Deuteronomy also put together the group of books that includes 2 Samuel, running from the book of Judges to 2 Kings. For the story of 2 Samuel is part of what we commonly call the "Deuteronomistic History" and David is just one teeny part of it.
But here's the thing. When we say "history," we're using that term pretty loosely. It's hard to tell to what extent 2 Samuel (and 1 Samuel, since they were originally one work) is hard history or legend or the exaggeration of real events or a crazy mixture of all these.
For many true believers, naturally, it's going to be history all the way. Yet it's easy to interpret the Biblical writers' account of David's life as being perhaps a bit whitewashed. See, for the most part, in their eyes, David can do no wrong. But yet certain unsavory facts about his life are too big for the authors to omit: particularly David seducing the wife (Bathsheba) of one of his generals, and then having that general murdered.
The authors don't attempt to justify this at all—it's way bad—and it might make the reader see a more complicated picture of David in other situations, like when the writers keep insisting he had nothing to do with the death of another general, Abner.
So, if you wanted to, you could easily see the whole book as an example of pro-David propaganda, trying to justify his legacy as God's one beloved king. But that wouldn't really do justice to the book as a whole. It gives a pretty thorough picture of Israelite kingship as an institution—how it works, how kings maintain power. It's a fascinating glimpse into the way people in the ancient Near East viewed at least some of their kings: as people both divinely guided and humanly flawed.
In the period of time depicted in the book, the Israelites were wrestling with the transition from being ruled by Judges like Samuel—with God as the only true king and creator of laws—to being ruled by a human king (who was still considered to be divinely guided).
This was sort of like having a Supreme Court but no President (except for God). And yeah, this could get kind of confusing and messy… But to be fair, so could being ruled by a king, as evidenced by the reign of Saul in 1 Samuel. What 2 Samuel does, then, is to tell the story of a king who managed to pull himself together and rule in the right way.
How do you manage to seduce one of your general's wives, orchestrate that same general's death in battle, refuse to punish your first-born son for committing a heinous crime against his own sister—and still wind up with a reputation for being the greatest of all Israelite kings, and God's prize favorite?
The book of 2 Samuel may or may not answer that question for you—but it'll help you take a good, hard look at the life of the character who did all of the above: King David.
Of course, David did a lot besides those rather dubious and devious actions. There's heroism, tragedy, plain bad luck, and moments of sublime goodness in his story, as well. Also, he's a smooth operator. Even when he's doing something wrong or questionable, David remains totally human—flawed, but recognizably one of us. In a way, the dark patches in David's life are what help make him one of the very most intriguing and compelling people in the Bible as a whole.
After God and Moses, David is arguably the most important character in the Hebrew Bible (most people would probably agree that he's the third-most-central figure.) Even though the book has a huge and interesting supporting cast, the Second Book of Samuel really is all about David, the heart of the story. What King Arthur is to Great Britain, and Caesar Augustus is to Ancient Rome, and Luke Skywalker is to Tatooine, King David is to Israel. He's the model hero, the best example of how to do it right (despite the serious things he does wrong).
That's fine, and David might be an interesting guy—but what does the book have to do with life today? Well, since people throughout the world have been reading the Bible for a while, it's shaped the kind of heroes people look for and write about. Heroes from other books and other cultures demonstrate heroism in different ways—like Odysseus in the Odyssey, they might be crafty warriors trying to outwit the gods and make it home. Or, like King Rama from Hindu myth, they might be gods themselves, fighting for truth and righteousness against demonic powers.
But the important thing to remember is that David is a human—a human who is trying to live according to a higher law, and serve his God's purposes, sure—but a human nonetheless. True, Odysseus is a human, too, but his goals are also all typically human, related to getting back to his kingdom, seeing his wife and son, and regaining power. David's concerned with his personal power, too, but he has to balance that with what he believes God wants. His goals are both human and divine.
This ends up being a pretty tricky tight-rope to walk, and watching David walk it, wavering between his own selfish ambitions and this higher cause, is part of the value and fun of 2 Samuel.
Life actually imitates art pretty often. People mimic the heroes they see on TV or in the movies or read about in Newsweek or wherever (there's recently been an increase in people who are imitating superheroes by wearing underwear over leotards and trying to hit criminals with nun-chucks). Since David is one of the most widely read characters in the history of the world, the story of his reign (which begins when 2 Samuel starts) can help give us a better idea of what we actually think about heroes and leaders—what we expect from them, what qualities they have.
That's not just important for understanding the heroes we see depicted around us everyday—it's also a useful way to understand ourselves, to see how we measure up, and to define our own ideas of true heroism.
Bible Gateway – 2 Samuel
This website provides a ton of different translations of the Bible—in many other languages to boot.
The Brick Testament – "Absalom Overthrows David"
The Brick Testament is a hipster art project—an attempt to tell the whole Bible story in the form of Lego dioramas. This particular set of photos depicts Absalom's attempt to overthrow David.
"David," from the Jewish Encyclopedia
This online Jewish Encyclopedia is actually copied from a print edition from, like, 1906—but it still has interesting and up-to-date info on Talmudic and Rabbinic stories and ideas about David (those things have a tendency to stay the same).
David and 2 Samuel Articles and Videos from Chabad.com
This Hasidic Jewish super-organization provides a plethora of information all relating to King David.
David and Bathsheba (1951)
Before starring in the classic Biblically-inspired horror movie The Omen, Gregory Peck did this less scary movie about the David and Bathsheba love affair.
St. Augustine's The City of God
The Catholic Church Father and Biblical super-commenter (was Biblical Commentary sort of the Reddit of its day? Yeah… no.) included these ruminations on David in his classic The City of God. He gets pretty deep into allegory and hidden levels of meaning.
David and Bathsheba and the Talmud
These Talmudic passages shine a little light on the different Rabbinic traditions about David. For example, Satan comes in the form of a bird and gets him to see Bathsheba naked (Islamic tradition apparently picked up on this story.)
Jonathan Kirsch on King David
This LA Times Book Reviewer talks about a recent non-fiction work he wrote on King David.
"King David/Ancient Lullaby" by Matisyahu
The Hasidic Reggae superstar raps a bit about Messianic hopes, alludes to the spiritual example of David… and more.
"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen (Performed by John Cale)
Here's the most famous version of Leonard Cohen's song—the one that really blew up thanks to being featured in Shrek (though they had to use the Rufus Wainwright version in the soundtrack).
"Hallelujah" (Performed by Jeff Buckley)
Accompanied by a single electric guitar, Buckley performs another classic, transcendent version of Cohen's song.
"Le Roi David" by Arthur Honegger
This 20th Century Swiss composer wrote this oratorio or "dramatic psalm", telling the whole story of David's life in twenty seven sections.
"David" by Bernini
Bernini's David looks pretty miffed. Of course, this technically draws from 1 Samuel —since David's winding up to smack a stone into Goliath's skull. But, it's a famous enough depiction of a fairly adult looking David to include it here. (Oh, it's from the 17th Century, it's a sculpture, and Bernini was Italian).
"David" by Andrea del Verrocchio
This 15th Century Italian Renaissance sculpture portrays David as a youth (again with Goliath's head at his feet, but—hey, it's David in warrior mode, and therefore relevant).
"David" by Donatello
The Italian Renaissance artist, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, did this classic sculpture. It's not quite as famous as that other Teen Turtle's David (meaning Michelangelo's)—but still in the pantheon of sculptural dopeness.
"The Death of Absalom" by Gustave Dore
The great French illustrator shows Absalom's death in a fairly eerie light. Joab rears up on his horse with three spears while Absalom remains a barely visible shadow hanging in a tree, the shadow of what seems to be a small deer below him.
"David" by Michelangelo
By common consent, one of the greatest sculptures ever to be sculpted since cavemen first chiseled on stones. David does his best blue steel. But seriously, this is one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance, people.
"Bathsheba" by Rembrandt
The Dutch genius portrays Bathsheba bathing in a somewhat shadowy space, a servant washing her feet.