Okay. So 2 Samuel isn't actually a work of scholarly history. It's got biases and its own perspective, and legends and exaggeration could very well be all mixed up with it. But it's a work that allowed the people who put it together to reflect on their own history in order to understand the course that they believed God was setting for them.
So 2 Samuel is a history book in roughly the same sort of sense that Johnny Tremain is a historical novel—though it's quite possible that parts of 2 Samuel's story could've been written by people who lived in David's time and who even met and observed him directly. (The belief that the book is entirely true and divinely inspired is, of course, a personal matter for the reader.)
We're glad you asked this question, because we haven't really mentioned this until now, and it might've caught your attention: the book is called "2 Samuel" but Samuel the Prophet isn't actually in it. In fact, he died toward the end of 1 Samuel and is later summoned back from the dead by Saul. So, um, why isn't this one called "David"?
1 and 2 Samuel were originally part of one book, but they were later divided at the moment where Saul dies and David starts to become the biggest Kahuna in town. Jewish tradition stated that Samuel wrote the books of Samuel, but that the prophets Nathan and Gad filled in the parts he couldn't have written. Today, the vast majority of scholars believe that the book was put together from multiple sources from different time periods at around 600 B.C.
We get to hear David's last words… but we don't get to see him die. That won't happen until the beginning of 1 Kings. It's an out-of-order way of doing things, but so what? We guess the editors just realized there were some good things they needed to get in quick, and who cares if they interrupt the story in the process?
The end of 2 Samuel has a lot of grab bag stuff that seems sort of tacked on:
It's an odd way of doing things, and it doesn't really provide "closure" for the reader, though the census tale is a self-contained story with a satisfying conclusion. But that's because you're supposed to keep reading. You'll have to wait for 1 Kings for the resolution of David's story.
The Book of Second Samuel takes us back to a strange time, when everything was up for grabs and it was "hip to be square." No, not the '80s (although Absalom may have very well had big hair). We're talking about that swingin' era, the circa 1000 B.C. era.
During this time period, Judah was (apparently) getting it together, becoming a kingdom, defeating its enemies—the Philistines, Moabites, the Amalekites, the Arameans (and many, many more). No one really knows exactly when this happened, though there's some archaeological evidence that points toward the definite historical existence of King David. Some scholars think that Israel didn't really exist as a unified kingdom until later, and that it wasn't the military powerhouse 2 Samuel depicts it as being.
But no one really knows. And the problems of kingship are central concerns for the people who actually wrote or compiled the book as part of the "Deuteronomistic History." But the "Deuteronomistic History" was put together around four hundred years after Daniel ruled (roughly 600 B.C.), when people really were dealing with these problems with kings and the right way of ruling—whether by a single king or by judges and religious law in a more decentralized kind of state.
So, given this setting, the Second Book of Samuel provides a lot of material relevant to the "rule by a single king" argument. It provides an image of a great (if flawed) king, a shining example for the any future rulers—an ideal to look up to.
This is a big, crowning moment in David's career: it's his Pet Sounds, his Who's Next (if you know what's up with classic rock). The Ark—which is sort of God's home on earth, or his main contact point with people—has been mobile for a really long time. David finally allows it to settle down in place (though his son, Solomon, will actually build the Temple).
Since the Ark is God's big contact point with people, it's rather volatile—a guy named Uzzah gets killed after he touches it. But, it showers someone else—Obed-edom—with blessings, convincing David that it's safe to bring it into Jerusalem. Famously, he celebrates by dancing mightily in front of it.
David's dancing is ecstatic. This isn't an uptight moment, or a moment that's all about following rules and laws—it's celebration time. Michal, David's wife, takes the opposite attitude, chastising David for demeaning himself through his dancing display in front of the people.
But David says that he's glad to be abased before God and before the common people like this. He's losing his own pride in being king as he submits joyfully to this higher power. Michal can't understand this, and so loses out on the Blessing.
This isn't just an important event for David, but important for God, too. As the writer Jack Miles observes, God calls himself a "father" for the first time after David's dance—it's as if David's dancing has managed to change God's whole relationship towards David, and also towards his people as a whole. It makes it more familial, intimate. David's name after all means "Beloved"—and since he's, specifically, God's beloved, his dance at the Ark indicates the joy he takes in this, the freedom and the power that come along with this rather elect position.
Sigmund Freud would've had a field day with this episode…
Absalom, rebelling against his father, tries to seize power from him by conquering Jerusalem and then sleeping with the ten concubines David left behind. His wise but shady counselor, Ahithophel, spurs him into taking this action.
But is the point of this act just to do something fairly repulsive that will make David hate Absalom?
Yes. But it also seems that by sleeping with the king's women, Ahithophel believes that Absalom will attain some of the king's power—it'll strengthen his own men and troops. 2 Samuel assigns a lot of importance to this sort of kingly sexual life. There's also a moment where Ishbaal gets mad at his general Abner for sleeping with Saul's former concubine.
This is probably related to the same belief: if you're sleeping with someone the king slept with, you're taking some of the king's power (probably the real reason Ishbaal, who wants to be the king, is annoyed by this).
Absalom's revolt against David ends pretty embarrassingly. Absalom doesn't like to cut his hair—he prefers more of a Fabio look, evidently.
But this mild act of impracticality proves to be his undoing. Absalom's hair gets stuck in a tree as he rides through the forest in the midst of the battle. He's left hanging in the air, still alive, while his horse kept riding.
Although David orders his soldiers not to kill Absalom, Joab thinks that caution's for wimps. He takes three spears and stabs them all at once into Absalom's heart before letting his armor-bearers hack his body up. And that's the end of that for Absalom.
The story bears an eerie reverse resemblance to the events of Jesus' crucifixion, according to Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. Absalom gets caught in a tree, and stabbed to death by the super-intense warrior, Joab (who had actually helped Absalom reconcile with David earlier in the story). Jesus is nailed to a tree (cross) and gets stabbed in the side by a Roman centurion. That might seem a little thin… but it's still worth considering.
Ahithophel's counsel is considered to be equal to that of an "Oracle of God"—and even though he turns traitor to David, he evidently does give pretty good advice to Absalom.
Maybe if Absalom had taken Ahithophel's advice, he'd have won the battle with David, but according to the narrator, God made Absalom take Hushai the Archite's advice instead. Considering that the Hus***e was working for David, this didn't work out too well. Ahithophel was so broken up over Absalom's refusal to take his counsel, that he went home and hung himself.
This story is, in a sense, mirrored by the Christian Bible's tale of Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Jesus. Filled with regret, Judas hangs himself—which is the same method Ahithophel uses to kill himself. Since the Gospels chart Jesus' descent from King David on Joseph's side of the family, and since David is God's "Beloved"—almost like a son—the Judas and Jesus parallels are pretty striking.
Why does God punish all of Israel for David taking a census—especially considering that 2 Samuel says God provoked him to take it (however, Chronicles says it was actually Satan who tempted David into the act)?
Seems a little unfair, right?
Well, the idea behind the punishment seems to be that the people are God's, and certain facts about them—like their number—should be left in God's domain. Any attempt by a human to try and number the people is a trespass on God's territory—searching for knowledge that isn't meant for mortals, who are meant to be among the numbered and not the divine numberer himself (God).
When the Prophet Nathan tries to get David to see the grave sin he committed by seducing Bathsheba and having her husband murdered, he decides to use an age-old tactic: a cute but sad story with animals in it. To refresh your memory, the story is basically about a rich man who steals a poor man's beloved ewe lamb to serve it to a guest.
It's a successful piece of melodrama.
Aside from using the lamb and its owner as symbols of innocence and goodness thoughtlessly betrayed, it's important to note one more thing: the Pulitzer-Prize winning scholar and biographer of the Biblical God, Jack Miles, points out that this is the first example we see in the Bible of an ancient Israelite owning a pet.
It's kind of touching and interesting to see that people nearly three thousand years ago could get attached to domesticated animals as readily as Farmer Hogget in Babe in the present era. That'll do, ewe lamb. That'll do.
Since Saul misguidedly persecuted and massacred a people called the Gibeonites in his zeal to promote Israel's God, God afflicts Israel with a three-year famine. In order to end it, David needs to ask the Gibeonites how they want to be compensated. The Gibeonites say they're not interested in gold or silver—they're not about greed… just about vengeance on the children of the guy who persecuted them. They want to impale seven of Saul's sons. David says, "Well—different strokes for different folks" (we're paraphrasing).
So the Gibeonites get what they want. It's a classic example of the sons inheriting "the sins of the father"—rather unfairly, as it likely seems to some. But, hey, it ends the famine, since it occurs right before the barley harvest. This is probably related to the notion that a human sacrifice can help revive fertility, which is a belief found in many different cultures.
Technically, this isn't supposed to be a sacrifice—just a method of vengeance. But the ghost of that image, a dying king (or the sons of a king) who is sacrificed to revive the land, lingers on in modern literature. For instance, it's one of the major symbols in T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, "The Waste Land."
The Second Book of Samuel is filled with hair-raising incidents of sex and violence. There are the numerous war sequences, Joab gutting Amasa, home-invaders beheading Ishbaal, Absalom having sex with his father's concubines, Amnon sexually-assaulting Tamar… And there's plenty more where that came from. This book is an R if there ever was one—possibly even an NC-17, though it would be a little tasteless to go that far with, like, a Bible movie. But we're talking about Hollywood… Like Michael Palin said in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life, they just want to see "Presidential candidates stabbing babysitters with knitting needles" and stuff like that.
Well, at least there are no drugs…
"The Crooked Man" by Arthur Conan Doyle
In this classic Sherlock Holmes story, the tale of David's adultery with Bathsheba proves to be a key piece of evidence in unraveling the mystery of a British colonel's death.
Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden
In this political satire, Dryden uses the story of Absalom's rebellion to create a veiled allegory of contemporary events, and poke fun at the foibles of the politicians of his era.
Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner
Faulkner's classic novel uses the Absalom-David conflict in telling the tale of another struggle between a son and a father. But Faulkner's tale is set in the South, and it also manages to analyze the Civil War, slavery, and plenty of other serious American issues.
God Knows by Joseph Heller
This novel by the author of Catch-22, takes a wry and comic look at David's life. It's told in the form of David's deathbed memoirs, as he reflects on his relationships with Bathsheba, Jonathan, and all the rest.
The Rape of Tamar by Dan Jacobson
The title of this book is pretty self-explanatory: Dan Jacobson's novel takes Amnon's abominable rape of Tamar as it's starting point, crafting a work that was initially hailed as a masterpiece at the time of its release (at least, according to the back of the book, at any rate.)
Footloose In the '80s smash-hit, Footloose, Kevin Bacon tries to convince a small-town minister (played by John Lithgow) that dancing is cool with God. His ammunition? It's the scene where David dances before God after bringing the Ark into Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6:14.
King David by Alan Menken and Tim Rice
Tim Rice (who wrote the lyrics for the Lion King) teamed up with Alan Menken for this 1997 Biblical Broadway musical in the style of Rice's early hits with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar.
"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen
The original version by Leonard Cohen didn't get much play—but later versions by Jeff Buckley and John Cale became extremely popular (the latter being included in Shrek). Cohen's lyrics directly refer to David's role as a musician, and his act of adultery with Bathsheba ("You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.") An article about the song's influence is included below. (Look in the "Audio" section for more on "Hallelujah".)
"The Angel of Death Came to David's Room" by MewithoutYouThis song by the spiritually-inclined rock band deals with David's death (which is actually in 1 Kings), but it also talks about events from 2 Samuel, like the Bathsheba situation.
"Mad About You" by Sting
David's intense love for Bathsheba forms the basis of this track by the former Police songwriter. (As Owen Wilson said in Zoolander, "I don't know Sting's work, but I appreciate the fact that he's making it." Well…now, you know.)
Kings (2009 TV Series on NBC)
This NBC series vanished on short-notice. But it was on just long enough for people to remember that it had something to do with the story of King David's life.