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King of Judah
The Earliest Account of David’s Life

David is defined above all by his determination and drive. Of the countless artists who have rendered him over the millennia, Michelangelo most successfully captures this quality. In earlier representations, the revered King of Judah had appeared as a virtuous musician or as an innocent boy bearing the head of Goliath. Yet from Michelangelo’s block of marble he emerged as a valiant warrior, poised for battle. He stands with unshakeable confidence. One leg bears the weight of his muscled body, while the other rests relaxed. One of his disproportionately large hands conceals stones, and the other lifts a sling that drapes insouciantly over his naked back. Yet the most dramatic feature is his eyes: his sideward gaze creates a countenance that urges caution to adversaries.

By means of the colossal, classical sculpture, Michelangelo and his patrons in Florence asserted newfound confidence vis-à-vis their competitors and identified themselves as the heirs of the Greco-Roman legacy. The biblical David represented for the Florentines republican liberty and a willingness to defend their native sovereignty against the Medici family and Rome. For this reason, they placed the sculpture before the town hall, so that David’s eyes could be fixed on Rome.

David would have never inspired republican ideals had it not been for the protracted history that his biblical biography underwent…As we shall see, the earliest account of David’s achievements that we can reconstruct from the Book of Samuel portrays the determination and drive captured in Michelangelo’s sculpture. Yet in contrast to the transmitted forms of the David narratives, this account connects David solely to Judah and focuses his achievements in establishing the Judahite kingdom. Its authors omit any reference to Saul and the kingdom of Israel.

What this means is that the earliest sources describing David’s life do not recount his triumph over giant Goliath. They have nothing to say about his relationship with Saul and his family, nothing about the scandals within his household – the affair with Bathsheba, the rape of Tamar, the wars with Absalom, and so on.

Our findings raise a question. If the oldest narratives present David as the one who created and ruled over the kingdom of Judah, how did he come to be remembered as the one who ruled all Israel? What prompted this transformation from “king of Judah” to “king of Israel”?

Excerpted from David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory by Dr. Jacob L. Wright. Used with permission from Cambridge University Press.

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