This week’s Old Testament reading focuses upon David’s rise to kingship through his consolidation of the twelve tribes of Israel into a single kingdom. Having already become king of his own tribe of Judah, David now becomes king of the other eleven tribes as well. Our text concludes that David increasingly became great as the LORD was with him. Because the larger context of this passage shapes the meaning of the text, we will briefly turn our attention to the narrative context before exploring the text itself.
The Broader Context
This week’s reading particularly should consider the broader narrative within which it is placed. While this week’s passage recounts the northern tribes’ (Israel) acclamation and anointing of David as king, two other anointing ceremonies of David have already occurred. Indicating that among Jesse’s sons, David was to be Saul’s successor, the prophet-judge Samuel immediately proceeds to anoint David as king in his hometown of Bethlehem (1 Sam 16). As this first anointing of David was confined to a family setting in the small town of Bethlehem, Saul continued to function as king. As the spirit of God came upon David and departed from Saul, an evil spirit from the LORD overtook Saul (1 Sam 16:13-14), and a lengthy narrative of Saul’s battle against David ensues throughout the remainder of 1 Samuel. The second anointing of David as king occurs in 2 Sam 2:1-4. Following Saul’s death, David’s own tribe of Judah gathered in Hebron to anoint him as king of Judah. David carried out his role as king of Judah for seven and a half years prior to becoming king over all twelve tribes. During this period, the family of Saul (particularly Ishbaal) continued to reign over the other tribes.
In this week’s passage, David emerges to become king over “all Israel” (all twelve tribes) as the other eleven tribes anoint David as their king. It is appropriate for us to hear this passage from the perspective of an imminent reality: this consolidation/unification was to be very short lived. Within two generations, ten of the twelve tribes broke away during the reign of David’s grandson Rehoboam. As the rupture of the covenant community took place, the call to division and separation emerged: “What share do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, O David” (1 Kgs 12:16).
By the time our text was completed and certainly by the time it functioned as scripture, the fragmented and divided people of God would most certainly have asked (as do the people of God today, perhaps): “Were we ever one? Were we manipulated into unification? Were David and his family ever a part of our family?” In subsequent generations as prophetic voices envisioned the reunification of the divided children of Jacob, skeptics might have asked: “Why should we imagine a future in which opposing parties are reconciled and become one? Is there any centrifugal force that brings us back into oneness, or is the centripetal force of separation the final word? Can diversity and unity coexist?” Throughout the story of the people of God across the millennia, these questions of a community diverse in background and tradition yet one in the blood that flows through their veins, have reverberated from generation to generation. In the midst of this context, is it possible that this odd Old Testament text just might speak a transformational word of hope and a challenge of peace?
The Biblical Narrative
Prior to our present text, a number of significant events have occurred after the death of Saul: David’s grief, death of legitimate heirs to the throne, revenge against assassins of Saul’s son Ishbaal. The text is careful to demonstrate that David’s rule over the eleven tribes did not emerge from David’s engagement in violence, coercion, or disrespect of Saul and his family. As we turn our attention to the passage itself, one might think that the text’s focus is on David’s actions. However, the narrative emphasizes the community’s willing and even proactive actions to make David king. It makes clear that David was no “outsider” who forcibly usurped the throne. According to our passage, the eleven tribes of Israel initiated their journey to Hebron to make David their king (see 2 Sam 2:1-4 in which Judah also anointed David in Hebron). The full community (“all the tribes of Israel” and “all the elders of Israel) is actively engaged. No tribe is absent; no tribe is forced to participate unwillingly.
Our narrative provides no dialogue between David and the eleven tribes. David neither overpowers the tribes with eloquent oral persuasion nor with military threat. Rather the only voice we hear in the text is that of the representatives from the eleven tribes. Their words poignantly articulate the nature of the relationship that is to be established. In their opening words to David, the Israelites describe themselves with the metaphor of family: “We are your bone and flesh” (v. 1). In a subsequent narrative, David will refer to himself with this same language: “You are my kin, you are my bone and flesh” (2 Sam 19:12). In light of the broader biblical narrative, this familial language recalls the poem at the union of the first human couple: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23).
In spite of their past allegiance to Saul, the eleven tribes affirmed the LORD’s anointing upon David. They acknowledged that even while Saul was king, the LORD had empowered David in battle. Affirming that “it was you who led out Israel and brought it in,” the community testified to David’s military triumphs in leading the people out to the battlefield and in bringing them back victoriously. The community affirmed that the triumphs of David were directly related to the LORD’s anointing through Samuel: “The LORD said to you: ‘It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you shall be ruler over Israel.’” The metaphor of the shepherd was commonly used in the ancient Near East to depict rulers as protectors and providers of their people (see not only Ps 23 but also Ezek 34).
In light of the affirmations made by the eleven tribes of Israel, the elders of Israel proceeded to anoint David as king over them at Hebron just as Judah had done previously. In both ceremonies of anointing, Israel and Judah were simply affirming the LORD’s anointing through Samuel (1 Sam 16). Through the common kingship of David, the two separate entities of Judah and Israel had become one, indeed “one flesh and blood.”
In Israel’s anointing of David, a unique element stands out in contrast to Samuel’s anointing in 1 Sam 16 and Judah’s anointing in 2 Sam 2. David made a covenant with the eleven tribes of Israel. The establishment of a formal covenant in which a symbiotic relationship is formed between two diverse parties is certainly not a new or unique phenomenon in the biblical narrative. The formation of the community as the people of the LORD was initially built upon the establishment of a covenant between God and Israel at Sinai (Exod 19). The identity of Israel as a people of divine promise and hope was established through God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah (Gen 17). David’s kingship over all twelve tribes does not emerge from violent overthrow or coercive maneuvers. Rather, it is covenantal. It comes through a relationship of mutuality. Within the biblical canon, it assumes a reign as described in Deut 17:14-20 and Ps 72 as opposed to a reign as described in 1 Sam 8:10-18 and Ezek 34:1-10. As the eleven tribes united under David’s leadership through a covenant, they not only united with David, but they also became one with Judah. Through the making of covenant with David and thus with Judah, they are indeed one flesh and bone with both their king, David, and their siblings, Judah.
By omitting vv. 6-8 the Old Testament reading leaves out an essential link between vv.1-5 and vv. 9-10. In vv. 6-8, David and his army occupy a small city-state that had become a part of neither Judah nor the other tribes. This city-state of the Jebusites will soon become the religious and political center of a united Israel, Jerusalem. The stronghold of Zion will be named “the city of David” as it will belong neither to Judah nor to Israel. This stronghold will become the “neutral” territory between Israel and Judah, north and south. The city whose name literally means dwelling of peace (shalom) will become the point of the unification of two diverse and separate people groups. The two communities will become one while remaining diverse. The Psalm reading (Ps 48) magnificently celebrates the beauty and strength of Zion, “the city of our God, His holy mountain.”
The final verses of our text (vv. 9-10) recount the emerging strength both of the city of David and of David himself. As far out as a built-up narrow gulch (Millo means “fill” or “filling”) that likely acted as a natural protection against invaders, David expanded his city that will soon receive the sacred Ark (see next week’s reading). The concluding verse provides a significant hinge from previous week’s emphases upon David’s humble beginnings (shepherd anointed as king, young slayer of a giant, mourner of dearest friend and arch-enemy, uniter of diverse tribes) to future week’s emphases upon David’s increasing power and greatness as well as his eventual fall (bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, establishment of a dynasty, abusive power over both Bathsheba and Uriah). Literally, the text states that stage by stage, step by step, David became great (gadol). Yet this increasing greatness was not the result of his political prowess, military strength, or manipulative tactics. It was not the fruit of a winsome personality or of shrewd trade deals. According to the narrator of our text, David’s increasing greatness is the fruit of the presence of the LORD, the God of the hosts, with David. The God of the armies who gave him victory over the giant is the God who is with him as he shepherds the united tribes of Israel. The young shepherd David was well aware of this reality when he looked the giant in the eyes and boldly announced, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel” (1 Sam 17:45).
In our reading of the text, particularly in our hearing of this final verse, the church must be left with an essential question that can ultimately be answered only in light of the full canon of scripture: What is greatness? Are we to conclude that greatness is found solely in the construction of palaces and temples, the gathering of honorific titles, the establishment of secure dynasties, the building of armies, and the hoarding of land? The narrative of David’s life will soon demonstrate that greatness defined in these ways only ends with abusive and violent power against Bathsheba and Uriah. Perhaps it is only in light of the reading and hearing of our other lectionary texts this week that we gain fuller insight into the divine perspective on what it means to increase in greatness.