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How Is David a Symbolic Figure?

So, why is David at the center of our Bible, of the Hebrew Bible, of the Old Testament? If you think in terms of Genesis to Kings, beginning of the nation and the end of the nation in defeat, right in the middle is King David and his story is told at great length; and it’s told with a lot of color, a lot of our favorite episodes of the Bible, David and Goliath, David and Michal, the story of his war with Absalom, my son Absalom; all these great stories; that’s right in the middle, why is that the case?  And, why do they depict David with such wonderful color?  It’s because David, for the biblical authors, represents what it means to have full statehood.  Statehood means territorial sovereignty, what we count the United States, what we take for granted, our borders, our military and so forth; but the biblical authors lost that.  It would be like an American people who no longer have a government but who are living in exile and are living under foreign subjugation.  And so, they want to come to terms with that history of when we had it and why we lost it. And they go back to the moment in their history where they received it and the person who achieved it for them and that’s King David or at least it’s remembered as King David.  And they go through his story and show what David did positively, all of his great characters but also his negative sides.  Why, because they want to go very deep, penetrate very deeply, into both the pros and the cons of territorial power and can Israel be a people without a King David, and what David brought to the people, but also the suffering it brought to the people. And all of the wonderful parts of the story are very much related to an effort to understand Israel’s own history after the downfall. 

  • Jacob L. Wright

    Jacob L. Wright is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University.  He  taught for several years at the University of Heidelberg and is the author of a number of articles on Ezra-Nehemiah as well as Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers, which won a 2008 Templeton prize, the largest prize for first books in religion. He delivered the prestigious 2010-11 lecture in Milieux biblique at the Collège de France in Paris, and was awarded a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.