King David and Oedipus Rex
Introduction: Deuteronomy’s Suspicion of Kings
Parashat Shofetim, contains a passage that scholars refer to as “The Law of the King,” which delineates the rules pertaining to any future Israelite King (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The rules sound suspicious of kings, but surely the Torah could not be picturing the “future,” venerable Israelite kings, such as the pious, dedicated King David, author of the Psalms, or the wise King Solomon, author of Proverbs?
In fact, the connection between the negative portrayal of kings in this passage and passages like that of 1 Samuel 8, together with the book of King’s portrayal of Solomon’s reign is well-known in scholarship. In this piece, I would like to focus on the other “venerable king,” Solomon’s father, David.
The Portrayal of David in the Book of Samuel: Ambivalent to Negative
The impact of David’s persona on western civilization is profound. In both Judaism and Christianity, he is the ancestor of the Messiah, who becomes an ideal ruler reigning over a perfected world at the end of time. And yet, as he is portrayed in the book of Samuel, David is far from an ideal ruler.
The story of King David is undoubtedly the longest and most complex of all the narrative material in the Hebrew Bible, beginning in I Samuel 16, occupying the entire extent of II Samuel and culminating in the death of the king in I Kings 2. Yet, despite his later veneration, scholars have noted a certain ambivalence in the narrative of King David, which may be part and parcel of an ambivalence toward monarchy in general in the Hebrew Bible.
We cheer as the young David rises to fight the giant Goliath, slaying the well-armed warrior with nothing but a sling and a stone. Yet the amorous king’s adulterous dalliance with Bathsheba, while familiar to most, is treated like dirty laundry and either explained away or pushed out of the popular consciousness.
The Book of Samuel and the Revised Deuteronomistic History
The book of Samuel forms part of the Deuteronomistic History or DtrH (Joshua-Kings). Although an early version of this history was probably first put together during the time of King Josiah (DtrH1), and reflected an optimistic attitude towards the king and Israel’s future, the book was extensively revised after the destruction of the Temple (DtrH2) and, in my view, well into the Second Temple Period.
During this time, despite the attempt to get a scion of the Davidic family to reign as governor during the early period (Zerubbabel), in general, until the Hasmonean Period (i.e., from the 6th to the 2nd centuries, B.C.E.), Second Temple Judea was dominated by high priests and (non-Davidic) governors. The revised Deuteronomistic History (DtrH2) is overwhelmingly negative in its evaluation of kings and monarchy, and it is into this framework that the story of King David is embedded.
Distinguishing Between the “Rise of King David” and the “Succession Narrative”
The story of David is complex and multi-layered, reflecting a prolonged process of writing and redaction. Most scholars distinguish the story of the rise of King David (1Sam 16-2Sam 10) from what is generally referred to as the Succession Narrative, comprising, for the most part, the entire story line from David’s affair with Bathsheba (2Sam 11) to the succession of Solomon (1Kings 2).
It is my contention that the Succession Narrative in its final form, with its lurid details of adultery, murder, rape and rebellion, is a late, post-exilic composition that forms part of a layer of the David story that is both anti-monarchical and anti-Davidic.
The “Succession Narrative” as Anti-Davidic
Could it be that the Judean priestly class, which became the preeminent local leadership cadre of the Second Temple Period, viewed the possible reestablishment of a Davidic monarchy as a threat to their status? I suggest that it may have been precisely under these circumstances that the negative accounts of the reign of King David seen in the Succession Narrative were composed.
Greek influence in the King David Narrative
Another reason for dating the succession narrative to the post-exilic period in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E., is the apparent high level of Greek influence in the David narrative in general, and, in particular the Succession Narrative.
The Presence of Aegean Mercenaries (הכרתי והפלתי)
Scholars have noted the several references to David’s use of mercenaries, particularly the Cherethites and Pelethites, who would have been much more at home among Greek mercenary troops employed by late Persian kings than in the army of King David. Admittedly, the scholarly literature is able to trace the presence of Greek mercenaries, mainly along the coast of Palestine, going back to the 7th century BCE, but the phenomenon does fit a 5th or 4th century BCE context better.
The David and Goliath Story as Reminiscent of the Iliad
Also prominent among the indications of Greek influence on the story of King David is the image of his battle with Goliath, a story that only became associated with David at a later stage (2Sam 21:19 ascribes this battle to another, lesser known warrior named Elhanan). Much of the story of this battle is reminiscent of scenes from Homer’s Iliad, including the battle of champions and the description of Goliath’s armor, which more closely resembles the armor worn by Achilles in the Iliad than battle dress worn by Philistines as depicted on Egyptian monuments.
Noting the presence of Greek mercenary troops in the Philistine area along the southern coast of Palestine beginning in the 7th century BCE, Azzan Yadin goes further by suggesting a cultural shift among the Philistines at this time. Having hailed originally from the Greek isles, the encounter with their Greek cousins engendered a Philistine “national awakening” beginning in the 7th century BCE that took them to their Hellenic roots. Focused specifically on the story of David and Goliath in 2 Samuel 17, Yadin insists that
“The parallels to Homeric epic are not—pace other scholars—evidence of the antiquity of these elements, but of the familiarity of the redactor with Greek culture and, more specifically, with its ‘national’ literature. Indeed, the battle of David and Goliath is best read with the Iliad as its intertext.”
If Yadin is correct, Judean writers and redactors would have been familiar with Greek epic literature going back to the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. What I would like to demonstrate is that the Succession Narrative bears features that connect it to Greek Tragedy of the 5th century BCE.
A Close Look at the Tragic Drama of the Succession Narrative
The Bathsheba Affair: Features of a Greek Tragedy
The Succession Narrative opens with King David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the subsequent conspiracy to have her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle as a way of covering up the affair. In fulfillment of a prophecy delivered to David by the prophet Nathan, household dystopia breaks out in the royal court, including rape, incest, murder, revenge, usurpation, rebellion, and the death of four of David’s sons. Eventually, through the connivance of Bathsheba and Nathan, Bathsheba’s son Solomon is installed on the throne, and several other scores are settled. This story, and the series of debacles that hit his royal court as a result—including rape, murder and rebellion—contains many of the features of a classic Greek tragedy.
The Tragedy of Agamemnon
At a generic level, much of this story bears a resemblance to the story of Agamemnon as told by the 5th century BCE Athenian tragedian, Aeschylus, in his trilogy The Oresteia. In his classic work the Iliad, put together some 250 years before Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Greek bard Homer portrays Agamemnon as a hero of the Trojan War, the Commander of the Achaean forces in their effort to retrieve his brother Menelaus’ wife, Helen, who had been abducted by the Trojan, Paris.
In Aeschylus’ tragedy, however, Agamemnon returns home from the war only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who was infuriated with Agamemnon due to his sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia as a way of obtaining favorable winds to allow the fleet to sail to Troy. (Clytemnestra had taken up with Agamemnon’s cousin, Aegisthus, and the two of them conspired to murder the returning war hero.)
The stories of David and Agamemnon share much in common: murder, adultery, revenge, usurpation. In each case, the great hero falls victim to his calamitous fate through one audacious act that challenges—even affronts—familial order and stability. In consequence of these acts, both of these warrior kings then fall not to the slings and arrows of the enemy, but to the domestic dysfunction and intrigue that their audacious acts set in motion.
The Tragedy of Oedipus Rex
Another hero of 5th century BCE Greek tragedy who bears an even closer resemblance to King David is Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the King. The Oedipus story is best known from another 5th century BCE drama written and staged in Athens by the playwright Sophocles.
Brief Summary of the Play
Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, but this is not because he is a despicable man. When Oedipus is born, his father, Laius, King of Thebes in Greece, receives an oracle that the child will kill his father and marry his mother. In an attempt to avoid the prediction, Oedipus’ parents expose him on a mountain, where he is rescued by a shepherd, taken to Corinth, and there raised by the King and Queen.
When Oedipus grows up, he hears about the oracle, and, assuming that the king and queen of Corinth are his parents, leaves town. On the road, he meets some men, gets into an altercation, and ends up killing the men. He then proceeds to Thebes, where, having rescued the town from the man-eating Sphynx, he is crowned king of Thebes and is married to the queen. It turns out, however, that one of the men he killed on the road was his biological father, and the queen he marries is his mother.
Self-Indictment in Response to a Prophetic Utterance
The two storylines are quite different, but in this case, the “devil” (or the parallel) is in the details. Several major features of the story strike me as reminiscent of the Succession Narrative of King David.
In each case, the king unsuspectingly indicts himself, announcing his own demise.
David – Following his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, King David is visited by the prophet Nathan, who recites a parable. There were two men—a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had many flocks and herds; the poor man had only one ewe lamb. When visitors came to the rich man, he fed them not from his many flocks and herds. Rather, he fed them the poor man’s only ewe lamb.
David flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As Yhwh lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “That man is you!” (II Samuel 12:5-7)
David pays the fourfold penalty that he himself announced; four of his sons die during his lifetime.
Oedipus – In Oedipus’ case, the crisis arises when a plague breaks out in Thebes. The Delphic oracle informs King Oedipus that the plague can only be stopped when the killers of Laius are found and punished. He first asks the citizens of Thebes to help identify the killers, and declares,
“As to the killer, slipping off alone or with a band of men,
I now call down a life to fit a life, dragged out in degradation
And if I myself should prove myself to have him in my halls an intimate
Then on myself I call down every curse I’ve just invoked.
See to it that every syllable I say is done.”
Like David, Oedipus pronounces his own curse, and like David, his guilt is revealed by a prophet, the blind Tiresias, who declares,
“I say, the murderer of the man whose murder you pursue is you.”
Unlike David, however, Oedipus refuses to believe the prophet. He has to reveal the truth himself, slowly, tortuously, until finally the entire scene is laid before him. Consequently, Oedipus’ end is much more tragic than that of David.
When the whole truth is ultimately revealed, Oedipus’ wife/mother Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus removes the brooches from her gown, sticking the pins in his eyes. The king once blinded by arrogance, refusing to hear the words of the blind prophet, is now fully blind himself, and bound to carry out his own judgement, wandering the earth, bereft of hearth and home.
“Most cursed I, the prince of princes here in Thebes
And now pariah self-damned and self-arraigned.”
The downfall of both kings, David and Oedipus, are self-inflicted, brought about by their own obtuseness—their own “blindness” in the face of prophetic truth.
Heroes Subject to Fate
Both David and Oedipus are subject to forces beyond their control even as they attempt to control the forces unleashed against them. Call it fate; call it the will of God. Both of these powerful figures attempt to overcome it, and the more they attempt to overcome their fate, the more they contribute to its unfolding.
We’ve seen how Oedipus’ parents and Oedipus himself try to avoid their fate decreed by the oracle, the former by exposing Oedipus on a mountain, the latter by fleeing what he thought was his hometown Corinth. Had Oedipus not fled Corinth, he would never have run into his natural father Laius. He would never have entered Thebes and married the queen, his natural mother. It was precisely his attempt to avoid his fate that led him to meet it.
The same appears to be true of David. The king announces his own punishment: he must pay four-fold for the death of Uriah.
“You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword; you took his wife and made her your wife,” the prophet Nathan declares. “Therefore, the sword will never depart from your house.” (II Samuel 12:9-10)
The Deaths of David’s Four Sons
There is little that David can do to save the life of Bathsheba’s first child. He has now paid once for his crime, while the dead infant is replaced with God’s beloved, Solomon, a second son of Bathsheba.
Beyond the death of this first child, however, it seems that David tries to avoid his four-fold fate, but, like his Theban counterpart, every attempt to avoid it leads to its inexorable unfolding. Admittedly, David’s attempts are depicted more in terms of inaction than action. Nonetheless, I would maintain that his inaction represents an attempt to avoid the prophecy, “the sword will never depart from your house,” and the threat of a fourfold punishment.
Amnon’s incestuous rape of his half-sister Tamar (II Samuel 13) would surely call for vengeance, yet David does nothing, hoping to avoid the bloodletting envisioned in Nathan’s prophecy. However, this inaction motivated by a desire to avoid the prophecy actually calls it forth. It leads Tamar’s full brother Absalom to murder Amnon (II Samuel 13) and eventually to raise an insurrection against their father David (II Samuel 15). Two down, with a bloody insurrection to follow.
During the battle to put down the insurrection, David begs his military commander Joab not to kill the rebellious son Absalom. Again, it would appear that David has Nathan’s prophecy in mind and is seeking to block it. Disregarding the king’s entreaty, Joab hunts down and kills Absalom, leading to King David’s famous lament,
“My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 19:1)
Three down, but now Joab is furious at his lord David. What of the troops who fought and died in defense of their king against this insurrectionist offspring? To Joab, the king’s mourning his son is an insult to those selfless troops who sacrificed on his behalf (II Samuel 19:6-8).
The Book of I Kings opens with the denouement of the Succession Narrative. The great King David is old, frail and impotent. His angry military commander Joab participates in a second usurpation undertaken by the eldest son Adonijah.
An Ironic and Tragic End to the Succession Narrative
Through the machinations of the Prophet Nathan and Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, who now reappear after having disappeared from our story following the initial crime, the old king manages to deflect the attempted usurpation and to have Solomon crowned as king. Again, nothing is done to punish Adonijah, but Bathsheba rises to the occasion and manipulates the relationship between Solomon and his brother that leads to the murder of the latter.
The four-fold prophecy is fulfilled, despite the king’s efforts to avoid it. How ironic and tragic that the final blow is orchestrated by the woman who was the object of David’s original offence!
King David as a Greek Tragic Hero: A Polemic Against Monarchy
Given the likelihood that the Succession Narrative derives, in its final form, from the Persian period, and following Yadin’s suggestion that Greek epic literature was known in Palestine from the 7th century BCE onward, it is reasonable to suggest that the composers/redactors of the Succession Narrative knew and were influenced by the Greek tragedies. It then seems reasonable that the image of a great king as a tragic hero could be considered something of a polemic against monarchy in general, and it is particularly fitting that such polemics would come from 5th century Athens.
In Athens, these tragedians were writing during the golden age of Periclean democracy, which followed a period of tyrannical rule by the Pisistradids. Seeing the dramatic portrayal of the tragic downfall of legendary kings due to their blind arrogance and attempts to thwart the will of the gods and/or avoid their inexorable fate would have been an opportunity to reinforce their democratic convictions.
The situation in 5th-4th century BCE Judea was both similar and different; similar in that there was no monarchy; different in that there was no democracy. In the early stages of the return of the exiled Judeans to Judea and Jerusalem, there was hope for the reinstatement of a Davidic monarchy. Yet, things did not turn out that way. While the suppression of an ancestral, indigenous dynasty was likely imposed by the Persian king, it certainly benefitted the priestly class, which, with control of the Temple and its resources, would have been the predominant local authority in the Persian province of Judea.
A story of a legendary king brought down by blind obtuseness and attempts to thwart the will of God would have served to enhance the prestige and position of these priests in the same way that the stories of Agamemnon and Oedipus served to validate the rule of the demos in 5th century BCE Athens.
The Deuteronomic tradition is ambivalent toward the institution of the monarchy. This ambivalence can be seen through the juxtaposition of the Law of the King in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Samuel’s warning to the people in I Samuel 8 and the manner in which Solomon violates much of the Law of the King and validates much of Samuel’s warning.
The Succession Narrative of King David, however, goes beyond ambivalence. It is a story of the fall of a tragic king meant to entirely discredit the institution of the Davidic monarchy. It is only centuries later, with the further discrediting of the non-Davidic kings of the Hasmonean dynasty that we see renewed stirrings of an ideal, messianic King David as that image emerges in the Jewish apocryphal literature and in Christianity. That, however, is the topic of another discussion.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
August 18, 2015
April 7, 2020
Dr. Richard Lederman teaches courses in Bible, Religion, and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University, Montgomery College, and Gratz College. He holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literaature from the University of Pennsylvania. Before returning to academia, Lederman worked as a Jewish communal professional. He blogs at thereligioushumanist.com and spiritunboundsandr.blogspot.com.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series