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Biblical Studies

Dealing with Fundamental Regime Change: The Biblical Paradigm of the Transition from Tribal Federation to Federal Monarchy Under David

Daniel J. Elazar

Long-lived polities are inevitably characterized by regime changes in the course of their political history. The Jewish polity has undergone at least twelve such changes in its over three thousand year history.1 This paper focuses on the biblical account of David's ascension to the throne and his consolidation of the kingship in Israel, ending the nearly 300 year old regime of the tribal federation instituted by Moses and Joshua.

The biblical account of David's rise and reign and its consequences for subsequent Jewish history offers a paradigm of regime transition and the successful imposition of a new regime on a reluctant or ambivalent body politic. It describes and analyzes the struggle for succession, the steps taken by David to consolidate his power by gaining control of the several domains of authority operative in Israel, while at the same time preserving their forms so as to avoid excessive conflict with traditionalists. It examines David's establishment of Jerusalem as his capital on territory independent of any tribe, his transfer of Israel's major religious symbol to his capital as a first step towards centralizing worship under the aegis of the king, his establishment of a professional military force, a court, and a bureaucracy dependent upon and responsible to him.

The paper also examines David's politics, his use of personal charm, his claim to God's charisma, his appeals to the people over the heads of the established tribal leaders, and his personal image-building, as tools in his successful effort to consolidate power. It examines the way in which David dealt with opposition, both tribal and prophetic, through cooptation where possible and confrontation where necessary. The paper concludes by examining his provisions for the succession of his son Solomon as the final step in the consolidation of a dynastic rule.

The paper considers the Davidic paradigm as one of two competing paradigms of the classic regime in the Jewish political tradition, along with the previous Mosaic regime. Not only have the two become competing models of the ideal polity in the Jewish political tradition, but also in the European political tradition prior to the modern epoch when it was customary to turn to biblical paradigms for justification of current or proposed regimes.

While much can be learned from the biblical account from a strictly behavioral perspective, the Bible, as always, addresses the issues from a normative stance, emphasizing that regime legitimacy must be anchored in God's covenant with Israel.2 Beyond that, covenantal politics is emphasized at every turn, expressing both an understanding of Israelite political culture and a set of normative political expectations which place political actors and actions under judgement.

This paper is in the way of a very preliminary explanation of some of these themes. Its emphasis is on the interworking of behavioral and normative themes within the covenantal tradition. All this is conveyed in an account of epical proportions -- what has been referred to as Israel's equivalent of the Illiad, The Pelleponesian Wars, or The Anabasis.

The Political Discussion in the Former Prophets

The Former Prophets include six books: Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings. A close reading suggests that among their other purposes each reflects and analyzes a particular form of regime as understood by the prophets, that is the keter torah of that time.

1) Joshua describes the classic polity envisaged in the Torah, headed by an Eved Adonai (God's prime minister), paralleled by a Kohen Gadol (high priest). The Eved Adonai is responsible for the civil rule of the edah (the classic Israelite federal republic -- literally, assembly), what is later to become known as the function of the keter malkhut (the domain - literally crown -- of civil rule) and the Kohen Gadol is responsible for linking the people to God, what are later to become known as the function of the keter kehunah (the domain of priesthood). Both share the task of interpreting the Torah-as-constitution, the function of the keter torah (the domain of constitutional interpretation). Both leaders function within the framework of a very active tribal federation in which the tribal leadership plays a vital role. The regime is presented as generally successful and classic in its form.

2) Judges presents the tribal federation in its minimalist state -- what happens when the federation becomes a loose confederation and "every man does what is right in his own eyes." Power has reverted to the tribal elders, assisted by shofetim (judges, who lead the tribes in battle and administer justice as much as or more than they adjudicate disputes), who share the keter malkhut. The keter kehunah is also handled by local priests and Levites while the keter torah exists principally in the abstract as a fundamental law with no separate institutional mechanism. While tending to a negative evaluation, it offers a mixed picture, by no means all negative -- for example, the rejection of monarchy is portrayed as good. On balance, however, confederal anarchism is rejected as a suitable regime.

3) I Samuel presents a picture of a prophet-led regime, or at least an attempt to restore the tribal federation by eliminating confederal anarchy through institution of a prophet-led regime. It paints a very dynamic picture of a confederation whose principal federal office was a hereditary priesthood which is deposed in the period under discussion, the rise of a prophet who was trained within the keter kehunah but shifts to the keter torah and his introduction of a nagid/melekh (high commissioner/king) reluctantly and out of necessity, to head the keter malkhut, but be subordinate to the prophet. The discussion documents the failure of this regime to stand up to foreign military pressure.

4) II Samuel, in describing David's reign, presents the classic regime of kingship. The head of the keter malkhut becomes a king and not just a chief magistrate. He reaffirms the authority of the other two ketarim, but also subordinates them by bringing them into his court, and retains the form of a tribal federation while centralizing power through a standing army and bureaucracy. While this regime is portrayed as successful, its flaws are clearly pointed out as well.

5) I Kings portrays the regime of kingship in its ordinary or declining phases. In fact, it contrasts two forms of kingship -- dynastic kingship in the regime of Judah and nondynastic kingship in the regime of Israel -- showing the virtues and defects of both.

6) II Kings discusses ordinary dynastic kingship in a political union (rather than a federation), its strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, I and II Chronicles add texture to the historical discussion from the perspective of the keter melkhut of the time. They emphasize political and military affairs, government organization and the problem of balancing powers and interests. In our examination of David and the establishment of kingship in Israel, it will be useful to keep these perspectives in mind.

The End of the Tribal Federation

By the end of the first epoch of the history of the twelve tribes of Israel, the general thrust of events was to bring the existing tribal system with its political structure into the framework of a national polity, comprehensive in character and designed to establish a regime capable of defending Israel against its enemies, especially the Philistines who had overrun the Israelite tribes and subjugated them.3

The Philistines, a sea people, assumed by scholars to be from the Greek isles (Crete?), had landed on the southern coast of Canaan at approximately the same time that the Israelites had entered the hill country from the east. Possessing an iron technology and sophisticated political organization, with a well developed military component, the Philistines captured the lowlands of Eretz Israel (the new Israelite name for Canaan), and established five cities -- Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. In the eleventh century, they began to invade the highlands, actually capturing the Ark of the Covenant (I Samuel 4-6) at one point. The generally disorganized Israelite tribes were unable to concentrate sufficient power to restrain the invaders, hence their decision to seek a king to lead them to military victory over their powerful new foe.

Israel's fortunes had indeed been laid low. Not only were they soundly beaten at the battle of Aphek (ca. 1050 B.C.E.) and the Ark of the Covenant captured, but the Philistines proceeded to occupy the whole country and destroyed Shiloh, the seat of the tribal confederation. The leader of the tribal confederation, Samuel, the twelfth and last of the judges, was faced with an extremely difficult situation. The old confederation had virtually disintegrated. Shiloh, once destroyed, was never revived. The old regime, whose major national leaders were the priestly guardians of Shiloh and the judge of the time, was discredited. The family of Eli, the chief priest at Shiloh, was, for all intents and purposes, destroyed. Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed while bearing the Ark in battle and Eli died of shock after learning of the defeat. Since his family was already portrayed as corrupted, no heirs emerged to assume the high priesthood until David appointed Abiathar and Zadok two generations later. (Indeed, the vacuum in the priesthood was to help David to consolidate his power in Jerusalem.)

Samuel, who was a prophet as well as a judge, was not a military leader. Nevertheless, he attempted to restore the administration of covenant law and to reestablish the shrine of the federation at Mitzpah. He moved from Shiloh to his ancestral home at Ramah from where he travelled on a regular circuit between Mitzpah, Gilgal and Beth El, three towns with sacred and historic associations. While the Israelites thus maintained a degree of autonomy and may even have remained independent in parts of the Galilee or Transjordan, as long as the Philistines continued to have a monopoly of iron, they were able to keep military control over the country. Nevertheless the Israelite will to resist remained strong, if ineffective.

Seeing that the old regime was ineffective if not dead, Samuel attempted to institute a constitutional reform of his own, one that would have strengthened the civil institutions of the old federation to give the regime sufficient authority, power and leadership to overthrow the Philistines and regain Israelite independence. Elsewhere I have suggested that the Book of Joshua as canonized in the Bible is the presentation of Samuel's ideal regime for the tribal federation, built around the argument that if that regime, properly constructed, was strong enough to conquer the country, if properly reconstructed along the same lines it would be strong enough to repel all enemies.4

For reasons not explicitly conveyed in the Bible, Samuel failed. According to the biblical account, as Samuel aged and his sons proved unworthy as his potential successors, the people demanded a king, Samuel opposed their demands, formally on the grounds that this was a rejection of God's kingship, the classic feature of the regime of the tribal federation whereby Moses and Joshua as God's prime ministers (eved adonai) and the subsequent twelve judges (shofetim) were simply his deputies, chosen charismatically to lead the people. God intervened to indicate that the people's request was to be met, at least in a limited way. Reading between the lines, it seems that Samuel's own personality played no small role in the failure of his plan. from the tone of the text it also seems that Samuel was personally jealous of a new and more powerful political leader. Larger political forces were also involved.

In an act of charismatic transfer, Samuel was forced to find an appropriate candidate for the kingship, give him God's blessing, and then bring him before the people to be elected. Samuel fixed upon Saul, a decent, simple young man of great strength and courage, no doubt because he thought that Saul was suitable to be a military leader but would remain politically subordinate to him as prophet.

In an effort to preserve the spirit of the old regime, albeit within a new institution, Samuel exercised his primordial constitutional function to designate the first incumbent of the office as nagid (best translated as high commissioner), rather than melekh (king) (I Samuel 10:1). For the rest of the history of the monarchy the two terms appear parallel to one another, with God and His prophets referring to the rulers as nagid and the people referring to them as melekh. He also established a constitutional framework within which the nagid is required to function (I Sam. 10:25), specifying that Saul's principal function as nagid was to lead the edah in war. However, the people still had to elect Saul, which they do (I Sam. 11:15) and they proclaim him melekh.

Saul is presented as a charismatic leader: "The spirit of God came mightily upon him" (I Samuel 11:6), but his choice also had an internal political advantage since he was from one of the smallest tribes, located between powerful Judah and equally powerful Ephraim.

At the beginning, Saul performs as expected, but, a serious man, he takes his responsibilities as king seriously, too seriously for Samuel's taste. The two clash in a power struggle and Samuel publicly rejects him. Moreover, the complex responsibilities of kingship are too much for the bluff, unsophisticated Saul and he begins to deteriorate mentally, first as a result of Samuel's rejection and then in response to politics and intrigues in his developing court, which are exacerbated by the appearance of David as a fair-haired young hero whose popularity rapidly comes to outshine that of Saul. Nevertheless, as long as Samuel remains alive it appears that Saul stays more or less within the framework of a nagid and only after the death of the prophet does an institutionalized kingship begin to emerge, limited primarily by Saul's limitations. In the end those limitations are to destroy him and his chances for establishing a dynasty.

Saul's final defeat and death on Mt. Gilboa are as much a result of his psychological state, according to the Bible, as to the continued strength of the Philistines. Militarily, Saul and his son Jonathan continued their successful tactic that had brought them earlier victories, of luring the Philistines into the mountains where the terrain favored the Israelites. But this time Saul is convinced that he will be defeated because God has rejected him. And so it comes to pass.

The Constitutional Process of Regime Change

The Bible presents us with two parallel accounts of the establishment of the monarchy. One (I Samuel 8, 12) is bitterly hostile to the very idea, and the other, (I Samuel 9-10) tacitly accepts it. Together these are among the important political statements in the Bible whose impact has echoed through the generations. (The Book of Chronicles, on the other hand, ignores the process of instituting the monarchy, mentioning the death of Saul as a prelude to the enthronement of David. In general it seems to be a book designed to strengthen the claims of David and his house to the kingship, of which more below.) The importance of the regime change is reflected in the fact that the whole Book of Samuel, which has come down to us as two books, is devoted to the transition, covering a period of slightly over a century, from ca. 1070 to 950 B.C.E., the first book concentrating on the period from the military failure of the old confederation, Samuel's judgeship, the appointment and rule of Saul, down through Saul's death, and the second dealing with David's reign.

Constitutionally, the appointment of Saul seems to have followed a three-fold process. First the tribal elders travelled to Ramah and, in an informal meeting, called upon Samuel to change the constitution and institute kingship. After trying to resist them and warning them of the price of kingship, Samuel acquiesced -- following God's instructions according to the biblical account -- but not before he warned them of the likely political and social consequences of introducing kingship, all of which were in the direction of drastically reducing Israelite liberties. Samuel then proceeded to find a candidate for the position he advocated, that of nagid, which did not carry the powers or the hereditary element of kingship, and choosing Saul, announted him in the name of God.

Following that, Samuel formally called the people together as a constituent assembly in Mitzpah, the new shrine, in the manner of the old constitutional assemblies of the edah, and formally presented the new constitution and the new nagid to them for their approval. The people then elected Saul their king, using the term melekh (king) in preference to nagid. Samuel concluded by promulgating the mishpat hamelukhah (the law of the kingdom), which he wrote down as the civil constitution of the new regime within the framework of the Torah, the general constitution of the Israelite polity, after which everyone including Saul returned home.5

In light of our knowledge of the role of covenants and covenant ideas in West Asia at the time, we can assume that the Israelite tribes were culturally attuned to this means of reconstitution. The civil covenantal process introduced by Samuel brought about a certain redesign of the political structure and created a basis for further redesign in later epochs of Jewish history, Biblical and post-Biblical. This was to be the limit of Samuel's political success as a constitutional reformer.6

In retrospect, the most important aspect of this redesign was the reaffirmation and strengthening of the division of powers within the edah's leadership, a division established by a special set of covenants. The initial division of functions or powers was between Moses, the Elders of the Edah, and Aaron. God covenanted with Moses as His minister (in the political sense) responsible for relaying and interpreting God's constitutional teaching (Torah) and judging the people. These functions were immediately subdivided per God's instructions so that the 70 elders (as in senate or board of aldermen) took on primary responsibilities for judging, i.e., functioned as a civil branch of government, while Moses himself retained the prophetic responsibility for interpreting God's teaching. The separation between these two divisions was later to be institutionalized by the end of the period of the Judges, with Samuel the last figure to attempt to straddle both. God made a parallel covenant with Aaron and his sons, giving them the priesthood with the authority to be the links between the people and God in ritual and sacerdotal matters. Thus, the basis for a tripartite division of authority between civil, priestly, and prophetic or constitutional ingterpretation functions was set down through subsidiary covenants early in the Biblical account of the history of Israel as a polity.7

A millenium later, during the time of the Second Commonwealth, this tripartite division came to be described as the division into three ketarim (literally, crowns), the labels they bear to this day. Those responsible for relating and interpreting God's teaching are described as belonging to the domain of keter torah. Those responsible for the civil governance of the edah represent the domain of keter malkhut, while those responsible for the links between the people and God in ritual and sacredotal matters are described as being in the domain of the keter kehunah.

This tripartite system became more fully articulated with the introduction of the kingship. Prior to the regime change, Samuel as judge and prophet (his two official titles) continued in the line of Moses and Joshua and straddled the constitutional and civil authority. Moreover, because he was raised at Shiloh, the central shrine of the tribal federation, within the priestly family of Eli, he had close connections with the priesthood as well. There are hints in the Biblical text that, in his efforts to restore more effective framing institutions for the edah after so many generations of national weakness, he tried to encompass all three domains of authority within his own office. This was decisively rejected by the people and, apparently, by God as well, and is one of the precipitating causes for his failure to reform the old constitution on its own terms and the introduction of kingship as such.

Saul then proceeded to fall into the same trap that was the undoing of Samuel by seeking to encompass in his office the functions of all three domains. For that he is punished and his family is denied dynastic inheritance. In I Samuel 13:8-13, we find Saul usurping priestly functions, i.e., offering sacrifices, and in 15:7-9, he usurps prophetic functions of constitutional interpretation by allowing his army to retain certain spoils from a captured Canaanite city, against the proscriptions of the Torah. Thus the principle of tripartite division is firmly established and is made part of God's covenant with David which is then ratified by the people.

David, with all his power and his success at centralizing the powers of government in his court, did not attempt to abolish this tripartite division, only to bring it under his control. So, he brought the tabernacle to Jerusalem and appointed a new priestly family to tend it, one that would be beholden to him, but in so doing reaffirmed their priestly power. He brought the prophets into his court, reaffirming their powers, even allowing them to denounce him for transgressions, but again keeping them within his purview. In short, David's genius was to formally maintain the constitution while altering the distribution of powers within it. David's wisdom was to recognize that, once constitutionalized by covenant, the basic lines of authority had to be maintained but could be manipulated to serve his end.

David Begins to Advance

David appears on the scene as a somewhat innocent young shepherd boy from Bethlehem, "somewhat innocent" because even the laudatory biblical account that we have suggests a more complex figure than subsequent legend had it. David first appears in three accounts contained in I Samuel, chapters 16 and 17. In the first, Samuel seeks out David the young shepherd under God's instructions to annoint him as king to replace Saul. In the second version Saul, plagued by the psychological terrors that are to be his undoing, seeks relief in music, a member of Saul's entourage remembers David as a young harpist, and Saul invites him to court where David's playing provides temporary relief. In the third version, David, as the youngest son of Jesse, is not yet mobilized in the tribal militia levees confronting the Philistines in the Valley of Elah, but he does go back and forth, bringing food to his mobilized brothers, until he seizes the opportunity to distinguish himself by fighting Goliath.

These three accounts are not contradictory; their sequential placement may be accurate. What is important is that we see before us a young man, appropriately modest in his overt behavior, yet handsome and talented and capable of winning over powerful people and garnering their support; a young man of original ideas, good bearing and military prowess. All these are characteristics that will stay with David as he acquires political power. They will be used by him to gain and secure that power.

David's first signal triumph is to become part of Saul's entourage. In other words, he begins to move upward from within the "court" where he is able to acquire knowledge and experience in politics, and perhaps also in governing. Since he enters the entourage as a popular hero, he also has a public dimension which gets him into trouble with Saul but which also enables him to survive exile from the court.

Whether precisely accurate or not, the paradigm of a potential leader successfully pursuing power is complete. It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that David was a gifted musician and poet. The Goliath story, on the other hand, raises some questions. Elsewhere in the text there is a cryptic reference to Elhanan as the slayer of Goliath. Did David appropriate this story of mythic proportions? If so, when? If not, what is the textual reference? Did Elhanan adopt the throne name of David upon becoming king? This hint of something amiss is characteristic of the Bible which, whatever its literal truth in some matters, is not a book of myths but what we might call moral science, using history as its raw material. Written as it is for the broadest public, its general tone must be and is popular, but, for the careful reader, it often drops important hints of this kind.

Since the Bible is not a book of myths, it does not have David automatically ascend to the throne. Instead he has to pass through a period of trials which sharpen his already substantial leadership skills and test his moral qualities. During that period he displays a wide range of human qualities: generosity, and opportunism, love and cunning, loyalty and treason, forthrightness and deviousness.

David's troubles begin with his popularity which exceeds that of the king (I Samuel 18:7). Nor is David an innocent victim here. He encourages public adulation. In an effort to be sly, Saul attempts to have David killed in battle by requiring him to deliver one hundred Philistine foreskins as the bride price for Michal, Saul's daughter, whom David seeks to wed. But poor Saul is never successful at slyness and David, instead of getting himself killed, brings back the hundred foreskins and the couple are married (I Samuel 18:17-29). Now David is not only of the court, but married into the royal family -- another bond strengthening any future claim to the kingship he might advance. The marriage to Michal is to go badly and when David flees, Saul gives her to another, but David retrieves her after Saul's death and keeps her with him until he has consolidated his hold on the throne.

(Michal is Saul's second daughter, younger than Merab who was originally promised to David but given to another. She is presented as loving David and supporting him against her father. Did she hope to rise to the top through her husband rather than simply be a second daughter? Is her later disgust with David over his populism a reflection of her pretensions?)

David also develops a very special relationship with Jonathan, Saul's oldest son and heir apparent. Jonathan is the biblical model of the singularly noble man who sacrifices his own interests for his friend. The friendship is portrayed through a series of increasingly sad vignettes. David appears to be a good and magnanimous friend, but his friendship never gets in the way of his ambition, while Jonathan, a far more noble character, is forced to choose between filial loyalty to his increasingly mad father and the throne, on one hand, and David, on the other. When he makes his choice and it is described in the usual spare biblical style, we can palpably feel Jonathan's consciousness of what he is doing and the nobility attached to the act (I Samuel 20-21:1).

From Outlaw to King

David is forced to flee from Saul's court. He becomes a political refugee, drawing about him a band of outlaws who have nothing to loose in being with him, but who give him strength because of the kind of characters they are -- "natural men" described by one biblical scholar as having "contempt for authority and settled communities." They are to stay with him as his most trusted men for the rest of his life. Meanwhile David's own kin stayed away from him.

David and his followers are given modest help by the priests of Nob, perhaps because the latter were descended from Eli and the priestly family which had officiated at Shiloh and had been dispossessed with the introduction of the new regime. Whatever the reason, Saul has them massacred (I Samuel 22:11-19), leading to the alienation of other priests from Saul's rule, one of whom, Abiathar, joins David's growing band, bringing with him religious objects which endow David with the beginnings of legitimacy.

One can assume that it was in this period that David's understanding of the importance of legitimacy, already evident from the very first moment that he appears on the scene, is strengthened. When he ascends to the throne, David is to resurrect the national priesthood which had fallen into desuetude for two generations, reestablishing the office of high priest and raising it to an honored position in Jerusalem where it is associated with the new central shrine, while at the same time assuring that his appointees, Abiathar and Zadok, and their families, are tied to the court.

It is at this point that David's military strength grows sufficiently to give him and his force a semi-legitimate mission within Israel, namely to serve as an irregular border guard that acts to protect villages and herds against the Philistines and other raiders (23:1-5, 25:1-42). David makes other efforts to strengthen his hand by making marriage alliances with leading families in the borderlands (25:42-43). Nevertheless Saul's pressure against him continues undiminished and David is finally forced to seek refuge with the Philistine king Achish of Gath (the two versions of this event are found in 21:10-15 and 27:2-12). He settles in Ziklag as a Philistine vassal who engages in near-treasonous acts against Israel.

The Philistines then go out for the major assault on Saul and the Israelites which ends in Saul's defeat and death (996-995 B.C.E.). Either deliberately or fortunately, David and his men are not called upon to join in the campaign and remain behind. David is able to memorialize Saul and Jonathan in perhaps the greatest of his poems, which seems to reflect true emotion but also establishes his magnanimity and his claim to leadership of Israel.

The story of David's acsension to the kingship and reign are told in the second book of Samuel which opens with David's elegy. Taking advantage of the vacuum created with Saul's death, David moves to Hebron, the seat of the government of the tribe of Judah, and its religious center. According to the Bible, he does so after asking God whether he should and receiving an affirmative answer. There the men of Judah anoint David king over "the house of Judah" (II Samuel 2:1-4). David was to be king of the house of Judah alone for seven years and six months.

In the meantime, Abner, the commander of Saul's army, who survived the battle, took Saul's surviving son (Ishbosheth in the Bible, apparently because his real name was the pagan Ishbaal) and made him king over all the Israelite tribes north of Judah. David tried to undermine the appointment by diplomacy and apparently by limited conflict. The decisive clash is at Gibeon where Abner and other members of Ishbosheth's court meet with Joab, the commander of David's army and others of David's court. In the ensuing battle, Abner kills Joab's brother Asahel and he and the Israelites are forced to flee.

The long war leads to dissension between Ishbaal and Abner, according to the Bible over one of Saul's concubines. Abner determines to abandon Ishbaal and make a deal with David. As a prelude to any arrangement, David insists on having Michal returned to him. Abner arranges it, after which David and Abner meet and agreement for a settlement is reached, making David king over all Israel. Abner departs, only to be pursued by Joab and his men and killed in revenge for Abner's killing of Joab's brother. David treats the killing as if it were against his orders, but unquestionably it aided him by eliminating a potential source of opposition.

With Abner dead, Ishbosheth's court falls apart. Saul's son is killed by his own courtiers who hope to win favor with David by bringing him the head of his rival. David's response is to punish the murderers with death, but again, since his rival is removed from the field, the last real obstacle was removed to his being chosen as king of all of Israel (chapter 5). All the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron and, emphasizing the blood relationship among the tribes, covenant with David and make him king over Israel (c. 988 BCE). The formula they use is important. First they indicate that they know that God has appointed him nagid in place of Saul. Then they anoint him melekh, thus preserving the dual constitutional formula of the melekh of the people being God's nagid.

David's New Regime

Now king over all Israel, the 30-year-old David was to reign 33 years in addition to the 7 1/2 years he reigned over Judah. He moved swiftly to consolidate his rule by attacking the Jebusites in Jerusalem, capturing the city and making it his capital. This had the dual effect of removing a Canaanite city-state that divided Judah and Israel geographically and giving the new federal monarchy a capital outside of the territory of any of the individual tribes, a federal district as it were. Officially the personal property of David, it became known as the City of David and literally was that.

There David established his court and began to build an appropriate capital city, building himself a grand "house" with imported cedar from Tyre, constructed by Tyrean carpenters and masons. There he settled his family and from there he marched against the Philistines who responded to David's growing strength by sending a force to reimpose their rule on a vassal state that they saw was growing too strong. In two battles at Baal Perazim and the Valley of Refaim, the Philistines are defeated by David.

With the Philistine threat substantially reduced, David assembles the tribal militias to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. His first effort is stopped by a tragic accident when the Ark almost falls off of the cart upon which it was placed and Uzza the man who saves it, drops dead. But several months later the task is completed. Amid joyous ceremonies the Ark is ensconced in Jerusalem, thereby further consolidating David's power by making his city the principal cultic center.

The story of the interrupted journey of the Ark of the Covenant as told in I Chronicles 14-15 suggests that a constitutional issue was involved here as well. David's first effort to bring up the Ark has the people of his army hauling it. After the death of Uzza, David concludes that none ought to carry the Ark of God but the Levites (15:2), so the second time he brings it up he entrusts the Ark to the custody of the Levites, making that custody permanent, thereby consolidating their support as he has consolidated that of the Priests and the Prophets. The culmination of the transfer of the Ark is described in Chronicles 16:4ff where David appoints certain of the Levites to permanently minister before the Ark of the Lord.

By this time David also has brought Nathan, the leading prophet of his generation, into his court as a personal consultant (II Samuel 7). Wanting to build a proper house for the Ark, David asks Nathan for God's permission to do so and Nathan's immediate response is to grant it. But, according to the Bible, the word of the Lord comes to Nathan that night to indicate that David should not build such a house on the grounds that God does not need a house and indeed that it is a violation of the spirit of the Israelite religion to violate the simplicity of the tent of meeting. Nathan is instructed to bring this message to David but also to indicate to him that he and his descendants are to be God's negidim, God will assure the rule of his dynasty, and that later in the history of the dynasty his son will build the house.

This dream is the principal source of God's promise of permanent dominion to David and his heirs. The fact that it is communicated to Nathan the prophet (keter torah) lends it constitutional credibility. David's response in a prayer to God directly makes it a mutual promise or covenant. In his response, David fully assumes the posture of spokesman for his people.8 While David was unable to build the Temple himself, he did choose the site that Solomon was later to use, purchased the land, had plans for the Temple drawn up and materials assembled before his death (I Chronicles 21:18-22).

In addition to recording and publicizing God's promise via Nathan, David left few if any stones unturned to establish his legitimacy. He kept Saul's daughter, Michal, on as his wife, even after she rejected him, brought Jonathan's son Mephibosheth (Mephibaal) to his court to "eat bread at David's table."

David accepts God's will with all humility and proceeds with the business of building his kingdom. Now it is his turn to attack the Philistines (II Samuel 8) and he reduces them to vassals although he does not annex their territory. The Canaanite enclaves in Israel's territory are reduced and annexed. He then turns to conquer Ammon and Moab which also become vassal states. Turning northward he conquers Zobah and Aram, extending his rule over the two states as far as the Euphrates. Amalek and Edom also come under his rule and on the south his kingdom is extended to below Etzion Geber on the Red Sea. Taking advantage of the weakness of both Egypt and Assyria, David creates a small but strong empire and his rule is acknowledged by his neighbors. Only Phoenicia, whose king Hiram had entered into an alliance with David, remains unconquered.

David's military successes enable him to begin the construction of a state of the kind that the Israelites had not previously known. The Bible describes this step in II Samuel 8:15-17, immediately following the record of David's military conquests, listing David's principal officers in the following order: his military commander, Joab, son of Zeruiah; mazkir (usually translated "recorder" but apparently more like its present use in the sense of "appointed manager") Jehosephat, son of Ahilud; two priests, Zadok, the son of Ahitub, and Ahimelekh, the son of Abiathar; sofer or secretary in the sense of keeper of the records, Seraiah; commander of the mercenaries, Beniaiah, son of Jehoiadaa; and David's loyal supporters (referred to as "sons of David"), heads of the various ministries. Thus we have a court and a cabinet, as well as the concentraton of the three domains in David's court. Overall the new state structure can be described as follows:

Perhaps the most significant development here was the organization of a mercenary force loyal to the king himself. While wars were still conducted primarily through the tribal militias, organized in the traditional twelve divisions (I Chronicles 27:2-15), they remained under tribal leadership as reserves who were fully mobilized only in time of war. David's power position was secured by his mercenaries, a standing army who were to prove decisive in the various revolts against his rule, particularly in the great revolt of Absalom which came closest of any of them to succeeding.

The full scale of David's organizational effort is described in I Chronicles 23ff. The description has several elements. First of all, the bureaucracy provides offices for David's loyal supporters, his courtiers and their families, so as to consolidate their support for the throne. The priests and Levites are provided with full employment and the tribal levees are reorganized so that while they remain tribal, they can be easily mobilized into David's service.9

While the changes introduced by David brought the country peace and prosperity, they also completed the destruction of the old regime -- but not entirely. David realized, either out of choice or out of necessity, that Israel had to remain a federation in which the tribal institutions retained considerable political power, hence what emerged from his reconstitution was a federal monarchy whith the tribes in place but the overall thrust was inexorable centralization. This lead to several tribal revolts, often helped along by David's own sons who, because of interfamilial quarrels or sheer impatience to gain their father's throne, appealed to the "state's rights" concerns of the tribes. From the biblical description of the characters and individuals involved, it is hardly likely that this was more than a political ploy on their part which would have disappeared as soon as they had used tribal support to gain the throne. If anything, David was probably more sensitive to the virtues of the old constitution than his sons who had already been raised, if not born, into royalty. Certainly the subsequent history of the Judean monarchy suggests that was the case.

The greatest revolt was that of Absalom eleven years before David's death (II Samuel 15). Absalom had built up the revolt by appealing to the tribal elders on state's rights grounds and actually succeeded in capturing Jerusalem and causing David to flee. David defeated Absalom's tribal levees with his professional soldiers. Absalom was killed and David returned to Jerusalem with the nation rallying around him once again. A second revolt by an Israelite named Sheba ben Bichri was an effort to divide the kingdom through the secession of the northern tribes. David put this down as well and had Sheba killed (II Samuel 20).

Seven chapters (13-19) of II Samuel are devoted to Absalom and David, beginning with the personal conflict between Absalom and Amnon, another of David's sons, over Tamar, their sister, as a result of the rape of Tamar and Amnon's murder by Absalom, Joab's role in restoring Absalom to the court, Absalom's revolt and its repercussions, and David's restoration and its repercussions. In the story we see the power struggle among the king's sons, the crucial role of Joab in keeping David on the throne and his family and court together, the side intrigues of the various people in the court such as Mephibosheth's servant Ziba, who tries to curry favor with David and betray Mephibosheth, and various others. Finally after David's victory, there are the efforts of the leaders of the tribe of Judah and the tribes of Israel to get back on David's bandwagon.

One of the byproducts of Absalom's revolt was a stirring among the family and tribe of Saul, a testing of the waters to see if David's weakness could lead to their restoration to the throne. Mephibosheth may or may not have been linked to the conspiracy but he had to make an effort to get back into David's good graces after the latter's triumph, David bides his time and once the revolts of Absalom and Sheba are put down, uses the pretexts of compensating the Gibeonites for Saul's massacre of them years before to hand over most of the remaining descendants of Saul's family (not including Mephibosheth to whom he had promised permanent protection) for execution, thereby substantially reducing if not ending that threat. At the same time David has the bones of Saul and Jonathan reburied in their native soil of the tribe of Benjamin so as to distance himself from the execution.

David the King

One of the greatest characteristics of the Bible is that it portrays David "warts and all." His worst transgression in the eyes of the Bible was sending Uriah the Hittite to his death in the war against Ammon in order to take his wife Bathsheva. Considerable space is devoted to the incident (II Samuel 11-12) -- to the story itself and to its prelude (II Samuel 10). In part, this is because the second product of the union of David and Bathsheva, Solomon, is to inherit David's throne and establish the dynastic principle. In part, it is part of the biblical teaching that even kings are under the judgement of God and his prophets. From another perspective it shows how David has consolidated his power by bringing the prophet into his court, but at the same time the price he must pay, namely within the framework of the court the prophet must be free to chastise him when necessary. The story also reveals David's character, how he could succumb to his passions, but how his own sensitivities developed and his rational faculties never departed from him.

David was not the only one prey to human weaknesses. The biblical account tells of the court intrigues, especially among his children, giving us a taste of what is to come as the result of kingship.

David's last days are described in chapters 1-2 of I Kings and 23-24 of I Chronicles. As his end grew near, the dynastic principle had still not been established and his son Adonijah attempted to seize the throne. Adonijah managed to secure the support of Joab and Aviatar, but Zadok, Beniaiah and Nathan lined up behind Solomon. Nathan became the decisive factor, mobilizing Bathsheba to intervene with the king to have him designate Solomon as his successor. In what is obviously an orchestrated move, Nathan joins Bathsheba in the presence of the king. Both make the point that if Adonijah is to become king, then their lives will be forfeit. This essentially forces David to designate Solomon as his heir.

In the process we have a new form of anointment instituted, whereby priest and prophet join together to proclaim which of David's sons is to be his heir to the throne, a proclamation which then is executed by one of the senior court officials. Again, all three ketarim are represented. Here, too, the formula used is both melekh and nagid. The proclamation must be public because the people must respond to it and assent.

David then personally and privately charges Solomon to maintain Israel's constitution as king, using the classic formula of the Torah, hukotav, mitzvotav, umishpatav (his statutes, his commandments and his ordinances) ve'edotav kakatuv b'torat Moshe (his covenant witnesses as written in the Torah of Moses). After that constitutional charge, he turns to more practical matters, directing Solomon to make sure that Joab is assassinated so that he cannot intrigue against David's chosen successor and that Shimi ben Gera of Saul's family who had cursed David when he fled Jerusalem during Absalom's revolt also be killed so as to keep the mystique of the monarchy intact and end any efforts on the part of the supporters of Saul to seize the throne. With that, David died.

According to I Chronicles 28-29, David himself assembled all the relevant actors to inform them of his designation of Solomon as his heir in a formal assembly (vayakhel, I Chronicles 28:1). These included, in order and by their titles listed: the ministers of Israel, the ministers of the tribes, the ministers of the departments that served the king, the officers of the regiments and companies, the officers responsible for the king's possessions, and David's personal bodyguard. In front of them he went through the appropriate constitutional litany with the addition of the promise to build a temple, and required all of them to pledge allegiance to Solomon.

The Role of Covenanting in a Constitutional Monarchy

The covenant with David and his house was not the first covenant of the keter malkhut. At the very least, the mishpat hamelekh (civil constitution) in Deuteronomy is the foundation of that keter, though, in fact, the foundation goes back earlier to the exodus itself. What is important about mishpat hamelekh is that the covenant of keter malkhut is not made with the king but is made with the people who are empowered to appoint a king if they so choose. Indeed, one can contrast the three covenants behind the three ketarim: the covenant for keter torah is made with the people through the mediation of the prophet Moses; the covenant with the priests is made with Aaron and his family and embraces the tribe of Levi in a subsidiary fashion; while the keter malkhut is made with the people without a king or equivalent leader being present. Only in a later epoch is an actual king introduced.

During the six centuries following the conquest of the land, the Israelite tribes attempted to build or rebuild their commonwealth through various internal political covenants based upon the overarching covenants with God established earlier. It has already been suggested that the Book of Joshua is the account of the initial effort in that direction. When the original tribal federation collapsed under external military pressure from the Philistines, Israel created a limited constitutional monarchy, bounded by the mishpat hamelekh, the covenant of civil rule, which was periodically reaffirmed through specific covenants between kings, the people, and God. The establishment of the office of nagid/melekh under Samuel with Saul as the first incumbent is described as a covenanting (I Samuel 9). The next major example, that of David, involves both bilateral and tripartite covenanting. First a relationship is established between God and David which gives David a theo-political status (I Sam. 16). Then that relationship is transformed into covenants between David and the people -- with God acting as the guarantor (II Samuel 5:1-3):

Then came all the tribes of Israel to David unto Hebron, and spoke, saying: "Behold, we are thy bone and thy flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was thou that didst lead out and bring in Israel; and the Lord said to thee: 'Thou shalt feed My people Israel, and thou shalt be prince over Israel.'" So all the elders of Israel came to Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them in Hebron before the Lord; and they anointed David king over Israel."

It seems that, despite the hereditary element introduced by David, his heirs had to be confirmed through covenants with the representatives of the people. Thus Solomon (965-928 BCE) and the people covenanted with one another before God at the time of the transferring of the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple (I Kings 8). At least this was so after crises involving a previously reigning monarch who had violated the covenant and thereby cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Davidide house, as in the cases of Asa (908-867 BCE), Joash (836-798 BCE), Hezekiah (727-698 BCE), and Josiah (639-609 BCE).

What was characteristic of the new regime is the combination of monarchic and tribal (or federal) institutions. David was elevated to the kingship by the tribal leadership speaking in the name of the people, Solomon was reaffirmed by that leadership, and Rehoboam was denied the kingship by ten of the tribes acting in concert when he went to them to establish a similar pact at the beginning of his reign (I Kings 12; II Chronicles 10). Considering his arrogant attitude toward the tribal leadership, it is clear that he was required to go before them by the constitution and did not do so of his own free will. Subsequently, while multi-tribal institutions disappeared from the southern kingdom because of the dominance of Judah (with the original federal institutions surviving only in the realm of local government), the northern kingdom maintained them until the very end of its existence.

The establishment of the federal monarchy under David required a complex network of covenants. God chose David to be his anointed one in a private conversation with Samuel, who proceeded to anoint David secretly (I Samuel 16:1-13). This made it possible for David to be chosen king by the people through their elders in a manner consistent with covenant tradition, a necessary second step. The people and elders of Judah did so (without any reference to God's earlier intervention) immediately upon the death of Saul (II Samuel 2:1-4) but the other tribes of Israel followed suit only after a civil war and protracted negotiations between Abner, the commander of the Israelite forces and real power in that regime (II Samuel 3:6) and David (3:12-21). The issue was complicated by Abner's murder at the hands of Joab, David's military commander (3:27-39) and the intrigues at the court of Ish-Bosheth, Saul's heir (3:6-11 and 4). Finally, the elders of Israel went to Hebron, the seat of David's government, and covenanted with the new ruler (II Samuel 5:1-3 and I Chronicles 11:1-3). This covenantal "package" includes several examples of different kinds of covenantal usages, e.g. for political alliances (Abner and David), for defining the relationship between rulers and ruled (David and the tribes of Israel), and establishing dynastic legitimacy (David and God), all of which find later echoes in Western political thought and behavior.

The establishment of the Davidic dynasty came only in the wake of the removal of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and the reaffirmation of the national covenant by David and the people at the time (II Samuel 6, I Chronicles 16 and 17). David was careful to make the transfer of the Ark a constitutional event since it was designed to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and seat of God's providence as well as David's government. He carefully followed the right procedures (I Chronicles 13:1-7). After the Ark was settled in Jerusalem, Nathan, the first of the court-connected prophets (whose office emerges as a check on the new centralized executive), brought God's promise of dynastic succession to David (II Samuel 7, I Chronicles 18).

Implementation of the right of succession would come only when David's wife Bathsheba, Nathan, Zadok the High Priest, and various court figures engineered the appointment of Solomon to the throne by David in the latter's waning years, outmaneuvering Adonijah and David's other sons (I Kings 1). Upon Nathan's recommendation, David promised the succession to Solomon and ordered his decision proclaimed by the chief representatives of the three branches of the Israelite national government: the high priest, the prophet, and the steward of the royal court (1:32-37). This was done in a public ceremony to which the people responded by proclaiming Solomon king (1:38-40). The parallel account in I Chronicles 28 and 29 has David assembling the representatives of the people before the Ark of the Covenant to anoint and proclaim Solomon as God's chief magistrate.

Solomon himself reaffirms the covenant, along with the representatives of Israel's tribes, at the dedication of the Temple, in a manner parallel to David's reaffirmation on the occasion of the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (I Kings 8, II Chronicles 5). But David's son goes beyond his father to initiate what is, for all intents and purposes, a supplementary covenant with God designed to ground the Temple within the Israelite covenantal system. Since, by tradition, pacts between God and man must be initiated by God, Solomon presents his initiative in the form of a public prayer which he delivers at the dedication ceremony before the appropriate popular witnesses (8:1--"The elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes, representatives of the households of Israel" who are referred to collectively as Kahal Yisrael, the Congregation of Israel in 8:22).

The essence of Solomon's prayer consists of a series of practical proposals for including the Temple in the religio-legal-constitutional system of the nation. They are necessary because of the revolutionary implications of the Temple as a geographically fixed earthly locus for the Divine presence. Under the tribal federation, God explicitly abjured such a fixed dwelling place. God was free to locate and relocate His earthly presence. While He had commanded Israel to prepare the Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Assembly, they were deliberately portable. This portability became a central element in ancient Israel's original theo-political ideology.

Solomon had the task of transforming that ideology into one which justified a permanent central worship site in Jerusalem, the city associated with the Davidides. His proposed covenant modification was a major step in that direction, one that followed upon his father's actions to constitutionalize the Davidic monarchy and preceded efforts of his heirs which continued for the duration of the kingdom. The Bible reflects Solomon's case; in I Kings 9:1-9 and II Chronicles 7:12-22, God is portrayed as responding favorably to Solomon's prayer, albeit to Solomon in private, in a dream, and with a clear warning that if he or his heirs should violate the original constitution, the Temple and the land shall be destroyed.

Throughout the years of the united kingdom, the strength of the tribes as constituents of the federation is clear. Despite the very real centralization which takes place under David and Solomon, the tribal institutions maintain much of their power and a serious role in the governance of the polity, a sure sign that the political covenant which united them under the monarchy remained a vital part of the Israelite constitution. Indeed, the Bible portrays the various revolts which punctured the period as reflecting conflicts over the federal character of the regime (e.g. II Samuel 15-19, II Samuel 20, I Kings 11).

A final demonstration of the importance of the political covenant came with the rupture of the kingdom after the death of Solomon. Despite the dynastic element which had been introduced into the constitution, every ascendant to the throne had to be accepted by the assembled people as represented by their tribal leaders. Rehoboam, Solomon's son, presented himself to the assembly as one who would increase the centralization of the kingdom (I Kings 12, II Chronicles 10). Already smarting under the royal court's encroachment on tribal liberties, the leaders of ten of the tribes proclaimed their secession by refusing to reaffirm their original pact with David. Thus the kingdom was divided into two states and remained divided for nearly 250 years until the Assyrian invaders destroyed one of them.

While the ten seceeding tribes also organized themselves as a federal monarchy, keeping the name Israel, the dynastic principle never really took hold among them. At first, the assembly of tribal representatives elevated and deposed chief magistrates. Later, as Israel's polity degenerated, the changes were initiated through court intrigues or military coups but the basic principles were honored at least pro forma until the end.

Meanwhile, back in Judah, the southern kingdom, the House of David continued to reign on the basis of their founder's covenants at Hebron and Jerusalem for over 500 years, through the Babylonian exile until the Persians deposed the last of them. Those covenants were formally renewed at least three times, on each occasion as a response to a serious threat to the legitimacy of the Davidic house.

Not every monarchic succession required recovenanting. For the most part, they remained within the same constitutional framework, with each new king subject to affirmation of his legitimacy because the covenantal relationship required public acceptance of each new ruler.

Only after rulers had usurped power or done something to break the normal constitutional relationship between governors and governed was it necessary to go through some formal covenantal act in order to reestablish the principles upon which the relationship was built. Thus after Athaliah, the queen mother, usurped the Judean throne in 842 BCE and murdered most of the royal family, responsibility for restoring the Davidic house fell to Jehoiada the Priest (II Kings 11 and II Chronicles 23). He proceeded to organize a rebellion against her (885 BCE), mobilizing the people and using part of the palace guard, to restore the throne to its legitimate heir, Jehoash. The process by which he did so was significant. He simultaneously mobilized a segment of the palace guard and covenanted with them (11:4), mobilized the people through traditional institutions, simultaneously making the covenant with them (II Chronicles 23:2 and 3).

Other cases include Hezekiah's extension of his authority over the remnants of the northern kingdom; and Josiah's theo-political reform. In addition, Asa brought the people of all or parts of five tribes together in Jerusalem to renew the Sinai covenant (II Chronicles 15).

Of these, Hezekiah's covenant renewal marked both the restoration of the supremacy of the Davidides in all Israel, by default as it were, and the transition to a new epoch in Jewish political history. The Bible hails him as the most pious of all the kings who was rewarded by God accordingly. He saved Judah and Benjamin from Assyria and reunified what remained of the people, north and south (II Chronicles 30). His alliance with Isaiah (e.g. II Kings 19:20-26) restored the relationship between king and prophet which had been a feature of David's reign. On the other hand, he was the first to preside over an Israelite polity not constituted on a tribal basis (e.g. II Chronicles 29:20-30, 30:2). The tribes continued to exist, at least as sociological entities -- the Bible mentions seven by name in connection with Hezekiah's reign (II Chronicles 30, 31) -- and perhaps as local governing units as well, but they are not mentioned as participating in the national government.

The disappearance of the tribal federation as a reality after the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 BCE can be said to mark the end of the original monarchic epoch in Jewish constitutional history, leading to a search for new political arrangements which culminated in the days of King Josiah when the Book of Deuteronomy became the constitutional basis for the regime (II Kings 22 and 23). The Josianic reform restored the idea that the Israelite polity was based on a tri-partite covenant between God, Israel and the king, with God as sovereign and lawgiver represented in day-to-day matters by his prophets (II Chronicles 23:1-2,21; and 34:29-32). Coming as it did after the reconstitution of the Israelite regime on a non-tribal basis, the reform reaffirmed the essentially covenantal basis of the Israelite polity, just in time to strengthen the Jewish will to survive after the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE).

Israel: Monarchy or Theocracy?

All told, the Bible is quite ambivalent about the entire idea of monarchy and whether or not a monarchic regime is consistent with a covenantal system.9 God's authorization of kingship in the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) is so ambiguous that traditional commentators and Biblical critics alike to this day argue over its meaning. Is the appointment of a king mandatory or a matter of human choice? To this writer, the text seems to take the latter position. What is clear is that the king must be subordinate to and bound by covenant (brit) and constitution (Torah) both. This is iterated and reiterated in the text from that first passage of authorization until the disappearance of the monarchy.

Throughout the period of the Judges, monarchy is rejected as a form of government consistent with God's covenant -- by Gideon as the climactic figure among the Judges (Judges 8:22-23) who restates the classic theory that only God rules over Israel and by the text in connection with usurpers (e.g. Abimelech in Judges 9). the actual adoption of a monarchy is portrayed in very negative terms (I Samuel 8). Samuel resists the change until God instructs him to capitulate to popular demand, telling him "they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me that I should not be king over them" (8:7). Samuel's subsequent acquiescence is accompanied by dire warnings as to the consequences of a monarchical regime and, indeed, he spends the rest of his life trying to contain the new institution within an appropriate constitutional framework, including a special mishpat hamelukhah (law of the kingdom) and appropriate checks and balances.

In the last analysis, the text justifies human kingship only as a response to necessity -- the deteriorated security situation of the tribal federation which is surrounded by powerful enemies and the deteriorated domestic situation as a result of the corruption of the priest Eli's and the prophet Samuel's sons. The federation needs stronger leadership to confront the first, while the collapse of its established institutions makes the change possible. The Bible is even reluctant to use the term melekh, or king, to describe the incumbents of the new institution, preferring the term nagid, best translated as high commissioner (of God) or chief magistrate.

The introduction of the major features of the monarchy are portrayed in the Bible as being of strictly human agency or as a result of God's private promises to the king. In the first category are the military and administrative innovations of David and Solomon, which lead to the establishment of Jerusalem, the private preserve and the Davidic house, as capital of Israel, the development of a standing army of non-Jewish mercenaries, and the emergence of a royal court with substantial administrative functions nationwide. In the second category is God's granting to David's family dynastic succession and Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem special status in the Jewish religious system. Both grants are made privately in dreams by the principal beneficiaries, unlike all other Divine covenants and dispensations after the age of the Patriarchs which are made publicly and, indeed, are pointedly public in character." Is the Bible asking us to read between the lines in connection with David and Solomon?

The reorganization of the priesthood, the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and the building of the Temple partake of both human agency and Divine ratification on a private basis. All three involve major redistributions of power within the polity, leading to greater centralization of power in Jerusalem and a dominant role for the royal court. While all three are undertaken by David and Solomon, in fact the Bible indicates a continuing struggle over the full implementation of the intended goals throughout the history of the monarchy which ultimately ends in a compromise which preserves a polycentric system but integrates Jerusalem and the Temple within it.

The Federal Monarchy: A Case Study in Covenantal Adaptation

In a sense the biblical history of the monarchy is a history of how covenantal principles often must be adapted to necessity. While there are ambiguities involved, it is not unfair to suggest that the Bible portrays kingship as a second-best alternative, necessary because of external circumstances and internal corruptions whereby the success of external enemies bring people to lose faith in the classic regime of the tribal confederacy and exacerbate the Israelites' desire to be like all the other nations. The ultimate biblical confirmation of the Davidic house as a permanent dynasty does not contradict this since the Bible simply recognizes that the necessity also is likely to be long-lived. The way subsequent Jewish tradition elevates the Davidic house to messianic status, thereby eliminating the need to have living Davidides in kingly positions on earth, at least prior to the messianic age -- and who knows when that will come -- reflects the tenuousness of the tradition of kingship in the edah.

The problem was how to establish a legitimate monarchy within the covenant tradition. We have seen how that was resolved formally through covenants of kingship that had to be renewed even where the dynastic principle was observed. Three elements can be identified as part of that effort, all connected with the separation of powers into the three domains and all learned at the expense of Samuel's initiative with Saul.

First, the prophets are given a role as king-makers and critics but do not seek to rule. Second, kings can only rule by popular consent, meaning at very least the consent of the tribal leaders. Third, while the people may refer to their civil rulers as kings, the kings themselves are repeatedly reminded by the prophets that from God's point of view they are only negidim or high commissioners. This nagid tradition functions as a limiting factor on monarchic self-aggrandisement. Because of the separation of powers, within a relatively short time the high priest, although of the family originally installed by David, also acquires active role in the process. Thus the king is tied to the constitution in three ways: (1) through the separation of powers into the three domains; (2) by having to have the confidence of the citizenry; and (3) through the limits of the constitutional tradition of God as Israel's real and only sovereign.

From the first there were differences between the ten northern tribes that became the Kingdom of Israel and the tribe of Judah with regard to dynastic succession, which succeeded so well in the Kingdom of Judah but never took root in Israel. Nevertheless, it seems that the prophets threw their weight behind dynastic succession in the southern kingdom, probably because they discovered that while any dynasty or kingship is likely to be corrupted, ordered continuity is a necessity for stable government and peace so that ordered continuity coupled with checks and balances to control the king was the lesser evil, again in an adaptation of a grand ideal to reality.

The prophetic role becomes three-fold. The prophets serve as king-makers, as critics, and if necessary as king-removers, and as definers of the ideal exercise of the rule (cf. Jeremiah 22:13-17), where the prophet denounces Jehoiakin on the grounds that the king must be implementer of justice and human rights.

The tribes play much the same role as the prophets, in tandem with them, joining the prophets as king-makers and king-removers, but playing less of a role as critics or definers of the royal ideal. This is evidenced in the various covenants between kings and people, as in II Samuel 3, 5; I Kings 12; II Chronicles 23 -- all based on Deuteronomy 33:5.

David's Use of Psalms to Legitimate Covenant as Relationship

The Psalms echo this system of checks and balances. For example, Psalm 89 emphasizes the three-way covenant and Psalm 101, the king's covenant pledge. It seems that David's ascension to the kingship inaugurated a new form of scriptural literature associated with the keter malkhut. Biblical scholars have commented on how much of the Torah is associated with priestly matters -- detailed descriptions of sacrifices, the role and function of priests and Levites. Indeed it has been suggested that the Torah was originally in the custody of the priests and hence was a national constitution skewed in the direction of priestly interests. According to the best scholarship, Neviim, the prophetic sections of the Bible date back at least to the time of Samuel and, while they represent a commentary on the kings, they have their own thrust connected with the keter torah in its prophetic form.

David as king begins the process of developing a literature associated with the keter malkhut which we have before us principally in the Psalms and the Book of Chronicles. First Chronicles, which covers the history of David's reign, is essentially a military and political history. Solomon carries on the tradition in Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Other books that should be identified with this domain include Job, which describes the tribulations of an elder in some fictitious land; Ruth, which both glorifies life in the days of the tribal federation and also refers to David's ancestry; Esther, Daniel and Nehemiah, which deal with the bearers of this keter after the destruction of the First Commonwealth. All of these books are places in the third section of the Tanach, the Hebrew Scriptures, known as ketavim.

Psalms is a religio-political document designed to strengthen the kingship as a religious value and source of religious inspiration. One hundred and fifty Psalms are collected in the Book of Psalms. (There are some others found in other books including the long Psalm of David in I Samuel 2:1-10 and II Samuel 22:1-23:7.) The Psalms attributed to David include 3-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 108-110, and 138-145. 71 and 72 are otherwise identified as Davidic. Indeed at the end of 72 it states, "the prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended," suggesting that this is where the book of Psalms originally ended. All told, 73 of the 150 Psalms are directly attributed to David by the oldest tradition.

What is important, however, is not the authorship but the function of the Psalms which emphasize national, monarchic and messianic themes, tying them together to establish or strengthen the links between the king and national religious aspirations. This is the overall thrust of the entire collection which seems to be divided into five books. The Midrash points out the parallel between this division and the Torah itself, stating that Moses wrote the five books of the Torah and David wrote the five books of the Psalms. While the statement represents tradition rather than historic fact, the parallelism suggested by the bearers of the keter torah is instructive.

We can surmise that the combination of David's artistic talents and the need for establishing the role of the king within the framework of Israelite religion combined to produce the Psalms and the religious poetic tradition they represent. The Psalms restate the covenantal dynamic, habrit vehahesed (the covenant with its loving obligations), in connection with such aspects of civil rule as mishpat, (covenant law,) and shofet, the judge engaged in judgement (often a reference to the king as the continuer of the role of the shofet in the previous regime) -- often together as in Psalm 89. All this is embedded in literature of the highest order. The Psalms also offer explanations of the events chronicled elsewhere in the Bible, presented in poetic form to invoke a sense of God's greatness in the minds of the reader or listener and to identify Him with the king. Of the 150 Psalms collected in the book of Psalms, 75 contain directly covenantal references, half again (37) in relation to King David. Those references range from reflections on nature as a covenantal phenomenon to explanations of the shifts of political power within the Jewish polity -- Adat B'nei Yisrael -- to a probing of personal covenants linking individuals.

While the term brit appears in only 13 Psalms, hesed appears in 64 -- in Psalm 136, 26 times. This modest quantitative measure suggests what a close reading of the Psalms reveals, namely that they are particularly concerned with covenantal dynamics, emphasizing God's sovereignty and kingdom, justice and judgement bound together by brit and hesed.

What is striking in reading the Psalms is the extensive and intensive use of political terminology. There is hardly a Psalm that does not use political metaphors even if it is not referring directly to political matters. These, along with the attribution of the Book of Psalms to King David and the fact that so many of the Psalms are labelled as his or written for him, make it reasonable to view the Book of Psalms as the voice of the keter malkhut. Hence the heavy emphasis on covenant and covenantal dynamics is doubly significant. Its theme is that God's covenant and pledge to His people is a reflection of the fact that we are all living within His kingdom under His sovereignty and judgement, that his judgement is based on righteousness and hesed. The latter in particular reflects the ways in which God shows favor to the one he has selected to bear the keter malkhut or the burdens of civil rule. The Psalms are the anthems of the kingdom of God designed to celebrate His justice and praise his covenant love.

The Psalm with the most extensive and comprehensive covenantal vocabulary is Psalm 89, ascribed to Ethan the Ezrachi (ezrach = citizen). It begins with a commitment to praise God's hesed over time and space (olam equalling space + time) from generation to generation because the universe is built on hesed and the heavens on covenant faithfulness. On this basis God has established His covenant with David and his heirs forever. The Psalm continues (verse 6ff.) describing how the heavenly hosts praise God who is their infinite superior. The former are described as the assembly of the holy ones and the council of the holy ones while God is described as the Lord of hosts.

Verse 10 begins a description of God's rule on earth, describing His rule at sea and how he crushed the mythical sea monster. In verse 12 the heavens and earth are described as God's possession because He founded and created them. Furthermore His throne is founded on four principals: justice, law, loving covenant obligation and truth (tzedek u'mishpat, hesed v'emet).

In verse 16 the Psalmist turns to describe how fortunate is the people that knows God's call and walks in the light of His continence. By rejoicing constantly in His name, they are exalted by His justice. In verse 18 this is applied to Israel and in verse 19 the Psalmist proclaims God to be Israel's king. The next ten verses describe God's mandate to David, his anointed one, how He will strengthen him through his faithfulness in covenant love. The latter will be forever, along with His covenant, so long as the Davidides do not foresake God's Torah, laws, statutes and commandments. If they do foresake those commandments, they will be punished but the covenant will not be broken.

From verses 39 through to the end, the Psalmist apparently is writing after the transgression has occurred and the punishment is in progress. In those verses he addresses God, summarizing the punishment that has been meted out, asking God to end His wrath and restore His hesed toward the faithful. In short this Psalm integrates time and eternity, heaven and earth, nature and man, the nations and Israel, God's justice and wrath, punishment and redemption, all within the covenantal framework. This is the recurrent theme of the Psalms.


These Biblical paradigms and case studies are intrinsically important for what they tell us about the deeper structure of the Biblical text. They are at least equally important for their influence on subsequent political thought and behavior in the Western world. These are the paradigms and case studies which surface time and again in the literature of politics in the West to serve as the meat of political analysis. Prior to the age of empirical political research, they represent the closest thing to data used by students of and commentators on political affairs. In that context, the theory and practice of covenant naturally attracted attention as a vehicle for polity-building, constitution-making, and governance. Through the Bible, then, what was once a mere technical arrangement was transformed into a means for constituting new communities, and thereby, a seminal political idea, one which has had a signal influence on the history of human liberty.

Table 1

Covenants of Regime Change or Reinstitution

4. Establishment of the Federal Magistery or Monarchy (I Samuel 8-12)
[Describes process of reconstitution]

4a. Covenants with David (I Samuel 16:1-13, II Samuel 2:1-4; 3; 5:1-3; I Chronicles 11:1-3) [Network of intertribal covenants with minimum Divine intervention]

4b. David and the People Acknowledge and Reaffirm the Covenant of the Forefathers and God, in turn, Establishes the Davidic Dynasty (I Chronicles 16 and 17)

4c. Solomon and the Elders of Israel Incorporate the Temple into the Sinai Covenant (I Kings 8-19; II Chronicles 5-7)

4d. Asa and the People Renew the Sinai Covenant (II Chronicles 15)

4e. Jehoiada the Priest Restores the Legitimate Monarchy (II Kings 11, II Chronicles 23)

4f. Hezekiah Renews the Covenant with God in the Name of All Israel Through Religious Revival (II Chronicles 29) [Action in response to the fall of the northern kingdom]

4g. Josiah Renews the Covenant and Restores the Book of the Covenant (II Kings 22-23:29; II Chronicles 34-35:19)


1. Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, The Jewish Polity (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984).

2. Cf. Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), p. 171).

3. For a history of this period see Martin Noth, The History of Israel (New York: Harper and Row, 1958); W.F. Albright, "Tribal Rule and Charismatic Leaders" in The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra (New York, 1968), pp. 35-52.

4. Daniel J. Elazar, "The Book of Joshua as a Political Classic," Jewish Political Studies, vol. 1. no. 1 (forthcoming).

5. B. Halpern, The Constitution of the Monarchy in Israel (Harvard Semitic Monographs No. 25, 1981). The idea that the Torah should be understood as the constitution of the Jewish people is an old and oft-recurring one, expressed by traditional and modern thinkers, as diverse as Spinoza, who understood the Torah as a political constitution first and foremost, and Mendelsohn, who viewed the political dimension as utterly dispensable. See Benedict Spinoza, Politico-Theologico Tractate; Moses Mendelsohn, Jerusalem, and Eliezer Schweid, "The Attitude Toward the State in Modern Jewish Thought Before Zionism" in Elazar, ed., op. cit.

6. Moshe Weinfeld, "From God's Edah to the Chosen Dynasty: The Transition from the Tribal Federation to the Monarchy," in Daniel J. Elazar, ed., Kinship and Consent, The Jewish Political Tradition and its Contemporary Manifestations (Ramat-Gan: Turtledove Publishing, 1981); Hayim Tadmor, "The People and the Kingship in Ancient Israel: The Role of Political Institutions in the Biblical Period," Journal of World History (1968), pp. 46-68.

7. Stuart A. Cohen, The Concept of the Three Ketarim (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 1986); J. Mailenberg, "The 'Office' of the Prophet in Ancient Israel" in J.P. Hyatt (ed), The Bible in Modern Scholarship (1966), pp. 79-97.

8. J. Levenson, "The Davidic Covenant and its Modern Interpreters", Catholic Bible Quarterly 41(ii), 1979, pp. 205-219. God's covenant with David is emphasized in the Psalms (e.g., Psalms 89, 132), many of which are court poems designed to praise the king. Its first important prophetic endorsement is by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33). See also S. Talmon "Kingship and Ideology of the State in The World History of Jewish People, vol. 4, part 2, (Jerusalem, 1979), pp. 3-26.

9. A. Malamat, "Organs of Statecraft in the Israelite Monarchy", The Biblical Archeologist 28 (2), 19656, pp. 34-50; Roland de Vaux, "The Administration of the kingdom", in Ancient Israel (New York, 1965) vol. 1 pp. 133-142.

10. See, for example, Martin A. Cohen, "The Role of the Shilohnite Priesthood in the United Monarchy of Ancient Israel" in Hebrew Union College Annual (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1965), Vol. XXXVI: Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews; Abravanel's commentary on Deuteronomy and Samuel; Martin Buber, Kingship of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); and Yehezkel Kaufman, "The Monarchy" in The Religion of Israel (Chicago, 1960) pp. 262-270. While Elijah has traditionally been considered an anti-monarchist, the Biblical portrayal of him shows him to have a more complex position, supporting Ahab as king but seeking to keep the monarchy tied to the Torah as mediated through the prophets. The reference here is to the tradition rather than to the more complex reality.

11. Cf. Harold Fisch, Jerusalem and Albion (New York: Schocken Books, 1964) for an examination of the modern secularization of the covenant idea and John F. A. Taylor, The Masks of Society, An Inquiry into the Covenants of Civilization (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966) for a contemporary American covenantal perspective. While this article seeks to expound and even shift our understanding of the covenant idea to include and emphasize its political dimension, it also uses theological terminology throughout because the Jewish political tradition of necessity has a philosophic base. Political theology has declined in importance in the West in recent generations, hence the usages may be somewhat unfamiliar to the reader, but it is nonetheless an old element in political science and legitimate in every respect.

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