“And I will dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem…”
(King David) [i]
It was a momentous celebration in the City of David. The Ark of God had been rescued from captivity, and throngs of people paraded it through the streets, rejoicing as they had never done before. Young and old, poor and rich alike danced around the Ark, accompanied by jubilant shouts and horn blasts. Right in the thick of it was David, the newly anointed king of Israel himself, frolicking with all his might. Whenever the Ark’s carriers moved forward six steps, the king sacrificed an ox and a fattened lamb. The people and their king shared a few euphoric moments together and took pride in the salvation of God. It seemed as though nothing could go wrong on that beautiful day in the City of David.
All the while, Queen Michal, daughter of the late King Saul, watched the merrymaking from her window. Shocked by the king’s display of self-abasement, she determined to speak her mind to him. But she waited it out, and the frustration grew inside her.
After the procession had finished and many more offerings were brought, the king distributed gifts of bread and cakes to the multitudes and sent them home. David then returned to his palace and was greeted by Michal, but not as he expected. She positioned herself opposite the king, animated by exasperation, and began to accuse:
“Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today – exposing himself today in the sight of the slave-girls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!”[ii]
Michal, herself the daughter of a king, was certain that she knew and understood royalty. Saul, her father, would never have conducted himself as David had in the streets; that was not royal behavior. David lowered his stature and disgraced the kingship by dancing with the common folk. This kingship of Israel was not his to disgrace; it is forever a position of responsibility issued to man by God. The king’s image is not negotiable, and his honor is essentially inalienable.[iii]
David was taken aback by the challenge issued by his own wife. Although he did not dispute Michal’s description of himself, he found a grave error in her conclusion. The king looked away and thought, choosing his words carefully. Returning Michal’s gaze, he declared:
“It was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel! I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slave-girls that you speak of I will be honored.”[iv]
David could not bear to stand apart from the people as their superior while they celebrated the honor of the true King, God. Before the Creator of heavens and earth, all men are equal. While the king of Israel is called upon to rule over the people and command their awe, he must do so carefully and selflessly, with his aim on the true national ideals. David had studied and internalized the words of the Torah, which demanded from him nothing short of personal humility, steadfast dedication to God and observance of His laws, “…In order that he not exalt himself above his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.”[v] David chose to discharge his duty properly, unlike his predecessor Saul, thereby ensuring a long reign for himself and his descendants, also unlike Saul.
The lives of David and Michal diverged tremendously from the time of that encounter.“ Until her dying day, Michal daughter of Saul had no children.”[vi] David, however, founded the Messianic dynasty, and became the greatest king of Israel. He was as much a symbol as an individual man, the icon for Jewish monarchy, and his performance was one by which all future kings would be judged.[vii] Despite his humble conduct that day with the Ark, David became the everlasting paradigm of personal honor in Israel.
This dissonance epitomized the life of King David; with every expression and poetic composition, he let ordinary emotions compromise his status as the infallible monarch.[viii] Human weaknesses drove him to the worst of sins, and he readily acknowledged these faults.[ix] David was a notoriously imperfect man, and this made him somewhat of an enigmatic king. Many men can separate their emotions from their work, but not from their identities. However, the identity of an anointed king is his work, and David’s strong emotions invariably affected his kingship.
The majority of the people of Israel could not have known this about David. The masses revered their divinely-chosen monarch, and knew him only as a great symbol of national glory. Those who look back on David’s life from a later point in history therefore find an awkward and fragile arrangement: A man who struggles with his kingship rules over a people that misunderstands its king.
There was once a young, ambitious man named Ahimaaz, a priest and loyal servant of David, who also misunderstood his king. But unlike most Israelites, he encountered the king’s humanity, and discovered the true legacy of David, son of Jesse. And he learned this lesson the hard way.[x]
Twenty-three years had passed since Israel joyously welcomed the Ark’s return, and rebellion was now brewing in the City of David.[xi] Following a bitter family dispute, Prince Absalom, the son of David and Maacah, rebelled against his father’s rule, crossing boundaries of law and family loyalty in his treason.
The handsome, charismatic traitor easily won over the hearts of the people and, along with his great army of supporters, marched on Jerusalem. David and his shrinking camp fled across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives, and the rebels took over the capital city. Zadok the High Priest, accompanied by his young son Ahimaaz and all the Levites, carried the Ark of the Covenant out of the city and across the Kidron, to accompany the king who had championed its cause and welcomed it there in the first place. David saw the Levite camp and refused to let them join him in his exile. He stood courageously and addressed Zadok:
“Take the Ark of God back to the city. If I find favor with the Lord, He will bring me back and let me see it and its abode. And if He should say, ‘I do not want you,’ I am ready; let Him do with me as He pleases.”[xii]
David previously brought the Ark to Jerusalem, its appointed resting place, and the Ark had not departed from the city for twenty-three years. Now, even as David himself left, the Ark would stay; it was not his, but God’s. The city would not remain the City of David, but Jerusalem, the site which the Lord God had chosen to establish His name.[xiii] The young Ahimaaz was spellbound as he watched David and bore first-hand witness to the king’s courage and selfless dedication to the will of God. David sent Zadok back to the city with Ahimaaz and Jonathan, son of Abiathar. The three priests returned obediently with the Ark, ready to fulfill the will of their great, devout king.
However, only later did their crucial service really begin. After reaching the top of the Mount of Olives, David was greeted by Hushai the Archite, a loyal servant ready to help resist the rebellion. The king dispatched Hushai back to Jerusalem as a spy, commanding him to infiltrate the advisors of Absalom, advocate against their counsel, and send back reports on the developments in the palace. David designated the young priests Ahimaaz and Jonathan as Hushai’s messengers. Hushai returned to Jerusalem, and the intrigue began.
David’s camp approached the town of Bahurim, and Shimei, son of Gera, a man of Saul’s family, emerged. He threw stones at David and his supporters, and called David a criminal for stealing the kingship from Saul. The brazen challenger cursed the king to fall to Absalom as a punishment for his previous deeds. David’s servants grew furious and wished to kill Shimei, but David himself took the abuse in stride and calmed his followers.
“If my son, my own issue, seeks to kill me, how much more the Benjaminite! Let him go on hurling abuse, for the Lord has told him to…”[xiv]
The king of Israel thus deflected concerns for his honor once again, and emphasized the will of God exclusively.
Back in Jerusalem, Absalom’s advisor Ahithophel instructed the rebel king to sleep with his father’s concubines in full view of the people of Israel as an expression of control, which Absalom did. Ahithophel, whose words were accepted by many as those of an oracle, then conceived of a plan to overcome and assassinate David that same night with twelve-thousand troops, and Absalom agreed once again. Hushai had arrived some time earlier and presented himself as a loyal servant of Absalom, and the rebel king accepted him, albeit suspiciously. Hushai was well-known as an acquaintance of King David, and he professed to have excellent inside knowledge of the king’s ways, his strengths and weaknesses. With this credit, Absalom called him to discuss Ahithophel’s attack plan. He disputed the plan and recommended that Absalom first gather together a much larger army, “all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba,”[xv] if he were to have any hope of capturing or killing the mighty and shrewd King David. Absalom and his men were impressed and followed Hushai’s advice.
Ahimaaz and Jonathan stayed outside of the city and set up secret camp at En-rogel. Hushai sent a slave-girl to them with word of Absalom’s new battle plan, and they hurried back to alert David of the oncoming threat. On the way, they were spotted by a young boy who informed Absalom. Absalom’s men pursued them, and the two priestly spies found refuge in the home of a sympathetic man in Bahurim. They hid in the man’s well, and his wife spread a cloth over it and scattered kernels of grain upon the cloth to conceal them. Absalom’s men could not find the spies and returned to Jerusalem. The spies reached David and informed him of the battle plan. David’s entire camp immediately crossed the Jordan and headed toward Mahanaim. Absalom delayed his attack to first amass a great army. (Ahithophel saw that he had been ignored and committed suicide.) The new army of Absalom set out for the east bank of the Jordan, and the battle began.
David’s followers were prepared for the attack and defeated the Israelite camp, all thanks to a daring motley crew of spies and sympathizers: Hushai, a Jerusalem slave-girl, Jonathan and Ahimaaz, and an obscure couple from Bahurim. These are the people who saved the king and his Messianic dynasty. What drove them to do it? The explanation is all too simple, rooted in a remarkable common denominator.[xvi] All of these saviors had encountered David’s humble and devout character. Hushai was a friend who knew David as an honest and unassuming man, not as a politician. Jonathan and Ahimaaz had witnessed David sending the Ark back to Jerusalem, deferring his honor to the honor of God. The people of Bahurim saw David stand down against the abuse of Shimei, disavowing himself of personal vengeance. And the slave-girl? She was in Jerusalem twenty-three years earlier, of course, when King David danced the Ark into the city and disgraced himself in her presence, much to the displeasure of a certain Michal.[xvii]
But Ahimaaz’s journey of discovery was not yet over, and the battle’s good ending would soon sour for David. David the king dispatched his troops to battle, and the men marched forward courageously. However, as they began to depart the camp, David the frightened father instructed his three generals – Joab, Abishai, and Ittai – regarding a matter of great personal importance. Trembling, David announced to his confidants in earshot of the thousands,
“Deal gently with my boy Absalom, for my sake.”[xviii]
Surely Absalom was guilty of treason against the king of Israel and deserved death; in fact, he was actively seeking the death of his own father. Yet David could not bring himself to issue the order for his son’s death because to him, Absalom the rebel was “Absalom my boy,” and nothing could ever change that.
The army of King David routed and slaughtered the rebels, and Absalom himself fled on a mule. In his flight, his long hair became tangled in the branches of a terebinth tree, and his mule continued to run without him. Absalom was held there in that tree “between heaven and earth,”[xix] between life and death, a defenseless man totally at the mercy of his adversaries. He was spotted by followers of David, and one of them immediately informed Joab of Absalom’s circumstances. Joab replied to the messenger that he should have killed Absalom on the spot, but the messenger adamantly objected, recounting the frantic request of the king. So Joab advanced on his own, with a wild fury in his eyes, and killed Absalom himself, driving three darts into the rebel’s chest. Joab and his men took Absalom’s body down from the tree, threw it into a pit, and covered the pit with stones.
In a stroke of bad timing, Ahimaaz arrived on the scene, charged with the energy of victory. He had not been present at the king’s directive to protect Absalom, and surmised from Joab’s conduct that the killing was warranted. He volunteered to run back to King David and deliver the good tidings, but Joab insisted that he stand down, saying,
“You may bring tidings some other day, but you will not bring any today; for the king’s son is dead!”[xx]
The impulsive Joab thus scrambled to keep the already-fragile situation under control. He knew he must inform the king of Absalom’s fate, else another person would do so first and include all the details. Still, Joab had pity on Ahimaaz, the young loyal man with great potential, and did not wish to let him rush to David as the bearer of his own bad news. Instead, Joab sent a Cushite running ahead to inform David of Absalom’s death, but Ahimaaz still failed to understand the problem. He persisted in his appeal, and asked if he could at least run after the Cushite. Joab once again stressed that the news was not good, but did not specify the king’s wishes to Ahimaaz, out of shame for his own transgression. Ahimaaz prevailed over Joab, for lack of logical opposition to his desire, and ran ahead to David, passing the Cushite.
The young priest charged ahead through the late afternoon, his adrenaline rushing. Everything began to make sense to him. God honors and protects the king who is so devoted to Him, and eliminates the sinful enemies that stand in this king’s path. Absalom deserved to die, and Ahimaaz was now proud to deliver this news to King David. He acknowledged and considered his ulterior motives, imagining, of course, that bringing good news will surely establish him on the king’s good side for the future. The sun began to set, and David’s watchman spotted the sprinting Ahimaaz from a distance. Behind him was the Cushite. The watchman informed the king of the two apparent messengers, and commented that he recognizes the first as Ahimaaz, son of Zadok. David eased up upon hearing this information, and responded, with unintended tragic irony:
“He is a good man, and he comes with good news.”[xxi]
Ahimaaz was immediately admitted to the king’s presence, and he rushed forward, and declared:
“Praised be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.”[xxii]
David did not understand the implication of Ahimaaz’z words, or maybe just wished he did not:
“Is my boy Absalom safe?”[xxiii]
Thrown off by this response and conspicuously stammering, Ahimaaz lied to the king:
“I saw a large crowd when your Majesty’s servant Joab was sending your servant off, but I do not know what it was about.”[xxiv]
David wishfully believed the young priest, and turned to consult the Cushite runner, who had just arrived. The Cushite tactlessly reported the death in poetic praise, and David could not contain himself. He ascended to the roof wailing and moaned the following words, to be forever burned into the conscience of Ahimaaz and all of Israel.
“My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!”[xxv]
Young Ahimaaz knew already that King David was humble and religiously- devoted, but he now learned the hard way that David was no superhero. He was a human being who loved his baby boy, and no national mission could ever change that. No generals or advisors could ever convince him to sacrifice his personal emotions for the sake of the nation. David was a person first and king second, and like any person, he even succumbed to the temptations of sin and to the inscrutable, lowly throes of depression.[xxvi] Many of the people did not realize this about their king, and may not have approved if they had. But David was unwilling to compromise his humanity for anything and if the people did not like this, they could leave him alone.[xxvii]
David, son of Jesse may not have realized the legacy he would leave. Still, the Bible’s endorsement of his legendary kingship established his imperfect persona of David, son of Jesse, and the model that he set, knowingly or unknowingly, for effective, caring Jewish leadership.
I will also add, on a personal note, that simplified reverence of individual figures makes me terribly uneasy. It undermines the inviolable truth that every human is essentially complex and emotive, a truth which is too often carelessly disregarded. As a student of History, I often find disconcerting the sweeping theories that modern thinkers construct about the causes of large movements and societal trends. When we identify the simple formulas that drove seventh-century Arabs to Islam, twentieth-century Europeans to socialism, and 1960s Americans to pacifist subcultures, we undermine the inner agitations and impulses that drove each individual in each of those movements to embrace such life-changing commitments. This is not to say that these historical theories are inaccurate, but there is value in balancing academic objectivity with respect for individual human lives, because every human is complex and different.
Because of their very public nature, leadership personae are particularly fragile. The publicity invites critics to judge leaders from a distance, leading them to either idolize or demonize the figure in question. However, this is a dangerous simplification. To the extent that we fail to acknowledge the essential imperfection and complexity of every human, we fail to truly appreciate people’s lives and accomplishments, and the messages and ideals that they espouse. All ideas are both conceived and implemented by flawed, imperfect people, without exception. David’s life, as experienced through the perspective of Ahimaaz and others, is preserved in text as a stark rejection of the notion of human perfection. The people expected an infallible, flawless leader, and found a human being in his place. It is very telling that this same David, son of Jesse, is still known as the paramount leader of Israel and founder of the Messianic dynasty.
Chesky Kopel is a junior at YC majoring in History and English Literature and is an Editor in Chief for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] II Samuel 6:22. The essay, from this point until otherwise indicated, is my recreation of the narrative of II Samuel 6:12-23. All descriptions of actions and dialogue are taken directly from the text, and all descriptions of appearance, attitude, and emotion are my own embellishments. Bible references here are translated by the Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA: 1999), with some of my own changes for clarification.
[ii] Ibid, 6:20.
[iii] See Yalkut Shimoni to the Torah 228, 913, and 940, and Ketuvot 17a, Sotah 41b, Kiddushin 32b, and Sanhedrin 19b for the opinion of R. Ashi that a king cannot legally waive his honor. Even if he expresses a desire to do so, others are nonetheless required to show him honor, based on an exegesis of Deuteronomy 17:15: “You shall surely set a king over yourself…,” which extrapolates that “his awe shall be upon you.” The underlying theory seems to be that the nation is required to honor the king because of God’s will, irrespective of the king’s personal self-image.
[iv] II Samuel 6:21-22.
[v] Deuteronomy 17:20. The earlier phrase, “the words of the Torah” is also meant to refer to this portion of Deuteronomy, 17:14-20, which is the Torah’s only instruction regarding the laws of the king of Israel. My outline of this dispute therefore means to convey that Michal’s opinion reflected well the statements of Hazal regarding the king’s honor, while David’s opinion reflected well a simple reading of the Torah verses. In formulating the halakhah, though, it is of course essential to see the two texts as forming a united message.
[vi] II Samuel 6:23. This verse makes clear the feelings of the biblical author regarding God’s attitude towards Michal, as a result of her conduct in this story. Talmudic and Midrashic sources record several interpretations of this verse. Bemidbar Rabbah 4 and Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 6:23 understand that she actually never had any children. Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 21:1, however, presents views that Michal had children, either before this incident, or on the day of her death.
[vii] See, for example, description of Hezekiah in II Kings 18:3, and description of Josiah in II Kings 22:2.
[viii] See, for example, Psalms 22:7, 86:1.
[ix] For David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent admission of guilt, see II Samuel 21-22.
[x] The essay, from this point until note xxvi, is my recreation of the narrative of II Samuel 15:1-19:1. All descriptions of actions and dialogue are taken directly from the text, and all descriptions of appearance, attitude, and emotion are my own embellishments.
[xi] Timeline information obtained from William H. Gross, “Chronology of King David’s Life,” (Colorado Springs, CO: 2005), available at: http://http://riverwoodchurchofchrist.org/phil/david/David_Chronology.pdf.
[xii] II Samuel 15:25-26.
[xiii] Cf. Deuteronomy 12:5,11, and more.
[xiv] II Samuel 16:11.
[xv] Ibid, 17:11.
[xvi] The following paragraph breaks from the narrative to present my analysis. The claims within it are literary hypotheses and are not based on any authoritative sources.
[xvii] This was perhaps a fulfillment of David’s guarantee to Michal: “…among the slave-girls that you speak of I will be honored” in II Samuel 6:22.
[xviii] Ibid, 18:5.
[xix] Ibid, 18:9.
[xx] Ibid, 18:20.
[xxi] Ibid, 18:27.
[xxii] Ibid, 18:28.
[xxiii] Ibid, 18:29.
[xxv] Ibid, 19:1.
[xxvi] See notes vii and viii above.
[xxvii] Cf. Bob Dylan, “Rambler, Gambler,” home recording by Cleve Peterson, (Minneapolis, MN:1960), based upon “The Moonshiner,” folk-song of disputed Irish or American origins.