Oblique References to the Philistines in the Story of the Ark’s Relocation to Jerusalem

In the second book of Samuel, King David capitalizes on a period of (temporary) calm by arranging for the relocation of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. There are many independent elements to this narrative, many of them puzzling, and each deserving attention in its own right. Let us begin the project of unpacking this text together by focusing on one of its features which has traditionally received little to no attention: its multiple references to the Philistines, of all people. If we pay careful attention to these allusions, we may gain a better understanding of what the Ark’s relocation to Jerusalem represented, theologically speaking, for King David. By extension, our study may also help us appreciate why it was Solomon, and not David, whom God chose to build the Temple in which that Ark would reside.

Background: The Role of the Philistines in King David’s Personal Biography

We begin with a brief and partial review of David’s interaction with the Philistine people. For our purposes, three instructive examples of this interaction will suffice.

During the reign of Saul, Israel finds itself at war with the Philistines. At that time, a mighty warrior, Goliath, challenges the Israelites to produce a soldier for a one-on-one duel. Goliath’s challenge remains unanswered for forty days. Finally, David – a young shepherd who is visiting his enlisted brothers – surprises everybody by accepting the Philistine’s offer. David battles Goliath and vanquishes him, saving the Israelites and catapulting himself into an illustrious career of military accomplishment.[i]

Around this time, Saul’s daughter, Michal, falls in love with David. Saul, wary of the boy’s rising political influence, offers his daughter to David in return for “one hundred Philistine foreskins.” Lest anybody misconstrue the king’s motive, the text informs us explicitly that Saul hopes to send David to his death through this arrangement. Nevertheless, David delivers, earning Michal’s hand in marriage and further establishing his royal credentials.[ii]

Not only Saul’s daughter, but also his son, Jonathan, grows attached to the up-and-coming David. In fact, the relationship between Jonathan and David – which often requires the former to risk his life and set aside any personal ambition on behalf of the latter – has often been regarded as antiquity’s paragon of friendship. This friendship comes to an abrupt halt, however, when the Philistines take Jonathan’s life on the summit of Mount Gilboa. In that same battle, the Philistines also manage to kill Saul, leaving David bereaved over his best friend and thrusting him into the monarchy sooner than he might have hoped.[iii]

Throughout the course of our study we will encounter other examples of David’s protracted interaction with the Philistines. Suffice it to say, for now, that the members of this nation played an instrumental role in shaping the contours of David’s personal life and in guiding the trajectory of his professional one.

Setting: The Role of the Philistines in the Context of our Chapter

In contradistinction to the three incidents mentioned above, there are several small-scale skirmishes with the Philistines in which David finds himself entangled throughout his time as king. The final verses of II Samuel 5, for instance, record David’s battle with the Philistines at Baal Peratsim.[iv] At this battle, we later learn,[v] David also commands his troops to “burn in fire” the gods of the Philistines – a point which will become significant for us later. Likewise, the opening verse of II Samuel 8 recount David’s battle with the Philistines at Meteg Ammah.[vi] In fact, it is in the middle of these two relatively obscure battles where we find the story of the Ark’s return to Jerusalem (II Samuel 6) and of David’s attempt to build the Temple (II Samuel 7). In other words, the ongoing conflict with the Philistines forms a “literary envelope” around our narrative, inviting us to consider the broader influence which this enemy nation might exert within the text.

Bearing this framework in mind, let us now consult our text itself. We will look at three specific references to the Philistine people within the details of the Ark’s relocation to Jerusalem. In this way we will show that for King David, the Ark’s relocation to Jerusalem not only represents God’s move into “the place which He will choose,”[vii] as it were, but also God’s move away from the surrounding nations, as embodied by the Philistines. Within the drama of Israelite-Philistine relations which has so consumed David’s life, the Ark’s relocation is intended by him to serve as something of a turning point, after which his people should never again forfeit the upper hand. Even more broadly, this transition is supposed to communicate that the Israelite way of life is the only one countenanced from on high.

As we shall see, this plan does not pan out.

Reference #1: “And the Ark of the Lord dwelled in the home of Oved-edom the Gittite…”[viii]

When David first decides to relocate the Ark to Jerusalem, everything moves along smoothly. Soon, however, disaster strikes

And they came to Goren-nachon, and Uzzah put forth [his hand] to the Ark of God, and grasped hold of it, for the oxen swayed it.  And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the Ark of God. And David was angered, because the Lord had made a breach upon Uzzah; and he called that place Peretz-uzzah, unto this day. And David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said: ‘How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?’ And David did not want to remove unto him the Ark of the Lord, into the city of David; and David took it aside to the house of Oved-edom the Gittite.[ix]

After Uzzah’s death, David halts the procession, sending the Ark of God to the house of Oved Edom, a native of Gath. To appreciate the immense irony of David’s decision, we need to recall the history of the Ark’s travels. During the days of Eli, the Ark is captured in battle by none other than the Philistines. The Philistines bring the Ark back to their city, and suffer greatly as a result:

And the Philistines took the Ark of God and brought it to the house of Dagon, and set it up beside Dagon… And the hand of the Lord became heavy upon the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them, and He smote them with hemorrhoids, Ashdod and its borders. And the people of Ashdod saw that it was so, and they said, “Let not the Ark of the God of Israel dwell with us, for His hand is severe upon us and upon Dagon, our god. And they sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them, and they said, “What shall we do to the Ark of the God of Israel?” And they said, “Let the Ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath,” and (thereupon), they brought the Ark of the God of Israel around to Gath.[x]

Perhaps the history of the Ark’s travels in Philistia, along with the memory of the havoc it had wreaked over there, contributes to David’s distress in our passage. The Israelites welcome the Ark to their capital under the premise that they, unlike the Philistines, can play host to God without incurring any casualties. Yet in the first opportunity to assert this distinction, the very same fate which met the Philistines meets the Israelites. David, distraught, equates himself with the Ashdodites, appropriating their anguished refrain with just a hint of acrimony; where the Philistines had declared, “Let not the Ark of the God of Israel dwell with us,” David demands, rhetorically: “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” Then, as if to mimic the Ashdodites, David delegates the Ark to a Gittite – that is, to a native of Gath, the same city to which the Ashdodites had once banished the Ark. David will not (indeed, cannot) establish a terrestrial home for God so long as God does not favor the Israelites in the way the king expects.

After the death of Uzzah, then, David symbolically exiles God’s Ark to Gath. This is ironic, of course, because David had previously been exiled to Gath himself. In both I Samuel 21 and in I Samuel 27, David, fleeing from Saul, seeks refuge with Ahish, the king of Gath. Referring to these experiences, David tells Saul:

And now, let now my lord the king hear his servant’s words. If the Lord has incited you against me, He will accept an offering; but if the sons of men, cursed be they before the Lord, for they have driven me today from cleaving to the Lord’s heritage, saying, ‘Go, worship other gods.’[xi]

In Gath, David feels cast off from “the Lord’s heritage.” For many months he dreams of returning to Judea where, he imagines, he will finally have the opportunity to worship his God in peace. Shockingly, David’s first attempt to nationalize this experience ends in tragedy. The death of Uzzah leaves the king no choice but to postpone the ceremony When David exiles the Ark to a Gittite, it is as though he is saying, subconsciously: “If this is what it is like to serve God in Judea, then I might as well have remained in Gath and served Him there.”

Reference #2: “And David danced with all his might before the Lord…”[xii]

Of course, our story does not end on this note of disappointment. God blesses Oved-edom while the Ark remains with him, indicating that the punishment of Uzzah applies to Uzzah alone; Israel, on the whole, retains favor in the eyes of its God.[xiii] As a result, David decides to resume the ceremony of the Ark’s relocation three months later.

Presumably, the musical procession which had accompanied the previous celebration[xiv] reappears this time around, too. In addition, the text records other festivities which mark the second attempt to relocate the Ark:

And it was when the bearers of the ark of God had trodden six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced with all his might before the Lord; and David was girded with a linen ephod. And David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of [the] shofar.[xv]

David adds to a climate of general festivity by dancing ostentatiously. This is most interesting because there is only one other point in Biblical history at which the dancing of an Israelite political leader serves as the main attraction. This occurs in a Philistine temple, of all places, soon after Samson has been captured by Delilah’s henchmen:

And the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice. And they said, “Our god has delivered our enemy Samson into our hands.” And the people saw him and praised their god, because they said, “Our god has delivered into our hands our enemy and the destroyer of our land, and who has slain many of us.” And it was when their hearts were merry, that they said, “Call for Samson, and he will make sport for us.” And they called for Samson out of the prison-house, and he made sport before them, and they stood him between the pillars…  Now the house was full of men and women, and all the lords of the Philistines were there. And upon the roof (there were) about three thousand men and women, the spectators of Samson’s sport.[xvi]

In the era of the Judges the Philistines publicly humiliate Samson, the captured leader of the Israelites. During the ceremony, which immediately conjures images of the one in our chapter – there, too, the people made merry and there, too, they offered communal sacrifices – the Philistines force Samson to pay tribute to their deity, Dagon.

Perhaps David views the Ark’s return to Jerusalem as an opportunity to rectify the wrong of an earlier generation. David conducts himself quite uncharacteristically in this passage, drawing all the attention to himself and creating a public spectacle with his vigorous dancing. Not by accident, we will suggest, is the verb which he uses to describe his behavior, sahak  a fairly rare term for “dancing” – the exact same verb used to describe Samson’s merry-making centuries prior.

Reference #3: “Michal the daughter of Saul peered through the window…”[xvii]

If we are correct, then David (or the narrator of II Samuel) regards his dancing a sort of rectification for the humiliation of Samson and the desecration of the Hebrew God at the hands of the Philistines. Yet David’s wife, Michal, certainly does not share this perspective:

And [as] the ark of the Lord came [into] the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul peered through the window, and she saw the king David hopping and dancing before the Lord; and she loathed him in her heart….  And David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and she said, “How honored was today the king of Israel, who exposed himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as would expose himself one of the idlers.” And David said unto Michal; “Before the Lord, who chose me above your father, and above all his house, to appoint me prince over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore I have made merry before the Lord. And if I be demeaned more than this, and be abashed in mine own eyes, [yet] of the maidservants of which you have spoken, with them will I get me honor.”  And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death.[xviii]

As Michal sees it, David has debased himself with his dancing. While Michal’s criticism is fascinating in its own right, it is especially so when one considers it in its broader biblical context. Until this point in scripture, only one other character has “peered through a window shakaf be’ad ha-halon”. Sure enough, that character was a Philistine:

And it came to pass, when he [i.e. Isaac] had been there [i.e. among the Philistines] for many days, that Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, peered out of the window, and he saw, and behold, Isaac was jesting with Rebecca his wife.  So Abimelech called Isaac, and he said, “Behold, she is your wife; so how could you have said, ‘She is my sister’?” And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘Lest I die because of her. ‘” And Abimelech said, “What have you done to us? The most prominent of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” And Abimelech commanded all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.”[xix]

This passage recounts Isaac’s sojourns in the Phillistine city of Gerar. When Abimelech, king of the Philistines, peers through the window, he beholds Isaac jesting (tzahak) with Rebecca. Having previously assumed that the two were siblings, Abimelech, observing their conduct, now understands that they are actually husband and wife.  As a result, the Philistine king commands his people to respect the sanctity of these Hebrews’ marriage. Thus, Abimelech’s act of “peering” provides him with moral clarity and prevents a situation of sexual impropriety.

Most ironically, Michal’s “peering” leads to precisely the opposite outcome. Perhaps projecting her own frustrated desires,[xx] Michal attributes lewd motivations to her husband, accusing him of inviting promiscuity by gamboling as he does before the masses. In this passage, characters’ word choice is most instructive. As far as Michal is concerned, David has been “hopping, cavorting” and “exposing” himself. In David’s view, however, he has been “making merry” –sahak – invoking, as mentioned earlier, the memory of Samson, who had once “made merry” for the Philistine god against his will. David does not accept the charge that he has debased himself. Quite the contrary: As far as David is concerned, it is Michal who has debased him, by suspecting her husband of such sordid intentions. Yet, as the closing verse of this saga intimates, David never manages to convince Michal on this point, and never reconciles with her as a result: “and Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no child until the day of her death.”[xxi]

Conclusion: The Role of this Narrative in Determining Who Would Build the Temple

Everything we have studied until now occurs, as mentioned, in the sixth chapter of II Samuel. In the seventh chapter, meanwhile, David requests permission to build a Temple for God. Famously, this is the reply which he receives:

When your days are finished and you shall lie with your forefathers, then I will raise up your seed that shall proceed from your body after you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.[xxii]

God rejects David’s request to build the Temple, informing him that his son will build it instead. According to tradition, Solomon was chosen to build the Temple because, unlike his father, Solomon had not sullied his hands with the blood of his enemies. To that end, David divulges in the Bible’s penultimate book:

But the word of the LORD came to me, saying: Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and hast made great wars; thou shalt not build a house unto My name, because thou hast shed much blood upon the earth in My sight. Behold, a son shall be born to thee, who shall be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about; for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quietness unto Israel in his days.[xxiii]

David recognizes that he was barred from building the Temple due to the “blood that he had shed.” In line with this theme, but from a slightly different direction, let us consider the words of David’s son, Solomon, upon consecrating the Temple described in the previous verses:

And also to the stranger, who (is) not of Your people Israel, but will come from a far country for the sake of Your Name.  For they shall hear of Your great Name, and of Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm, and he will come and pray toward this house. You shall hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all that the stranger calls You for, that all peoples of the earth may know Your Name, to fear You, as (do) Your people Israel, and that they may know that Your Name is called upon this house that I have built.[xxiv]

At the consecration of the Temple, Solomon, the King of Israel, invites “the stranger, who is not of God’s people” to direct his or her prayers to Jerusalem, and urges God, for His part, to answer  those prayers favorably. Perhaps because he is never persecuted by his enemies in the same way as his father David – or perhaps simply because he has been blessed with extraordinary wisdom[xxv] – Solomon appreciates a truth which David, it seems, never fully internalizes: God’s covenant with a particular people does not preclude His relationship with all peoples.

As we have seen, there are several hints in our text which suggest that for David, the relocation of the Ark represents, at least in some subconscious way, God’s choice of the Israelites at the expense of the Philistines. In fact, in the parallel version of our narrative, recorded in the book of Chronicles, David reveals his feelings explicitly, in a song which he sings following the Ark’s relocation:

Give thanks to the Lord, call out in His Name; make His exploits known among the nations… The seed of Israel His servant, the children of Jacob, His chosen ones… The covenant which He had made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac. And He set it up for Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant… And when they walked from nation to nation, and from one kingdom to another people. He let no man oppress them, and He reproved kings [of other nations] on their [i.e. the Israelites’] account; “Do not touch My anointed ones, and do not harm My prophets… Tell of His glory among the nations, among all peoples His wonders. For the Lord is great and very much praised; He is feared over all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.”[xxvi]

As part of the ceremony of relocating the Ark, David emphasizes the chosenness of Israel, and the subservience of its enemies – which, as we have seen, primarily include the Philistines. As readers, we can certainly sympathize with David for feeling this way, given his long and complicated relationship with foreign nations, and the Philistines in particular. Moreover, as Jews, we must recognize that without men like David, Israel would have forever remained at the mercy of its enemies. It is simply impossible to build a Temple under the constant threat of enemy invasion.[xxvii]

But there is another side to the story. Assuming we have read this text correctly, David’s subtle, subliminal focus on the Philistines – along with the necessary division into “us” and “them” which it implies – does seem slightly out of place, in the context of a celebration chiefly centered on God’s positive relationship with the Israelites.

I think we can say this much without criticizing David unduly or interpreting the episode inaccurately. The goal here is merely to highlight a nuance between David and Solomon that has already been established in our tradition, by pointing out a series of cleverly planted intertextual references which bring it to bear.

Ultimately it is David, not Solomon, who has become eponymous with Jewish monarchy and with the Jewish messiah. On the whole, Jewish tradition probably views the father more favorably than the son. Nevertheless, Solomon’s words, cited above, serve as the eternal standard for how we are to understand the concept of a “home for God on earth.” Solomon’s name means both “peace” and “wholeness” because, as his legacy reminds us, any philosophy or theology which excludes certain nations or creeds is necessarily lacking. Taking nothing away from the “dignity of difference,”[xxviii] the Temple, as a locus of convergence, not of contention, is supposed to model a human society which places the God of all humanity at its center. This is a universal message, available to all peoples – Philistines included.


[i] See I Samuel 17

[ii] See I Samuel 18

[iii] See I Samuel 31 and II Samuel 1

[iv] See II Samuel 5:17-25

[v] See I Chronicles 14:12

[vi] See II Samuel 8:1

[vii] Cf. Deuteronomy 12:5

[viii] II Samuel 6:11

[ix] II Samuel 6:6-10. All translations are from the Judaica Press, available at:www.chabad.org.

[x] I Samuel 5:2;6-8

[xi] I Samuel 26:19

[xii] II Samuel 6:14

[xiii] Many scholars have struggled to understand why Uzzah deserved the punishment which he received. Though this is not the topic of our essay, interested readers are encouraged to download R. Allen Schwartz’s lecture, “Uzzah at the Breach: Understanding Peretz Uzzah,” available at: www.yctorah.org

[xiv] See II Samuel 6:5

[xv] II Samuel 6:13-15

[xvi] Judges 16:23-25;27

[xvii] II Samuel 6:16

[xviii] II Samuel 6:16; 20–23

[xix]  Genesis 26:8–11.  Although Judges 5 also speaks of Sisera’s mother “peering out of a window,” it is Deborah (who is conjecturing), and not the text’s narrative voice, which makes this statement.

[xx] Robert Alter raises this suggestion in The Art of Biblical Narrative,  “Chapter 6: Characterization and the Art of Reticence”

[xxi] See Robert Alter, ibid., for whom this verse indicates that David and Michal remained separate from one another from this point onwards.

[xxii] II Samuel 7:12–13

[xxiii] I Chronicles 22:8-9

[xxiv] I Kings 8:41–43

[xxv] See I Kings 3

[xxvi] I Chronicles 16:8-26.

[xxvii] See, for example, Ezra 4.

[xxviii] See  Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London; Continuum, 2002)