Images/King's Relationship/His Soldiers: Character Study/David Narratives

Images/King's Relationship/His Soldiers: Character Study/David Narratives

Images of a King's Relationship with His Soldiers: A Character Study in the David Narratives

J. Dwayne Howell*


Robert Alter, in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative, calls David, “the most complex and elaborately presented of biblical characters.1  David is not always the stereotype of a faithful servant of the Lord.  Instead, he is a flesh and blood character with both a good side and a dark side.  Such a character draws our attention because we often find points of identity with him or her.

            The purpose of the present paper is to explore the characterization of David as portrayed in his relationship with his soldiers.  Two particular passages are chosen from the Deuteronomistic History: 2 Samuel 11 and 2 Samuel 23:7-39.  Both stories deal with David and his soldiers and present different aspects of the character of David.

Background of Study

The study originates in my dissertation, Preaching from the David Narratives.2  As part of the writing, I discuss how the biblical writer gives clues for the retelling of the biblical narratives.  These clues, found through literary analysis, can aid in the interpretation of the text.  While not denying the importance of traditional critical methods of studying scripture, literary analysis allows one to read the text as literature to investigate matters such as the development of plots, the division of scenes, and characterization.  Literary analysis is not intended to be the final answer to biblical studies but serves as another tool in gaining a better understanding of the text.3


*This paper was presented at the Society of Biblical Literature Meeting, Southeast Regional, Winston-Salem, NC, March 12, 2005.

Character Study

Alter establishes three levels of character development in the biblical narratives: what is seen of the character, what the character says or what is said about the character, and the narrator’s own comments about the character.4  Adele Berlin presents another way of developing a character: by contrast.  Contrast can occur when an earlier action of a character is contrasted with a later action; when one character is contrasted with another; when the character is contrasted with an expected norm.5  The present study shows that these areas of contrast are found in the character of David in the passages being discussed.  The study distinguishes certain aspects of David characterization found in both stories.  These include:

                   The Location of David in each narrative
                   The Desire of David in each narrative
                   The Actions of David in each narrative
                   The Response of the Soldiers to David
                   David’s response to his soldiers in each narrative
                   David's relation to God in each story

             These two stories are studied together for two reasons.  First, each deals with David and his relationship with his soldiers.  Secondly, each story refers to Uriah.  He is the foil to David’s character in 2 Samuel 11.  While Uriah is mentioned only once in 2 Samuel 23, at the end of a military muster, the obvious mention draws attention to the characterization of David in the story.

The Characterization of David in 2 Samuel 23:7-39

Second Samuel 23:13-39 contains two parts: a narrative about David and his soldiers outside of Bethlehem (vv. 13-17) and a list of David's best soldiers (vv. 18-39).  It is a part of a larger portion of material often referred to as the appendix (2 Sam. 21-24).  Second Samuel 23:13-17 is a short story about three foolhardy, but loyal, soldiers and their gift to David.

Location of David

In vv. 13 and 14 the scene is set at an Israelite battle camp outside of Bethlehem.6  The Israelites are facing the Philistines, thus the narrative is from early in David's career.7  David is on the battlefield with his soldiers.

Desire of David

David has the only speaking part in the narrative (vv. 15 and 17).  In v. 15 he shares a deep desire for water from a certain well in Bethlehem.  The use of the verb vayyit'avveh, "And (David) wistfully (said)" (Hitpa'el impf 3ms from ava) suggests that David was homesick for Bethlehem and had a deep desire for the water in the well (cistern).

Action of David

In the present account, David does nothing to fulfill his desire for water.  This is done by his soldiers without David’s prior knowledge or command.  Perhaps realizing that it was a wistful desire, he would not risk the life of his soldiers to fulfill it. 

Response of the Soldiers

Three soldiers take it upon themselves to fulfill David's wish.  They break through the Philistine lines to obtain the water at the risk of their own lives.  These three soldiers remain unnamed throughout the story.  All the reader is told is that they are part of the "Thirty" (v. 13; cf. vv. 24-39), a contingent of elite soldiers who serve David.  The narrator does not share anything about the inner life of the soldiers, just their outward actions.  Through the outward actions, the reader learns that they are intensely loyal to David and brave.  The soldiers are type characters, exhibiting a certain quality that is associated with loyal soldiers.

Response of David

In vv. 16b-17 David responds to the gift from the three soldiers.  The reader is told that David refuses to drink the water brought to him and pours it out as an offering to the LORD (v. 16).8  The refusal was not due to ingratitude, but out of gratitude and a deep sense of appreciation for the loyalty of these three men.  From an idle wish David is shown the loyalty of his men and he knows he must reciprocate. 

David and God

David  responds in v. 17: "Far be it for me, O LORD, to do this.  Should I drink the blood of the men who went at great cost to their lives?"  For David, God is the only one who was worthy of such a gift. 


Second Samuel 23:13-17 is a short story that tells of the close relationship of David with his soldiers in the early years of his career.9  The David portrayed in the story is one who shows both love and concern for his soldiers.  Walter Brueggemann believes that the story is intended to enhance the image of David by contrasting him with the David of the Succession Narrative (2 Sam. 9-20, 1 Kgs. 1-2).  The narrator intends a David with believable innocence, an egalitarian sensitivity, and an emphasis on solidarity over personal gain.10

            However, the mutual concern between a king and his soldiers is contrasted by the inclusion of Uriah the Hittite among the most faithful of David's soldiers (v. 39).  Second Samuel 23:18-39 contains a listing of David's military leaders and his "Thirty Men."11  The final name on the list is Uriah, the Hittite (v. 39).  While 1 Chronicles 11:26-47 places Uriah's name in the middle of its list,12 the writer's placing of his name last in 1 Samuel 23:39 draws attention to the role of Uriah in David's kingship.  Brueggemann sees Uriah as playing an important role in both 2 Samuel 11 and 21-24 and believes that Uriah is a reminder of the sin of David and an "assertion against the royal propaganda."  Even within the stories of David's early success, the reader is reminded of his dark side.13

The Characterization of David in 2 Samuel 11

Second Samuel 11:1-27 is a story of sex, deception, and murder.  The passage is also marked by narrative ambiguity.  The reader's attention is directed to what is not communicated.14  The reader is not told:

            Why David stayed home;
            Why Bathsheba was bathing outside (at first);
            Why David called Uriah home;
            What Uriah knew;
            Why David had Uriah killed.

The story does not directly judge David as guilty until v. 27b.  Instead, the reader is brought to that conclusion through the text's ambiguity. 

In other words, it is not because the text ultimately says that David's actions were immoral that the readers believe in David's guilt. Rather, it is because the reader has arrived at the same conclusion in dealing with the ambiguity of the passage.15

Location of David

The narrator uses the introduction in v. 1 both to introduce the story and to provide a transition from the previous chapter.  While 11:1-27 is a separate literary unit, the narrator ties it in with 2 Samuel 10 by mentioning the time of war.16  Spring is the time when of year when the "kings go out to battle."  David doesn't go to battle, however, instead he sends Joab out to fight his battle.  Thus, the narrator establishes irony in the introduction by contrasting David with other kings and his own servants.17  While other kings go to war, David does not.  While Joab and the servants leave home, David remains at home.18

Desire of David

David’s desire is not stated directly as in 2 Samuel 23:15.  Instead, the writer in the description of David implies it. Verse 2 states that David was walking on his rooftop after resting.  It was from this vantage point that David could see a beautiful woman bathing.  After inquiring, he finds that the woman is Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite.  While David sends for the woman, nothing is said about his inner motivation for the summons.19

David’s Action

Unlike the David portrayed in 2 Samuel 23, David plays an active role in fulfilling his desire and then covering it up in 2 Samuel 11.  His actions move quickly and concisely.20  In each juncture of the story the emphasis is on David's actions.  The verb šālaĥ 21 ("he sent") is used to describe David’s actions throughout the story:

     v. 3 – David sends and inquires about the woman

     v. 4 – David sends for the woman

            The emphasis of this scene is on David's initiative in the relationship.22  David sends and inquires about the woman (v. 3), then sends for her, takes her and lies with her (v. 4).  Bathsheba is a passive character, an agent, in the story.23  The reader is not told if she came willingly or was forced.24  As an agent in the story, Bathsheba simply serves as the one with whom David has sexual relations.

     v. 6 – David sends to Joab “Send me Uriah the Hittite” 

            This is after the woman sends a note that she is pregnant.  Suggestions vary as to why David sent for Uriah centering on David's hope that Uriah would have sex with Bathsheba: Either to cloud paternity or to have Uriah killed for breaking chastity during a time of battle. 25

     v. 12 – David promises to send Uriah back to the battle at Ramah

            After David’s unsuccessful attempts to get Uriah to go home and be with his wife he agrees to send him back to battle.

      v. 14 – David sends a letter to Joab via Uriah 

            The letter contains instructions for Uriah’s death in a textbook military blunder (cf. the story of Abimelech, Jdg. 9:50-57).  David, who in 2 Samuel 23:13-17 did not consider sending his soldiers on a reckless mission to get water from a well, now does so willingly and sacrifices the life of Uriah and other soldiers.

Response of Soldiers

The response of the soldiers is loyalty and is seen on two levels: Uriah and Joab.

            Uriah.  Even though David commands Uriah to "go down" to his house, the narrator tells us three times that he does not go (vv. 9, 10 [2x]).  This leads to David's conversation with him in vv. 10 and 11.  David's first plan falls apart when Uriah refuses to go home, so he questions Uriah's actions (v. 10).  While David desired for him to go home, Uriah slept at the palace instead.  It is possible that Uriah had already been made aware of David's affair through court gossip.26  It is more likely that he stayed at the palace out of loyalty.  When approached by David, Uriah responds that it is unfair for him to relax at home when his comrades are at the front:

Then Uriah said to David, "The ark and Israel dwell in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping on the open ground; shall I then enter into my house, to eat, to sleep, and to lie with my wife?  As you live and as your soul lives, I will not do it!" (v. 11)27

            Uriah is a type character, portraying the ideal soldier who is loyal and is willing to give up his home and family to fight for the king.  It is this loyalty that eventually leads to his death.  Uriah is contrasted with David who is not loyal to his soldiers and is consorting with one of their wives while they are out fighting.28

            Joab. Verses 16-17 detail the execution of David's plot by Joab.  Joab was mentioned in vv. 1 and 6 as the leader of David's armies.  Like Uriah, Joab was a loyal soldier.  Unlike Uriah, he did not disobey orders from the king.  He follows the king's instructions without question.29  His obedience costs both the life of Uriah and the lives of other soldiers.30

            Joab takes care in wording his report to David.  More is said about this preparation than about the act itself.31  He is seeking to avoid blame for the death of all the soldiers and is anticipating David's response to the news (vv. 20-21).  He is well aware of the danger of fighting so near to a city wall (v. 21, cf. Judg. 9:50-54).32  The messenger is told that if David gets angry to say, "even your servant, Uriah the Hittite, is dead."  Why is the servant told this?  Would such news appease the angry king?  Or would Joab use such information as leverage?

David’s Response

The messenger tells David the news of the battle and concludes his message with the report of Uriah's death.  The report is more in depth than Joab's instructions but does not include the rebuttal.  David does not respond to the news with anger as anticipated.33  All he wanted to hear was that Uriah was dead.  He responds to the news with an unexpected reply: Tell Joab, "Do not let this thing be evil in your eyes, for the sword devours one and another; strengthen your attack on the city, and destroy it."  So encourage him. (v. 25) The process leading up to Uriah's death had made David both morally numb and cynical.34  He shows no regret for his actions. David and God Verse 27b serves as both the conclusion to 2 Samuel 11 and the transition to 2 Samuel 12: "However, the thing which David did was evil in the eyes of the LORD."  The statement is made from the narrator's point of view to emphasize God's displeasure over the actions of David.35  It is the only mention of God in the pericope.  The entire story has been marked by narrative ambiguity until now for this is the most unambiguous statement in the story.36  This is the turning point of the story.  The narrator has dealt with the human response to sin in 11:1-27a.  In 12:1-16 the narrator shows God's response to the sin.37

            Verse 27b is a play on David's statement in v. 25: "Tell Joab, 'Do not let this thing be evil in your eyes,..."  Several translations fail to demonstrate the parallel relationship between vv. 25a and 27b.  The "thing" that was not to be "evil" in the eyes of the Joab was "evil" in the eyes of the LORD (cf. 2 Sam. 12:9).38


Second Samuel 11:1-27 is a story of the downfall of David after he sins.39  Thus, David is the primary character in the narrative.  Bathsheba is an agent used in conveying the initial sin.  Little is known about her outside of her beauty, lineage, and pregnancy.  Uriah and Joab are both type characters of loyal soldiers.  Uriah displays a loyalty to the cause and to his fellow comrades.  Joab exhibits unquestioning loyalty to David by carrying out the murder of Uriah. 

Theological ReflectionThe two stories found in 2 Samuel 23:13-17 and 11:1-27 provide a contrast in the study of the character of David.

An Earlier Action of a Character Contrasted with a Later Action

The first story shows David at his best while the second story shows David at his worst.  Second Samuel 23:13-17 recalls David early in his career.  He was a leader who served with his soldiers.  He shares personal desires with them, such as the one to have a drink of water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem.  He is a leader for whom his men were willing to lay down their lives in order to fulfill his desire, a drink of water from Bethlehem.  He does not drink the water that they had brought to him because of the risk that his men had taken to get it.  Instead, he uses it as an offering to God.

            In 2 Samuel 11:1-27, David no longer goes with his soldiers to fight, but stays at home in Jerusalem.  While at home he allowed his personal desires to get the best of him and sinned by having sexual intercourse with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers.  David set into motion a series of events that led to the death of Uriah as well as other soldiers.  The point of the story is David's abuse of power in order to cover-up his sin.  In 2 Samuel 23:13-17, David does not ask his soldiers to risk their lives to get him a drink of water from Bethlehem.  However, in 2 Samuel 11 he sends some of his best soldiers to be killed in a "textbook" military blunder (vv. 20-21, cf. Judg. 9:46-57).  The cynicism of David emerges in v. 25 when he shows no concern about the death of these soldiers.

            A significant difference between the two portraits of David in these stories lies in their recognition of God.  In 2 Samuel 23:13-17 David recognizes that both the gift of water as well as the loyalty of his soldiers belong to God (vv. 16 and 17).  In 2 Samuel 11:1-26, David does not acknowledge God at all.  Instead, he took for himself another's wife as well as another's life.  Even when confronted with the outcome of his act (v. 5), he does not confess it.  He seems more concerned about protecting his honor than following God's law.40  He does not consider Uriah's death as being "evil" (v. 25), but God sees it as "evil" (v. 27).  Second Samuel 11 does not end with David praising God as in 2 Samuel 23:17, but with God's displeasure with David.

One Character Contrasted with Another

Not only are the actions of David contrasted in the two stories, but David is also contrasted with Uriah, the true faithful soldier, faithful even to death.  Such a contrast cannot be avoided with the positioning of Uriah in both stories.  David is loyal to his soldiers in 2 Samuel 23 of which Uriah is a part.  However, David's disloyalty is seen in 2 Samuel 11 especially as it is contrasted with the loyal soldier Uriah who will not even sleep with his wife while fellow soldiers are in the field of battle; David sleeps with his soldier's wife while his fellow soldiers are in the field of battle.

The Character Contrasted with the Expected Norm

The narrative in 2 Samuel 23:13-17 is considered a normative story of David.  Richard G. Bowman describes such stories as “as a compelling narrative that imparts acceptable community virtues and values.”41  Such stories endear David to the people, validating his kingship.42

            2 Samuel 11 provides a counter-narrative for the story found in 2 Samuel 23:13-17, presenting a contrast to the view of David found in the normative story.  From the start the narrator emphasizes that something is wrong with David since he has not gone to war.  The narrator then follows David through sin, cover-up, and murder.  By the end of the story the reader finds a David who is not concerned about the death of one loyal soldier but the death of several loyal soldiers.  This is heightened by the fact that the death was ordered by him.

            The stark contrast that we find in the characterization of David in the two narratives discussed provides a challenge for the believing community.  On the one hand, David is a primary actor in the Old Testament and serves as a model for the coming Messiah.  However, on the other hand, David, especially as found in the Deuteronomistic History, is one who is not perfect and has character flaws.

            The counter-narratives in the biblical stories should not be avoided but accepted as part of the believing community's story.43  Such stories let us see ourselves for who we are: seeking to be faithful amidst the struggles of life.  "Perhaps better than normative stories, counter-stories 'explain us to ourselves.'"44

End Notes

1 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 115.

2 Joseph Dwayne Howell, “Preaching from the David Narratives” (Ph.D. dissertation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1993).

3 Cf. Michael V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmanns Co. 2002), 5.  Fox states believes that work in characterization is not intended to be "the answer" in biblical studies. To do so would simply lead to a stale doctrinaire teaching of scripture.

4 Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 116 and 117.

5 Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1983), 40.

6 David is at the cave of Adullam which is approximately 5 ½ miles southwest of Bethlehem, 16 miles southwest of Jerusalem.  David had hidden in this region earlier (1 Sm. 22:1-2).  It may be seen as his stronghold/headquarters.

7 P. Kyle McCarter, II Samuel, The Anchor Bible (Garden City:  Doubleday and Co., 1984) 495.

8 Cf. Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990).  Brueggemann says that David has a "sacramental imagination."  The water which was given to him at great danger had "the bonding power of a sacrament" (p. 349).

9 Cf. McCarter, II Samuel, p. 495:  "The point of the story is that the too loyal soldiers act recklessly in response to their leader's idle, nostalgic remark."

10 Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, pp. 348-349.  Cf. Brueggemann, Power, Providence and Personality (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990). "This brief narrative is a portrayal of the greatness of David that the narrator commends" (p. 102).

11 There are thirty soldiers found in the list (vv. 18-39a), not thirty-seven.  Some conjecture that the three of the previous story are included along with Joab, David's general.  Also, Abishai and Benaiah may not be counted among the thirty.  This makes for a total of thirty-five.

12 It should also be noted that the Chronicler includes a longer list of names and does not include the David – Bathsheba – Uriah story found in 1 Samuel 11.

13 Walter Brueggemann, “An Appendix of Deconstruction?” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 50 (1988), 391.

14 Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative.  (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1985), 191.

15 Gale A. Yee, "'Fraught with Background': Literary Ambiguity in II Samuel 11." Interpretation, 42 (1988), 253. See also Sternberg, 190.

16 Cf. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 76.  Alter states that 2 Sam. 10 provides the context for the “king’s moral biography,” including its “political and moral ramifications.”

17 Sternberg, 191-194.  The king is placed in ironic contrast with the others by the narrator’s use of ambiguity, by not telling the reader why the king is not with the others.

18 Herschel M. Levine, "Irony and Morality in Bathsheba's Tragedy." Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal, 32 (1975), 70. Cf. Yee, 242-243.  Yee includes three other reasons for David not going besides irony.  First the death of David could be demoralizing to the army (cf. 2 Sam. 21:15-17). Second, siege work was too tedious to involve the king. Finally, David could have been too old.

19 Cf. McCarter, II Samuel, 289. “The most egregious behavior possible on the part of the king is attributed to David without a word of mitigation.” See also Hirsch H. Cohen, “David and Bathsheba,” The Journal of Bible and Religion, 33 (1965), 142-148. Cohen does a psychological profile of David in 2 Sam. 11-12.  He believes that David may have suffering from “retirement neurosis: in 2 Sam. 11. Having reached the prime of his career, he may have needed something to reassure his masculinity.

20 Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel, 273.

21 The letter het is transliterated here as ĥ.

22 The story is not concern with Bathsheba’s guilt or innocence but with David’s guilt.  Cf. McKane, W.  I and II Samuel: The Way to the Throne. Torch Bible Commentary (London: SCM, 1983), 232 and McCarter, II Samuel, 288.

23 She "comes to him" in v. 4, but there is a variant reading in the LXX which suggests that it was all David's action (kai eiselthen pros auten, "and he went to her").  Cf. Berlin. “She is not even a minor character, but simply a part of the plot”(27). See also R. N. Whybray, The Succession Narrative (Naperville, Illinois: Alec R. Allenson, Inc.1968). Whybray notes that Bathsheba is used throughout the Succession Narratives: by David (2 Sam. 11); by Nathan (1 Kgs. 1) and by Adonijah (1 Kgs. 2) (40).

24 Joyce Hollyday, “Voices Out of Silence,” Sojourners, 15 (1986). Hollyday does note see 2 Sam. 11-12 as David’s “Great Sin” but instead as Bathsheba’s “Great Loss” (21). Outside of Bathsheba's mourning for her husband (v. 26) and her son (12:24), nothing is known of her inner emotions.  When she is referred to, it is as "woman" or "wife" (‘ishshah, vv. 2, 3, 5, 11, 26, 27) and as related to a male (daughter of Eliam, v. 3; wife of Uriah, vv. 3, 26; his [David's] wife, v. 27).  Only once is she called Bathsheba (v. 3).  "She has no existence of her own but is identified by the men to whom she belongs."  Even in Matt. 1:6 she is referred as “the wife of Uriah.” Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 273 and 278.

25 Yee, 243.  See also Sternberg who discusses the options of Uriah knowing or not knowing (201-209).  If Uriah knew of the affair, his response in v. 11 should be viewed as being sarcastic.  Due to the narrative ambiguity of the text, it is up to the reader to decide if Uriah knew or not.

26 H. W. Hertzberg, I and II Samuel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 310.

27 In v. 11 the narrator gives a subtle reminder of the irony of v. 1.  David remains (yoshev) in Jerusalem (v. 1) but the ark and his militia dwell (yoshevim) in matted tents and the mercenaries sleep in the open.

28 Cf. George P. Ridout, "Prose Composition Techniques in the Succession Narrative (2 Sam, 7, 9-20; 1 Kings 1-2" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Graduate Theological Union, 1971), p. 71.  Ridout believes that the story is essentially a study in David’s character.  Uriah is a fail to David.  Uriah is stable while David is unstable; he is chaste while David commits adultery.

29 Cf. 2 Sam. 3:27-30 for Joab’s capability to commit murder.

30 Sternberg, 214. Sternberg view Joab as a pragmatist, seeing the loss of other casualties as a natural consequence of war.

31 Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 276-277.

32 Cf. Sternberg, 220-221.  Sternberg equates David with Abimelech (Judg. 9:50-54 since both fall because of a woman.

33 Following the MT and not the LXX.

34 Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 278.

35 Berlin, 47. Cf. Sternberg, 219. “…the narrator is still careful to quote it with due (and distancing) acknowledgment.”

36 Yee, 247.

37 Cf. Ridout, 66.

38 See also the LXX.

39 Levine, 74.

40 Anderson, 156.

41 Richard G. Bowman, “The Complexity of Character and the Ethics of Complexity:  The Case of King David in Character and Scripture: Moral Formation, Community and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmanns, 2002), 73

42 Cf. Walter Brueggemann, David’s Truth: In Israel’s Imagination and Memory. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 67-86.  Even though this passage is not mentioned in his chapter on “The Sure Truth of the State” which show how the royal propaganda sought to validate David’s kingship and authorize his political agenda.

43 Bowman, 74-75.  Bowman discusses the role of the counter-narrative in the "confessing community".

44 Ibid., 75.