David’s Deathbed Hit List
David is dying. The last words of the man who started off as a musician and became a poet, a killer king who left behind a fragile dynasty are still surprising.
Halbertal and Holmes help us unpack this final chapter:
“In their final actions, performed in the face of death people do not seem to change much, especially men who have exercised great political power.. In this ultimate moment, what an individual has been all along surfaces in an undiluted form, brighter and more sharply etched. This was the case with David.
David’s will, his ultimate sovereign and paternal act, contains a masterly summation of the narrative as a whole, encapsulating the themes that the author has explored and interrogated throughout David’s life. “
David summons Solomon to his bedside and starts off with standard stuff - faith and justice, loyalty and love. But then it shifts. Again, our scholars help us go deeper:
“Anyone who expects that this formulaic invocation of truth and justice will be followed by a genuine reckoning by a remorseful king on the point of death, repenting and warning his son not to repeat his own mistakes, would be wrong.
The last will and testament quickly shifts from an exhortation to be righteous to advice that is considerably more personal. Indeed, the will is almost entirely devoted to David’s deathbed hit list, instructions to Solomon about those among the Israelites who must be exiles and those who must be bloodily dispatched. This is not merely a matter of settling old scores on David’s part. It is also, and more importantly, a tutorial on how to consolidate royal power. These are the worldly commandments that Solomon must obey is he wishes to make his kinship secure forever…
This is not the first time we have overheard David arranging for the murder of someone who has gotten in his way or in his face. But the deathbed lethality is striking because, this time, Davi’d outstretched arm will reach his victims from beyond the grave.”
And so it is. After forty years on the throne, which most assume is a round number, David is dead and is buried. There is no mention of excessive grief or ritual such as the ones he himself set up for Saul or Abner.
וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב דָּוִ֖ד עִם־אֲבֹתָ֑יו וַיִּקָּבֵ֖ר בְּעִ֥יר דָּוִֽד׃
So David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David.
Even though there is an official grave site on Mount Zion few assume that it is the real spot where he is buried. Perhaps one day it’ll be dug up.
The plot moves swiftly.
Yoav is the first on David’s hit list.
Perhaps David wanted to eliminate the one witness who knew so much and did so much more in his king’s name than David wants to be remembered? Since Yoav chose Adoniya and not Solomon he too knows that his gamble failed. He flees to hide inside the sanctuary holding on to the horns of the altar - sacred safe space. It will do him no good.
Solomon will execute his father’s will but the first blood he’ll spill is not Yoav, but his own older brother and contender to the throne, Prince Adoniya. A suitable pretext will enable him to do so. But not before the Queen Mother has her say.
A throne is set up for her alongside that of her son, King Solomon.
And soon after the death of David, Adoniya comes to her for a special favor. “I have just one small question for you” he asks, with deference, bowing before the woman who now has power over the king.
Can he marry Abishag, the young woman who kept David warm in his last days? He’s fallen in love.
The prince is a fool in love but the old queen is no fool and it’s likely that she sets him a trap. She sits next to her son on the throne and repeats the request “I have just one little question” she says. But Solomon is no fool either and knows that giving his brother access to whatever was associated with their dead father is a mistake.
Halbertal and Holmes comment:
“David had not commanded the murder of adoniya the way he had commanded the killing of Yoav. But it was an act fully in the spirit of David’s last will and testament.”
Adoniya is killed that day. No questions asked.
Yoav will be executed even as he seeks asylum in the sanctuary , a few days later. Benaya, who stabbed him, becomes the leader of the army instead.
One more victim on the David hit list is Shimi Ben Gera, vocal leader of the opposition, the last loyalist of the House of Saul, who under some pretext is also assassinated by Solomon.
The kingdom of Solomon is secured.
image: Study of King David (adapted), Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866.
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If midrashim and folktales are to be credited, David’s posthumous activities do not end with his interment. Many stories are told about the king’s restless afterlife within his tomb. They speak of him dispensing salvation and justice to the downtrodden, wreaking bloody punishment upon the arrogant and powerful, and uttering dire oracles at moments of national crisis. A man too perplexing to forget, he exerts a hold on our imaginations that will live on when we who ponder his acts have returned to dust.
Among the writers worth consulting---and perhaps you have and I missed it---is Robert Pensky who did a book on David for Jewish Encounters. What I remember most from it in the light of your recent commentaries is how richly the image of the Mafia served Pensky in idenitfying the kind of p ower that was prevalent in this phase of Jewish history.