One the most powerful ruler in the history of the ancient Near East established his empire on his strength of character and ingenuity. David was the youngest son of a wealthy family would receive no inheritance and used his aggressive nature to gain power through marriage, warfare and trade alliances.1 The void of political power in the declining civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt provided the ideal setting for the emergence of a dominant ruler.2 David was an militaristic expansionist who used all means necessary to control the ancient Near East, and fulfilled that void, eventually controlling from “Dan to Beersheba”. His military and political genius cannot be determined completely accurately, but the evidence allows us to examine the history of one of the most powerful rulers of all time.
David’s ascendancy to power started with his political skills in marriage. First he married Saul’s daughter, Michal, tying him with the dominant family of Israel; then he married Abigal from the house of Caleb, the dominant family in Judah. Besides being a skilled warrior, David was a wealthy landholder seeking bigger fish to fry. He then relocated to the Philistines with his own private army of mercenaries to work for Achish the king of Gath.3 He would decimate and plunder pastoral tribes like the Amalekites, Geshurites, and the Girzites. “Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive” (1 Samuel 27:9-10). David’s fighters were provided with booty and produce taxes from peasants under his control, were becoming a larger and more loyal force with every capture.4 As his power grew, he became more and more poised to take the position of king when Saul died.
As depicted in 2 Samuel chapters 2-5, immediately after David received notification of the death of Saul, he proceeded to Hebron, Judah’s religious center, where he was anointed king over the tribe of Judah. He dispatched messengers to the tribes in the north to offer them invitation to recognize him as king, but Abner, Saul’s commander in chief, had other plans in mind. Abner took Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth and made him king over the northern tribes, placing his capital at Matahanaim, east of the Jordan. After quarreling between the two kingdoms broke out, Abner, disputed with Ish-Bosheth and began to offer negotiations to the more powerful David for the delivery of the Northern throne. Before these proceedings were concluded however, Abner was killed by David’s commander Joab, in revenge for the slaughter of his brother. Ish-Bosheth was then also assassinated by two men of Beeroth. David then wisely made it known that he “had no part in the murder of Abner son of Ner” (2 Samuel 3:37). He further had the two men of Beeroth killed for their actions, so to not have his ascension credited to assassinations.
Now David was the only contender for the throne, and his reign began as ruler of Israel. However the Philistines were currently in control of the northern Israelite tribes, and David as a unified king became a serious threat to their position. The Philistines had Iron weapons while the Israelites had bronze, and the Iron Age was a time when technological superiority generally guaranteed military supremacy. However David’s military genius overcame this fact. His tactics included waging war during the rainy season when the Philistine chariots became mired and useless, and utilizing the hill country as an advantageous sight for battle.5 David also chose narrow valleys to fight and forced the Philistines to cross uneven riverbeds leaving them open to the Israelite slings and arrows. Characteristic of David’s army was being split up into three formations allowing incredible maneuverability on the battlefield.6 David was thus able to repulse a Philistine invasion not once but twice.
In the first campaign the Philistines were held back and had their mightiest of warriors killed by the David’s battlers, achieving hero status.7 These Philistine warriors were dubbed the “Votaries of Rapha(a Philistine deity)”, included Saph, Goliath, and an unidentified man with six fingers and six toes. After successfully defeating his foe, David had the Philistine’s godly images burned.8 In the second campaign was like the first, targeted at the Valley of Rephiam because of its strategical location.9 David used a frontal assault followed by an attack on the enemy’s rear, credited in the Bible to the Lord’s advice. This tactic proved worthy as the Philistines were repulsed yet again.
Now David was given the opportunity to sieze the city of Jerusalem which was under Canaanite control, from the Jebusites.10 It is unclear whether the city was seized by direct assault or through a water tunnel, but the city was exactly what David needed for an expanding nation. Since Hebron was too southern for the northern tribes to have accepted as a capital, Jerusalem’s central location satisfied all. And after David brought the Ark of the Covenant, it would also serve as the religious center of the state. His procurement of Jerusalem not only eliminated a Canaanite hold in the center of his kingdom, but also provided a capital from which he could rule a national state. “And David dwelt in the stronghold (of Jerusalem) and called it the city of David” (2 Samuel 5:9).
The strength and capabilities of David’s army were incredibly powerful because of its unique infrastructure. Unlike his administration, his army was manned by an independent professional military class(2 Samuel 23:2-39).11 Joab, David’s cousin served as chief of the army. While his son’s acted as chief officials, his army included foreigners such as Uriah the Hittite, indicating a weakness in the importance of tribal and family affiliations at the time.12 King David had developed an army of capable well trained troops from when he was raiding in the Philistines. Because of their history they held the utmost devotion to their King. They were his personal guard and the foundation of his overall forces.13 Also Six hundred Philistine men of Gath, the Gitities were in King David’s service(2 Samuel8:18,15:18). Strategically headquartered in Jerusalem, David used his powerful standing army into an effective expansionist force.
This segment of King David’s troops was also complimented by the militia. He allowed for great flexibility, separating them into national battalions as opposed to tribal units by which they had formerly been composed.14 Each battalion had individual tribal units placed within them, each which supplied a quota of warriors who served in rotation for one month a year.15 All of the tribesmen weren’t in the army at the same time, unless a general mobilization decree was issued. Under this arrangement, David could disperse his troops into numerous powerful units at his discretion, while having the option of summoning all his forces at any time. His standing army consisted twenty four thousand men, one twelfth of the militia in addition to his elite corps and mercenaries.16
Besides his military genius, David secured his political and national seating through every outlet including marriage. His wives were numerous including Abigal (mentioned earlier), Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Maacah the daughter of the Tranjordian king of Geshur.17 David also established trade relations in order to safeguard his standing maintaining peace with the technologically more advanced and powerful Phoenicians. He established a commercial relationship with them, which subsequently endured for the breadth of his reign.18 David also established strong trade relationships with Hiram, the King of Tyre involving wool and other products.19 David excelled as a diplomat when he deemed necessary.20 After the last battle with the Philistines, he still had to quiet the resistance of scattered Philistine troops.21 He did so by dissolving their five kingdom nation, or Pentapolis. David also conquered several Caanaite cities along the coastal plain, allowing for his embarkation of foreign wars as his homeland had been rid of threat. David advanced west from Israel’s borders attacking and subduing the Moabites. David made a severe point by putting two-thirds of all able-bodied males to death and placing the rest under tribute.
After the Ammonite ruler Nahash died, David sent his condolences to his son Hanun. Hanun saw this as an attempt for David to send spies to his nation, which was not an unreasonable assumption given David’s military power. He sent back his messengers completely insulted, and David in turn unleashed a powerful battalion led by Joab to retaliate. David’s forces were met by the Syrians of Damascus, allies of the Ammonites, and would be defeated along with the Ammonites. David’s superior military tactics would win him battles wherever he went. He would face armies and defeat them, slaying the majority of there forces. Then David would allow for the plundering of their cities, leaving them crippled and making the people tributary.
While moving on his Trans-Jordian Campaign, David met the Arameans, the Syrians, and Hadadezer’s dispatched reinforcements. After slaying twenty thousand men, he would eventually place garrisons in Syria of Damascus, and make the people tributary.22 David then called upon all his forces and crossed the Jordan to wipe out the rest of Hadadezer’s forces. Forty thousand horsemen and seven hundred chariot crews were slaughtered, and the Israelite forces pillaged the capital city Rabbath-Ammon and destroyed it. On his march back from Syria David came to Edom in the Valley of Salt, which his forces plundered for six months, slaying the royal house and eighteen thousand men. He also placed garrison making it a tributary state also.
King David amassed one of the most powerful empires in the Ancient Near East using his military genius, complemented by his political and diplomatic skills. When an enemy was too powerful to fight, David set up trade relationships, like with the Phoenicians and Tyre. David also saw the importance of marriages and would act accordingly taking many wives, all of which having political importance. These factors allowed for his greatest asset, his military expertise, to expand Israel into a great empire. He used ruthless tactics to surpress any retaliation including devastating the military forces and placing major cities under tribute. David had all the makings for the greatest ruler in the history of Israel, taking whatever he could to create a legendary empire.