David Dishonored in the Bible

H. Abdul Al-Dahir

Biblical David was a harpist and it is from this information that the story of David becomes unraveled.The oldest known reference to harp is Sumerian where the word is balag-ír-ra. The words for harp in Akkadian are pillagu, sabitu, sammu, and sebitu. The phrases for players of the harp are n?š sammê and n?š/n?r?/š?t sammû.

The word pillagu is intriguing as it may be related to the Greek word pillakes and the Hebrew word pilygesh meaning concubine in both languages. The profession of harp player is related to harlotry in Isaiah 23:14-17:

Wail, you ships of Tarshish; your fortress is destroyed! 15 At that time Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, the span of a king’s life. But at the end of these seventy years, it will happen to Tyre as in the song of the prostitute (zanah): 16 “Take up a harp (kinnowr), walk through the city, you forgotten prostitute (zanah); play the harp well, sing many a song, so that you will be remembered.”

There does not seem to be connection to prostitution or slavery and musicians wither in ancient Egypt or in ancient Greece either, although slaves did play musical instruments. If the word pillagu or ‘harp’ is related to concubinage in Hebrew, then this information sheds a curious light on the relationship between Saul and David who was a harpist according to 1 Sam 16:23:

14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.

15 Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the harp (kinnowr). He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”

17 So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.”

18 One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the harp. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.”

19 Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” 20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.

21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”

23 Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his harp (kinnowr) and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.”

In addition to the above verses, David is credited for authoring the book of Psalms where he repeatedly claims that he is composing temple music upon his harp. Psalm 43:4 says: “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.”

Psalm 149:3 includes temple dances along with harp music in praise of the Jewish deity: “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp.”

Is the author of these verses suggesting that David may have been a temple prostitute who had a sexual relationship with Saul?

According to the Jewish Virtual Library:

“Prostitutes might be encountered in the streets and squares, and on street corners, calling out to passersby (Prov. 7:10–23); they sang and played the harp (Isa. 23:16), and bathed in public pools (I Kings 22:38). Their glances and smooth talk were dangers against which the immature were warned (Jer. 3:3, Prov. 2:16; 5:3, 6:24–25, 7:5, et al.).”

According to Wikipedia, male prostitution was not banned under the reign of David:

The Law of Moses (Deuteronomy) was not universally observed in Hebrew culture under the rule of King David’s dynasty, as recorded in Kings. In fact Judah had lost “the Book of the Law”. During the reign of King Josiah, the high priest Hilkiah discovers it in “the House of the Lord” and realizes that the people have disobeyed, particularly regarding prostitution.Examples of male prostitution (“sodomites” [KJV, GNV]) being banned under King Josiah are recorded to have been commonplace since the reign of King Rehoboam of Judah (King Solomon’s son).

Male prostitutes were called kadesh or qadesh (literally: male who is set apart). The Hebrew word kelev (dog) in the next line may also signify a male dancer or prostitute. Another proposed meaning is pimp.

(Author’s note: David is described as a dancer in 2 Samuel 6:14: “4 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might…”

Because of the association of dancing with prostitutes, David’s wife became upset at the scene of David dancing before the ark of the covenant in 2 Samuel 6:16:

“16 As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.” )

Most Bible translations do not reflect the latest scholarship and modern translations refer to King Josiah’s bans on “male temple prostitutes” [NRSV] or similarly “male shrine prostitutes” [NIV], whereas older translations refer to the ban of “Sodomites” and “the Houses of the Sodomites” [KJV, GNV]. Under the uncentralised religious practices that were commonplace, homosexual prostitution experienced a degree of cultural acceptance along with heterosexual prostitution among the Hebrew tribes, but under the religious reforms prostitution was not allowed in conjunction with the worship of Yahweh, where these had been expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy, their sacred Book of Law under King Josiah.

None of the daughters of Israel shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a kadesh. You shall not bring the hire of a prostitute (zonah) or the wages of a dog (kelev) into the house of the Lord your God to pay a vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.” (Deut 23:18)”

The episode of the relationship between David and Saul may reflect ancient Hebrew societal leniency toward male prostitutes. From their designation as kedesh (holy), their temple duties may have been viewed as sacred. This may be the reason that David was portrayed as one whom Yhwh favored (1 Sam 16:18). Such attitudes toward the prostitution are also reflected in the story of Abram giving his half sister, Sara, to two royals, Pharaoh and Abimelek. Sara seems to have been his father’s daughter by a concubine, which would allow Abram to gain wealth by pimping her to royalty. It appears that the daughter of a concubine remained a concubine even if her father was free-born. These tolerant attitudes toward prostitution were banned under Josiah. However, under the rule of David, the designation of male kadesh may have been a badge of honor as he was in the service of Yhwh and the king.

In addition to David’s implied sexual relationship with Saul, David is depicted as having a similar relationship with Saul’s son, Jonathan, whom David appears to have seduced into joining him in the overthrow of his father, Saul, as monarch of Israel. According to Wikipedia:

“The relationship between David and Jonathan is mainly covered in the Hebrew Bible Book of Samuel. The episodes belong to the story of David’s ascent to power, which is commonly regarded as one of the sources of the Deuteronomistic history, and to its later additions.

David, the youngest son of Jesse, slays Goliath at the Valley of Elah where the Philistine army is in a standoff with the army of King Saul (Jonathan’s father). David’s victory begins a rout of the Philistines who are driven back to Gath and the gates of Ekron. Abner brings David to Saul while David is still holding Goliath’s severed head. Jonathan, the eldest son of Saul, has also been fighting the Philistines. Jonathan takes an immediate liking to David and the two form a covenant:

Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt. So David went out wherever Saul sent him, and prospered; and Saul set him over the men of war. (1 Samuel 18:1-5)

As Saul continues to pursue David, the pair renews their covenant, after which they do not meet again. Eventually Saul and David are reconciled. Jonathan, however, is slain on Mt. Gilboa along with his two brothers Abinadab and Malchi-shua, and there Saul commits suicide. David learns of Saul and Jonathan’s death and chants a lament, which in part says:

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and pleasant in their life, And in their death they were not parted; They were swifter than eagles, They were stronger than lions … How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan is slain on your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women. How have the mighty fallen, And the weapons of war perished!”

In conclusion, there seems to be a relationship between the Akkadian word for harp (pillagu) and the Greek and Hebrew word for concubine or pellakes/pilygesh. Judeans appear to have viewed harpists and dancers as connected with the cult of sacred temple prostitution. It also seems clear that the biblical authors were attempting to portray David as a male prostitute who used his charms to seduce and betray his king. He then used these same charms to lure the king’s son, Jonathan, into revolting against his father. Both father and son were killed and David became king of Israel. Is this, then, the David who the Jews are awaiting to seize power in Israel and rule the world on their behalf?

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