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Simon Sebag Montefiore: The City of David (NATIONAL POST COMMENT) 02/18/12)Source: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/02/17/simon-sebag-montefiore-the-city-of-david/ NATIONAL POST NATIONAL POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
In an extraordinary new book, Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore tells the 3,000-year-old story of the world’s holiest city. In today’s first instalment: The creation of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital.

Zion was said to be impregnable, and how David captured it is a mystery. The Bible portrays the Jebusites lining the walls with the blind and the lame, a warning to any attacker of what would befall him. But the king somehow penetrated the city — through what the Hebrew Bible calls a zinnor. This may be a water-tunnel, one of the network now being excavated on the Ophel hill, or it may be the name of some magical spell. Either way, “David took the stronghold of Zion: the same is the city of David.”

This capture may just have been a palace coup. David did not slaughter the Jebusites; instead he co-opted them into his cosmopolitan court and army. He renamed Zion the City of David, repaired the walls and summoned the Ark of the Covenant (recaptured in battle) to Jerusalem. Its awesome sanctity killed one of those moving it, so David placed it with a trusted Git until it was safe to bear. “David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and the sound of the trumpet.” Donning the sacerdotal loincloth, “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” In return, God promised David, “thine house and thy kingdom shall be established forever.” After the centuries of struggle, David was declaring that Yahweh had found a permanent home in a holy city.

Michal, Saul’s daughter, mocked her husband’s half-naked submission to God as a display of vulgar vanity. While the earlier books of the Bible are a mixture of ancient texts and backdated stories written much later, the rounded, unheroic portrait of David, buried within the second Book of Samuel and the first Book of Kings, reads so vividly that it may have been based on the memoir of a courtier.

David chose this stronghold for his capital because it belonged neither to the northern tribes nor to his own southern Judah. He brought the golden shields of his conquered enemies to Jerusalem, where he built himself a palace, importing cedarwood from his Phoenician allies in Tyre. David is said to have conquered a kingdom that stretched from Lebanon to the borders of Egypt, and eastwards into today’s Jordan and Syria, even placing a garrison in Damascus. Our only source for David is the Bible: Between 1200 and 850 bc, the empires of Egypt and Iraq were in eclipse and left meagre royal records, but they also left a power vacuum. David certainly existed: An inscription found in 1993 at Tel Dan in northern Israel dating from the ninth century BC shows that the kings of Judah were known as the House of David, proving that David was the kingdom’s founder.

Yet David’s Jerusalem was tiny. At this time, the city of Babylon, in today’s Iraq, covered 2,500 acres; even the nearby town of Hazor covered 200. Jerusalem was probably no more than 15 acres, just enough to house about 1,200 people around the citadel. But the recent discoveries of fortifications above the Gihon Spring prove that David’s Zion was much more substantial than previously thought, even if it was very far from an imperial capital. David’s kingdom, conquered with his Cretan, Philistine and Hittite mercenaries, is plausible too, however exaggerated by the Bible, and was only a tribal federation held together by his personality. The Maccabees would, much later, show how dynamic warlords could quickly conquer a Jewish empire during an imperial power vacuum.

One evening, David was relaxing on the roof of his palace: “He saw a woman washing herself and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is this not Bathsheba?” The woman was married to one of his non-Israelite mercenary captains, Uriah the Hittite. David summoned her and “she came in unto him and he lay with her,” making her pregnant. The king ordered his commander Joab to send him her husband back from the wars in present-day Jordan. When Uriah arrived, David ordered him to go home to “wash thy feet” though he really intended that Uriah should sleep with Bathsheba to cover up her pregnancy. But Uriah refused so David ordered him to take this letter back to Joab: “Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle … that he may be smitten.” Uriah was killed.

Bathsheba became David’s favourite wife, but the prophet Nathan told the king the story of a rich man who had everything but still stole a poor man’s only lamb. David was appalled by the injustice: “the man that hath done this thing shall surely die!” “Thou art that man,” replied Nathan. The king realized that he had committed a terrible crime. He and Bathsheba lost their first child born of this sin — but their second son, Solomon, survived.

Far from being some ideal court of a holy king, David presided over a bearpit that rings true in its details. Like many an empire built around one strongman, when he ailed, the cracks started to show: His sons struggled for the succession. His eldest, Amnon, may have expected to succeed David but the king’s favourite was Amnon’s half- brother, the spoiled and ambitious Absalom, with his lustrous head of hair and a physique without blemish: “In all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty.”

After Amnon lured Absalom’s sister Tamar to his house and raped her, Absalom had Amnon murdered outside Jerusalem. As David mourned, Absalom fled the capital and returned only after three years. The king and his favourite were reconciled: Absalom bowed to the ground before the throne and David kissed him. But Prince Absalom could not rein in his ambition. He paraded through Jerusalem in his chariot and horses with 50 men running before him. He undermined his father’s government — “Absalom stole the heart of Israel” — and set up his own rebel court at Hebron.

The people flocked to the rising sun, Absalom. But now David regained some of his old spirit: He seized the Ark of the Covenant, the emblem of God’s favour, and then abandoned Jerusalem. While Absalom established himself in Jerusalem, the old king rallied his forces. “Deal gently for my sake with the young man,” David told his general, Joab. When David’s forces massacred the rebels in the forest of Ephraim, Absalom fled on a mule. His gorgeous hair was his undoing: “And the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away.” When the dangling Absalom was spotted, Joab killed him and buried the body in a pit instead of beneath the pillar the rebel prince had built for himself. “Is the young man Absalom safe?” the king asked pathetically. When David heard that the prince was dead, he lamented: “Oh my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom, would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

As famine and plague spread across the kingdom, David stood on Mount Moriah and saw the angel of death threaten Jerusalem. He experienced a theophany, a divine revelation, in which he was ordered to build an altar there. There may already have been a shrine in Jerusalem whose rulers are described as priest-kings. One of the original inhabitants of the city, Araunah the Jebusite, owned land on Moriah which suggests that the city had expanded from the Ophel onto the neighbouring mountain. “So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for 50 shekels of silver. And David built there an altar unto the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.” David planned a temple there and ordered cedarwood from Abibaal, the Phoenician King of Tyre. It was the crowning moment in his career, the bringing together of God and his people, the union of Israel and Judah, and the anointment of Jerusalem herself as the holy capital. But it was not to be. God told David: “Thou shalt not build a house for my name, because thou hast been a man of war and hast shed blood.”

Now that David was “old and stricken,” his courtiers and sons intrigued for the succession. Another son Adonijah made a bid for the throne, while a lissom virgin, Abishag, was brought in to distract David. But the plotters underestimated Bathsheba.

Bathsheba claimed the throne for her son Solomon. David called in Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, who escorted Solomon on the king’s own mule down to the sacred Gihon Spring. There he was anointed king. The trumpet was blown and the people celebrated. Adonijah, hearing the celebrations, sought refuge in the sanctuary of the altar, and Solomon guaranteed his life.

After an extraordinary career that united the Israelites and cast Jerusalem as God’s city, David died, having ordered Solomon to build the Temple on Mount Moriah. It was the authors of the Bible, writing four centuries afterwards to instruct their own times, who made the imperfect David into the essence of the sacred king. He was buried in the City of David. His son was very different. Solomon would finish that sacred mission — but he started his reign, in about 970 bc, with a bloody settling of scores.

Excerpted from Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Copyright © 2011 by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. (© 2012 National Post, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. 02/18/12)

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