Bible Review 17:5, October 2001

The Empire of David—or Not?

Modern maps show David’s kingdom reaching to the Euphrates. But what does the Bible say?

By Ronald S. Hendel

Bible Review

In Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark feigns madness and proclaims, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” Of course there is method in Hamlet’s madness, as there often is in the machinations of princes. Another prince (or future king) who feigns madness is David, who at one point evades service to King Achish of Gath by pretending to be mad (1 Samuel 21:11–16). This too is the calculated madness of a Machiavellian prince. David also claims to be king of a vast territory, which, while not “infinite space,” is still an expansive empire. Any modern map of the Empire of David and Solomon will show a wide sweep of territory, reaching far north of Israel into Aramean lands, and including to the east all of Ammon, Moab and Edom.

Are these claims, which are enshrined in most maps and histories of the biblical period, reliable? Some historians and archaeologists have dismissed these claims as unrealistic exaggerations. The so-called minimalist historians regard them as late fictions of the Persian or Hellenistic era, as political propaganda for the land claims of these periods. But the first systematic investigation of the textual, historical and archaeological basis for these claims has just come out, and it is a gripping exposé.

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