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Phasing Out the Philistines? (Shemini)

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the February 2014 edition of Kol Hamevaser: The Jewish Thought Magazine of Yeshiva University.

In this week’s Haftarah, king David capitalizes on a brief period of regional stability by arranging for the relocation of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The principal participants in this ceremony are David, the king; Uzzah and Ahio, the bearers of the Ark; and, of course, the rest of the Israelite nation. Yet if we study the text of this episode carefully, we discover a curious phenomenon: it is strewn with oblique references to the Philistines, of all people—an ancient Mediterranean nation that ostensibly had little interest in the religious rituals of its neighbors to the east.

In this essay, we will examine together the various allusions to the Philistines lurking beneath the surface of our Haftarah. This exercise, we hope, will offer us a unique perspective on one of the thorniest issues implied by the project of creating for Hashem a “home on earth:” the tension between Jewish particularism, on the one hand, and universalism, on the other.

Review: The Role of the Philistines in King David’s Personal Biography

The Ark of the Covenant, as per the Temple Institute (Machon HaMikdash) in Jerusalem.

The Ark of the Covenant, as per the Temple Institute (Machon HaMikdash) in Jerusalem.

By way of background, let us begin by reviewing some of the key interactions between David and the Philistine people that lead into our narrative.

During the reign of Saul, Israel finds itself at war with the Philistines. At that time, a mighty warrior, Goliath, challenges the Israelites to produce a soldier for a one-on-one duel. Goliath’s challenge remains unanswered for forty days. Finally, David—a young shepherd who is visiting his enlisted brothers— surprises everybody by accepting the Philistine’s offer. David battles Goliath and vanquishes him, saving the Israelites and catapulting himself into an illustrious career of military accomplishment.[1]

Shortly after David slays Goliath, Michal, Saul’s daughter, falls in love with David. Saul, wary of the boy’s rising political influence, offers his daughter to David in return for “one hundred Philistine foreskins.” Lest anybody misconstrue the king’s motive, the text’s narrative voice informs us explicitly that Saul means to send David to his death through this arrangement. Much to Saul’s chagrin, however, David in fact delivers, earning Michal’s hand in marriage and further establishing his royal credentials.[2]

Not only Saul’s daughter, but also his son, Jonathan, grows attached to the up-and-coming David. In fact, the relationship between Jonathan and David—which frequently requires the former to risk his life and set aside any personal ambition on behalf of the latter—has often been regarded as antiquity’s paragon of friendship. This friendship grinds to an abrupt halt, however, when the Philistines take Jonathan’s life on the summit of Mount Gilboa. In that same battle, the Philistines also manage to kill Saul, leaving David bereaved over his best friend and thrusting him into the monarchy sooner than he might have hoped.[3]

These are but three telling examples of David’s protracted interaction with the Philistines. There are, of course, many others—some of which we will encounter shortly.  Suffice it to say, in the meantime, that the members of this nation played an instrumental role in shaping the contours of David’s personal life and in guiding the trajectory of his professional one.

Setting: The Role of the Philistines in the Context of our Chapter

In addition to the three incidents mentioned above, there are several small-scale skirmishes with the Philistines in which David finds himself entangled throughout his tenure as king. The final verses of II Samuel 5, for instance, record David’s battle with the Philistines at Ba’al Peratzim.[4] At this battle, we later learn, David also commands his troops to “burn in fire” the gods of the Philistines[5]—a point that will become significant for us later. Likewise, the opening verse of II Samuel 8 recounts David’s battle with the Philistines at Meteg Ammah.[6] In fact, it is in the middle of these two relatively obscure battles where we find the story of the Ark’s return to Jerusalem (II Samuel 6) and of David’s attempt to build the Temple (II Samuel 7). The ongoing conflict with the Philistines thus forms a “literary envelope” around our narrative, inviting us to consider the broader influence which this enemy nation might exert within the text. Bearing this framework in mind, let us now look at three specific references to the Philistine people within the text of our Haftarah.

Reference #1: “And the Ark of Hashem dwelled in the home of Oved Edom the Gittite…”[7]

When David initially decides to relocate the Ark to Jerusalem, everything proceeds smoothly. Soon, however, disaster strikes:

And they came to Goren Nachon, and Uzzah put forth [his hand] to the Ark of God, and grasped hold of it, for the oxen swayed it.  And the anger of Hashem was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the Ark of God. And David was angered, because Hashem had made a breach upon Uzzah; and he called that place Peretz Uzzah [“the breach of Uzzah”] unto this day. And David was afraid of Hashem that day; and he said: ‘How can the Ark of Hashem come to me?’ And David did not want to remove unto him the Ark of Hashem, into the city of David; and David took it aside to the house of Oved Edom the Gittite.[8]

After Uzzah’s death, David halts the procession, dispatching the Ark of God to Oved Edom, a native of Gath. To appreciate the immense irony of David’s decision, we need to recall the history of the Ark’s travels. During the days of Eli, the Ark is captured in battle by none other than the Philistines. The Philistines bring the Ark back to their city, and suffer greatly as a result:

And the Philistines took the Ark of God and brought it to the house of Dagon [their deity], and set it up beside Dagon… And the hand of Hashem became heavy upon the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them, and He smote them with hemorrhoids, Ashdod and its borders. And the people of Ashdod saw that it was so, and they said, “Let not the Ark of the God of Israel dwell with us, for His hand is severe upon us and upon Dagon, our god. And they sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them, and they said, “What shall we do to the Ark of the God of Israel?” And they said, “Let the Ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath,” and (thereupon), they brought the Ark of the God of Israel around to Gath.[9]

The Chastisement of Uzzah (1903), James Tissot

The Chastisement of Uzzah (1903), James Tissot

Perhaps the history of the Ark’s travels in Philistia, along with the memory of the havoc it had wreaked over there, contributes to David’s distress in our passage. The Israelites welcome the Ark to their capital under the premise that they, unlike the Philistines, can play host to Hashem without incurring any casualties. Yet in the first opportunity to assert this distinction, the same fate which once met the Philistines now meets the Israelites. David, dejected, equates himself with the Ashdodites, appropriating their anguished refrain with just a hint of acrimony: where the Philistines had declared, “Let not the Ark of the God of Israel dwell with us,” David demands, rhetorically, “How can the Ark of Hashem come to me?” Then, as if to mimic the Ashdodites, David delegates the Ark to a Judean whose native city is Gath—the very city to which the Ashdodites, too, had once banished the Ark. As long as Hashem does not favor the Israelites in the way that David expects, then, the king will not (indeed, he cannot) establish a terrestrial home for Him.

This symbolic exiling of Hashem’s Ark to “Gath” is ironic for yet another reason: namely, that David had previously been exiled to Gath himself. In both I Samuel 21 and in I Samuel 27, David, fleeing from Saul, seeks refuge with Ahish, the king of Gath. Referring to these experiences, David complains to Saul:

And now, let now my lord the king hear his servant’s words. If Hashem has incited you against me, He will accept an offering; but if the sons of men, cursed be they before Hashem, for they have driven me today from cleaving to Hashem’s heritage, saying, ‘Go, worship other gods.’[10]

In Gath, David feels cast off from “Hashem’s heritage.” For many months he dreams of returning to Judea, where, he imagines, he will finally gain the opportunity to worship his God in peace. Shockingly, however, David’s first attempt to nationalize this experience ends in tragedy. The death of Uzzah leaves the king no choice but to postpone the ceremony. So he returns the Ark to a Gittite, in a move that silently communicates: if this is what it is like to serve Hashem in Judea, then perhaps I would have done better to remain in Gath and serve Him there.

Reference #2: “And David danced with all his might before Hashem…”[11]

Of course, our episode does not culminate on this note of disappointment. While the Ark remains with Oved Edom, Hashem showers blessings upon him. This apparently indicates that the punishment of Uzzah applies to Uzzah alone; Israel, on the whole, retains favor in the eyes of its God. As a result, David decides to resume the ceremony of the Ark’s relocation three months later.

Presumably, the musical procession which had accompanied the previous celebration[12] reappears this time around, too. In addition, the text records other festivities which mark the second attempt to relocate the Ark:

And it was when the bearers of the ark of God had trodden six paces, [David] sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced with all his might before Hashem; and David was girded with a linen ephod. And David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of Hashem with shouting and with the sound of [the] shofar.[13]

David adds to a climate of general festivity by dancing ostentatiously. This is most interesting, because there is only one other point in Biblical history at which the dancing of an Israelite political leader serves as the main attraction. This occurs in a Philistine temple, of all places, soon after the notorious chieftain of Israel, Samson, has been captured by Delilah’s henchmen:

And the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice. And they said, “Our god has delivered our enemy Samson into our hands.” And the people saw him and praised their god, because they said, “Our god has delivered into our hands our enemy and the destroyer of our land, and who has slain many of us.” And it was when their hearts were merry, that they said, “Call for Samson, and he will make merry [ש.ח.ק] for us.” And they called for Samson out of the prison-house, and he made merry [צ.ח.ק] before them, and they stood him between the pillars…  Now the house was full of men and women, and all the lords of the Philistines were there. And upon the roof (there were) about three thousand men and women, the spectators of Samson’s sport.[14]

In the era of the Shoftim, the Philistines publicly humiliate Samson, the captured leader of the Israelites. During the ceremony, which immediately conjures images of the one in our chapter—there, too, the people made merry and there, too, they offered communal sacrifices—the Philistines force Samson to pay tribute to their deity, Dagon.

Perhaps David views the Ark’s return to Jerusalem as an opportunity to rectify the wrong of an earlier generation. David conducts himself quite uncharacteristically in this passage, drawing all the attention to himself and creating a public spectacle with his vigorous dancing. Not by accident, it would seem, is the verb which he uses to describe his behavior—ש.ח.ק, a fairly rare term for “dancing”—the exact same verb used to describe Samson’s merry-making centuries prior….

Reference #3: “Michal the daughter of Saul peered through the window…”[15]

If we are correct, then David regards his dancing a sort of rectification for the humiliation of Samson and the desecration of Hashem at the hands of the Philistines. Yet David’s wife, Michal, certainly does not share this perspective:

And [as] the ark of Hashem came [into] the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul peered through the window [נשקפה בעד החלון], and she saw the king David hopping and dancing before Hashem; and she loathed him in her heart….  And David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and she said, “How honored was today the king of Israel, who exposed himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as would expose himself one of the idlers.” And David said unto Michal; “Before Hashem, who chose me above your father, and above all his house, to appoint me prince over the people of Hashem, over Israel; therefore I have made merry [ש.ח.ק] before Hashem. And if I be demeaned more than this, and be abashed in mine own eyes, [yet] of the maidservants of which you have spoken, with them will I get me honor.”  And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death.[16]

As Michal sees it, David has debased himself with his dancing. While Michal’s criticism is fascinating in its own right, it is especially so when one considers it in its broader biblical context. Until this point in Tanakh, only one other character has “peered through a window.” Sure enough, that character was a Philistine:

And it came to pass, when he [i.e. Yitzchak] had been there [i.e. among the Philistines] for many days, that Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, peered out of the window [וישקף… בעד החלון], and he saw, and behold, Yitzchak was making merry [צ.ח.ק] with Rebecca his wife.  So Avimelech called Yitzchak, and he said, “Behold, she is your wife; so how could you have said, ‘She is my sister’?” And Yitzchak said to him, “Because I said, ‘Lest I die because of her. ‘” And Avimelech said, “What have you done to us? The most prominent of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” And Avimelech commanded all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.”[17]

This passage recounts Yitzchak’s sojourns in the Philistine city of Gerar. When Avimelech, king of the Philistines, peers through the window, he beholds Yitzchak “making merry” (צ.ח.ק) with Rebecca. Having previously assumed that the two were siblings, Avimelech, observing their conduct, now understands that they are actually husband and wife.  As a result, the Philistine king commands his people to respect the sanctity of these Hebrews’ marriage. Thus, Avimelech’s act of “peering” provides him with moral clarity and prevents a situation of sexual impropriety.

Most ironically, Michal’s “peering” leads to precisely the opposite outcome. Perhaps projecting her own frustrated desires,[18] Michal attributes lewd motivations to her husband, accusing him of inviting promiscuity by gamboling as he does before the masses. In this passage, characters’ word choice is most instructive. As far as Michal is concerned, David has been “hopping, cavorting” and “exposing” himself. In David’s view, however, he has been “making merry” (ש.ח.ק)—invoking, as mentioned earlier, the memory of Samson, who had once “made merry” for the Philistine god against his will. David’s diction also reminds us of the contrast between Yitzchak’s innocent “merry-making” (צ.ח.ק) with Rebecca, and the concupiscence of the Philistine society in whose midst it occurred. David, in other words, does not accept the charge that he has debased himself. Quite the contrary: As far as David is concerned, it is Michal who has debased him, by suspecting her husband of such sordid intentions—and by undermining, thereby, the distinction between Israelite and Philistine that he so desperately sought to assert.

Analysis: The Theological Significance of David’s Philistine References

Everything that we have studied until now occurs, as mentioned, in the sixth chapter of II Samuel. In the seventh chapter, meanwhile, David requests permission to build a Temple for Hashem. This is the infamous reply that he receives:

When your days are finished and you shall lie with your forefathers, then I will raise up your seed that shall proceed from your body after you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.[19]

The First Beit HaMikdash, as per the Temple Institute (Machon HaMikdash) in Jerusalem.

The First Beit HaMikdash, as per the Temple Institute (Machon HaMikdash) in Jerusalem.

Hashem rejects David’s request to build the Temple, informing him that his son will build it instead. According to tradition, Solomon was chosen to build the Temple because, unlike his father, Solomon had not sullied his hands with the blood of his enemies. Thus, in the Tanakh’s penultimate book, David divulges:

But the word of Hashem came to me, saying: You have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars; you shall not build a house for My name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My sight. Behold, a son shall be born to you, who shall be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about; for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quietness unto Israel in his days.[20]

David recognizes that he was barred from building the Temple due to the “blood that he had shed.” In line with this theme, it is instructive to consider the words of David’s son, Solomon, upon consecrating the Temple described in the previous verses:

And also to the stranger, who is not of Your people Israel, but will come from a far country for the sake of Your Name.  For they shall hear of Your great Name, and of Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm, and he will come and pray toward this house. You shall hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all that the stranger calls You for, that all peoples of the earth may know Your Name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that Your Name is called upon this house that I have built.[21]

At the consecration of the Temple, Solomon, the king of Israel, invites “the stranger, who is not of God’s people” to direct his or her prayers to Jerusalem, and urges Hashem, for His part, to answer those prayers favorably. Perhaps because he is never persecuted by his enemies in the same way as his father David—or perhaps simply because he has been blessed with extraordinary wisdom[22]—Solomon appreciates a truth which David, it seems, never fully embraces: Hashem’s covenant with a particular people does not preclude His relationship with all peoples.

In fact, in the parallel version of our narrative, recorded in the book of Chronicles, David reveals his feelings explicitly, in a song which he sings following the Ark’s relocation:

Give thanks to Hashem, call out in His Name; make His exploits known among the nations… The seed of Israel His servant, the children of Yaakov, His chosen ones… The covenant which He had made with Avraham, and His oath to Yitzchak. And He set it up for Yaakov as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant… And when they walked from nation to nation, and from one kingdom to another people. He let no man oppress them, and He reproved kings [of other nations] on their [i.e. the Israelites’] account; “Do not touch My anointed ones, and do not harm My prophets… Tell of His glory among the nations, among all peoples His wonders. For Hashem is great and very much praised; He is feared over all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Hashem made the heavens.”[23]

At the climax of the Ark’s relocation to Jerusalem, David emphasizes the chosenness of Israel and the subservience of its enemies. Read against this backdrop, the multiple allusions to the Philistines which we find in our Haftarah, and the sharp “us-vs.-them” dichotomy which these allusions subtly serve, suggest that David may have viewed the Ark’s relocation to Jerusalem not only as the process through which Hashem moved into “the place that He had chosen,”[24]  but also as Hashem’s decisive move away from the surrounding nations, as embodied by the Philistines. In some subconscious way, perhaps, David interprets this occasion as confirmation that Hashem has countenanced the Israelites at the expense of all other peoples.

As readers, can certainly sympathize with David for adopting this position, given the protracted struggle with foreign nations—and particularly with the Philistines—that had so dominated his life.  Also important to acknowledge is that without men like David, Israel would have forever remained at the mercy of its enemies: to build a Temple under the constant threat of invasion is simply impossible.[25] Nor must we take lightly the risks to which we expose ourselves the moment we open ourselves too eagerly to the world outside. For all of its virtues, Solomonic universalism produced the highest rate of intermarriage and some of the most insidious institutions of idolatry ever to infiltrate the Judean palace.[26] Perhaps it is partly for this reason that it is David, and not Solomon, who has become eponymous with Jewish monarchy and eschatology[27]; on the whole, our tradition probably views the father more favorably than it does the son.

Nevertheless, it is Solomon’s words, cited above, which serve as the eternal standard for how we are to understand the concept of a “home for God on earth.” Solomon’s name means both “peace” and “wholeness” because, as his legacy reminds us, any theology which leaves no room for a subset of Hashem’s children is necessarily lacking. Taking nothing away from the “dignity of difference,”[28] the Temple, as a locus of convergence, not of contention, is supposed to model a human society which places the God of all humanity at its center. This is a universal message, available to all peoples—Philistines included.

Shabbat shalom!


[1] See I Samuel 17

[2] See I Samuel 18

[3] See I Samuel 31 and II Samuel 1

[4] See II Samuel 5:17-25. Note the connection between Ba’al Peratzim, where David smites the Philistines, and Peretz Uzzah, the name that David angrily gives to the location that Hashem smites Uzzah, in our Haftarah (see next section).

[5] I Chronicles 14:12

[6] See II Samuel 8:1. Significantly, both the battle at Ba’al Peratzim and the battle at Meteg Ammah are recorded out of chronological sequence. The battle at Ba’al Peratzim is recounted at the end of II Samuel 5, after the conquest of Jerusalem, even though it occurred at an earlier point—viz., when “David was anointed king over all Israel” (II Sam. 5:17). Likewise, the battle at Meteg Ammah—which is recounted at the beginning of II Samuel 8—must have occurred earlier, for the previous chapter opens by informing us that “Hashem had given David rest from all of his enemies roundabout” (II Sam. 7:1). It is not merely by dint of historical circumstance, then, that these two battles form the bookends of our Haftarah. Rather, the fact that our Haftarah is both preceded and succeeded by an account of war with the Philistines reflects a deliberate editorial decision on the part of the author of II Samuel—a decision that was presumably made to serve some thematic end, as we are suggesting. In the words of R. Amnon Bazak, “The chapters are not arranged chronologically, but they are well ordered from a literary perspective.” For more on the chronology of these battles, see the fifth and eighth chapters of R. Amnon Bazak’s Sh’muel Bet: Malkhut David (Hebrew). English translations of the relevant sections are available here (Chapter 5: The Solidification of David’s Kingdom): http://etzion.org.il/en/69-chapter-5-solidification-davids-kingdom; and here (Chapter 8: David’s Wars): http://etzion.org.il/en/74-chapter-8-davids-wars-part-i.

[7] II Samuel 6:11

[8] II Samuel 6:6-10. Many scholars have struggled to understand why Uzzah deserved the punishment that he received. Those interested are encouraged to read the sixth chapter of R. Amnon Bazak’s Sh’muel Bet: Malkhut David (Hebrew). An English translation of R. Bazak’s analysis of the Uzzah affair is available here: http://vbm.etzion.org.il/en/70-chapter-6-i-uzza-affair.

[9] I Samuel 5:2;6-8

[10] I Samuel 26:19

[11] II Samuel 6:14

[12] See II Samuel 6:5

[13] II Samuel 6:13-15

[14] Judges 16:23-25; 27

[15] II Samuel 6:16

[16] II Samuel 6:16; 20–23

[17] Genesis 26:8–11.  Although Judges 5 also speaks of Sisera’s mother “peering out of a window,” this is merely a conjecture of Devorah’s, not a statement of fact recorded by the text’s narrative voice.

[18] Robert Alter raises this suggestion in The Art of Biblical Narrative, “Chapter 6: Characterization and the Art of Reticence.”

[19] II Samuel 7:12–13

[20] I Chronicles 22:8-9

[21] I Kings 8:41–43

[22] See I Kings 3

[23] I Chronicles 16:8-26.

[24] Deuteronomy 12:5

[25] See, for example, Ezra 4.

[26] See I Kings 11.

[27] Hence all of our liturgical references to the “throne of David” and to “Mashiach, son of David.”

[28] See R. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London; Continuum, 2002)


  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thank you for beautiful essay Alex, Shabbat Shalom!

  2. pesach aceman says:

    I love the essays as they add so much to the Parashat Hashavua Hodesh Tov and Shavua Tov Question I long for some explanation as to why “And they came to Goren Nachon, and Uzzah put forth [his hand] to the Ark of God, and grasped hold of it, for the oxen swayed it. And the anger of Hashem was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the Ark of God”

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