Muslims understand David as one of the major prophets sent by God —while Jews have emphasized David as the great foundational King of historical Israel. Why the difference in Islamic and Jewish orientations?
Who Was David?
Before David was a Prophet or a King, he was a sheepherder; and he wrote in his Zabûr Psalm 23:1:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall never want [lack anything]”
This is in keeping with what Prophet Muhammad, who as a young boy also was a shepherd, noted much later,
“All the prophets of God were shepherds.”
—meaning, “No man becomes a prophet who was not first a shepherd.”
“So they [the Jews] defeated them [the Philistines, who invaded the country’s coastland from the west about the same time as the Jews invaded the country’s hills from the east] by permission of Allah. And David killed Goliath, and Allah gave him kingship and prophethood and taught him from that which He willed. And if it were not for Allah checking [some] people by means of others, the earth would have been corrupted, but Allah is full of bounty to the worlds.” (Sûrah Al-Baqarah, 2:251)
David descended from Judah, the son of Prophet Jacob, who in turn descended from Prophet Abraham. David is among the few prophets that were given texts, equating to a ‘book’ [the Zabûr/Psalms] revealed by God. The term Zabûr is related to the Hebrew word mizmôr and is translated as ‘song, music, or singing.’ David is known to have used his beautiful voice to praise God. And scholars of Islam interpret this chanting as reciting the psalms in the same way that the Quran is recited.
God made David —whose name appears in the Quran sixteen times, in nine sûrahs— a “vicegerent” (khalîfa in Q 38:26), a title that the Quran otherwise gives only to Adam (Q 2:30):
“O David! We did indeed make you a vicegerent [khalîfah] on earth: so judge between men in truth [and justice]…” [Sûrah Ṣâd, 38:26]
“Behold, your Lord said to the angels: ‘I will create a vicegerent [khalîfah] on earth.’ … And He taught Adam…” [Sûrah Al-Baqarah, 2:30-31]
This title suggests that David was not only a messenger; he was also a divinely guided leader who established God’s rule on earth.
God frequently mentions David’s high rank as a prophet and messenger in the Quran:
“And We gave him [Abraham] Isaac and Jacob and guided them, as We had guided Noah before them, and of his descendants [were] David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron. Thus We reward those who are upright and do good.” (Sûrah Al-Ancâm, 6:84)
Muslims do not accept that King David was involved in the sins of adultery and murder as attributed to him in the Hebrew Bible because Islam teaches that prophets do not commit such grave crimes. Muslims have great difficulty understanding why the Hebrew Bible includes so many narratives about the disreputable behavior of people, whether of low or high status.
What is to be Learned from the Stories in the Hebrew [Jewish] Bible?
In the Hebrew Bible again and again God chooses, as teachable narratives, unlikely and sinful human instruments making it supremely clear that true spiritual power and personal insight belongs to God alone! Also, these narratives teach that no human being is perfect, and that every human being is capable of spiritual and moral growth throughout their lifetime and even into old age.
Abû Ayyûb Ansâri reported that Allah’s Messenger said:
“If you were not [ever] to commit sins, Allah would have swept you out of existence and would have replaced you by another people who have committed sins, and then asked forgiveness from Allah — to whom He would have granted pardon.” (Saḥîḥ Muslim, 2748b)
There is a long line of Biblical stories showing God working through the “underdog” and the powerless. A few examples:
- In the Biblical book of Genesis, Prophet Jacob, the younger tent-dwelling son, becomes the namesake of the people Israel, rather than his elder, warrior brother Esau. And many other examples abound in the Hebrew Bible;
- Gideon is the youngest son of a small family when he is chosen by an angel of God to be a leader (Bible, Judges 6:15);
- Jephthah is the son —not of his father’s wife— but of a harlot who had been exiled by his brothers (Judges 11:1–2);
- David was the youngest son of Jesse, a small boy compared to his tall, oldest brother, when Prophet Samuel chose David as the next leader (Bible, 1 Samuel 16:6–12);
- Prophet Solomon was the son of the woman with whom David committed adultery; he was not David’s oldest son, who traditionally should be his father’s successor as a birthright.
Again and again, God chooses unlikely human instruments, flipping systems of social power and making it supremely clear that true power belongs to God alone.
Many Muslims who read the Hebrew Bible are shocked when they read about King David and Bathsheba. Since Prophet Muhammad —the prophet who is best known by Muslims— was famous for his righteousness, it seems impossible to understand how a prophet like David could engage in adultery. Something must be wrong with the story. A spiritual hero and prophet like David could not have committed adultery —and then tried to cover things up by arranging for the death in battle of Bathsheba’s husband.
The Hebrew Bible however, does not teach that great leaders, or even prophets of God, are perfectly righteous and never sin. Only God is sinless. All human beings, even the most highly religious, need to struggle throughout their lives to overcome moral challenges. And since power tends to corrupt, we can see today that political and even religious leaders, can engage in violence or sexual molestation, or be involved in excusing or covering up other peoples’ sins —and then say it was for the sake of God!
Who Is a Jewish Hero?
To understand the perspective of the Hebrew Bible, I share parts of a sermon on the Biblical passage Genesis 28:10 – 32:3 by American Rabbi Edward Feinstein regarding who is a Jewish hero. He writes:
“Abraham is our first forefather, the progenitor of the Covenant, and yet we do not call ourselves Bnai Avraham, the ‘Children of Abraham’. We are Bnai Yisrael, the ‘Children of Israel’…” (‘Israel’ was the new name given to Jacob after his defining human experience with God – Genesis 32:24-30).
Jacob? Why Jacob? Jacob is our least likely spiritual ancestor. He is manipulative, conniving, and amoral. He exploits his brother’s weakness to take his birthright. He uses his father’s blindness to steal a blessing. Having succeeded in shattering the family, Jacob offers a bribe to God:
“Jacob made a vow, saying: ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house — the Lord shall be my God…I will set aside a tithe for You.” (Genesis 28: 20-22)
What sort of spiritual hero is this?
How poorly these Jacob stories compared with the epic heroes of other religions: You can read about a spiritual hero born of immaculate conception and living a life perfect, untouched by sin. His life from beginning to end is a masterwork of moral wisdom.
Or we can read of a hero who begins mortal, even sinful, but through grace or will, finds his way to a state of perfect wisdom, perfect action, perfect peace and calmness, returning after death to our world only to bring others along the path toward calm perfection.
But Jacob is a different kind of spiritual hero. He is not born whole or good. He is not born with a divine character. Nor does he ever achieve a perfection of character or spirit. Jacob is not a hero because of what he is. He is a hero because of what he is becoming. The Jacob narratives chronicle the growth of a soul, the development not of a saint, but of a transformed repentant sinner.
The Biblical Authors Portray a Process of Becoming
Is it the same with David. Such spiritual heros portray a process of learning: of change, of struggle, of defeat and renewal. This dynamic is the power of the narrative. And in this process, the hand of God is revealed. Like Jacob’s dream, his life was:
“…a ladder, set on the ground, with its top reaching into the sky, and the angels of God going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28: 10-19)
As Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying:
“Allah is more pleased with the repentance of His servant when he turns penitently towards Him, than one of you [my closest followers] would be at finding a lost camel.” (Saḥîḥ Muslim, 2675i)
The Biblical historians and prophets narrated the flaws of the Kings and Prophets of Israel in order to teach everyone that God is not only forgiving, but that God’s forgiveness helps flawed humans to radically transform their lives and become spiritual heroes.
As the Biblical verse relates:
“Now the acts of David the king, first and last, are written in the book of Samuel the Seer, and in the book of Nathan the Prophet, and in the book of Gad the Seer.” (1 Chronicles 29:29)
These writings of Nathan and Gad were probably incorporated into the presently available Biblical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, which everyone today can read and be inspired by, even 3,000 years later.
“As for the other events of the reign of Solomon, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer…” (Bible, 2 Chronicles 9:29)
[i] Brannon M. Wheeler (2002) Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis, Continuum, London/New York, p. 257.
Click on “Look Inside.” for p.257.