David’s battles in Transjordan aimed at controlling commercial interests along the King’s Highway consumed a significant portion of his reign. While it is difficult to reconstruct the biblical chronology, a probable sequence of events can be suggested based on the overall geographical and political realities that David faced in the east. His first move was against Moab, specifically the Medeba Plateau, former kingdom of Sihon and now home to the Israelite tribe of Reuben (2 Sam 8:2; Num 21:21–32; Deut 2:26–37). David’s move posed a threat to Hanun king of the Ammonites, who also needed the plateau as his own front line of expansion. Hanun marshaled support from Beth-rehob, Zobah, Maacah and Tob, emerging Aramean states in northern Transjordan, and engaged David’s army east of Medeba, but the Ammonite-Aramean coalition was routed by David’s general Joab (2 Sam 10:1–14). David’s battles against the Ammonite capital Rabbah, in which Uriah was killed, may have taken place as a follow-up (2 Sam 11:1; 12:26–31). As a consequence, Hadad-ezer king of Zobah pulled together an even larger coalition of Aramean states from as far north as the Euphrates to try to stop David from advancing to Damascus. The battle lines were drawn at Helam in eastern Bashan, across the same pivotal land between Israel, Ammon and Aram-Damascus that Moses had taken from Og (Num 21:33–35; Deut 3:1–11). Again, David’s forces routed the Arameans, and many members of the coalition became David’s vassals (2 Sam 10:15–19). David next took the battle directly to Damascus (2 Sam 8:3–8). Under the Middle Eastern adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Toi king of Hammath, the major Aramean kingdom just north of Damascus and a state always at odds with its southern neighbor, established a treaty of joint-recognition with David (2 Sam 8:9–10), thus surrounding Damascus and bringing the most important Aramean center into David’s orbit as a result. At some point David had also defeated Edom in the Valley of Salt, the wasteland of the Rift Valley abutting the southern end of the Dead Sea, and established garrisons throughout that land as well (1 Kgs 11:14–22).
David was perhaps less successful in domestic matters. Problems of tribal unification still loomed large, and he took various steps to try to bring all Israel together. He allowed Mephibosheth, Saul’s lame son and the last hope of his truncated dynasty, for instance, to “eat at the king’s table,” thereby bestowing status and honor on the remnants of Saul’s line and hopefully gaining northern loyalty in the process (2 Sam 9:1–13; cf. 4:4). And of course David brought the Ark of the Covenant from Kiriath-jearim—it had lacked a proper home since the Philistines had destroyed Shiloh during the days of Eli and Samuel—to Jerusalem with an eye toward establishing Jerusalem as the primary religious center of the country (2 Sam 6:1–23; 7:1–29). Yet rebellion was always at hand, even in his own family. Typical to monarchies in the ancient Near East, David had multiple wives, partly to cement diplomatic relations with neighboring states and partly as a sign of wealth and prestige. And, true to form, sons from some of his lesser queens actively positioned themselves for the throne. Of note are Absalom, whose coup d’état was nearly successful, and Adonijah (2 Sam 15:1–18:18), who jumped the secession gun by attempting to have himself crowned king while David was on his deathbed (1 Kgs 1:5–53; 2:19–25).
David’s nominal control of the entire Levant, from the Sinai to the Euphrates River, was consistent with the covenant that God had made with Abraham: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the River Euphrates” (cf. 1 Kgs 4:21; cf. Gen 15:18). Moreover, the genuine remorse that David showed in response to the Bathsheba Affair is not only a timeless example of true repentance, but shows that this king was different than the others and worthy of launching a very special kingdom (2 Sam 11:1–12:25; Ps 51:1–19). And David’s relationship with the prophet Nathan was both personal and far-reaching, establishing a protocol that could have guided the relationship between Israel’s king and temple in future generations.
David died in peace (1 Kgs 2:1–12), yet nothing was so secure that the future of the kingdom could be assured. In some ways the tasks that faced Solomon, eldest living son of the great royal queen, Bathsheba, were even greater than his father’s, for loyalties could not be assumed and the young monarch’s own hands had not been hardened in battle. Moreover, a rich son in the public eye too often succumbs to the playboy syndrome, and Solomon had certain tendencies that had to be refined. Because a new nation is most at risk during its first transfer of power, Solomon had to show decisive leadership or David’s legacy would have been in vain. By removing any hint of insurrection among those close to the throne, including David’s priest Abiathar and general Joab, both of whom had supported the usurper Adonijah, and Shimei, a holdover from the house of Saul (1 Kgs 2:5–6, 19–46), Solomon gained the necessary reputation to hold onto a kingdom in a part of the world where strength is respected and a show of weakness always exploited.