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David’s Temple in Jerusalem | 2 Samuel 12:20

He Went into the House of the Lord

Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the LORD, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate.
2 Samuel 12:20

Here we find a text which in the main Jewish and Christian commentaries have either avoided altogether or have attempted to offer some gloss to harmonise what is otherwise a glaring contradiction in the David-Solomon narrative. We are to understand from the text that Yahweh would not permit King David to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, promising instead to establish the house — or dynasty — of David forever (2 Samuel 7:1–17), and that it was his son, Solomon, who built a temple for Yahweh in the capital of Judah. Yet, in 2 Samuel 12, after the death of his infant son, we read that David went into the temple of Yahweh (בית־יהוה) and worshipped. The suggestion here is that there was indeed a temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem during the reign of King David.

Attempts to explain this temple in Jerusalem before Solomon built his temple invariably point to the ark of the covenant which David had brought into the city (2 Samuel 6:17), arguing that the house of Yahweh in 2 Samuel 12:20 must have been the tent constructed in the city of David to house the ark. The text, however, simply does not allow for this reading; the אהל (‘tent’) of 2 Samuel 6:17 and the בית (‘house’) of 2 Samuel 12:20 are quite different structures. The first, the ʾō՛⋅hĕl, functions to create a relationship between Jerusalem and the northern — Israelite — tradition of the mobile sanctuary. The second, the beit-Yahweh, is very much about the Deuteronomistic centralisation of the Yahwistic cult at Jerusalem; the city of David.

According to the biblical narrative David took the stronghold of Jerusalem — which was not an Israelite or Judahite tribal territory — from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6–10). The Canaanite city of URU-Shalim had been a fortified town since before the fourteenth century BCE, and, as its name suggests, was dedicated to the Canaanite deity Šalām; a god of the venus-type, a god of dusk (Albright 187). It is quite inconceivable that a city like Jerusalem would not have had a temple. Thomas Römer makes this same point:

The historical explanation for why David did not build a temple may perhaps be very simple, namely, that when he annexed Jerusalem there was already a large sanctuary there, but it was occupied by another god. The text of 2 Samuel 12 seems to presuppose the existence of a temple in Jerusalem at the time of David (Römer 94).

The issue we have with this text is in fact with the historicity of the biblical account. Indeed, there is no reason to doubt the existence of King David. The royal dynasty of Judah we know from the eighth century onward must have had a founder and extra-biblical sources such as the Tel Dan stele and possibly the Mesha stele do reference ‘the house of David.’ But we have no archaeological evidence from Jerusalem for David, and this is not surprising given that the most likely location for the city of David is beneath the Temple Mount. For very modern religious and political reasons archaeological research in this part of Jerusalem is not possible. What we do know from the archaeology of Judah outside Jerusalem, however, is that the picture painted in the Bible of David’s reign in the tenth century BCE is a literary retrojection of a later period. Judahite authors and chroniclers from the seventh century were embellishing the memory of David. The united monarchy of Israel and Judah and its territorial expanse is a historical fiction, more likely an ideological projection of the ideal Israel.

What is actually then presented to the reader of 2 Samuel 12 is a seventh or sixth century BCE retrojection; from a time after the 722 destruction of Samaria (and the northern kingdom of Israel) by the Assyrians, when Jerusalem was the only remaining Hebrew kingdom and at a time when the sacrificial cult of Yahwism was centralised (or was in the process of being centralised) in the city. We are then left with the problem of why later editors — of which there were many — overlooked or elected to leave this temple in 2 Samuel 12. It is unlikely to have been an oversight. A temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem when there wasn’t meant to be one is simply too much of an oversight, so we must accept that there was a temple in the city of Jerusalem in the tenth century. Yet, this need not have been, as Römer asserts, a temple of Yahweh.

There is a curious passage in 1 Kings 16 that may shed some light on this problem. King Ahab is said to have erected an altar of Baal in the temple of Baal in his capital at Samaria:

And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria (1 Kings 16:31–32).

Why would the installation of an altar of Baal in the temple of Baal be in any way problematic? Surely the problem, from the standpoint of the Yahwistic author, was that Samaria — the capital of Israel — had a temple of Baal in the first instance. Building an altar of Baal for the temple of Baal would have been the lesser of these two evils. This becomes a problem, from the point of view of the Yahweh-alone faction in Judah, if what had actually happened was that Ahab erected an altar to Baal in the temple of Yahweh in Samaria. Yahweh was worshipped in Samaria. We know this from the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions. We also know from the names he gave his children that Ahab was a Yahwist. It is likely then that the 1 Kings 16 text has been redacted in order to remove the temple of Yahweh from Samaria; thus giving us the reconstructed reading: ‘He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Yahweh’ (Pakkala 269). The temple in Samaria was a composite shrine; it served for the veneration of several gods.

Tenth century Jerusalem predates Jewish monotheism by at least half a millennia. It predates Yahwistic henotheism. The archaeology of both Israel and Judah presents us with a thoroughly Canaanite polytheistic religious landscape in which we would expect to find a number of deities served by a single urban temple. It is arguable then that the ‘house of Yahweh’ in 2 Samuel 12 was a composite shrine in which Yahweh was worshipped along with other Canaanite gods. The temple built by Solomon — if such has any historical veracity — was likely a refurbishment of the ancient Jebusite temple inherited by David. More likely than this, however, the temple of Solomon — as a temple for Yahweh alone — is a retrojection of the Yahweh-alone cultic reforms by King Josiah in the late seventh century BCE (2 Kings 23:1–20).


Albright, William Foxwell. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths. Winona Lake, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Pakkala, Juha. “The Origins of Yahwism from the Perspective of Deuteronomism.” The Origins of Yahwism, edited by Jürgen van Oorschot and Markus Witte, De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 265-279.

Römer, Thomas. The Invention of God. Translated by Raymond Geuss, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2015.


Published by Jason Michael

Scottish journalist and blogger living in Dublin, Ireland. Postgraduate in Sociology, Academic Fellowship (History of World War I) and lecturer in Biblical Studies.

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