Misconception: King David was not permitted to build the Beit Hamikdash because he had “blood on his hands” from all the wars he fought.
Fact: David mentioned this reason to his son Shlomo, who eventually built the Beit Hamikdash, but that was not the reason G-d conveyed to David through Natan the Prophet when David expressed interest in building the Temple.
Background: King David’s reign was turbulent, filled with war, insurrection and intrigue. Yet at some point after he had his palace built (Shmuel II 5:11) and had transferred the Holy Ark (Aron Kodesh) to Yerushalayim, he perceived that there was a modicum of peace and he desired to build a house for the Aron, i.e., the Beit Hamikdash. He expressed this intention to Natan the Prophet, whose immediate reaction was approval.
And it was when the King [David] dwelt in his house, and the L-rd had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies. And the king said to Natan the Prophet: “See now, I live in a house of cedar, but the Ark of G-d dwells within curtains.”1 And Natan said to the king: “All that is in your heart, go do, for the L-rd is with you” (Shmuel II 7:1-3 [cf. Divrei Hayamim I 17:1-2]).
That very night,2 G-d appeared to Natan and informed him that he had erred3 and that it was a no-go. The prophet informed King David that G-d had scrapped his plan—G-d would establish a dynasty for David, but it would be his son who would build the Beit Hamikdash. Why not King David? G-d’s message to Natan was quite lengthy (Shmuel II 7:4-17; Divrei Hayamim I 17:3-15), and yet the impediment to David’s building it is not at all clear.4 What is clear is that there is no hint or allusion to King David being barred from building the Temple due to his having shed blood. The direct communication from G-d “omitted” that popular explanation.
The straightforward reason Shlomo and not David was to build the Mikdash seems to be linked to the initial Biblical command/promise regarding a Divine house, which would only be built following the conquest, when G-d would give rest in the Land. In Devarim (12:9-11) Moshe tells the Jews:
Since you have not yet reached the resting place [menuchah] and the heritage [nachalah] that Hashem, your G-d, gives you. When you cross the Jordan River and live in the land which Hashem, your G-d, gives you, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, and you will dwell securely;5 then it will be that the site that Hashem, your L-rd, will choose to cause His name to dwell there, it is there that you should bring all that I command you: your burnt-offerings, and your eaten sacrifices, your tithes, and bikkurim, and all your choice vows which you will vow to Hashem.
In King David’s initial proposal, he noted that he had vanquished the enemies and G-d had given him rest from them. He thought that was a sufficient condition to build the Mikdash.6 But the verse in Devarim also includes “dwelling in safety.” Rashi explains (Shmuel II 7:10) that G-d, in his message via Natan, was telling David that true tranquility would only come during his son’s reign and thus that would be the proper time to build the Mikdash. And so it was. Melachim I 5:5 states that in King Shlomo’s time “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan to Be’ersheva, all the days of Shlomo.” Later in that chapter (verse 17), Shlomo explains to Hiram, king of Zur: “You know that David my father could not build a house for the name of the L-rd, his G-d, because of the wars which surrounded him, until the L-rd put them under the soles of my feet [or, his feet].”7 According to Shlomo, the reason David could not build the Temple was not because he was a man of war but because of the wars themselves, i.e., the lack of true peace. Peace and political stability8 are a prerequisite for building the Temple. The postponement in building the Mikdash, according to the books of Shmuel and Melachim, relates to the national situation, to the historical timing, and not to a flaw with King David. Building the Temple requires national rest, menuchah. In Divrei Hayamim I 28:2, David calls the Temple that he planned to build a “beit menuchah—house of rest—for the Aron.” And in foretelling Shlomo’s birth, Divrei Hayamim I 22:9 calls him “ish menuchah” and states that his name will be Shlomo (peaceful) and that peace (shalom) and quiet will be in Israel in his time.
Still and all, the popular notion of why David could not build the Mikdash is not without basis—it appears twice in Divrei Hayamim, the final Biblical book, both times not as part of a prophecy but in King David’s own explanation for why he did not build the Temple. In Divrei Hayamim I 22, King David charges his son Shlomo to build the Temple and explains why he himself did not build it: “But the word of the L-rd came to me, saying: ‘You have shed much blood9 and made great wars; you shall not build a house to My name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My sight’” (Divrei Hayamim I 22:8). David then continues (verse 9) with an explanation that coincides with the explanation from the Book of Shmuel. He tells Shlomo that G-d had promised him: “Behold, a son will be born to you, he will be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about; for his name shall be Shlomo, and I will give peace and quietness to Israel in his days.”
Several chapters later it is recorded that David gathered the nation together and explained that Shlomo will build the Temple and he again says (Divrei Hayamim I 28:3): “But G-d said to me: ‘You will not build a house for My name, because you are a man of war, and you have shed blood.’”
How could King David assert that G-d had told him a reason that is not recorded in the earlier prophecy? Possibly, there was an additional earlier, unrecorded prophecy that is here revealed to the reader of Tanach for the first time; or King David is providing his interpretation of what Natan’s prophecy meant; or he is revealing his inner feelings about what G-d “really meant” by the rejection.
Despite this not being the reason given to Natan in Sefer Melachim, several Rishonim refer to it. Rambam (Introduction to Avot, “Shemoneh Perakim,” ch. 7, pp. 197-8 in Mossad Harav Kook 1989 ed.) explains that Divrei Hayamim I 22:8 means that David had a cruel streak in his personality and therefore G-d did not permit him to build the Mikdash even if that trait was only manifest in the justifiable killing of heretics. Ramban (Bamidbar 16:21) explains that since King David’s personality highlighted the attribute of strict justice, he was not the appropriate person to build a “house of mercy.”
According to a radically different interpretation in the late midrashim,10 Natan explained to David that in G-d’s eye all of the bloodshed he was involved with was “like the killing of deer and gazelles” or like slaughtering sacrifices, i.e. the killing of the wicked was a merit for David. G-d then explained to King David that he could not build the Temple because he was so righteous that if he were to build the Temple, G-d would be unable to destroy it11 and knowing the Jews would sin in the future, G-d, so to speak, wanted to keep that option open.12
Whether or not that was the reason David was disqualified, the taking of a life is an anathema to the Beit Hamikdash. The Mishnah (Middot 3:4; cf. Mechilta and Rashi to Shemot 20:22) explains the Biblical law (Shemot 20:22 and Devarim 27:5-6; Rambam, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:15) that iron may not be used in the preparation of the stones of the altar “because iron was created to shorten man’s days and the altar was created to prolong man’s days, and it is not right therefore that that which shortens should be lifted against that which prolongs.”
Killing may also disqualify a person from certain Temple-related rituals. The Gemara (Berachot 32b), seemingly based on a verse (Yeshayahu 1:15), rules that a kohen who killed is prohibited from duchening in shul (Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah/Nesiat Kapayim 15:3; Shulchan Aruch, OC 128:35). Tosafot (Yevamot 7a, s.v. she’ne’emar) explains that this is actually either a chumrah or unique to duchening, but actual Temple service performed by a kohen convicted of murder is not disqualified. In addition, a majority of posekim treat it as obvious that a kohen who killed in the course of a legitimate war, such as an IDF soldier, may or must continue duchening (Tzitz Eliezer 14:60; Iggerot Moshe, YD 2:158; Yechaveh Da’at 2:14).13 It is interesting to note that the Levi’im were selected to replace the firstborns to serve G-d specifically on account of having killed those responsible for the Eigel (Shemot 32:27-29; Devarim 33:9; Rashi, Shemot 32:29), and Pinchas was elevated to kohen status as a rewward for killing Zimri (Bamidbar 25:13; Rashi, ibid.; Zevachim 101b).
Despite being barred from doing the actual construction, King David put his heart, soul and financial resources into making preparations for the building of the Temple.
The first issue was the location of the future Temple.14 The Sifrei (Devarim 12:5 ) says that the Divine intention was for man to search for the location and the conclusion would then be certified by a navi (to whom G-d would reveal it in response to the human initiative [Malbim, Devarim 12:5]). The Talmud (Zevachim 54b) portrays David and Shmuel as analyzing sources to find the location, David then discovering the site (Divrei Hayamim I 22:1), Natan confirming it (Shmuel II 24:18) and Shlomo building it there (Divrei Hayamim II 3:1).
King David subdivided the priestly and Levitical families into working groups (Divrei Hayamim I 23-26; Divrei Hayamim II 8:14). King David also announced to the nation (Divrei Hayamim I 29:2-3): “I have prepared with all my might for the house of my G-d, gold for the golden objects, and silver for the silver objects. . . . I have a personal treasure of gold and silver that I have given to the house of G-d. . . .” Yet, when all the work was completed, all of David’s materials were still extant and were deposited in the Temple’s treasury, seemingly unused (Melachim I 7:51; Divrei Hayamim II 5:1). Rashi (Divrei Hayamim II 5:1) says that only the copper (based on Divrei Hayamim I 18:8), which is not fitting for a Divine treasury, was used, but none of the precious metals was used.15
The Talmud (Sukkah 53a, Makkot 11a) also portrays David as digging the foundations or subterranean channels of the Temple.
David transmitted to Shlomo the architectural plans for the Temple structure and utensils, all of which are described in Divrei Hayamim I 28:11-19 as being written down as G-d had transmitted it to him—“hakol bichtav miYad Hashem alai hiskil, all this [do I give you] in writing, as the L-rd has made me wise by His hand upon me” (verse 19)—and are thus immutable (see Zevachim 33a; Rambam, introduction to Mishnah about Middot). King David’s intention and preparations for the Temple building were such that what is usually referred to as Solomon’s Temple is sometimes attributed to his father. For example, some Rishonim (e.g., Rashi’s contemporary, Rabbi Joseph Kara, known as Mahari Kara) identify the “sukkat David” of Amos 9:11 and in the Harachaman of Sukkot bentching as the Beit Hamikdash.
Given the enormous significance of building a House for G-d—the building of the Mishkan plays a prominent place in the Torah—it seems strange that it was not until King David that there was even an attempt at building a permanent Mikdash and that ultimately the Mikdash was not inaugurated until 440 years (!) after the Jews entered the Land (Melachim I 6:1). Indeed, Ramban (Bamidbar 16:21) says the Jews sinned by not initiating the building sooner and it angered G-d (Shmuel II 24:1; see Shmuel II 7:1-2) and that is why He revealed its intended location via a plague. Ramban believes that if the Jews had shown a desire for the Mikdash, it would have been built even in the days of the Shoftim, Shaul or David.
The Midrash (Midrash Shmuel 31:4 [cited by Radak to Shmuel II 24:25]; Midrash Tehillim–Shocher Tov, 17) attributes the mass casualties of the plague in David’s time to the fact that the people themselves did not demand a Mikdash. And then it learns a kal vachomer that if they, who had never had a Mikdash, were held accountable, we, who have historically had a Mikdash, should certainly demand it and that is why the Sages instituted a thrice-daily prayer requesting that G-d return His presence to Zion.
Building the Mikdash is a commandment and a privilege that we as a people have not fulfilled for many centuries. Its construction requires that there be peace from without and harmony within. We can “demand” it by creating the necessary conditions of peace and tranquility. May they be met and may it be speedily rebuilt.
1. Based on this verse, Pesikta Rabbati (6 [23b in 1880 ed.]) is critical of David. It contrasts him with Shlomo who built the Mikdash before, and with greater zeal than his own palace, while David turned his attention to the Mikdash only after completing his personal house.
2. Rashi (Shmuel II 7:4) cites a midrash [see Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel II 7, remez 143, p. 311 in 1999 ed.] that offers two reasons why G-d had to rush to stop David that very night.
3. It is interesting that Natan initially responded on his own without waiting for a Divine message. This may reveal something of the monarch-prophet dynamics—the king solicited the prophet’s personal judgment in addition to the prophet serving as a conduit for Divine revelations.
It is curious that G-d permitted Natan to err and then “corrected” him, rather than immediately revealing the Divine will to him. See Chatam Sofer (Nedarim 89b, s.v. v’insiv) for a possible explanation.
4. The Meshech Chochmah (Bamidbar 25:5) reads into Shmuel II 7:8 that G-d was concerned that people would (mis)interpret David’s building of the Beit Hamikdash as a means to consolidate his rule and enhance his name rather than it being for G-d’s glory; this is similar, he says, to why the Levi’im could defend G-d’s honor after the cheit ha’eigel but once they were invested as functionaries they could not do the same after the sin of ba’al pe’or lest it be viewed as self-serving.
Devarim Rabbah 5:10 suggests an entirely different reason why the Mikdash could not be built by David: not because of him, but because the generation was full of gossipers and talebearers and the Shechinah cannot coexist with lashon hara.
5. The rabbis (Sifrei, Re’eh:18 [67:10] [to Devarim12:10]; Sanhedrin 20b; Devarim Rabbah 5:10; Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 1:1-2) understood that the nation of Israel had three communal mitzvot to accomplish upon entering the Land of Israel, and they were to be completed in the following order: anoint a king, annihilate Amalek, and, with peace in the Land, build the Mikdash. It is from this verse that it is derived that the destruction of Amalek precedes the building of the Mikdash. Chazal assumed that the conditions had been met in David’s time.
6. Rashi in both Devarim (12:10-11) and Shmuel II (7:1-2) considers the situation that David describes as a fulfillment of the Biblical condition.
7. Radak (Melachim I 5:17) thinks that Shlomo was covering up the real reason in order to protect his father’s honor.
8. A dynasty, which seems to be a precondition for building the Mikdash, is a minimum of two kings. The promise of a dynasty also appears to be a reward for David’s desire to build the Mikdash. The word used for dynasty in Shmuel II 7 is bayit, house, the same word King David used for the Mikdash. “Bayit,” meaning either mikdash (palace) or dynasty appears fifteen times in that chapter. Note that in Psalm 132 G-d also promises a Davidic dynasty after David promises to build a mikdash.
9. King David does not explain what bloodshed is referred to. According to the simple reading, it refers to the many legitimate wars. Radak (Divrei Hayamim I 22:8) raises the possibility that it may refer to the blood of Uriah the Hitti (but cf. Kiddushin 43a) or of the kohanim of Nov. He then suggests (similar to Metzudat David) that it may refer to collateral casualties during wars against the enemies. Radak notes that David was not punished for the civilian deaths as he did not do anything wrong, but nonetheless it is not compatible with building the Mikdash. (On the application of this to the question of civilian casualties in modern warfare, see Minchat Asher, Devarim 32:6.)
Rabbi Shlomo Goren (Meishiv Milchamah 1 (1983), pp. 23-25) suggests a creative explanation based on Sifre Debei Rav, Eikev: 51. He says it was the deaths of the (12,000) Jewish soldiers killed in the “private,” non-halachic war that David initiated to capture Aram Naharayim and Aram Tzova before capturing the seat of the Mikdash in Yerushalayim. This loss of life was considered an affront to the Mikdash.
10. Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel II 7, remez 145, pp. 312-3 in 1999 ed.; Pesikta Rabbati 2, 7a-b in 1880 ed.; Midrash Tehillim-Shocher Tov, 62:4 on verse 62:13.
11. Indeed, the gates (either of the city [Rashi] or of the Temple [Maharsha]), which were made by David, never fell into enemy hands (Sotah 9a).
12. Seforno (Shemot 38:21) suggests that the reason the Mishkan built by Moshe and Betzalel never fell into enemy hands, as happened to both Temples, was because the Mishkan was built by Jewish labor, while the Temples used foreign workers.
13. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik seems to be a lone dissenting voice on this issue (Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Nefesh HaRav (1994), p. 132). He would quote Divrei Hayamim I 22:8 about King David as support for his position.
14. It is not because of a story about brotherly love that the site was selected (see “What’s the Truth about . . . the Legend of Two Brothers and the Temple Mount?” Jewish Action, 74:1 (fall 2013), jewishaction.com/religion/jewish-law/whats-the-truth-about-the-legend-of-two-brothers-and-the-temple-mount/).
15. Pesikta Rabbati (end of 6 [25b-26a in 1880 ed.], quoted by Rashi to Divrei Hayamim II 5:1) gives two reasons, one in praise and one a sharp criticism, as to why David’s materials were ultimately not used by Shlomo. Either David prayed that the materials not be used because he foresaw the destruction of the Temple and was afraid the idolaters would take materials from the Temple as spoils in war and claim the Temple’s destruction was their god’s revenge; or G-d was upset because during a devastating three-year famine, David hoarded the cache of precious metals for a future Mikdash rather than use it to save lives. (Me’am Loaz [Shemot 25:1-2] says this is the “bloodshed” by David and the reason he was not permitted to build the Beit Hamikdash. In either case, his material was not needed and not used.
Ralbag (Melachim I 7:51) suggests that Shlomo did not commence construction until the fourth year of his reign so that he could assemble the raw materials on his own during a period of peace. Just as G-d did not desire David, the man of war, to build the Temple, He did not want Shlomo to use the materials that David had collected from the spoils of war.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.