There was a lively exchange between Scott Goldsteinand Steve Darabaner about the origin, and the history of the Magen David, and how it became a symbol of the Jewish people. Substantially Scott highlighted the salient features. I would like to elaborate more on what he wrote.
The Magen David
by Jacques Abourbih
Evidence shows that for most of history the hexagram we now identify as the Magen David had no specific Jewish connection whatsoever. The Magen David became firmly established as a recognizable symbol of Judaism only relatively recently. In some form or another, the hexagram was found almost universally in ancient times. The first appearance of this symbol in the Middle East goes back as early as 3000 BCE (5000 years ago). Later on, from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Pre Israelite Holy Land, it travelled to Greece, Cyprus and Persia.
The first mention of it in a Jewish context was in association, not with King David’ shield, but with King Solomon’s signet ring Hotem Shelomo. At that, King Solomon used it not as a national Jewish symbol, but supposedly used it for its magical powers.
The first time the Magen David appears as a distinct Jewish symbol is on a coin struck by Shimo’on Bar Kochbah in the year 135 C.E. during the Jewish War against Rome. However, it was not likely chosen for its national emblem value. It was used because the hexagon symbolizes a star symbolizing the leader Bar-Kochbah whose name literally mean “Son of a Star”. In Hebrew, the word for Star is Kochav. The Hexagram symbol on the coin also evokes the biblical prophecy that “a star will arise from Jacob” (Bamidbar–Numbers 24:17)
The next time we see the hexagram as a Jewish symbol is in association with kabbalah in medieval Europe. It was used as in Solomon’s days as a magical symbol. For 10th and 11th century kabbalists it was only a short step from speculative mysticism (Kabbalah Ma’assit) to magical practice. A 13th century work known as Iddra Rabba (Great Assembly) which is part of the centrepiece of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, refers twice to the Magen David: Magen David Arikh Anpin (G-d as long suffering) and Ze’ir Anpim (G-d impatient). Often the hexagram was used on amulets for women for protection during childbirth. Meanwhile the hexagram also continued in Christian Europe as a magical symbol.
In the 16th century, R. Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal of Prague) created the Golem using kabbalsitic incantations and the hexagram symbol. He inscribed on the Golem’s forehead the Hebrew word EMET (truth—one of G-d’s attributes). The Golem ran amok whereupon the Maharal removed the Aleph from the word EMEt on its brow leaving the rest. This spelled the word MET (meaning death in Hebrew), whereupon the Golem fell to dust.
The 14th century marks the first time that the Magend David is recognized as a Jewish symbol. This was in Prague when a flag with the Magen David officially represented the Jewish community. This marks the start of the Magen David assumed prestige as a recognized Jewish symbol. The importance of Prague in the world politically at the time played a major role since Prague was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. By 1642, the official seal of the Jewish community showed the Magen David. It was then well on its way to become what it is today as an international Jewish symbol. From there it travelled across Europe and via Amsterdam to the New World.
When the winds of liberation swept Europe with the French revolution in 1789, emancipated Jews needed an emblem of their own to march into the brave new world where post –emancipation made Jews less discernable in society. The Magen David was there to fill this role. The menorah depicted on the Arc of Titus in Rome evoked too much the memory of nationhood lost to claim status as a Jewish emblem. In 1897 at the First Zionist Congress in Basle, the Zionist movement adopted the Magen David as the symbol of the movement.
During the Nazi era, unfortunately the Magen David became a symbol with another meaning. With the Independence of the State of Israel, the Magen David has resumed it proud place as our international emblem.