Read The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero Online
Authors: Joel S. Baden
Tags: #History, #Religion, #Non-Fiction, #Biography
Map: Major Sites in the David Story
1 - David’s Youth: The Mythical Origins of the Psalmist and Giant-Slayer
2 - David in Saul’s Service: Revealing a Biblical Cover-Up
3 - David in the Wilderness: From Israelite Soldier to Philistine Vassal
4 - David Becomes King: A Series of Timely Deaths
5 - David’s Kingdom: The Myth of National and Religious Origins
6 - David Under Attack: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
7 - David in Decline: What Goes Around Comes Around
N A SMALL VILLAGE IN
Israel, some three thousand years ago, there lived a man and his wife who owned flocks of sheep and goats that grazed in the fields some distance from the village. One spring day, ten men appeared in the village. They were messengers from a larger gang of fugitives from society who roamed the countryside living as they could. They presented the man with a request: they had been protecting the man’s flocks and shepherds out in the fields and no harm had come to the man’s property, so now they would like the man to give them some money or food for their efforts. The man, who had never encountered this gang before, much less asked them to protect his property, refused to give them anything and turned them away. The next day, the leader of the gang showed up at the man’s door with his full entourage, four hundred men armed to the teeth. Shortly thereafter, the man lay dead, and the gang leader had married the man’s widow, thereby assuming legal ownership of the man’s flocks, servants, house, and fields.
What do we make of this sequence of events? If this were a modern court case, the circumstantial evidence against the gang leader would look bad. It would be hard not to conclude that what we have here is a classic protection racket: the initial message from the gang would be seen as a thinly veiled threat, a threat embodied in the gang leader’s appearance with his armed men and fulfilled, in the end, in the man’s death. The device of marrying his widow would be understood as a “legal” means of justifying the acquisition of the man’s property—essentially a cover-up. And the widow, taken by force—after all, her husband lay dead before her and she was surrounded by his killers—would be as much a victim as the dead man himself.
Though it may be the most plausible explanation given the information we have, this is only one possible way of explaining the events. How we understand what happened, what meaning we make of a plain series of events, depends greatly on who is telling them, and why. As is so often the case, particularly with events from the distant past, we do not have an objective reconstruction of the story. We have no court records, no eyewitness accounts. We have only a single version of these events, and that one is counterintuitive. It presents the gang leader as the hero and the dead man as the villain. For three thousand years, it is this version that has been taken unquestioningly as the truth. For this story comes from the Bible, and the gang leader was none other than David, the future king of Israel.
life of David in my Introduction to the Old Testament class, even in the setting of a prominent divinity school most of the students are unfamiliar with David’s early career as the leader of a band of misfits wandering the wilderness of Israel. Indeed, considering that David is one of the most famous characters from the Hebrew Bible, it is remarkable just how little of his life story is part of our shared cultural knowledge. This is undoubtedly in large part because most of us learn our Bible stories as children, in religious school, and most of the biblical stories about David, as we will see, are decidedly inappropriate for young ears. We know of David, but we can’t say that we know him particularly deeply. The most famous image of him is Michelangelo’s, carved in pure white stone. Compare this with Moses, who, thanks to Cecil B. DeMille’s movie
The Ten Commandments
(and, for a younger generation, DreamWorks’s
The Prince of Egypt
), is rendered in full color and motion: from his birth to the burning bush to the plagues to splitting the sea to the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the golden calf, all the way to his death.
Our knowledge of David exists not as a full-length film, but as short clips and still frames. Our first image is of him as a young man, bravely going forward to battle the Philistine giant Goliath, carrying nothing but a sling and a stone. We see Goliath towering over the Israelite army, in full armor, holding his great sword, taunting the Israelites to send someone out to fight him. We hear David recounting his tales of fighting off lions and bears to protect his family’s flocks and then see him stepping out from the crowd to deliver to Goliath the immortal words: “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts!” And we see the smooth stone striking Goliath in the forehead, the giant falling, the Philistines scattering in terror before their fallen hero.
From Goliath’s death we fast-forward to David sitting on the throne of Israel, not merely as king, but as the composer of the immortal psalms. He has a lyre in his hand, the emblem of the great poet. Perhaps he is speaking those lines most familiar to us from the King James Bible: “A Psalm of David: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This is David at rest, the stately ruler of a peaceful realm, offering his praises to the God who granted him victory over Israel’s enemies and who spared him from disaster.
These are the two moments that best represent David in the popular imagination. But there is far more to his story. The full narrative of his life takes up forty-two chapters in the Bible, spanning from 1 Samuel 16 to 1 Kings 2. The story of Goliath takes up only one chapter—and the writing of the psalms is in fact nowhere in the narrative at all. There is much more to tell of David.
The details of the biblical account of David’s life, even those we are familiar with, are largely subsumed by the
of David: an abstracted, romanticized, idealized figure, less a person of flesh and blood than a symbol of a nation’s glorious past and promising future. We may know Moses better, but we love David more. When I was a child, I, like every other Hebrew school student, learned a simple, one-line song, accompanied by hand gestures and repeated at increasing tempo until we could no longer keep up.
David, melech yisrael, chai chai ve-kayam
—“David, king of Israel, lives and endures.” The song has no story—there is nothing to be learned about David’s life from these five words. What they represent, rather, and what was being instilled in us subconsciously, is David’s status in tradition. We were surely too young to understand, but it is noteworthy that this song describes David not as a figure of the past, but as a part of the present: he “lives and endures.” These words obviously cannot be used to describe a mere king from three thousand years ago. Nor, for that matter, would they be appropriate for any other character from the Hebrew Bible: we would never say that Moses lives and endures, or Abraham, or Jacob, or Isaiah. All of these figures also have legends attached to them, but David is uniquely timeless.
This timelessness is largely due to the third idea commonly associated with David, though it is one without any visual imagery: his role at the head of the lineage leading to the messiah. This idea begins already in the Hebrew Bible. At 2 Samuel 7:16 God promises David an everlasting kingship: “Your house and your kingdom shall be secure before me; your throne shall be established forever.” As the prophets of Israel began to look ahead to a messianic future, it was only natural that they should imagine the future redemptive king as one from David’s line. Thus Isaiah famously announces the birth of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” who will rule in “peace without end upon David’s throne and upon his kingdom” (Isa. 11:1; 9:6). Jeremiah speaks of the time when God “will raise up a righteous branch of David’s line” (Jer. 23:5) and even more explicitly describes the time of Israel’s restoration as one when “they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them” (Jer. 30:9). Ezekiel similarly foresees the return of David in the messianic era: “I will appoint over them a single shepherd to tend them—my servant David. . . . I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be a ruler among them” (Ezek. 34:23–24).
In early Jewish traditions from the first century
, the messiah was known as the “son of David,” a title that continued to be used in the Talmud.
It is most famous, however, from the New Testament, where it is used fifteen times in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, including the very first words of the New Testament: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David” (Matt. 1:1). In the Gospel of John we read, “Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David?” (John 7:42). Jesus is said to be “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3), “a descendant of David” (2 Tim. 2:8), and “the root and descendant of David” (Rev. 22:16). In the book of Acts, a brief history of Israel is recounted, beginning with the Exodus (in the telling of which, notably, Moses is not mentioned) and culminating with David—because “of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus, as he promised” (Acts 13:23). In Christianity, Moses, as the preeminent law-giver, is downplayed, if not outright rejected; David is raised up.
The legend of David is deeply woven into the fabric of Western culture: one need think merely of the range and frequency of uses to which the “David and Goliath” comparison is put. This particular image, certainly the most dramatic from the story of David, resonates deeply with both contemporary Judaism and Christianity. The Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967 were at the time, and have often been since, portrayed as a modern David and Goliath story, with Israel playing the role of David. In 1948, the small, largely ineffective (but noisy) mortars that Israel deployed against their Arab enemies were called Davidkas, “little Davids.” Even now, when Israel’s strength relative to that of its Arab neighbors is obvious, the size of the state and its vulnerable geographical position keep this metaphor alive and well. On the Christian side, one can easily find numerous websites that equate creationism with David and evolutionary theory—with all of the media, scientists, and universities that stand behind it—with Goliath. Not surprisingly, this rhetoric has entered political discourse as well: members of the conservative Tea Party have characterized themselves as David, fighting the Goliath of the liberal media.
It is human nature to idealize figures from the past, particularly those who are associated with origins. In the United States we may think of George Washington, whose legend, from the cherry tree to the crossing of the Delaware, is only loosely if at all connected with historical reality. Or we may recall the national uproar at the revelation of Thomas Jefferson’s romantic exploits, a reaction caused by the sudden intrusion of reality in the previously unblemished image of one of our founding heroes. Idealizing foundational figures is a natural and perhaps unavoidable part of constructing identity. If we identify ourselves as Americans, then we look to our origins, and to the people responsible for the existence of America, as models for what we stand for. It becomes of the utmost importance that these figures from the past be not only exemplars, but exemplary: as their descendants, literally and nationally, we attribute to them the values and virtues we want to see in ourselves. How they really were, what they really did, becomes shrouded in the mists of time—set aside and then forgotten. What remains is the glory, in the stories we (mis-)remember and the stories we (re-)create.
If this idealization happens with the founders of a nation barely two hundred years old, how much more so with the founder of the messianic line that started three thousand years ago. And in the case of David, we have both: he is the founder of the nation of Israel and the ancestor—even, for some, the prototype—of the messiah. It is thus not surprising that those aspects of David’s life that are known are those that attest to his glory: his youthful bravery, his lasting poetry, his imperial kingship. It is similarly unsurprising that the most famous description of David, stated first in the Hebrew Bible and repeated in the New Testament, is that he was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). The idealized cultural memory of David in Judeo-Christian tradition serves the important purpose of providing a model for the messiah and for ourselves, as peoples and as communities of faith. We leave the historical David to the past, and in his place we admire an eternal David constructed of our own hopes and aspirations.
HE CONSTRUCTION OF AN
idealized David is not a recent phenomenon; it began already in the earliest writings about David. As an illustration, we may return to the story we began with, recalling the salient features: David, at this point in his life the leader of a band of fugitives from society living in the wilderness of Israel, sent some of his men to request food or money from a wealthy man in exchange for having “protected” his shepherds and flocks in the wilderness. When the man refused, David arrived at his house with his fully armed entourage; soon enough, the man was dead and David had married his widow, acquiring the man’s property in the process. There are probably innumerable ways to fill the gaps in this sequence of events, but none, it is safe to say, could be as tilted in David’s favor as the biblical version.
According to 1 Samuel 25, the man’s name was Nabal—and his name already predisposes the reader against him, for in Hebrew
means “fool.” What’s more, he is described upon his introduction in the story as “a severe and evil man.” His wife, on the other hand—Abigail—is called “clever and beautiful,” thereby setting up the reader for what is to follow. When David’s men speak to Nabal, they do so with the utmost politeness, with formal greetings and obsequious expressions. Nabal, however, responds coldly, even aggressively, accusing David of being no better than a runaway slave. David’s claim of having protected Nabal’s shepherds—though it is clear that Nabal never requested such protection—is justified by the unsolicited speech, delivered to Abigail, of an unnamed shepherd, who confirms that David had indeed protected Nabal’s men—and who throws in an insult to Nabal in the process: “He is such a base fellow that none can speak to him.” A remarkable exchange follows between Abigail and David, in which she also insults her husband—“pay no attention to that base fellow . . . his name means ‘boor’ and he is a boor”—and praises David to the skies, even going so far as to predict, like a prophetess, his eventual reign over Israel. She gives David and his men an elaborate gift, to make up for Nabal’s stinginess, and effectively condemns her husband: “Let your enemies and those who seek evil against my lord fare like Nabal!” David responds by blessing her for her prudence and for keeping him from doing any harm to Nabal. Though he admits that he had intended to harm Nabal—how could he say otherwise, standing there with four hundred armed men?—he makes eminently clear that he will no longer attack. And thus it is a truly miraculous coincidence when, ten days later, God strikes down Nabal and he dies. The meaning of this divinely ordained death is proclaimed by none other than David himself: “The Lord has brought Nabal’s evil down on his own head.” In the very next moment, David sends men to propose marriage to Abigail, which she accepts without hesitation—after all, she has already foreseen David’s rise to power, and she obviously had little regard for her late husband.