OVER THE PAST TWO MILLENNIA, King David has been the subject of as much lore as any figure from ancient history other than Jesus. Indeed, Jesus himself was said to have been a descendant of David and a fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise to the ancient king. In early Judaism, David represented the golden age of Israel’s past; some even today quote one Talmudic teaching: "Whomever says (King) David sinned, is mistaken." In Islamic tradition, he was a prophet with a stunning voice. According to several medieval Muslim scholars, David’s singing was so mesmerizing that the birds and wild animals would rather die of thirst and hunger than leave his side.
David is also one of the most represented biblical figures in the history of art and literature, appearing in innumerable biblical manuscript illustrations and in the portfolios of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Bellano, Dryden, and Heller, among many others. Yet not all have eulogized him. The Bible has inspired idealistic images of David, but also criticism and mockery. Readers find intertextual resonances of this unpleasant David in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and he was a model prince for Machiavelli. In the past century, his nastier side is seen in, among others, Faulkner’s tragic character Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!, Stefan Heym’s The King David Report, and Swedish novelist Torgny Lindgren’s Bathsheba.
These representations amount to a legion of Davids, each constructed into a figure his re-creator fancied him to be. These many different impressions of David are possible because the biblical narrative itself contains all of the salacious and idyllic, critical and romantic images side by side. Depending on which elements you wish to focus on, you are bound to find your David.
Even though many of these interpreters from ancient to modern times have seen David’s tarnished image, Joel Baden, professor of Old Testament at Yale University, believes that the biblical writers still left us with an overly glamorized biography; he also thinks that he can easily expose their trick. Assuming that to get to the real history we need only to dissect the narrative, Baden aims to reach behind the Bible’s equivalent of “political spin” in order to unveil the “real” David. Baden has written several works on the composition of the Hebrew Torah (the books from Genesis to Deuteronomy in our modern Bibles), and his ideas have electrified the field and sparked impassioned debate. Nonetheless, David’s biography and the formation of Israel’s ancient united monarchy are new territory for this scholar. His courage to make a first splash in the trade market by choosing one of the most controversial and complex areas of historical study is impressive.
Baden takes seriously the Bible’s contribution to ancient history and popularizes a fascinating subject that often remains inaccessible. These aims are wholeheartedly welcomed, and if Baden were to offer a picture of David based upon solid research, I would be his biggest publicist. Regrettably, his outstanding intent flounders; his reading of the Bible is a strange brew of conservative assumptions, his own imaginative fiction, and a kind of tabloid journalism, with which he wants to shock the religiously sensitive reader. Moreover, Baden chooses not to engage with the abundant research produced over the past few decades in this fertile field. To be sure, this is a trade book, not a scholarly monograph, as some have already pointed out in his defense. But such an excuse is dispiriting; in a venture like Baden’s, the public should be able to trust that a popular work, written by a scholar, is based on the most up-to-date discussions, not on an outdated bibliography and peripheral opinions. “Scholarly” is not an antonym of “popular”; we would never tolerate such a dichotomy from scientists.
Baden’s assumption that the biblical material on David was written in the 10th century, during or shortly after David’s reign, puts him at odds with the increasing number of scholars who have argued since the 1990s that the “history” was produced by Judean writers no earlier than the eighth century. There is no reason to doubt that some collective memories about David’s life and reign could have persisted for centuries, but the commitment to writing them down in narrative form did not begin until at least 200 years after his rule. Moreover, the form of the text we now hold in our hands was not complete until many centuries after that. We are a long way away from reading eyewitness accounts from courtiers of the shepherd-turned-king. We can certainly use the Bible as a source for ancient history, but we should not get too excited about what it might offer us for ancient biographies.
There is something to be learned from a new trend emerging in Historical Jesus research. Traditionally, historians of Jesus have read the Gospels with the intent of separating the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” The latter is the divine Lord we know from the New Testament. But if we apply certain “criteria of authenticity” to the Gospel writings, we can isolate inauthentic material from authentic, and by this extraction we can arrive at the “historical Jesus.” For example, scholars in this mold consider specious those sayings attributed to Jesus that reflect the interests of the early Christian community, or the interests of the Gospel writers themselves. These followers likely fabricated the sayings to put their beliefs into Jesus’s mouth.
Over the last several decades the center has shifted so that now an increasing number of specialists are pessimistic about our ability to reach the historical Jesus behind the texts. They are giving up the pursuit of an uninterpreted Jesus, a Jesus some would say that no longer exists, while others that he never did at all. The highly theological texts in which we find Jesus provide our only access to him, but even if we had other non-biblical sources, these too would be interested interpretations.
Thus Baden’s project is hopeful and depressing at the same time. It is hopeful because he recognizes that the Bible is often all we have for ancient Israelite history. And it is depressing because, instead of asking why the biblical authors created the David that we have, Baden assumes that he can take us behind the narrative to a historical figure, and asserts that, in doing so, he uses an “objective historical perspective.” But those who are confident in their ability to apply an objective historical perspective to get to David, as Chris Keith has written on the search for the historical Jesus, “might as well be in search of unicorns.”
Should additional textual sources from the ancient Near East become available, they too will offer more interpretations. We are now and will be forever reading an interpreted David, a David mediated by writers and editors living and working centuries after the historical figure. We should not be overly confident in our ability to recover “the real life” of a man who lived more than 3,000 years ago.
Along with much previous scholarship, Baden takes the David material to be an apology, reasoning that, since the writers have painted such an idealistic portrait, they must be covering something up. When we pick apart the narratives, his argument goes, we are left with a core of historically accurate material, and we can do this because in their use of mundane details we can find the authors’ hidden motives. For example, the biblical writers tell us repeatedly that David had no part in the death of Saul, which only raises our suspicions that he did. We are also told of David’s encounter with a wealthy tribal chief, Nabal, when he demands recompense for unrequested protection. When Nabal refuses, the Bible says God strikes him dead. David winds up with his wealth, his possessions, and his wife. In a matter of hours, David becomes the wealthiest and most powerful man in Judah. If we pay attention to the details in the biblical narrative, as Baden shows us, we feel as if we are watching The Sopranos.
For the most part, Baden’s historical method is rather simple: the “non-historical pro-David elements” should be removed; the more tainted David remains in an account, the more Baden is inclined to give a thumbs-up for historicity. His extracted David is a revolting man; Baden says that the “real” David is not the heroic figure of later tradition, but a liar, a traitor, and a murderer.
Yet Baden creates drama that isn’t always there, because David’s peccadillos and felonies are all too easy to see. Already on the surface of the biblical narrative David is deeply flawed, and it is the Bible’s revelatory brutality that makes Baden’s objective — to tear down the marble statue of David in order to reveal to us the bad boy — futile. The alleged con artists must have been too incompetent to cover their tracks. Baden presents his project as the light that comes after millennia of blindness, but anyone with access to a Bible can read the same scandalous picture of David without his help. And so readers have. Two millennia of Jewish and Christian interpreters have found lessons for the faithful from David’s repentance, not from their reading of a perfectly lived life. John Calvin wrote of David’s “perfidious homicide,” calling him a “traitor” and a “wretched king.” Martin Luther said David broke “nearly the whole of the ten commandments” and would have “made himself appear to be a just and holy king” were it not for the rebuke of the prophet Nathan.
How Baden reads the Bible as the primary source for his David and deconstructs it at the same time can be tortuous. His obsession with historical veracity sometimes forces him to take the more difficult path when an easier explanation is available, or even to abandon his own historical method. One example: when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Bible says he offered sacrifices every six steps. Baden expends some effort trying to understand how this could have been. Animals sacrificed every six steps couldn’t have been burnt offerings, writes Baden; nor does the text mention an altar. He concludes that the listing of numerous sacrifices is typical of his ostentatious David. The sacrifices were “pure show.” Baden could be right when he suggests that David feigned the procession to demonstrate his piety. Yet, by Baden’s own approach — finding historical subtexts in texts overlaid with ideology — we should be discounting the story anyway. How does he know that it is the historical David who wanted to show off his piety and not the later writers who wanted to cast David in a pious light?
Does Baden have a real audience in mind or is he talking to a straw man? He spends several pages hyping up his revelation that David is not responsible for “the full-blown composition of the entire Psalter”: “When the traditions are unraveled and the evidence examined, it becomes apparent that David did not write the psalms.” But how many today — even at conservative Bible colleges and Yeshivas — believe that David is the author of the entire Psalter? Ancient readers did, but surely they’re not expected to read this book. Baden sensationalizes this as on par with the most scandalous cover-ups in history:
With this realization the traditional image of David is irrevocably altered. The lyre has dropped from his hands; these magnificent songs, full of joy and suffering, hope and faith, have vanished from his throat and pen. […] Without them, the David we have inherited as a culture becomes something of an empty vessel.
The David of history may or may not have authored some of the psalms. He may or may not have played the lyre. We do not know. But Baden’s pendulum swing to destroy the whole image of David the musician is just as unreliable as the view that David composed the entire Psalter, and it is not very clear who Baden is targeting with this demolition job.
On the love between Jonathan and David, it comes as no surprise to discover where Baden takes us. The terminology employed in the Bible’s depiction of their relationship is most often described as political or covenantal loyalty, not homoerotic love. But the latter is what Baden chooses from the menu, and if they were lovers, he writes, “there is no indication that anyone at the time would have batted an eye over it, much less have been morally outraged.”
There is no indication either way, because the subject doesn’t appear in our oldest texts. The famously cited condemnations of homosexuality in Leviticus are in texts from the sixth or fifth century BCE; but if I had to take my bets on the views on homosexuality in 10th-century Israelite/Judean society, I’d imagine they’d be doing more than batting their eyes. Baden states that this relationship is a literary construct; for what purpose, then, if the real world wouldn’t take notice, would the writers create a homosexual lover? How would it help them portray David as the ideal king?
As is so often the case in this book, Baden confidently declares as historical fact an interpretation for which no certainty can possibly exist. He argues that Solomon is not the son of David but of Uriah. The well known biblical story is that David slept with Bathsheba while her husband, Uriah, was off at war; when the king was unable to persuade Uriah to come back to his wife — in order to make it seem he was the one who impregnated her — David had him killed. With Uriah dead, David took Bathsheba as his wife to cover up his illicit affair. The child dies, but now they are married and have another, Solomon, the next in line for the throne. To Baden, the story goes out of its way to connect Solomon to David. He smells a cover-up. Solomon’s real father must have been Uriah, a fact that forced the writers to create a fiction to explain how Solomon had a right to the kingship. The biblical story already contains all the disgrace you could possibly want, but Baden substitutes it with another scandal. Why not just keep the first one?
Baden’s analysis is at its best when he follows well established, uncontroversial scholarly positions. His more provocative assertions, though, rhetorically crafted to raise the most eyebrows, rely on the work of Baruch Halpern. The latter’s beautiful, eccentric David’s Secret Demons (2001) was enjoyable and challenging for its vibrant (but never sensationalist) prose and creativity. It was a serious attempt, however strange, to engage with then-current scholarship and to offer a radically different portrait of the ancient king. Steven L. McKenzie’s King David: A Biography (2000) was more traditional in the historical methods used, but it too was a serious work of scholarship, grounded in the literature and in a sober analysis of the text. McKenzie wrote for the same audience as Baden, but his book was both scholarly and popular.
Baden doubtless succeeds in telling his version of these Bible stories for the widest possible readership, but he doesn’t take us any closer to the historical David. In the task of historical reconstruction we find ourselves faced with ineluctable interpretation, and so we welcome Baden’s David to the legion, but the “real,” historical David, whoever he was, is as out of reach for us today as he has been for millennia.
Timothy Michael Law is Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in the Georg-August Universität Göttingen and editor-in-chief of the Marginalia Review of Books.