March 8, 2001
The Real King David
"King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel" by Jonathan Kirsch (Ballantine Books, $28)
In his "Reading the Book: Making the Bible a Timeless Text," Rabbi Burton Visotzky writes, "To the extent that the Bible reveals the words of God to a community, it is essential that students get those words down right, so that they may become part of the community. In certain communities, students of the Bible are free to question, grapple, doubt and deny -- so long as they first hear their community's reading of God's word."
Jonathon Kirsch's "King David" illustrates well the tensions nonliteralist, religiously committed modern Jews need to manage. As such, in addition to its succinct recounting of David's biography, it serves well as a breezy, popular introduction to contemporary biblical scholarship.
Kirsch straddles two different interpretive communities. The bulk of "King David" is a compendium of exegesis drawn from some of the best academic biblical scholars: Robert Alter, P. Kyle McCarter Jr., E. A. Speiser, Richard Elliott Friedman and David Noel Freedman, just to select a few outstanding names. Rich with the thoughts and observations of these scholars, Kirsch effectively describes the issues and framework that energize these dedicated students of scripture. His friendly, journalistic tone prevents any creeping academic dryness: David's story is captivating, and the methodological asides stimulating.
Clearly drawn and sympathetic to an academic interpretation, Kirsch does not surrender his membership in the Jewish interpretive community. Although he calls on traditional rabbinic exegesis very rarely, Kirsch harkens to Jewish tradition when he tries to explain why we keep reading a book about a man he describes as ruthless, sexually excessive and at times thuggish.
Quoting Gerhard Van Rad, Kirsch asserts that the story of David shows us "a wholly new departure in spirituality, a kind of 'enlightenment,' an awakening of spiritual self-consciousness." Or, as Kirsch puts it, we read the story of David because "we may come closer to understanding what God expected of David, what God expects of all of us -- or, at least what we ought to expect of ourselves: 'Be a mensch!'"
But it takes Kirsch a long time to get there. Kirsch attempts to unpack, from a text overlaid with millennia of interpretations, the real, flesh-and-blood King David hiding underneath traditionalist pieties. So taken is he with this exercise that, true to his membership in the community of modern scholastic interpreters, he goes to some length to parse out which parts of the King David story are which: this section he declares was written by the court historian (in either David or Solomon's time); this section is a pietistic, theological overlay from a latter editor-redactor of the text.
The true story is David's biography: his adventures, travails, failings. The true story is the story Kirsch teases out of the two books of Samuel that revealed a petty brigand ruthlessly pursuing power, regardless of the human cost it entails. David is compared, along the way, to guerrilla warrior chieftain Che Guevara, to the sexual misadventurers JFK and Bill Clinton, to Marlon Brando's Godfather biding his time until the moment for vengeance comes. At points, Kirsch's efforts to debunk the traditionalist adoration of David almost overwhelms the rest of his work.
The same holds true of the sometimes too facile analogies Kirsch employs to move forward the story of David; at one point, Saul's massacre of the priests at Nob by his agent Doeg are likened to the Nazi liquidation of Lidice, the Irgun-Stern Gang attack on Deir Yassin and My Lai. It is arguable that even the human costs, as tragic as each of these incidents were, were not the same in all three: Lidice was a formal government-authorized massacre; the perpetrators of My Lai were court-martialed; and the Haganah, the official Israeli Army, almost fought a civil war with the Irgun. On the other hand, the rabbinic commentaries about Doeg, all universally hostile and condemnatory, were passed over in Kirsch's reading of the incident.
These are quibbles. A more serious quarrel is Kirsch's dismissal of a traditionalist view of David, best illustrated by his view of David as the Psalmist. Concerning what may well be the literary climax of the second book of Samuel (chapter 22, considered so important that a copy of the poem, with some very mild variants, is repeated as the 18th psalm), Kirsch writes, "And yet the words mouthed by David at this moment (his final victory over a second attempted coup d'etat lead by Sheba) are profoundly at odds with the ironic and measured lyricism of elegy to Jonathan -- and, for that matter, with the man whom we have come to know so intimately. In fact, virtually nothing in David's song of thanksgiving rings quite true."
Kirsch's argument is that the cunning and beguiling King David exposed in the biographical sections of First and Second Samuel is not the religiously devoted, rigorously monotheistic, God-dependent writer of Psalms and Second Samuel 22. The real story is the biography of the bandit chief, not the theological insertions of a latter period.
But why is that necessarily the real story? Could David not have been both the brigand and the pietist, the human actor striding with sword, demanding protection money and the religious devotee? True, he sinned with Bathsheba -- but the rabbis mined that sinning for great stories of repentance and redemption.
Sometimes perhaps we get lost in trying to find the real story. It is a bit presumptuous to mine a single 2,500- or 3,000-year-old text with no supporting documentation to trace the motivations and character of a person when, armed with masses of documents, photographs and testimonies, we can still barely decipher the character and internal life of, for example, Abraham Lincoln.
It all depends on which interpretative community one belongs to: Do we study biblical text for moral instruction, as Kirsch finally acknowledges on his final pages, or for history? But we do know that the Bible isn't history, or at least not what we would now describe as history. And, when we mine it as such, we will have to content ourselves that even our best answers will be confounded by others' quarrels and quibbles.