Just about everything you think you know about Israel's iconic King David is wrong.
At least Joel Baden, author of The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero, makes that argument in this just-released-yesterday book. And he makes a compelling, though not quite airtight, case that the stories in the Bible about David are mostly pro-David propaganda with little in the way of historical foundation.
It's a fascinating read, though at times Baden seems a little too convinced that he has thoroughly unmasked the ways in which the authors of the biblical stories about David sometimes rearranged reality to fit their goal of making David seem like a powerful, wise and loving hero.
Still, I found it hard to come away from this book with the same view of David that I had long held, one I learned as a child in Sunday school.
Instead of real history about this intriguing king, argues Baden, associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, the Bible offers "an abstracted, romanticized, idealized figure, less a person of flesh and blood than a symbol of a nation's glorious past and promising future."
But let's begin with the two things most Christians and Jews think they know about David -- that he killed Goliath and that he wrote the psalms (or at least many of them).
Well, you can turn to the Bible itself to cast doubt on the Goliath story. There, in II Samuel 21:19 we read that the slayer of Goliath was "Elhanan son of Yaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite." The Common English Bible translation has it: ". . .Elhanan, Jair's son from Bethlehem, killed Goliath. . ."
Yes, says Baden. The separate story of David killing Goliath can be found in the Bible, too, of course, but it's mostly myth-making. And Baden goes into considerable detail about how to tell myth-making stories from real historical events.
But what about the psalms? Baden explains how it came to be that the psalms were attributed to David and why, but concludes that "David became viewed as the author of the psalms just as Moses became viewed as the author of the Torah, though in neither case does the Bible actually make those claims."
We are left with this, Baden writes: "David did not write the pslams. David did not kill Goliath. The defining features of David in the modern imagination are merely that: imaginary. They are what the biblical authors, and we too, want David to be, not what he was."
None of that is to say that David is completely a figment of our imagination. Indeed, Baden discounts some recent speculation by a few scholars suggesting that David never existed. Oh, he existed, all right, says Baden, and he "achieved what most only dream of. He rose from the humblest of beginnings to become the most powerful man whom Israel had ever known. He proved himself to be a superior military strategist and a brilliant political tactician. Perhaps more important, David changed the face of Israel."
That said, Baden still concludes this, based on what we can reconstruct about his actions: "He was not kind or generous. He was not loving. He was not faithful or fair. He was not honorable or trustworthy. He was not decent by almost any definition. What he was, was ambitious and willing to abandon all of those positive qualities to achieve that ambition. David was a successful monarch, but he was a vile human being."
Any teacher of children or adults in Jewish or Christian congregations should give this book a read and then decide what can be taught about David that is both true and helpful. The old David -- that giant killer, poet, musician, lover, generous ruler -- seems now about as realistic as the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and refusing to lie to his father about it. Which makes me wonder whether David had wooden teeth, too.
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LISTENING TO MOLTMANN
One of the most important contemporary theologians is Jurgen Moltmann, whom I had the pleasure to meet and hear speak in Kansas City some years ago. He's just given this interesting video interview in which he explains his work on eschatology and hope.