King David

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Overview

David, King of the Jews, possessed every flaw and failing of which a mortal is capable, yet men and women adored him, and God showered him with many blessings. A charismatic leader, exalted as “a man after God’s own heart,” he was also capable of deep cunning and bloodthirsty violence. Weaving together biblical texts with centuries of interpretation and commentary, as well as the startling discoveries of modern biblical archaeology and scholarship, bestselling author Jonathan Kirsch brings King David to life with...

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King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel

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Overview

David, King of the Jews, possessed every flaw and failing of which a mortal is capable, yet men and women adored him, and God showered him with many blessings. A charismatic leader, exalted as “a man after God’s own heart,” he was also capable of deep cunning and bloodthirsty violence. Weaving together biblical texts with centuries of interpretation and commentary, as well as the startling discoveries of modern biblical archaeology and scholarship, bestselling author Jonathan Kirsch brings King David to life with extraordinary freshness, intimacy, and vividness of detail, revealing him in all his glory and fallibility. At the center of this taut, dramatic narrative stands a hero of flesh and blood–a man as vibrant and compelling today as he has been for millennia.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Bookseller ReviewsSunday School teachers know that among new bible readers, King David often evokes contradictory responses. Young church-goers praise David's decisiveness and his Goliath-felling heroics, but regard other behavior in his life to be troubling or repugnant; for example, his cold-blooded murder by proxy of Bath-sheba's husband and his lapses in lust or indolence. Biblical interpreter Jonathan Kirsch brings to David's story the kind of full-blooded engagement that goes beyond line-by-line exegesis. Readers of his The harlot by the Side of the Road will be tempted to think that in David, King of the Jews, Kirsch has found an even more promising subject.
From the Publisher
“[A] SPLENDID BIOGRAPHY . . . An eminently readable account of perhaps the best-known and most popular of all biblical heroes.”
–Los Angeles Times

“A COMPLETE PORTRAIT . . . One of the more comprehensive attempts to place this staggering figure in history, in literature, in psychology, and in the evolution of Judaism and Christianity.”
The Seattle Times

“A STUNNING SYNTHESIS . . . Kirsch has taken the best of both worlds to fashion a story that is the first of its kind: a biography of biblical proportions, anchored in the imaginative sweep of fiction and the tactile surprise of fact.”
–DAVID ROSENBERG
Author of The Book of David
and co-author of The Book of J

“Anyone who reads [this] entertaining and often enlightening account will come away with a solid understanding of David’s life and legacy.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this biography/commentary hybrid, Kirsch sheds light on biblical characters and gives readers a refresher course on Israel's monarchic period, from 1025 to 925 BCE. Arguing that the Old Testament may have originated as David's royal biography, Kirsch cites dozens of Bible scholars in his attempt to separate history from myth. The two myths he examines most closely are those cultivated by a "Court Historian" who embellished David's exploits to make him seem more kingly than he was, and those written by the "Deuteronomistic Historian," who revised the ancient texts about David to downplay his bad behavior and emphasize the sovereignty of Yahweh. Kirsch's citation of experts is dutiful but frustrating; only rarely does he mention the schools of thought to which his sources belong, which excludes readers from a crucial dimension of any intellectual debate. Kirsch's agenda is murky as well; it is never entirely clear whether he wishes to find the truth about David and extrapolate didactic messages or simply make a sport of listing the various and contradictory readings of his life. It may be that Kirsch eschews these complicated questions in the service of accessibility, and for that he can be forgiven, since secular books about the Bible are often inaccessible to all but a handful of scholars. This book, on the other hand, welcomes a wide audience to a scandalous, violent and surprisingly familiar ancient Israel, and both educates and entertains. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Kirsch (The Harlot by the Side of the Road) adds to his sensational books on biblical personalities with this expos of the life of King David and his God. He fully accepts the historicity of David and the United Kingdom but argues that the record we have is the product of court propagandists followed by other court editors and then "spin doctors" who attempted to sanitize David. This is an old approach followed by many critical scholars; however, the only characteristics that Kirsch adopts from the text for David are thoroughly Machiavellian. He portrays David as a "bloodthirsty fiend of hell" who combined a strong political savvy with a ruthless suppression of all opposition. One must recognize that, even if we do not judge him by modern mores, as Kirsch does, David's life and reign was full of actions that provided abundant opportunities for his famous readiness to repent. Kirsch is a master of the storyteller's art, but his propensity to be disparaging is unsettling if quite skillful. In fact, his tone is much like that a lawyer might use in a summation to a jury (with appropriate facial expressions and tone of voice not available to print). Much more reliable assessments of David can be found in such major series as Abingdon's Interpreter's Bible, Doubleday's Anchor Bible, and Word's Biblical Commentary. Nonetheless, this muckraking account in the modern style will no doubt receive circulation in public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/00.]--Eugene O. Bowser, Univ. of Northern Colorado, Greeley Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
A biographical narrative, in which lawyer, journalist, and amateur Bible student Kirsch (Moses, 1998) aims to strip away the pious gloss that later editors have allegedly added to the Bible.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345435057
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 401,820
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.31 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Kirsch, a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed Moses: A Life and The Harlot by the Side of the Road, writes and lectures widely on biblical, literary, and legal topics. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, President of PEN Center USA West, and a former correspondent for Newsweek, he lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

CHARISMA

Like everyone else, from Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan down to the present, Yahweh is charmed by David. —Harold Bloom, The Book of J

Something crucial in human history begins with the biblical figure of King David. He is the original alpha male, the kind of man whose virile ambition always drives him to the head of the pack. He is the first superstar, a figure so compelling that the Bible may have originated as his royal biography. He is an authentic sex symbol, a ruggedly handsome fellow who inspires passion in both men and women, a passion expressed sometimes as hero worship and sometimes as carnal longing. He is “the quintessential winner,” as one Bible scholar puts it,1 and the biblical life story of David has always shaped what we expect of ourselves and, even more so, of the men and women who lead us.

At the heart of the Book of Samuel, where the story of David is first told, we find a work of genius that anticipates the romantic lyricism and tragic grandeur of Shakespeare, the political wile of Machiavelli, and the modern psychological insight of Freud. And, just as much as Shakespeare or Machiavelli or Freud, the frank depiction of David in the pages of the Bible has defined what it means to be a human being: King David is “a symbol of the complexity and ambiguity of human experience itself.”2

“He played exquisitely, he fought heroically, he loved titanically,” observes historian Abram Leon Sachar. “Withal he was a profoundly simple being, cheerful, despondent, selfish, generous, sinning one moment, repenting the next, the most human character of the Bible.”3

Above all, David illustrates the fundamental truth that the sacred and the profane may find full expression in a single human life, and his biography preserves the earliest evidence of the neurotic double bind that is hardwired into human nature and tugs each of us in different directions at once. Against every effort of Bible-waving moralizers who seek to make us better than we are—or to make us feel bad about the way we are—the biblical account of David is there to acknowledge and even to affirm what men and women really feel and really do.

Indeed, the single most surprising fact about David is the rawness with which he is depicted in the Bible. David is shown to be a liar and a trickster, as when, threatened by an enemy king, he feigns madness to save his own life. He is an outlaw and an extortionist, as when he uses the threat of violence to solicit a gift from a rich man with a beautiful wife and ends up with both the bounty and the woman. He is an exhibitionist, as when he performs a ritual dance in such spiritual frenzy that his tunic flies up and reveals his genitalia to the crowd. He is even a voyeur, a seducer, and a murderer, as when he peeps at the naked Bathsheba, recruits her for sexual service in the royal bedchamber, and then contrives to kill her husband when she is inconveniently impregnated with a bastard. David, whose very name means “beloved,”4 attracts both men and women, inspiring sometimes a pristine love but more often a frankly carnal one. Some Bible critics, in fact, insist that David’s famous declaration of love for his friend Jonathan—a love “passing the love of women”—ought to be understood as an expression of his bisexuality.

All of these episodes are reported in the Bible bluntly and honestly, and sometimes with a touch of titillation. If the writing of history and biography and literature in Western civilization originates with the biblical account of David, as some Bible scholars suggest, so does the stuff of bodice-rippers and tabloids—“the kind of details,” cracks Bible scholar Peter Ackroyd, “for which, in our more sophisticated times, the Sunday newspapers of the slightly less reputable kind pay handsomely.”5 One of the overlooked secrets of the Bible is its earthiness and ribaldry, and nowhere are these qualities more extravagantly on display than in the biography of David.

The Fig Leaf at Forest Lawn

At Forest Lawn, a cemetery in Southern California, mourners and tourists alike are invited to gaze upon a reproduction of Michelangelo’s famous statue of David, faithful in every detail except one: David’s genitalia are covered with a marble fig leaf. But the original statue itself is unfaithful to the truth as recorded in the Bible—Michelangelo, apparently paying more attention to his model than to the Bible, depicts the greatest king of Israel as uncircumcised!

Similarly, in strange and not-so-subtle ways, attempts have been made to conceal the flesh-and-blood David from us. Within the Bible itself, David’s life story has been rewritten and “overwritten,” as scholars put it, by generations of biblical authors and editors who were disturbed and confused by his taste for sex and violence. The Book of Chronicles, for example, is a bowdlerized version of David’s biography as originally preserved in the Book of Samuel. If Chronicles alone had survived, and Samuel had been lost or suppressed in antiquity, we would know nothing of David’s adulterous love affair with Bathsheba, or his passionate declaration of love for Jonathan, or the rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by his son Amnon, or the rebellion of his son Absalom, who very nearly succeeded in driving him from the throne.

“See what Chronicles has made out of David!” exclaimed Julius Wellhausen, the pioneering nineteenth-century Bible scholar who was among the first to discern the thoroughly human hands and minds that created the biblical text.6

Even after the composition of the Bible was completed and the canon was closed, Talmudic sages and Church Fathers alike tried to make David over into a plaster saint by concealing, denying, or explaining away the sins and scandals that the Bible discloses. Starting in antiquity, for example, the rabbis decreed that the most salacious stories of David were not to be translated out of biblical Hebrew or read aloud in the synagogue. The sages whose writings are collected in the vast anthologies known as the Talmud and the Midrash conjured up a kinder and gentler David—one stubborn apologist simply dismissed the abundant evidence of David’s wrongdoing that is plainly recorded in the Bible and insisted that David couldn’t have sinned with Bathsheba.7 And the early Christian commentators preferred to focus on the messianic role of King David that can be teased out of the biblical text, where God is shown to vow an eternal kingship to David and his descendants.

The final emasculation of David is the work of the modern media. Today, David has been scaled down to the cartoonish figure of a little shepherd boy who slays the mighty warrior Goli- ath with a slingshot. To be sure, the theme of David and Goliath was no less favored by Michelangelo and Donatello, Titian and Rembrandt than it is by newspaper headline writers and Madison Avenue art directors. (Indeed, one example by Tanzio da Varallo appears on the cover of this book.) But there is something sad and sorry in the fact that the biblical figure of David, so potent and so full of passion, has been turned into a glyph for the ability of something very small to prevail against something very large.

The real David, as we shall discover, is not so small, not so simple, and not so child-safe.

King of the Jews

David is writ large in the pages of the Bible, where his name appears more than a thousand times and where an “undersong” of praise can be detected in passages where he is not mentioned at all.8 The faith of ancient Israel, according to some scholars, was not Judaism or even Yahwehism but “Davidism.”9 David may start out as a lad who tends his father’s sheep in a country backwater, but he ends up as the king of all Israel and the conqueror of an empire that stretches from the outskirts of Egypt to the far Euphrates.

According to the Bible, David rules by the grace of God—“The Lord has established him king over Israel, and exalted him king for his people Israel’s sake” (2 Sam. 5:10)*—and every monarch in Western history who invoked the divine right of kings was relying on his example. That’s why statues of King David and the other kings of Israel and Judah once decorated the medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame—and that’s why the statuary was taken down and hidden away during the French Revolution lest the mob take David’s head along with those of the reigning king and queen.

But the Bible exalts David above and beyond his long reign as King of the Jews. In life he is praised as the king whom God selected to reign on earth, and in death he is transfigured into a king who will reign on high: David becomes a shimmering theological symbol, the precursor and direct ancestor of the Messiah whom God will send to redeem a sinful and suffering humanity. “And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a twig shall grow forth out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1) is the prophecy of Isaiah, a supercharged line of biblical text that identifies David by reference to his father and is generally understood to predict the coming of the Messiah. In fact, Judaism and Christianity, which contend with each other on so many other issues, share the thrilling idea that David’s blood will flow in the veins of the Messiah.

*All biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961) unless otherwise indicated by an abbreviation that identifies another translation. The Masoretic Text, which is regarded as the definitive version of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish usage, is the work of a school of rabbis and scribes who organized and standardized the biblical text over a period of several centuries starting around 500 c.e. See “A Note on Bibles and Biblical Usage” in the bibliography, page 347.

“If the Messiah-King comes from among the living, David will be his name,” the Talmud teaches. “If he comes from among the dead, it will be David himself.”10 And Paul embraces the same credo from a Christian perspective when he attests that Jesus of Nazareth “was made of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God.” (Rom. 1:3–4)

David is the very first man whom we can call “King of the Jews.” He is crowned as king of Judah, the tribe from which the Jewish people are descended, before he achieves kingship over all twelve tribes of Israel.* A thousand years later, when the Magi follow a star to Bethlehem, they declare that they are searching for David’s distant heir and successor, “he that is born King of the Jews.” (Matt. 2:2) (KJV) Even today, the same yearning is expressed in a few poignant words from the Talmud that are sung aloud as a children’s song at Jewish day camps and as a messianic anthem among settlers on the West Bank: “David, King of Israel, lives and endures.”

Ironically, the glory that is heaped upon David tends to obscure the flesh-and-blood man. David is depicted in the oldest biblical passages as thoroughly mortal, which is to say that he is susceptible to all of the flaws and failings, all the sins and shortcomings, that afflict ordinary human beings. David is capable of embodying contradictory qualities at the same time—courage and cowardice, spiritual ecstasy and sexual frenzy, lofty statesmanship and low cunning and deceit—and the Bible confirms that he succumbs to his basest impulses as often as he answers to the angels of his higher nature.

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Table of Contents

Maps xi
Chapter 1 Charisma 1
Chapter 2 The Wrong King 16
Chapter 3 "He Is the One" 43
Chapter 4 Innocent Blood 63
Chapter 5 Desperado 78
Chapter 6 Ghostwife 106
Chapter 7 "Shall the Sword Devour Forever?" 135
Chapter 8 City of David 150
Chapter 9 At the Time When Kings Go Forth to Battle 172
Chapter 10 The Daughter of the Seven Gods 185
Chapter 11 The Rape of Tamar 205
Chapter 12 "Bloodstained Fiend of Hell!" 221
Chapter 13 "O Absalom, My Son, My Son!" 239
Chapter 14 An Angel at the Threshing-Floor 253
Chapter 15 Heat 269
Chapter 16 The Quality of Light at Tel Dan 282
Appendix The Biblical Biographers of David 307
Chronology 315
Endnotes 321
Bibliography 347
Acknowledgments 357
Index 361
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Foreword

1. In King David, I have compared David to John F. Kennedy as examples of leaders with "charisma." Do you find David to be a charismatic figure even though, like JFK, he was capable of both heroic and scandalous conduct?

2. The Bible shows that both men and women fall in love with David, and some scholars believe that David's relationship to Jonathan was more than purely platonic. Do you find any homoerotic overtones in the encounters between David and Jonathan and the words that David speaks about Jonathan?

3. One theory of biblical authorship proposes that the Bible began with the life story of David, and everything else was built up around David's story. Do you find this theory to be convincing? When you read the Book of Samuel, do you hear the voices of several different authors or just one?

4. Two different versions of David's life story are given in the Bible. The Book of Samuel gives us the adults-only, R-rated version, and the Book of Chronicles gives a child-safe, G-rated version. If the Book of Samuel had been lost, and only the Book of Chronicles had survived, do you think the Bible itself and the Bible-based religions would have turned out differently?

5. Some Bible scholars suggest that David knew, or should have known, that his son, Amnon, intended to rape his daughter, Tamar, and they blame David for sending Tamar to Amnon's bedchamber. Do you agree that David bears some responsibility for what happened to his daughter?

6. David has been criticized for being a sentimental and indulgent father. For example, he fails to punish Amnon for raping Tamar, and he gives orders that none of his soldiers should harm Absalom whenthey go into battle against him. Do you see David's attitude toward his sons as a praiseworthy quality or a sign of weakness?

7. Some feminist Bible critics suggest that the women in David's life are sexually abused and exploited. One scholar, for example, says that Bathsheba is "raped by the pen" because the Bible allows us to watch her at various intimate moments. Do you think women are treated inappropriately in the biblical life story of David?

8. Although God vows to "raise up evil against thee out of thine own house" as retribution for David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:11), David himself is never directly punished. The illegitimate baby dies, Tamar is the victim of rape, Amnon is assassinated, and Absalom is killed in battle--but David dies in his bed. Do you think he is suitably punished for his affair with Bathsheba and his role in the murder of Uriah?

9. In King David, I argue that "[s]omething crucial in human history begins with the biblical figure of King David," and I suggest that he is "the original alpha male," "the first superstar," an "authentic sex symbol," and "the quintessential winner." Do you agree that David can be credited (or blamed) for shaping, as I put it, "what we expect of ourselves and, even more so, of the men and women who lead us"?

10. Sometimes it seems that powerful people are held to a different standard than ordinary people when it comes to their private moral conduct. In King David, I suggest that these ideas about leadership begin with the biblical figure of David. Do you agree? Do you think David sets a good example or a bad example for what we have come to expect of our leaders?

11. Shakespeare borrowed many of his plots from other sources but never from the Bible. Still, some readers see similarities between King Lear and King Saul, for example, or between Hamlet and David. Do you see any influences on Shakespeare and his work that can be traced back to the Bible in general and King David in particular?

12. David is more often invoked in modern Israel, where he is admired as a military leader, than in pious Jewish tradition. Do you think the history of the Jewish people would have turned out differently if David had been given a more prominent role in Jewish tradition?

13. As discussed earlier, Bible scholar Gerhard Von Rad describes an "undersong" of David's story running throughout the Bible. Do you see or feel such an undersong in your reading of the Bible? Where?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In King David, I have compared David to John F. Kennedy as examples of leaders with "charisma." Do you find David to be a charismatic figure even though, like JFK, he was capable of both heroic and scandalous conduct?

2. The Bible shows that both men and women fall in love with David, and some scholars believe that David's relationship to Jonathan was more than purely platonic. Do you find any homoerotic overtones in the encounters between David and Jonathan and the words that David speaks about Jonathan?

3. One theory of biblical authorship proposes that the Bible began with the life story of David, and everything else was built up around David's story. Do you find this theory to be convincing? When you read the Book of Samuel, do you hear the voices of several different authors or just one?

4. Two different versions of David's life story are given in the Bible. The Book of Samuel gives us the adults-only, R-rated version, and the Book of Chronicles gives a child-safe, G-rated version. If the Book of Samuel had been lost, and only the Book of Chronicles had survived, do you think the Bible itself and the Bible-based religions would have turned out differently?

5. Some Bible scholars suggest that David knew, or should have known, that his son, Amnon, intended to rape his daughter, Tamar, and they blame David for sending Tamar to Amnon's bedchamber. Do you agree that David bears some responsibility for what happened to his daughter?

6. David has been criticized for being a sentimental and indulgent father. For example, he fails to punish Amnon for raping Tamar, and he gives orders that none of his soldiers should harm Absalom when they go into battle against him. Do you see David's attitude toward his sons as a praiseworthy quality or a sign of weakness?

7. Some feminist Bible critics suggest that the women in David's life are sexually abused and exploited. One scholar, for example, says that Bathsheba is "raped by the pen" because the Bible allows us to watch her at various intimate moments. Do you think women are treated inappropriately in the biblical life story of David?

8. Although God vows to "raise up evil against thee out of thine own house" as retribution for David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:11), David himself is never directly punished. The illegitimate baby dies, Tamar is the victim of rape, Amnon is assassinated, and Absalom is killed in battle—but David dies in his bed. Do you think he is suitably punished for his affair with Bathsheba and his role in the murder of Uriah?

9. In King David, I argue that "[s]omething crucial in human history begins with the biblical figure of King David," and I suggest that he is "the original alpha male," "the first superstar," an "authentic sex symbol," and "the quintessential winner." Do you agree that David can be credited (or blamed) for shaping, as I put it, "what we expect of ourselves and, even more so, of the men and women who lead us"?

10. Sometimes it seems that powerful people are held to a different standard than ordinary people when it comes to their private moral conduct. In King David, I suggest that these ideas about leadership begin with the biblical figure of David. Do you agree? Do you think David sets a good example or a bad example for what we have come to expect of our leaders?

11. Shakespeare borrowed many of his plots from other sources but never from the Bible. Still, some readers see similarities between King Lear and King Saul, for example, or between Hamlet and David. Do you see any influences on Shakespeare and his work that can be traced back to the Bible in general and King David in particular?

12. David is more often invoked in modern Israel, where he is admired as a military leader, than in pious Jewish tradition. Do you think the history of the Jewish people would have turned out differently if David had been given a more prominent role in Jewish tradition?

13. As discussed earlier, Bible scholar Gerhard Von Rad describes an "undersong" of David's story running throughout the Bible. Do you see or feel such an undersong in your reading of the Bible? Where?

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  • Posted February 15, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Controversial Analysis

    A member of my Sunday school Class once mentioned she didn't think David was very likable. After re-reading the Bible accounts I had to admit she had a point. Kirsch seems to have somewhat the same view. He frequently asks why, in light of his very flawed life, David was a man after God's own heart. Those with traditional views of David and the Bible may find this book disturbing. I can't say I agree with every theory or statement of Kirsch, but I think serious Bible history students would find this a stimulating read.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Would have been more interesting if the author had followed the schools of thought for intellectual debate.

    King David often evokes contradictory responses. Young church-goers praise David's decisiveness and his Goliath slaying heroics, but regard other behavior in his life to be troubling or repugnant; for example, his cold-blooded murder by proxy of Bathsheba's husband, his lapses in lust, and inclination to laziness. David possessed every flaw and failing a mortal is capable of, yet men and women adored him and God showered him with many more blessings than he did Abraham or Moses. With a taste for sex and violence this charismatic leader exalted as the apple of God's eye, capable of deep cunning and bloodthirsty violence is portrayed in all his glory and failings. The real David is not just a simple and small shepherd that killed a giant but the conqueror of a vast empire.
    One must take this book with a grain of salt while reading the incorrect conjectures, that are eluded for fact, such as the Bible is just spin for the throne of King David or that Saul was a mistake made by God, etc. Kirsch expends much effort on the homosexuality of David and Jonathan even stating that you "must accept unless you just refuse to accept it." It made me wonder if the author was trying to justify his own homosexuality. However, much is correct such as most people fell in love, at first sight, with David male and female alike, Saul, Saul's son Jonathan, later Michal the king's daughter, and the list goes on.
    Rarely does Kirsch mention which school of thought his sources belong, excluding a crucial dimension of any intellectual debate. His tone is much like that of a lawyer might portray in a summation to a jury, arguing that the entire Old Testament may have originated as David's royal biography. The two myths he examines most closely are those cultivated by a "Court Historian" who embellished David's exploits to make him seem more kingly than he was, and those written by the "Deuteronomistic Historian," who revised the ancient texts about David, as "spin doctors," to downplay his bad behavior in attempted to sanitize David. There are much more reliable assessments of David, however, this muckraking account in the modern style is somewhat entertaining if not correct.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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