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.