King David with all of his faults

The Life of David

By Robert Pinsky

Nextbook, 2005, 217 pages

 

 

Was King David pious? Was he a holy man who was divinely inspired to compose the biblical book
of Psalms, the charismatic ideal
leader whose offspring would never cease to lead Israel because he was so good,
whose descendant would be the messiah who would save the world, a man chosen
because of David’s praiseworthy behavior? Or was he, like all men and women,
sometimes good, sometimes ruthless, sometimes embarrassingly bad? Did he commit
adultery with Bat Sheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite and have Uriah murdered,
as the prophet Nathan berated him? Did he raise children who killed their
brothers, one of whom raped his sister, and at least one of whom, Solomon,
built temples for idol worship? Was he responsible for the death of his infant
child when it was born and for the death of tens of thousands of his people in
a plague?

Or, as the majority of people claim, did he do no wrong. Did Bat Sheba have a divorce
decree that made David’s liaison with her legal, and besides, did Uriah force
David to give him Bat Sheba as a wife by blackmailing him when he was killing
the giant Goliath, and therefore the marriage was illegal, as the Talmud
contends? Robert Pinsky portrays David as a human being as the plain meaning of
the biblical text in this beautifully written, lyrical, presentation of his
life.

Pinsky is not alone in seeing the human fault-filled David. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in
his Biblical Images tells his readers
that they shouldn’t expect an idealized portrayal of biblical figures because:
“The great men and women who serve as examples and models for all generations
are not described only in terms of glowing admiration. Their failings,
failures, and difficulties are described.”

Pinsky describes the events in David’s life and comments on them. He also highlights
difficulties in Scripture; how, for example, there are sometimes two accounts
of an episode with different details in each of them, such as I Samuel 26:10-25 and 24:1-22, where David
has an opportunity to kill King Saul who was chasing him to kill him, but David
spared his life. Scholars conclude that there is an early source (chapter 26)
supplemented by a later one (24). And there are other kinds of problematical
texts that Pinsky addresses. Since David had served as King Saul’s aid in
playing music when the king became depressed, why didn’t he recognize David
when he asked permission to fight the giant Goliath?

Pinsky tells facts most people don’t know. David’s sling, for example, was a
well-known, efficient weapon in those days and for centuries thereafter. “The
slinger was more mobile than the archer, and with a greater accurate range,
some say with a more damaging projectile. The Romans had medical tongs designed
specifically for removing the stones or lead bullets shot by sling to penetrate
a soldier’s body, as David’s stone penetrated the skull of Goliath.”

Why then do many Jews and non-Jews see David as an unsullied hero? David was not
the only biblical figure who was totally reinvented and injected with a new
gregarious legendary personality, made pure, and sanctified totally out of
character. There is, among others, the prophet Elijah, who during his biblical
life was an impatient, youthful, anti-government, vigorous personality – he ran
after his king and kept up with his fleeting horses. God, says the Bible, was
so displeased with Elijah’s overzealous anger against his people’s idol worship
that he ended his prophetic mission and killed him – in the metaphor of Elijah rising
to heaven in a fiery chariot. Yet, legends resurrected Elijah as an old man
with a flowing beard dedicated to helping the distressed, and preparing to
solve human problems by bringing the messiah. Why were David and Elijah
transformed?

The new David and Elijah represent the needs of the new tormented, weak, and exiled
generations for caring, not debased, ever-successful heroes. Thus the focus on
David switches from his mundane and shocking acts to his successes. He united
the tribes of Israel in the past, fought for his people, and never lost a
battle, and his descendant can lead Israel and do so now.

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