King David

Robert Vining rvining at log.on.ca
Tue Dec 12 21:44:42 EST 2000


Re: Hershel Shanks review of Steven McKenzie's book, "King David: a
Biography", in the December 2000 issue of BR.

Mr. Shanks writes, "Yes, the text is sympathetic to David". "What we
have is an account surely sympathetic to David". "Yes, it is
apologetic".  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  The Court Historian's account of
David's life found in I Samuel 16-I Kings 2, is on balance,  NOT
sympathetic to David. It is NOT  apologetic in nature. Au contraire, it
is better read as a polemic against him.
For an account more sympathetic to David, see the Chronicler's
rendering, I Chronicles 11-29.*

"It is complex,..nuanced..human..realistic..multi-layered",  Mr. Shanks
advises. How true, but how difficult to come to grips with this
complexity.  By recognizing that the "very scandalous" (p.54)  narrative
recounts  David's various flaws,   Mr. Shanks would present himself as
having   a more enlightened view than the benighted Mr. McKenzie whose
bias has him regard the record as essentially apologetic propaganda.
Mr. Shanks, in turn, may very well have it backwards.  For, it appears
that the finished product of the tricky author-editor contains more
material belittling, mocking and disparaging David, than  material that
honors him. Although the author- editor includes both pro and anti
monarchial material, the finished document is skewed  in favor of the
anti-monarchial polemic. In this process poor David comes off
badly-probably unfairly, if we take it all too grimly, as if the product
of "a reasonably good historian". (p.37) The skillful narrator, as is
common among biblical writers,  will deliberately set down two
contradictory accounts of an episode-the value of which is not only to
respect diverse,  treasured tales, but also to signal to the thoughtful
reader  the lack of author's certainty in this matter.

Did David commit the sadistic torture of the Rabbahites  before
incinerating them in the brickkilns? It is as likely, as it is that he
re-slew the already slain eponymic Philistine adversary, Goliath, and
carried his severed head around for a while before presenting his trophy
to Saul. (Elhanan, whoever heard of him?, had already slain Goliath, but
it was the fate of earlier, lesser, heroes to have to relinquish their
exploits to later, greater heroes). Did David kill everyone, men and
women in Geshur, Girzi, and Amalek, so that they could not go back and
squeal on him to Achish, as to what he and his men had really done? As
likely, as it is that he went out and slew 200 Philistines, cut off
their foreskins, and  made a second bloody presentation to Saul,
counting out all 200  in a grand flourish to Saul as a bride payment for
his daughter Michal..In David's own words, and consistent with Saul's
request, the agreement was for 100 foreskins. Is the ballooning to 200
just macho embellishment occurring in the retelling process around the
ancient campfires, or, is it the handiwork of our canny author?. Did
David after defeating the Moabites, make them all lie down on the
ground, and arbitrarily kill two out of every three? Is it likely that,
"The man after God's own heart", did this? Is it likely that the one who
would become known as the "sweet singer of Israel" would have ordered
his soldiers to kill Rechab and Baannah and cut off their hands and feet
to be hung up for public display  near the pool in Hebron? As likely as
it is that he killed lions and bears with his bare hands.

The David of Mr. Shank's  reasonably good historian may merit  the
lurid, blood-spattered lay out found on pages 34,35 of the BR prefacing
the article critiquing Mr. McKenzie's book- the eye-catching,
attention-getting, "King David, Serial Murderer.  New Biography Compares
Israelite King to Saddam Hussein".  But, it's not just Mr. McKenzie's
alleged misinterpretation of the biblical material. Mr. Shanks himself
goes a long way in his citations to make a case for the traitorous,
adulterous, murderous  David  being comparable to Saddam Hussein,
although he omits the darkest material. Sensational as it is, all of
this blood and blackness seems inappropriate on a different
understanding of what our irrepressible, skillful, enigmatic author-
editor may be  up to. Surely, it is the prerogative of the polemicist to
paint the portrait of his target as black as possible**, just as it is
the prerogative of the crafter of the aggrandizement tale to enjoy a
certain freedom to glorify and glamorize. In  dealing with what in time
came to be deemed sacred literature, have Bloom and Rosenberg  gone too
far in suggesting that the authors were having fun, and wrote with
wit?***

As an alternative to the "reasonably good historian" idea,  consider the
theory of David Rosenberg as set forth in his book, "The Book of
David".  He  theorizes  David's father to be Jesse; his mother an
aboriginal slave woman.  As the son of a slave,  Jesse rejects David,
sending him out apart from his brothers; to tend sheep, rather than to
be schooled like his siblings, as
suggested by  the biblical record. But,  beloved of his outcast mother,
and beloved of Yahweh. At the knee of his  unnamed mother,  David hears
shamanistic songs; from his peers,  he hears indigenous poetry.   These
songs, this poetry resonated  and deeply influenced the young boy, who
later transformed them into psalms.  The account of this  ancestral
heritage, and early childhood, may well be found in the beginning part
of the Book of David written by S (as well as other "lost" literature),
but will be suppressed by later redactors, for whom the repression of
aboriginal roots became an obsession.  The Holy Land is an indigenous
people concept.  The Promised Land myth is a cover story constructed by
later "historians"-the deadening Deuteronomists and others-who were
determined that the great Hebrew renaissance authors and poets would be
forgotten. These suppressors will offer a new  tradition. Instead of
emphasizing roots to the land,  they will substitute a new tradition
about coming in and conquering the land. (Rosenberg  cites  favorably
(p.49),  Moshe Weinfeld,  (Israeli scholar,
especially of the Deuteronomic school of authors and editors)  in the,
"The Promise of the Land",  as supporting this proposition. And,  David
N. Freedman as praising Weinfeld's thinking about the covering myth.
p.50)

Rosenberg envisions a golden age in Israelite history;  now quite lost,
difficult to recover. A time when a coterie of truly great literary
giants of Shakespearian stature did their work.  They were  first of all
readers, well read in the extant literature.  They were translators of
the archaic cuneiform and pictograms  into  archaic Hebrew.  It was in
this new language they composed their literary masterpieces.  Above all
they were authors; meaning imaginative creators of new literature; not
merely handers-down of old, or reworked traditions.  They were conscious
of their aboriginal roots to the land, and of their  literary
strategies. They knew what they were doing.

But, they will be squelched. This is a major thesis of Rosenberg.
"Repressed", "true tradition pushed aside", "libraries lost",
"sublimated", "lost culture", "expunged", "hiding", "screened out",
"discarding", "erasing", "editing", "to bury", "to veil",
"purification"(purging), "authors disappearing into another culture"-
are some of the terms  he uses to express the tragedy perpetrated by the
priestly writers who would rewrite the history of Israel from a limited,

distorted religious perspective. The culmination of this activity is
what Rosenberg considers, "A  Sublime Burial of the Past" (a title of
one of his chapters). His two favorite words, occurring again and again
to designate this denied heritage,  are  "aboriginal" and  "indigenous".

If this process occurred,  one of the implications is  that an important
part of the  "David"  person's life  would  be  its' casualty.
Especially hidden would be his  mother,  along with his early life among
the "outcasts",  evidence for which barely survives in the approved
record.

The historical David is as elusive as the historical Jesus, the Stranger
of Galilee. Is he an historical person whose life story is more or less
narrated in the Bible? Or, is he a personage skillfully drawn by the
biblical writers? Or, perhaps, a combination, i.e. a somewhat literary
figure, but based or modeled to some extent on the life of a real
person? Given that there is no significant extra-biblical evidence about
David,  we are left with the biblical uncertain witness to the Stranger
of Judea..


*Mr. Shanks refers to the biblical text without distinguishing between
the two very different portrayals of David by the Court Historian  and
the Chronicler.  A third Life of David,  made to be congenial to his
ideology,  is set forth by the talented, paraphraser,  Josephus in
Antiq. 6.8- 7.15. Although not deemed canonical, this intrepid rewriter
is valuable in showing what a skillful revisionist might do having both
the CH and C records before him, (perhaps other material we are not
aware of).  Overall, Josephus is kinder to David than the CH, and, not
as idealizing as the C.  Apparent are his endeavors, through omission,
modification and embellishment to somewhat sanitize the CH's
unsanitizeable  David.

**For an example of how deadly  proficient and extreme the polemicist
could be,  see what he does to the 6 times-mentioned hillbilly Levite of
Judges 19.   Living far back up in the hill country of Ephraim,  this
despicable dismemberer,  looked upon with disdain by the urban Jerusalem
heirarchy, will certainly be put in his place by this story which more
than justifies the demotion of the Levites to a subordinate status as
noted in II Kings 23:9, and in Ezekiel 44:10- 44, where they are
relegated to menial tasks. All is fair in love, and war, and in
polemics.

***In a number of places throughout his, "The Book of J", Harold Bloom
warns against reading with high sobriety an author who is a consummate
ironist,  who was having fun, and wrote with a sense of humor. Rosenberg
laments, "The self-aware literary strategies of J and S are forgotten,
along with the court culture that nourished them and responded to their
wit". (p.49)

Robert Vining, Owen Sound, Ontario     rvining at log.on.ca




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