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The Life of David: Chapter One

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Of the Thousand Great Stories, more than a few are about him. David and Goliath and David and Bathsheba of course, but also David and Saul, David and Jonathan, David and Absalom. Tales of battle, of sex, of the uncanny, of needy mistrust between the generations, of loyalty and betrayal, politics, incest. David and Amnon, David and the Witch of Endor, David and Abigail. The great neglected story of love and undying hate between a man and a woman, David and Michal, David and the doomed generals out of a Shakespeare history play, Abner and Joab. David and the crippled son of Saul, Mephibosheth. David and Abishag. And the implicit story of the remorseless wheel of time, David and Solomon.

He is wily like Odysseus and an impetuous daredevil like the Scarlet Pimpernel. Like Hamlet, he pretends to be crazy. Like Joan of Arc, he comes from nowhere, ardent and innocent, to infuriate the conventional elders. Like the Athenian rogue Alcibiades he goes over to the enemy side for a time. Like Robin Hood, he gathers a band of outcasts and outlaws in the wilderness. Like Lear, he is overthrown and betrayed by his offspring. Like Tristan and Cyrano, he masters the harp as well as the sword: a poet as well as a warrior-killer, but as a poet he is far above any other hero, and as a killer no one among the poets can even approach him.

He must have actually existed, and most of it must be true, writes the upper-class Englishman Duff Cooper, because no people would deliberately invent a national hero so deeply flawed. The flaws of Lancelot make that adulterer a more heroic knight than Galahad the chosen of God: David is both, flawed and chosen, as in the span of his life he is both the golden lad and the grizzled adulterer. The adultery exacerbated (or depending on perspective ameliorated or mystified) by the fact that as the prophet Nathan points out to him he already had wives and sub-wives by the dozen.

We love our heroes at a level beyond reason, an intuitive plane where our shared feelings are tribal and nearly animal, rather than legalistic: as unheeding of priests and lawyers, though intimidated by them, in our collective public fascination with the hero as we are in our individual, private love life.

A hero is one who does great deeds and suffers for the good of a community, but in addition the hero must be talked about. “Unsung hero” is a paradox. The deeds and suffering become heroic as we tell stories about them. So that anthropological figure of action needs the other figure who sings, who tells the stories. For the hero to be celebrated requires the artist who imagines the celebration: David the warrior-artist is both. He is the most manifold and various of heroes. His name is thought to have meant “beloved.”

His world is a realm of multiple tribes. More than piety might like the Jewish and non-Jewish designations blur: Ephraimites, Amalekites, Benjamites, Maachathites, Harodites, Gileadites, Zebulunites, Carmelites, Pherethites, Ammonites. From the Zidonians Solomon the Wise in his old age contracted worship of Ashtoreth, the abomination—more gently known as the love goddess called Astarte by the Greeks and Ishtar by the Babylonians. A deity of fruitfulness as well as beauty. Her followers among the ancient Jewish tribes left a little stone image of her that survives with other ancient artifacts among the much later six-pointed stars and the seven-branched candlesticks in the Jewish museum in Los Angeles: the lady Astarte who embodies some of the attributes of Solomon’s mother Bathsheba. Astarte or Ishtar is echoed in the name of the Jewish heroine Esther, who in the weave of syllables and legends became the consort of King Ahasuerus, which is to say the Persian ruler Xerxes I.

As the bloodline tangle of tribes indicates a world of overlapping shadows and smoky alliances, geographic notions too must be imagined as shifting, each place with its countless layers of demarcation and language. The deceptive familiarity of place-names adapted into English—Shiloh, Gilead, Gaza, Bethel—should be balanced by less assimilated names: the Wilderness of Ziph, Ashdod, the City of Dagon, Helam, Nob, Kirjath-Jearim, Shalisha, Ziklag.

Immediate as a dream, in a setting as remote as the planets of science fiction, David’s career with its temporary victories and enduring glories, its obdurate calculus of pain, plays out a fundamental drama of all life. Overlaid by a system of rewarded piety and punished defection, a system embodied by the prophet Samuel, David’s drama enacts forces of ambition and destruction, love and betrayal, volcanic strivings and appetite. The story manifests an undying wonderment at the spectacle of a beautiful boy who pursues his course and flourishes as a dominant hero, and then becomes an anguished old man.

That relatively secular story, the story of King David’s career, was written probably in the time of Solomon (the tenth century B.C.E.)—that is, a generation or two after the events—by the author scholars have called the Early Source. The Late Source, compiled and edited hundreds of years later, adds what I have called the overlay of divine punishment and reward, including Samuel’s strange and eloquent warning to the people about the nature of monarchy (“This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you”). The Early Source tells virtually all of 2 Samuel, the account of David’s kingship and the destiny of the people of Israel; the Late Source tells the life of Samuel in I Samuel, and contributes the narratives of how God’s punishment deals with Saul and before him with the corrupt and idol-worshipping sons of the prophet Eli.

The Early Source is largely a nationalistic hero narrative. The Late Source is largely a religious moral narrative. Still later editing and interpolations imposed by a Deuteronomist or committee of Deuteronomists further emphasized the principle of obedience to God. Other scholars have seen pro-Saul and pro-David sources. The frayed narratives, the peculiar knots, the clashes and oppositions, even the narrative contradictions of these strands do not produce mere incoherence. Rather, in the way of texts that have formed us for centuries, the meldings and inconsistencies of competing voices make the text read the reader all the more deeply. Because the Late Source tries to pull the story away from the monarchy and toward theological meanings, the career of David becomes an even more urgent, enigmatic account of destiny and freedom. Because it has been made to issue from the opposed story of Samuel (and Samuel’s interpretation of the story of Saul), the story of David is all the more magnetic, tormented and glorious.

With its emphasis on competition and succession, loyalty and rivalry among men and between sons and fathers, it seems a male story, in the primal way of ironbound tradition; yet women play powerful roles. Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba, make decisions that determine outcomes. The matrilinear chains, counter-tune to the male begettings, manifest the way all stories, in fact all people, owe their being to origins multiple and unknown, a tangle of forgotten roots. The Moabites (and thus David) are said to descend from the cave where the daughters of Lot got their father drunk and tricked him into lying with them—like some scandalous story from Ovid or an Inuit origin myth. As an Ephrathite, David belongs to the one tribal group named from the matrilinear line: Ephrath was the wife of Caleb, great-grandson of the tribal patriarch Judah. The stories of the girl Abishag, the matriarch Ruth, the wives Bathsheba and Michal, gesture toward mythologies and histories and psychological imperatives beyond the masculine tribal system as they are outside the later theologies. What covert or defiant hunger harbored that image of Astarte?

Or is the story of Lot and his daughters an ancient, mischievous insult, a Hebrew invention to taunt the Moabites— with the Hebrew David’s descent from Moab a forgotten or unanticipated twist? Or an added layer? A braiding-together of cultures or a cleaving-apart? These are the histories earlier than the Early Source, and more fundamental: the infinite regress of obscured Sources behind everything that survives. Subterranean fires and currents, forming the stories that form us, make themselves visible in the career of the hero.

Copyright © 2005 by Robert Pinsky. Reprinted by permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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The Life of David: Chapter One

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