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Poet, Warrior, King

In The Life of David, the first book in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series, Robert Pinsky examines the legacy of one of the Bible’s most compelling figures

Matthew Brogan
September 06, 2005

With his flaws and inconsistencies, David—whose deeds are recounted in the Books of Samuel—has long been one of the Bible’s most approachable heroes. In The Life of David, the first in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky plumbs the life and mythos of this extraordinary poet, warrior, and king.

Do you see The Life of David as in keeping with your other work—your poetry, translations, and criticism—or as a departure?

The work this resembles for me is my translation The Inferno of Dante. The sheer narrative power, the possibility of telling a great story, is similar. The imagination of the Biblical writer scholars call The Early Source, like the imagination of Dante, inspired me.

David’s is the most inclusive life I know: a poet and a warrior, he did terrible things and noble things. We see him at every stage of life: as a boy, in middle age, in old age. He is an artist, a killer, a lover, a politician, a Robin Hood, a dissembler, a builder, an Odysseus, a musician, a King Lear, a founding father, and an upstart.

As Adam is the seed, containing the whole range of human potential, David is the flowering.

Did the stories of David play any role in your childhood or education?

I had a nominally Orthodox upbringing. That is, we kept kosher, the two sets of dishes, only kosher meats, etc.; but my parents were secular, worldly people, not given to Torah discussions or even attending Sabbath services. On the other hand, I did attend Hebrew school and of course I was aware of the stories and the Star (actually, I have learned much later, a medieval invention, not in the Torah nor the prophets nor the rabbinic literature). My grandfather Pinsky, a local tough guy and barkeeper, was named David.

In returning to the Books of Samuel, were you surprised by what you found there?

I had read Samuel many times without clearly distinguishing the interpolations and narrative threads, and not much noticing the odd chronologies and imperfect seams. It was exciting to discover the interrelated layers, and built on them the marvelous, sometimes bizarre legends available in Louis Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews. His volumes are a marvelous example of creative scholarship, bringing centuries of lore and invention together in an organized, definitive way—a massive trove of stories.

You mention Chaim Bialik‘s And It Came to Pass as one of your important sources for the book. What did this great Hebrew poet teach you about David?

That a legend is a living reality, not frozen and fixed like printed characters but fluid and breathing like a creature of flesh and blood. I greatly admire his nimble, deadpan, artful way of retelling and inventing. His deceptive plainness and underlying energy remind me of Italo Calvino’s great collection of Italian folk tales.

You emphasize the strangeness of David’s world (“the quality of the foreign…is to be respected”). Why was it so important to you to communicate this strangeness to your readers?

In order to recognize how profoundly someone or something is like us, it is sometimes necessary to first recognize the profound difference.

The story of David is full of alienation within the family, and recourse to the foreign. Exile and subterfuge, strife and alliance, are the rhythms of his career. Understanding those rhythms—political and personal, cultural and psychological—seems to me central to modern life in general and perhaps to Jewish life in particular.

What does it mean for Jewish tradition to have a national hero who is also the descendant of a Moabite and who nearly fought with the Philistines against the Israelites?

This is a profound, maybe bottomless question. It suggests that identity is somehow fluid as well as obdurate, that survival is ambiguous, and a process of the imagination.

Did exploring David’s “tangled roots” affect the way you think about your own Jewishness?

Yes. He is perhaps the ultimate illustration that no generation invented the tangle. The supposed stability of some Absolute Zadeh, the pure and undiluted Real Jew, is unreal. Contemplating the David story reminds me how every Jew can find his own point on an infinite, glorious spectrum of Jewishness.

How does the David of Jewish tradition differ from the David of Christian tradition?

This is a question for a scholar. For a storyteller like me, the Christian tradition of seeing David as a precursor of Jesus is arid or reductive: it bleaches interest out of the tale.

You devote as much attention to David the old man as to David the boy warrior. What makes the story of David’s decline so compelling?

David’s life is strikingly complete. His destiny is to experience just about everything. And despite his physical decline and his frailties, he is at the very end a kingmaker to Solomon, and extends his will beyond death, not only in his instructions to Solomon of vengeance-taking, but in the building of the Temple—which was David’s idea. He is the hero as well as the singer. He includes Achilles and Hamlet and Odysseus and before he is done he not only includes Lear but goes beyond Lear to extend his will beyond his mortal span.

Women often play only minor roles in the great Biblical narratives, but the David stories are full of remarkable women. How is David’s character shaped by his encounters with women?

Ruth, Abigail, Michal, Merab, Bathsheba, Abishag, the nameless concubines of David who are violated by Absalom to defy his father—particularly striking are the women in this list who exert power. Bathsheba leads the aged David to make her son king, though he is not the senior heir. Michal rescues David from her father—David and Michal perhaps a richer, more disturbing story than David and Bathsheba. Michal loves David, they come together and are parted again in some spectacular ways, and when he is ready to become king of Israel and Judah his first request is about her. And in the end they appear to hate one another profoundly.

One of the recurring metaphors in the book is that of the gangster—I can almost imagine the story set during prohibition, with David wearing a fedora. Did Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano help you to imagine David?

In trying to imagine the world in which the Books of Samuel take place, two comparisons keep presenting themselves: film images of gangsters and stereotypes of the Arab world, Saudi princes or Bedouin autocrats. The dialogue between Saul and David, dickering about a bride-price—that surface of “honor” and undercurrent of menace—could be played by Brando and Pacino. Ishbosheth, the nominal prince bullied by his late father’s general, is like some piece of Orientalism. It is not that simple; both comparisons omit a lot. But in order to respect the alien, distinct quality of that Biblical world, the comparisons are useful, if only as metaphors to entertain and eventually reject.

What does it mean for Jewish national identity that David was not only a warrior and king, but also a poet? What does it mean for Jewish poetry that David was not only a poet, but also a warrior and king?

The answer to both questions has to be: “something!” The Life of David is my attempt to ask those questions. Who are we, with this unlike magnificence as our hero, a poet and killer?

It is not merely that the Psalms are “attributed” to David: in his actual story, he is a poet. In the narrative, he composes his great elegy for Saul and Jonathan, and in the narrative he writes his poem lamenting the death of Abner. Often David shows that he is a man of imagination, as well as action: when he feigns madness like Hamlet; when he dances naked like Marc Antony; when he gives Saul the water bottle and spear or the scrap of robe as evidence of his forbearance. Eloquent, shrewd, David is an artist as well as a warrior. Leaving aside the Psalms proper, the two elegies—one for Jonathan and Saul, one for Abner—are dazzling in themselves and for the range of mind and style they demonstrate. As a poet, too, David is many things, defying categories and classifications.

Has writing this book influenced your poetry?

This will emerge. My poems have always been interested in the paradoxes or conflicts or collisions that characterize David’s career: the worldly and the spiritual; the petty and the noble; violence and peace; politics and personal life. As with Dante, the variety, the startling eclecticism, appeals to me.