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The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel

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On Sale: July 22, 2009
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-56781-9
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group

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David, King of the Jews, possessed every flaw and failing of which a mortal is capable, yet men and women adored him, and God showered him with many blessings. A charismatic leader, exalted as “a man after God’s own heart,” he was also capable of deep cunning and bloodthirsty violence. Weaving together biblical texts with centuries of interpretation and commentary, as well as the startling discoveries of modern biblical archaeology and scholarship, bestselling author Jonathan Kirsch brings King David to life with extraordinary freshness, intimacy, and vividness of detail, revealing him in all his glory and fallibility. At the center of this taut, dramatic narrative stands a hero of flesh and blood–a man as vibrant and compelling today as he has been for millennia.



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.
Jonathan Kirsch|Author Q&A

About Jonathan Kirsch

Jonathan Kirsch - King David
Jonathan Kirsch, a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed Moses: A Life and The Harlot by the Side of the Road, writes and lectures widely on biblical, literary, and legal topics. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, President of PEN Center USA West, and a former correspondent for Newsweek, he lives in Los Angeles.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with the Readers

Wherever I go to talk about King David--bookstores and book clubs, colleges and libraries, synagogues and churches--I am gratified (but not really surprised) to find a lively interest in a man who lived three thousand years ago yet seems as fully alive today as he does in the pages of the Bible itself.

Here are some of the questions I have been asked by readers of King David, and the answers that I have given. I have also suggested a few topics for discussion with your fellow readers of the book. I hope they will prompt you to ask other questions--and to come up with answers--of your own.

--Jonathan Kirsch

Q: From among all the men and women in the Bible, why did you choose to write about David?

JK: The best way to explain my decision to write a book about King David is that I snuck up on him--or, perhaps more accurately, he snuck up on me! My first book about the Bible, The Harlot by the Side of the Road, focuses on seven "forbidden" tales of the Bible. Only one of the stories--the rape of Tamar, David's daughter--features David himself. But, as I explored the origins and meanings of these seven "forbidden" tales, I began to see David beneath the surface of the biblical text. As Gerhard Von Rad (a modern Bible scholar) puts it, an "undersong" about David can be detected throughout the Bible. And so I found myself drawn to David himself, and I decided to explore and try to explain the crucial role that David plays, both in the Bible and in our lives.

Q: You've also written a biography of Moses [Moses, A Life]. Who do you feel is more important, Moses or David?

JK: Of all the figures in the Hebrew Bible, Moses is the most commanding, but David is the most intriguing. Moses has been favored over David among deeply religious people in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because he is presented as a pious man, a prophet, and a lawgiver. His story is full of shocks and surprises--as I pointed out in Moses, A Life--but it is somewhat easier to overlook the more unsettling aspects of his life and character and focus only on the sacred law that he offered to humankind, starting with the Ten Commandments but also the bulk of biblical law.

David, by contrast, is a far more troubling and even tantalizing figure. He is presented in the Bible, with perfect candor and in sizzling detail, as a man of both truly heroic achievement and scandalous conduct. His ambitions and appetites--as a warrior, as a lover, as a king--are gargantuan and irresistible. Of course, if we read only the biblical passages that are favored in sermons and Bible study, David comes across as a heroic figure--the man who literally invented biblical Israel, turned it from a band of rival tribes into a strong nation, and made himself both a king and an emperor. But if we read the whole story of David, if we read the Bible with open eyes and an open mind, we see that he is also portrayed, at moments, as a voyeur, an exhibitionist, an adulterer, a trickster, an extortionist, even a murderer.

The fact, however, is that David was just as fascinating to the original authors of the Bible as he is to modern readers. His biblical biographer was compelled to record all the dirty little secrets of David's private life as well as the mighty achievements of his public life, and every biblical author who came along later seemed to have David in mind as he--or she--added new passages or whole new books to the Bible. That's what explains the "undersong" of David--he can be detected in passages of the Bible where he is not even mentioned.

Q: If David's life is so scandalous, why is he described in the Bible as "a man after [God's] own heart"?

JK: The single most tantalizing theological puzzle in the Bible is the contrast between David's real life, which is full of human flaws and failings, and David's high standing as God's favorite. God enters into covenants with Abraham and Moses, for example, but they are strictly conditional--if the Israelites obey God's law, then God will bless them; if not, God will curse them. But God's promise to David is unconditional: David and his heirs will always reign as kings of Israel. Nothing that David does, as shown in the Bible, prompts God to revoke his blessing.

One way to work out the puzzle is to credit God with the insight that a human being is not capable of being, or expected to be, a plaster saint. A single human life may have moments of moral grandeur and moments of moral failing, and one does not necessarily cancel out the other. That's certainly true in the life of David as it is reported in the Bible--he is described as both "a bloody fiend from hell" and "a man after God's own heart."

Another way to understand the attitude of the Bible toward David is that, as one scholar puts it, David is "the quintessential winner." And, then as now, nothing succeeds like success. So the biblical author is willing to praise David for his earthly accomplishments and overlook his earthly failings, and he reports that God feels the same way toward David.

The same is true of our attitude toward many political and military leaders--Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, for example, both conducted extramarital affairs during World War II, but very few of us condemn them for their moral failings when we consider their role in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies.

Q: If God's promise of kingship to David was eternal, what explains the fact that the dynasty of King David eventually came to an end?

JK: The contradiction between God's promise and the historical record is undeniable, and it caused plenty of consternation among the biblical authors. Eventually, the apparent contradiction was resolved by focusing on the doctrine of the Messiah--God will one day send a Messiah to reign over us, and he will be a descendant of King David. Thus, in both Jewish and Christian tradition, the eternal kingship of David is understood to mean that, one day, a descendant of David will return as the Messiah.

According to Christian tradition, of course, the Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth, and that is why the Gospels trace the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to David. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah has yet to come, but when the Messiah does finally come, he will be a descendant of David or, according to a mystical tradition in Judaism, the resurrected David himself.

The idea that the Messiah is a descendant of King David, therefore, is one of the very few points of theology upon which Christians and Jews agree!

Q: Was David gay?

JK: The Bible plainly reports that men as well as women fell in love with David, and David describes his love for Jonathan, son of King Saul, in tender and even passionate terms: "Wonderful was thy love to me, passing the love of women." (2 Sam. 1:26) According to pious tradition, David is speaking of a pure and platonic love. More recently, however, some Bible scholars have been willing to wonder out loud whether the two men were more than just friends. Certainly some of their encounters with each other suggest an intimacy that may have gone beyond friendship, and sexual relations between men were hardly unusual in the ancient world. Of course, David was just as passionate about the women in his life, and he clearly engaged in a great many sexual relationships with women. Still, if we read with an open mind what the Bible actually says, we have to entertain the idea that David may have been bisexual.

Q: Was David abusive or exploitive toward women?

JK: David's relationships with the women in his life were highly passionate but also deeply troubled. He was capable of falling deeply in love with a woman, but he was also capable of acting imperiously and even abusively toward women.

The marriage between David and Michal, for example, is an example of a relationship that begins in the thrall of spontaneous affection and ends up in bitterness and estrangement. The courtship between David and Abigail, if we can call it a courtship, shows David as a coarse and even threatening figure. That's why some feminist Bible scholars regard the Bible as a whole and the life story of David in particular as the work of authors who were hostile toward women.

Still, the bond between David and Bathsheba, which begins in adultery, bastardy, and murder, was clearly a heartfelt and lifelong commitment between the two of them. At the end of his life, David is unable to summon up any carnal desire for the beautiful young Abishag, for example, but he readily gives Bathsheba everything she demands, including a crown for their son, Solomon.

Q: Do you believe that David really existed?

JK: When I wrote about Moses, I was compelled to report the scholarly consensus, and my own conviction, that Moses is a legendary or even a purely mythic figure. But David, by contrast, is almost certainly a flesh-and-blood human being. The Tel-Dan inscriptions that I describe in chapter sixteen of King David are compelling evidence that David really lived and reigned, but the evidence is not merely archaeological. David comes across as a real human being precisely because the Bible gives us such rich and convincing details about his life, his deeds, his emotions, and his relationships. Unlike most other biblical figures--including, for example, Moses--David is fully three-dimensional. I agree with Freud when he insists that the Book of Samuel is "real history."

Q: What is the connection between King David and the Star of David?

JK: As it turns out, this is the single most frequently asked question that I encounter when I talk about King David! The question is answered in detail in chapter sixteen of the book, but the short answer is that the Star of David has no historical connection with David. The six-sided star, which has come to symbolize Judaism in general and the State of Israel in particular, was first linked to David by medieval alchemists and magic-users in Christian and Islamic circles in the Middle Ages. Not until the fourteenth century was it first used in Jewish settings, and not until the late nineteenth century was it adopted as a symbol of Judaism. In fact, virtually all the sites in Jerusalem that are traditionally associated with David have no real historical connection with him.



“[A] SPLENDID BIOGRAPHY . . . An eminently readable account of perhaps the best-known and most popular of all biblical heroes.”
–Los Angeles Times

“A COMPLETE PORTRAIT . . . One of the more comprehensive attempts to place this staggering figure in history, in literature, in psychology, and in the evolution of Judaism and Christianity.”
The Seattle Times

“A STUNNING SYNTHESIS . . . Kirsch has taken the best of both worlds to fashion a story that is the first of its kind: a biography of biblical proportions, anchored in the imaginative sweep of fiction and the tactile surprise of fact.”
Author of The Book of David
and co-author of The Book of J

“Anyone who reads [this] entertaining and often enlightening account will come away with a solid understanding of David’s life and legacy.”
–San Francisco Chronicle
About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

David, King of the Jews, possessed every flaw and failing of which a mortal is capable, yet men and women adored him, and God showered him with many blessings. A charismatic leader, exalted as "a man after God's own heart," he was also capable of deep cunning and bloodthirsty violence. Weaving together biblical texts with centuries of interpretation and commentary, as well as the startling discoveries of modern biblical archaeology and scholarship, bestselling author Jonathan Kirsch brings King David to life with extraordinary freshness, intimacy, and vividness of detail, revealing him in all his glory and fallibility. At the center of this taut, dramatic narrative stands a hero of flesh and blood-a man as vibrant and compelling today as he has been for millennia.

Discussion Guides

1. In King David, I have compared David to John F. Kennedy as examples of leaders with "charisma." Do you find David to be a charismatic figure even though, like JFK, he was capable of both heroic and scandalous conduct?

2. The Bible shows that both men and women fall in love with David, and some scholars believe that David's relationship to Jonathan was more than purely platonic. Do you find any homoerotic overtones in the encounters between David and Jonathan and the words that David speaks about Jonathan?

3. One theory of biblical authorship proposes that the Bible began with the life story of David, and everything else was built up around David's story. Do you find this theory to be convincing? When you read the Book of Samuel, do you hear the voices of several different authors or just one?

4. Two different versions of David's life story are given in the Bible. The Book of Samuel gives us the adults-only, R-rated version, and the Book of Chronicles gives a child-safe, G-rated version. If the Book of Samuel had been lost, and only the Book of Chronicles had survived, do you think the Bible itself and the Bible-based religions would have turned out differently?

5. Some Bible scholars suggest that David knew, or should have known, that his son, Amnon, intended to rape his daughter, Tamar, and they blame David for sending Tamar to Amnon's bedchamber. Do you agree that David bears some responsibility for what happened to his daughter?

6. David has been criticized for being a sentimental and indulgent father. For example, he fails to punish Amnon for raping Tamar, and he gives orders that none of his soldiers should harm Absalom when they go into battle against him. Do you see David's attitude toward his sons as a praiseworthy quality or a sign of weakness?

7. Some feminist Bible critics suggest that the women in David's life are sexually abused and exploited. One scholar, for example, says that Bathsheba is "raped by the pen" because the Bible allows us to watch her at various intimate moments. Do you think women are treated inappropriately in the biblical life story of David?

8. Although God vows to "raise up evil against thee out of thine own house" as retribution for David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:11), David himself is never directly punished. The illegitimate baby dies, Tamar is the victim of rape, Amnon is assassinated, and Absalom is killed in battle--but David dies in his bed. Do you think he is suitably punished for his affair with Bathsheba and his role in the murder of Uriah?

9. In King David, I argue that "[s]omething crucial in human history begins with the biblical figure of King David," and I suggest that he is "the original alpha male," "the first superstar," an "authentic sex symbol," and "the quintessential winner." Do you agree that David can be credited (or blamed) for shaping, as I put it, "what we expect of ourselves and, even more so, of the men and women who lead us"?

10. Sometimes it seems that powerful people are held to a different standard than ordinary people when it comes to their private moral conduct. In King David, I suggest that these ideas about leadership begin with the biblical figure of David. Do you agree? Do you think David sets a good example or a bad example for what we have come to expect of our leaders?

11. Shakespeare borrowed many of his plots from other sources but never from the Bible. Still, some readers see similarities between King Lear and King Saul, for example, or between Hamlet and David. Do you see any influences on Shakespeare and his work that can be traced back to the Bible in general and King David in particular?

12. David is more often invoked in modern Israel, where he is admired as a military leader, than in pious Jewish tradition. Do you think the history of the Jewish people would have turned out differently if David had been given a more prominent role in Jewish tradition?

13. As discussed earlier, Bible scholar Gerhard Von Rad describes an "undersong" of David's story running throughout the Bible. Do you see or feel such an undersong in your reading of the Bible? Where?

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