The Life of David
By Robert Pinsky
Nextbook, 2008, 240 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 27, 2011
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.