In Search of King David

By Robin Jacobson.

Shepherd boy, musician, giant-slayer, king, lover, grieving father, and old man – the richness and vitality of the biblical portrait of King David have inspired manifold works of art, literature, and scholarship, not to mention a popular year-long class by our own Rabbi Werbin. Beth El’s library abounds with books devoted to King David (see the catalog on the shul website), including two recent stand-out additions: The Secret Chord, a historical novel by Pulitzer prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, and David: The Divided Heart, an extended reflection on the biblical text by Rabbi David Wolpe. Don’t miss either one.

The Secret Chord

It was a bar mitzvah boy who inspired Geraldine Brooks to fashion a novel around the life of King David. (Brooks’s previous novels – irresistible to fans of historical fiction – have dealt with a 17th century plague (Year of Wonders); native Americans in Colonial America (Caleb’s Crossing); the Civil War (March); and the Sarajevo Haggadah (People of the Book)). Like the biblical king, Brooks’s son, Nathaniel, took up the harp. At his bar mitzvah, Nathaniel performed Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a contemporary song about the “secret chord” that David played that “pleased the Lord.”

Intrigued, Brooks began researching biblical texts and biblical times (including stints herding sheep and riding mules). The narrator of Secret Chord is Natan, the prophet with the courage to confront David over his sins. Natan also unflinchingly chronicles the brutality of warfare and the precarious lives of women in a patriarchal society (Brooks’s past career, as a war correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and author of the non-fiction Nine Parts of Desire: the Hidden World of Islamic Women, serves her well here).  Through Natan, we learn of the travails of David’s wives and of the tragedy of his daughter, Tamar, who is raped by one brother and avenged by another. Above all, the novel immerses readers in the sensory experiences – the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells – of biblical Israel. When you close the book, you will want to dust the sand from your shoes.

David: The Divided Heart

David Wolpe, the prominent rabbi-author of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is captivated by the question of why King David, despite his grievous failings, is so beloved – both in the biblical narrative and by posterity. But unlike Brooks, Wolpe seeks to understand David not through literary imagination (although he references many interesting literary treatments of King David), but through a more homiletic, rabbinic analysis of the biblical text.

To Wolpe, the secret of David’s appeal lies in the complexities and contradictions in David’s character; he represents the best and worst of humanity – the fullness of human experience, expression, and emotion. David’s sins are heinous (murder, adultery, betrayal), but his gifts are extraordinary. Wolpe writes eloquently of David’s remarkable ability to envision possibilities that others cannot begin to imagine:

“When it is clear that Goliath cannot be felled with armor and sword, he envisions another possibility. Later, when Saul’s pursuit makes his continued existence in Israel impossible, he flees to the enemy. When Jerusalem is a backwater, he will see it as a capital; when worship in Israel is nomadic, he will envision a Temple.”

David lives larger than we do, but nonetheless, says Wolpe, David is the quintessential human, an amalgam of good and evil. Although David’s deeds are both more sublime and more sinful than ours, we recognize ourselves in David, and David in ourselves. That is why we love him, Wolpe proposes. Maybe. Or maybe we just love a good story.