A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

David, David, David: It's Always about David

King David is on the entertainment circuit these days.  He’s the focus of an off-Broadway musical, not so creatively titled “King David,” now at the Promise Theater. He’s already a TV regular,  starring in the NBC series Kings (see earlier blog post).

In all the media hype, he hasn’t risen above the humble book.  Robert Pinsky’s The Life of David was published in 2008.   For the literary-minded, there’s a new version of his story by Robert Alter: The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel.  And to show that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, David continues to appear as a vegetable version of himself in “Dave and the Giant Pickle” in the Veggie Tales series.


What accounts for David’s timeless appeal?

One factor in David’s popularity, I believe, is the sheer length of his story in the book of Samuel.   Most Old Testament narratives are tantalizingly short, but with David we get the full sweep of his life.   Reading from 1 Samuel all the way into early chapters of 1 Kings, we follow David from his humble beginnings though his rise to power, his military successes, his military and moral failures, the tragedy of his children, and his death.

But it’s not just the length of the story that makes it so good.  There’s also its artfulness.  This saga is packed with classic plots: a humble boy rises to the highest position in the land (think of King Arthur), a son must choose between his father and his friend, a wife publicly criticizes her husband’s excesses, and tragedy ensues when a father cannot control his son.   Even if we’re not royalty, we can recognize ourselves in these stories–the humiliation of being upstaged by a younger colleague and the unintended consequences of our transgressions.

The story also has lots of important gaps, the kind that has fueled generations of imagination. What was David and Jonathan’s relationship really all about?  What was Abigail’s true motive in fawning over David?  Does Bathsheba change from victim to agent of her own destiny or does she play only one of those roles?

Steve McKenzie argues that the story of David in 1-2 Samuel was ancient spin control, an attempt to make a ruthless king into a sympathetic figure.  He’s largely convincing.  Read between the lines of the David story and you’ll find much less of a hero than Veggie Tales would suggest.

But the spin works.  Already in the writing of the book of Chronicles, David has become a model king, one who excels in worship as well as state-building.  And people today continue to love David, rarely acknowledging that they would never accept monarchy today.

According to one review of the musical King David, many of the songs “tend toward overwrought uplift.”  David suffers loudly over the death of his child and begs for divine forgiveness. You won’t find that intensity in 2 Samuel.  But the gap is there to fill, thanks to the storyteller.

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