What good can come from challenging David’s status as a hero?
This question took center stage this morning as I worked with an adult church school class at a local Presbyterian church. We used some of the questions from my Reading the Bible as an Adult session on “David: Really a Hero?” to see how childhood versions of the heroic David stand up to the biblical narrative itself. We did close reading of 1 Samuel 17 and then placed it in the larger sweep of Joshua through Kings.
We all agreed that the biblical David isn’t as sweet, brave, and heroic as many of us were taught. Sure, he kills Goliath. But he isn’t exactly a little boy with the slingshot: he inquires repeatedly about the reward being offered, boasts of his earlier prowess against wild animals, cuts off Goliath’s head, and sends it as a trophy to Jerusalem, while keeping the champion’s armor. As the story progresses, he commits adultery, arranges murder, fails his children, and may be complicit in the death of Saul’s descendents. (For more on David, see this blog post.)
But then we asked the important question: Why is it important to see David as something other than a hero?
For me, resisting the hero-ification of David is important politically and personally. On the political level, it reminds me of how easy–and dangerous–it is to put leaders on a pedestal. As long as we read David’s story expecting to find a hero, it’s easy to overlook his self-interest, self-promotion, and complicity in murder. When modern leaders are made into heroes, we don’t put enough checks on their power; we expect them to behave perfectly, and it takes a lot to make us see when they don’t. When they finally are caught in the Big Lie, we often accept too readily their Big Apology, the spectacle of public contrition. One member of this morning’s class claimed that David redeemed his hero status when he acknowledged his sin with Bathsheba; the king’s willingness to admit his failings showed his humility and worthiness to rule. Of course, the person didn’t consider how quickly David’s public spectacle ended and how quickly it was back to royal business as usual.
The tendency to make influential people into untouchable heroes also has personal dimensions. I see myself and people that I care about struggling with how to relate to the “heroes” of their own lives–parents, teachers, mentors, bosses, friends. I see heroes given too much leeway, too much uncontested control. It’s hard to recognize, much less challenge, the inappropriate behavior of those we’ve been taught only to admire. And for some folks, seeing influential people as heroes makes it difficult to trust their own paths to wholeness or to be open to the possibilities beyond those that the hero chose.
I find David’s story important not because it gives me someone to imitate or admire but because it shows me something that I need to see again and again: the need to see people for all of who they are.