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KING DAVID by Jonathan Kirsch


The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel

by Jonathan Kirsch

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-345-43275-4
Publisher: Ballantine

A biographical narrative, in which lawyer, journalist, and amateur Bible student Kirsch (Moses, 1998) aims to strip away the pious gloss that later editors have allegedly added to the Bible.

What he manages instead is to reduce one of the most complex of figures to the constricted dimensions of a rather unsavory third-world politico: David as thug and sexual predator. Kirsch’s method is to paraphrase and expand the Bible text in the manner of paperback “novelization,” filling in the spare Hebrew narrative with invented details, the whole liberally sprinkled with “probably” and “we may imagine.” (When David first beholds Bathsheba, we are invited to “imagine that David woke from his slumber in a state of agitation and perhaps even sexual arousal.”) He then provides brief commentaries on the stories, concentrating on the most sensational scholarly conjectures (Was incest routinely practiced by Israelite royalty? Was David gay?). Kirsch takes David to task for his abuse of women and the handicapped, but he awards him extra points for possibly being Jonathan’s lover. There is a strange combination of literalness and hypercriticism at work here: the author seems to accept much of the Bible’s narrative at face value (although he does admit in his last chapter that many scholars are quite skeptical of its historicity), while discounting all the theological elements in the text as it now stands. In the end, though, the problem is one of sensibility. What can one expect to learn about David from a writer who views the great lamentation over Saul and Jonathan as “pretty sentiments,” dismisses the Deuteronomic historian as a “spin doctor,” and considers the Books of Kings (which include the stories of Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, and Jezebel) as “wholly lacking in the moments of literary grace, political acumen, and high drama that make Samuel such a compelling work of literature”? Kirsch’s David is neither the Bible’s David nor history’s: he belongs rather in our own political and cultural moment.

Chalk one up for the Philistines.