The Biblical King David died some three thousand years ago. But his influence on the modern world is still profound.
In popular culture (and in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller), he’s the prototypical underdog, remembered for his victory over Goliath. In the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, he’s celebrated as the man who unified the kingdom of Israel, wrote the Psalms, brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and planned the Temple there. The New Testament declares him to be an ancestor of Jesus, and the Koran includes him among the major prophets. Then there’s the modern state of Israel, which flies the Star of David on its flag and in many respects considers itself the embodiment of his geographical, political, and ideological legacy.
But behind this legendary David, so vital a founding figure in all sorts of cultural origin stories, lurks a question: Who was the man, really? That’s the question the Old Testament scholar Joel S. Baden asks in his new book, “The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero.”
A Boston native who is now an associate professor at the Yale Divinity School, Baden comes up with an answer that isn’t pretty. David, he argues, was a power-hungry outlaw, a wife-stealer, a murderer, a traitor, and a usurper—and he almost certainly didn’t kill Goliath, write the Psalms, or plan the Temple. “David was a successful monarch,” Baden writes, “but he was a vile human being.”
That’s a conclusion bound to offend some readers of the Bible. But Baden argues that nothing in his depiction—which he bases on a close reading of the biblical text in the context of its own times—diminishes David’s profound importance. No matter what you think of his character or his actions, Baden writes, David undeniably changed the world. And appreciating the gulf that separates the real man from the mythical figure not only encourages readers to approach the Bible’s stories with a healthy measure of skepticism but also serves as a reminder of just how far Western culture has come, politically, culturally, and morally, in the three thousand years since his death.
Baden spoke with Ideas by phone from New Haven.
IDEAS: What makes you believe David existed? In a lot of ways, he seems like a classic mythical figure.
BADEN: There’s a very lively debate in scholarship about whether David was a real person or a mythical founding figure created to justify the later kingdom. You know, like the Romulus and Remus of ancient Israel....The problem with reading the Bible that way is that when you read the stories about David in the Bible, it’s hard to imagine that anybody would invent stories like that about their founding figure. I can’t imagine somebody sitting around and saying, “You know, when we invent the story of our founding figure, let’s have him run a protection racket with a band of misfits out in the wilderness. That’s what we want our founder to be.” So when I read the biblical story, what I see is an attempt to explain actual historical events in a way that makes David look better than what the plain sequence of events might suggest.
IDEAS: Who do you think David was?
BADEN: If you read the biblical text not as history but as an interpretation of history, what you end up seeing is an ambitious fellow who did anything necessary to gain power. And that included what we would consider some relatively unpleasant things, like theft and extortion and murder and treason....There’s this whole sequence of deaths, for example, that befall those around David, every single one of which works to his benefit. The Bible and tradition try to tell us that David had nothing to do with them, but when you have a whole pile of bodies, and every single one is a good thing for David, you start to wonder.
IDEAS: So where do you look to find the real story?
BADEN: I concentrate on the [seventh- or sixth-century BC] Books of Samuel and Kings. That’s where you get all the bad stuff about David....My reading is that those books themselves rely on an earlier [now lost] text: an apology written on behalf of his royal court in the 10th century, during his own lifetime....Part of my book is an attempt to identify the literary outlines of that apology, the point of which, in passage after passage, is: I know this looks bad, but it actually wasn’t the way you think it was. That kind of argument is only necessary to make during the lifetime of the person, or immediately thereafter. Once the memory of those bad events has faded, you no longer need to apologize for them. And that’s exactly what you see in Chronicles, a couple of hundred years later, where everything bad from Samuel and Kings—David’s entire time in Saul’s court, his entire time in the wilderness, his entire time working for the Philistines, the whole rebellion of Absalom, the whole affair with Bathsheeba—is gone. Now it’s just: David became king, everyone loved him, he drew up all the plans for the Temple, he had some great conquests, the end.
IDEAS: It’s fun to think about this in other contexts. Take Caligula, for example.
BADEN: Caligula is a wonderful comparative example. The things we read about Caligula all come from writers after his time who had an agenda to discredit him. But when you read contemporary accounts—so, okay, he wasn’t the greatest guy on Earth, but he wasn’t nearly the crazy guy that he’s become in legend....It’s very much like the portrayal of Saul [David’s predecessor] in the Bible. When you read the stories about Saul by his contemporaries, there’s no indication that anybody had a problem with him. He seemed to do a pretty bang-up job, actually. But after his time, when David had to be glorified, suddenly Saul is described as doing all these insane things. It’s very Caligula-esque.
IDEAS: You don’t deny David’s achievements, right?
BADEN: No. History has shown pretty firmly that not-so-great people can make really compelling and successful leaders. David did things that have great resonance today, in terms of changing and reshaping the world, particularly in Judeo-Christian circles. And his being a bad dude doesn’t really change what he did. Here the Thomas Jefferson parallel is an excellent one. When we found out he’d had an affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, suddenly there was a great uproar. Our view of his character changed. But nothing that he accomplished for America was at all undone by that.
IDEAS: Are you examining a bigger story in this book than just David’s?
BADEN: This book is something of a case study. It’s about David, but it’s also about how to read the Bible if we ask it different questions, if we ask not what it says, and not even what it means, but rather: Why did the people who wrote it write it, and why did they write it like this?...The interesting question about the Bible, and all literature, really, is, what was the aim? What was trying to be communicated? It’s very much about the power of storytelling—and about how the way that a story is told can absolutely reshape the actual history it’s based on.
Toby Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, is the author of “The Fourth Part of the World” (2009) and “Da Vinci’s Ghost” (2012).