Beliefs Culture Ethics Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

King David misunderstood says Yale scholar: Politician, psalmist, adulterer and more

(Image: "King David Playing the Harp" by Gerard Von Honthorst
(Image: "King David Playing the Harp" by Gerard Von Honthorst

Yale’s Joel Baden says that we’ve misunderstood the iconic faith figure of King David. (Image: “King David Playing the Harp” by Gerard Von Honthorst

Religion students at Yale Divinity School blame Dr. Joel Baden for “ruining” King David for them. Baden insists this was not his intention.

But in his new book, The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero, the Old Testament professor digs into the past of this hero of the faith and argues the iconic Biblical character has been misunderstood. He says that he found someone more animated than the glorified felt-board action hero many have come to know. Here we talk about his controversial findings and why he thinks we should ignore his critics to believe what he says.

JM: What is the false caricature of King David which you believe needs to be dissembled?

JB: In the New Testament, David is described with a brief and powerful phrase: “a man after God’s own heart.” It’s hard to imagine a more positive description–after all, this is what every person of faith strives to be. The most famous story from the Bible about David provides plenty of support for this image of him. Almost everyone knows of David’s encounter with Goliath, the bravery he shows when the rest of Israel is afraid to confront the giant, and his remarkable statement of trust in God: “You come at me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the ranks of Israel.”

This premier example of faith in action is counterposed with the other popular conception of David, as the composer of the Psalms.  When we read and hear the words “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” there we have the same faith expressed in song. These texts and traditions stand behind our cultural view of David not only as Israel’s greatest king, but also as the paradigm of a great God-fearing person. When we add in the ancient belief that David is the direct ancestor of, and even model for, the Messiah–a belief common to both Judaism and Christianity–then David’s apotheosis is essentially complete.  Even in his lowest moments (the affair with Bathsheba, in most people’s eyes), David is an exemplar of human repentance and divine forgiveness.

David is the undisputed hero of the Hebrew Bible. Tradition, both in the Bible itself and thereafter, has only increased his standing. (The narratives in the Bible of David’s life, for example, never claim that he actually wrote the Psalms.) There is some real basis for the glorification of David: he was an authentically important (this word is not even strong enough) historical figure, a man who changed the course of human history: the founder of a nation and, in many ways, of a religion.

The question I try to address in the book is, which parts of the story are glorification, and which parts are more historically plausible? This isn’t a question of denying David’s achievements as a national leader, or even his existence (as is relatively common in biblical scholarship). But the David of the Bible, and even more so the David of popular tradition, is a nearly perfected human being. This is theologically a fine thing, but I wanted to explore whether it could be true historically as well.

JM: Why do you think it’s been important to people of faith to paint David as something other than an ambitious power player?

Image courtesy of HarperOne

Image courtesy of HarperOne

JB: There is good reason that we have condensed David’s story to these few seminal moments and images. People of all places and times have a vested interest in glorifying their founding figures. In America, we do this with George Washington (think crossing the Delaware or the cherry tree), often setting aside some of the less pleasant aspects of his life (think slave-owner). The national uproar over the revelation of Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemmings revealed pretty starkly the investment we have in viewing our forefathers in a uniformly positive light. If, as Americans, we care to this degree about our secular founders, how much more strongly do Jews and Christians feel about David, who is a national, ethnic, and above all religious founder?

As descendants of David (in whichever combination of ways), we position ourselves to a certain extent as modern-day Davids, or at least we aspire to be so.  At the same time, we want David to embody the values that we hold dear as a society. As we want to be people “after God’s own heart,” so too we need David to have been that.

It’s also very much worth recognizing that, for the most part, our cultural depiction of David is in no way a conscious decision, and hasn’t been for over two millennia. The Bible, as I try to show in the book, portrays David quite intentionally as the glorious founding figure of Israel. We have trusted in the biblical presentation ever since. And why not? It is only relatively recently that we have begun the slow process of understanding the Bible as a theological interpretation of ancient events, rather than as the ancient equivalent of a modern-day historiographical text. So I am not trying to unravel anyone’s faith – my religious tradition has and will continue to view David as the Bible depicts him–but rather to explore the origins of that faith, to get at why the Bible says what it says about David.

JM: What sorts of methods/research/interpretation do you use to dig “beneath the biblical stories”?

JB: The starting point is the biblical text itself. I try to understand not only what the biblical authors were saying, but why they were saying it. That is to say, what was their purpose in writing these stories the way that they did? I take very seriously what they actually wrote: what they included (and didn’t include), what they must have known of David’s life (and what they could not have known). The life of David as we have it in the books of Samuel and Kings is not presented as a mere rehearsal of historical facts. There is a consistent portrayal of David, and those around him, that leads to a very specific interpretation of his life.

Throughout, the elements that support this interpretation are those that, from a purely historical perspective, are most unverifiable: private moments and dialogues, secret divine pronouncements, and the like. In other words, the tools of an author writing a story intended to convince his readers. And convincing they have certainly been. But for just that reason, I want to try to understand the arc of David’s life without the interpretive overlay provided by the biblical authors. Which is not to say that everything they suggest is necessarily false, by any means. But it is not necessarily the most likely explanation either.

The second important step is to view David not as a character in the Bible, but as a living, breathing man in the early first millennium BCE. Archaeological and historical work has gone a long way toward filling in the gaps in our knowledge of this period, though there is always more to be done.  But we are no longer at the mercy of the Bible in trying to reconstruct the world that David inhabited. We know plenty about ancient Israel and its neighboring cultures – especially their politics, economy, and religion – and this knowledge allows us to make at least some reasonable guesses as to what sort of life David would have lived.

The portrayal of David I put forward in the book is thus a combination of these two approaches: a close reading of the biblical text filled out with the background of the ancient world as we now understand it. It is an attempt to find the real David moving beneath the veneer of the Bible’s own interpretation of his life.

JM: Enough beating around the theological bush. Let’s get to the $100,000 question: Who did you find David to be? Any surprises? 

JB: Depending on what perspective we start with, there will either be many surprises or relatively few. If we begin with the familiar cultural portrait of David, then there is plenty that will be new and perhaps even somewhat shocking. You described David quite correctly as an “ambitious power player.”  That’s quite right. For someone coming only from tradition, or even from the biblical text, this is a surprise indeed: the Bible goes to great lengths to show that David was anything but ambitious, that the kingship was given to him through no efforts of his own. For someone reading David in light of his ancient context, however, there’s no great shock here: no one in the ancient world simply fell into the monarchy, especially from outside any established royal descent.

There is no value judgment here, nor do I want to propose any. David did whatever was necessary to attain and retain the throne in Israel, to amass and wield the power that came with the crown. If he hadn’t, the world would be quite different today. But the biblical presentation of David as always in the right just doesn’t turn out to be quite right. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the David I think walked the earth did a lot of things that we would find morally, well, difficult. There was adultery, to be sure, but also royal insubordination, murder, in various flavors, and even something that looks a lot like treason. Perhaps most surprising for me, and perhaps most problematic for many readers, was the realization that the entire notion of the “Davidic” dynasty– both as a royal line in Israel and as a family line leading to Jesus–is thrown strongly into question.

David, as I understand him, was an astonishingly successful man, just as the Bible suggests. But I think that he came to that success via means that would make most of us who claim David as our ancestor rather uncomfortable. Which is really only to say that David was a man of his times, not ours–and it is in his times that I am trying to understand him.

JM: What are the practical implications of your research for those of us who are David’s national/religious/ethnic descendants?

JB: No one wants their cultural founding figure to be anything less than perfect. The question, as you rightly put it, is what do we do once it seems likely that this was in fact the case? Many of my students at the Yale Divinity School–who are often going on into ministry–sarcastically “thank” me for “ruining David” for them. As I said, my intention is not at all to vitiate anyone’s faith (as if such a thing were possible by historical research).  The David of tradition remains just as he ever was. At the same time, though, the recognition that the David of history was quite a different person than we once imagined is a challenge that requires meeting. I think that we can begin to meet that challenge by realizing the great distance between us and the David of history.

Three thousand years is a long time, and we have been maturing as a culture all the while. Our lives are nothing like those of the ancient Israel depicted in the Bible in almost every conceivable way. We are constantly refining our values, even as we look to ground them in the faith and practices of the past.  The fact that we have deep reservations about the life David lived is, I think, a rather good thing. It is a mark of our evolution as a society. Even as we cannot imagine ourselves without him, we have progressed far beyond him. We are not constrained by the past–we have chosen, rather, to reimagine it as we want it to be. The distance between us and David is the difference between the world we have chosen to become and the world we have left behind. Realizing who David was allows us to see more clearly who we are.

JM: I think there are aspects of this book that will make some Christians uncomfortable. And quite frankly, a lot of scholars disagree with you on David. So why should we listen to you?

JB: Ironically, I think that many scholars would say that I’m in the wrong by proposing that David was a real person at all. But I think all the evidence, both literary and historical, shows that he was. But there will, of course, be those who think that the David that emerges from my book is too much at odds with the traditional view. I don’t think that I say anything in the book that isn’t substantiated by literary and historical evidence. There’s only so much that we can know for certain, but I’ve tried to produce a more plausible David.

The book is more showing than telling: I hope that the reader can explore the biblical texts and the historical data along with me, make the same discoveries about it that I do. My first exposure to David was in religious school, as is true of so many others, and I was, for a very long time, beholden to the popular depiction of Israel’s greatest king. It took years of reading and thinking and learning about the Bible, the biblical world, and the Bible’s ancient context for me to come to the conclusions I did in this book. I want to take readers along with me on that journey, and let them see where it leads them.  The results are challenging, no doubt, but there’s nothing to fear in them. There are two Davids, one traditional and one historical. This is an effort to recapture the historical David, to add to our understanding of the Bible and of ourselves.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Everything Dr. Baden claims to reveal about David are already discernible to anyone who reads the Bible. There’s nothing new in his answers to your questions here, JM.

    Dr. Baden creates a false sense of the Bible’s record of David when he says things like “The Bible, as I try to show in the book, portrays David quite intentionally as the glorious founding figure of Israel” and “the biblical presentation of David as always in the right … .”

    Nothing could be further from the truth. David’s handling of his children, for just one example, show he was one of the many flawed parents recorded in ancient literature (not as bad as Cronus eating his children, but still not a good parent). There are other instances of David’s failures recorded in the Bible, but this repeated failure is enough to make my point.

    And of course there are things we don’t know about David; there are things we don’t know about a lot of famous people. To say that we don’t know of David’s flawed character because it’s not in the Bible, though, is just not so. The Bible shows David to be a man who succeeded in leading God’s people in spite of his failings and because of God’s grace.

    That’s the way the Bible portrays David.


  • I’m with you Tim. I’ve never thought of David as anything but an ambiguous figure and can’t recall a sermon which only valorized him. There is, after all, this passage in 1 Chronicles 28. Sounds like God was pretty ambivalent about David too.

    “…2Then King David rose to his feet and said, ‘Listen to me, my brethren and my people; I had intended to build a permanent home for the ark of the covenant of the LORD and for the footstool of our God. So I had made preparations to build it. 3’But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for My name because you are a man of war and have shed blood.’ 4″Yet, the LORD, the God of Israel, chose me from all the house of my father to be king over Israel forever. For He has chosen Judah to be a leader; and in the house of Judah, my father’s house, and among the sons of my father He took pleasure in me to make me king over all Israel.…”

    I also accept that David may not have been an actual historical figure, or an actual David may not have been much like the David of the scriptures. But I still understand the Bible’s take to be nuanced — as it was about all the patriarchs. The bigger surprise would have been to find a major biblical figure who was entirely virtuous. .

    Who are these Yale Div School students who feel David has been “ruined” for them? Do they actually exist, or is this an inflated controversy?

  • I’m confused. The Biblical portrayal I saw of David was of a man who ordered hits on his enemies from his deathbed, conspired to kill a man so he could sleep with his wife, and was a horrible parent. Even worse, a significant majority of his psalms have been turned into superficial CCM worship tunes. Where is this whitewashing of David’s kingship in the Bible? Did I miss a book or something?

  • He says “David’s kingship was given to him the through no efforts of his own.” That is just false! This theologian must not be a Christ follower. Because if so he would know that David was promised by the prophet Nathan that David would be king one day.

  • I agree Tim, Paula, and Marcus! The books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings present an extremely nuanced view of David. The accounts are remarkable for presenting a critique of the nation’s great hero. David is presented as the most ambitious man who ever lead God’s people. Yale students are clever (even the ones in the Divinity School) and they most certainly can appreciate this aspect of the biblical account. David misunderstood? Yes indeed! If the students are upset, it’s because they expected more from their professor. I wonder though, in fairness to the author, whether this approach was pressed upon him by the publisher. It’s hard to believe that a biblical scholar could make these sorts of claims.

  • There are a few folks decrying Baden’s statements that the Bible gloss over David’s weaker moments and crystallize him as an ideal figure. Rightly so, y’all point out that 1-2 Samuel are pretty clear about his weaker moments. What Baden seemed to be saying, in my read, is that the development of the Bible (including 1-2 Chronicles, the prophets, the Intertestamental writings and the New Testament) seems to pay less and less attention to those details while exemplifying the rest of David. The way I see it, people of the 1st century AD wanted a return of David, even though they knew that he was historically a fiend. I wonder if there is disagreement here out of a perceived dichotomy between historical studies and theology (including the out-of-line comment “He must not be a Christ-follower”) that doesn’t actually exist here.

    As for me and my house, I look forward to reading the book. I have always struggled with the “heroic faith” of David juxtaposed with the historical details of his life… many (if not most) of which were deplorable.

  • Good point, Andy. Dr. Baden’s answers in this interview came across as a bit like announcing the discovery that water is wet. However, he hints that there is more to his book than merely establishing a straw David to knock down, and that he might actually give insights into who David is. I’m hopeful!

  • Andy, I disagree. I read the book. Baden adopts an apologetic approach. This means he thinks the entire David narrative in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings is written by the Davidic court to “whitewash” David’s life and demonstrate that he was innocent. Baden then claims to get behind this narrative and, reading against the grain, show that David was actually not so perfect. It’s a very problematic approach. The biblical texts present a very nuanced and penetrating critique of their great hero. They are not whitewashing his life. Indeed, most of the bad stuff they ascribe to him (above all, his relentless ambition), is likely purely fictional. Baden completely misses the point — and the fact that biblical readers through the ages have appreciated how the biblical authors expose David’s weaknesses. He claims however that the biblical authors covered up his weaknesses!

  • The book looks ridiculous. This interview is not much better. The author smugly tells the ingenuous interviewer that there is, of course, an ugly great ditch between the David of history and the David of faith, but that no one with faith should worry. (It is completely unclear whether he actually understands what “use” David is to faith, other than as a facile example: “we position ourselves … as modern-day Davids”.) And that’s not the worst part. He seems to have short-circuited Samuel’s astonishing subtlety by simply resorting to the “they made it up” explanation. The sources of these ancient histories are inaccessible to us. But Baden pretends, like a second-rate journalist with an exclusive interview, to have privileged knowledge that lets him in on “the real story”. Please. The best source of information on the historical David remains the canon, not this jumped-up peddler of dead critical methods.

  • Thanks for giving us the story straight from his book, BL. It looks like this really is a case of someone announcing the discovery that water is wet, and all the while asserting that it’s news because people have been insisting it’s dry. They haven’t, of course. People also haven’t thought David to be personified as perfection in the biblical narrative.

    This came from a Yale scholar? The real story here, then, is the state of Yale scholarship.

  • The angle I find most interesting is that Merritt continues to be a key change agent. This latest subtle attempt to place a semi-mythical David into Millennial minds follows his other attempts to see things through leftist lenses. Almost everything he writes about is seen through a center-left perspective. That’s the real story.

  • The book intrigues me enough to read it, although if the concentration of his critique is on 1 and 2 Chronicles, it’s my understanding that those books were written around the time of the Babylonian exile, and were not told to represent a pure historical perspective of who David was. Instead, those books were written, and originally placed at the end of the Tanakh (Jewish Old Testament) as a bookend to the story of Israel. The idea was to give its immediate audience an answer to the question, “How did we go from being God’s chosen people to being God’s chosen people in captivity?” 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings sorta answer that question, but 1-2 Chronicles tackles it head on. Because of that authorial objective, certain parts of the history of the Israelite monarchy were given less attention, not to present a false history, but to answer a specific question.

  • Jim,

    You make this argument about me writing with a “leftist” lens, but there is no evidence is provided. This forum is intended to provide exposure to culture conversations coming from the left and the right of Christendom. I interviewed Joel because it is a relevant conversation from an important voice. I asked difficult questions, pressing him to share what he actually believes and even asking him to tell us why we shouldn’t believe his many critics.

    Here is the evidence:

    When I pen columns, I attempt to fairly present the facts and then–because I am a columnist, not a reporter–I provide commentary. I’ve taken positions that would be considered right leaning (multiple articles defending the evangelical adoption movement, writing from a pro-life position, or criticizing the President for his policy of drone strikes and Syria) and others that may be considered left leaning (criticism of uncritical support of war, for example).

    Nearly every other post is an interview. These are almost evenly split between voices from the left, right and center. I interviewed Jimmy Carter and Rob Bell, but also Craig Groeschel and Mark Batterson, more conservative evangelicals. When I present perspectives on certain issues (like Syria, for example), I gather voices from the left and right to provide unedited responses.

    When you come into this forum, if you want to apply labels to me, please apply labels that are fair and supported by the evidence. And please don’t make me do your homework for you.


  • I do my homework and that’s the point. So, let me invite you to an interview. What say you let me interview you for my own blogs? Let’s set it up, man!

  • I’m not sure the best way to request an interview with someone is to leave a comment on a column they’ve written and label them a “leftist” while accusing them of trying to covertly indoctrinate a generation.

  • Jim, regardless of your political affiliation, you’re being an unmitigated jerk. If you disagree with Merritt’s point of view, skip the name calling, stop saying “I do my homework” and actually respond to the post. I disagree with Merritt, and you can see a real response that has some thought to it.

    Otherwise, the trolls go under the bridge; they shouldn’t be that hard for you to find.

  • Jim, I thought the funiest comment on the board was Jonathan’s comment about your interview request. Then I read your follow-up about him not agreeing to be interviewed. You now win the funniest comment award by a long shot.


  • I’ve been trying to interview him all year, and will keep trying. Despite the objections of his readers/sycophants.

  • This was all amazing. Jim, your post and interview request was kind of like telling a girl she is ugly and dresses poorly and then asking her out for a date.

  • What is this academic nonsense about the David and Psalms? His ode to Jonathan is beautiful even in English! Was he a one-hit wonder? Or was work of comparable quality ignored, in spite of his unique stature as a hero? Leave it to common sense-less academics to miss the obvious.

  • It’s statements such as “No one wants their cultural founding figure to be anything less than perfect” where I immediately say: don’t loop me, or virtually anyone of faith that I know, into such an erroneous statement. I want the Biblical characters to be authentic. David is compelling to me because he is such an astonishing paradox. Perfect? Please. It makes me scratch my head as to just what kind of people Dr. Baden thinks we all are…. What presuppositions about American Christians are they sitting around supposing — at Yale no less. I might expect such sloppy thinking out of Humboldt State (sorry Humboldt State. You were the first university that popped into my head). I’m embarrassed. For Yale. For Dr. Baden. For HarperCollins. And for Mr. Merritt (who I often find compelling; there’s just no “there there” with the gist of the interview). I want to know: why does Dr. Baden hold such over simplified, utterly erroneous ideas about what his presumed audience thinks. Oh. Wait. I get it. Maybe his audience is mostly Yale Divinity students. Makes sense now (or at least more sense).

    (and I could state a number of other examples from this “interview” but I think the one above makes the overarching point).

  • Among lay people, David as the impeccable hero is most common. Biblical scholars clearly have a more accurate view. Lay people do need more education about biblical characters.

    My chief complaint about the David Myth is in regard to the Bathsheba episode. Even here David’s despicable behavior is soft pedaled. David spied on Bathsheba in a private moment on her rooftop. He sent his minions to kidnap her and bring her to his rooms. He raped her and had her sent back. Then he arranged for her husband, a man who would have given his life for David, to be killed in battle.

    There was no Adultery. There was no Affair. There was kidnapping and rape. Oh yeah, and after Uriah’s death, David had Bathsheba kidnapped again and brought to him for a forced marriage and decades of rape, including pregnancies.

  • Of recent I have been studying the Old Testament for the class I teach. There has
    only ONE PERFECT MAN on earth and that was our LORD AND SAVIOR, even
    JESUS THE CHRIST. All the rest of us have been , are , and will be imperfect
    until G0D proclaims us otherwise. This life is our time to ‘prepare to meet God’
    and become more like Him. David, in his youth , was a child after God’s own
    heart, as he grew and became acquainted with the ways of the World & mankind, he met many challenges and looked to God and lived. Not once person who has been , is now or will be upon this earth (EXCEPT JESUS CHRIST) will be as perfect as HE WAS AND NOW IS. We are learning line upon line and precept upon precept. CHRIST provided the Atonement and Repentance, that we may be able to return to live with our Heavenly Father,if
    we accept HIM as our SAVIOR & REDEEMER and live accordingly. We are
    mortal and will make mistakes. Thus we learn and grow and become more
    like GOD and CHRIST. David was but a mortal man with many responsibilities
    placed upon his shoulders by God and the nation he governed. He too, looked
    to GOD and lived. Is there any among us who is without sin? “Then let him be
    the one to cast the first stone!” Mortality is not easy, but the LORD has said that HE will walk with those that walk with Him in faith and service, CHRIST’s
    mortal line of ascent is traced back through King David. Whatever his short
    comings may have been …in his behalf I say, “Let the LORD judge between
    him and Thee…” Heavenly Father is merciful and loving…let Him alone judge…

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