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

Yale's Joel Baden says that we've misunderstood the iconic faith figure.

(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.