For any reader who is troubled by the notion that the Bible might not be historically accurate or complete, there is both good news and bad news in "David's Secret Demons," the latest in a recent flurry of biographies, monographs and biblical translations that focus on King David.
Author Baruch Halpern attests to the "historicity" of King David: "David existed and reigned," he writes. But he insists, too, that the historical David did not much resemble the idealized figure whom we find in the Book of Samuel, where the king is depicted as "a man after [God's] own heart" and the progenitor of the Messiah.
"The David of this book is in a sense the opposite of the David of Samuel," writes Halpern. "He is the anti-David or, by implication, the anti-Messiah."
At the heart of "David's Secret Demons" is a simple but compelling idea that Halpern uses as a key to decoding the vast accumulation of biblical scholarship and the biblical text itself: The biography of David as we find it in the Book of Samuel is an ancient and authentic document produced in "circles close to David and Solomon"--but it was written as propaganda rather than history or biography. Specifically, the biblical apologists were trying to explain away the cunning, guile, deceit and ruthlessness that David displayed in taking the throne away from Saul, the first king of Israel, "liquidating" his potential rivals in the family of Saul and consolidating his power as king and conqueror.
"The resulting picture is not a pretty one," Halpern writes of his own depiction of David. "But the fact that it produces a recognizably human David--not the brilliant literary creation in Samuel, but a flesh-and-blood man--indicates that the portrait of David in the Bible was aimed at answering the accusations I attribute to his enemies."
"David's Secret Demons" is the latest title in the series called "The Bible in Its World." Its author, co-director of the archeological excavations at Megiddo, where the Bible says the battle of Armageddon will occur, is among the most accomplished and distinguished scholars of his generation, or any generation. As both a biblical historian and a working archeologist, he brings an unrivaled depth of scholarship to his work.
Indeed, "David's Secret Demons" is an intellectual tour de force that gathers all the strands of technical Bible scholarship and ties them to the figure of David as he has been recalled and celebrated in the whole sweep of Western civilization. Along the way, Halpern displays an inventiveness and even a playfulness that is rare in Bible scholarship--he uses the distinctive accents of Brooklyn and the Bronx to illustrate the vocalization of the ancient tongue called Western Aramaic, for example, and he cites the comic novels of Mark Twain and the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby to illustrate some obscure technical points about the biblical narrative.
Above all, Halpern confronts us with his candid reading of the subtext of the Book of Samuel--"the patterned strategies of exculpation," as he puts it, by which the biblical author tries to distance David from the various outrages that seem to happen whenever he is around. The Bible itself plainly shows David to be capable of taking human life, for example, but Halpern devotes a chapter titled "King David, Serial Killer" to a painstaking examination of the suspicious circumstances under which the lives of so many of his rivals came to a bloody end.
Halpern's meticulous scholarship is often enlivened with his well-informed speculation about what is really going on beneath the surface of the biblical text. He suggests that Solomon, depicted in the Bible as David's son and successor, may have been the child of Uriah, the heroic soldier whom David cuckolded by sleeping with his wife, Bathsheba. And Halpern wonders out loud whether David, presented in the Bible as the greatest king in the history of ancient Israel, was an Israelite at all.
"All the signs . . . point to a long and sincere Davidic commitment to the Philistines," he writes of David, who is described in the Bible as a member of the tribe of Judah. "Neither on the basis of archeology nor on that of textual analysis is there any reason to suppose that any inhabitant of the territory of Judah was identified ethnically with Israel . . . before David's reign."
In fact, the most startling revelation of all is Halpern's suggestion that David may have been the conqueror of Israel rather than the king who united the 12 tribes of Israel under his glorious rule. "The story of David's reign is that of the encirclement of his principal conquest, Israel," Halpern concludes. "And the presentation of David's reign is the concealment of his conquest of Israel."
Halpern seems to have anticipated how provocative the book will be to readers who prefer to think of David as a pious king rather than a serial killer, a hero rather than a conqueror of Israel. "To Aunt Claire," goes the dedication of his book, "for the whoops of horror [this book] occasioned."
Jonathan Kirsch is a contributing writer to the Book Review and author of, most recently, "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel" (Ballantine).