2014.1.3 | Joel Baden. The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. New York: HarperOne, 2013. 310 pages. ISBN: 9780062188311.
Reviewed by Andrew Knapp.
Many thanks to HarperOne for providing a review copy.
It is often said of historical Jesus studies that each biography reflects the scholar who wrote it more than it reflects Jesus of Nazareth. Let us hope that the same does not apply to historical David studies, because Joel Baden considers the famed king of Israel to be a villainous, duplicitous, overreaching scoundrel. Through Baden’s critical reading of the biblical text, David “is revealed as a thoroughly amoral individualist, concerned only for his own well-being” (98). David was “a vile human being” (259) who “even in his own day, was considered guilty of horrific crimes” (260).
Of course, such sentiment is not new among biblical scholars. The last few decades have witnessed a multitude of studies focusing on the suspicious nature of David’s rule, most of which take the apologetic posture of the biblical narrative as a launching point. The idea, which became well known in North America after the publication of Kyle McCarter’s seminal article, “The Apology of David” (JBL 99 : 489-504), is that much of what we now know as 1-2 Samuel was originally written as a defense of David, composed and disseminated as a response to certain detractors who charged that David had murdered his predecessor Saul and a variety of other figures who stood in his way, betrayed Judah, and committed other crimes en route to ascending the throne of Israel. A review of Baden’s new volume would be remiss not to mention two well-known monographs that used this idea to reconstruct a biography of David—Steven L. McKenzie’s King David: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) and Baruch Halpern’s David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001)—for the fingerprints of these earlier treatments are all over The Historical David. To Baden’s credit, he cites and acknowledges them both liberally. Nevertheless, for those familiar with historical David research, reading this book can sometimes feel as if one were rereading Halpern.
Like the aforementioned monographs, Baden’s The Historical David basically follows the trajectory of the biblical narrative from 1 Sam 16, where David is introduced and anointed by Samuel, to 1 Kgs 2, where David gives bloodthirsty instructions to Solomon before serenely expiring. Baden’s seven chapter titles set the tone for the book; note the recurrent themes of conspiracy and myth (the latter term is somewhat misleading, “legend” strikes me as more accurate for what Baden intends): “David’s Youth: The Mythical Origins of the Psalmist and Giant-Slayer” (17-42), “David in Saul’s Service: Revealing a Biblical Cover-Up” (43-81), “David in the Wilderness: From Israelite Soldier to Philistine Vassal” (83-115), “David Becomes King: A Series of Timely Deaths” (117-55), “David’s Kingdom: The Myth of National and Religious Origins” (157-86), “David Under Attack: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures” 187-220), “David in Decline: What Goes Around Comes Around” (221-51).
I note that Baden tends to follow McKenzie and especially Halpern more as an observation than as a criticism. The Historical David was clearly written as a synthesis of scholarship for a lay audience, not as a new hypothesis for the academy, and it should be evaluated accordingly. I do have one main critique as a fellow scholar, however. At no point does Baden explain how he considers the text to have developed. He asserts that the “process of constructing David’s legacy began even before his death, with the composition of the pro-David apology with which we have primarily been concerned here” (253), and shortly thereafter he pinpoints the date of composition of the apology as in the wake of Absalom’s revolt (254). But we are left to guess as to the extent of the apology, what passages it includes and what are later accretions, etc. Without this, I often found myself surprised and seeking an explanation for why he treated or ignored certain passages. Some examples: Baden discusses Saul’s journey to Ramah, whereupon he goes into a prophetic frenzy, in 1 Sam 19:18-24 (65-67). He apparently considers this part of the apology since it paints Saul in a bad light, but most scholars would attribute this to a separate stratum on several grounds. Similarly, Baden spends much time discussing David’s interaction with both Jonathan and Michal, despite the recent contention (which I find persuasive) that the presence of these characters signals two discrete literary strands—they may both be early and apologetic, as some contend, but this is not obvious. Perhaps the most glaring example of this tendency is the fact that Baden treats all of the material classically known as the Court History (2 Sam 13-20; 1 Kgs 1-2) without commenting on the complicated compositional nature of these chapters.
Although the target audience may be neither aware of nor concerned with the issues of the development of the David narrative, this leads to another point that may be more crucial to lay readers. Baden dedicates very little space to establishing his methodology. He discusses the apologetic nature of the David material briefly (44-46), concluding with a single paragraph on his methodology. In it, he writes that after stripping the apologetic elements of the text away, “There is little in the biblical text that we can rely on. … So the task of reconstruction must be based only in part on the biblical account and in larger part on what we know of the ancient world in which David lived” (46). To begin with, this doesn’t appear quite accurate—historical David studies rely heavily on the biblical account, using our knowledge of the world in which he lived only to help read the text critically. But more importantly, it seems that Baden could help assist the reader a great deal by laying out how he evaluates the narrative with a bit more detail. By contrast, McKenzie provides a concise but illuminating chapter on the David material, its propagandistic character, and how he approaches the text, with special emphasis on the principles of “reading against the grain” and “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” (King David: A Biography, 25-46). Halpern devotes two chapters—the entirety of Part II of his book, “Penetrating the Textual Veil” (David’s Secret Demons, 57-103)—to this endeavor, culminating in the provocative-but-quotable line, “We know that Samuel is accurate because it is nothing but lies” (100).
Also in this vein is the fact that Baden sometimes strikes me as crossing the line from critical reconstruction to speculation. To be fair, one could argue that the entire enterprise is an exercise in conjecture, but some conjectures are defensible and others less so. I am therefore uncomfortable when Baden goes too far into a character’s head or life story, such as his supposition that “Most likely, David had known her [Bathsheba], and had his eye on her, for nearly her entire life” (229).
I should emphasize here that unlike those scholars who consider the Davidic material devoid of any historical value, I agree with Baden’s general understanding of the text and I am sympathetic to his general methodology. But without an explicit statement about how he views the text, it is difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt in places where it seems he is being inconsistent. Thus I was left perplexed when, after arguing at length that Solomon was not David’s biological son (221-30, echoing Halpern’s thoughts on the subject), Baden suggested that Bathsheba’s request to David to declare Solomon his successor was a true, historical event (233-36). It seems rather arbitrary to privilege the propagandistic account of Bathsheba’s request in 1 Kgs 1 over the propagandistic account of Solomon’s birth in 2 Sam 11-12, then historically dubious to think that Bathsheba would seek David’s own imprimatur to nominate her son over David’s own progeny.
I will try to illustrate several of these points through one final example: Baden’s discussion of David’s wife, Ahinoam the Jezreelite (78-80). Baden contends that this Ahinoam was none other than Saul’s wife of the same name, whom David slept with as part of his attempted coup while in Saul’s service. This idea is one of Baden’s best contributions—both McKenzie (113-14, 160) and Halpern (87) suggest this, but Baden provides stronger support for the theory and better emphasizes how significant such an act would have been. At the same time, one cannot deny that the degree of speculation here is much higher than with, for example, the incidents of Abner or Absalom. For both of the latter we have extended narratives; for Ahinoam we have a single verse (1 Sam 25:43) mentioning her marriage to David. Yet Baden puts much stock in this, declaring it the “most significant act of David’s time in Saul’s service” (80). His treatment of Ahinoam likewise shows the difficulties in evaluating his understanding of the text’s development. The single verse about Ahinoam as David’s wife comes at the end of the Nabal/Abigail passage, where it serves as something of an appendix. Most scholars would plead ignorance as to how and when that verse came to rest in its current position. Yet Baden asserts of the David-Ahinoam affair (going much too far, in my opinion), “The entire narrative of David’s time in Saul’s service—from Saul’s crazed attempts on David’s life to the marriage to Michal to Jonathan’s love for David—is effectively in service of covering up this one unspeakable fact. The Bible could hardly ignore the common knowledge that Ahinoam did become David’s wife. But it could defer the mention of the marriage until later in the narrative” (80). This renders other aspects of David’s life—aspects equally suspicious, but that we can reconstruct with a much higher degree of confidence—secondary to one dubious deed. Furthermore, it implies that the canonical form of the narrative was assembled apologetically, which is difficult to accept. (The fact that Baden describes Ahinoam’s status after her affair with David by citing the rules on adultery in Deuteronomy  does not help matters.)
Hopefully the preceding will make plain that while I would quibble with several details of Baden’s new book, I do not consider it fundamentally flawed. And despite these critiques, I do think Baden accomplished what he set out to do: present a mainstream scholarly reconstruction of David’s life to the public in an interesting, readable way. And this is a fine goal, especially with McKenzie’s and Halpern’s volumes both now over a decade old. Baden’s project requires toeing the line between sensationalism and responsible scholarship (and the scholarly understanding of the historical David certainly is sensational when contrasted with the traditional image of David that continues to dominate in synagogues and churches), and more often than not Baden does this acceptably. The book is certain to offend some, delight others, and provoke all. When the dust settles, Baden’s Historical David will be judged a success or failure less by his colleagues in venues such as RBL or RBECS and more by the comments (and number of stars) it receives on Amazon. If Baden’s book encourages some of those in his target audience—interested laypeople—to seek to learn more about the Bible, this reviewer will be pleased.
andrew.n.knapp [ at ] gmail.com