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Richard Gere Plays the Heartthrob of All Israel in a Just Released Film, but Who Was the Real King David?

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The Bible devotes more space to King David than to any other Old Testament hero. Artists from Rembrandt to Chagall have depicted him. Joseph Heller made him the wisecracking hero of his latest best-seller, God Knows. And Hollywood has produced its versions, including David and Bathsheba with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward and Paramount’s steamy film King David (see review, p. 12), with Richard Gere currently playing the title role. But just who was David, and why has he inspired such endless fascination? Assistant Editor Montgomery Brower interviewed Edward L. Greenstein, Associate Professor of Bible at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, for his insights into David as man and myth.

Was David—the shepherd boy who killed Goliath, joined Saul’s court as a poet-musician and eventually became the first king to unify Israel—a historical person or a mixture of the real and the mythical?

There’s no reason to doubt that David was a striking military hero who united the southern kingdom of Judah with the northern kingdom of Israel. He extended Israel’s domain to encompass all the territory promised to Abraham by God in Genesis. David was born in approximately 1030 B.C.E. [Before the Common Era, the equivalent of B.C.] and reigned from about 1000 to 960 B.C.E. However, most episodes in David’s early life are encrusted with legend. They aim to show that God saves the Israelites through a hero who is inspired by God, that the hero fails when he violates God’s law. In the end, God is the only real hero in the Bible.

David’s story is told with such vividness that some scholars suggest it might be based on a court diary. Is this likely?

The only source we have for anything about David is the Bible itself, so it’s very difficult to hypothesize. Many historians have long thought that much of the David story in II Samuel and I Kings forms a so-called succession narrative meant to legitimize the reign of his son Solomon. It could have been written by royal court historians but was probably set down in its current form just before the Babylonian exile around 600 B.C.E.

What were the qualities that made David a hero to the Israelites?

In one person, David combines religion, a sense of national identity and Israelite autonomy in fulfillment of biblical promises. David symbolizes Israel itself. When Samuel the prophet went to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint a king there, he was extremely impressed with Jesse’s oldest son. But God says people look at outward appearances; God looks into the heart. God chose the diminutive David, the youngest, the shepherd, to be king, just as small Israel itself was chosen from among more powerful nations.

Did David kill Goliath?

It isn’t at all clear that it was in fact David who slew Goliath. There is a very similar episode in II Samuel about a fellow named Elhanan, who slew Goliath. The contest between David and Goliath was symbolic of the success of the Israelite state against its stronger neighbors.

Why did Saul become jealous of David?

The Bible says that Saul was beset by an evil spirit, that he was melancholic. Today we might say paranoid. He was also jealous that women sang, “Saul has slain his thousand/And David his ten thousand.” Because David was his son-in-law and was part of the royal inner circle—he was Saul’s musician and armor bearer—there was a rivalry between the generations.

What was David’s relationship with Saul’s son, Jonathan, of whom David sang, “Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women”?

Some have sought to interpret that relationship as a sexual one, but there’s not a shred of textual evidence for that. The Bible is referring to the close friendship between David and Jonathan, who was willing to risk his own life in order to help David escape from Saul.

While David was still being pursued by Saul and before he became king of Judah, he allied himself with the Philistines. What was he up to?

David was a ruthless individual who was interested in covering his own tracks. When he lived near the Philistines and was in fact protected by them, he engaged in forays against Philistine towns and killed every man, woman and child. He wanted to leave no witnesses. I Samuel says he was afraid the Philistines might learn that he was not loyal to them. They never learned of his treachery.

What was Israel like in David’s time?

There were a number of towns where the Israelites engaged in some crafts, while others were herders and some probably were farmers. Heavy industry and metallurgy were brought to the land of Canaan, as it was then known, by the Philistines, people from the Aegean Sea. In the period before David, the Philistines had a monopoly on ironworks. David got control of the trade routes away from the Philistines, enabling his successors to bring wealth to the Israelites by developing both industry and trade.

Why was David so successful militarily against the odds?

David organized an energetic band of men into a private army that carried out guerrilla-type warfare against Philistine communities. By drawing them out of their home base on the Mediterranean coast, David was able to engage in small-scale battles and eventually wear down the enemy.

What was the geographical extent of David’s empire at its height?

He dominated the entire land of Canaan, from what is now Lebanon down to the Gulf of Aqaba. He probably dominated a good part of the Sinai peninsula and conquered territories in Jordan, all the way to the Euphrates River in what is now southern Syria.

The Bible credits David with eight wives and at least 19 sons. Did he, like other kings, make political marriages or were there love matches as well?

Some of David’s marriages were made for political reasons. He married two daughters of King Saul, which was crucial in uniting Saul’s northern Israelite tribes with David’s native tribe of Judah to form the core of the Davidic empire. On the other hand, David was taken by Abigail’s beauty and cunning. Another wife was Bathsheba, who attracted David with her beauty and later proved clever in getting their son, Solomon, to be king after David.

David’s first wife, Michal, scorned him for dancing naked before the Ark. Why did he never sleep with her again?

She was apparently insensitive to David’s religious fervor and enthusiasm in bringing the Ark of the Covenant permanently to Jerusalem to make the city both the political and religious capital of Israel. For David this was an important spiritual accomplishment, but Michal could see only the outward appearance of what he was doing and didn’t recognize the inner spirit that was motivating him.

How well-founded is David’s reputation as the author of the psalms?

David was well known in ancient Israel as a musician and a composer of songs. He was credited with a few compositions in Samuel: the famous laments over Saul and Jonathan, a hymn of thanksgiving that appears in a different version in Psalm 18 and a reflection on the covenant between the Lord and David. Many of the headings over the psalms refer to events in the life of David. So the tradition grew that David had composed not only these but many others as well.

Why has David once again become an intriguing figure?

David has many noble qualities. He has vision, courage, stamina, cunning, and he is also portrayed as a pious man who understands that it is through God’s inspiration that he is able to achieve what he does. On the other hand, David is fallible. He fails God in his adultery with Bathsheba and in setting up her husband, Uriah the Hittite, for death on the battlefield. He fails his family when, possibly demoralized by his own sinfulness, he does not discipline his sons. He fails his army because he is overwhelmed with grief for his rebellious son, whose death he laments: “Would that I had died in place of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” And so we can identify with him as a human with passions and faults like our own, but also admire him for what he achieved.