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The Female Heroes of David and the Philistine Woman

Thursday, August 10, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Paul Boorstin wrote about why he decided to tell David's story in his novel David and the Philistine Woman and how his background as a documentary film-maker impacted upon his writing. In his final post, Boorstin explores the women who stood behind David. He has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.


I believe that the role of women as a moral anchor in the Hebrew Bible cannot be overstated. Of course, that role was not as openly discussed in ancient times as it is today. When I set out to reimagine the story of David and Goliath in David and the Philistine Woman, I saw the part played by women as crucial.

On the surface, the epic clash of the Israelites and the Philistines does not involve women. And yet, my book is as much about extraordinary women as it is about David’s own remarkable journey. As I envision his story, young David would never have been able to survive his rite of passage from shepherd to king, if it wasn’t for the strong women who offered their support and risked their lives for him.

First, I decided to include David’s mother. I was surprised to learn that her name is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, though it is given as “Nitzevet” in the Talmud. Knowing from the biblical text how David’s father, Jesse, favored his older brothers over him, it was easy to imagine that David’s firm moral grounding came from Nitzevet, a strong and loving mother. Despite her omission from the biblical account, I wanted to show how I believe that her influence on David would have been significant.

I was also fascinated by Saul’s youngest daughter, Michal. She later becomes David’s first wife, and is the only woman in the Hebrew Bible of whom it is explicitly said that she loves a man. (I Samuel, 18:20): “Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David.” Though Michal never bears David a child, the Bible recounts how she saves his life, helping him to escape Saul’s assassins (I Samuel, 19:11). Michal’s actions in my novel illustrate her heartfelt devotion to him despite mortal danger.

And then, there is perhaps the book’s biggest surprise: Nara—the “Philistine woman” of the title. I was so intrigued by the notion of a female Philistine protagonist, that Nara was the first character I conceived. While Goliath the Philistine is one of history’s most despised villains, I wanted to show that this much-maligned people also could have fostered heroes. And why not a woman?

As depicted in the novel, Nara is the tallest, strongest young Philistine woman. She is forced to marry Goliath to bear him warrior sons. But Goliath abuses her. Meanwhile, young David is destined to face Goliath in combat. Though they are from different worlds, David and Nara help each other to survive against impossible odds. It is a message of hope for our own divisive times. Together, David and Nara share a bond that is more profound than physical love—their mission to help their warring peoples survive to live in peace.

In David and the Philistine Woman, the women of David’s time, like women today, risk their lives for what they believe is right, whether or not they get the credit they deserve.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

A Documentary Film-maker takes on David and Goliath

Wednesday, August 09, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week,  Paul Boorstin wrote about why he decided to tell David's story in his novel David and the Philistine Woman. Today, he explores how his background as a documentary film-maker impacted upon his writing. Boorstin has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

As a writer, producer and director of television documentaries, I’ve made National Geographic TV specials about big cats in India and baboons in Africa. I’ve traveled up the Amazon and yes, to Timbuktu in the Sub-Sahara. I’ve made MSNBC documentaries about convicted murderers in supermax prisons, and a History Channel documentary about the Kennedys in the White House.

Working with camera crews around the world under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, I learned that what is happening outside the narrow perspective of the camera lens—both behind the scenes, and in the human heart—can be more revealing than what finally appears on film or video. In the same way, when I wrote David and the Philistine Woman, I felt I had to reach beyond the few paragraphs of the narrative in the Hebrew Bible to fully understand its meaning. I was convinced that there was more to the story of how David the boy becomes David the leader of his people.

I drew on lessons I had learned while making documentaries about the history of our own time—in particular, researching and writing The Lost Kennedy Home Movies. This two hour History Channel documentary, shown annually on the anniversary of the JFK assassination, explored the private lives of the Kennedy family. I learned that there were many intimate events that happened just “off camera”—secret loves and power struggles, triumphs and defeats. I realized how much of what takes place is hidden, lost forever to history.

Guided by that experience, while writing David and the Philistine Woman, I set out to reimagine the journey of young David with both a scope and an intimacy that it had not been told before. Over the years, I’ve learned that for a documentary to deliver in depth, it must use both a wide-angle and a close-up lens. That was my mission with this novel: to capture the broad panorama of the epic struggle between the Israelites and the Philistines, while zooming in on the turbulent relationships of David, Jonathan and Saul, and the murderous psyche of Goliath.

Like a powerful documentary, a historical novel can plunge us into a decisive moment in history, make us feel that we are there. It is that intensity, that total immersion in a distant time and place, which I was determined to bring to David and the Philistine Woman.

I have devoted much of my life to the demanding craft of documentary film-making. I respect the power of that unforgiving medium. But a novel can do things that a documentary cannot: evoke the softness of a lamb’s fleece, the delicate aromas of spices in a Jerusalem market, or the stench of rotting corpses on a battlefield. Even more important, a novel can reveal a character’s most private thoughts and feelings too intimate to ever confess on-camera.

I believe that those inner conflicts, the demons that we human beings all wrestle with, have not changed in the thousands of years since that fateful moment when David picked up his stone from the dust of the Valley of Elah. Evil exists now, as it did back then, and that cold fact places a burden on all of us. Because whether or not we look to God for miracles, it is for us to do all that is in our power to fight the good fight in our own time, as young David did in his.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

Why I Told David’s Story—and Why David Matters Now

Tuesday, August 08, 2017 | Permalink

Paul Boorstin is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and author of the novel David and the Philistine Woman. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

The duel of David and Goliath, the ultimate clash of good against evil, is barely a page long in the Hebrew Bible (I Samuel, Chapter 17). The story is so familiar, each of us feels as if we own it. Why was I driven to take my version, the one that I have “owned” since I was a child, and bring it to life?

Growing up in Chicago as a Jewish kid with thick glasses and zero athletic ability, I was always the last to be picked for baseball, football, soccer, you name it. So when I learned at our synagogue about the unimposing David triumphing over the giant Goliath, I instantly chose the little guy as my role model. I was soon inspired by other “Davids” in history—from Joan of Arc to Nelson Mandela—underdogs triumphing over impossible odds. At the top of my list, of course, were the Jewish people, who for centuries were persecuted exiles, yet who overcame fearsome obstacles through spiritual strength.

Half a century after I first discovered him, young David is still my favorite “super-hero.” I find in his life the true meaning of heroism: as much a matter of moral character as physical courage. Beginning with the biblical text, I reimagined David’s story based on the narrative I envisioned between the lines, to discover what mysteries and surprises might be hiding there. My purpose in writing David and the Philistine Woman was to broaden the scope of the narrative to encompass the conflict of the Israelite and Philistine peoples. I also wanted to focus on the minds, motives and hearts of some of the Bible’s most fascinating figures, along with original characters—male and female—that I created.

While writing David and the Philistine Woman, I was determined to remain faithful to the spirit of the Biblical original. Beyond that, I wanted my novel to show that what links people of goodwill is not so much the god they worship as it is their bond of common humanity and shared compassion.

Researching the early years of the Hebrew Bible’s most beloved figure, I was surprised to discover a young man who is still a hero for us in the twenty-first century: For unlike Moses or Abraham, young David, as depicted in my novel and in the Bible, does not hear the voice of God. He must seek out that voice in the stirrings of his own heart. That is the spark that kindled my passion to tell this story. For like David, in our troubled world we must do the right thing without God whispering a command in our ear to direct our actions.

By the end of David and the Philistine Woman, David learns that whether or not it is ordained in heaven, nothing of value is achieved here on earth unless it is done by human hands. The task has never been more urgent for us than it is today.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.