David: The Divid­ed Heart

  • Review
By – September 16, 2014

David Wolpe begins his sto­ry of David with David’s absence. Saul, the first king of Israel, has been cast aside, and the prophet Samuel sets out to find the new king in the house of Jesse. Samuel is about to appoint Jesse’s strap­ping first son, but God inter­venes and warns against him and one after anoth­er of Jesse’s sev­er­al sons. Final­ly Jesse calls the youngest of the broth­ers, who is tend­ing the sheep: David, an after­thought, is sum­moned. God choos­es this rud­dy young shep­herd to be king, and Samuel anoints him. The spir­it of the Lord gripped David from that day onward,” (1 Samuel, 16:13) and deter­mined the course of David’s life.

The not­ed rab­bi of Tem­ple Sinai in Los Ange­les and author of sev­er­al books, Wolpe grap­ples with the dif­fi­cul­ties that all com­men­ta­tors face on con­fronting David. David, the most com­plete biog­ra­phy in Tanakh, is also the most chal­leng­ing. Hand­some, loved by all, the sweet singer, slay­er of the giant Goliath and hero on the bat­tle­field, bringer of the ark to Jerusalem, father of the line of kings through whom the Mes­si­ah will come, David is also an adul­ter­er, adroit schemer and politi­cian, plot­ter of mur­ders, neg­li­gent father, faith­less hus­band. Twice David spares Saul’s life but even­tu­al­ly blots out Saul’s line; first a war­rior against the Philistines, he allies him­self with them when flee­ing Saul. In Wolpe’s words, a man of divid­ed heart.”

In trac­ing David’s career through all its stages — youth, lover and hus­band, king, sin­ner, father, care­tak­er, mes­sian­ic fore­bear — Wolpe stays close to the Bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive but also draws on a broad vari­ety of sources and brings a con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ty to his under­stand­ing of David. He cites lead­er­ship as one of David’s skills and notes his will­ing­ness to lis­ten to and act on the advice of oth­ers, in sev­er­al cas­es of women. The longest chap­ter in the book, thought­ful and inci­sive, is devot­ed to David as a father. Here Wolpe plays out some of the reveal­ing aspects of David’s king­ship, plot­ted against his fam­i­ly life. Ruler of a nation, David is notably unaware of his parental respon­si­bil­i­ties and his children’s actions, throw­ing the king­dom into rebel­lion and threat­en­ing David’s legacy.

What then accounts for David’s tow­er­ing and endur­ing pres­ence in reli­gious tra­di­tion? Wolpe argues that David is the cho­sen of God exact­ly because of his com­plex­i­ty, his sins and his sub­lim­i­ty, his embrace of all that is human. In this brief life of David read­ers will find a rich and thought-pro­vok­ing pic­ture of this com­plex fig­ure. In the end, how­ev­er, Wolpe makes clear David’s over­rid­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic — he nev­er laps­es into idol­a­try and nev­er los­es faith in the God he prays to, prais­es, and serves. Sure­ly David dwell[ed] in the house of the Lord for many long years.” Index, sug­gest­ed reading.

Relat­ed content:


Read Beth Kissilef­f’s inter­view with David Wolpe here.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions