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.
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.