The Life of David

  • Review
By – October 17, 2011

David — king, shep­herd, musi­cian, out­law, lover, war­rior. In I Samuel we meet David as a rud­dy youth, sent to the bat­tle­front with food for his old­er broth­ers, leav­ing it as the hero slay­er of the giant Goliath. Begin­ning with this mem­o­rable sto­ry, we know more about David than almost any fig­ure in the Jew­ish Bible.

In the hands of for­mer poet lau­re­ate of the Unit­ed States Robert Pin­sky, David is set on the stage of world lit­er­a­ture. Pin­sky sees David in all roles, some­times a shrewd Mafia don, some­times a pop­u­lar Robin Hood, always the des­tined king even as he waits for his time to come. 

The sto­ry of David in I and II Samuel and I Kings is enmeshed in trib­al bat­tles and polit­i­cal rival­ries. The text of Samuel, in places cor­rupt­ed and con­fus­ing, presents many prob­lems for bib­li­cal schol­ars. Pinsky’s biog­ra­phy pulls David out of the tex­tu­al thick­et, skill­ful­ly edit­ing and con­cen­trat­ing the nar­ra­tive on David. We see him more clear­ly, in a stark­er light. The David of leg­end, many of whose exploits are glossed over in pop­u­lar retellings, gives way to David the man. 

But in Pinsky’s hands David the man— schemer, adul­ter­er, ques­tion­ably Jew­ish— remains David the hero, cel­e­brat­ed in his gold­en youth, mourned in his dimin­ished old age. The peo­ple tell and repeat the hero­ic sto­ries about him; we attribute to him psalms of suc­cor and praise; we see beyond his short­com­ings and sharp deal­ings and revere him as king, the builder of Jerusalem and cre­ator of the Jew­ish nation. He emerges in the lat­er redac­tion of the ear­ly scrip­tur­al texts as the king against whom all oth­er kings are judged for right­eous­ness. We attach his name to our nation­al sym­bol although it has no con­nec­tion to him. 

Pow­er­ful, rich­ly lay­ered, dar­ing and provoca­tive, Pinsky’s biog­ra­phy of David gives us the king and the man who deserves the leg­end. One of the first vol­umes in the series Jew­ish Encoun­ters, brief books on major Jew­ish indi­vid­u­als and con­cepts by lead­ing Jew­ish writ­ers, The Life of David con­tributes great­ly to our under­stand­ing of this com­plex and com­pelling fig­ure. An index and for­mal bib­li­og­ra­phy would have been use­ful additions.

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