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.