Earlier this week, Michal Lemberger wrote about Lot’s wife and the other nameless women of the Bible. She is the author of the recently published book After Abel and Other Stories and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
As the publication date of my book grew closer, I began to imagine some of the questions that readers might ask me. Chief among them was: how can you make King David into a villain?
King David is a great hero in the Bible. I could even argue that he is the great biblical hero. He unifies Israel and Judah once and for all to create the nation. He is the progenitor of all the kings of Judah and the “eternal House of David.” God loves him. These are not the attributes of a villain.
It’s true that the book of 1 Samuel, which tells his story, doesn’t paint him as perfect. There’s that unpleasantness with Uriah, who has to be gotten rid of so that David can marry his wife, Batsheva. David doesn’t step in when his son, Amnon, rapes his daughter (and Amnon’s half-sister), Tamar. He doesn’t act like a conquering hero when his son, Absalom, tries to wrest the crown from his head. The only thing that saves David in that case is Absalom’s vanity and long, luscious hair.
But David remains a hero. He’s still the warrior who took down Goliath. He’s still the talented musician, the Psalmist. For religious Jews, David is tied up with the hope for a messianic future. Prayer services still talk about “restoring the fallen Booth of David,” meaning, a religious monarchy in the land of Israel under the leadership of the messiah, who will come from David’s lineage.
So how could I paint him as a villain?
Two clichés come to mind, both of which are pertinent here: “there are two sides to every story,” and “history is written by the victors.” The story of the nation of Israel as we have it is a record of the victorious House of David. It’s the story told from David’s point of view. But there’s another story there — of his struggles with Saul — and it tells another tale.
Every detail about David that I included in my story, “Saul’s Daughter,” comes straight from the biblical text. In addition to being a great warrior, musician, and follower of God, David also ran to Moab — Israel’s historic enemy — to hide from Saul. He sold the services of his growing army as mercenaries and fought for Achish, king of Gath, against his own people. Achish trusted David, because, as he says, “he has aroused the wrath of his own people Israel.”
What these details point to is the complicated way in which David finally reaches the throne. To put it simply, he was a populist leader who attracted the poor and disenfranchised to his cause, but the wealthier classes — the landowners and professional warriors, for example — didn’t fall in line. They stayed loyal to Saul. That was the reality I stepped into when I wrote Michel’s story.
She, after all, was Saul’s daughter. She was married to David, but he ran out into the night without a glance back at her. And then she married Palti, one of Saul’s supporters. The question for me wasn’t: how do I tell this story and make David the hero? It was: given the political realities of their lives, how would these people — his abandoned wife and her second husband — feel about David? To put it plainly, they would despise him.
What we tend to forget when we read the Bible is that it tells more than religious or legal stories. In 1 – 2 Samuel, we get glimpses of a political environment every bit as complex as our own.
In a civil war, one side inevitably loses. Michel’s reasons for hating David are easy to understand: He fights against and defeats her father, which she might view as treason, especially after he deserted her. Even worse, when she finally gets comfortable in a new life, he pulls her back, forces her to stand by his side while the man who loves her is left crying by the side of the road as she is led away. She is, by any definition, one of history’s losers.
Interesting things happen when we tell the losers’ stories. David is a national hero, but to some of his contemporaries, he would, indeed, be the villain.
Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more atmichallemberger.com.
Michal Lemberger holds a BA in English and Religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA. Her nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, and others; her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals, including The Bellevue Literary Review and The Rattling Wall.