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Saturday, June 6, 2020

‘David and the Philistine Woman’ imagines the man behind the mythical King David

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Nothing in the Bible is quite like the life story of King David, as told in the Book of Samuel, for its potent blend of politics and passion. It’s the stuff of both Shakespearean tragedy and tabloid scandal, which is exactly why David has attracted the attention of authors ranging from John Dryden to William Faulkner to Joseph Heller, among many more.

The latest writer to reimagine King David is Paul Boorstin, the Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker whose debut historical novel, “David and the Philistine Woman” (Top Hat Books), is rooted in the biblical text and yet soars into the realm of imagination. Where the Bible is spare and suggestive, Boorstin is ornate and explicit. Indeed, his real accomplishment is to extract David from pious tradition — the “sweet singer of Israel,” God’s “beloved” and anointed king — and present him to us as a flesh-and-blood human being. 

Young David, for example, has long been depicted in religious art with a lyre in his hand, the instrument with which he soothed the rage and lifted the depression of King Saul. Boorstin, however, allows us to enter David’s mind as he plucks the strings of his famous instrument and, in doing so, deftly reminds us of David’s humble origins as a shepherd.

“The taut strands of sheep sinew allowed David to sense what would take place before his eyes could see it or his ears could hear,” the author writes. “Sometimes there was a sweetness in the notes, like turtle-doves at dawn, which filled him with hope. At other times, the notes stung like thorns, announcing that a dust storm was brewing or that a pack of wolves had cornered a ram in a ravine.”

Thus does Boorstin echo biblical words and phrases while evoking the setting in which a real shepherd would have worked. When David comes upon a ewe about to give birth, he wonders: “Had the Almighty sent him a sign at last?” But he quickly breaks off his reverie and sets about the task of easing the delivery. “In that tense moment, David did not pray to the Almighty. There was no time for prayer. It was his way to act quickly and let the work of his hands serve as prayer enough. He hastily wiped the mucous from the lamb’s nostrils with his tunic, to make it easier for the creature to breathe.”

Still, Boorstin recognizes and honors the charisma that the biblical David possesses. He adopts the name given to David’s mother in the Talmud, Nitzevet — she is unnamed in the Bible — and depicts her as a doting Jewish mother who sees greatness in her son: “Moses they respected,” David’s mother is made to say by the author to her son, “but you the people will love.”

Among the wealth of stories that are told about David in the Bible, Boorstin singles out the mythic battle between David and Goliath. As it appears in the Book of Samuel, the incident seems like a fairy tale, but Boorstin boldly introduces new and wholly imaginary characters and exploits to the old Sunday school favorite. For example, he credits Nitzevet for giving young David his first slingshot and teaching him how to use it. “The lyre allows you to feel,” she tells him, “but the sling allows you to act.”

Much of the narrative, in fact, is pure invention. Boorstin imagines a woman named Nara, the daughter of a Philistine ironsmith who secretly initiates her into the skills and rituals of making weapons, a craft that is reserved for men alone. Nara, who is unusually tall, is singled out to marry Goliath, “a fitting match for him in her strength and stature” precisely because she possesses “a body created by the god Dagon to bring forth Goliath’s heirs.” And the author contrives an elaborate conspiracy between David and Nara, each of whom is assigned a crucial role in the life and death of Goliath that appears nowhere in the Bible.

Pious readers of the Bible may object to the liberties Boorstin has taken with the ancient text. But “David and the Philistine Woman,” like other post-biblical works of art and authorship, also can be approached as a kind of midrash, if only because it may send the attentive reader back to the family Bible to find out what actually is written there and what originates only in the author’s imagination. Entirely aside from such hermeneutics, Boorstin deserves praise for writing a novel so full of adventure, intrigue and passion that it stands entirely on its own as a great yarn.


JONATHAN KIRSCH, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of “King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel.”

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