September 23, 2019

Ferreting out the truth about a complicated King David

King David is like no other figure in the Hebrew Bible. “We know David as majestic king and lowly shepherd, as valiant warrior and soothing singer, as ruthless killer and passionate lover, as enraptured dancer and pious saint,” observes Jacob Wright in “David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory” (Cambridge University Press). “No wonder it has been said that Israel revered Moses but loved David.” This is one of two books on David to appear in recent months. The other is by Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, “David: The Divided Heart,” previously reviewed in these pages (“Portrait of a Very Human King David,” Sept. 11).

Wright, who teaches Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Emory University, acknowledges that David has been much written about already, both in the pages of the Bible and over the centuries thereafter. He wonders aloud how the biblical biography of David in the Book of Samuel, which is brutally and even scandalously frank, could have come into existence if David was the revered figure we imagine him to be. His new book offers an answer to that question, and it offers a fascinating and surprising key to one of the most enduring mysteries of the Bible.

The key is Caleb, who may be an obscure biblical character nowadays, but who plays a crucial role in the account of the conquest of Canaan as we find it in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges. It was Caleb who brought a “good report” back to Moses after he sent 12 spies into Canaan in advance of the Israelite invasion, and who “is remembered for his exceptional valor in conquering the city of Hebron.” Wright teases out the clues that show us how the biblical authors recalled and used the exploits of Caleb “to send a message to the larger society that a minority group” — that is, the descendants of Caleb, known as Calebites — “deserves honor and respect.”

Wright, who is among the brightest young scholars in the academy, seeks to place his arguments and discoveries in a context that the modern lay reader can understand. He starts by pointing out the thoroughly human impulse to engage in “war commemoration” in statuary and literature, and then he shows us “how biblical writers used war commemoration to make Caleb into the first and greatest hero in the Judahite collective memory,” a hero so commanding that he “rivals David in the halls of biblical history.”

At the same time, the celebration of Caleb in the biography of David suggests that Judah was not a tribe in itself but rather a “patchwork kingdom with regions, cities, and clans, each with their own identity and agendas,” one of which was the Calebites. Even the “united kingdom” that David is credited with creating is based on “raw force rather than appeal to the nation’s interests,” as Wright explains. “Perhaps Israel (once) loved David, and perhaps such extraordinarily violent actions were needed to prevent the disunion of Israel and Judah. But David is no Abraham Lincoln.”

David and Caleb, then, were rivals in the same sense that the tribe of Judah and the Calebites were rivals, and the Bible preserves their rivalry like a fly in amber. “Armed with memories of Caleb’s valor,” Wright explains, “Calebite groups could position their ancestor against the revered figure of the Judahite court, King David.” 

These sharp edges in the history of ancient Israel strike sparks in the biblical account of David’s encounter with a “churlish” Calebite landowner named Nabal, who “refuses to pay for the ‘protection’ afforded by David and his warriors.” Wright points out that other passages in the Bible seem to affirm the claim of the Calebites to Hebron and its environs, and the story of Nabal represents a counter-claim by Judahite authors in what he calls a “memory war.” Wright explains: “By constructing memories of cities and groups that betrayed David in times of war or that aided and abetted his enemies, the Judahite court could target cities and clans that threatened to obstruct its agendas.” 

Wright’s remarkable book exists in two versions. The print version, which is reviewed here, is published by Cambridge University Press. A multimedia digital version, titled “King David and His Reign Revisited,” is available as an iBook at the Apple iTunes store.  The scope of each book is slightly different — the iBook is more narrowly focused on King David, and yet it includes a rich collection of audio clips, videos and imagery, and the print version explores the linkages that Wright has detected between David and Caleb.

Wright’s book is a superb example of how biblical scholarship at its best can reframe the Bible itself and reveal pathways into history for the open-eyed and open-minded reader. At the same time, I could not help but see how the book sheds light on the heartbreaking conflicts and divisions in the State of Israel and the modern Jewish world — Israel was a diverse and pluralistic place even in antiquity, and the real challenge, then and now, is to find a way for Judahites and Calebites, and many others besides, to coexist on the same soil.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, will appear with Wright and Wolpe on a panel titled “Tales of Power and Passion: King David Then and Now,” moderated by professor T. C. Eskenazi, on Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
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