The King David exchange, part 3: ‘The biblical text always has an agenda’

February 11, 2015

Joel Baden is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Yale Divinity School. He holds degrees in Judaic Studies (BA, Yale), Semitic Languages (MA, University of Chicago), and Hebrew Bible (PhD, Harvard). He specializes in the literary history of the Hebrew Bible, particularly of the Pentateuch, as well as in disability theory in biblical studies. Along with numerous scholarly articles and essays, he has authored four books.

This exchange focuses on his book The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne, 2014). You can find parts one and two here and here.


Dear Professor Baden,

In the previous round you described King David as a very earthy politician. “He was constantly on a campaign”, you wrote, “and I think we can in many ways read the biblical narrative as the press release for that campaign.”

A curious aspect of this “press release”, though, is that the final biblical narrative as we know it was only ‘released’ hundreds of years after the events it purports to describe. This raises some questions as to whose press release and whose campaign we are talking about. Was the glorification of David’s legacy something he himself was responsible for, was it chiefly the product later generations? Was it cynically contrived at some point, or did the myth gradually evolve throughout the centuries?

And more generally speaking, what can the discrepancies between ‘Mythical David’ and ‘Historical David’ teach us about the way the Biblical narrative was formed and edited? How do you expect your account to change the reader’s attitude toward early Jewish history?

(I know I bombarded you with quite a few questions there, but I thought we should go out with a bang. Thanks again for the book and for participating in this exchange.)




Dear Shmuel,

We have to keep in mind that the “press release” for David went through a number of editions – it was printed and reprinted, as it were, and even replaced by alternative versions. So while it is undoubtedly true that the version we have in the books of Samuel and Kings didn’t exist in its canonical form until some time after the exile, which is to say hundreds of years after David lived, that doesn’t mean that the David story itself dates from that time. Rather, we must recognize, as scholars have for hundreds of years now, that the books of Samuel and Kings contain a lot of much earlier material, collected and edited together around the time of the exile in the sixth century BCE. I think it’s safe to say that the David narrative is some of that earlier material.

The indications that it is in fact from around David’s time, the tenth century or so, are in the text itself. All the stories in which David comes off as violent, or potentially so; all the embarrassing details, especially his having worked with and lived among Israel’s arch-enemy, the Philistines, for over a year; all the events that speak poorly of David’s power and influence, such as the success of Absalom’s revolt – all these make little sense as part of a much later recreation of David’s life. They are the kinds of stories that one tells, and then spins, only when one has to. These aren’t cynical contrivance, entirely invented. I say that with some confidence because we in fact know exactly what it looks like when a much later author has free rein to retell David’s legend: we have the version from the book of Chronicles, from around 400 BCE. None of those potentially embarrassing stories exist in the Chronicles version of David’s life: it’s all glorious.

So while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that David himself was responsible for the promulgation of his PR campaign, it is probably safe to say that it was undertaken in or just after his reign. And it’s too simple to ask whether it was only from his time or chiefly from later: it was both, as the narrative in Samuel-Kings underwent constant revision, and as the alternative cleaned-up version in Chronicles was composed anew.

In the broad terms of your final question: what I most want people to understand in this regard is that the biblical text always has an agenda, and that its meaning is never quite stable. The original authors may have intended us to read it and understand it in a certain way, but later editors have put their own stamps on the book, and changed its focus and import. And we of course bring our own biases and predispositions to the text, which color how we encounter and understand it.

It’s less about changing attitudes toward early Jewish history and more about recognizing where our notion of that history comes from. Are we really talking about history in the modern objective sense of what may have actually happened and why? Or are we talking about a version of history that is part of the story that we as Jews have been telling ourselves for millennia? Neither is more valuable or more “real” than the other, in the end. The Jewish story, whether it is historically “true” or not, is certainly “true” in the most important sense of providing us with a guiding set of values and self-conception, in which we all participate far more than we ever could in a sequence of events from thousands of years ago.

It’s been a pleasure – thanks for the opportunity.

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