King David of Israel is perhaps one of the most perplexing and controversial characters in the Bible. Some elevate him to the status of a saint who in the name of Yahweh fearlessly faced the giant Goliath and then wrote the wonderful expressions of faith found in the Psalter. But others are troubled by David’s dark side. Violence swirled around David, who committed a cold-blooded act of murder to cover up an adulterous affair with the wife of one of his most loyal soldiers. Whether they want to admit it or not, even David’s strongest supporters find the assessment of his life in 1 Kings 15:5 to be an embarrassing statement that seemingly trivializes a crime that in modern America would have landed its perpetrator in prison for life, if not in the electric chair.
In this volume Halpern, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, takes a no-holds-barred approach to the life of David that turns the biblical account on its head and is certain to provoke debate and outrage. Despite its witty and at times entertaining style, it is sure to shock and even infuriate many.
Biblical scholars recognize that the books of Samuel are an apology for the Davidic monarchy, but Halpern goes one step further. He argues that the biblical account of David’s life is highly biased propaganda written by Solomon to “defend David against his enemies’ picture of him” (p. xv) and to legitimize Solomon’s reign. Halpern attempts to counter the biblical portrait by reconstructing how David’s enemies viewed him. With these radically different perspectives available, “the reader can position David anywhere on the spectrum between the two” (p. xvi). In reconstructing his portrait of the anti-David, Halpern looks for clues that lie behind and between the lines of the text of Samuel. The result is a dark and frightening picture of David. According to Halpern’s reconstruction David “spent most of his career as a brigand-king, and, where he ruled, he did so by employing murder and mayhem as tools of statecraft. In fact, the only murder in the books of Samuel of which he was probably innocent is the one murder of which he stands accused in the apology. His enemies considered him a mass murderer” (p. 479). Halpern concludes, “The real David was not someone whom it would be wise to invite to dinner. And you certainly would not be happy to discover he was marrying your daughter, or even a casual acquaintance” (pp. 479–80).
Obviously Halpern’s view of Scripture differs radically from that of evangelicals, who accept the biblical apology for David as an accurate account of his life that justifies his position as God’s chosen ruler, without covering up his moral lapses. Many evangelicals will reject Halpern’s thesis at a presuppositional level and dismiss his portrait of David as scholarly fiction, written by one who displays all the creativity of a spin-doctor disguising his efforts as a prosecutor (of David) and defense attorney (for the Saulides).
Though disagreeing with Halpern’s assumption about the biblical text and his assessment of David, this reviewer nevertheless recommends that serious students of the books of Samuel take the time to read this work. Halpern presents a wealth of archaeological and historical information that illumines the Davidic period. His work will challenge readers in the pro-David camp to sharpen their view of the biblical presentation of David and to remove the whitewash that encrusts some portraits of David painted by interpreters.
Furthermore some of Halpern’s insights are profound and refreshing. For example he correctly argues that David’s encounter with Goliath is not so much an act of courage and faith as it is a testimony to David’s ingenuity and capacity to outwit others. David broke the rules of combat when he used a deadly projectile against the oversized, cumbersome infantryman Goliath. Goliath expected his challenger to play by the rules of hand-to-hand combat, but David showed up with the ancient equivalent of a machine gun. Goliath never stood a chance! As Halpern states, “David refuses to fight by Marquis of Queensberry rules. This is a blow below the belt, a sucker punch, a man with a howitzer mowing down a peasant with a pitch fork . . . . he does not so much rely on Yahweh as avenge an insult to Yahweh’s dignity” (pp. 12–13). Halpern adds, “In the Goliath episode, he moves on to reject the etiquette of social relations shared by all around him. . . . This is a beginning for understanding the literary portrayal of David. His modernity, his rejection of conventional behavior and thought, will come up again and again” (p. 13). A close reading of David’s story, even from a more traditional pro-David perspective, will reveal the truth of this observation. The capacity to employ trickery when confronting enemies was apparently admired in that culture (as, e.g., in Judg. 3–5). But eventually David’s propensity to play outside the lines brings him personal pain, destroys his family, jeopardizes his kingdom, and mars his legacy. Like so many before and after him, David’s perceived strength became a fatal flaw that turned triumph into tragedy.