King David: A Biography
Steven L. MacKenzie
(New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000) 232 pp., $25.00 (hardback)
I started reading this book with high hopes. Despite its title, which suggested (at least to me) a novelized treatment of Israel’s great king, the book is an attempt to find the historical David based on the archaeological evidence and the biblical text, as well as the tools of the social sciences
The author, Steven L. McKenzie, is a recognized critical Bible scholar writing here for a lay audience. Early on he asks whether David actually existed, a question recently raised by a group of scholars sometimes labeled biblical minimalists. On this question, McKenzie looks primarily at the archaeological evidence, citing articles in our magazine Biblical Archaeology Review that chronicle these finds and their interpretations—the Tel Dan stela, which refers to the “House of David” and which dates to only about 150 years after David’s death; the Mesha Stela, which may also mention David (though the reading is less sure); and the more speculative suggestion of Kenneth Kitchen concerning a possible reference to David in an Egyptian inscription.a
McKenzie then considers whether any finds other than inscriptions can be directly related to David. He correctly concludes that they cannot, although his archaeological treatment, through no fault of his own, is not up to date. Archaeologists in Jerusalem (and elsewhere) are discovering new material so swiftly that any archaeological treatment is likely to be outdated by the time it is published in book form. (One senses in the endnotes McKenzie’s efforts to add the latest insights to a text that had already been written.)
McKenzie concludes that “the links drawn between David and archaeological discoveries made to date are far from secure…At the same time, the lack of certainty about their connections with David does not disprove his historical existence either…The assumption that David was a real person remains a viable and defensible one.” But the evidence for David’s existence must be inferred from the Bible rather than from artifacts.
The biblical account was written not by God, McKenzie asserts, but by humans, who were “more concerned with theology than with history.” Thus, McKenzie “take[s] the Bible seriously—but also critically—as a source of historical information.” Most of his book is devoted to a searching literary and historical look at the biblical text, separating what can be accepted as historical from “story” or “fiction.”
But how can McKenzie tell which is which—history or fiction? He identifies two principles that guide him. The first is the principle of skepticism—skepticism of anything that “fits a literary or ideological theme.” But skepticism is simply an attitude. You can be skeptical but still not know whether something should be accepted as factual or not.
McKenzie’s second principle is more central to his approach. He calls it the principle of “analogy,” not a very good name for what he means. He explains: “The past [is] basically analogous to the present…People of all time have the same basic ambitions and instincts.” In other words, based on our own experiences and understanding of how people behave, we can try to look for the motives behind the actions described in the Bible. McKenzie continues, “This principle calls into question any explanation of David’s motives and deeds that appears to be apologetic,” which McKenzie defines as anything that “defends someone against accusations.” This is the key to McKenzie’s approach to the text. Almost all of the biblical materials about David are written from David’s viewpoint. They are sympathetic to him. They are biased in his favor. They are a defense of David. Therefore, McKenzie concludes, they cannot be accepted as true. I follow McKenzie up to the “therefore.” I believe the biblical texts about David may or may not be true.
Why this principle of analogy should do anything other than cause us to be skeptical—making it, consequently, no different from the first principle—is unclear. Nonetheless, I agree that skepticism is a valid and justifiable approach. McKenzie calls this “reading against the grain,” a nice phrase, although it is not original.
For me, McKenzie’s principle of analogy is more eloquently expressed by Shakespearean elegance: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” What is asserted too strongly may be interpreted as evidence to the contrary.
The principle should not be applied automatically, however. Not everything that is asserted strongly (or apologetically) is untrue. Not every explanation is an alibi. The principle of “The lady doth protest too much” must be balanced against another principle, 036which can be attributed to Sigmund Freud: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
McKenzie’s literary-historical analysis of David is well written, often insightful and, at first, convincing. I found myself wishing to go along. But as McKenzie’s analysis of biblical episode after biblical episode proceeded, I began resisting. In the end, I came to disagree with him. His pronouncement that the biblical account is nothing but “apologetic propaganda” is simplistic and lacks balance. The situation is far more complex.
Applying his two principles, McKenzie convicts David of numerous murders that the Bible does not attribute to him. But McKenzie uses the Bible’s denials as evidence against David; the text goes to great lengths—suspiciously great lengths, according to McKenzie—to emphasize that David was not even present at the time of these murders. Furthermore, McKenzie notes, David benefited from them in each case—his enemies were killed, and his own position was consolidated. On this basis McKenzie finds David guilty of the murder of Saul, who preceded him as king of Israel (1 Samuel 31:4); of Jonathan, Saul’s son, whom David purports to love (1 Samuel 31:2); of David’s own firstborn son, Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28–29); of Absalom, the son who rebelled against him but whose death he nevertheless mourned uncontrollably, according to the biblical text (2 Samuel 19:9, 33); of Saul’s general, Abner, despite his agreement to support David (2 Samuel 3:27); and of sundry others.
In each case David’s alibi is too suspicious, McKenzie claims. All his explanations are fabrications; all the sorrow he expresses (especially at the death of his sons and his friend Jonathan) is mock emotion, not real. David’s serial murders allow McKenzie to compare David to “infamous Middle Eastern dictators like Saddam Hussein” of Iraq. In short, King David is nothing but a “tyrant who ruled with an iron fist,” devoid of redeeming qualities.
While reading McKenzie’s accusations, I was bothered by one point: If the biblical writer was so pro-David that he made all these excuses to exonerate the king, then why did he include so much that was critical of David? The prime example of this is the Bathsheba affair (2 Samuel 11). Not only was David guilty of adultery, but he also 037contrived to have Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. Why did the pro-David propagandist include a story like this?
Recognizing that the Bathsheba episode presents a problem for his analysis, McKenzie looks for a solution in the dating of the biblical narratives. The account of David’s life is part of the Deuteronomic History (DH), which begins with Deuteronomy and includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The first edition of this work seems to have been written in the late seventh century B.C. (Deuteronomy is often identified as the book that King Josiah [c. 640–609] is said to have found in the Temple [2 Kings 22:8] and that inspired the religious reforms associated with his reign.) The final version of the Deuteronomic History, however, includes an account of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and thus could not have been edited before this time. On the other hand, both the seventh-century B.C. and the sixth-century B.C. editions must have used earlier sources. McKenzie recognizes that the Bathsheba episode “may be based on a historical event.” Nevertheless, he suggests that the Bathsheba episode was added later, after the rest of the account had been written by an apologist for David.
Alas, this contention doesn’t save McKenzie. Even if he is right that the Bathsheba episode was added later, he does not satisfactorily explain why the Bathsheba episode was added at all. What did this final editor have against David that he felt compelled to add such damning accusations of adultery and murder to an otherwise laudatory account?
Give credit to McKenzie for this: He sees the problem and attempts to account for the late addition of the Bathsheba episode by saying that it explains Absalom’s rebellion as retribution for David’s sin in having an affair with Bathsheba. But this doesn’t explain why a later editor would find a need to explain Absalom’s rebellion in this way. Many bad things happened to David that needn’t be explained by some sin of his. Absalom’s rebellion is perfectly understandable without the Bathsheba episode. At least the original editor thought so. The addition certainly adds a powerful theological twist to the story, but it was hardly necessary, especially if the final editor was at all sympathetic to the picture that the earlier editor had painted of David’s life. McKenzie fails to recognize that the author of the text, in addition to being an apologist, may have been a reasonably good historian.
One reason the biblical account of David’s life is so powerful is that it is so balanced: The hero is painted with all his flaws. Yes, the text is sympathetic to David. Yes, it is apologetic. But it is much more than this: It is complex; it is nuanced; it is human; it is realistic. It includes, for example, the account of David’s service with the Philistines, Israel’s (or more particularly Judah’s) sworn enemy (1 Samuel 27–29). David is a traitor to his own king, Saul. True, the text explains why David acted as he did: He feared he would be killed by Saul if he remained in Israel. But the explanation is not entirely satisfactory from David’s viewpoint: David did not simply hide among the Philistines; he joined their armed forces. A thoroughly apologetic account (to the point that it would conceal a long list of serial murders) could easily omit David’s service among the Philistines. As McKenzie recognizes, the biblical account does skip over long stretches of David’s life. So why include a period in which he acts as a traitor?
I concede that David may have been involved in some of the murders McKenzie hangs on him. But the evidence is all circumstantial—nothing a jury would convict on. (Indeed, the evidence against David is so thin, a judge wouldn’t even let the case go to a jury.) And McKenzie’s damning accusations become less and less believable as murder after murder is laid at David’s feet based on similarly flimsy evidence.
Let’s look more closely at one of these alleged murders—the killing of David’s son Absalom. The eldest son of the king (after Absalom murdered his older half-brother Amnon for raping Absalom’s sister Tamar), Absalom was clearly itching to take over. He assembled 50 retainers for himself. He set himself up at the city gate to judge cases that were intended for his father. He complained that his father had failed to appoint judges. The people apparently liked his rulings. After several years of this, Absalom went to Hebron and organized an armed rebellion against his father, ultimately having himself declared king (2 Samuel 15:1–12).
The rebels grew so strong that David fled Jerusalem. Even Ahithophel, his trusted adviser, joined the rebels, suggesting to Absalom a plan to kill David. Finally, David marshaled his forces and sent his army against the rebels. He offered to go out with his forces, but they refused to take him, fearing that if the battle went poorly, David would certainly be killed (2 Samuel 18:1–4).
David told his commanders “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” The text then adds: “And all the people heard the order he gave concerning Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:5).
David’s forces prevailed. Absalom, fleeing on a mule, got caught in the low branches of 053an oak tree and was left hanging as his mule marched on. Joab, David’s general, in disobedience of David’s instructions, promptly dispatched Absalom with three darts to his heart (2 Samuel 18:9–14).
On this evidence, McKenzie convicts David of Absalom’s murder: David “surely had Absalom killed for rebellion…Joab was probably following orders, not disobeying them.”
McKenzie’s reasoning: David clearly benefited from Absalom’s death. Indeed, David appears to have saved his throne. Besides, the text (presumably written at David’s direction) suspiciously tries to give David an alibi. He offers to go fight with his troops, and his commanders decline the offer. He even gives them a specific instruction to spare Absalom, as if to say, “If he gets killed, it’s not my fault.”
But I submit that there was no need for David to go to such lengths to devise this elaborate cover-up. David had ample grounds to kill Absalom if that is what he wanted. Absalom was leading an armed rebellion against his father. Under the circumstances, no one would have condemned David if he had simply ordered his son killed as the leader of the rebel forces. Moreover, the writer of the account, wishing to whitewash David, could have omitted the episode of Absalom’s rebellion altogether or simply covered it in a few sentences, saying that Absalom rebelled and was killed when his forces met his father’s troops.
The story of Absalom’s rebellion and death is so powerful precisely because it is complex, nuanced and multilayered. Absalom’s itchiness to take over from his father is something that everyone can understand. So, too, David’s desire to hold on. What could be more realistic than this conflict between father and son? Except that these figures are larger than life. A kingdom is at stake. Yet they remain very human characters. Despite Absalom’s rebellion, David is still his father. Is it unlikely that he would want to spare his son’s life while putting down the rebellion? I think not.
If we are to believe McKenzie, David’s paternal feelings are all a cover. In McKenzie’s description, we get none of the father’s feelings for his son. Even David’s distraught cry when he learns of Absalom’s death is a pretense, nothing but playacting to hide his own complicity in the deed.
Is it possible that David ordered Absalom’s death, as McKenzie claims? Yes, it is possible. Is it demonstrated by this evidence? Certainly not. What disturbs me, however, is not only that McKenzie convicts David with such 054certainty on such flimsy evidence, but that this kind of analysis robs the story of its power. Perhaps McKenzie’s failure to recognize this is what really lies at the heart of his faulty analysis. In McKenzie’s hands the story is one-dimensional: A father murders his son and concocts an elaborate story to conceal his guilt. The biblical story gets its power, however, from the tension between David’s understandable love for his now-eldest son and his inability to control him. David’s feelings are mixed, as would be any father’s. It is the tension between the two feelings—of fatherly love and of anger at the leader of a rebellion—that gives the story not only its power, but its reality.
A word about the “apologetic” nature of the record of David’s life and kingship: The account is less suspicious and more believable because it reveals David’s flaws as well as his virtues. We have looked at the Bathsheba affair. But this is by no means the only example. Indeed, the account of Absalom’s rebellion portrays David as a rather unsuccessful father and a somewhat unsuccessful ruler (Absalom “won the hearts of the people” [2 Samuel 15:6]; why would an apologetic author include such a critical notice?). When David flees Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion, we are told that a member of Saul’s house cursed David continuously and threw stones at him, shouting, “Get out you murderer; the Lord has avenged upon you all the blood of the house of Saul whose throne you took” (2 Samuel 16:5–7). The inclusion of this incident was hardly intended to polish David’s reputation.
Another small point: David gave land belonging to Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson, to a certain Ziba (2 Kings 16:4). This is how McKenzie describes it: “The land in question was the heritage of the household of Saul which was never supposed to leave his line. David had no right to confiscate it or parcel it out to someone else. This was a flagrant breach of one of the oldest and most revered traditions in Israel.” So why did the apologetic author of 2 Samuel include this episode in his account? It could easily have been omitted.
What we have is an account surely sympathetic to David, but by an author who seems willing to show us his defects along with his virtues. It seems unlikely that the author is fancifully creating one cover-up after another to prevent the exposure of David as a multiple murderer. For McKenzie, however, “the apology worked.” That is why David has been regarded as a popular religious and military hero for two thousand years—but McKenzie has unmasked him!
“Reading against the grain” is surely the task of the modern biblical critic. But it cannot be performed simplistically or automatically. Judgment is required. Several months before I read McKenzie’s biography of David, I had a discussion with one of the great Bible critics of our generation, David Noel Freedman, the general editor of the Anchor Bible series. Quite by coincidence, neither of us knowing of McKenzie’s book, Freedman made this comment: “We still don’t have anything, not a word, not an artifact, that is demonstrably from David. Maybe we never will. Does that mean that the whole biblical story is simply a fairy tale? To me, the criterion is realism. We have historical accounts of many remarkable adventurers who did things that were hard to believe. I like to compare King David to Henry II of England or Henry IV of France, who were in many ways the creators of a national identity, and very scandalous in their personal lives; but they nevertheless captured the hearts and minds of a whole population.”
Instead of capturing the grand sweep of David’s life, McKenzie reduces David to nothing but, as he says, a petty tyrant. For me, McKenzie’s biography lacks the reality that Freedman so discerningly noted.
035 King David: A Biography Steven L. MacKenzie (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000) 232 pp., $25.00 (hardback) 034 I started reading this book with high hopes. Despite its title, which suggested (at least to me) a novelized treatment of Israel’s great king, the book is an attempt to find the historical David based on the archaeological evidence and the biblical text, as well as the tools of the social sciences The author, Steven L. McKenzie, is a recognized critical Bible scholar writing here for a lay audience. Early on he asks whether David actually existed, a […]