Content Warning: I’m going to talk about a Biblical figure who I think is probably a historical figure, but whose story was probably nothing at all like what we’re presented with, and also, is possibly very important to fundamentalist and orthodox visions of that Biblical history.
I’m going to talk about a Biblical character and there are people who find that personally offensive. If you think ‘I’m going to get mad about what he says about King David’ then you read it anyway, then uh yes, you have fallen for my elaborate trap where I told you not to read it.
POINT IS I’m gunna bully a dead king and you can’t stop me.
If you’re not familiar with the story of King David, or haven’t really thought about him since Sunday School back when you were a kid, like me, he was the First Good King of Israel in the Bible. The Israelites were all ‘hey, we want a king’ and God was like ‘but you don’t need a king’ and the Israelites were all ‘but we wannnnnaa kiiiing’ and God was like ‘here are some judges, are they not good enough?’ and the Israelites were all ‘but a kiiiiiing’ and to be fair, the judges could include some real fuckups, but then God was like ‘but you have prophets that can guide the country and the priests’ and the Israelites held their breath until they went blue and God went finally OKAY okay okay, you can have a king but kings can be fuckups and your first king is going to be a complete fuckup, and the Israelites went ‘okay!’
That’s how they got Saul.
The Sunday School version of it then tends to go in on how Saul was good for a hot second and people liked him and he got to be the King of Israel for a little bit, then he refused to genocide the Amalekites, which pissed off God and then Saul went into decline. There are some continuity hiccups but then the next major plot point is wee little David showed up to a battle and slew Goliath. He became friends with Saul’s son Jonathon and then married Saul’s daughter Michael after collecting a thousand foreskins –
Yes, I said –
And yes it’s exactly as comfortable for the twee Sunday School Teacher trying to explain the Biblical passage as you’re imagining.
Then there’s this set of story beats about Saul trying to kill David, who refuses to fight back, and flees into the woods and has ‘adventures’ and then when Saul dies in a battle, the one dude who saw it brings Saul’s crown to David, off in the land of their enemies and tells him what he saw and David is so overwhelmed by this that he kills the dude, because he killed king Saul, and then David’s the king! Hooray!
David is generally held as being the great king of Israel; one of his sons, Solomon, is hailed as the richest and wisest, but David’s very important. Particularly, both the Jewish and Christian faiths hold that the Messiah descends from David, which has resulted in some creative bookkeeping around the guy they call Jesus, which I’m sure some Rabbis may have fun opinions about. But the book, uncritically, treats David as a Good Dude who was a Good King and therefore all the bad people who kept trying to kill David were tragically misguided, since David was such a good good boy. Even his own son tried to kill him! It was such a bummer. He only ever did one bad thing, ever, which was the whole Bathsheba stuff and we don’t talk about that in Sunday School ‘cos there’s fucking there.
Anyway, this article comes with a lecture, which in this case is by Dr Joel Baden, as part 19 of a course of lectures delivered in 2021 at Yale Divinity School:
This blew my mind.
This blew my mind because absolutely everything in the narrative of David, as presented, by Dr Joel Baden, was known to me. I knew the two conflicting narratives of Goliath’s death, I even wrote about that. But when I considered the narrative of David with its repeated coincidences and the way that David kept being the one who underscored that hey, I was justified in killing this dude, and how all these people died of supernatural coincidence or the like around David, or how weird it is that someone brought David the crown of Saul despite him being in deep enemy territory, and all that, and suddenly the simple explanation that ‘David won, and then had the history books changed to make him look good,’ but also that there seem to be facts that the story couldn’t just make disappear.
Like, there was a meeting between Abner and David, and afterwards, Abner died, and then David made a big showing of how sad he was that Joab, his loyal friend, did that, but also Joab never gets punished, and that David definitely didn’t do that. That to me looks like a narrative where someone can’t control public awareness of some events (Abner met with David, Abner died afterwards), but they can control the narrative of how those events happened.
There’s nothing in the Bible, as stated, that indicates Jonathon and David were fucking. There’s a lot of language the Bible uses to dance around that metaphor, some things that the English translators of the Bible were too shy to use (like, literally every instance of ‘servant’ is a nice-guy-mode version of the word ‘slave’) so we get odd euphemisms like ‘touching thighs’ and the like. That kind of language wasn’t used describing Jonathon and David I am told, by other scholars who know the language better than I, even though some of the language around them, in some sources, is a bit erotic. The actual conversation about what’s in the text is much more up to the work of professionals who can read close to the original text, which I absolutely cannot do.
Thing is, the story of King David as presented in the Bible, is weird and inconsistent. There are two different times he meets Saul for the first time, and two different times Goliath dies. There are some stories that seem to line up weirdly, and they are all in the text together. Remembering that the Bible, as a book was compiled by someone, and that that compiler wasn’t stupid, but also that the compilation was itself a political act, and was being compiled for an audience that knew or recognised details in the story that didn’t need explication. The Bible doesn’t come with maps, for example (at least, not really), because the people for whom it was written knew where things were positioned and knew how things were done.
In conclusion, David was probably a sort of bandit leader, almost certainly bisexual, and probably scoring with both Saul’s daughter and son, probably knew Saul through that relationship, shame he probably also killed Jonathon at the battle of Gilboa.
And then he probably had the power to make those rumours and stories into his version of history after he got a throne and a crown and a bunch of wives.