David: The Divided Heart by David Wolpe. Yale Jewish Lives, 184 pp. $25
The name David means “beloved,” and the Israelite king bearing that name was – and remains – just that.
“To this day at almost every celebration, Jews sing ‘David, King of Israel, alive, alive and everlasting,’ ” writes Rabbi David Wolpe in this brief, lyrical biography of his namesake, Israel’s second king who ruled around the year 1,000 BCE.
The latest in the Yale Jewish Lives series, David: The Divided Heart is a complement to poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s 2008 book The Life of David for Nextbook Press. Where Pinsky brought a poet’s sensibilities to a king who is credited with writing the book of Psalms, Wolpe now brings the eye and ear of both a rabbinic scholar and student of popular culture. The words of Talmudic and medieval scholars, Rav Kook, Carl Jung, scholar and political theorist Michael Walzer and troubador Leonard Cohen, for whom the Bible is “a broken hallelujah,” appear on these pages. For them, as for us, David was a remote figure.
Yet his life is as vivid as any in the ancient world. David was a musician, a poet, a warrior, a brigand, an adulterer, a man of faith, a murderer by proxy and a state builder who founded a dynasty from which the Messiah will come. He was, Wolpe writes, “the Bible’s most complex character.”
The book of Samuel, where David’s story is told, provides “an account of a warrior-poet-hero wily as Odysseus and tortured as Lear, yet as faithful as the ‘shepherd of Israel,’ ” writes Wolpe, who is rabbi of Sinai Temple, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles.
But why was he beloved? He certainly was “singularly easy to love,” Wolpe writes. King Saul, troubled in his soul, is the first person who the Bible says loved David, who soothed the king with the music of his lyre. Saul’s son Jonathan, soon loves David, too, even as the king turns against David and tries to kill him.
Women loved David. Wolpe points out that for all the love David receives, “he is pointedly never described as loving.” There is calculation as well as passion in David’s relationships with others.
Most of all, David is beloved by God who, in Wolpe’s view, envisioned possibilities in the obscure boy shepherd. From the moment the prophet Samuel anoints David, God never leaves him, as the deity soon leaves Saul. “[David’s] relationship with God is steady and assured throughout the story,” Wolpe writes.
And at least during the years of his rise, David seems to be preserved by a coat of Teflon. Not only does the youth kill Goliath, but when hit on the forehead by the stone, the giant falls forward, against the predictions of nature. “David does not operate by the normal physics of human consequence,” Wolpe observes. “Everything works in David’s favor because God has chosen him to succeed.”
Wolpe takes David’s life both chronologically and thematically. He often returns to a particular story or idea from a different angle. This method can expose new meanings – the rabbi’s stock in trade – but it can sometimes seem repetitive.
David was impervious to danger through Saul’s fall and demise, through David’s defeat of the Philistines, his uniting the north and south of Israel under his rule and his conquest of Jerusalem as his neutral capital. At the height of his powers he wanted to build a house for God. God answered by promising the king that He will make the House of David everlasting.
Then the story shifts.Wolpe’s writing is often aphoristic. “Weaknesses do not arrive singly,” he writes in introducing the story of David and Bathsheba. In quick succession, the king takes a married woman, commits adultery with her and when she becomes pregnant, sends her innocent and loyal husband to the front where he is killed in battle.
“It should not amaze us that is was so difficult for … David to stop with a single sin,” Wolpe observes. “Inertia is a law of spiritual life as it is of physical life.”
The tragedies that follow – the death of Bathsheba’s first child, son Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar, Absolom’s rebellion – do not reflect a withdrawal of God’s favor, but are rather the wages of sin, Wolpe writes. Long after being Israel’s golden boy, David was still beloved of God.
Wolpe calls David’s contradictions his “divided heart” and says it is “a leitmotif of his personality.” In his David he pulls together the threads – and they are only threads – of this ancient story and finds a portrait, sometimes familiar, sometimes far removed from our lives and sensibilities, always intriguing. David, whether he really lived, and Wolpe argues that he did, can take that kind of scrutiny.