“The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks. New York: Penguin Books, 2016. 329 pages. $16.
Sometimes fiction is the best way to deepen our understanding of historical figures.
This is especially true of people in the Hebrew Bible.
The only source that we have for knowing about most biblical characters are the holy scriptures themselves. Unfortunately, the Bible is usually terse in its descriptions— of events and people. So our ancient rabbis have tried to put a little more meat on those historical bones with their midrashim or commentaries. (Of course, they lived long after the events and people they were writing about.)
So, if no more contemporary sources are unearthed — and they may not be — then an imaginative writer of fiction, familiar with the Bible and the midrashim, might enlighten us, and make the wisdom of our forefathers more accessible to more people.
There is a caveat here: The novelist must stick to the script — that is, to what we know, or believe we know, about the person. Otherwise, the effort could mislead us.
Generally, Geraldine Brooks is true to, and elaborates on, the biblical and midrashic King David in “The Secret Chord” (now out in paperback).
King David is, at the same time, the most blessed and flawed — and the most interesting — of our biblical ancestors. The same man who is credited with some of the most beautiful, moving poetry in Jewish literature, some of which we recite daily in the prayer services, sent a fellow Jew to the front to be killed so that he could possess the man’s wife; the same man killed 200 Philistines and presented their foreskins as the price for his first wife.
That same sometimes-good, sometimes-bad character is on display in this wonderful fictional account of his life.
David is presented to readers mostly through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, who was at the king’s side throughout much of his life and through whom God (“the Name”) sometimes speaks.
David is portrayed as a loving father and a (mostly) caring husband, a man who can show compassion and forgiveness. But he also was a man whose intense sexual desires sometimes overwhelmed him. And he could be cruel and vindictive, especially when his role as king required it.
And make no mistake — David may be the sweet lyricist of paeans to God, but he is also the king of Israel.
Even Nathan, who at times is his closest adviser and friend, knows there are limits to what he can say to the monarch: “Have a care, Nathan, I told myself. It is one thing to speak hard truths to a king in that strange voice that rises up unbidden from the earth and echoes with the power of heavens. It is another thing entirely to speak frankly to him as one man to another, especially as I am a man in his service.”
Sometimes, however, David does let his kingly hair down.
When he is mourning the killing of his rebellious son Avshalom, his general Yoav pressures him to greet his soldiers who had put down the rebellion. He goes out but does not conceal his grief. “He did not hide his pain from them. He didn’t have to. … They knew him. They knew his flaws. Indeed, I think they loved him all the more because he was flawed, as they were, and did not hide his passionate, blemished nature.”
Of course, there are some controversies connected to David’s life. A novelist can avoid them or face them head on. In two instances, Brooks refuses to duck.
She writes that David tried to integrate representatives of all the tribes and even of former enemies into the ruling structure. For that purpose, he appointed Zadok, a Jebusite, as a priest to share duties with the Israelite priest Aviathar, and ruled that “devotions and sacrifices would retain any elements of their style of worship that did not conflict with our own.”
The appointment of a Canaanite as a priest is simply astounding, but this view is apparently shared by some scholars.
Brooks’ portrayal of the relationship between David and Jonathan as a loving, gay one also is beyond the Jewish pale, at least to more traditional Jews.
The book ends with Shlomo (Solomon, David’s son) declared king and the whole city of Jerusalem bursting into song. David, on his sickbed, hears the wonderful music, inspired by his lifelong musicality.
“His gift to the people now returned to him in magnificent abundance. He had made of his city an accidental choir, an unintended orchestra. The surge of sound rose and swelled. Then, for a long moment, all the notes came together, all the music of the heavens and the earth, combining at last into one sustained, sublime entirely glorious chord.”
Wow, what a powerful image.
Thank you, Ms. Brooks, for this beautiful, uplifting glimpse of one of the Jewish people’s greatest moments.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.