Book Review — David by David Wolpe

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Yesterday evening, I finished David Wolpe’s “David: A Divided Heart”. The author is the senior Rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles; named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine; and considered one of the top most influential Jews in the world.

In David, the author discusses this biblical character who has captured the imaginations of friends and foes of Judaism (they admire him the most out of the three Abrahamic religions). So versatile and enduring is David in our global culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life.

Every sex scandal involving prominent men is sure to evoke comparisons with David and Bathsheba. Successions in power allude to David and Saul. Unequal struggles are summarized with the battle of David and Goliath. Few symbols fulfill so many functions: If you reach for an underdog, if you seek a precedent for the abuse of power, if you look for an ancient model of friendship or (perhaps) same sex love, if you want a monarch who is also a bard, if you want to suggest a kingship that will never end, and so very much more — David is your man.

While not the lengthiest book I have read this year, it is the one I have spent the most time with. I took time out to read the following materials about this character: 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Book of Psalms, and a brief look at the Jewish Talmud. Fresh insights in all of them. It was particularly emotional reading Psalm 3 following Wolpe’s commentary.

A few discoveries I found from the book:

- The first time in the Bible that a woman is said to love a man is when Michal loves David.

- Although David is described repeatedly as being loved, he is pointedly never described as loving.

- Bathsheba is never said to love David.

- A CIA report on spy and counterspy used around the world is based on the strategy of Hushai, one of David’s advisers.

Wolpe is so intellectually open in the book that I often wonder which side of the divide he is on, whether he is really pro-theism or anti-theism because that’s what those in Nigeria, where I live, consider those who as much as question happenings in the Holy Books.

Look at this:

“When Samuel quite reasonably protests that King Saul will seek to kill him if he finds out he is on his way to anoint the new king, God instructs Samuel to lie: “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’” (1, 16:2).

A white lie, to be sure. A lie to preserve a life. Still, it is worth noting that David is anointed in a cloud of mild deception.”

See another,

“To this day it remains an uncomfortable fact that nothing unequivocal has been found that can be traced to his hand or identified with [David’s] rule.”

One of the things I find profound in the book is the revelation of the absence of ‘genuine’ miracles in David’s life. For a book which invokes God so often, it is telling that even some skilled readers fail to notice that, with the murky exception of raising Samuel from the dead, there is not a single supernatural miracle in the entire story of David, the longest continuous narrative about a human being in the entire Hebrew Bible.

Many think of the life of David and envy grows in their heart for him, but almost all of his relationships — David and Jonathan, David and Bathsheba, David and Saul, David and Joab, David and Michal, David and Solomon — are marked with some wreckage and despair.

One particular touching episode touched his relationship with his son Absalom. After his son had disgraced and chased him out of his kingdom, David launched an offence. The offence proved successful. Yet no father is happy losing his child, even a wayward one. While victorious “…the king was shaken. And he went up to the upper room over the gate and he wept, and thus he said as he went, ‘My son, Absalom! My son, my son, Absalom! Would that I had died in your stead! Absalom, my son, my son’” The anguish of a father!

David’s anguish and considerable heartfelt remorse make him an exemplar, to later generations searching for biblical models. The Puritans turned to David more often than any biblical character except for the New Testament Jesus. For not only is David a military model, but he embodies repentance with Nathan, avoidance of idolatry — not once did he worship idols, and suffering, particularly with Absalom. David is a warrior who has suffered, a king who has demonstrated humility, and a father who has both lost (many children) and (able to) pass on his legacy.

Still, David is too much of a controversial figure. The revelation about idolatry may well be some post facto answer to justify what already exists to justify the eternal promise made to him by God, and even ancient rabbis have confessed, “We are unable to make sense of David’s character”. Even in modern Israel, David remains controversial. Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister of Israel, responding to a religious member of the Knesset, said, “I recognize the Torah of Moses our teacher and not the Torah of David our patriarch…”

Rabbi David Wolpe brings in a new light a character whose reputation is as ramified, as remarkable, and as enduring as his story.

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