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Are the stories written about the biblical character David fact or fiction? Find out in this episode of The Bible for Normal People as Jared, Pete, and professor Joel Baden pull back the curtain to reveal how stories about the infamous King David were spun to make him out as a hero. Join them as they ask the following questions:

  • Who is David? What does the long story of David contain?
  • What does “apology” mean in terms of literary genre? What kind of evidence points to the David story as being an apology in that context? Do we have examples of this literary genre from other sources?
  • What is the “spin” in the David story?
  • Who was Joab and how does he function in the apology?
  • Was David a hero or a villain?
  • How did David become king?
  • How do the stories about David vs. Goliath or David’s taking of Bathsheba get spun? What function does that spin serve in propping up David as “a man after God’s own heart”?
  • Generally speaking, how does David end up married to all of his wives? Is there evidence that he stole Saul’s wife Ahinoam?
  • How do repeated stories about David in different books compare to each other?
  • For people who were taught to believe David was a hero, what can they learn from uncovering this spin in the stories about David? What’s the big takeaway?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Joel you can share.

  • Not all narratives are just straightforward historical recountings. Our modern idea of history “as it actually was,” sort of historical writing—that’s not something that existed…until a couple hundred years ago, but in any case, certainly not back in ancient Israel. — @JoelBaden
  • The purpose of writing wasn’t just to record what happened exactly as it happened. This is true of everything from Genesis 1 onward: every story, every narrative in the text is written in order to convey something to the reader—to convince us of something. — @JoelBaden
  • What the David story is doing is taking observable known things about its main character, David, and then going to great lengths to tell us: “But I promise it’s not as bad as it looks.” — @JoelBaden
  • The spin here is, despite all of those known facts—that Saul was king and Jonathan should have been next, they both died at the hand of the Philistines for whom David was working, and Saul thought that David was trying to do exactly this—the spin of the text is, “Yeah, but that’s not actually how it happened.” — @JoelBaden
  • David is surrounded by death in his story, and every single death that occurs benefits him politically and personally. And the text goes to enormous lengths for every single one of them to say, “but David didn’t do it” or “but David wasn’t there” or “but David didn’t want this.” — @JoelBaden
  • David and Goliath is probably the most famous of the episodes in the David story. Setting aside any question of whether it’s historically accurate, this is exactly the kind of story that establishes David as worthy of kingship. The whole story is, I think, clearly intended to let us know this guy is the man “after God’s own heart.” — @JoelBaden
  • We’re familiar with [spin] from today’s political and media landscape. We just don’t really usually think about the Bible as playing politics and media, but it is. — @JoelBaden
  • What I’m really after here is to think about why the Bible tells stories the way it tells stories. What are the authors trying to accomplish? And even if we disagree about the likelihood of this or that reconstruction of what may have underlaid the stories it has told, it’s really a question of: How do we read the Bible? That is what’s really at stake here. — @JoelBaden

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music begins]

Jared  

Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the podcast. Today we are talking about “The Historical David,” not to be confused with the…not historical David I guess?

Pete  

[Chuckles] Yeah. 

Jared  

With—

Pete  

You’ll have to just listen to the podcast to find out.

Jared  

With professor Joel Baden.

Pete  

Yeah. Joel teaches at Yale. And you know, he’s a big guy in Hebrew Bible and he writes all sorts of stuff, and including a book that’s relevant for today’s episode. It’s called The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. There’s your hint.

Jared  

Exactly. If that’s not a provocative lead-in to this episode, I don’t know what is.

Pete  

Yes, it really is. 

Jared  

All right, let’s get to it.

Joel  

[Jaunty music plays over clip of Joel speaking] “You know, our modern idea of history, you know, ‘as it actually was’ or this sort of objective ‘I’m just going to tell the facts, ma’am’ sort of historical writing, that’s not something that existed, I don’t know, probably until a couple hundred years ago.”

Pete  

All right, Joel, thanks for being here. It’s great to have you on the podcast. 

Joel  

My pleasure. 

Pete  

Well let’s talk about David, shall we? That’s the David in the Bible. And just give us a 30,000 foot overview of where the story is found, first of all, and just what this long story of David contains generally.

Joel  

Sure. So we pick up the story of David appearing on the scene right in the middle of the book of 1 Samuel. So, it’s going to last for the rest of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel and trail off into the first couple of chapters of 1 Kings. So we’re talking about actually an almost unthinkably large amount of text devoted to, really, the biography of one character. There’s really nothing else like it in the Bible. Moses has got a bunch of stuff, obviously, in the Torah, or the Pentateuch, but it’s not biographical so much. This is really David’s story. It places him as really the central character of the entire Hebrew Bible. Where we are, of course, is that you know, we’ve gotten—being in 1 Samuel, we’ve left the world of the judges, of Samson, and Deborah and all of them, and we’ve come to Israel’s first thing resembling a king in Saul, David’s predecessor. And Saul has had his ups and downs, mostly downs, and we know already from the Saul story that God is upset at Saul and is going to raise up, as the text famously says, “a man after my own heart” to replace Saul—and that’s going to be David.

So David enters the scene in the middle of Saul’s reign, just as God has turned his affections away from Saul, in comes David to step up to the plate as it were. The story itself—it’s a ramble, it’s an epic, it’s kind of amazing in its scope. We’ve got David as a youth, in the David and Goliath story, famously. You picture this little teenage kid, you know, I think he should be scrawny even if the paintings don’t always make them that way. You got this kid facing up against the giant, he’s got battles that he wins, he has marriages (multiple marriages, more than you’d think one guy would need, but I’m not one to judge). And he’s got kid problems. There’s a story about who’s going to succeed him, which one of his sons is it going to be? It ends up being Solomon, that’s a whole story unto itself. There’s rebellions against him by his own kids, Absalom, most famously. He’s in power, he’s out of power, he’s back in power. He’s hated by the people, he’s loved by the people. And in the end, you know, he dies a happy death of old age, you know, not before he’s passed on some advice to Solomon on how to keep the family in power.

Pete  

Not how to be a good king, but how to keep the family in power. 

Jared  

Right. Well, that kind of goes to the first question we want to talk about. Because we’d like to take a step back and look at what kind of thing are we looking at when we look at the story of David? And you call it an apology. So what do you mean by that? And then, what evidence do you have for reading the David story that way? In some ways, I think that’s what we’re going to be talking about the rest of this episode, but maybe you can point us to a few factors that lead you there.

Joel  

I think the first thing to talk about is like, when we’re reading the Bible, we actually don’t often ask the question of, I think, genre. It’s easy when you’re reading poetry, you’re like, oh, this poetry, not prose, or this is laws and not narrative, whatever. But, you know, not all narratives are just straightforward historical recountings. In fact, I would go so far as to say none are. You know, our modern idea of history, you know, “as it actually was,” or this sort of objective, “I’m just going to tell the facts, ma’am,” sort of historical writing—that’s not something that existed, I don’t know, probably til a couple hundred years ago, but in any case, certainly not back in ancient Israel. The purpose of writing wasn’t just to record what happened exactly as it happened. Everything was written. And I mean, this is true of everything from Genesis 1 onward. Every story, every narrative in the text is written in order to convey something to the reader, to convince us of something. So, even just to step back and say, just ask the question: Why am I reading this story? Why did somebody think, “I should write down this story in this way”? That in itself, is I think, is sort of the very first step to starting to read the Bible in what I think of as at least a more interesting way than, “Well, it’s telling me the exact facts exactly as they happen.” So once we start saying that, we can ask questions like: okay, so what is this story trying to do to me, as a reader? What is it trying to accomplish? What kind of feelings for the characters am I supposed to have? Am I supposed to like the characters or dislike the characters? Whose side am I supposed to be on? How is the text convincing me that so and so is good, and so and so else is bad or, you know, these kinds of cues?

And the David story, as you said, I categorize as an apology. Now, apology obviously doesn’t mean what in this case, what it means to most people today, which is “I’m sorry.” An apology in the literary genre sense is—we know it today, I think mostly, essentially, as what we think of as “spin.” An apology says, “Yes, I know that stuff happened. But it’s not what you think. It didn’t happen exactly the way it looks or might seem.” And again, we have this kind of thing. We don’t call them apologies, although we probably should. But we see this thing all the time today in media, in politics. You know, the example I think I use a lot is, you know, if you were to look back on…well, there’s so many examples of this now—but you look back on, I don’t know, back when the government shut down, however many years ago, that 10 years ago now or whatever it was. And you were like, okay, the government for sure shut down. Who’s to blame for that? You know, as you read different people’s takes on it, from the different sides, “It’s the Democrats’ fault”, “It’s the Republicans’ fault.” 

How do you—each one of those narratives of the agreed upon events of the past is colored by, okay, so who’s at fault? Who benefits? Who’s to blame? Who is the real hero of the story? Those are all apologies in their way, and that’s what the David story is doing too. I think what it’s doing is it’s taking observable known things about its main character, David, and then going to great lengths to tell us: “But I promise it’s not as bad as it looks.” And this is not me imposing some, you know, later literary genre onto the biblical text, quite the contrary. One of the best examples of an apology that we have comes from before David’s time, from the Hittite Kingdom up in Turkey, from about the 14th century BCE. Where we have a text, you know, called The Apology of (I’m not even going to bother with the king’s name, it’s too much to say). A text created by a king to explain how it is he ended up on the throne. Why did he need to explain that? Because he wasn’t the next in line. Right? And of course, kingship was supposed to be hereditary. And this guy was not the next in line. How did he end up on the throne? He goes through this whole story, “Well, the gods favored me. But, you know, the person who was supposed to be king really didn’t like me, and so he tried to kill me. I didn’t try to kill him. But once he tried to kill me, I had to kill him. And then I ended up on the throne and the gods and the people really liked that.”

Which not only is a great example of texts trying to explain how something unlikely happened and it wasn’t the main character’s fault, it’s also kind of exactly the same thing the David story is. David is a kid from nowhere, backwater Judah, which was not a particularly bustling metropolis or area back then. How did this no-one end up king of all of Israel and Judah combined? You know, in the ancient world, you don’t luck into kingship. You have to—you get there either because you were born into it, or because you went and wanted it and got it…except in the David story. In the David story, the whole story really goes—especially, you know, the rise of David, the story about how he got to be king—the whole story is “he really didn’t want that at all, but stuff just kept happening.” And, you know, the crown, I mean, I’m not even making this up, the crown literally falls into his lap in the Bible. And that is, you know, I think that raises the kinds of questions like: Okay, so since that seems so unlikely, from everything we know historically, what is this—what’s this text really trying to do?

Pete  

Mhmm. So can I ask the question, just to maybe make this a little more concrete: What is the spin actually in the David story? You’re saying “it’s not that bad”? Or could you flesh it out a little bit more? Is it more to it than that?

Joel  

Sure. Oh, yeah, sure. I mean that—I was sort of alluding to it a second ago—the big spin, certainly in the first part of the story, in his rise to power—the big spin is “he didn’t want this.” And it’s important to say that because, of course, he ends up as king after Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan die. So you know, generally, you would see a nobody who comes to be king, when the previous king and that king’s heir die, as I don’t know, potentially suspicious. Especially when, as the Bible itself admits, you know, the previous king (this is Saul) was convinced that David was in fact trying to usurp the throne, was trying to commit a coup. Saul is convinced of this. Saul tries to kill David. David ends up running away from Saul and living among and working for the Philistines, Saul’s enemies, and in fact, the very people who kill Saul in battle. And then once Saul is dead, the crown is brought to David—I mean, truly, like brought to him in person and handed to him. The spin here is, despite all of those known facts, that you know, Saul was king and Jonathan should have been next, they both died at the hand of the Philistines for whom David was working—and Saul thought that David was trying to do exactly this. The spin of the text is, “Yeah, but that’s not actually how it happened.”

Jared  

Yeah, and when just reading through your book, the apology or spin is necessary because there are things that happened, that can’t be denied, and so we have these kind of anchor points of things that happened, but we have to be able to spin it because we can’t just deny it or we can’t just make it up. And so, because for me growing up, my Sunday school thing was like, well the Philistines are the enemy, but there in our Bible, David is working with the Philistines. And that’s a clue that maybe something else is going on. 

Joel  

Right, and this happens again and again. If you were to sort of step back from the David story, and just sort of look at it in sort of structural outline, I think what you’d see—and I, lots of people have recognized this—what you see is lots of bad stuff happens. Lots of people die, not just Saul and Jonathan, but you know, husbands of people who become David’s wife (I’m thinking here of Abigail). The story of how Abigail becomes David’s wife involves, by the Bible’s own admission, David running a protection racket. Like a, you know, like a minor mafia Don, and killing—or not killing—and Abigail’s husband dying, according to the text, just at the hand of God. At which point Abigail’s like, “Sure I’ll be your wife.” But there’s this—over and over again, you know, even after he’s come to power, when he’s waging war against Saul’s descendants, and the former general of Saul’s kingdom, you know, he says, “I can bring Saul’s kingdom over to your side,” and you know, terrific, that happens—and then that guy dies, is murdered. All this stuff just looks bad. It’s just, he’s surrounded, David is surrounded by death in his story, and every single death that occurs benefits him politically and personally. And the text goes to enormous lengths for every single one of them to say, “but David didn’t do it” or “but David wasn’t there” or “but David didn’t want this.” You know, and so the story itself is one of stuff you’d never want to say about your king. Or especially, especially your like, founding father legend king, right? Which is what David certainly becomes. But when you’re reading the books of Samuel, it’s just episode after episode of stuff that really shouldn’t happen. Bad stuff. Absalom, his son, tries to commit a coup against him and succeeds for a while, and then is killed. And even that death, right? Famously, David weeps profusely over the death of Absalom, although there’s no other way that story ends except with David necessarily needing Absalom to die. It’s all this stuff throughout.

Jared  

Maybe we can just nerd out a little bit, but can you say more—you talk about Joab being a central part of this apology. He’s almost sort of a necessary character to pull off this apology. Can you say more about who Joab was and how does he function in this apology?

Joel  

Sure. In the story of David, Joab is his right-hand man, right? He’s his consigliere, not to be too heavy handed with the mafia analogies here. But he’s his general, he’s his top general. And it is an astonishing feature of the story that when there are political opponents that need getting rid of, all too often it is Joab who does the dirty deed. And again, repeatedly it’s—you know, Joab, Joab stabs like two or three people in the story, always important figures that needed getting rid of. And every time David’s like, “What a terrible thing you’ve done, Joab, getting rid of my most powerful enemy.” And you know, curses Joab and, you know, swears that all these terrible things will happen to Joab because he was such an awful person who, of course, never gets, I don’t know, fired for any of this stuff, of course. You know. Joab plays the part of like, the—exactly sort of, I guess exactly like in a mafia family right? The, you know, Don Corleone isn’t actually killing anyone himself.

Jared  

It creates a distance, so plausible deniability.

Joel  

Indeed, I mean, and not just plausible deniability, because the Bible is actually making the case it’s actual deniability, right? There’s actual denial. One of my favorite examples of this, and it’s the story I was just talking about, is when the general from Saul’s army sort of flips sides and comes to David and meets with David and says, “I brought the north over to your side, David.” Three times in that, at least three times in this one chapter it says, you know, “when he left David’s side, he was completely unharmed.” And even that alone is simply not an objective recording of historical fact. That’s clearly intended to say, “whatever is about to happen to this guy, David had nothing to do with it.” That to me is really a stunner of a giveaway. “When he left David, he was totally safe.” To say that over and over again, in one chapter, is a little bit on the order of, you know, “the lady doth protest too much.”

[Ad break]

Pete  

Okay, so, I want to make sure we get to a couple of things here, because we can’t talk about David without talking about two stories: David and Goliath, and then David and Bathsheba. So, let’s go through those stories. And, you know, give us an overview of, first, David and Goliath, and how that story fits into the spin. 

Joel  

David and Goliath is probably—David and Bathsheba is the other one—is probably the most famous of the episodes in the David story. I mean, we still talk all the time about, you know, David-and-Goliath kinds of confrontations. This is right at the beginning. And again, as I said earlier on, right, you picture David as sort of like a kid. He’s not even really old enough to be in battle according to this story, right? His brothers have gone to fight and he’s just come to check on them, and, you know, he just happens to be the one who’s brave enough to go face down this giant one-on-one. Setting aside any question of you know, whether it’s historically accurate, this is exactly the kind of story that establishes David as worthy of kingship. He has, you know, he walks out, he’s the only one in the entire country brave enough to fight off the Philistines. That’s a slap in the face to Saul who made his name fighting the Philistines. The whole story is, I think, you know, clearly intended to let us know (and I think this is how everyone has always taken it) this guy is the man “after God’s own heart” right? This is the, this is the deserving next king of Israel.

The problem with the story—there’s two problems with this story. Here’s the—I’ll do the, like the sillier of the problems first—Is that you read the David story, you get to what some might call the boring parts, which is sort of the listing of the warriors who are in David’s army among David’s fighters, and what their exploits were. This is a little sort of Homeric section of, you know, pithy kind of descriptions, “Ah, then there was this guy who fought three lions with his bare hands in the valley of whatever, he was a great warrior. And then there’s this other guy who faced down 50 enemies by himself.” And then we read about “this one guy, Elhanan who killed Goliath,” and then like, describes Goliath perfectly. You know, Goliath, this giant of a man, this giant Philistine from Gath, who had a spear like a weaver’s beam, right? Like these exact precise descriptions. You’re like, “wait a second, I don’t think there are two Goliaths. That seems unlikely.” And so this at least raises the possibility, to my mind, probability, that this list of David’s warriors exploits was sort of a something of an independent, freestanding kind of thing. And somebody came along was like, “Well, David needs a killer story to like, vault him into position of fame. Let’s just take this one.” And so David gets this expanded version of the story about killing Goliath. 

I mean, that at least raises some questions about the validity of this story. The bigger and better problem is this: we almost all of us play this remarkable sort of…remarkable logical trick in our heads when we read the Bible. It doesn’t happen just here, it happens all over the place, where somebody would say like, to a reasonably you know, well read biblical reader—”Talk to me about like, how it is that David becomes famous, or rises to some sort of some sort of fame.” And you’ll hear, “Oh, well you know, obviously he killed Goliath, that was a big one, you know, when he was a kid. And you know, when Saul was having his sort of fits because the Spirit of God was troubling him, David soothed him with the lyre.” This is—these are two incredibly famous images of David, again, both of them well preserved in art and that sort of thing. So we’re familiar, I think. The David-playing-the-lyre-for-Saul stuff is deeply connected with David being the author of the Psalms, these are longstanding big kinds of traditions about David.

The problem is in the biblical text they don’t go together, even though they’re in chapters right next to each other. So let me explain what I mean by that. In 1 Samuel 16 we meet David for the first time. And we meet David for the first time when Saul has, you know, this evil spirit from God has been put on him, and he’s struggling a little bit with it. And they’re like, “We need to find someone who can soothe this guy.” And someone’s like, “There’s this kid I heard of, David” who has already in a sort of side moment, has already been secretly anointed by Samuel as king in a Cinderella-style selection process where they like go through all the brothers and then it’s like “Oh, it must be the younger one whose heel fits in the shoe.” Samuel has anointed David in secret and then somebody fortuitously is like, “Oh, I hear this David kid can play the lyre.” And David is brought to Saul and plays the lyre and Saul is soothed, and he’s like, “I like this kid. I’m going to keep him by my side as my arms bearer,” is what Saul says when David plays the lyre for him in chapter 16. And then Saul sends a note to David’s father, Jesse, and is like, “Hey, just to let you know, I’m going to keep your kid with me as my arms bearer. And he can play the lyre for me.” Awesome. That’s all well and good. And then we get to chapter 17 and Saul’s out there on the battlefield of the Philistines, and…where is his arms bearer? He’s home with his dad. And that’s weird, first of all. And then when David does show up, and he like, goes out into the battlefield, he’s like, you know, facing off with Goliath, Saul turns to his general and goes, “Who the hell is that?” And you’d think the response would be like, “That’s your arms bearer. I guess he’s like A-WOL, or has been.” But you know, they’re like, “I don’t know, I’ll find out who that is” as if they’ve never seen him before.

Pete  

So there are two introductions to David.

Joel  

There’s two introductions to David and they both do the same thing, sort of functionally, right? They both bring Saul—bring David into Saul’s court. Because the end of the Goliath story is the same, right? You know, Saul sees David do this brave thing. He’s like, “Hey, why don’t you come hang out with me? I’m going to tell your dad,” right? So, you’ve got these two stories that are functionally a doublet. How did David, a nobody kid, end up hanging out with Saul in the royal court? One story is because he plays the lyre so nicely. And one story is he faced down Goliath. But they don’t, they absolutely don’t go together. Leaving aside the question of like, is one or the other historically accurate, the presence of two competing stories in the text right next to each other doing the same thing and not working together? Kind of that in itself raises for me at least the question of: Okay, so who’s responsible for writing and constructing these stories? There’s someone trying to accomplish something. Again, this is, you know, what’s the aim of the text, what’s the aim of the writer? It’s to get us to know that David is worthy, that David is special, that David is destined for great things, even though David will spend the next many chapters denying that he is in any way.

Jared  

The only thing I would mention before we move on from that is when you read the book and read the story as spin, as you know, this is trying to defend the way in which David came to the throne, so to speak. That David and Goliath story, I always love the part where he goes—when he first shows up on the scene, he’s like going around asking, “What happens again if I kill this Goliath?” And they’re like, “Oh, well, you know, you basically get—you get the daughter of the king in marriage, which basically puts you in line, you know, for the throne.” And then he keeps asking, it says that he asked a couple of times, and then his oldest brother basically gets really mad at him because he’s like, “I know you. I know what kind of person you are. You’re out to get something out of this.” And just…For me, growing up, I always read that story as the older brother is just jealous and, clearly, you know, is going against God’s will and all of this—but then when you read it in the context of the whole story, you’re like, well, maybe he did. Maybe he did know his brother.

Joel  

It’s a funny thing that happens actually—just you know, while we’re on the topic, it’s a funny thing that happens where there are people in this story who say the true things about David sometimes. You know, Saul says the right thing. Saul’s like, “You are trying to get my throne,” and he turns to Jonathan, who is, you know, enamored with David. And he’s like, “You’re siding with this guy? You’re just going to hand him our, you know, our legacy, our Throne, our inheritance, the kingship?” He looks at all these people around he’s like, you know, he sees David come back victorious from battle and he’s like, “Man, the people love him. Next thing he’s gonna want is to be in power.” And he says all these things and then he tries to kill David repeatedly, both in his court and then chasing him down. He’s like constantly accusing David of wanting to usurp the throne. All of which I think is almost certainly true! But the story presents Saul as crazy. So it’s as if they’re recognizing the fact that people were for sure saying these things about David. But what kind of person would say this? Right? Only a crazy person would think that David actually wanted that. And they literally put it in the mouth of somebody who they portrayed as crazy. Even though everything Saul says actually comes true.

Pete  

It’s like they have to…I mean, back to David and his elder brother Eliab and the accusation basically that David is ambitious. From what Jared read, you get that impression. And it seems like that creates a little bit of a tension in a-man-after-God’s-own-heart business. I think at least it does. But there’s a sense in which naming it might be better than not mentioning it at all.

Joel  

Yeah, I think that’s a really nice observation. And I think that, again, this is part of what happens in spin is, you know, “people are going to tell you that it was like this, but it wasn’t.” But you have to say the first part, right? Saying the first part actually does some rhetorical work for you. It makes it so that you’re not—it makes it sound less completely made up in a sense. It’s like, “No, I know that this is what people are saying, and even though it might look this way, and it might even look this way to people at the time, you know, to the people around him.” But David gets all of the opportunity to prove over and over again that he wanted none of this, right? When Saul tries to kill him and David sneaks up on him twice and is like, “I could have killed you, but I didn’t. See how honest I am? See how little I want this? You’re chasing me down for no reason at all.” When Saul and Jonathan die and David weeps and wails, and he has this wonderful lament over them. You know, he demonstrates again and again, in his own words, that he didn’t want it. But you’re right, the people out there who lay accusations against him, they’re part of the story too.

Pete  

Right. And like right after that, with Eliab, you know, accusing his brother of ambition, that’s when you get to the actual narrative of the killing of Goliath. And David comes out looking really good there. It’s like, yeah, all that stuff…”But look at what he did.” And he’s like super Israelite here, he’s like total king material, right? He’s honoring the Lord, he’s defying the armies of the Philistines, and he just goes at it in pretty short order. So yeah, I can see your point of having both of those elements in the narrative. It’s not just, you know, a nice tale that only props up, you know, your leader. It acknowledges the problems, but then sort of deflects them a little bit.

Joel  

Yeah, I mean, one of the things—I don’t know how far down this rabbit hole you want to go, but you know, one of the things that I consider a really nice sort of data point for reading David’s story in Samuel as apology is the other story of David in the Bible, which is, you know, the retelling of it in the Book of Chronicles—which is hundreds of years later and well distant from any events and has none of the bad stuff in it. There’s not a single hint of negative anything about David, he’s perfect. There’s no rebellion against him. He has no problems with Saul. Right? Everything is totally whitewashed, and polished and cleaned up in a way that, once you’ve read Samuel, reads as ridiculous in a sense. But it’s clear that at that point, they don’t need to be convincing you that David is great. Right? They can just, you know that David is terrific at this point, when Chronicles is being written, you know, hundreds of years later. Which is why when you go back then to read Samuel, you’re like, man, they’re both acknowledging all this bad stuff. Not just the bad things that happened, but the bad things people were saying and rebutting it directly. That suggests so strongly to me that they must have felt—someone must have felt the need to do this, right? 

People must have known what happened, known what was saying, even maybe thought some nasty things about David. And these writers were like, okay, well, how do we make sure that sort of the history written by us, the victors, makes it clear that David was in fact, great? There’s an argument being made in that text that, again, is not at all dissimilar—and it’s so easy these days to turn to politics, but you know, you could watch whichever your preferred news channel is and get essentially the same kind of thing happening. Where, you know, we’re going to talk about what’s going on, but our guy is going to come out looking great and the other guy is going to come out looking bad. “Can you believe they’re saying this stuff about Trump or Biden or whomever? Can you believe they’re saying that stuff about him? That’s just jealous pettiness. Here’s what’s really going on.” You know, I think we’re just all super familiar with it, even if we don’t think about it, you know, as being the same thing. We’re familiar with it from today’s political and media landscape. We just don’t really usually think about the Bible as playing politics and media, but it is.

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Jared  

Well Pete mentioned earlier, we know, the David and Goliath story is one famous story, an example of how we can talk about the shape of the story of David. The other is Bathsheba. But I would broaden that out, just kind of like what we did with Goliath in the introduction of David and all of that, to just kind of David’s relationship with women, in general, is problematic. And maybe you can talk a little bit, maybe we start with Bathsheba, but I’d like to talk about it in the context of the other women in David’s life and how they end up being married to him.

Joel  

Yeah, as I said at the beginning, David’s got a lot of wives sequentially. And they basically all, at least the ones that we know anything about, are…like the deaths that happen around him, the marriages that happened around him are also usually to his political benefit. At least as presented to us in this story. So we have, you know, David marries Saul’s daughter Michal, which is something of an unexpected twist. He was supposed to marry a different one, but Saul kind of rescinds that offer and David ends up marrying Michal instead. That’s a big deal if you are interested in getting into the kingship, but that’s advantageous to him. But it doesn’t go anywhere, that particular marriage. Perhaps because she’s childless? The story presents it—or, I mean, she becomes childless at a certain point. But also because he gets kicked out of the court, you know, after they’ve been married. She helps him run away. The famous you know, “doll in the bed” trick.

He marries Abigail—this story that I was mentioning earlier where Abigail’s husband Nabal (or Nah-ball), in inexplicable divinely ordained circumstances that benefit David who has been on the run from Saul, and, you know, [David] runs this protection racket with this rich guy Nabal [and] ends up with all of Nabal’s vast amounts of wealth and animals and land and his wife. That’s, you know, clearly advantageous. Weirdly, the one marriage that is not seemingly politically advantageous is the Bathsheba one. Which is kind of a fascinating blip as it were in the story of David. Bathsheba and her story are really, not to complicate things too much, are really part of the Solomon story. Which is to say, I think we’ve got something similar going on with Solomon that we do with David, which is people writing the story of Solomon in a way that makes Solomon look good and necessary, because Solomon also should not have been the next king after David. He was the fourth son, what was he doing? How did he end up in power? It’s the same kind of questions, right? How did this guy, this fourth son end up in power? “Well, first son, the eldest son died and the second eldest son committed treason against his father and the third eldest son committed treason much later…So anyway, that’s how he ended up as king.”

But the Bathsheba Story is one that I think is unabashedly bad for David. And that’s one of the reasons I think it so captures the imagination. And certainly, it’s one of the reasons that it has been, sort of weirdly, a favorite story even for people who read this text very literally and to take its morals very seriously. Because Bathsheba’s story, and you guys probably know this better than I, the Bathsheba Story is where people turn to to say, “David sinned just like everyone else. He was a guy just like everyone else. He was a man and he had his flaws but even, you know—what the story teaches us is that even the flawed person who sins can be redeemed and welcomed back.” Somehow, when you love David a lot, and Jewish and Christian tradition really loved David a lot, even the story that makes him look most terrible like the Bathsheba story somehow becomes a point in his favor. But the Bathsheba story itself is I think a unmitigated disaster narratively, at least, for David. He sees a woman, he decides I’m going to take that woman, he does. He has her husband killed in a particularly vicious sort of way, not before trying to, you know, sort of get out of trouble for having impregnated her. He has Uriah killed and is delighted by it. And then is only shown the error of his ways when the prophet Nathan is like, you know, famously, “You’re the [rich] man” in the parable of the rich man and the poor man. But there’s no political benefit to David from that particular pairing. Which is why I think it stands out. It’s also the longest episode of David and one of his wives. And Bathsheba is the only one who comes back again in the story, as she does later when David is very old and she puts Solomon on the throne. But it’s a—yeah, it is the episode that in a sense, humanizes David as we’re reading the Bible, it humanizes David even as it is simply more straightforward about what a bad guy he is.

Pete  

He certainly is.

Jared  

Well, can I ask one more question because I think this is fascinating, and it’s a little more conjectural, but I think it’s interesting enough to mention. And that is Ahinoam, how she functions in this text.

Joel  

Yeah, so 98% of the people listening to this are gonna say “who?” I would guess. Because, I mean, I grew up knowing these stories, and even I was…I mean, it’s such a passing thing. It just says in like one little passing verse relatively early in the story, you know, “and then David married Ahinoam.” And you’re like, “Alright, well, that didn’t mean much to me.” But there are only, there’s only two times that someone with that name is mentioned in the Bible. One is here with David marries this person. And one is earlier when we learned that that’s the name of Saul’s wife. And I don’t think it’s a huge leap to suggest that maybe one of the things that David did in his unrelenting desire for power was to sort of steal Saul’s wife. Now, that may sound like a kind of crazy thing, but the ability to sleep with the king’s wife is the ability to commit a coup. This is, in fact, exactly what Absalom will do back to David later in the story. Absalom will sleep with David’s concubines, thereby asserting his power. If you can do that and get away with it, you’re the king. I think that’s a pretty good rule all around: if you can sleep with the king’s wife and live to tell the tale, you probably are king now.

And I think this is what—I think potentially this is maybe what David did—he slept with Saul’s wife. The problem is he didn’t get away with it. Because Saul then starts pursuing him and kicks him out of the court and starts chasing him around the country. You know, the other little bit of evidence for this is Ahinoam disappears from Saul’s story after this, and when Saul has future children, they’re said to be born from his concubine Rizpah. So we have both Ahinoam showing up in the David story and disappearing from the Saul story at the same time. Now, I would suggest that this is potentially the same kind of spin, it’s just spin through incredibly strong downplaying. You know, they couldn’t deny the fact I guess that David married Saul’s wife, but they don’t make it into a story. They accomplish it simply by removing her from Saul’s, you know, family tree and simply, there’s one verse of like, “And David married Ahinoam, anyway, where were we?” And then it goes on from there, because that would be—it is such a manifest coup attempt to sleep with the king’s wife. It is speculative, but you know, one of the things I guess I want to say in the big picture is it’s all kind of speculative. In a sense, what we’re trying to do here is not necessarily to say straight out, “Ah, this is what actually for sure happened,” because in a sense, that’s just as bad as being like, “What the Bible says is exactly what actually happened.” 

What I’m really after here is to think about why the Bible tells stories the way it tells stories. What are the authors trying to accomplish? And even if, you know, we disagree about the likelihood of this or that reconstruction of what may have underlaid the stories it’s told, it’s really a question of like, how do we read the Bible? That I think is what’s really at stake here.

Pete  

You know, the big picture—what I’m hearing and for you kids at home, the message of the David story is not “be like David.” It is—maybe it’s to accept the kind of literature that the story is and to read it as an adult, you know, with asking questions of genre and purpose. I love the question, you know, why was the story ever written this way? I think that alone is just a great thing I think for people to walk away with, from an episode like this. Thanks so much for taking the time to hang out with us, and great talking to you about David.

Joel  

Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks, guys. 

Outro  

[Jaunty outro music plays] You’ve just made it through another episode of The Bible for Normal People. Thanks to our listeners who support us each week by rating the podcast, leaving a review, and telling others about our show. We couldn’t have made this amazing episode without the help of our Producer’s Group: Brian, Tracie Falconburg, Shelly Shepherd, Mark Kupets, Michelle Mastin, Jeanne and John Hawkins, Tom Hoy, Justin Bodeutsch, Drew & Regina Forsyth, and Bryant Culpepper! As always, you can support the podcast at patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3/month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. This episode was brought to you by The Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Tessa Stultz, Nick Striegel, Haley Warren, Jessica Shao and Natalie Weyand!

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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