David: The other side of the story

March 9th, 2016

I’m a sucker for sword-and-sandal movies, whether they are classics like The Ten Commandments or animated modern ones like The Prince of Egypt. So of course I'm watching ABC's new take on the story of King David. I find these cinematic interpretations of biblical history fascinating not so much because of what they say about the Bible, but because of what they say about us and how we read the Bible.

I read the Bible both critically and devotionally, which means that my approach to the story of David puts me at odds with some Christians. I refer to the story of David in 1 and 2 Samuel as “political and religious propaganda.” It is propaganda not because it is false, but because it is designed to advance a particular view of David and his household. The prophet Samuel calls David “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) and our tradition leads us to sympathize with this handsome and charismatic warrior-poet who had his failings, but loved God and loved his people.

But a critical reading forces us to recognize that calling someone a person “after God’s own heart” is a political statement. If we were to go back in time and conduct interviews with passersby about politics in ancient Israel, we would find a nation divided. The story of David we have in the Bible seems to be constructed to address particular criticisms of David and his household. Here are a few:

1. David had no legitimate claim on the throne. Critics of David probably pointed out that not only did he rebel against Saul and lead a band of outlaws (22:2), he even signed up to work for Israel’s ancient enemies, the Philistines (chapter 27)! They may also have pointed out that David was not part of the anointed royal family — what gave him the right to become king?

The author argues against all of these claims: David was anointed in a secret ceremony by the same prophet who anointed Saul (16), so he was legitimate in the eyes of God. Also, he married Saul’s daughter (18:26), so he was related by family.

And the whole controversy over David working for the Philistines? He was playing them the whole time, argues the author, merely pretending to raid Israelite towns when he was really simply attacking other tribes — and leaving nobody alive to tell the difference (22:9-12).

2. David murdered Saul. Critics of David probably argued that David was working for the Philistines at the very time Saul was killed. Maybe he even did it himself!

The author of the biblical story builds an elaborate case: First of all, David would never have murdered Saul. He loved Saul and his son, Jonathan. He had not one, but two opportunities to kill Saul and refrained, because he would not strike God’s anointed (24 and 26). Moreover, he executed the slimy mercenary who claimed to have done the deed (2 Samuel 1:13-16).

Second, David was miles away during the battle in question, fighting in Ziklag (1 Samuel 30).

Finally, David not only grieved deeply over Saul, he behaved honorably toward his household, even though they were a political threat (2 Samuel 9). At least, until it was no longer expedient to do so (2 Samuel 21).

3. David was a brutal gangster who extorted both property and women from others. Kings have an unfortunate tendency to kill men and take their wives and property. Ahab stole Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) in a way that’s very reminiscent of David taking Bathsheba from Uriah (2 Samuel 11). Yet one is remembered as a villain and the other is a hero.

The author tells these stories in a way that causes us to sympathize with David. In the story of Nabal (1 Samuel 25), David sends soldiers to demand payment for his soldier’s protection. What sounds on the surface like extortion winds up being a justification of David — after all, Abigail, Nabal’s wife, leaves her husband and supports David. When Nabal dies from fright, the author views it as God’s judgment upon Nabal for his poor hospitality.

The story of David’s murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11) is harder to explain away, but somehow we still come away with sympathy for David (if not for Bathsheba, whose opinion and consent seems irrelevant to the author). As a result of his actions, he would actually lose two sons — his infant and Absalom — and half the kingdom.

I can imagine ancient readers would be skeptical of the author’s perspective that David’s adultery-and-murder were somehow “out of character” for an otherwise godly man.

4. David was not sufficiently religious. He had no problem carrying off Philistine idols (2 Samuel 5:21). He danced naked like a pagan (6:12-23). He built himself a beautiful palace while the Ark stayed in a tent (7:2).

The author frames these facts in such a way that they highlight David’s close relationship with God. Why didn’t he build a temple? God told him not to. Why didn’t he mind suggestive dancing? Because it was done for the Lord.

The question of the idols is a bit more dicey, but a later author solves that problem: David only carted them off to be burned, not to worship with them (1 Chronicles 14:12).

5. Most of Israel didn’t want David to be king. The most powerful tribe, Judah, basically forced him on the rest of Israel. There were three — three! — different civil wars or rebellions under his reign.

The authors of 1 and 2 Samuel, and later 1 and 2 Chronicles, go above and beyond to portray David as a leader loved by nearly all. Chronicles not only whitewashes David’s career, but makes it explicit that the smaller tribes were the most enthusiastic supporters of David’s reign. They turned out in record numbers at his coronation (1 Chronicles 12:23-40). The author definitely overstates things when he writes “All the rest of Israel were of a single mind to make David king” (verse 38).

My point in highlighting these alternative viewpoints is that we can imagine David’s story told in a very different way by his detractors, who may also have been God-fearing human beings. Some of David’s contemporaries kept supporting Saul’s household well after David was established as king (2 Samuel 16:7-8). Others never supported the monarchy in the first place (Judges 9).

These are stories written with an agenda. They are not written as objective history, nor are they intended to be read that way. This is why when people get bent out of shape about Bible movies “not getting the facts right” or taking liberties with the text, I simply nod and smile. These are not movies about history. They are movies about us.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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