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What Do We Really Know About David From the Bible?: An Interview With Joel Baden

12/06/2013 05:58 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

David is one of the most prominent figures of the Bible, a person whose life and lineage shaped both Judaism and Christianity in crucial ways. So when I discovered a new book called The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero, I was fascinated by the story it tells of the historical David, especially because its author--Old Testament professor Joel Baden--makes some intriguing arguments about David that are simultaneously illuminating and provocative.

I was curious to discover more about how Dr. Baden became interested in David and why he makes some of the more surprising claims in the book -- like his argument that perhaps Solomon was not David's son. I also wanted to know how his findings affected him as a scholar and person of faith. What follows is an in-depth interview with Dr. Baden about these topics:

Early on in the book, you talk about learning a song about David in Hebrew school as a child. Would you say that this was the moment that sparked your interest in David, or is it more of something that developed over time?

I would say that the song marks the moment that sparked my consciousness about David - the first time I can remember knowing that there was such a person, and at the same time realizing that he must have been pretty special to have a song about him. In many ways, the memory of that song symbolizes for me the way that lots of people tend to think about David: as someone who is remembered as a glorious and great king, but without too much of the rest of the story attached to it.

The goal of your book is to uncover details about the historical David, who you argue has a number of different characteristics from how David is described in the Bible. What is your goal in doing this?

There are a few goals. One is plain historical curiosity: how much can we know about the hero of the Hebrew Bible? Beyond the mere recovery of the past, however, I think that recognizing the difference between the historical David and the biblical or legendary David is important on its own terms. It helps us understand how stories shape our view of history; how the telling of the past, in all its various forms, changes the past. When we try to access history through a particular lens - in this case, the lens of the pro-David Hebrew Bible -- we are getting a colored view. How and why the biblical authors have chosen the palette they use is a question that helps us understand both the historical David and the nature of the Bible as a book.

Along those same lines, one of the things that you tell the reader is that "the Bible is not objective history" (8). This may come as something of a surprise to many readers. How do you as a biblical scholar know that the Bible doesn't provide an objective account, and how do you reconcile your viewpoint with the perspective of other people who feel certain that it does?

The entire idea of objective history, as we think of it today, is a very recent intellectual phenomenon. We can't really expect ancient writings to conform to modern-day standards of historiography. The Bible is, and always has been, theology -- and I imagine that most people will recognize that theology and history are not one and the same. The Bible makes all sorts of narrative moves that would never be permissible in an objective account of history: the revelation of characters' internal thoughts, the description of private dialogues, the plain statement that certain figures are good or evil -- and, of course, the regular intervention of God or divine messengers. It's not just that all of these elements are present in the text; it's that every one of them, in the David story at least, is used for the same purpose, which is to glorify David at the expense of his rivals. We can see both the means and the motive, and that's usually enough to convict.

At a number of points in your book, you describe that the Bible takes an event that may have or likely did occur in history and then reframes it so that David is painted in a more positive light than he would have been otherwise. Can you give some examples of this, and why do you think this choice was important to the biblical authors?

The book begins with a relatively little-known episode from the Bible, in which David, having run away from King Saul, is in the wilderness with a band of malcontents and social outcasts. Upon encountering a rich man named Nabal, David runs a classic protection racket, demanding payment for having not harmed Nabal's shepherds. When Nabal doesn't pay up, David comes to his house to kill him. This much the Bible admits. Now by the end of the biblical story, Nabal is dead, David has Nabal's property, and David even has Nabal's wife, Abigail, as his own wife. If you were asked to fill in the blanks as to what happened, it would be hard not to pin Nabal's death on David, at least to some degree. But the Bible - using almost every narrative trick I just described - tells us that David actually didn't harm Nabal, even swore not to hurt him; it turns out that God killed Nabal, out of the blue. Given how much the Bible is willing to admit here, even things that don't look great for David, it's reasonable to suspect that there is some undeniable truth behind the story. But the conclusion is pretty difficult to swallow as the Bible tells it. Now why would the biblical authors try to exculpate David like this? Most of the David story is an attempt to put a positive public face on David's rise to power. It's spin, just like we know it today. The biblical authors are David's PR guys, and it's their job to take a bad situation and make it look not quite so bad for their boss.

One of the most intriguing arguments that caught my attention in the book was one you make about David, Bathsheba, and their son Solomon. The Bible says that Solomon was David's child, but you suggest that maybe he wasn't. How come you make this claim, and how do you think it's a significant finding for people of faith?

The argument that Solomon was probably not David's son, but was actually the child of Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, is a complicated one. In its simplest terms: as far as I can see, it's the only way to explain why the biblical text about David and Bathsheba and the birth of Solomon is as convoluted and confusing as it is. The argument is made in full in the book, of course. As for its significance, I think it's pretty huge. If Solomon wasn't David's son, then the entire notion of the Davidic dynasty is out the window. None of David's descendants ever sat on the throne of Israel; it's a Solomonic dynasty, not a Davidic one. Although the ramifications of this play out in a number of ways, it's most significant for the messianic expectations of both Judaism and Christianity. The messiah is supposed to be a descendant of David -- the gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus's lineage, stretching back through David, and Jews still pray for the coming of the "son of David."

The David you describe is much more fallible than the David we see described in the Bible. You explain throughout the book that if we look at historical evidence, then we learn that David was actually a great leader in a number of ways, but like any human, he also had his faults: He was disrespectful to his subjects, so driven by his vision of the monarchy that he would stop at nothing to achieve it, and he was responsible for a large number of murders. You even go so far as to say that David "was considered guilty of horrific crimes" (260). So if all of this is true, and if your thesis is true that the David of the Bible isn't the same as the David of history, then what is gained by this knowledge? Especially, what is gained for people of faith who hold David in high regard?

There is an obvious challenge in reconciling the possibility that David was something like the ancient equivalent of a third-world dictator and the high esteem in which David is held in both Judaism and Christianity. It's my conviction that this is a good sort of challenge. I'm invested in the project of clarifying the distance between the past and the present, between history and story, between what we might know and what we believe. That is to say, I think that the image of David maintained by people of faith is not really affected by the reality of the historical David, because what is important in the legend of David is not his reality but the values that have been attached to him. Cultures attach ideals to their founding figures, ideals that have less to do with the historical figures themselves and everything to do with what the culture holds dear. Those ideals and values can, and do, change over time, and that's a good thing -- it's called progress. So when we look back at the historical David and are troubled, that's an indication that we have chosen a different path for ourselves as a culture -- we can see our own values represented in the gap between the historical David and our image of David. And that, in turn, gives us warrant to think about what we choose to believe, and why -- we are not beholden to the morals and ethics of a three-thousand-year-old Near Eastern despot. How we understand David, and through him ourselves, is not predetermined by history -- we are capable of, and indeed have been for three thousand years, telling the story in our own way.

You describe yourself as both a biblical scholar and someone with Jewish roots. I imagine that would both make this project incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging. So what were the greatest challenges you encountered? And what have been the greatest rewards?

The challenge, as is almost always the case in biblical studies, is mostly the constant uphill battle against thousands of years of people reading the Bible in certain ways. Generation upon generation of readers have taken the Bible to mean something, and even those of us who are trained to look at it from another angle are still often subconciously replicating the interpretations and readings of the past. So the biggest hurdle to jump in almost all aspects of biblical scholarship is recognizing where we are assuming something that in fact needs further investigation. In this book, for example, I began writing it with the belief that the relationship between David and Jonathan was an important aspect of David's rise to power. It was only after I had been working on the book for quite some time that I finally realized how I was simply rehearsing the traditional story. Only then was I able to understand how the David and Jonathan story was working to situate David as the semi-rightful heir to Saul -- and how it was almost entirely untrue as it's told in the biblical text. And that's where the greatest rewards are to be found, also. I came to realize that truly honoring the biblical text means not simply taking it at face value, but rather trying hard to understand what it is trying to communicate, how it communicates, and why its authors wrote as they did. There is so much depth to the Bible, as there is to all great literature, and I felt like I was really doing justice to the artistry and intention of the biblical authors when I could uncover their motivations and their literary techniques.