David fits the image of a hero. He potentially makes the perfect epic poetry type hero and his life does fit a perfect story arc. Does that make his life likely to be a fictional tale, or embellishment on the actual life of a man named David who was a King? Where does Scripture not fit myth?
While we associate non-Christians as being the ones who are the most likely to label Biblical truth as a moral tale or embellished story, Christians can also be found doing the same, as they do not believe that the Bible is the literal truth, or because the thinking of the world has affected them. Some of the saddest and most judgemental teachings I have seen on David’s life have come through theologians who are not saved, but have studied critical theology as an intellectual interest and have published books which don’t show any dedication to the spiritual character of Christianity. Thus they feel able to tear Biblical figures apart without mercy, and assign interpretations to Biblical events which aren’t in line with either the message or the sanctity of the Word.
For example, “King David His Reign Revisited,” by David L Wright. His work is written from a limited, biased standpoint, which is not in line with either the Jewish or Hebrew faiths. Wright teaches at Emory University as Associate Professor of the Hebrew Bible and has won awards for previous books. In his own words: “I enrolled in one of Reinhard Kratz’s seminars in which we analyzed the formation of the Sinai account in Exodus and its relation to Deuteronomy. In the very first session I realized how extraordinary biblical literature is and how fascinating it is to study it critically.”
“Most PhD students often have personal histories that prompted them to devote their lives to biblical studies. Nevertheless, these students usually know how to set aside, pragmatically, their personal religious convictions in order to create a space conducive to discussions with their colleagues who come from different backgrounds and have different commitments.” [Source: http://thetorah.com/ten-questions-jacob-wright/]
How sad it is that you can study the Word of God in such depth, and not let it touch your spirit.
In 2015 I wrote a blog post “Dames, Daggers and Dance: When History Forms It’s Own Perfect Story Arc” which looked at David’s life through the eyes of a story teller. I have been a writer since I was a child, and have always studied writing techniques. When studying David, I was surprised to see that the total accounts of his life form a story arc. It made me wonder, whether the concept of the story arc was built on literature or reality? However, it did not make me wonder whether David’s life was a fabricated legend and here’s why.
David’s life just doesn’t work as a story. Here is a short list as to why, based on the many frustrations I’ve gone through in studying David’s life.
- Only the highlights and most necessary cautionary incidents, (useful for moral spiritual instruction,) have been told. It is like reading a biography retold in badly summarised dot points. There are far too many details missing which make parts hard to interpret and lead to heated debates. So much critical information about him is missing or unclear, I have nearly given up study in frustration several times. Trying to get a clear picture of key incidents is nearly impossible.
- Pinpointing exactly when things happened, in what year and what age, is impossible, as is the correct order of events in 2 Samuel chapters 10-12 and 2 Samuel 23 to 24. Big events are written back to back, with no orientation as to how old David was, or how much time had passed. This is especially true of the Psalms.
- You can only work out David’s motivations by going back to the Torah and carefully studying Leviticus and Deuteronomy in detail (preferably the whole Torah); then by going forward to the Psalms and fitting it all together in a cultural context… which also has to be researched outside of the Bible, to understand the history and culture. In a story, you are told what someone’s motivation is and why they act how they do.
- The books of Samuel have multiple authors and David’s story is completed in 1 Kings (written by yet another author,) and reiterated as more of a political tale in 1 Chronicles by yet, another author. That fracturing blasts apart the possibility of it being written as an allegory.
- It’s missing traditional narrative roles (such as ally and trickster), the people needed to push the tale forward into the next part,or give it more relatability. Also, God could fit many of the standard character roles, as David was close to Him, was helped by Him and powered by Him. That messes up the standard way deities are bought into legends.
- David isn’t the hero of his life story, God is, which is not a normal format. Readers want the key figure to be either a hero, or an anti-hero. David hands all the glory to God and constantly points people to Him to meet all their needs. [2 Samuel 22-23]
- If you use Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), it doesn’t fit good story telling structure for an epic tale. Campbell wrote his book based on the way legends have been recorded since the beginning of time, from every culture able to be studied. I have tried to fit David’s life into that structure, and it won’t mould in, in too many places. I couldn’t even take specific events and get them to form that iconic structure. For example, refusal of the call (David never did that); then the last seven stages don’t apply, as David never returns home with the prize, going back to normal life, and there is no clear point of single victory. It is also interesting to note that David is not mentioned in Campbell’s book as one of the studies legends. There is only an image of David and Goliath. I was sure he would be in there, but he’s not.
a) The most complete chronicle in David’s life is “David and Goliath,” which has become an iconic symbol in both faith, and the secular world. It neatly unwinds and then wraps up, but few other anecdotes from David’s life do. David’s greatest achievements are making the nation of Isra’el safe from it’s enemies and the building of the first temple. The remaining details of Isra’el’s journey to national safety are slim. You cannot recreate complete, engaging battle scenes and pinpoint a proper timeline of who, when and where, in the manner in which movies like Star Wars are made. We know a little about David’s achievements as a warrior, and a little about Benaiah, and a little about Joab, and a little about many characters… but not enough to build one complete character who we can understand. The Bible is just not meant to read as a legendary epic set of tales. It’s an historical account with greatly limited information.
b) As for David’s actions in returning of the Ark of the Covenant to the midst of the nation and the plans for building Israel’s temple, this part of his life is impossible to understand without knowing the full history of Israel up until this point, and studying the way surrounding nations worshipped at that time… then to top that off, the long timeline of related events has a deeply unsatisfying ending.
In 2 Samuel 5-7 we can see how much David wants to build the temple and has it planned and prepared down to the last detail… then it doesn’t happen until he is dead. Why? Because he obeys God… and we don’t know what he is obeying unless we pick the account which starts in 2 Samuel 6 up in 1 Chronicles 22. Did you know that David gave his personal wealth over to help fund the temple? Probably not, because the complete set of details are scattered, and is hard work to put together and then correctly interpret. The story doesn’t story.
c) As a final illustration of why David doesn’t fit together as a work of fiction, we need to look at David and Bathsheba. Again it is hampered by a lack of information. Arguments rage as to whether she baited him, or he took advantage of an innocent young girl. To make that incident work as a proper tale, you need clearer and more content, plus, to make David and Bathsheba work as a single piece of fiction, you need more elements to make a proper story and cohesively pull all the summary into a readable work.
The prophet Nathan called David out his sin, but he’d need a far greater role as a mentor. And where is David or Bathsheba’s best friend / sidekick to help move the tale along? The ambiguities which lead to heated accusations of rape would not be there. Every detail, including a clearer picture of David’s thoughts and motivation would be included. Including literary devices such as Solomon’s style of poetry in the Song of Songs would help too, but that does not exist. What we do have is an incident from David’s life which teaches us consequences. It is not meant to be romanticised and to do so, is to disrespect the intention the Word of God has in telling us about Bathsheba.
David is real, raw, flawed, inspirational, conflicted and cohesive, or in other words, as complicated as any human, which is why we relate to him. If you looked at any of our life stories, they would be just as muddied, hard to follow and complex. From the point of view of a fiction writer and a Christian, David reinforces my belief that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, not a man-made collection of religious propaganda.
“Therefore I will give thanks to You, O LORD, among the nations,
And I will sing praises to Your name.
He is a tower of deliverance to His king,
And shows lovingkindness to His anointed,
To David and his descendants forever.” 2 Samuel 22:50-51
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