I am beginning to read The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero by Joel Baden.
The subtitle uses both the words “real” and “invented”. Baden does not believe David was invented in the sense that some propose. He does not think David is an imaginary character invented by writers concocting Israel’s past in the Persian period– after 538 BCE. David’s supposed reign would have been close to 500 years before that.
The discovery of references to the dynasty of David on inscriptions at the ancient city of Dan and on the Moabite stele of King Meshe give non-biblical evidence that David was not completely invented.
However, Baden subjects to historical criticism the court history of David in 1 and 2 Samuel and the ascription of a large number of the Psalms to David. What we remember about David is often that he was the slayer of Goliath and great musician behind the worship of Israel. Baden applies a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to claims like these.
He is a lot like Baruch Halpern who wrote David’s Secret Demons. I have read Halpern’s long book. But I have never blogged through it because I can’t get a handle on summarizing it. The book’s plan is convoluted and repetitious. It looks like Baden will be easier to write about.
But Halpern made the argument that the court history of David had to be written near David’s time, because it refutes charges that would only have been live issues then. Particularly, David was accused of several murders by the supporters of Saul and/or the opponents of Solomon. So that would have been the time when explaining that David was not guilty of those murders would have been relevant. Halpern was pretty sure David was responsible for several political murders. Ironically, he absolves David of the one murder the Bible pins on him, that of Uriah the Hittite.
Baden makes a very similar point. The Bible’s version of David is not fiction, but it is propaganda. Its purpose is not to give us an accurate biography of David. Its purpose is to defend the dynasty of David by portraying its founder in a good light.
So Baden begins with the story of David, Nabal and Abigail from 1 Samuel 25:2 ff. The circumstantial evidence is that David or his men murdered Nabal in a particularly cowardly way and that David then took Nabal’s land and his wife. The story in 1 Samuel, however, defends David in several ways. Nabal had it coming (this is the ironclad frontier murder defense that “he needed killin’). Abigail benefited from what happened. Perhaps it was all God’s will.
Baden is moderate. He doesn’t know for sure that David had Nabal killed. But what is pretty clear is that the story defends David against the charge that he did.
This gives us a clue about the nature of the story in 1 and 2 Samuel. The story is meant to enshrine David as a hero of Israel who was entitled to found an ongoing dynasty. It is meant to defend David against claims and rumors that his rise to power was just a ruthless power-grab motivated by personal ambition.
In the process, the story probably gives us the outlines of the historical truth. You have to sift through the apologetic material, though, to see the historical David.