I am interested in the historical happenings behind events recounted in the Bible. So what I have read about David has often been speculation about the events of his rise and rule.
I say “speculation” because, apart from the biblical text itself, events in David’s time are thinly attested. There was a person named David who founded in Judah a “house of David”. It seems to have been during a time when the Philistines of Gaza were a power in the southern Levant. There are archeological finds at Hebron and Khirbet Qeiyafa that probably touch on David’s time. But we have to make some inferences. To do that we unavoidably use the biblical text. So we do not know much about David from secular history alone.
From the beginning of Jacob L. Wright’s David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, I can see that I am going to find myself often disagreeing. So I want to emphasize how I my disagreement will be within an approach that accepts both historical criticism of the Bible and the lifting up of the Bible as relevant authority for today.
There are those who reject not only the historical accuracy of the Bible, but its moral and religious authority as well. Sometimes such scholars are just neutral and try to treat the Bible as they would other ancient literature. But often nowadays they are hostile to religion in general or to biblical religion in particular. They see historical problems as a sign of the illegitimacy of the whole biblical world view.
Far on the other side are those who defend the religious and moral authority of the Bible by asserting its historical accuracy. Usually this view involves a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Some people who hold this view are less extreme than others.
J. W. McGarvey, in my own tradition, was at one extreme in that he claimed that even Jesus’ parables had to be historically accurate. He thought that if Jesus had just made them up, that would undermine biblical authority. (I always wondered about the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus where part of the action takes place in Hades. In what sense could that be historically accurate?)
But most inerrancy advocates today moderate their view and accept as creative and artistic parables and other fictional, poetic, and rhetorical features of the biblical text. But they still link historical accuracy of the narratives that look like history with the overall authority of the Bible.
There is another world of thought that accepts the Bible as a source of moral and religious authority but does not think the authors sometimes fudging on history undermines that. I want to point out at the beginning that both I and Jacob L. Wright fall into this category, Neither of us think that the precise historical accuracy of the David story is essential to the authority of the Bible.
Wright sees the biblical story of David as “a parable of power”. In other words, it is an imaginative literary production written as a profound reflection on certain truths of the human condition. That is partly the impression I get from reading the story as well. Wright’s sense of the literary power of the story is something missing in some other treatments.
He agrees that the story has a political purpose. But Wright says that purpose was not to exonerate David from accusations by his opponents during or close to his own lifetime as Joel Baden and Baruch Halpern have claimed.
Rather, the story has implications for the privileges and status of people who, long after David, held power in Judah and considered themselves descendants of David. Furthermore, he brings in the idea that originally Caleb was a rival figure to David among the population of Judah that came under Edomite rule in later times. Part of the purpose of the David story is to exalt David at the expense of Caleb.
The main reason Wright does not think the story originated in the royal court shortly after David’s reign is that it is too critical of David. He cannot imagine that a story showing David’s flaws as much as this story does would have been tolerated in the court of the “house of David” in the early monarchy.
This point certainly calls on those of us who favor an earlier date of composition to explain the parts of the story that are David-negative.
So Wright takes a mostly literary approach to the narrative. He sees the story in Kings as part of the primary history of Israel composed hundreds of years after David. He sees the story in Kings as not that far distant from the story in Chronicles. Both he sees as having a similar purpose. He is opposed to source criticism, or, at least, he prefers a different approach.
I disagree with this, but his approach does have its value. The story of David is indeed great literature. I see what he means when he compares the character of David to the great tragic characters in Shakespeare.
So, even knowing that I am likely to disagree with his view of the origin of the story, I will be looking for the insights I can get from Wright as he comes at the David narrative from a point of view quite different from most of those I have read before.