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The Once and Future King

Review: David Wolpe’s “David: The Divided Heart”

Statue of King David by Nicolas Cordier in the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore / Wikimedia Commons
• November 16, 2014 5:00 am

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David Wolpe, Newsweek’s pick for most influential U.S. rabbi in 2012, serves as rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles. When approached by Yale University Press to write about an important Jewish figure, Wolpe says "the choice was easy and obvious." He chose his Biblical namesake, the "most complex character" in the Bible. So complex is David, in fact, that Wolpe reports that in one well-known ancient text, the rabbis confessed they "were unable to make sense" of his character. Yet, that’s just what Wolpe sets out to do. The result is David: The Divided Heart, a character study of Israel’s greatest king.

Wolpe organizes the material thematically, on the theory that "cutting across slices of the story to build a picture of this man, we will have a rounded portrait." He begins with the "Young David," and goes on to explore David’s relationships as a lover and husband, as a fugitive from King Saul, as king, as sinner, as father, as a man faithful to God, as a poet of God. He seeks to answer the question, "Why of all the characters in history, does David hold such an exalted place?"

We are introduced to the young David when the Prophet Samuel is sent by God to find a new king when Saul, the ruling monarch, falls from favor. Samuel is told to seek out the home of Jesse the Bethlehemite. He is impressed by Jesse’s first son Eliab, but God says: "Look not to his appearance … For not as man sees does God see." David, the youngest son of Jesse, is finally brought forward. Samuel anoints him and, "The spirit of the Lord gripped David from that day onward."

It’s clear that David’s central character trait is faith. David writes in Psalm 34, "I bless the Lord at all times." And though David will stumble badly later, God will forgive him. Wolpe notes what he takes to be an important reason: "One of David’s most distinguishing features was the sin he avoided: idolatry. Unlike many of his successors, not once in the entire David narrative does he worship idols or false gods. … Not only is David free from the stain of idolatry, his relationship with God is steady and assured throughout the story."

As a result, even King David’s worst crime, the one he commits against his loyal soldier Uriah, does not destroy that relationship. With Uriah off fighting one of David’s wars, the king sleeps with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David has Uriah killed in order to cover up the crime — compounding this villainy he has Uriah himself deliver the letter ordering his commanding officer to ensure that he will be killed in battle. When the prophet Nathan comes to reproach David for his transgression, Wolpe writes: "Here is what David did not do: He did not have Nathan put to death." On the contrary, David’s reaction is "immediate penitence – ‘I have offended against the Lord.’"

In answering the key question, ‘Why does David hold such an exalted place?’ Wolpe could perhaps have spent more time discussing David’s significance as a poet and the importance of the Psalms in Jewish prayer. The Psalter is the foundation of the Jewish Prayer Book. Rabbi Bernard Martin writes in his "Prayer in Judaism" (Basic Books, 1968): "For more than two and a half millennia it has been the major instrument through which the Jewish people have sought communion with their God. More than a third of the psalms were taken in their entirety into the Siddur and hundreds of verses were included in other prayers." Seventy four of the 150 psalms are credited to David and while Wolpe notes that modern scholars show that many must have been written later, the attribution to David of so many exalts his standing.

A good part of David’s significance is that he is credited with being the ancestor of the messiah. Wolpe asks: "Why would this man, king of a small, warring land, be chosen by great religious traditions to give birth to the Messiah? Why must the Messiah come through the Davidic line? No less remarkable than the man himself is what religious tradition has done with him. David, fissured and flawed, is held up as the exemplar who is forerunner of the world’s redeemer."

Wolpe says that the Jewish view of the messiah differs from the Christian one, which expects the messiah to be divine. Indeed, Wolpe treats David as an appropriate ancestor to the messiah precisely because he is so flawed, a sort of human archetype. In this, Wolpe differs from the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who viewed David as an appropriate ancestor because the messiah will reproduce his achievements: restore the dispersed to the land of Israel, rebuild the sanctuary and reinstitute all the ancient laws there. Maimonides says explicitly that the messiah will not need to perform signs and wonders and that none of the laws of nature will be set aside.

Wolpe’s greatest merit is that he hews closely to the text. But in one important instance, this may have led him astray. He questions David’s ability to love. His reason: "Although David is described repeatedly as being loved, he is pointedly never described as loving." Wolpe notes that there is only one mention that David "loved" – a line that says he loved his son Amnon. But Wolpe notes that this appears in a version found in the Qumran caves dating from first century CE and is not found in the Biblical text. Scholars are divided on its authenticity. Wolpe writes, referring to the love Saul’s son Jonathan felt for David: "The recurring question is this … Was the love reciprocal? We read that Jonathan’s soul became bound up with David, and even in his eulogy David speaks of the dearness of Jonathan’s love, but confesses to no love of his own."

Where Wolpe seems on weak ground is that the text does not need to say flatly "David loved." It shows through his words and deeds that he loved. What the Biblical account does suggest is that: 1) David’s deepest love was reserved for men and 2) that it was only when he lost the object of his love that he realized the depth of his emotion. What could be greater testament to David’s ability to love than his piercing cry at the news of his son Absalom’s death: "Would that I had died in your stead! Absalom, my son, my son." The death of Absalom grieves David to such an extent that his commander Joab, who has just fought off Absalom’s attempt to take over the kingdom, upbraids David in a powerful speech: "You have today shamed all your servants who have saved your life today … to love those who hate you and to hate those you love you. … And now, rise, go out, and speak to the heart of your servants."

Wolpe does not mention this, but from the text we can infer that David at the very least loved God. God tells Samuel when he chooses David, "Man sees with the eyes and the Lord sees with [or ‘into’] the heart." Given that it is one of the commandments that "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might," it stands to reason that what God saw in David’s heart, and what pleased Him, was a love for his creator.

David’s ability to love is important in making him a richer character and one with whom it is easier to identify. A person incapable of love is thin gruel, no matter how complex and contradictory – or flawed.

In all, however, Wolpe has written an excellent book, providing insight into David’s character, finding clues in his relationships to paint a portrait of God’s anointed. If further testament is needed to the worthiness of Wolpe’s book then know that it has been optioned by Warner Bros. as material for a possible film, which is about as close as one comes to an anointing in the modern world.

David Isaac is an editor at Newsmax. He is also the founder of a Zionist history site, Zionism101.org.

Published under: Book reviews