Review of T. Linafelt et al, The Fate of King David: The Past and Present of a Biblical Icon

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Linafelt, Tod, Claudia V. Camp, and Timothy Beal, (eds.) The Fate of King David: The Past and Present of a Biblical Icon (LHBOTS, 500; London: T & T Clark, 2010). Pp. 352. Hardback. $170.00. ISBN 978-0-567-51546-9.

Volume 500 of the (former) JSOT Supplement Series is a collection of essays in honor of David M. Gunn. The title alludes to two well-known works by Gunn—The Fate of King Saul (1978) and The Story of King David (1980)—and it reveals an unsolved puzzle in the research concerning king David. In the introduction, titled “On David and David,” the volume is considered as a tribute to both Davids: “the one who remains distant (in time and otherwise), and the one we are glad to have more near” (XXVI).

The scholarly gifts are arranged in five parts. Part I “Relating to David” subsumes the studies in literary criticism, in which David is viewed in relation to other characters. Part II “Canonizing David” investigates the significance of David's growth from a literary character to an icon. Part III “Singing David” addresses David as the harper of 1 Samuel and as songwriter of the Psalms. Part IV “Receiving David” is comprised of essays dealing with reception history. Part V “Re-locating David” consists of two essays that return the honored David to his islands of origin.

In Part I, Jan Jaynes Quesada (“King David and Tidings of Death: ‘Character Response’ Criticism,” 3–18) observes that no other biblical character receives so many reports of death as David does. He describes the reactions of David towards the deaths of Saul, Jonathan, and Abner as “Mourner-in-chief.” After the death of Ishbaal David shows his commitment to justice. In contrast to the mournful reactions towards the death in the House of Saul, the reactions towards Uriah's death are dispassionate, calm, and flippant. The deaths of the Bathsheba's first child, Amnon, and Absalom are considered by the author as “wages of sin.” David pays for his crimes in a symmetrical way. All these scenes are investigated using the method of close reading, more precisely “Character Response Criticism” and portray David as the Lord's anointed and as a survivor.

In “David and Ittai” (19–37), Francis Landy examines the encounters of David with Ittai and Zadok (2 Sam 15:17–29), which exemplify the dialectic between inside and outside. This reading teases out the symbolic, intertextual, and ethnic complexities of the passage, showing the king's complicated relationship with the Lord and rejecting the classification of the narrative as pro- or anti-Davidic.

Mary Shields (“A Feast Fit for a King: Food and Drink in the Abigail Story,” 38–54) sees the story of David and Abigail in 1 Sam 25 as an example of David's relationships with women. Her analysis focuses on the details of food and drink and compares Abigail with Woman Wisdom in Proverbs. She concludes that the transition of David from a guerilla warrior to the kingship was enabled by Abigail' wisdom.

David Penchansky assumes that readers seek to understand the motivations of characters and to construct possible scenarios explaining unusual or ambiguous features of the story. In his essay “Four Vignettes From the Life of David: Recollections of the Royal Court” (55–65), he takes “four vignettes from the life of David,” that are problematic stories as written in 1 and 2 Samuel. He attempts to develop plausible reconstructions that might adequately explain the motivations for the characters' actions. For example, the vignette of David and Michal reveals that interpreters have disagreed in their understanding of 2 Sam 6:23: “and Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” The author shows three possible interpretations: (1) God punished Michal with infertility; (2) David punished Michal by not sleeping with her; (3) Michal, angry over her ill treatment, refused David intimate relations. The author prefers the third because it accounts for David's abuse of Michal.

Randall C. Bailey (“Reading Backwards: A Narrative Technique for the Queering of David, Saul, and Samuel,” 66–81) shows at the beginning of his article that all readers read the texts with personal, cultural, gender, sexual, class, and racial pre-understandings and questions. He concentrates on repeated but fleeting textual details and draws attention to the way in which readers' ideological perspectives predetermine how they will interpret such texts. He alludes to the problem that readers are trained to read in line with the canons of hetero-normativity. His conclusion is that a queer reading is indeed not the only reading of the texts about Samuel, Saul, Jonathan and David, but it is nonetheless a plausible one.

In Part II, Walter Brueggemann's “Heir and Land: The Royal ‘Envelope’ of the Books of Kings” (85–100) argues that scholarship in the wake of von Rad focused too narrowly on one-dimensional questions of authorial intent. Brueggemann instead highlights the canonical shape of the books of Kings by reference to the view of Davidic reality at the beginning and the end of the two books. He offers a heuristic and intertextual reading interpreting God's promise cited by David in 1 Kgs 2:1–4 in light of 2 Kgs 25:27–30, concluding that in the sixth century Jehoiachin displaced David as primary cipher for interpretive disputes concerning Israel's future.

In “A Broken Hallelujah: Remembering David, Justice, and the Cost of the House” (101–22), Danna Nolan Fewell contrasts the Chronicler's story of David with the story described in the books of Samuel. She reads them as two co-existent competing historical narratives with different approaches to remembering the past and envisioning the future. Chronicles reconstructs a “digestible” past with its protagonist, a one-dimensional David. The Samuel narratives, on the other hand, are filled with complex personalities and complicated events representing a postexilic act of memory.

Philip R. Davies (“Son of David and Son of Saul,” 123–132) begins by inviting the reader to consider Saul as a failed David, respectively a “beta version” of the ideal king. However, he writes primarily about Saul of Tarsus and Jesus, the “son” of David, suggesting an intentional connection between these antagonists, quite probably by Luke as the author of Acts, and possibly tracing back to Saul/Paul himself. The title “Messiah,” one of the titles of Jesus in the New Testament, is absent in the writings of Saul/Paul. Davies suggests that the apostle was overly proud of his name and his ancestry, thereby offering a psychological profile of Saul/Paul as someone who avoids kingly titles.

Part III opens with Carole R. Fontaine's article, “The Sharper Harper (1 Sam 16:14–23): Iconographic Reflections on David's Rise to Power,” 135–52) which offers a survey of the representation of harpers in Egyptian and Assyrian art. She shows that the harper was a stock figure in the royal courts of Syro-Palestine and its neighbors. This figure appeared in victory processions, banquets, liturgical celebrations, and even military prophecies. The harper had a privileged view of court intrigues, military strategies, and ideological manipulation of the divine. From this viewpoint the motif of “David as harper” is more than just a story about folk remedies for depression; it also portrays David in a position with access to knowledge that would not be known to him while pasturing animals.

Robert Culley's “David and the Psalms: Titles, Poems, and Stories” (153–62) explores the interplay between the psalms that mention David and the stories of Saul and David and argues that both deal with people in danger, but describe the problem in different ways. While the psalms are complaints by an individual in a difficult situation, the stories are replete with details of the difficult situations in which David faces known enemies. While the psalms project a view of danger and rescue from within the midst of danger, the stories describe a movement from danger to rescue, identifying specific characters and places.

R. Christopher Heard also calls attention to the relationship between the David of Psalm 51 and the David of the narrative whose crimes of murder and adultery elicit the need of penitence. In his “Penitent to a Fault: The Characterization of David in Psalm 51” (163–74) he suggests that the title of the psalm shows the prayer in an ironic light. The David of Psalm 51 engages in misdirection, obscuring the social dimensions of his crimes by emphasizing his relationship with God. He hides his particular sin within a confession of lifelong sinfulness. Heard calls his interpretation “suspicious” and “cynical” because it arises by taking the superscription seriously as an indication of the narrative context in which the psalm should be read.

For David J. A. Clines (“Psalm 23 and Method: Reading a David Psalm,” 175–84) Psalm 23 is the quintessential Davidic psalm, pointing out the fact that David, the shepherd of sheep, imagines himself as the sheep of a shepherd. Clines considers his essay a sampler of methods for reading—rhetorical criticism, deconstruction, gender criticism, materialist criticism, postcolonial criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism. The reading hinders the innocent delight displayed by the psalmist in the protection of God, and his sincere expression of a proper creaturely dependence on the Almighty. But according to Clines, this problematic innocence should not become a reason to deny the fact that Psalm 23 is an exquisite and incomparably attractive poem, on which, unfortunately, an aura of unquestionable piety has settled.

In Part IV, Yvonne Sherwood's “King David between the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Secular and the Sacred, and Samuel and Psalms” (187–207) investigates the poem “A poetic preface to David's Penitential Psalms” written by Theodore of Beza prior to his conversion. This poem is a composite theater in which David and Bathsheba meet Venus, Cupid and Hera, dramatizing the Renaissance/Reformation merger between humanitas and divinitas.

In “From Babylon to David and Back Again: The Sexually Charged History of a Victorian Drawing” (208–28), Burke O. Long looks into the reception history of the pen and ink drawing of the Anglo-Jewish artist Simeon Solomon originally entitled “Babylon,” with a quote from Jer 51:7 alongside the title, and exhibited first in London during the winter 1859–60. After the loss of the title and reference to Jer 51 in the acquisition by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1925, the drawing was known as “King David,” and in 1964 it was associated with David and Abishag (1 Kgs 1:1–4). In the 1980s Simon Reynolds reproduced the drawing with the title “David Playing to King Saul,” Emmanuel Cooper with the title “David playing before Saul.” Soon thereafter, Gayle Seymour restored the original association with ancient Babylon. This trajectory suggests different ideational spaces configured between visual image and biblical text. Correct or not, a title grounds identity, and invites a viewer to construct meaning. It results that the artist, artistic expression, and critical interpretation are cultural productions that involve persistent issues of human sexuality negotiated through imagining the Bible and ancient West Asia.

David Jobling's “‘David on the Brain’: Bertolt Brecht's Projected Play ‘David’” (229–40) analyses the work of the young Bertold Brecht (aged 21–23), who was preoccupied with the biblical characters David and Absalom, Bathsheba and Uriah, and Saul and Jonathan. The later abandoned fragments of “David” include adumbrations of Marxist themes. For example king David finds salvation in what is “material,” or an old man says that the monarchy is unfavorable when compared with the premonarchical order.

J. Cheryl Exum (“A King Fit for a Child: The David Story in Modern Children's Bibles,” 241–59) considers how it is possible to tell Bible stories in a manner suitable for small children. She observes that the many collections of Bible stories for children make decisions about how to present “unsavory” material. The solutions range from simple omission to tasteful reshaping. Her review of the collections focuses on two questions: (1) Do the retellings give a sense of the complexity of David's character and the ambiguity of his motives during his rise from shepherd boy to king over Israel? (2) How do these retellings deal with “unsuitable material,” in particular David's crimes of adultery and murder and the dire misfortunes that befall his house as punishment? She concludes that the omissions and softenings produce a David who is better man, but one who is less complex, less interesting, and less appealing than the character in the Bible. They also create a “better ” but less interesting God. She goes on to demonstrate that children's books do not have to have a simplistic view of the world.

In “Michal and David: Love between Enemies?” (260–70) Athalya Brenner constructs a sketch of Michal and David's relationship. She observes, however, that this is difficult because information about Michal is not only fragmentary but also only provided in relation to various male figures. Brenner therefore arranges the fragments in such a way that they will make sense for “her,” not only for her male kin, thereby offering different perspectives on her relationship to David, Saul, and Jonathan.

In Part V, Judith E. McKinlay uses the methodological tools of literary, feminist, and ideological criticism, in the context of postcolonial reading of biblical narratives. Her “Through a Window: A Postcolonialist Reading of Michal” (273–88) reads the Michal narrative in dialogue with the historical novel The Book of Secrets by Fiona Kidman. She concludes that 2 Sam 6:12b–23 displays the hope that dominating powers will not have the last word because there is always another view through the window.

In “David W[e]aves” (289–301) Jione Havea argues for an understanding of storytelling as a cooperative effort whose primary purpose does not lie in sharing information. It should instead be viewed as an event in which people find meanings, identities, and realities that transform in each retelling, depending on how the listeners chart the course of the story. He employs this approach for the retelling of the story of Bathsheba as a story with multiple voices.

The volume provides a very good representation of recent scholarship on king David in the wake of David M. Gunn. He was on the forefront of three revolutions in the interpretation of David: narrative criticism and biblical narratology beginning in the late 1970s, feminist criticism and gender theory in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the current rise of cultural studies and reception history. These perspectives are well represented in the volume by the various scholars and provide a good picture of the influence of Gunn's scholarly efforts.

Johannes Klein, Fagaras, Romania