King David Misunderstood Says Yale Scholar


Religion students at Yale Divinity School blame Dr. Joel Baden for “ruining” King David for them. Baden insists this was not his intention. But in his new book, The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero, the Old Testament professor digs into the past of this hero of the faith and argues the iconic Biblical character has been misunderstood. He says that he found someone more animated than the glorified felt-board action hero many have come to know. Here we talk about his controversial findings and why he thinks we should ignore his critics to believe what he says.

JM: What is the false caricature of King David which you believe needs to be dissembled? JB: In the New Testament, David is described with a brief and powerful phrase: "a man after God's own heart." It's hard to imagine a more positive description--after all, this is what every person of faith strives to be. The most famous story from the Bible about David provides plenty of support for this image of him. Almost everyone knows of David's encounter with Goliath, the bravery he shows when the rest of Israel is afraid to confront the giant, and his remarkable statement of trust in God: "You come at me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the ranks of Israel."

This premier example of faith in action is counterposed with the other popular conception of David, as the composer of the Psalms.  When we read and hear the words "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," there we have the same faith expressed in song. These texts and traditions stand behind our cultural view of David not only as Israel's greatest king, but also as the paradigm of a great God-fearing person. When we add in the ancient belief that David is the direct ancestor of, and even model for, the Messiah--a belief common to both Judaism and Christianity--then David's apotheosis is essentially complete.  Even in his lowest moments (the affair with Bathsheba, in most people's eyes), David is an exemplar of human repentance and divine forgiveness.

David is the undisputed hero of the Hebrew Bible. Tradition, both in the Bible itself and thereafter, has only increased his standing. (The narratives in the Bible of David's life, for example, never claim that he actually wrote the Psalms.) There is some real basis for the glorification of David: he was an authentically important (this word is not even strong enough) historical figure, a man who changed the course of human history: the founder of a nation and, in many ways, of a religion.

The question I try to address in the book is, which parts of the story are glorification, and which parts are more historically plausible? This isn't a question of denying David's achievements as a national leader, or even his existence (as is relatively common in biblical scholarship). But the David of the Bible, and even more so the David of popular tradition, is a nearly perfected human being. This is theologically a fine thing, but I wanted to explore whether it could be true historically as well.

JM: Why do you think it's been important to people of faith to paint David as something other than an ambitious power player?

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