Monday, August 27, 2012

Thoughts On "King David: A Biography" by Steven L. McKenzie

About to return King David: A Biography by Steven L. McKenzie to the library.  No time like the present to comment on it.

McKenzie starts from the documentary hypothesis position on the history of the Old Testament and he takes the rather cynical position that the more a text protests something did not happen the more likely it actually did. He makes the claim that David was a much less pleasant person than the Bible (and interpretations/extrapolations thereof) depict him. Being a Christian, I thought the tone of the project rather cynical, but in the acknowledgements section he said his purpose was seeking truth rather than simply tearing down hagiography for the sake of tearing down hagiography and he does raise some interesting points.

McKenzie takes issue with the traditional portrayal of David being a shepherd, or at least a full-time one.  1 Samuel 16:18 refers to David as being a warrior and nobleman before he becomes Saul's musician and armor-bearer.  This raises some awkward questions about 1 Samuel 17:33, in which Saul calls David "only a boy" and compares him to Goliath, "a fighting man from his youth" and 1 Samuel 17:56 in which Saul inquires about who David's father is after the death of Goliath.  Based on archaeological evidence, McKenzie said the area's population was growing at the time and theorized that David might have had to become a mercenary because, being the youngest son, there wouldn't be much left for him after his older brothers got married and had families of their own.

McKenzie also questions the story of David killing Goliath, citing 2 Samuel 21:19 in which Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim kills "Goliath the Gittite," who had a spear whose shaft was like a weaver's beam. However, 1 Chronicles 20:5 said Elhanan killed Lahmi, the brother of Goliath, who spear was like a weaver's beam. 1 Samuel 17:7 compares the spear of Goliath with a weaver's beam. This is rather problematic, although this site here cites someone who at least as some knowledge of Hebrew who claims the 2 Samuel 21:19 problem is a copyist error.

McKenzie also suggests David had married one of Saul's wives Ahinoam during the period of his exile, and that his marriage to Abigail after the convenient death of her husband Nabal (which he attributes to David) brought him the political loyalty of many of the people around.  I'd never thought of the latter theory before, although if Nabal was kind of a tool, Abigail's relatives might've been glad to be rid of him and ally with someone else.

McKenzie also claims David was involved in Absalom's killing his half-brother Amnon, who had raped his full sister Tamar.  He makes the cynical argument that because the text depicts Absalom inviting David to come to the festival where he intended to kill Amnon and David refusing, it's an attempt to "prove" David was not involved, since if he did come, Absalom would not have been able to get away with killing Amnon there, and therefore he must have been involved somehow.

However, there is another explanation.  Absalom is intelligent enough to wait years, until he had the chance to kill Amnon at Baal Hazor and escape, rather than attacking Amnon in Jerusalem immediately after Tamar's rape, at much greater risk. Given how David did not even want Amnon going to the festival, perhaps this was some psychological trick on Absalom's behalf. Absalom knows David cannot attend and asks him anyway, hoping David might seek to placate him by sending Amnon--the true target--instead.  I don't see how this is necessarily proof David had his firstborn son killed.  The text does not depict Absalom's attempt to overthrow David until many years later, so it doesn't seem like he was plotting against his father already.

However, Absalom's story does raise other questions about David's kingship. 2 Samuel 15:5 describes Absalom stealing the hearts of the nation of Israel from David by, among other things, forbidding people from bowing down to him when they meet him. Although Absalom sneakily makes people think David doesn't care about justice by letting people think the king won't hear their cases, the part about not letting people bow to does raise some questions about David.

McKenzie also questions whether David actually wrote many of the Psalms attributed to him.  The heading for Psalm 3, for example, states that David wrote it while fleeing from Absalom.  However, the Psalm does not mention Absalom or anything specific about his rebellion. Considering David's grief at his son's death, I would imagine there'd be some hint or clue.  Psalm 51 is the author lamenting his sin and begging God for forgiveness, but although the heading makes a reference to David writing it after the Bathsheba episode, it doesn't specifically refer to that.

The heading of Psalm 34 also makes a reference to David pretending to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away.  However, David pretended to be insane before the Philistine king Achish in 1 Samuel 21:12.  There is a priest named Ahimelech in 1 Samuel 21:1 whom David visits before meeting Achish, which indicates whoever wrote the headings used in Psalms at the very least needed to avoid careless errors.

Psalm 30's heading says this is a Psalm of David at the dedication of the Temple.  It was Solomon who built the Temple, after David was dead.  However, my NIV says in the footnotes that it could be the palace of David, not the Temple.  That makes a lot more sense. McKenzie does not acknowledge the alternative meeting, which is not to his credit.

From the perspective of sola scriptura, I would imagine the headings of the Psalms shouldn't be considered divinely inspired, considering the error here.  However, the obvious response is that divine inspiration applies only to the original manuscripts, which allows for copyist errors or things outside of the actual text getting plugged in.

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