DAVID’S SECRET DEMONS: MESSIAH, MURDERER, TRAITOR, KINGWritten by Baruch Halpern Reviewed By Herbert H. Klement
Baruch Halpern’s David has little in common with the figure depicted in the biblical text, but is rather a figment of the author’s imagination, loosely based on the material in 1 and 2 Samuel. Halpern’s David was probably a Canaanite, and not an Israelite. He was never at Saul’s court nor on the run from him, but was instead a mercenary in the pay of the Philistines. The Philistine wars of 2 Samuel 5 and 8 were actually internal power struggles in which David sided with his superior, Achish king of Gath, against Ekron. As a Philistine officer David was obviously active in the campaign against Israel before Saul’s demise, and was rewarded with a vassal kingdom in the south. David was the guilty party in the assassinations of Abner, Amasa, and Ishbosheth, all descendants of Saul, as well as of many others. Solomon was not David’s son, but either the progeny of Bathsheba’s deceased husband (anonymous, or perhaps Uriah) or more probably sired by Absalom when during his revolt he went in to David’s concubines, including Bathsheba. Less likely but not impossible, Nathan passed off his own paternity of Solomon onto David by subterfuge!
How does a detailed scholarly study of Samuel reach such conclusions, of which theses are just a sample? To begin with, he classes the biblical texts as apologetic propaganda, written by Solomon’s secretaries. They are thus ancient and chronologically close to the events depicted. But where most exegetes would then ascribe a high degree of reliability to them, Halpern does just the opposite. He considers himself justified, indeed bound, to approach the texts with deep mistrust, regarding them as deliberate disinformation. So he generally presumes the exact opposite of what the texts state. With this premise the text can never act as a corrective to his conjectures.
He also relies on old-fashioned documentary hypotheses. Source criticism may have a long tradition in OT studies, but recent research has had good reason for moving away from it. For Halpern there were originally two reports about David, each containing half the biblical data. The divergence between these sources raises the questions of why half the information was suppressed in each source, and which version is reliable. For Halpern it is evident that the version which portrays David in less favourable light must be the more correct. This fatal methodological flaw enables Halpern to suspect the opposite behind every affirmation. He juggles imaginatively with conjectures and tell-tale terms recur frequently: if, presumably, no doubt, it seems more likely, not believable, not improbable, it is unlikely, etc.
What the text omits is just as important as what it affirms, for instance how cities such as Dor, Meggido and Beth Shean came under Israelite sovereignty. Halpern is convinced that the relevant destruction layers can only come from conquests under Absalom. Here, as with other risky reconstructions, Halpern goes into detail about archaeological layers and how they relate to his suggested plot.
This book can hardly be recommended as a contribution to the study of David’s place in literature, theology and history. It is weighed down by excessive imagination and embroidery. The way Halpern twists the genuine recognition of the apologetic tendency of 1 and 2 Samuel into a postmodern deconstructionist caricature blurs his few helpful insights. Surely the real David has the right to a fair historical treatment on the basis of the existing documents, namely the biblical text.
Herbert H. Klement