Master of the Harp and Sword


By Robert Pinsky
209 pages. Schocken/Nextbook. $19.95.

The Life of David is an exciting undertaking for both publisher and author. For Schocken Books, it is the debut of a new series, Jewish Encounters, inaugurated in collaboration with Nextbook, under the editorial guidance of novelist Jonathan Rosen. The object of the series is to engage general readers “in a lively, intelligent, and popular manner.” For Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate, to write about King David must have seemed a delicious plum of an assignment.

Pinsky is nothing if not lively, intelligent, and popular, both in his own poetry and as a prize-winning translator of Dante. As an essayist he has written largely on poetry and poetics. Now here is one of the greatest stories of all time, about one of the greatest flawed heroes of all time—and one who has been interpreted up, down, and sideways for at least two millennia, by rabbis and scholars, believers and skeptics. Among the novels that have emerged during the surge of midrashic writing in our time are Joseph Heller’s brilliantly caustic God Knows, narrated by the aging David, and India Edgehill’s thoughtful Queenmaker, narrated by David’s rejected wife, Michal. Most recently, Robert Alter’s translation of Samuel 1 and 2, The David Story, reads like a novel and overflows with copious and informative notes.

Pinsky is up to the challenge. He begins by laying out the dimensions of David’s complexity:

[David] is wily like Odysseus and an impetuous daredevil like the Scarlet Pimpernel. Like Hamlet, he pretends to be crazy. Like Joan of Arc, he comes from nowhere, ardent and innocent, to infuriate the conventional elders. Like the Athenian rogue Alcibiades he goes over to the enemy side for a time. Like Robin Hood, he gathers a band of outcasts and outlaws in the wilderness. Like Lear, he is overthrown and betrayed by his offspring. Like Tristram and Cyrano he masters the harp as well as the sword: a poet as well as a warrior-killer, but as a poet he is far above any other hero, and as a killer no one among the poets can even approach him.

Are we intended to feel a touch of jealousy on the part of a poet who is only a poet, and not a hugely successful lover, warrior, and politician, as well? Perhaps—but who would not be jealous of David’s charisma, loved as he is by everyone from God on down to the ordinary people of Judah? Pinsky is as impressed by David’s mysterious career as a mercenary for the Philistine king Achish as he is by David’s ability to unify the northern and southern kingdoms after Saul’s death. He lets us be jolted by Saul’s demand of 100 enemy foreskins as a bride-price for his daughter Michal, then by David’s arrogantly supplying twice that number, and later by the mutually biting words that end the relationship of David and Michal, which he describes as “the toxic attachment, the wounded desire to wound, between a man and a woman." Fascinated by the unsparing violence of David’s world, Pinsky tracks the bloody vendettas and treacheries that lace through his story—Abner versus Ishbosheth, Joab versus Abner, Absalom versus Amnon, Absalom versus David, Joab versus Absalom, to name a few—and is unafraid to call David’s treatment of conquered Moabites (stretched out in three lines on the ground, two lines are killed, the third enslaved) “atrocity.” In one startling phrase, Pinsky calls the Psalms, filled as they are with requests that God destroy the psalmist’s enemies, “masterpieces of paranoia.” Still, as an artist himself, he too is charmed by “David’s performances, his power of simultaneous conviction and detachment," his eloquence “both lyrical and political,” and his endless buoyancy. The epithets Pinsky uses throughout the book make his attraction clear: David is “the underdog boy and the calculating ruler,” “the quicksilver, evasive and invincible David," “the dancer,” “an irresistable boy” whose fate is inextricable from that of the nation he establishes.

Pinsky’s richly layered interpretation of David’s life is informed not only by rabbinic and scholarly commentaries, but by references to Arab poetry and legend, Homer, Dante, Bialik, and Kurosawa. He observes that Thucydides and Herodotus describe slingshots as weapons of war. He notes the astuteness of building the City of David in a location between Judah and Israel, just as the choice of Washington, D.C., was a compromise between Virginia and New England. The theme of nation-building is central here. But this is also, in Pinsky’s telling, a story of wrestling fathers and sons; a story of sexual passion and guilt; a story of women like Bathsheba who after initial passivity show unanticipated strength in a mostly masculine world; and, finally, a story of a powerful man’s inevitable loss of power.

The book is rather impatient with traditional rabbinic interpretations that try to turn David into a saint. Although David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent order to have Bathsheba’s innocent husband, Uriah the Hittite, put in the forefront of battle where he will be killed, is clearly criminal, some Talmudists try to exonerate David by claiming that Uriah allegorically represents the Serpent, or that he got Bathsheba as a wife dishonorably by selling Goliath’s armor. Pinsky recognizes in such far-fetched interpretations “the hungers and terrors of the Diaspora." Under threat in a Christian world, many Jews needed David to be “the Light of Israel” and nothing else. In the original text, however, all heroes are imperfect, complicated, and realistic. We have a Torah that astonishingly represents the world as it is, along with the imagination of what it might be.

Readers who know the David story will enjoy the subtleties of Pinsky’s interpretations. Others may be confused, at first, by Pinsky’s refusal simply to re-tell the tale chrononogically. He works by thematic association, often, rather than by time sequence. Thus the book sacrifices linearity, at least in its first chapters. By its close, however, one is gripped by the treatment of the dying yet still regal king whose last words to his son Solomon instruct him to assassinate certain foes. Pinsky wisely ends his account of David’s life by quoting Psalm 110:

The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand,
Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.