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Giant Slayer

On King David.


When I was an adolescent, I saw “David: Giant Slayer,” an episode in the History Channel series Battles BC, which reimagines the rise and conquests of King David. It splices commentary from four scholars between stylized battle sequences shot on a backlot in front of a greenscreen. These scenes mimic 300, which came out three years beforehand, and which was the coolest film ever when I was seventeen. (That is a comment upon the venerable New York City “all-nerd high school” social experiment, in its Catholic version.) Those who have not had the pleasure can imagine sweaty, musclebound men with scimitars splattering blood around. Neither plate nor mail, neither historical accuracy nor common sense, gets in the way of their bulging abdominals. The documentary is similarly good, campy fun. Neighborhood boys called it something else at eight o’clock on summer nights when I would beg off the next pickup basketball game to watch the History Channel. Touché. The homoeroticism of the series is undeniable.

The scholars interviewed in “David: Giant Slayer” present a tight narrative about David as a self-interested and opportunistic “mafia don” with no moral scruples. David tries to manipulate Jonathan against Saul. When this plan fails, he turns traitor to his own people, raiding them on behalf of the Philistines. He eventually becomes the Philistines’ proxy ruler over Judah. David “whacks” all his enemies and rivals, like the Godfather. With Joab, his “consigliere,” he betrays the Philistines, beats them into submission, and with the help of their chariots conquers north to the Euphrates. Naturally, David’s lust for Bathsheba and mafia-like conspiracy to kill the loyal Uriah dominate the last third of the episode. Chapter eleven of the Second Book of Kings is drawn out for ten minutes of obvious commentary, in which we learn for example that mourning is “a standard cultural practice,” that cuts to steamy scenes that seem peeled from the covers of grocery-store romance novels.

David the bloodthirsty mobster also figures into more serious scholarly appraisals. I encountered the mafioso David for the first time in the commentary that accompanies Robert Alter’s wonderful translation of the first two books of Kings, The David Story. Alter is more attentive to the complexities of David’s character than the television commentators are. Yet even he cannot help himself from describing David’s deathbed advice that Solomon arrange for the murder of Joab as a last testament “worthy of a Mafia chieftain.”

Francesca Murphy quips that unmasking David the thug is “a preferred sport” of biblical scholars. Baruch Halpern holds the current world records. David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King presents the archaeological record and argues that David’s kingdom was pettier than the Bible tells. He calls Judah “a sort of mafia kingdom,” though it is not clear how this de rigueur comparison describes a proto-state, exactly. Halpern lacks Alter’s appreciation for the cohesiveness of Holy Writ and finds a patchwork of literary fragments pasted together as royal propaganda. Halpern thinks the Bible clearly exaggerates the extent of David’s conquests—to the Euphrates according to Chronicles. More importantly, its function is to whitewash the historical David, who we learn was in fact a “serial killer.”

Why are archaeologists ganging up with biblical scholars to disparage David with language that is hurtful to many Italian-Americans? As it turns out, three-thousand-year-old pottery has huge political implications, depending on where it is dug up. Zionism’s symbolic economy is invested in a David who conquers all the territory from the wadi of Egypt north to the Euphrates, as God promised to Abraham’s descendants in Genesis, as well as in a Jerusalem that was the splendid capital of a vast empire in the tenth century B.C. Immediately after the Second Intifada, using evidence from Kings as well as other sources, the late Eliat Mazar excavated the Large Stone Structure just south of the Temple Mount, at the northern end of the Jerusalem Walls National Park. The dig was supported by Roger Hertog, an American banker and philanthropist who supports a number of conservative and historical organizations, and Yoram Hazony, the Israeli political theorist and author of The Virtue of Nationalism who regards the Davidic kingdom of the Bible as the salutary model for Gallican patriots, Protestant nation-builders, and the whole Westphalian order of sovereignty-respecting nations. Mazar dated pottery she found at the site to the tenth century B.C. She suggests that the Large Stone Structure is likely the palace of King David, a much larger and impressive structure than any mafioso king could build. Mazar’s interpretation of her findings suggest that the biblical David is the historical David. Others, such as Halpern, disagree. Mazar says, “Let the stones speak for themselves.” (I seem to remember the Son of David suggesting that the stones of Jerusalem would speak of something else.)

Glorifying David has seismic ramifications that rumble along the West Bank barrier, but exposé of the tyrannical David is not simply a fashion of modern anti-Zionism. Machiavelli invented the scholarly sport of unmasking David, but plays it with more subtlety than the modern game requires. The Prince treats David alongside the infamous Cesare Borgia and Hiero of Syracuse, the tyrant of antiquity known to us from the odes of Pindar and the dialogue of Xenophon. The shrewd lesson that Machiavelli adduces from Cesare Borgia, Hiero, and David alike is that they rely upon their own arms rather than the soldiers and weapons of others. David’s concealed knife is the true lesson of the story of David and Goliath. Machiavelli is undeterred by the fact that in Kings, David is armed only with a sling. He brings his own arms to the story.

The obvious problem with “David: Giant Slayer” and David’s Secret Demons is that they deliver neither giants nor demons. Without the promised main attractions, the scurrilous fun is only so entertaining, and for all they impeach David’s character and might, they fail to live up to the expectations generated by their titles. At this point, the disappointed viewer or reader might read Cliff Graham’s contemporary soldier’s-eye-view of David’s army in Day of War, where the mighty men trade off-color jokes and discuss battlefield tactics, but unlike the scholars in the documentary, stand in awe of David’s divine berserkergang, which is called “the covering.” There are one or two giants. Better yet, one can tune into the seventh episode of The Lord of Spirits, a podcast hosted by two Orthodox priests. Here be giants. Here be secret demons. The nephilim of Genesis are given a longer postdiluvian career than casual readings of the Bible suggest. Stephen De Young and Andrew Stephen Damick bring in the Book of Enoch for this purpose. This first-century Jewish apocalyptic text concerns demons and nephilim at some length. The hosts are careful to underline that the Book of Enoch is not a canonical part of Scripture, except where it is referenced in the Epistle of Jude, perhaps the First and Second Epistles of Peter, and perhaps the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is where the camel’s nose comes under the tent.

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