David has gone into history as the ideal king – humble and yet powerful. Songs have been sung about him, statues erected thousands of years after his lifetime. This one shows David and his son Solomon more than lifesize at the El Escorial in Spain.
But the legends and writings about David have come under modern historical criticism. A few years ago several scholars proclaimed that we now know for sure that Solomon and David never lived. With the discovery of the Tel Dan stele most of those scholars have retreated from that position, or at least no longer state it that forcefully. But the debate rages on. Some argue that whatever “kingdom” David ruled, it was more like a chiefdom, rather than a state, using the 20th-century terminology of the progress of government forms. Theories of state formation get bandied about. Arguments about chronology drift and converge. Some use the Bible as a basis for writing the history of the Davidic kingdom, others dismiss the Bible, because they think that it has no value in writing history.
When we turn to the Biblical accounts of David, we find stories about loyalty and treachery, of love and hatred, of interpersonal and intertribal conflict, of the rivalry between houses and between individuals, of bad and wise decisions, of astonishing victories and crushing defeats. We find that David is painted in very human terms, a king who schemes and terrorizes, who remembers those who have been loyal to him and easily drops them, who unites and divides the nation. Despite his many failures, the Bible in the end regards him as a good king, even the “best” king.
In the stories about David, his thoughts and those of his friends and foes are told, the conversations in key moments are elaborated and recounted word for word, actions and attitudes are judged. How could an author, who wrote years after David lived, have known the thoughts of those involved? How could an editor get the conversations right? Why are some expressions so formulaic, so literary? No, by the modern standards of history writing, this is no high quality history, nor is it a first-hand source. No, by the modern standards of history, human thoughts and words have been attributed to characters, which we can never be sure of. By the modern standards of history, this work is far too subjective. By the modern standards of history, the historical theories underlying the work are inadequate and the longue duree not adequately considered.
But I sometimes wonder whether the writers of the David stories knew more about history than many modern historians do. Do not so often very personal reasons, love and hate, loyalty and treachery, drive our human decisions and actions? Do they not often influence events much more than logical trends? Are powerful persons often not fighting their demons or their dreams? Are there not key conversations, moments when decisions are made, astonishing successes and failures?
Are our ideas of societal stages no less constructions and approximations than the conversations ancient authors imputed to famous characters? And are those conversations often not closer to the truth than the totally alien concepts historians device today?
I am not saying that we should not research the state, which David established, more closely, that we should not critically evaluate David legends, old and new. I am saying that we should not automatically reject ancient writings because they do not live up to modern standards. But what I find even more important is that the David stories can teach us a thing or two about history. I think that we need to have our modern methods of history critically examined. For it may be that by focusing on the external structures we disregard some matters that are really important, that we tell less of the truth. Sometimes a story about personal motivations can be more truthful than an apparently objective telling of the “facts”.