David: The Divided Heart, by David Wolpe

There is at present a stream of good and interesting books on the Hebrew Bible’s King David, written by first-rate scholars. These books variously address historical and sociological questions concerning the rise of the monarchy in ancient Israel, but they tend to find most interesting the artistic offer of the narrative presentation. In his welcome, accessible sketch of David, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles takes into account this stream of critical study, but goes his own inventive way in his articulation.

When I first received Wolpe’s book, I gave it a quick read. It seemed to me simply a thoughtful retelling of the David narrative, and I wondered how I would find enough to say for a review. But then I remembered that any rabbinic offering is entitled to a slow read, because the way of textual commentary that is readily associated with a rabbinic presentation is patient; with great attention to detail, it savors words and teases with images and analogues. As a result of my slow read, I have come to great appreciation of the book in its deceptive simplicity, and I have learned more about David and a great deal about reading texts carefully.

Wolpe’s book is a thoughtful, reflective exploration of the various roles in which David is cast in the narrative. In his account of the young David, Wolpe considers the fact that “God instructs Samuel to lie” in the process of anointing David to be a harbinger of the guile that is to come in the narrative that follows. He sees that David “makes things new,” “conjuring solutions and possibilities from the void.” David cleverly defeats Goliath (whose sword is the “ancient analogue of Babe Ruth’s bat”), manages a flight from Saul to power, and shifts deftly from nomadic existence to envision a permanent temple. It is such newness that marks him as a man of God.