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Reviewed by:
  • David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King
  • Joel H. Hunt
David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, by Baruch Halpern. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. 492 pp. $30.00.

In David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, Baruch Halpern introduces King David, transforming the shepherd of Sunday School, sermons, and cinema. Halpern paints a plausible picture of thuggery and trickery that fits the rise of a 10th-century B.C.E. Levantine ruler. This portrait will trouble the still waters of the superficial soul. Halpern concludes: “The real David was not someone whom it would be wise to invite to dinner. And you certainly would not be happy to discover he was marrying your daughter, or even a casual acquaintance. But he did have one virtue. His achievement in creating Judah and conquering Israel left, through his wife and through his successor, if not his son, a legacy of hope and of aspiration. If that legacy has little to do with the real David, if later imaginings of his empire magnify a small, sanitize a corrupt, and beautify an ugly reality, a reality there nevertheless was. The biblical story [End Page 150] of David is indeed mythic in nature. But the myth was made necessary, though not by his glory, by his gore” (p. 480).

Halpern peruses the seams and silences of the Bible about David. He accentuates parts of David’s personality and party politics that astute readers have always noted in Samuel. Moreover, he cites Ancient Near Eastern sources. Halpern immediately spells out his method: “To escape the framework of the historical narrative, we need only imagine the events from a political and ideological position opposite that of the text. Our only direct information about David, in the books of Samuel, essentially presents him as a hero. The present book is therefore a glimpse of David as his enemies saw him. To the extent that those enemies were right in their view, it is also a glimpse of how his closest associates saw him” (p. xv).

Part I: David in Writing addresses, “What is it about King David?” Halpern massages the mixed messages of Samuel concerning how David benefits from the savagery of his associates. While David is not directly implicated, many of his opponents expire expediently.

In Part II: Penetrating the Textual Veil, Halpern demonstrates that the “preponderance of reliable evidence tells us that the text [2 Samuel] is early” (p. 57) He notes the pre-exilic pym weights (1 Sam. 12:31), Canaanite month names, house architecture, linguistic cues, and topography. Halpern concludes that the accounts of the 10th century political scene are trustworthy (p. 72).

Halpern incisively addresses skepticism about “the House of David” in the Dan stele, “But to ask whether David was invented wholecloth not only ignores the early date of the material, and all the evidence that will be addressed below. It also, ultimately, is dull” (p. 74). Halpern’s retort to minimalist interpretation is anything but dull.

In Part III: Defining David’s Empire, Halpern establishes his method in portraying David. He suggests that Solomonic stories, of a royal ideal and of the naturalist king (1 Ki 3–10), resemble late Middle and early Neo-Assyrian display texts. Consequently, Halpern develops his “Tiglath-Pileser Principle,” the marriage of truth plus spin. “In Assyrian royal inscriptions, then, the torching of a grain field is the conquest of a whole territory beyond it. A looting raid becomes a claim of perpetual sovereignty. But this does not mean that campaigns can be confected. The technique is that of putting extreme spin on real events. Interpreting such literature demands only a simple rule, the Tiglath-Pileser principle. The question is, what is the minimum the king might have done to lay claim to the achievements he publishes. . . . Each small mark of prestige becomes the evidence for a grand triumph” (p. 126).

This minimal, not minimalist, reading recognizes that there is no disinterested telling of a story and that spin was applied in ancient documents within accepted literary conventions. The resulting literature entertains both modern and ancient readers.

Halpern reads 2 Sam. 8 as an adaptation of a Davidic...

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pp. 150-152
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