In the pantheon of remarkable characters in the Hebrew Bible, from wily Jacob to dauntless Deborah to weird Ezekiel, one figure stands, tall and ruddy, above them all. We simply cannot take our eyes off him. He is David: shepherd, musician, warrior, king, the beloved one of God. The principal biblical account of his life appears in the books 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel. Textually corrupt, full of contradictions and duplications, these books are a promiscuous commingling of folk tale, court history and literary creation. Their compiler conveys the sprawling events of David’s life in the compact vocabulary and evocative syntax of biblical Hebrew, displaying what the literary critic Robert Alter praises as an “astringent narrative economy.” The David story is a shimmering literary achievement, and it is spellbinding.
Thus it is easy to understand why the novelist and former journalist Geraldine Brooks, who has written several works of historical fiction, would be drawn to David. She cites a more personal reason, too. Some years ago while watching her son learn to play the harp, she began to think about the “long-ago boy harpist.” So she went back to the Bible to find him. Seizing on a reference in 1 Chronicles to “the records of the prophet Nathan,” Brooks constructs her retelling of David’s life on the framework of Nathan’s gathering of information for his records.
To the task of re-interpreting the David story, the author brings a sharp journalistic eye and a highly contemporary sensibility. The first quality serves her well, as she vividly conveys the atmosphere and detail of life in the Second Iron Age, particularly its earthy violence, its brutal politics and its careless treatment of women and children.
The contemporary sensibility, however, often rubs uncomfortably against the nub of the biblical narrative. Her preference for transliterations of Hebrew names occasionally leads to some puzzling monikers: while any Hebraist will recognize the Mitzrayim as Egyptians, would a lay reader know this? The diction of these ancient characters, too, sounds strangely modern. Here is Natan, chastising David’s wife Mikhal for her truculence: “‘Look,’ I said. ‘You’re here, he’s the king. This is your life now. These facts won’t change. Why not make it easier on yourself?’” Determined to give David’s women equal air time, Brooks provides them with backstories, motives and emotions that seem more suited to 2015 C.E. than 915 B.C.E., as when she describes David and Bathsheba reveling in “the uncomplicated bliss of new parenthood.” David’s mother Nizevet, recalling Jesse’s harsh treatment of his youngest son, cries to Natan, “I tried to feed him enough love to make up for the way his father starved him. But it was never enough. How could it be?” Sigmund Freud rests uneasy in the tents of ancient Israel.
Nowhere does Brooks read contemporary values back into ancient texts more egregiously than in the portrayal of the relationship between David and Jonathan as a passionate homosexual affair. Scholars have long differed on the nature of this bond, their views evolving as social and cultural mores change. But textually speaking, nearly every reference to Jonathan’s love for David has a parallel elsewhere. Jonathan “loved” David; so did Saul, Mikhal and “all Israel and Judah.” Jonathan’s soul became “bound up with the soul of David;” similarly, in Genesis, Jacob’s soul is “bound up with the soul” of his son Benjamin. Jonathan “delighted greatly in David;” the identical phrase characterizes Saul’s attitude nine verses earlier. Yes, David laments the slain Jonathan with a phrase that suggests deep emotion: “More wonderful was your love for me than the love of women.” As Joel Baden of Yale University has observed, however, this does not mean that David was gay or bisexual, as we understand it. The use of these terms reflects modern concepts of sexuality that would not have existed in the ancient world. From the biblical narrator’s perspective, what signifies the emotional bond between David and Jonathan is not its physical expression but its political ramifications, “the benefits,” as Baden notes, “that accrued to David as a result of Jonathan’s affection.”
Brooks keeps a laudably vigorous pace, although narrative transitions are sometimes creaky and Natan’s foreshadowing a bit heavy-handed, particularly at chapter’s end. She capably covers the full range of events in David’s life but at times takes unfortunate liberties with the text. For example, drawing on the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (from which she draws the novel’s title), she describes Bathsheba bathing in the moonlight. The Hebrew is unmistakably clear here: Bathsheba bathed “late in the afternoon,” “towards evening” or “at evening tide,” depending on which translation you select.
A minor quibble, perhaps. But in her retelling of the David-Bathsheba affair, she rearranges the text to provide an external reason for David to remain in Jerusalem while his men go out to fight. In the biblical account, at this moment of decision, David has just concluded a highly successful military encounter. Shortly thereafter, he “sends his men out to fight” while he stays home. The verb “send” recurs several times in the Hebrew, emphasizing that David is manipulating events indirectly: he sends his soldiers into battle, sends his messengers to bring Bathsheba to him and sends Uriah unwittingly back to the front with the fatal note instructing his placement at the forefront of battle. David’s morally suspect decision to stay in Jerusalem generates a cascade of sins that would bring him to his knees only when Natan traps him into acknowledging his guilt. In prefacing the Bathsheba affair with an incident that is placed much later in 2 Samuel, Brooks gives David a pass and absolves him of moral responsibility.
King David loved passionately, sinned appallingly and lived magnificently. As Robert Pinsky notes, “A life of such dimension becomes also the life of its retellings.” Countless retellings there have been, from Michelangelo to William Faulkner, Joseph Heller to Handel; even Bart Simpson dreams that he is King David, who has to fight Goliath II, the giant’s son. All of these retellings, in the view of this unabashed apologist for the Hebrew Bible, fail to match the literary and psychological achievement of 1 and 2 Samuel, its spartan mystery, its restraint that suggests so much richness. But each re-imagining, including The Secret Chord, also points convincingly to the vitality and energy of an original that survives, and surpasses, the visions and revisions of authors, painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers through the centuries. The Secret Chord sounds a few false notes, but if it directs us back to the mysterious beauty of the Bible, it will ring true.