The Most Flawed of Heroes

How did David, a shepherd and poet, become Israel's king and the progenitor of the Messiah for both Jews and Christians?

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Pinsky's range of reference is wide, reaching not only to Dante (whom he has beautifully translated) but to Greek myth and modern literature. Some of his forays into popular culture are less strong; the book is not really enhanced by references to Oprah and the Sopranos. But in a short space he manages to throw some startling spotlights on this complex saga. In commenting on the strange story of King Saul in his final days--the ruler consulted the witch of Endor and summoned Samuel from the dead--Pinsky points out that when the Greek hero Odysseus goes to the underworld, or when the deceased speak in the writings of the poets Dante and Virgil, the dead beseech favors from the living. With Saul and Samuel, the living king needs the dead prophet, who seems paradoxially more alive and vibrant than Saul himself. It is the Bible's presaging of Saul's death, and a brilliant observation.

Pinsky tells David's story episodically. At times (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson's poem about truth) he tells it slant, so the uninitiated may be driven back to the Bible to get the context. David's life is filled with vivid secondary characters, but Pinsky cannot give all of them their due in such a short space without scanting the main character. But the picture builds as we walk around it, the way one would walk around Michelangelo's David, and see the beautiful boy from every angle, grasping much, but never understanding it all.

David defeats coherence. The only way to write faithfully about him is to be well-muscled in negative capability, as we would expect a poet to be. One must be able to embrace contradiction, which is logically problematic, but thematically true. Here is Pinsky writing after citing David's famous ode to the fallen Saul and Jonathan:

"Who is the man--or, for that matter, if he is a figment then what is the figment?--who writes such a poem and who repeatedly kills all the inhabitants of a place to keep his raid secret? Who is the creature who pleads with Achish to go into battle against Saul and Jonathan and then laments for Saul and Jonathan?"

David demonstrates "his power of simultaneous conviction and detachment." A wonderful description of a leader, and a quality David carries into all areas of life. His is indeed "a life entire," a life with all the facets of his world experienced and embraced.

A midrash (rabbinic teaching) that Pinsky does not cite notes the difference between the first verse in Chapter 1 of Kings, and the first verse in the second chapter. David's story as told in the book of Samuel is ending. In the first chapter we are told "And King David was old, advanced in years." The second chapter begins "David was dying."

The rabbis note the difference in designation. When he is dying, the king loses his honorific and becomes only "David." It recalls us to the shepherd boy whose own father did not recognize his greatness, but who challenged Goliath with a faith based on skill, who schemed for women and against enemies, whose once-trusted generals he slays and whose children rebel against him; David who feigned madness to save his life and composed timeless songs of fear and of faith. No one can give such a person whole; we will inevitably see but a part.

Robert Pinsky has stirringly portrayed the man who "masters the harp as well as the sword: a poet as well as a warrior-killer, but as a poet he is far above any other hero, and as a killer no one among the poets can even approach him."

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