King David, ‘A Very Problematic Character’


Noting that a character’s first recorded words in the Bible reveal a great deal about his personality, Rabbi David Wolpe pointed out at a Jewish Week Forum here last week that as a youngster, the future King David’s first words in the Book of Samuel are, “What will be given to the man who slays Goliath?”

Clearly looking out for his own future, the young shepherd used his wits and his sling shot to kill the Philistine giant and set his own trajectory toward becoming the most acclaimed king of Israel — as well as the most complex, developed and beloved figure in the Bible, accord to the rabbi.

It was David’s fully human nature — poet and warrior, Psalmist and seducer, murderer and devoted friend — that drew the acclaimed author, spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple and Jewish Week columnist to write a just-published biography, “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press). He discussed it last Tuesday evening at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center, a co-sponsor of the event, which was attended by more than 200 people.

Rabbi Wolpe, who was named to the No. 1 spot on the Newsweek list of America’s Top 50 Rabbis, was interviewed by author-journalist Abigail Pogrebin, who helped compile the Newsweek list for a number of years.

Drawn to the biblical David since he himself was a high school student, the rabbi asserted that David was, indeed, a “very problematic character” but also “the most vital person in the Bible.” He could be portrayed as Machiavellian in his political, personal and military moves, but he was also a wonderful figure loved by so many who knew him, according to Rabbi Wolpe.

“I think he was both,” he said. “He had real feelings and he was also calculating” in his actions. And despite his sins, most notably seducing the beautiful Bathsheba and then arranging for her noble husband to be killed on the battlefield so that David could marry her, he was favored by God, who promises him that his line of kingship will last forever. And it is from the House of David, we are told, that the Messiah will come.

Rabbi Wolpe’s 145-page book offers psychological insights and crisp, clear writing in a biography published as part of the Yale University Press “Jewish Lives” series of biographies. The book focuses on the various roles King David played, with chapters on Young David, Lover and Husband, Fugitive, The King, The Sinner, The Father and Caretaker.

“David violated God’s law but he never denies God,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “He had a personal relationship with God.”

He urged readers to judge the biblical figure by the violent times he lived in rather than by today’s standards. “He needed to be ruthless to survive,” he said, but few kings or leaders were also poets.

“David,” Rabbi Wolpe said, “remains a lastingly relevant leader.”