The scene is both comical and deadly serious. Israel’s first great king is fleeing from Jerusalem — David has left the City of David — along with his armies and scores of loyal able-bodied followers, to avoid giving his son Absalom an easy target. The hot-headed prince has declared himself the new sovereign and aims to do to his father what he had already done to the king’s eldest son and likely heir: to kill him and take his place and rank.
When David’s procession comes to the settlement of Bahurim, they encounter an energetic heckler. Shimei is a member of the house of the late King Saul, and he is none too happy about the sometimes brutal way that David has dealt with the family of his predecessor. The man “came forth and cursed still as he came. And he cast stones at David and at all the servants of King David: and all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left.” Shimei called the fleeing king a “man of Belial” and said that David was only reaping the fruit of his own actions. God was now turning his favor from the king, “because thou art a bloody man.”
In The Life of David, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky sees David’s reaction to Shimei as a turning point in the attempted coup. One of David’s soldiers asks his liege why he allows the half-mad rock-thrower to chatter on and requests permission to “go over” and “take off his head.” The unpredictable king stays his soldier’s sword. He orders, “[L]et him alone and let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction, and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day.”
Pinsky puts on his literary critic cap and explains that in the “curving, secret logic of all narrative…this moment of restraint is like an assurance that David will triumph over the rebellion.” From the perspective of pure statecraft, “David knows that the spectacle of the unseemly cursing will create his moment of sympathy, a longing for a restoration of the king’s dignity” by all of his followers. In a sense, their dignity is bound up in his, and they will now fight harder to win it back.
But there was a ring of truth to Shimei’s indictment. King David may have been loved by God and by his people but he was also a bloody man. His great debut was an act of spectacular violence: the young, unarmored stone slinger brained the huge Philistine soldier Goliath and used the giant’s own oversized sword to sever his head. As a reward, King Saul offered his daughter as a wife and suggested one hundred Philistine foreskins as the bride price. David replied, why not make it two hundred?
The Israelite maidens were said to chant, “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed ten thousands,” but the young warrior was only getting warmed up. In one incident that Pinsky regards as inexplicable, King David conquered the Moabites and then had the people of his grandmother Ruth lie down in three lines of equal length, and then ordered his army to slaughter two of them. Even on his deathbed, David’s instructions to his heir Solomon sound a bit like Don Corleone looking to settle scores from beyond the grave.
Of his great, murderous general Joab, David instructs Solomon, “[L]et not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace.” And he hasn’t forgotten the rock-throwing Shimei either: “I [swore] to him by the Lord saying, I will not put thee to death with the sword. Now therefore hold him not guiltless…but his hoar head bring thou down to the grave with blood.”
Pinsky dabbles with historiography but looks at David as a character in an epic poem, which makes for less than ideal reading. It isn’t until about the last 70 pages — the story of David’s later years: his decline from warrior-tactician who could do no wrong to embattled monarch to his colorful afterlife in nationalist legend — that the narrative and the analysis really start to hold together.
The text indirectly contributed to the choppiness. Pinsky chose to use the renderings and the quirky punctuation of the King James Version of the Bible to place distance between modern readers and the Iron Age monarch. It works, but there’s an unfortunate side-effect: The poet leans on the lyrical wordplay of the translators far too often, and so the book limps along for quite a ways before it can find its legs.
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