I'm teaching a class at our church on First Samuel this Fall. It has been a good study. I recommend the commentaries by Bruggemann and Goldingay especially. It's not my first time in First Samuel but it's amazing what I've missed over the years! The story of David is a finely textured, many layered story. It's as good as any novel, or better. That's why I was quick to order Geraldine Brooks new novel when I heard about it. It was waiting for me when I got back from our trip north. The Secret Chord is a novel about King David. I love Brooks' writing and People of the Book is one of my favorite books. I am not finished with it but I am disappointed in her attempt to write about David.
David is one of the longest stories in the Bible. There is a lot we know about him. Brooks tries to fill in those parts we don't know. I don't think she succeeds. She fills in the back story of David's childhood and his relationship with his father, Jesse. She uses a fictionalized interview with David's mother who we never meet in the Bible. It doesn't work. The interviewer is the prophet Nathan who is charged with writing the King's biography. Nathan is the one voice in First Samuel who speaks truth to David. In Brooks' telling of the tale, David saved Nathan's life and he became a member of David's staff. This is not the Nathan of the Bible who is not afraid to tell David he is a sinner. In Brooks' book, the encounter between David and Nathan after David's affair with Bathsheba is far less dramatic than what happened in First Samuel.
Complicating Brooks story is her decision to use a transliteration from the Hebrew for the names of people and places. Readers who are not familiar with the Old Testament will be at a loss. Brooks also puts modern jargon in the mouths of the characters of First Samuel. I checked out the origins of some of our favorite four letter words and I am pretty sure they were not in use in David's day. So, it is jarring when you come across them in the text. It works against the credibility of her story.
Most of the conversations in which we learn about David's back story are wholly made up. His brother, Shammah, has no love for David and it is through him we learn about some of the secrets of David's life. Michal, Saul's daughter and David's first wife, does not think highly of David either. From her we learn about the love triangle between Jonathan, David and herself. While possible, it is not very likely and not suggested in the text or in most commentaries I consulted. The story of David and Jonathan, a powerful and important chapter in David's story, is about trust and covenant more than friendship.
That is what Brooks misses most. In her focus on telling David's story she leaves out the sense that First Samuel is not about Samuel or Saul or even David. It is about God and the unfolding of the story of salvation. In the end it matters less what David said or did than what God's word is.