The Secret Chord
By Geraldine Brooks
Read April 2019
Depending on your religious upbringing, your current spiritual practice, the movies you’ve seen, and the books you’ve read, your awareness of the story of the biblical David may be limited to the story of the young shepherd David slaying the giant Goliath or may be more expansive with various levels of detail about his rise to become the King of Israel, his musical abilities, the poetry ascribed to him, and his relationship with Bathsheba who becomes the mother of David’s successor, Solomon. Geraldine Brooks gives us a fictionalized version of the biblical David story. The term “biblical David” being used as very limited evidence outside of the bible gives details of his life. However, David is a figure discussed extensively in the Old Testament so there are many stories about him available there.
Brooks pulls no punches with the picture she paints of David. He is shown as a man driven to create a united kingdom of Israel, willing to kill and conquer “as much as needed” to accomplish this goal. While out of the favor of King Saul, who he succeeds, he was a maundering bandit who killed to get supplies when needed. She presents the interaction with Bathesba as a rape by David because he could, not a seduction by Bathesba of David. David has her husband killed when he finds out she carries his child and he fails at tricking the husband into sleeping with his wife while on active duty thus preventing a means to cover his “tracks”. He had multiple wives, common at the time, some for political reasons, others to generate heirs, and his treatment of them was sometimes very far from kind. His relationship with Jonathan, son of Saul, is not one that may be expected and one that impacts his marriage with Sauls daughter. Brooks moderates the picture somewhat. David asks Nathan, his sayer/prophet, to write his history, warts and all, and Nathan certainly finds and tells us the warts indicated above. This sets up the structure of Nathan as narrator as scribe of the story. In the last section of the book, after the kingdom is considered “whole”, other aspects of David are told. David writes much music and poetry to the near exclusion of managing the political wrangling between his various sons and lieutenants. During this time Nathan is allowed by David to be a very close mentor to his son and ultimate heir, Solomon, who Nathan prophesizes will build the temple that David won’t be allowed given his past sins.
Brooks’ story of David may or may not align with readers’ views or understanding of David. This reader anticipate it’s not her goal to provide the “truth” about David but rather to present a fictionalized possible picture of him and his time. This reader appreciate that while Brooks does use dialog to present the story at times, she relies on Nathan to be the narrator and doesn’t tell us what David is thinking. We see David through Brooks’ Nathan’s intepretation of David.
Much of the book deals with persistent warring between various tribes and between David’s army and all who stand in his way of creating a unified kingdom. It was interesting that David apparently presumes his reason for conquering the city that will become the City of David justifies his action—it will provide a capital city which was not originally part of either of the two lands he is uniting. The unification is good; a “neutral” capital will seal the unification. Death, destruction, subjugation are all justified for the good of creating this united kingdom which will worship the true single Word. War pursued for religious purposes is clearly nothing new (David’s story occurred ~1000BC) and, unfortunately, humans have continued to battle for religious reasons to this day…..