Joseph Blenkinsopp is John A. O’Brien Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Notre Dame and author of the new book David Remembered: Kingship and National Identity in Ancient Israel.
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My new book David Remembered is not a study of David as a historical figure, nor is it a biography of David in competition with recent biographies by Steven McKenzie, Jonathan Kirsch, and Robert Pinsky, to mention just a few. It’s about the figure of David as a powerful presence in the memory of Israelites from the time the Davidic dynasty came to an end in the sixth century B.C. to the revival of Davidic messianism during the lifetime of Jesus (said to be a descendant of David) and the suppression of the two Jewish revolts against Rome (66-73 and 132-135 A.D.).
I wanted to investigate, first, how the collective memory of David, one-time great ruler of a united Israel, contributed to creating a common identity for the Jewish nation; second, how David came to play a central role in end-time scenarios as a messianic (i.e. royal) figure; and third, what effect this collective memory of David had on political life in real time, especially in attempts to restore the Davidic dynasty and when life-and-death decisions had to be made. The most fateful of these decisions were about whether to oppose or submit to control by the great empires — Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman — with which Israel had to cope throughout its history.
Traditions about iconic figures from the remote past created by the memories and aspirations of different societies tend to share similar features and to follow a similar trajectory. To take one example: my own (now far distant ) memories of studying the history of Anglo-Saxon Britain for my first degree at the University of London brought to mind King Arthur, reputed to have lived a millennium and a half after the time of David. Like David, Arthur was crowned at an early age, defended his people against the invading Saxons as David against the Philistines, killed a giant, and was armed with the legendary sword Excalibur as David was with Goliath’s weapon. He received a mortal wound in battle and was buried at Glastonbury, where the resident monks, anxious to attract tourists, later claimed to have discovered his remains, a parallel to David’s tomb on Mount Zion. But for most of those who cherished his memory he never really died. They remained convinced that he would return, in fulfillment of the prophecies of Merlin, as a messianic (i.e. royal) figure in the hour of need to save his people.
Most people tend to think of both David and Arthur simply in this way — as historical figures made into mythical heroes — but neither was just “the once and future king.” The collective memory of Arthur has played an important role in politics throughout the history of England, as “David remembered” continued to influence the people of Israel in very real ways throughout their shared history. Several chapters in the book describe successive episodes in that history.
The subtitle of the book, “Kingship and National Identity in Ancient Israel,” announces a topic, kingship or monarchy, which might not at first appear calculated to quicken the pulse or stir the blood. Of the 191 states now recognized as such by the United Nations very few are monarchies, and in most of these, monarchs have a purely ceremonial function. Yet throughout recorded history monarchy has had enormous influence in every part of the world and on every aspect of human existence, including religion, law, politics, and social life in general. We have inherited that past, and we neglect it at our peril. History gives us perspective on the present, and it teaches us that it is always a mistake to take our current institutions, political or otherwise, for granted or to overlook their defects. David Remembered is intended as a more detailed and sustained inquiry into one epoch of the past and one dominant figure of religious and symbolic significance, for Jews and Christians especially, perhaps, but also for anyone with a serious interest in religion, politics, and social history.
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