Killer, Poet, Sage, Boy: Pinsky's David

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Killer, Poet, Sage, Boy: Pinsky's David

* The Life of David, by Robert Pinsky. Schocken, 2005.

From Robert Pinsky, America's former Poet Laureate, one might have expected an exploration of biblical poetry-the prophets, Job, the Song of Songs. But his first poem on a biblical subject actually arose from the (prose) Book of Daniel. And in his new book, Pinsky has written an immediately absorbing and beautifully written introduction to the best-loved and by far the most charismatic of all biblical kings: David Melech Israel.

As a companion, Pinsky proves particularly intuitive and quirky when he suggests contemporary parallels to the tenth-century BCE contexts: during David's years in exile, we are invited to "call him a warlord, or a guerilla." And when Israel's first king, Saul, dispatches bloody ox-hunks to the tribes as a troop-requisition and omen of his power, "The violent clarity of that notification, at once symbolic and literal, is like something from the Godfather movies or The Sopranos, those fantasies of ruthless patriarchal domination."

Pinsky intersperses retellings of these royal incidents with legendary sequelae to the biblical stories, intriguing meditations on Hebrew words, and midrashic interpretation. But the book's most striking gift by far lies in its attention to tiny, dependent-clause details that a contemporary might otherwise gloss over given the Bible's laconic avoidance of emphasis or interpretation. For instance, David's slaying of the Moabites, as described in Samuel: "And [David] defeated Moab, and measured them with a line, making them lie down on the ground; two lines he measured to be put to death, and one full line to be spared." Pinsky underlines the bizarre finesse oi this slaughter, "that systematic arrangement of the victims along the ground to be measured in three equal lengths, the seemingly mad and meticulous care to spare one third of them, and not as a certain number of people but as yardage, as though Moabite were a kind of cloth or metal chain."

In his reading of some passages, however, Pinsky may underestimate the influence of the Lord's underlying attitudes and Is-ness in the world. In Saul's case, for example, God's earlier anger at Israel's request for a mortal king ("they have rejected me") surely is reflected in Saul's inexplicable disobediences, which often feel like set-ups to justify the divine dismissal. Thus, the "faithful priest" Samuel's failure to show up as promised causes Saul to enrage God by prematurely launching the Philistine war. …