The Secret Book of Kings

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This novel revisits the early history of ancient Israel at the beginning of the monarchy. Its central point is the power of the story. Yochi Brandes, an Israeli Biblical scholar, makes it very plausible that many of the stories in the Old Testament showing King David in a favorable light are propaganda, making it seem that claiming him as an ancestor might be similar to claiming Hitler or Stalin. David merely acted on a smaller stage.

Some years ago I read a history of ancient Israel in which the author expressed some wonderment that David was so venerated when his career wasn’t much different from many opportunists.

In this novel the story of his rise is told by Michal, daughter of King Saul, his first wife, who was advantageously placed to see what happened. She tells how she falls in love with David as a teenager, though he is less enthusiastic about her. She travels with him to entertain the troops, then goes home and tries to get him to go with her. He refuses. He has other things to do.

The other things include organizing an army of his own, led by his relatives, and marrying other women. One of my acquaintances thought David had a sexual relationship with Jonathan, and remarked that David behaved better during that period than he did later. The fact that David defected to the Philistines (as told in the Old Testament) and helped organize the invasion of Israel that killed Saul, Jonathan, and all of Jonathan’s brothers, suggests that whatever relationship he had with Jonathan was a totally cynical one on his part.

After the invasion he arranges his own coronation, then takes Michal and the remainder of her relatives to live with him in his palace with his other wives. Michal had previously married a man who had waited a long time for her. David separates them, and arranges for her husband to be killed. Later, their son and the remainder of her young relatives are also killed. David also conquers neighboring countries and commits what would now be called war crimes there.

All this is told to the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be the great-grandson of King Saul, and the grandson of MIchal, now known as the Mad Princess because she spends every night lighting many candles all over the palace and screaming. This behavior is a cover for her: if she can be dismissed as insane, she’s not perceived as a threat. I suspect this part is invention.

The narrator has been brought up by foster parents in the tribal territory of Ephraim, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His mother lives in seclusion in a retreat for lepers which she never leaves, and where she always covers her face. She doesn’t have leprosy, but is in danger from the royal family. Shelomoam, the narrator, becomes disenchanted with his foster family, largely because he senses something wrong with the story he’s been told about his background. He leaves his home village to go to Jerusalem to join the army.

On his way there he meets Hadad, an Edomite, who trains him for the army. Edom is one of the neighboring countries conquered by David, and Hadad is determined to get it back. He believes Shelomoam is the key, and we find out why when Shelomoam meets Michal. His father was her son, Nebat, who was killed along with most of her other relatives.

Shelomoam is tested by the authorities and sent to Ephraim to be the head tax collector. David’s policies have preferred his tribe, Judah, to the rest of the tribes, who now (during the reign of Solomon) suffer from high taxes and forced labor, as Solomon carries out grandiose building projects and collects foreign women for his harem. Michal has told Shelomoam how Bathsheba manipulated her way into David’s bed, how (with the aid of her grandfather) David managed to get away with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband with a slap on the wrist, and how Bathsheba managed Solomon’s accession to the throne, in spite of David’s older sons.

Shelomoam is in a dangerous position: he must produce taxes and laborers, or be punished, but if he does, he’ll incur the hatred of the people of Ephraim. He manages this crisis through communication. He persuades the wealthy of the area that by taxing them higher than the poor people they will manage to avoid ruining the area. The rich will eventually be ruined too, and forced labor will ensure a shortage of labor and ruin of the laborers’ families. He becomes very popular. He even manages to prevent punishment when demands to raise taxes and send even more laborers come. He sends fewer laborers than demanded, and tells the authorities that he has to reduce taxes to prevent ruin. The other tribes follow his lead, and this provokes a plot to kill him, so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.

His flight to Egypt is true, according to the Old Testament; I’m not certain we know about the narrator’s early life. When he returns to Ephraim a couple of years later he has changed his name to Jereboam, signifying that he will increase the population of Israel, and manages the separation between Israel and Judah. The novel ends on an optimistic note.

But things in the long-term didn’t work out as well for Israel as Judah. A book about the Old Testament tells us that Israel, though it was richer, more willing to innovate, and more integrated into the life of the region (Judah was a poor and isolated country), was also more volatile. David’s line was preserved in the kings who ruled until the sixth century BCE, when Babylon conquered Judah and deported many of its ablest people. Israel had been conquered by Assyria about a century before, and unlike Judah, was never able to put its kingdom together again. In that time there had been multiple dynasties. The Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament were descendants of the northern kingdom, and detested by the Jews, who lived in Judah (called Judea by the time the Romans conquered the Middle East), which was why the parable of the Good Samaritan is found in the Bible. The Jews had been more conservative, and some were fanatical, at least about the presence of the Romans.

Interestingly, a book I read about twenty years ago, said there were still Samaritans surviving in the Middle East, but only a few hundred. The account said they had their own Torah (not including equivalents of the later books of the Old Testament, apparently), which was somewhat different than the Jewish version which has come down to us.

It seems that the northern kingdom, which seems superficially more attractive than the southern one, was less stable, though the southern kingdom also suffered a great deal. Assyria probably deported a lot of Israelites, and the suspicion is that many of them assimilated. Jews would later assimilate too, but not often (this was not always their doing).

The only obvious moral is to beware of propaganda. It seems that even David’s most famous feat wasn’t really his: Goliath seems to have been killed by someone else. This novel doesn’t credit Saul’s supposed attempts to kill David; it says Saul would have succeeded if he’d tried. Nor does it credit Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. All these incidents were propaganda created by the victor to justify the treason that gained him the monarchy. Propaganda is no less dangerous today, and no easier to decode. It may be even more ubiquitous than in the past: America took the lead in creating the advertisement industry which influenced Adolph Hitler in particular. There may be other morals here too: perhaps that suffering and faith mean more in the long run than wealth. That’s not a particularly welcome message.

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