“They say there was a secret chord
that David played to please the Lord”–Leonard Cohen
If there was indeed such a chord, Geraldine Brooks has gone a long way toward discovering. The breadth and depth of Brooks’ literary explorations is stunning. I have written reviews of three other of her books and am working my way through a fourth. She’s carried me from ante-bellum horse racing to the Civil War and now to Deep BCE biblical history.
David has for a long time been one of my favorite historical characters because he is such a hodge-podge of contradictions. A pious and holy man, a musician, a warrior, a hypocrite, a savage betrayer of all that is sacred, a revered ancestor of one of the most revered prophets in the history of religion. He sent to death the husband of one of his rape victims. He danced naked into Jerusalem like a shameless heathen. He is one of the mightiest of generals. And yet, he composed some of the most beautiful poetry in the history of language. Doubtless if we had access to the actual music of those hymns, the melodies would have been just as wondrous.
It is said that God often chooses the weakest among us to do his greatest work. Thus Moses needed Aaron. Martin Luther King was a plagiarizer and a womanizer. LBJ, racist and political brute brought about our greatest USA civil rights actions. Not that these are quite of David’s stature or breadth of talent. But you get the point.
In many ways, Brooks has written a biography of a towering historical figure. It is told through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, who according to legend was the only one who dared tell David the truth, who labeled him to his face a murderer in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, among other things. Still he couldn’t keep his master on the straight and narrow. Yet brooks has composed also a portrait of a profoundly ugly human being, one capable of brutalizing and betraying family and friends for the sake of his own power. She has also dropped us into a historical period cram full of unimaginable misogyny and viciousness. The Old Testament is replete with cruelty, but in Brooks biblical world, even Nazi cruelty would have a hard time competing.
Nevertheless, in Brooks’ hands with we have the spectacle of sacred and profane existing not only side by side, but integrated into a whole human capable of a full range of every possible human greatness and depravity.
Look out for your soul. As Nathan is warning, someone is coming to get it.