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Processing Critical Scholarship on King David :: McKenzie

McKenzie, Steven L. King David: A Biography. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McKenzie’s reconstruction appears thoroughly informed and contains a great deal of helpful detailed reconstructions of David’s life.  For example, after reading McKenzie’s reconstruction of the early life of David it will be hard to ever imagine the young David as merely a humble shepherd boy.  While Jesse was a wealthy man and David would be expected at times to tend to shepherd duties, McKenzie points out that David is described as “a man of valor” and “a man of war” before he is ever asked to be Saul’s musician or armor bearer (I Sam 16:18).  “These are not qualities of a simple shepherd,” the author reminds us (49). 

On the other hand, in this same section, he dismisses all the references to David as a shepherd as having “been adopted to explain David’s origins” so that David could be enshrined as the “Shepherd of Israel” (48-49).  The author does not seem to consider the possibility that perhaps it would be historically plausible—given the fact that he admits David’s father Jesse would’ve owned many sheep—that David’s duties as a shepherd in his youth could have been later exploited (as opposed to being entirely made up) for the sake of the shepherd metaphor.  His reasons for accepting parts of the biblical account and rejecting others do not always appear methodologically consistent and in some cases seem quite unnecessary and somewhat arbitrary. 

Although as an evangelical I do not want to give up my picture of King David as an exemplary man after God’s own heart, McKenzie’s critical approach is not easily answered.  He grounds his view in what appear to be contradictions in the Bible’s storyline.  For example, he claims the Goliath story is legend.  He starts by noting that “at the end of chapter 16, Saul and David have formed a close relationship, with David as Saul’s beloved armor bearer (16:21).  Yet at the end of the Goliath story (17:55-56) Saul does not know who David is” (50).  He asks, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” and asks David, “Whose son are you, young man?”  McKenzie says these questions are Hebrew idioms for “Who is this?” and “Who are you.”  Yet, previous to these questions, Saul was not only told exactly who David was—even whose son he was—but had loved him so much he had made him his armor bearer (I Sam 16:18)!  Suddenly, after David kills Goliath, Saul wants to know who he is.  Similar observations are continually made throughout his analysis of the biblical text.  While some supposed contradictions are easily answered, others are not.   

Forcing myself to read through McKenzie’s non-evangelical-friendly historical reconstruction of David was exactly what I needed.  I now have a better understanding of how critical scholars go about their historical reconstructions of biblical figures, have a better sense of how much evidence there is for the historical David, and I am challenged to sympathize with what leads people to mistrust the biblical account.  In spite of the author’s view of the biblical literature on David as being royal propaganda, I am now more informed about the biblical and historical David. 

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