The Divided Heart

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David Wolpe
Jewish Lives
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What could possibly be left to say about David? As Rabbi David Wolpe notes at the end of his book, studies on David are endless and exhaustive. And when taking a cursory look at the chapter organization of Wolpe’s book, which spans David’s life from a literary perspective, from “Young David” (chapter 1), to “Lover and Husband” (chapter 2), all the way to “The Once and Future King” on Solomon (chapter 9), I initially feared the book would merely retell the biblical text. While at times the book teetered on the brink of doing just that (admittedly, I found parts of chapter 4 on “The King” to be unmemorable), in the end my fear was unjustified. Instead, I found the book to be rich in insights on the complexity and mystery of David’s character. It is also beautifully and accessibly written, in such a way that makes the biblical stories relevant for a contemporary audience, scholar and non-scholar alike. I was struck by Wolpe’s deep love for David and by his own wisdom and introspection throughout. In the end, I found this book to be less about David and more about us, demonstrating a clarity of understanding of the human heart, which, to use Wolpe’s own words, is an “inexplicable amalgam of good and evil” (141). 

The unique gift of this book is that it combines a poet’s pen with a rich portrait of David’s complexity that bridges the biblical world to the contemporary person. For example, Wolpe reminds us that “to speak of a conflicted heart is simply to speak of a human heart” (17); notes that human weaknesses come in “clusters” rather than arriving “singly” (75); states that in real life we all find that we do things “unlike ourselves” (87); and examines David’s life as a reflection of the constant human struggle “for and against God’s will” (125). Wolpe also draws David out of biblical isolation by connecting him to a long historical arc of complicated characters and authors, including Abraham Lincoln (xi), Moses Mendelssohn (29), Winston Churchill (89), William Shakespeare (26, 35), and D. H. Lawrence (85). As only a rabbi could, he makes artful use of rabbinic commentary that demonstrates careful attention to textual detail, while simultaneously interweaving into his book funny contemporary asides (for example, on page 20 he notes that Nabal in 1 Samuel 25 clearly hadn’t heard of the Godfather movies, and on page xvii he calls the book of Chronicles “Samuel made boring”).

As a scholar, what I found particularly remarkable (and humbling) was how Wolpe could artfully synthesize in a single paragraph the complexities of a text that has been discussed ad nauseum in scholarly spheres, thus cutting through to the heart of the matter like a knife without dumbing down the textual nuances. Examples include the question of the relationship between David and Jonathan (and the real issue of whether David is able to return love) (10-11); the spectrum of how scholars choose to read the David stories, from “faithfully” to “suspiciously” (38); and the question of how to interpret Bathsheba in the shocking story of adultery, murder, and eventually the rise of Solomon (80-86). I found Wolpe’s latter chapters to be the strongest and most provocative, beginning with the Bathsheba material in chapter 5 (“The Sinner”). Certain insights in these latter chapters fundamentally changed the way I think about the material, especially regarding the David-Nathan relationship (82-86) and the arc of David’s relationship with Absalom (101-115).

In contrast, I found the organization in the first few chapters on the 1 Samuel material to be a bit more confusing, as the chapter separations into “Young David,” “Lover and Husband,” and “Fugitive” (chapters 1-3) felt forced and at times repetitive, including discussions of David on the run from Saul, and the David-Goliath stories. As a literary historian, I also found that Wolpe ignored an important conversation regarding post-exilic dating of the David story (xvii), while at times unwittingly demonstrating a more traditional stance on dating, such as when he suggests that David “gave birth” to the psalms in some way (60). Still, his discussion of the issue of Davidic authorship of some psalms is attractive, for Wolpe digs beyond questions of “historicity” to the essence of why the psalms would be attributed to David in the first place—because, as he says, “they demonstrate a single soul’s devotional reach toward God” (60). 

One final critique: Given how much Wolpe embraces the complexities of David’s character and understands how the goals of various authors may be lurking under the texts, I found him to be surprisingly dismissive of Saul. For example, Wolpe writes that “a hollow man [Saul] is a poor trailblazer” (53), and that Saul was a king who “destroyed himself” (57). This negative portrayal was particularly confusing given that Wolpe clearly understands how scribes shape texts according to particular purposes; one example is the rhetoric of David’s refusal to kill Saul, which possibly reveals an underlying refutation of accusations that he was involved in Saul’s death (39-41). If Wolpe is drawn to David’s complexities, I am equally drawn to Saul for the snippets of earlier traditions left uncolored by negativity in 1 Samuel, such as 1 Samuel 11, and for Saul’s scrappiness in surviving despite the fact that it is David who is claimed for Judah and the line of the Messiah. 

Admittedly, I am a harsh critic when it comes to books on David. Yet this beautifully written, insightful, almost contemplative book will stick with me. I may even assign it to my undergraduates. Wolpe’s study does what many books on the Bible do not: it treats the text carefully and with integrity, while drawing out those fundamental philosophical, theological, and psychological questions and leaving them to echo deep within the reader, at least this one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mahri Leonard-Fleckman is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Wolpe is the rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He is the author of seven books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. He lives in Los Angeles.


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