I’m reading Thomas Thompson’s The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (Cambridge: Basic Books, 2005) . Thompson is a minimalist, which means he doesn’t believe most of the Bible is historical. Well, one of his arguments in The Messiah Myth is that the ancient Near East has longstanding traditions of a king who goes into exile, returns to challenge the oppressive reigning king, and sets up a paradise that lifts up the poor. When I read I-II Samuel for my quiet time at Harvard, I wondered if the ancient Near East had stories of a king who went through trials before he ascended the throne, the sort of thing we find with David. Now that I see parallels, I wonder why such stories exist. I mean, I have my own theological/religious answer: God puts people in trials to teach them character and prepare them for their divinely-appointed task. Did others (non-Israelites) in the ancient Near East believe this?
Many believers may have a problem with what Thompson says because it presents the Hebrew Bible as a copycat book. But, personally, my access to such motifs comes through my contact with the Hebrew Bible, which God has seen fit to preserve. So the David story is still special to me, even if other cultures have a similar story. I mean, why should I care what a Moabite king went through? But David started off the dynasty that led to Jesus Christ, and that does matter to me.
Thompson’s big point is that the David story (and, going further, the Jesus one) is not historical because it appears so story-like. I think that a minimalist sentiment is that real life is not like a story or a movie, since it is not quite so neat. Actually, that may be a scholarly sentiment in general, not just a minimalist one. But who’s to say that stories can’t be real, in some way, shape, or form? Real life has good people and bad people, and there are times when the good triumph, as occurs in many stories.
I had another question when I did my I Samuel quiet time years ago: Did the ancient Near East offer negative images of good kings? With David, we see a picture that is not always rosy. I know how some scholars try to explain that: The David court is trying to defend David against detractors and thus acknowledges some of their claims, yet puts a spin on them (Baruch Halpern). Or the criticisms of David are from a post-exilic, anti-Messianic strain of thought (John van Seters). And Christians who read the text devotionally say it shows that the Bible is hard on its heroes, demonstrating that even the best of us sin and fall short of God’s glory. But I wonder if other cultures were hard on their heroes, and, if so, why?