There are more references to King David than to any other figure in the Old Testament, including Abraham and Moses, and more to him in the entire Bible than to anyone except Jesus. His achievements are legion and legendary, as are his contradictions.
David is both the shepherd boy who, armed with nothing but a sling, vanquished the Philistine champion Goliath and commanded King Saul’s armies, and the traitor who not only rebelled against the king but allied himself with the Philistines, leading scavenging raids into Judean territory. He reputedly wrote the Psalms, some of the world’s greatest devotional poetry, and founded the holy city of Jerusalem, yet God considered him too sinful to build the Temple. He defeated Israel’s enemies and fortified its borders, yet he was unable to control his own children, with one of his sons raping his half-sister and another leading a revolt against him.
It is small wonder that David has become such a rich fictional character, in novels ranging from Joseph Heller’s God Knows, where, sounding uncommonly like Woody Allen, he relates his story, complete with anachronistic complaints that Michelangelo portrayed him as uncircumcised, to Eric Shaw Quinn’s The Prince’s Psalm, a torrid account of his love for Jonathan. My own favourites are Stefan Heym’s The King David Report, which turns David’s story into a veiled commentary on the author’s life in totalitarian East Germany, and Alan Massie’s beautifully measured King David.
Having been fascinated by the story of David since childhood, I resolved to translate that fascination into fiction. As so often happens, the idea for The Anointed sprang from my previous novel, Of Men and Angels, which explored the historical and cultural aftermath of the myth of Lot in Sodom. Although the actual Sodom story played but a small part in a book which showed how the myth had been used and abused in the very different societies of medieval York, Renaissance Florence, 19th century Palestine and 20th century Hollywood, I developed a taste for writing biblical fiction.
Given the already crowded shelves of David novels, I knew that I had to find an original approach to the story, which was to tell it from the perspective of his three most significant wives. In part, that decision also sprang from Of Men and Angels. That book was, of necessity, about men, and I wanted my next one to focus on women. As a writer, nothing depresses me more than cries of ‘cultural appropriation.’ Novelists, like other artists, should be free to follow their imaginations. It is for readers to decide whether or not we succeed.
Moreover, having three disparate narrators has enabled me to create a coherent David: acknowledging his many inconsistencies, without ironing them out. The women encounter him at very different stages of his career. Michal, the daughter of King Saul, first meets him when, as a young shepherd, he plays the lyre to cure her father’s depression. She bears witness to his life at court, his early military achievements and his relationship with her brother, Jonathan. Abigail, a wealthy widow, comes under his sway after he rebels against Saul, joining in both his military manoeuvres and political machinations. Bathsheba, the young beauty whom he seduces, sending her husband to his death, observes him in old age when he has turned into a ruthless despot.
Each of the three has a unique importance in both David’s life and biblical tradition. Michal’s confession of love for him is the only occasion in the entire Bible when a woman is explicitly stated to love a man. Abigail has the longest speech of any woman in the Old Testament, when she pleads with David to spare her household. Bathsheba, who first attracts David when she bathes on her rooftop in full view of his palace, is the most painted woman in the Old Testament apart from Eve and for much the same reason: her canonical nudity. Yet, apart from a few specific incidents, the women have been both side-lined and silenced; The Anointed gives them a voice.
Focussing on the women allows me both to highlight those aspects of David’s story that interest me and downplay those that bore me. Chief among the latter are the lengthy descriptions of battles and disputes between generals (I haven’t done a word count but would guess that they constitute between a third and a half of the Books of Samuel). I was far more interested in the emotions of the women who remain behind than in recording David’s prowess as he smites – and slays and slaughters – assorted Philistine and Ammonite and Moabite and Edomite tribes.
By contrast, I have been able to foreground the rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon. Even by the standards of one who beds his former mother-in-law, Queen Ahinoam, in order to assert his authority, David’s refusal to chide Amnon is chilling. Moreover, Tamar’s own hurt is barely acknowledged by the biblical author, who states simply that she ‘remained desolate’. Having her story told first by Abigail and then by Michal, I have underlined her callous and horrific treatment. It is this, I think, which has led the Evening Standard to describe The Anointed as ‘#MeToo meets the Old Testament.’
From the Patriarchs to the Prophets, the Old Testament primarily describes the deeds of men. With a few notable exceptions, the women, if mentioned at all, are either wicked seductresses, like Jezebel and Delilah and the mother of them all, Eve, or selfless matriarchs, like Sarah, Rachel and Hannah. The women in the Books of Samuel are shadowy figures at best. The Anointed seeks to flesh them out, telling an enduringly compelling story, while remedying a 3000-year-old injustice.
(c) Michael Arditti
About The Anointed:
Michal is a princess, Abigail a wealthy widow, and Bathsheba a soldier’s bride, but as women in Ancient Israel their destiny is the same: to obey their fathers, serve their husbands and raise their children.
Marriage to King David seems to offer them an escape, but behind the trappings of power they discover a deeply conflicted man. The legendary hero who slew Goliath, founded Jerusalem and saved Israel is also a vicious despot who murders his rivals, massacres his captives and menaces his harem.
Michael Arditti’s masterly new novel centres on three fascinating, formidable women, whose voices have hitherto been silenced. As they tell of love and betrayal, rape and revenge, motherhood and childlessness, they not only present the time-honoured story in a compelling new light but expose a conflict between male ruthlessness and female resistance, which remains strikingly pertinent today.
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