The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks


 There was, as we all know 😉 , a secret chord, which David played and it pleased the Lord. OK, that’s not the Bible, it’s Leonard Cohen, but never mind! This is another of those books which is aimed at bringing a Biblical figure, in this case King David, to life, by putting their story into the form of a novel. Unfortunately, this really isn’t a patch on Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  It’s not bad, but it’s too short for such an eventful story.  And it doesn’t get close enough to the character, because it’s told from the point of view of someone else – the prophet Nathan.  Apparently, the lyrics to Handel’s Coronation Anthem, the one we all know the music to but not the words 😉 , start with “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet” … but, presumably because that’s too much of a mouthful, we know it as “Zadok the priest” and poor old Nathan gets forgotten!

He isn’t actually referred to as “Nathan” in this book, but as “Natan”, because the author decided to use a transliteration from Hebrew which she views as correct, but which is rather confusing for the reader. Yes, OK, there are a lot of issues about different translations and transliterations of Biblical Hebrew. Don’t get me started on the issue of Shem and Semitic – most people never realise that the word “Semitic” comes from Shem, son of Noah, because the h got lost somewhere!! Geraldine Brooks decided to restore the missing “h”s, which, OK, there is justification for, but everyone is familiar with the names Saul and Solomon in English, and writing about “Shaul” and “Shlomo” is just confusing. Ditto Moavites rather than Moabites, Batsheva rather than Bathsheba, Yonatan rather than Jonathan, etc  .

OK, enough moaning. The book is quite interesting, because, as the author points out, David’s is the first life story told in full in literature, and there are so many different facets to it. Although the Bible tells us that he’s a great warrior king, if you mention his name then most of us will think of the Michelangelo sculpture of The Boy David and the story of David, as a young shepherd boy, killing Goliath. The phrase “David versus Goliath” is still in very common use.  The book suggests that the tale was probably exaggerated, to make Goliath bigger and David younger, but, hey, that’s how stories go!

Then there’s the question of David’s relationship with Jonathan. Were they lovers or just good friends? I have actually heard this brought up in debates on Sky News, with people using the relationship to try to counter homophobes who try to use the Bible to justify discrimination against gay people. Well, it can be interpreted every which way but Geraldine Brooks goes with the view that they probably were lovers.  I’m inclined to agree.  It’s the same with Achilles and Patroclus.  People in ancient times seem to have been a lot more chilled about bisexuality than some people are today.

And the issue of Bathsheba … was it a consensual affair or did David take advantage of his position as king to force her? The way it’s presented in this book is that he forced her. It’s really not clear in the Bible – although it’s quite clear about how he sent Uriah the Hittite out to be killed.

Those are probably the three David stories that everyone knows. The rest of his story isn’t really as well known as those of Moses, Joseph (thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber!) and certain other Biblical figures. It was certainly eventful. War, sons murdering sons, brothers raping sisters … there’s certainly plenty to go at in this book, and then of course there are his talents as a poet and a musician, but so much more could have been made of it.  It only really skims the surface.

Did David really exist? Well, no-one really knows, and much of the Bible story is probably legend rather than history, but it does seem likely that there was a king called David, probably around 3,000 years ago. He’s certainly a huge figure in the culture of all three monotheistic religions. And, of course, he’s closely associated with Bethlehem (almost certainly the reason why the nativity story is set in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth) and Jerusalem.  He’s supposed to have captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his capital.  What he’d say if he knew that people were still fighting over it, one of the most historically and culturally important cities in the world and one which deserves to be treated with considerably more respect than to be used as a political pawn, 3,000 years later, I don’t know.

It’s an interesting subject, but this book really could have been a lot better.  It just doesn’t go deep enough. You’ve got a figure whose name everyone knows but whose story really isn’t well-known at all, and whose story has so many different facets to it, and so much more could have been made of it all.

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