Books: The Secret Book of Kings

A historical novel draws from our sources to reexamine the traditional biblical narrative and how it was determined

King solomon (photo credit: COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
King solomon
 At a pivotal moment in The Secret Book of Kings, Michal, the daughter of King Saul and the estranged wife of King David, learns that her husband’s scribes have been busy spreading rumors.
Saul, they said, was subject to jealous fits during which he flung his spear at anyone he did not like – including his young musician, David son of Jesse. And Saul did not die a hero’s death on the battlefield; he fell on his own sword like a coward.
“Repeat a story enough times,” Michal is told, “and, better yet, write it down in the book of chronicles, and it becomes reality.”
In The Secret Book of Kings, which was translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan, Yochi Brandes, the author of seven novels and two non-fiction books, tells – or more precisely retells – two inter- connected stories. Drawing on ancient texts, her melodramatic epic challenges canonical interpretations about the roles of Saul and David in the unification of Israel – and presents a revisionist view of Solomon and Jeroboam, Israel’s fourth king.
The novel is filled with suspense, conspiracies, romance and rebellion. The narrative, however, is marred by the injection of a modern sensibility into the thoughts and the language of the characters.
“Life had taught me that there was no such thing as a free lunch,” Jeroboam declares.
The laws of Moses, the king proclaims, forbid “treating women as objects.”
“My nerves were nearly shot,” Michal confesses. In ancient Israel, we are told, “people tend to regard the disabled as mindless creatures and allow themselves to talk about anything they want in their presence, as if they were nothing but air.”
These vernacular expressions are jarring, and they distract from Brandes’s contrarian history. Saul, she suggests, was modest, merciful and too compassionate: he failed to stop “the vicious people from stealing the crown from him in time.”
Celebrated as a valorous warrior and a just and righteous monarch, Brandes’s David is an unscrupulous schemer, for whom love is a tool to gain loyalty.
Willing to do anything to become king, David did not kill Goliath but happily took the credit. From the throne, David sent surrogates to murder his rivals, “then tears his clothes in grief and composes heartbreaking lamentations in memory of the dead.” And, Brandes suggests, King Solomon was not all that wise. The beneficiary of the tall tale, spread by his mother, that he settled a dispute between two prostitutes over a baby, Solomon spent most of his reign planning ostentatious construction projects, taxing his people to pay for them, composing riddles and collecting wives.
Brandes also reflects on the nature of Israel as a unified nation. She indicates that Saul took what had been “a collection of miserable tribes that dared not even defend themselves and could be stomped upon at will,” recruited soldiers from all of them, and built the region’s largest and strongest army. Under David and Solomon, who wanted the nation of Israel to become, in essence, the nation of Judah, however, the cultural diversity of the Hebrew people was suppressed. And so, at his coronation, Jeroboam proclaimed “the restoration of the ancient festivals of all the tribes of Israel,” from the rain festival of Ephraim to the fire festival of Manasseh, from the fertility festival of Reuben to the fish festival of Zebulun, the oil festival of Asher, and the wine festival of Gad.
Hadad, Jeroboam’s mentor, had urged him to go even further and extend an olive branch to the countries David had conquered. Jeroboam was intrigued by the slogan Hadad suggested, “Aram for the Arameans, Ammon for the Ammonites, Edom for the Edomites, and the Land of Israel for the Hebrews,” but concluded that “it was best saved for another opportunity.”
The Secret Book of Kings serves as a powerful reminder that stories can be more powerful than swords, and, when written by the victors, even more powerful than the truth. The novel, however, also provides evidence that the people are not always gullible. To justify the murder of the surviving members of the House of Saul, for example, the scribes declared them sacrifices to appease God so that He would inundate the drought-stricken land with rain; and to atone for Saul’s massacre of the Gibeonites.
To the first argument, the people cried, if David “is so devoted to us, why doesn’t he sacrifice his own princes?” To the second, they asked why they had not heard of the massacre before, “mocking the new tale.”
And, as if to complicate things even further, Abijah the Prophet claims that “future generations will see right away” that the story of Jeroboam collecting the scraps from his torn cloak “corrected the wicked story that the scribes of Judah made up about Samuel and Saul.” Michal doesn’t want it included in the book of chronicles because “it’s too obvious;’ and Hadad thinks that “these stories will be written in code. Only the best and the brightest will be able to decipher them.”
The people, it is clear, sometimes embrace false stories. And sometimes they don’t.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.