Many years ago, my wife’s grandfather won a biblical writing prize with a story that told what happened at the same time on the other side of the world – in a Chinese village – when God kept the sun from setting to permit Joshua to rout his enemies.
I was reminded of that story while reading David and the Philistine Woman, for author Paul Boorstin also provides readers with a glimpse of the other side – Philistine society and especially Goliath and his wife.
Boorstin writes in an author’s note at the end of the book that archeological digs in Beit Shemesh and Ashkelon show the Philistines to have been “an advanced, sophisticated people,” not “the crude barbarians” portrayed in the Bible.
I must say that I missed Philistines’ sophistication in his depiction of them. Their city may have been advanced for its time, but I saw a violent people completely devoid of compassion who were led into battle by a man, Goliath, who was, simply put, a monster.
Yes, in the novel, Goliath’s wife, “the Philistine woman,” eventually helped David in his battle against her husband, but it was only because of the “enemyof-my-enemy-is-my-friend” syndrome, which David quotes as part of his campaign to convince her to take an active part. Her brutish husband had earned her enmity by murdering her father, tossing him off a roof, and by regularly mistreating her.
Not that the Israelite side gets a pass in ethical behavior either – David’s brothers ridicule him because he is a shepherd; Ahinoam, the mother of Michal, has an aide try to kill her daughter because Michal is helping David, who was trying to supplant her son Jonathan as heir to the Israelite throne; Saul permits David to battle Goliath only because he is certain David will be killed.
The book is fast-paced and well-written, but it is not very compelling. Authors run into a real authenticity problem when they introduce new elements into such a well-known story – and, as a reader rather than a reviewer, I probably would not have finished it.
Then, I would have missed the drama of David’s trying and failing to hear God’s voice and his attempt to understand the role of people and God in our world. When the author concentrates on David, the novel rises to new heights.
This is the innocent David who is tending sheep when the prophet Samuel tells him that God has chosen him to become king of the Israelites after Saul. This is the young David – courageous, honest, wise beyond his years.
He tried to explain the essence of Jewish law and life to a bewildered Nara, Goliath’s wife. She asked him if God’s laws made life easier for the Israelites. He answered: “No. His Laws are difficult because they are good, and good because they are difficult.” She was even more perplexed.
David tried to clarify: “The Law dares us to be more than we are, perhaps more than we can ever be. The Law challenges us to lift our souls up to the High Places. It is easier to kill a man than to forgive him. And yet, only by acts of forgiveness can we be true to the Almighty.”
Pretty sophisticated for a young shepherd, but remember, we are dealing with a man who was to be king, write the psalms and become a favorite of God.
David also refused to use the sword and shield of Joshua, which Jonathan brought him, in his battle with Goliath. He tells his friend: “I cannot use old weapons to defend old ways... If I am to become king, I must be a different leader than Joshua. I must be a different ruler than Saul... If I am to lead, I must follow my own path.”
Throughout his preparation for battling Goliath, David tried but failed to hear the voice of God. But when he hurled his stone, he has a revelation about the relationship between man and God. “Is this the work of the Almighty?” he asks himself. “Or have I found a boundless strength within me that I never knew existed? Perhaps they are one and the same.”
David imagined that the sound of Goliath falling in battle – a victory over evil – reached to all the Philistine cities and “to the remotest corners of the world. When Goliath fell, David imagined that the echo rippled across time, into the future and beyond, all the way to the outer ramparts of eternity.” Amen.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.