David – the shepherd, psalmist-poet, musician, warrior and king – is one of the most complex figures in biblical history. The Bible chronicles his life in unsparing detail of both praise and censure. We are introduced to David in Samuel 1, Chapter 16. His death is abruptly yet poignantly recorded 41 chapters later in the second chapter of Kings 1.
The extent and particularity of the record in the biblical recounting of David’s story attests to the man’s pre-eminence not only for every generation of Jews that has lived since the canonization of the Bible, but, through the Messiah theology, for the very unfolding of western civilization as well.
Through 3,000 years of displacement, exile, wandering and powerlessness, the Jewish People looked back with rhapsody and longing to King David. Indeed, during those same years, we also looked forward with prayer and hope to the wondrous day when a descendant of his would arise to heal the fractures of the world and bring peace, finally, to the Jewish People.
King David’s story is rich in drama and spectacle, a veritable magnet attracting the imaginations of countless artists, each one striving to add to the robust detail of the Bible.
The most recent artist to reimagine the life of the poet-warrior-king is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Geraldine Brooks. Brooks brings her prodigious skills as an experienced journalist, foreign correspondent and masterful writer of historical fiction to the task.
The Secret Chord is bold and brazen, creative and adventurous, at times tender and always affecting. Brooks remarkably recreates the feel and the sense of life – always precarious – around the year 1000 BCE in the land of Israel. The Hebrew tribes often contended among themselves even as they attempted to stave off the marauding ways of the powerhouse Philistines who ruled the coastal plain along the Mediterranean.
For example, Brooks fleshes out with gritty and graphic detail many of the battles mentioned in the Bible. Whereas the biblical account of the death of David’s son Absalom is a curt narrative statement of fact that we quickly travel across and note sadly in our minds, Brooks’ account is expanded, arresting and grim. It is impossible not to stop and reflect upon its full import.
With the striking array of colours in the biblical story as her base, Brooks’ deep artist’s palette paints a captivating, moving landscape of vivid characters. Part of Brooks’ success is in her use of the prophet Nathan as the narrator. His perceptions are the brush that fills in the canvas of David’s life. He provides the reader with an episodic history of David’s life. Thus we read, mostly in flashback, of the key events in David’s life as told in the Bible with elaborate, embellished detail that springs from the questing mind and well-researched files of the author.
This can be seen after David conquers the city of Yevus, makes it the capital of a united country and accompanies the procession of the Holy Ark into the city’s precincts.
The scene is described in Samuel II (JPS 1999 traditional version): “David whirled with all his might before the Lord; David was girt with a linen ephod. Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and with blasts of the horn.”
With stylish sweeping of her writer’s brush, Brooks considerably enhances the biblical description. A short excerpt from the three pages she wrote of the bringing of the Ark to the City of David conveys the breadth of her abilities.
“Soon, the procession was in the valley, the curtain that shielded the Ark rippling in the warm wind… David, standing just in front of me, could not keep still. He held his arms out from his sides, his fingers stretching down to the earth, quivering as if some great energy were passing up and through them. He was breathing fast and deep. Suddenly, he raised his chin and gave a cry – like a paean, but higher, sweeter – rich notes that filled every heart with gladness.
“Then he was loping down the hill, as wild as a boy, as ardent as a lover, sprinting toward the Ark. When he reached it, he cast himself down in full prostration, his arms stretched out as if in the widest embrace. It was a lover’s moment, between him and the Name, the great One who had blessed him, kept him and brought him to this moment. I knew how he prayed: I had felt its ardency. Now all his people felt it. I could hear the sighs and the cries all around me as the power of it moved and stirred the crowd. When David rose to his feet, he did so as if lifted by strong and tender arms. Then he began to dance.”
As the above passage also shows in the italicized words how Brooks telescopes biblical or liturgical quotations throughout the book. Here she foreshadows the fuller text of the traditional blessing of gratitude.
Because of its many openly sensual passages and speculative, revealing portraits of biblically revered individuals, the book may offend individuals who read this portion of the Bible literally. But for readers who view their faith as an expression also of collective memory, of shared history, Brooks’ imagined portrait of King David would be intriguing as well as moving.
Brooks acknowledges that the book’s title, The Secret Chord, is a tip of the hat to Leonard Cohen’s line in his wildly popular and powerful song Hallelujah.
The astute reader will also notice an additional reference from Cohen’s song when David tries to explain to Nathan how he felt when he first saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof. “There was something about the moonlight on her shoulders, the tumble of her hair… I tell you Nathan, for all your iron discipline – even you would have been overthrown.”
Very effectively, Brooks closes the story with a delicate, moving reference to “one sustained, sublime, entirely glorious chord” that we assume accompanies David’s final moment on earth – a secret chord no longer, but shared with us for eternity.