Tuesday, 20 December 2011

O Clavis David : O Key of David

‘O key of David!’ starts today’s antiphon: David, the second King of Israel, but the man whose name became synonymous with all forms of kingship and rule in Israel and Judah.

He is an extraordinary choice for the position of legendary revered ruler. It is sometimes suggested that he is indeed simply a figure of legend. Generally speaking, however, legendary kings are a good deal more noble and less flawed than David. The astonishing thing about the David narratives is their pictures of a fatally flawed but very vivid man. His beautiful lament for Jonathan, so beloved by those who want Biblical gay role models, should not blind us to the fact that Jonathan is killed as David makes his move on the throne. Jonathan is uncomfortably close to being the sacrifice made by his friend and lover in order to gain power. Indeed, too many of those whom David loves end up dead, particularly his sons. One of the most splendid narratives from the ancient world, the ‘succession narrative’, charts the closing years of David. His seduction of Bathsheba led to the skilful elimination (was she scheming?) of all plausible heirs to David except the son he has with her, Solomon. The narrative includes perhaps the most moving of all Biblical laments, that of David over Absalom: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ But only a fool could have believed that the action against Absalom was likely to end any other way – and David was no fool. This extraordinarily believable picture of a passionate man who keeps a very clear and calculating mind strikes me as so totally removed from hagiography as to be very believable.

History or fiction (and David’s period is far removed from the Victorians of whom I know something) the fact remains that this great king is consciously and deliberately presented as a flawed figure. Perhaps it is his very passions which make him such an attractive figure. Perhaps in the often grubby reality of life we are closer to God than we are in those noble moments when we are blinded by our illusions. For sometimes we come to believe that our aspirations actually reflect the daily reality of our lives; that we are the kindly, thoughtful, people we seek to be. If we are more honest, there is often a tangled mess of demands made on us, selfishness and loving response, a darkness of misunderstandings, naked greed and those loving actions which (like David’s desire to keep his power and save Absalom’s life) were never going to work out. There is a terrible reality about David’s mixed desires and ambitions which make him seem astonishingly contemporary.

In that sense, today’s antiphon seems to fit him well – and in fitting him, to fit all those of us who know too well our flawed and dark passions, our divided loyalties and the complexities of our lives. It promises the rescue (by ‘great David’s greater son’) of those in darkness, trapped and ignorant of the paths to escape.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Rosemary Hannah

Posted by Rosemary Hannah on Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 12:01am GMT | TrackBack
You can make a Permalink to this if you like
Categorised as: just thinking

The meditations on the O Antiphons are lovely, although they sometimes make me squirm, and rightly so.

Posted by: Grandmère Mimi on Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 2:27am GMT


You say that the picture of David given to us by the Bible is that of a flawed and passionate man "totally removed from hagiography", This is given as evidence that the narratives of David might be "believable", which I take to mean historically true.

But isn't there another type of narrative to consider - myth. The Homeric myths of Achilles and Odysseus are about flawed and passionate men. And I would put into the same category the stories of King Arthur.

Interestingly the Homeric and Arthurian myths are about people (or, at least, events) that may have actually existed, but the myths were were written down and fixed into canon five or six hundred years later, and the texts reflect the values of that later time, after much editorial input by bards and musicians.

Similarly I would argue that King David may actually have existed in historical time, but texts we inherit should be seen as myth, as "believable" as Homeric and Arthurian legend. That is to say that they are not "historical" truth. They are created stories of human striving and emotion, and of mankind's relationship with his or her core identity, and with God. In other words, much, much more valuable that mere "historical" truth.

Best wishes


Posted by: Simon Dawson on Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 9:50am GMT

'It is not my period' as every historian says to cop-out. But Ulysses is a stock figure - a sub type of wily trickster who is sometimes tricked. Achilles is a far more fabulous and less nuanced figure than David - Arthur is closer, though less interesting. Actually I think Lancelot du Lac would be a better comparison. I am not sure there is any real distinction between myth and fiction when it comes to getting in touch with vivid characters - is Elizabeth Bennet mythical or fictional? If you found yourself on a train with Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedict, would you not know them at once? However, my main point was to draw a link between the very real figure of David (whether real in a fictional or a historic sense) and ourselves - David's triumphs and his miseries are not a thousand miles from our own.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 5:41pm GMT

Am enjoying this conversation, Simon and Rosemary: thanks---and Merry Christmas!

Posted by: JCF on Tuesday, 20 December 2011 at 9:11pm GMT


You described "the very real figure of David (whether real in a fictional or a historic sense)" and that captures it for me perfectly.

In some spheres of life, truth is not built on whether it actually happened. And fiction (or myth) can be real.

Thank you.


Posted by: Simon Dawson on Wednesday, 21 December 2011 at 12:14pm GMT

I think that is true - nevertheless, my best sober judgement, not as an expert in the field but as one who has read something about it, and who works in areas with some similarities, my sober judgement would be that the succession narrative is propaganda designed to explain, or explain away, facts which the listeners knew to be true. But as you say, illumination from the stories does not depend on if, and how far, they are historical.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Wednesday, 21 December 2011 at 10:28pm GMT

The other difference between heroic literature and the David stories of course is that the Succession Narrative clearly has two strands. The first is an account of a passionate man in search of power. The second is a whitewash of this search for power. A whitewash that does not quite succeed - and in this the story is unlike the others. One has to imagine a creator of fiction who is interested in creating and maintaining this. It is not impossible (bloke A creates heroic myth, later chap B undermines heroic myth) Not impossible, but unlikely.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Thursday, 22 December 2011 at 1:41pm GMT
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.