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David J.A. Clines, Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible
(Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 205; Gender, Culture,
Theory, 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 212-41.
David the Man:
The Construction of Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible*
There are three sets of questions underlying this study.
1. What does it mean to be a man in our own culture? What
roles are available for young men to grow into, what images are
there for adult men to imitate, what criteria exist for defining
2. And what was it like in the world of the Bible? Was it differ-
ent, or much the same?
3. How do our answers to the first set of questions determine
or influence our answers to the second set? How have our
images of biblical men been shaped by our own cultural norms?
1. Being a Man in the Modern West
In the predominant culture of the West, five major themes in the
construction of masculinity have been noted in one influential
This essay was originally delivered as a paper in the Hebrew Bible:
Gender Studies Section, Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting,
Leuven, August, 1994, and at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of
Religion, Cincinnati, November, 1994.
1. The typology is that of J.A. Doyle, The Male Experience (Dubuque, IA:
William C. Brown, 2nd edn, 1989), cited by Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives:
Communication, Gender, and Culture (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing
Company, 1994), pp. 77-81. See also Joseph H. Pleck, The Myth of
Masculinity (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981).

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1. The primary rule is: Don’t be female. J.A. Doyle calls this the
‘negative touchstone’ of men’s role. Whatever women do is ipso
facto what a real man must not do.2
2. The second rule is: Be successful. Men are trained to be
‘success objects’,3 and their worth as husbands, friends and sim-
ply as men is determined by their successfulness. ‘The object, a
boy soon gathers, is not to be liked but to be envied,...not to be
part of a group but to distinguish himself from the others in the
There are other important dimensions to the study of masculinity of
which this essay cannot, of necessity, take account. One is that of change in
western masculinity, and of the processes by which the prevailing norms
have developed. See, for example, Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain
since 1800 (ed. Michael Roper and John Tosh; London: Routledge, 1991);
Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America
1800–1940 (ed. J.A. Mangan and James Walvin; Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1987); Clyde W. Franklin, II, The Changing Definition of
Masculinity (New York: Plenum Press, 1984); Michael S. Kimmel, Changing
Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity (Newbury Park, CA:
Sage Publications, 1987). Cf. also the reviews introduced by Michael Roper,
‘Recent Books on Masculinity’, History Workshop 29 (1990), pp. 184-93; and
the review forum in Victorian Studies 36 (1993), pp. 207-26; James Eli
Adams, ‘The Banality of Transgression? Recent Works on Masculinity’ (pp.
207-13); Ed Cohen, ‘Mar(r)king Men’ (pp. 215-210); Mary Poovey,
‘Exploring Masculinities’ (pp. 223-26).
Another significant dimension is theorizing masculinity; see especially
Peter Middleton, The Inward Gaze: Masculinity and Subjectivity in Modern
Culture (London: Routledge, 1992); and Engendering Men: The Question of
Male Feminist Criticism (ed. Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden; London:
Routledge, 1990).
A third dimension is the challenge to the concept of masculinity itself
posed by a deconstructive approach to the opposition male/female. See
especially Jeff Hearn, Men in the Public Eye: The Construction and Deconstruc-
tion of Public Men and Public Patriarchies (London: Routledge, 1992), esp. pp.
2. Cf. Arthur Brittan, Masculinity and Power (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1989), p. 3: ‘Masculinity...does not exist in isolation from femininity—it
will always be an expression of the current image that men have of them-
selves in relation to women’.
3. W. Farrell, ‘Men as Success Objects’, Utne Reader (May/June, 1991),
pp. 81-84.

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
3. The third rule is: Be aggressive. From childhood, boys are
encouraged to be tough, to fight, and not to run away. Competi-
tive sport emphasizes these values, and in many cultures
military training reinforces them.5
4. The fourth demand is: Be sexual. Men are supposed to be
sexually experienced, and to be always interested in sex.6 ‘Sex
isn’t a free choice when you have to perform to be a man.’7
5. Fifthly, the rule for men is: Be self-reliant. ‘Men are sup-
posed to be confident, independent and autonomous ... A “real
man” doesn’t need others, particularly women. He depends on
himself, takes care of himself, and relies on nobody.’8
Now there is nothing natural or God-given about these roles.
Masculinity, like femininity, is a social construction, the product
of historical processes, as much a human construct as the pyra-
4. Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case against Competition (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1986), p. 168.
5. See also Brittan, Masculinity and Power, Chapter 4 ‘Masculinity and
Competitiveness’ (pp. 77-107).
6. Cf. W. Gaylin, The Male Ego (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1992).
7. Wood, Gendered Lives, p. 81.
8. Wood, Gendered Lives, p. 81. This is not of course the only analysis of
the male role that can be and has been made. Catharine Stimpson, for
example, identifies three ways in which ‘real men’ define themselves: they
earn money in the public labour force and so support their families; they
have formal power over the women and children in those families; they are
heterosexual with the women they dominate and bully other men who are
not heterosexual (Catharine R. Stimpson, ‘Foreword’ to The Making of Mas-
culinities: The New Men’s Studies [ed. Harry Brod; New York: Routledge,
1987], p. xiii. And here is another much-cited account of the typical male:
‘Someone who: is aggressive, independent, unemotional, or hides his emo-
tions; is objective, easily influenced, dominant, likes maths and science; is
not excitable in a minor crisis; is active, competitive, logical, worldly,
skilled in business, direct, knows the ways of the world; is someone whose
feelings are not easily hurt; is adventurous, makes decisions easily, never
cries, acts as a leader; is self-confident; is not uncomfortable about being
aggressive; is ambitious, able to separate feelings from ideas; is not
dependent, nor conceited about his appearance; thinks men are superior to
women, and talks freely about sex with men’ (Fay Fransella and Kay Frost,
On Being a Woman: A Review of Research on How Women See Themselves
[London: Tavistock, 1977, pp. 43-44], cited by Ann Oakley, Subject Women
[Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1981], p. 64).

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mids or pewter, as Catharine Stimpson puts it.9 To be masculine,
as she says, is ‘to have a particular psychological identity, social
role, cultural script, place in the labor force, and sense of the
sacred’10—and all of those elements are socially constructed.
Different societies write different scripts for their men, so it is a
priori likely that maleness in the modern West does not closely
resemble maleness in ancient Israel. But this is at the moment a
rather new question, and we have as yet no resources to tell us
about Israelite masculinity. None of the Bible dictionaries, for
example, broaches this fundamental cultural subject, though
they are packed with trivia about the material culture of the
world of the Bible. We have to start more or less from scratch.
And we had better be open to the possibility of a plurality of
masculinities. Perhaps the society legitimated more than one
way of being a man—though perhaps not, since social pressures
tend toward uniformity rather than diversity.11 More significant
is the fact that not all males, in whatever culture, conform with
the social norms. The norms may privilege young, heterosexual,
strong and physical men, for example, and those who cannot be
so characterized will be deviants from socially acceptable male-
ness. But they will still be males. We can expect, then, to find in
our texts, as well as in our own society, representations of con-
flicting masculinities.
2. Being a Man in the David Story
My scope here is the David story (1 Samuel 16 to 1 Kings 2),
which is of course not the same thing as: ancient Israel. How
typical the masculinity of this story is of the Hebrew Bible as a
9. Stimpson, ‘Foreword’ to The Making of Masculinities, p. xiii.
10. Stimpson, ‘Foreword’ to The Making of Masculinities, p. xii.
11. Even in a period of rapid social change such as our own, the
blueprint of gender stereotypes remains remarkably constant; cf. Wood,
Gendered Lives, p. 21; F. Cancian, ‘Love and the Rise of Capitalism’, in
Gender in Intimate Relationships (ed. B. Risman and P. Schwartz; Belmont,
CA: Wadsworth, 1989), pp. 12-25. Of course, it is all too easy to slip into
various intellectual sins over this matter of defining masculinity; David H.J.
Morgan, for example, warns against the errors of essentialism,
reductionism and reification (Discovering Men [Critical Studies on Men and
Masculinities, 3; London: Routledge, 1992], pp. 41-43).

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
whole I do not know, yet; and how the literary representations of
masculinity in our texts relate to real men (not ‘real men’) in
ancient Israel I shall never know. But my guess is that the myth
of masculinity inscribed in the David story was a very potent
influence upon Israelite men, and I am quite sure that the con-
struction of masculinity in the David story was not invented by
its author—or by some historical David—but reflects the cultural
norms of men of the author’s time.
In the world of the David story, then, what are the components
of masculinity? Almost the first words we read about David go a
long way, it so happens, toward answering that question. In 1
Sam. 16.18 one of Saul’s servants describes him, to Saul and to
the readers: David is a mighty man of valour (lyj rwbg), a warrior
(hmjlm vya), intelligent in speech (rbd wbn), a beautiful man
(rat vya), and skilful in playing (ˆgn [dy).12
1. The fighting male
The essential male characteristic in the David story is to be a
warrior, a man of war (hmjlm vya) or mighty man of valour
(lyj rwbg).
Throughout the story, all the principal characters are warriors
who spend a lot of their time fighting and killing. Here is a list of
references to these activities:
David kills Goliath, 1 Sam. 17.50
He is said to have slain ten thousands, 18.7; 29.5
He is made the commander of a thousand, 18.13
He is commanded by Saul to fight Yahweh’s battles on Saul’s
behalf, 18.17
He kills 200 Philistines for their foreskins, 18.27
He goes on fighting Philistines, 18.30
He makes a great slaughter of the Philistines, 19.8
Doeg kills 85 priests, 22.18
12. He is obviously overqualified for the job of court musician, as
Brueggemann wryly observes (Walter Brueggemann, First and Second
Samuel [Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching;
Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990], p. 125). Heather McKay reminds me in
this connection of the stained-glass window in the parish church in Fairlie,
Ayrshire, in which the hyper-competent young David bows beneath the
weight of his shepherd’s crook, his throwing-stone, his scrip, his lyre—and
his psalm-book.

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David makes a great slaughter of the Philistines at Keilah, 23.5
There is a battle with the Philistines at Mt Gilboa, 31.1
The Philistines kill Jonathan and other sons of Saul, 31.2
An Amalekite kills Saul, 2 Sam. 1.10
David has the Amalekite killed, 1.15
Joab and Abishai kill Abner, 3.30
Rechab and Baanah kill Ishbosheth, 4.7
David has Rechab and Baanah killed, 4.12
He defeats Philistines, Moabites, Hadadezer, 8.1-3
He kills 22,000 Syrians, 8.5
He kills 18,000 Edomites, 8.13
Joab leads Israelites in battle against Ammonites and Syrians, 10.6-
David leads Israelites in battle against Syrians, 10.17
David kills the Syrian general Shobach, 40,000 horsemen and the
men of 700 chariots, 10.18
Joab besieges the Ammonites of Rabbah, 11.1; 12.26
David arranges for Uriah’s death, 11.15
Absalom’s servants kill Amnon, 13.28-29
David’s warriors kill 20,000 of Absalom’s forces, 18.7
Joab and his warriors kill Absalom, 18.14-15
Joab kills Amasa, 20.10
The men of Abel Beth Maacah behead Sheba, 20.22
David gives seven sons of Saul to the Gibeonites to be killed, 21.6-9
David fights Philistines, 21.15
Abishai kills the Philistine Ishbosheth, 21.17
There are three further battles with Philistines, 21.18-20
David’s warrior Josheb-basshebeth killed 800 men at one time, 23.8
David’s warriors Eleazar and Shammah killed many Philistines,
23.10, 12
Abishai killed 300 men, 23.18
Benaiah killed an Egyptian (and perhaps two Moabites), 23.20-21
David commands the killing of Joab and Shimei, 1 Kgs 2.6, 8-9
(2.34, 46)
David’s body count, by this reckoning, is something like
140,000 men, in addition to the 15 individuals whose deaths he is
said to have been personally responsible for. According to the
biblical text of the David story, indeed, ancient Israel as a whole
was a warrior society: in Israel there were 800,000 warriors ‘who
drew the sword’, and in Judah 500,000 (2 Sam. 24.9). No matter
whether these figures have historical value or not; they are the
impression the text wants to create, they constitute the narrator’s
representation of his society.

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
It is essential for a man in the David story that he be
strong—which means to say, capable of violence against other
men and active in killing other men. The language of strength is
pervasive; here are merely some examples:
David ‘prevails’ (qzj) over the Philistine Goliath, 1 Sam. 17.50
Joab speaks of the Syrians being ‘too strong’ for him or the Ammonites
being ‘too strong’ for his brother Abishai, 2 Sam. 10.11
Amnon ‘overpowered’ (qzj) his sister Tamar and raped her, 13.14
God has girded David with strength for battle, 22.40
Saul and Jonathan are lamented by David as ‘the mighty’, 1.19, 21, 22,
24, 27
David is surrounded by warriors known as his ‘mighty men’, 10.7;
16.6; 17.8; 20.7; 23.8, 9, 16, 17, 22
David himself is described by Hushai to Absalom as a man of war and
the men with him as ‘hardened warriors and as a bear in the
wilds robbed of her cubs’, 17.8, 10
Warriors should be ‘lion-hearted’, 17.10
The ‘hand’ as the symbol of power is almost a leitmotif of the David
narrative: 1 Sam. 17.37, 46, 47; 18.17, 21, 25; 20.16; 22.17; 23.4, 7,
11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 20; 24.5, 7, 11, 13, 14, 16, 19, 21; 25.26, 33; 26.8, 9,
11, 23; 27.1; 28.19; 30.15, 23; 2 Sam. 1.14; 2.7; 3.8, 12, 18, 34; 4.1;
5.19; 8.1; 10.10; 12.7; 14.19; 16.8, 21; 17.2; 18.2, 12, 19, 28; 20.21;
21.9, 22; 22.35; 23.6, 10; 24.14, 16, 17.
Physical strength and the capacity to kill other men manifests
itself sometimes as what we might call courage, even to the point
of recklessness. Hebrew has no words for courage or bravery as
distinct from strength, but our modern versions sometimes are
right to translate words from the root qzj (‘be strong’) as
‘courage, courageous’.13 Thus in 2 Sam. 10.12, for example, Joab
says to his brother Abishai, ‘Be strong (qzj), and let us show our-
selves strong (qzjtnw)14 for the sake of our people and for the sake
of the cities of our God’. When Absalom commissions his ser-
vants to assassinate Amnon (2 Sam. 13.28), he tells them not to
fear: lyjAynbl wyhw wqzj ‘be courageous and be valiant’ (RSV; REB has
‘be bold and resolute’).
13. ‘Courage’ also appears in RSV in a non-military context in 2 Sam.
7.27: ‘therefore thy servant has found courage (lit. has found his heart) to
pray this prayer to thee’.
14. RSV ‘let us play the man’, following AV ‘let us play the men’, proba-
bly borrows the idiom from 1 Sam. 4.9.

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Or, to take another example, from a little outside the David
story itself, in 1 Sam. 4.9 the Philistines say to one another, hav-
ing learned that the ark of Yahweh has come into their camp:
‘Take courage (lit. be strong), and acquit yourselves like men, O

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have
been to you; acquit yourselves like men and fight’. This phrase
‘acquit yourselves like men’, literally ‘become men’ (µyvnal wyh,
repeated as µyvnal µtyyhw), means, very simply, that to be a man is
to fight. The whole ideology surrounding this utterance is a little
more complex than that, no doubt; for the purpose of fighting is
to resist slavery for oneself and to continue to keep others in
slavery; and the possibility that fighting may not ensure that
objective, and that the chance of being victorious can hardly be
greater than fifty-fifty, is silently suppressed. But as far as the
gender issue is concerned, it is simple: men fight.
2. The persuasive male
It is obviously also an important male role in Israel to be good
with words, as David is described by Saul’s servant (1 Sam.
16.18): he is ‘intelligent in speech’ (rbd wbn). The term ˆwbn
‘intelligent’ is used elsewhere of Joseph (Gen. 41.33, 39), of tribal
elders (Deut. 1.13) and of Solomon (1 Kgs 3.12), but nowhere else
in the combination rbd wbn ‘intelligent in speech’. Fokkelman
thinks that this quality, ‘so closely linked to the cares of state, the
public interest, and the law’, must be ‘an anticipation of David’s
functioning as king’;15 but it is something true of David long
before he is king, something that belongs rather with his mas-
culinity than with his kingship.
Where is this characteristic of David’s, intelligent speech, evi-
dent in the text? Ralph W. Klein points to 1 Sam. 17.34-36, where
David persuades Saul that he is capable of withstanding Goliath,
24.10-15, where he explains to Saul why he did not kill him in the
cave, and 26.18-20, where David asks Saul why he continues to
pursue him, and Saul admits that he has done wrong (26.21).
15. J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: A Full
Interpretation Based on Stylistic and Structural Analyses. II. The Crossing Fates
(I Sam. 13–31 & II Sam. 1) (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1986), p. 137. A.R.S.
Kennedy thought that the phrase connects closely with ˆgn [dy ‘knowing how
to play (an instrument)’, in reference either to the recitative that
accompanied the music or to David’s ‘ready wit’ (Samuel: Introduction,
Revised Version with Notes, Index and Maps [Edinburgh: T.C. & E.C. Jack,
n.d.], p. 119). But this requires deletion of the phrase hmjlm vyaw lyj rwbgw as a
secondary intrusion.

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These are all effective examples of the power of words, not in
any magical sense, but as instruments of control. To be master of
persuasion is to have another form of power, which is not an
alternative to, and far less a denatured version of, physical
strength, but part of the repertory of the powerful male. We
think of Odysseus too, who is before everything
, not
merely ‘much travelled’ but ‘versatile, ingenious, wily’.16
Intelligent, eloquent, persuasive speech forms part of a wider
category of ‘wisdom’, to which Norman Whybray has drawn
attention as an important motif in the ‘Succession Narrative’.17 In
2 Sam. 14.20 the woman from Tekoa says that the king ‘has wis-
dom like the wisdom of the angel of God to know all things that
are on the earth’, and in 1 Kgs 2.6, 9 David assumes royal wis-
dom in his successor Solomon by urging him to ‘act according to
your wisdom’ in seeing that Joab and Shimei are killed. Among
the examples of ‘wisdom’ in the David story cited by Whybray
are: David’s attempts to extricate himself from the results of his
adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11.14-25), Joab’s use of the
woman of Tekoa ‘in order to change the course of affairs’ (RSV),
Absalom’s words by which he ‘stole the hearts of the men of
Israel’ (2 Sam. 15.1-6), and David’s sending Hushai to give false
advice to Absalom (2 Sam. 15.33-35).
The fact that there are also intelligent and persuasive women
speakers in the David story, such as Abigail and the woman of
Tekoa, by no means undercuts the assertion that this is a charac-
teristic of masculinity.18 It is precisely because our own culture
16. Homer, Odyssey 1.1. He is, according to W.B. Stanford (The Odyssey of
Homer [London: Macmillan, 2nd edn, 1959], pp. xii-xiii), ‘a symbol of the
Ionic-Greek Everyman in his eloquence, cleverness, unscrupulousness,
intellectual curiosity, courage, endurance, shrewdness’.
17. R.N. Whybray, The Succession Narrative: A Study of II Sam. 9–20 and
I Kings 1 and 2 (Studies in Biblical Theology, 2/9; London: SCM Press, 1968),
pp. 57-60, 90.
18. It would be interesting to know if eloquence was perhaps not
expected of a woman in ancient Israel. In Luther’s Germany it wasn’t.
Praising his wife’s fluency, he remarked one day at table, ‘[E]loquence in
women shouldn’t be praised; it’s more fitting for them to lisp and stammer.
This is more becoming to them. In men speech is a great and divine gift’
(Martin Luther, in Luther’s Works. 54. Table Talk [ed. and trans. Theodore G.
Tappert; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967], p. 317).

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insists so strongly on defining a man as ‘not a woman’ that we
are tempted to think that anything a woman can do cannot also
be characteristically male; but that is a fallacy.
3. The beautiful male
One of the distinctive features noted by Saul’s servant about
David is that he is a beautiful man: he is a rat vya, ‘a man of
(beautiful) form’ (1 Sam. 16.18). Beautiful people in the Bible are
both male and female: Rachel is ‘beautiful of form’ (ratAtpy, Gen.
29.17), as is Abigail (1 Sam. 25.3); Esther is harm tbwfw ratAtpy ‘fair
of form and beautiful in looks’ in Est. 2.7,19 and Bathsheba is
‘very beautiful in appearance’ (dam harm tbwf, 2 Sam. 11.2). Among
the males there is Joseph, who is ‘beautiful of form and beautiful
of appearance’ (harm hpyw ratAhpy, Gen. 39.6), and Adonijah, who is
‘very beautiful’ (dam ratAbwf, 1 Kgs 1.6).20 Saul is a ‘handsome’
(bwf)21 young man (rwjb) and there is none among the Israelites
more handsome (bwf) than him; he is taller than any other
Israelite (1 Sam. 9.2). David is ‘ruddy’ (ynwmda)—whatever exactly
that means, it obviously refers to some aspect of physical
beauty22—and ‘fair of eyes’ (µyny[ hpy)23 and ‘beautiful in appear-
ance’ (yar bwf) in 1 Sam 16.12. In 17.42 he is ‘ruddy’ (ynwmda) ‘with
beauty of appearance’ (harm hpyAµ[).24 Of Absalom we hear that ‘in
19. And Tamar is hpy ‘beautiful’ in 2 Sam. 13.1.
20. The same phrase may lie behind LXX’s
here; it is
at 1 Kgs 1.6.
21. Moses as a child is also seen to be bwf ‘beautiful’ (Exod. 2.2).
22. It is generally thought to refer to the colour of the skin, but Kennedy,
Samuel, p. 118, thinks (following Klostermann) that it may be the colour of
the hair, and finds it interesting to think of David as the red-haired ‘darling
of the songs of Israel’ (2 Sam. 23.1), ‘or, as Browning has it in his Saul,
“God’s child with his dew, On thy gracious gold hair”’.
23. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction,
Notes and Commentary (Anchor Bible, 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980),
p. 275, emends ‘with some confidence’ µ[ ynwmda to µy[nw µda ‘ruddy and
attractive’ (cf. µwda ‘ruddy’ in Cant. 5.10).
24. Some manuscripts have µyny[ hpy ‘beautiful of eyes’; cf. LXX
. McCarter, I Samuel, p. 275, deletes harm hpyAµ[ ynwmdaw
as an expansion inspired by 1 Sam. 16.12; Peter R. Ackroyd is similarly
tempted (The First Book of Samuel [The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the
New English Bible; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971], p. 145).

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all Israel there was not a man so much to be praised for his
beauty (lit. there was not [such] a beautiful man, hpyAvya)’; ‘from
the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish
in him’ (2 Sam. 14.25). And there is of course the servant of Isa-
iah 53, who because of his disfigurement has no ‘form’ (rat) or
‘splendour’ (rdh) that ‘we’ should gaze upon (har) him, and no
‘appearance’ (harm) that ‘we’ should desire (dmj) him (53.2); it is
implied that ordinarily one would expect a high-ranking ‘servant
of Yahweh’ to be beautiful in form and face, and to be sexually
attractive (dmj) to ‘us’ (? males).
Samuel is obviously impressed by male beauty. When he ‘sees’
Jesse’s eldest son Eliab, he thinks, ‘Surely here, before the LORD,
is his anointed king’ (1 Sam. 16.6 REB). The word ‘beauty’ is not
there, but the word ‘sees’ is; what the male gaze sees attracts it,
though its super-ego may feel uncomfortable about feeling
attracted. Says Yahweh to Samuel, ‘Pay no attention to his out-
ward appearance and stature...The LORD does not see as a mor-
tal sees; mortals see only appearances but the LORD sees into the
heart’ (v. 7 REB). But then Samuel catches sight of Saul, ‘hand-
some, with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes’ (v. 12 REB), and, with
wondrous irony, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, ‘Samuel and
the narrator are dazzled’;25 and Yahweh, who of course does not
see as a mortal sees, seizes the moment: ‘This is the man; rise and
anoint him’ (v. 12), he commands.
Beauty is not generally a state to which a man who does not
have it can aspire,26 but obviously it is very desirable, in the
world of the David story, for a man to be beautiful. Beauty is to
be seen, at the least, in bodily shape, in the eyes, in the skin
colour, and in the height. The language used here is not of some
25. Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Bible
Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: John Knox Press,
1990), pp. 122-23.
26. I should not omit the concept of ‘body building’, however. Rowena
Chapman writes archly of those ‘paragons of male aesthetics, rippling
poems of perfect pectorals and shuddering quads, testimonies to current
canons of male beauty...Everyone knows you don’t get a body like that just
by whistling[;] it requires effort, patience and commitment’ (‘The Great Pre-
tender: Variations on the New Man Theme’, in Male Order: Unwrapping
Masculinity [ed. Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford; London:
Lawrence & Wishart, 1988], pp. 225-48 [237]).

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
diffused notion of ‘good looks’, but reflects some quite precise
and analytical thought about what makes a man beautiful. From
the description of Absalom we learn that beauty is not regarded
by men in Israel as a mere accident of birth that is for the most
part to be shrugged off as the way the cookie crumbles. Rather, it
is an aspect of ‘real manhood’ for which a man can expect praise
and admiration.
4. The bonding male
A further important characteristic of maleness in the David story
is friendship between males, specifically the type of friendship
now known as ‘male bonding’.27 Friendship is not of course a
simple category, and several typologies have been advanced that
identify friendships along a continuum ranging from the
‘affective’ to the ‘instrumental’.28 Those friendships within the
David story have strong elements of the types at both poles.
Noting how little David and Jonathan seem to know one another
or how few things they do together, we need to recognize that
there is more than one kind of friendship, and that emotional
intimacy is not necessarily part of male friendship, or at least
that ideas of intimacy are not necessarily the same for men and
for women. In a word, ‘male bonding is not a vehicle for
male–male emotional relationships, but rather is a substitute for
27. The term seems to have been first used by Lionel Tiger, in his Men in
Groups (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1969). Among recent studies of
male bonding in literary texts may be mentioned those of Donald J. Geiner,
Women Enter the Wilderness: Male Bonding and the American Novel of the 1980s
(Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), advancing the
questionable theory that in the last decade the tendency in (white, male)
American novels has been for male bonding to be less exclusive of women;
Anne J. Cruz, ‘Homo ex machina? Male Bonding in Calderón’s A secreto
agravio, secreta vengenza’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 25 (1989),
pp. 154-66.
28. Cf. Y.A. Cohen, ‘Patterns of Friendship’, in Social Structure and Per-
sonality (ed. Y.A. Cohen; New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961); E.
Wolf, ‘Kinship, Friendship and Patron–Client Relationships in Complex
Societies’, in The Social Anthropology of Complex Societies (ed. M. Banton;
London: Tavistock, 1966), pp. 3-27; Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow,
‘Gilgamesh and the Sundance Kid: The Myth of Male Friendship’, in The
Making of Masculinities, pp. 241-58 (243-45).

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Interested Parties
In their delightfully entitled paper, ‘Gilgamesh and the Sun-
dance Kid: The Myth of Male Friendship’, Dorothy Hammond
and Alta Jablow have traced a widespread myth of male friend-
ship, which ‘dramatizes the devotion between male friends, usu-
ally a dyad, forged in an agonistic setting’,30 from its classic
expression in the Gilgamesh epic, through Homer and the Bible
to the Song of Roland, bush ‘mateship’ in the short stories of the
Australian writer Henry Lawson, comrades in arms in films of
the world wars, heroes of frontier America like the Lone Ranger
and Tonto, near-mythic figures like Butch Cassidy and the Sun-
dance Kid, and even, with a gender twist, to Cagney and Lacey.
In its classical formulations, as with Gilgamesh and Enkidu,
David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pyla-
des, Castor and Pollux, Damon and Pythias, the friends are typi-
cally heroes: ‘aristocratic, young, brave, and beautiful. In their
free and wholehearted response to one another, they openly
declare their affection and admiration. They engage in many
adventures and battles, sharing danger, loyal to the death.
Throughout life, they remain devoted and generous to each
other.’31 Such male friendship is of course not the opposite of
female friendship, and I am not suggesting that the Hebrews
knew of no other ways for men to be friends except on the pat-
tern of David and Jonathan. But I am arguing that this model of
heroic male bonding is one important way masculinity was con-
structed in ancient Israel and, as well, that the David narrative
itself had a significant role in sustaining that construction.
According to Hammond and Jablow, the function of male
friendship in this tradition was to provide a source of support
that was freely chosen without the constraints of kinship, a sup-
port that perhaps had emotional dimensions that could not be
29. Pleck, The Myth of Masculinity, p. 150 (italics mine). And, while
‘males measure no lower than females in sociability, they do measure lower
in intimacy’ (p. 149). Cf. also Drury Sherrod, ‘The Bonds of Men: Problems
and Possibilities in Close Male Relationships’, in The Making of Masculinities,
pp. 213-39 (217): ‘[w]omen seem to look for intimate confidantes, while men
seek for partners for adventure’.
30. Hammond and Jablow, ‘Gilgamesh and the Sundance Kid’, p. 245.
31. Hammond and Jablow, ‘Gilgamesh and the Sundance Kid’, p. 247.

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
provided within a system of kinship and arranged marriages.
Such male friendships operated especially in the public domain,
which meant in practice in many societies, in warfare. In that
context, familial support was unavailable, and warriors needed
the support of likeminded and equally isolated men. At least in
classical Greece, and probably also in Israel, such male friend-
ships had no overt homosexual element; certainly in Greece,
homosexual love was typically between an older lover and a
younger beloved,32
whereas male bonding friends were
peers—as were Jonathan and David.
The ideology of such male friendship contains these elements:
loyalty to one another, a dyadic relationship with an exclusive
tendency, a commitment to a common cause, and a valuing of
the friendship above all other relationships. In such a friendship
there is not necessarily a strong emotional element; the bond
may be more instrumental and functional than affective. Perhaps
that is the nature of the bond between David and Jonathan, and
that is one of the ways in which they subscribe to, and promote,
the Hebrew ideology of masculinity.
5. The womanless male
One of the concomitants of strong male bonding is of course a
relative minimizing of cross-sex relationships. It may seem
strange to speak of David, a man with eight principal wives and
at least ten others of secondary rank (2 Sam. 15.16), as
‘womanless’. But it is a striking feature of the David story that
the males are so casual about women, and that women are so
marginal to the lives of the protagonists. There is in this story, on
the whole, no sexual desire, no love stories, no romances, no
wooing, no daring deeds for the sake of a beloved. This is not a
world in which men long for women. It is rather a matter of
pride for David and his men, in fact, that they have kept them-
selves ‘clean’ from women: ‘ , he avers.
There is sex in the story, of course, but it is perfunctory and
usually politically motivated. The classic case in the David story
is that of Absalom, who has sex with ten of his father’s
secondary wives ‘in the sight of all Israel’ simply in order to lay
32. Cf. Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1978).

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Interested Parties
claim to the throne of his father (2 Sam. 16.21-23). Even in the
Bathsheba episode, the sex is essentially an expression of royal
power, and it is much more like rape than love.
In the one case where sexual desire comes into the foreground,
it is accompanied by strongly negative connotations. Amnon
‘loves’ his sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13.2). But such love is not good
for him: he is in distress (rrx) to the point of becoming ill (hlj
hithpa.) ‘on account of’ (NIV) (rwb[b) her, but perhaps rather we
should translate it ‘because of her’—as if it were her fault.33 He is
no longer in control of himself, but feels compelled to satisfy his
lust, which he can only do by trickery, incest and rape. And the
desire he experiences is unsatisfying and ephemeral: his love for
her immediately turns to hatred. What is more, his desire has
fearful consequences: he himself becomes hated by his brother
and the object of his father’s anger, and eventually he meets his
death—just because of his sexual desire and experience. The
message plainly is that sex can damage your health very
severely, and nothing in the narrative of David goes to show that
more definitively than the key episode of David and Bathsheba
(2 Sam. 11).
We have to conclude that David does not actually like women
very much, and certainly has no fun with them. If he can say that
Jonathan’s love has been ‘wonderful’, better than the love of
women, and he has (as far as I can judge) never been to bed with
Jonathan, it doesn’t say a lot for his love life.
But more important than David’s sexual experience is the
image of masculinity that the David story promotes. It says loud
and clear, if only ever implicitly, that a real man can get along
fine without women; he can have several women in a casual kind
of way, but he has nothing to gain from them except children,
and he owes them nothing. Hanging over every woman is the
spectre of fatal attraction; like the ‘wily’ woman of Proverbs 7,
every woman is potentially a road to Sheol, a way down to the
chambers of death (Prov. 7.27). A man does well to steer clear of
women, a man does not need women, a man is not constituted
by his relationship with women. It is a different story if we sub-
stitute ‘other men’ for ‘women’ in the previous sentence.
33. Cases where rwb[b implies responsibility are, for example: Gen. 3.17;
8.21; 12.13, 16; 18.26, 29, 31, 32; 26.24.

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
f. The musical male
A final characteristic of David, according to the glowing report
of the servant of Saul, is that David is ‘skilful in playing the lyre’
(ˆgn [dy)), lit. ‘knowing, i.e. experienced at, playing [a stringed
instrument]’, 1 Sam. 16.18). I thought at first that musicianship
was not an especially masculine trait in David, but just an acci-
dental feature of his characterization, more dependent on his
role in the narrative (like the notation that ‘Yahweh was with
him’) than upon the Hebrew construction of masculinity. In any
case, I would not want to lay too much weight upon this speech
by a servant of Saul; it is certainly not meant by him to be a
definitive summary of the characteristics of Israelite masculinity.
Nevertheless, the servant of Saul certainly encourages us to
ponder whether this element in the picture of David—alongside
his being a warrior, a persuasive speaker and a beautiful
man—may not itself be an expression of his maleness.
We ourselves are hardly inclined to distinguish between the
sexes in the matter of musical ability, and would readily ascribe
the predominance of males as composers of music and as orches-
tral conductors, for example, to more general social structures.
My own modern construction of masculinity was no doubt an
important reason why I did not myself immediately recognize
David’s musical talent as a masculine trait.34 Is it, though? What
is the evidence?
In the Hebrew Bible, women as well as men make music. But is
the music-making they engage in a gendered activity? Women
are singers, accompanying themselves with timbrels and tam-
bourines and other assorted idiophones (like the vylv, [?]
‘sistrum’) and membranophones (like the πt, [?] ‘timbrel, tam-
bourine, drum’).35 The playing of stringed instruments, on the
other hand, seems to have been largely a male activity. It would
34. I am grateful to Francis Landy for urging me to consider David's
musicality more seriously.
35. For the categories, see Ivor H. Jones, ‘Music and Musical Instru-
ments’, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman; New
York: Doubleday, 1992), IV, pp. 930-39. For the sistrum as played by
women, see 1 Sam. 18.6; for the timbrel, Exod. 15.11; Judg. 11.34; 1 Sam.
18.6; Jer. 31.4.

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Interested Parties
not be that ancient Israelite women were incapable of playing
stringed instruments, of course, but rather that skill in
playing—playing ‘with the hand’ (wdyb, 1 Sam 16.16, 23), i.e. with
dextrous use of the fingers, would be a male preserve. If we look
at the references to the lyre (rwnk, often translated as ‘harp’),
which is David’s speciality, and is referred to more than 40 times
in the Hebrew Bible, the only place where a woman plays it is in
Isa. 23.16: it is Tyre as a prostitute who takes a lyre and makes
sweet melody (ˆgn byfyh).36 The exception proves the rule. Women
never play the lbn, (?) ‘lute’ or the bgw[, (?) ‘harp’.
Perhaps we should conclude therefore that David’s kind of
music, and his pre-eminence in playing it, is represented in the
narrative as an essentially male trait.
g. A Conflict of Masculinities?
Now that we have reviewed what seem to be the leading male
characteristics in the figure of David, there is another question
that needs yet to be raised. It is, Are there are any conflicting
masculinities within the David story? Focussing exclusively on
David, I ask, Does David himself conform entirely to one set of
models for maleness? Are there ways, for example, in which
David breaks free of the role of the traditional male, are there
any hints that David might be something of a ‘new man’?37
At first sight this may seem to be so. There are several episodes
in which David acts contrary to what seem to be the standards of
a traditional masculinity. Joab puts it famously when he says,
‘You love those who hate you and hate those who love
you...Today I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us
were dead today, then you would be pleased’ (2 Sam. 19.6). We
(I mean, we modern westerners) are rather attracted to this trait
in David—even if it does not immediately resonate for us with
36. In Sir. 9.4 also the reader is advised not to dally (or sleep) with tnygnm;
whether they are women who play instruments or ‘singing girls’ (as JB,
NAB) is not certain. In the LXX the term is
, but in Hellenistic
seems to mean ‘sing’, with or without accompaniment (in
classical Greek it was ‘pluck [a stringed instrument]’).
37. See the brilliant essay by Rowena Chapman, ‘The Great Pretender:
Variations on the New Man Theme’, in Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity,
pp. 225-48.

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
Christian overtones. Many readers would agree with Cheryl
Exum that the whole episode of Absalom’s revolt brings before
us a ‘rare, intimate view of David’ and that ‘[i]n his vulnerability
the king becomes most sympathetic’.38 At the very least, we are
inclined with her to find marks of ‘tragic conflict’ and ‘grief, so
tragically excessive’, and to behold a man who ‘endures, broken
in spirit’, a man in extremity, who has ‘expended all emotion’.39
But what if the burden of the text, reading with the grain of its
gender codes, that is to say, is not that David is somehow noble
and tragically heroic in this scene, but is simply a failure as a
man, as a male. What reason have we to think that the narrator
has any sympathy for David? On the contrary, he has Joab
roundly rebuke David in terms no one has ever dared use with
him before,40 and David, for his part, does not defend himself
against Joab’s criticism but meekly capitulates, arising and tak-
ing his seat in the gate (19.8). In short, we ourselves may find
David interesting precisely because he sometimes lapses from
the ideals of traditional masculinity; but that does not mean that
the text has relaxed its allegiance to those norms for an instant.41
The text represents David as a great hero, but a fallible one; and
his fallibility only serves to inscribe yet deeper the authority of
the cultural norms of his time.
Reading from this direction, perhaps another unexpected
episode in the David story makes better sense. While the child of
his union with Bathsheba is dying, David fasts and will not be
roused from his identification with the child in its weakness; but
38. J. Cheryl Exum, Tragedy and Biblical Narrative: Arrows of the Almighty
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 130. There is an appeal
in a footnote to Charles Conroy, Absalom Absalom! Narrative and Language in
2 Sam. 13–20 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978), pp. 111-12. And cf.
Walter Brueggemann, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 47: ‘If there had been no interiority to
David, if there were only public events, the narrative would scarcely attract
39. Exum, Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, p. 135.
40. As Exum notes (Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, p. 135).
41. Brueggemann sees this when he words Joab’s rebuke as a warning
that ‘if [David’s] personal pain is allowed to erode a good public presence,
the whole fragile “house of authority” will quickly collapse’ (David’s Truth,
p. 72).

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Interested Parties
the moment the child has died, David pragmatically resumes his
normal activity and abandons his grieving (2 Sam. 12.15-23).
Readers of David’s behaviour, starting with his puzzled servants
in the text, have often found something both fascinating and
repellent here,42 but none, I think, has seen it as the outworking
of a gender code. If men of David’s time are to be strong, David’s
response to the child’s death is the ultimate macho act, the fitting
conclusion to a narrative of aggressive masculinity that began
with the rape of Bathsheba and continued with the cynical dis-
posal of her husband. In this story, even God is treated by David
in a purely instrumental way: David fasts and prays only so long
as he thinks he can affect God’s determination of the outcome;
the moment God takes the child’s life, David knows he is
defeated, and abandons his weapon of a self-serving piety.43
Whether the excessive grief over the dying child conformed with
the male script of his culture or not I do not know; but if it did
not, David certainly compensated very shortly for his lapse from
its standards.
What of the occasions when David capitulates to fate? Are
these signs of a character that is in resistance to male norms of
success and indomitableness? Are they the hint of a narrator that
there can be more to being a man than playing out traditional
gender roles? I am thinking of the time when David hears the
news that Absalom has been proclaimed king in Hebron and
promptly vacates Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15.13-23). When Abiathar
and Zadok volunteer to bring the ark with David into exile,
David tells them to take it back: ‘If I find favour in the eyes of
Yahweh’, he says, ‘he will bring me back and let me see both it
and his habitation; but if he says, “I have no pleasure in you”,
behold, here I am; let him do to me what seems good to him’
42. Though some think it ‘an act of profound faith in the face of the most
precious tabus of his people’ (Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust: The
Neglected Side of Biblical Faith [Richmond: John Knox Press, 1972], p. 36), or
an affirmation of David’s ‘belief in Yahweh’s freedom to repay as he
chooses’ (David M. Gunn, The Story of King David: Genre and Interpretation
[Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 6; Sheffield:
JSOT, 1978], p. 110).
43. Brueggemann, David’s Truth, p. 53, acknowledges that ‘the over-
riding mark of David is his self-serving’.

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
(15.25-26). A little later, he is faced by Shimei, cursing and
throwing stones. But David resists Abishai’s offer to ‘go over and
take off his head’ (16.9), saying, ‘Let him alone, and let him
curse, for Yahweh has bidden him. It may be that Yahweh will
look upon my affliction, and that Yahweh will repay me with
good for this cursing of me today’ (16.11-12). Is David being
portrayed in these incidents as ‘a man of stunning faith’, moved
by ‘more than moral courage of a tragic kind’?44 Or is it David
abandoning the soldierly norms by which he has lived, making
himself more sympathetic—to pacifists at least—in the process,
but not in the least inspiring the hearers of his story to a post-
masculinist worldview? Is it not, from the point of view of the
narrator, a weakness in David as a man (though it is perhaps a
strength in him as a human being, from our point of view) that
he has caved in at the first rumour of opposition to him by
There is no ‘new man’ here in the David story. There is a fully
fledged traditional male, who for the most part recapitulates
everything scripted for him by his culture, but now and then
conspicuously fails—so conspicuously that any non-feminized
reader knows immediately that it is a failure that is not to be
excused or imitated, but is a sorry example that serves only to
reinforce the value of the traditional norms.
3. The Conflict of Masculinities: Ours and Theirs
There are similarities and dissimilarities between our modern
western masculinity and that of the David story. The most strik-
ing, and even perhaps the most foundational, of the dissimilari-
ties is the modern self-definition of maleness over against femi-
ninity. In David’s world, evidently, the spheres of men and
women are so distinct, their cultural scripts so divergent, that
neither defines self over against the other. If our culture repre-
sents the ‘feminization’ of society, as has been argued,45 it makes
44. Brueggemann, David’s Truth, p. 53.
45. Such ‘feminization’ has been seen, historically, most clearly by its
opponents, such as the Boy Scout movement. See, for example, Joseph H.
Pleck, ‘The Theory of Male Sex-Role Identity: Its Rise and Fall, 1936 to the
Present’, in The Making of Masculinities, pp. 21-38 (23); Michael S. Kimmel,

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Interested Parties
sense that males now tend to define themselves oppositionally,
having lost a distinct idea of their own role.
The foundational character of this oppositional self-definition
is illustrated graphically, if rather trivially, by the idea of male
beauty. In a world—like David’s—in which men do not have to
be the opposite of women, there is no problem with men think-
ing of themselves and of other men as beautiful, indeed of
beauty being a desirable male characteristic. But in our world,
men go out of their way to avoid the idea, and have developed a
language to repress it.
Perhaps another example where the oppositional self-defini-
tion has had influence is that of the persuasive male. In our cul-
ture, skill with words, especially persuasive speech, tends to be
regarded as a female characteristic, and it does not figure among
the typically male ideals analysed by Doyle and Wood. A charac-
teristic male of our time is rather the strong silent type.
It is interesting to wonder how the evident lack of interest in
sex in the David story, by contrast to our contemporary insis-
tence on its near obligatoriness, fits in with the profile of mascu-
linity in the text. Can it be that contemporary absorption in sex
coheres with a masculinity that is not so sure of itself, that is
troubled about self-definition and functionality? If sex is as much
a way of finding oneself as finding the other, might finding one-
self be a peculiarly modern desire, one that is not shared by the
world of the text?46
There are of course also the similarities to be considered. The
crucial one is the demand to be aggressive. The idea of the war-
rior as the ideal of maleness is instantly recognizable in both
cultures, even if most of the fighting today is done either by
proxy in distant wars or metaphorically on the sports field or in
the boardroom. Toughness and strength are still the cultural
‘The Contemporary “Crisis” of Masculinity in Historical Perspective’, in The
Making of Masculinities, pp. 121-53 (143-49); Michael Messner, ‘The Meaning
of Success: The Athletic Experience and the Development of Male Identity’,
in The Making of Masculinities, pp. 193-209 (196).
46. Cf. Robert Nozik, ‘Sexuality’, in Gender Basics: Feminist Perspectives on
Women and Men (ed. Anne Minas; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993), pp. 302-
306: ‘It is not only the other person who is known more deeply in sex. One
knows one’s own self better in experiencing what it is capable of’ (p. 303).

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
script for boys and men, though what counts as toughness is not
necessarily the same in the two cultures. David can cry, for
example, without detriment to his masculinity, but a man who
cries publicly today is still something of a deviant, an embar-
rassment at least, even if nothing worse.
The idea of success is common to both cultures too, of course.
There is no point in fighting except to win, and success in the
David story is measured by the body count. The idea of success
in modern masculinity is very much more broadly based, how-
ever, and the modern male can easily be made to feel less than a
man if he is unsuccessful in any area of his life. The problem
with the criterion of success, especially when it is couched com-
petitively, as in warfare or in sport or, often, in business, is that
there are very many more failures than successes, so that the
very structure of the male ideal ensures that most males will feel
themselves inadequate in some way or other; the system is a
‘structure of failure’. In the case of the sports world, for example,
though the emphasis on competitive sports throughout the 1960s
was founded on the premises that ‘sports builds character’ and ‘a
winner in sports will be a winner in life’, the very opposite
proves to be the case. And the criterion of success itself is self-
defeating, since ‘success’ is almost never attainable in any abso-
lute or permanent sense; it can only be an aspiration, so long as
the message is conveyed that ‘you’re only as good as your last
game’.47 Whether the same intensity and comprehensiveness
attaches to the idea of success in the David story is doubtful.
As for the idea of self-reliance, here too there are clear reso-
nances between the ideals of masculinity in our culture and in
David’s world. But the meaning of self-reliance, and its depth,
are different. The ideal of the supportive friend as part of the
essence of maleness makes a lot of difference on this front.
So, even the similarities between their world and ours contain
dissimilarities. What happens to those dissimilarities, I now ask,
when readers from our culture read the David story?
47. See further, Michael Messner, ‘The Meaning of Success: The Athletic
Experience and the Development of Male Identity’, in The Making of Mas-
culinities, pp. 193-209 (193-95, 199).

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4. The Triumph of Modern Masculinity
The thesis of this final section is that the profile of masculinity in
the modern world has, in the literature about David, over-
whelmed the quite distinctive portrait of Hebrew masculinity in
the David story.
1. Approval
The most striking aspect of the modern scholarly response to the
figure of David in the biblical narrative is the strong note of
approval that is struck. Why do scholars so unanimously defend
David and gloss over his faults? Have they perhaps been over-
influenced by the tone of the biblical narrator, who is remarkably
reticent and averse to making judgments of the characters?48
Have they perhaps read the narrative, which rarely if ever criti-
cizes David, as approving of David’s behaviour and character,
and have they adopted the narrator’s standpoint, whether
consciously or not? This does not seem to be a probable
explanation, since biblical narrators everywhere are notoriously
reticent and scholars may be expected to take critical account of
that fact.
Perhaps we should consider the theological dimension of the
David figure, whether or not the sentence about his being ‘a man
after God’s own heart’ is taken literally or not. Those who see
David as a prefigurement of the messiah, as, for example, ‘the
kingly the image of which [Israel] looked for a coming
Messiah, who should deliver his people and sit upon the throne
of David for ever’,49 might be inclined to minimize the negative
aspects of David’s character. This is no doubt a very powerful
force in the interpretation of the figure of David, even up to the
present day, as the conclusion of the article on David in the most
48. A famous exception, so it is often said, is 2 Sam. 11.27, where the nar-
rator writes apropos of the Bathsheba affair that ‘the thing that David had
done displeased Yahweh’. It is more probable, however, that this sentence
is nothing more than a motivating sentence for the succeeding narrative of
the death of the child of Bathsheba and David. On the matter of the narra-
tor’s reticence, cf. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (London: George
Allen & Unwin, 1981), pp. 114-30.
49. T.H. Jones, ‘David’, in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (ed.
J.D. Douglas et al.; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), I, pp. 364-69 (369).

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
recent of scholarly Bible encyclopaedias will show:
Ultimately, however, David’s lasting significance lay in his posi-
tion as YHWH’s chosen king for Israel and as the father of the
royal dynasty that YHWH chose to bless. He occupied a midpoint
between his great ancestor Abraham and his great descendant
Jesus. The promises made to David stood in continuity with those
to Abraham, and they pointed to a messianic ideal of great
promise for the world, an ideal that, so Christians have affirmed,
found its expression in Jesus, the Christ.50
If that kind of assertion of mythical and cosmic significance is to
form the conclusion of one’s account of David, it is understand-
able that the character of David is likely to have met throughout
the history of interpretation with considerable approval. Yet
even this angle of approach, which is of course not shared by all
scholars, does not satisfactorily account for the degree of
approval David is accorded at the hands of scholars generally.
What I should like to suggest is that what male scholars (most
who have written on the David story are males, not surprisingly)
are responding to in the character of David is his masculinity, of
which they themselves approve or to which they themselves are
attracted. They view his masculinity through the lens of their
own, of course, but there is enough commonality for them to
identify themselves and their own desire with David. This is a
gender-based hero-worship. They can, and must, excuse his
faults and crimes because he is at bottom a man after their own
heart—which is to say, their own image of masculinity. One
writer of an current encyclopaedia article puts his finger on it
exactly, if rather quaintly: ‘he was all that men find wholesome
and admirable in man’51—‘wholesome’ meaning that they
approve of David, and ‘admirable’ meaning that they desire to
be like him.
2. Success
A second main characteristic of the way in which the figure of
David has been shaped by the norms of modern western mas-
culinity is this: he has been aligned with the masculine model of
50. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘David’, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, I,
pp. 41-48 (48).
51. Jones, ‘David’, in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, I, pp. 364-69 (369).

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Thus J.M. Myers, in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, con-
cludes his article on David with an ‘estimate’, which displays
David as wholly successful in every area of his life. David was
honourable, dignified and loyal; he had a ‘rare quality of diplo-
macy’ (the choice of Jerusalem as his capital was ‘another master
stroke of diplomacy’); he was a great warrior and an excellent
general; he was shrewd as a politician; he was a ‘deeply religious
man’; he was a poet and musician of note; and ‘finally, David
was a great organizer’.53 That is to say, everything that David
does, he does excellently and entirely successfully. What David
does not do well has been totally suppressed from the ‘estimate’.
The commentator is comfortable with his article on David only if
can show David to have been a success, for the commentator is
scripted to desire success himself.
To take another example, David M. Howard, in The Anchor
Bible Dictionary, finds David to have been ‘a shrewd military
strategist and motivator’, a skilful politician, and a talented
administrator of the military, civil and religious bureaucracies.
He had renowned skills as a ‘poet, musician and sponsor of
music’. He displayed ‘a fine religious sensitivity for the most
part’, as evidenced by his ‘relationship with his God, his concern
for others’ welfare, his ready repentance when confronted with
his sin, and his concern for the religious matters pertaining to the
temple and the cult’.54 Everything that David does prospers, and
although there is one point at which David is not perfect—his
‘sin’—somehow that too becomes a sphere of success: David,
admirably, shows ‘ready repentance when confronted with his
52. I do not suggest that this focus entirely misconstrues the Hebrew
narrative, for a sentence like 1 Sam. 18.14 encapsulates it very neatly:
‘David was successful (lykcm) in all his undertakings, for Yahweh was with
him’. And there is no doubt that the story of David can be subsumed under
the rubric of success/failure—as Exum, for example, does over some pages
in her Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, pp. 122-26 (e.g. ‘One could hardly
imagine a more thoroughgoing success story’ [p. 126]). The point rather is
that our contemporary models of masculinity prompt us to foreground cer-
tain textual materials rather than others.
53. J.M. Myers, ‘David’, in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (ed.
George Arthur Buttrick; Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), I, pp. 771-82 (781-82).
54. Howard, ‘David’, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, I, pp. 41-48 (48).

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
sin’. That is to say, for the commentator the sin is swallowed up
in the repentance. David’s success in repentance becomes more
important than his failure in sin, so even his failure becomes an
arena of his success.
A final example, with a more pious turn of phrase, if that were
possible, comes from The Illustrated Bible Dictionary:
[David’s] accomplishments were many and varied; man of action,
poet, tender lover, generous foe, stern dispenser of justice, loyal
friend, he was all that men find wholesome and admirable in
man, and this by the will of God, who shaped him for his
In brief, for these commentators, everything questionable, dis-
tasteful and gross about David has been swallowed up by the
modern myth of masculinity: if he is a real man, he has to be
3. Warfare
We have seen how prominent in the construction of David’s
masculinity is his ability and desire for fighting and killing.
Modern masculinity approves of aggression, and it is striking
that our commentators never say a word against David on this
score. On the other hand, since being a biblical scholar and a
mafia boss at one and the same time would create an uncomfort-
able conflict in their own male identities, they are diffident at
positively approving of David’s perpetual taking of life. So they
have two strategies of containment for their anxiety on this score:
either they suppress the warrior David or they transform the
aggression of the man of blood into the assertiveness of the deci-
sive, problem-solving executive or tycoon.
Both strategies are evident (if you know to look for them) in
the article on David by Jan Fokkelman in Harper’s Bible Dictio-
nary.56 His concluding and summary paragraph begins: ‘David
was not only a very powerful leader and personality as both sol-
dier and statesman, he was also a first-class poet... The court
established by him...gave a tremendous spiritual and literary
55. Jones, ‘David’, in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, I, pp. 364-69 (369).
56. Jan P. Fokkelman, ‘David’, in Harper’s Bible Dictionary (ed. Paul
J. Achtemeier; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), pp. 208-11.

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Interested Parties
impulse to the literature of biblical Israel.’ And so on, until it
concludes, ‘And the poems of David live on in the liturgy of Jew-
ish and Christian communities, sung to this very day’. David
then is what his significance is, and his significance is what
endures to this very day. Of course, he was a ‘soldier’—but not
in the sense of killing lots of men, but in the sense of being a
leader as a soldier, of being a statesman in much the same sense,
and certainly in the same breath, as being a soldier. Of course he
was aggressive, but only in the sense of being ‘a very powerful
leader and personality’—not in the sense of murdering messeng-
ers and killing Philistines for the fun of it. Elsewhere in the arti-
cle also there is the same squeamishness about actual killing.
There is indeed a reference to his ‘courage and leadership in
regular skirmishes with the Philistines’, but that phrase ‘regular
skirmishes’ makes it sound more like football fixtures than hit-
and-run slayings, like good clean fun in which no one gets hurt
rather than the bloody taking of human life. And there is a refer-
ence also to the fact that David ‘became a war lord with his own
army of outlaws and performed services of protection’, as if the
special function of a ‘war lord’ is the provision of security. The
profile of David’s masculinity in the text has been overlaid and
obscured by Fokkelman’s.
Another example is to be found in the International Standard
Bible Encyclopaedia, where the author, David F. Payne, concludes
that David was ‘supremely able in the military and political
spheres’ and that ‘[h]is successes were a tribute to his personal
courage, and to his ability as soldier and statesman’. ‘While his
adultery and murder [of Uriah] cannot be condoned, with this
glaring exception he was in every way the ideal ruler.’57 One
might be forgiven for thinking that the writer not only condones
but actually approves of David’s slaughters and indiscriminate
killings, for in every way, he says, with but one glaring excep-
tion, David is the ideal ruler.
4. Beauty
There is some discomfort in the commentators over male beauty.
57. David F. Payne, ‘David’, in The International Standard Bible Ency-
clopaedia (ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; fully revised edition, Grand Rapids:
Wm B. Eerdmans, 1979), I, pp. 870-76 (876).

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
None of the English translations or the commentators will actu-
ally bring themselves to speaking of ‘beauty’ in a man.58 Their
culture enables them only to think of ‘good looks’ or
‘handsomeness’ in a man, for ‘beauty’ is, for them, a female
characteristic. To be a man is to be different in every respect from
a woman, even linguistically if possible.
And there are other ways of expressing this discomfort as well.
McCarter says curtly: ‘The quality [of ‘good looks’, as he calls it]
is to be interpreted as a physical symptom of divine favor’59—as
if he can accept male beauty only as a feature of the text that
stands in need of ‘interpretation’, only if it is a symbol for some-
thing else. It is strange too that he calls it a ‘symptom’, as if it
were a medical condition. Ackroyd too wants to stress that ‘good
appearance’ is seen as a divine gift60—as if its real significance
were theological.
Another way of handling the discomfort is to make no com-
ment on the texts that speak of male beauty. A.R.S. Kennedy, for
example, says nothing about any of the texts except to suggest
that David’s ‘ruddiness’ may refer to his hair colour61 and to curl
his lip at 2 Sam. 14.25-27 as ‘[a] paragraph of later date eulogiz-
ing Absalom’s personal beauty’.62
Yet another mode of commenting is to naturalize the Hebrew
terminology to an acceptable code of the commentator’s time.
Thus Ackroyd, for example, reckons that ‘handsome’ (NEB) at
1 Sam. 16.1, used of David, is better translated ‘a man of pres-
ence’.63 The NEB itself actually says of Saul at 1 Sam. 9.2 that
‘there was no better man among the Israelites than he’, and
Ackroyd remarks that ‘better’ ‘may indicate moral quality, but
the phrases following suggest superiority of physical appear-
58. Kennedy, Samuel, p. 261, gives the lie to that generalization, but since
his book is almost a hundred years old, perhaps it is not representative of
the ‘modern’ West.
59. McCarter, I Samuel, p. 173.
60. Ackroyd, 1 Samuel, p. 75. David’s beauty is ‘good appearance’ also
on p. 133.
61. Kennedy, Samuel, p. 118.
62. Kennedy, Samuel, p. 261.
63. Ackroyd, 1 Samuel, p. 135.
64. Ackroyd, 1 Samuel, p. 75.

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McKane is something of an exception among commentators in
not only noting but also urging his readers to note ‘the emphasis
[in 1 Sam. 9.2] on Saul’s physical attractiveness and superb
physique’,65 but that is only place in his brief commentary where
the subject of male beauty is allowed to raise its head. On the
whole, David’s beauty, and therewith the very idea of male
beauty in general, is suppressed in the commentaries by the
modern ideology of masculinity.
5. Sex
Here is the site of another set of conflicts. David has intercourse
with twenty women, at least, but he is not very interested in sex.
The only appreciative thing he says about love sounds homo-
erotic, especially because it explicitly displaces women as the
object of male affection: ‘I am desolate for you, Jonathan my
brother. Very dear you were to me, your love more wonderful to
me than the love of a woman’ (NJB); ‘Your love for me was won-
derful, surpassing the love of women’ (2 Sam. 1.26 REB); ‘[M]ost
dear have you been to me; [m]ore precious have I held love for
you than love for women’ (NAB). Faced with David’s sexual
practice and his sexual interests, commentators find themselves
in a fix. Writing for church presses and Christian sensibilities (for
the most part), they feel obliged to uphold monogamous hetero-
sexuality as the norm, while their own culture scripts them to
regard sex as critical and foundational for masculinity. Given the
textual evidence, how are they to construct and represent David
on sex? What sort of a man is he, and how does his masculinity
implictly trouble the commentators’ own masculinity?
Take Kyle McCarter, and let him speak for commentators
everywhere. Wherever the language of love between Jonathan
and David crops up in the narrative,66 McCarter hastens to
65. William McKane, I and II Samuel: Introduction and Commentary (Torch
Bible Commentaries; London: SCM Press, 1963), p. 69.
66. I refer to 1 Sam. 18.1; 20.17; 2 Sam. 1.26 (though not 1 Sam. 19.1,
where the Hebrew is pj, which means no more than ‘deeply fond’ in
McCarter’s translation [I Samuel, p. 320]; most of the rest of us think that it
means ‘delight in’, ‘take pleasure in’, but it’s a bit ripe having men ‘delight
in’ other men, isn’t it?).

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
assure us that it has a political connotation.67 To be sure, it
‘describes personal affection’,68 and Jonathan ‘is so taken with
David that he becomes vitally devoted to him in affection and
loyalty’,69 and ‘Jonathan’s deep affection for David is a part of
the close relationship that has developed between the two young
men; also it is surely a sign of the irresistible charm of the man
who has Yahweh’s favor’.70 Oh yes, and there was ‘also’ ‘warm
personal intimacy in the relationship between the two
men’—that ‘also’ signifying: as well as the political implications,
which were more important. What we should not forget, says
McCarter, is that ‘In the ancient Near East “love” terminology
belonged to the language of political discourse, and many of the
statements made about Jonathan’s love for David are charged
with political overtones’.71 In a word, says McCarter, banish
from your mind any thought of sex when you read of Jonathan’s
love: it is essentially political, and though there was also a warm
personal ‘affection’, there was absolutely nothing more, honest.
There is no recognition in this commentator that the David and
Jonathan of 1 Samuel cannot be described as ‘just good friends’;
even if they are not lovers in our sense, they are certainly one
another’s ‘significant other’—in the early days, at least. In that
context, the question of sex has to be raised, one would have
67. McCarter depends for this point upon J.A. Thompson’s article, ‘The
Significance of the Verb Love in the Jonathan–David Narratives in
1 Samuel’, Vetus Testamentum 24 (1974), pp. 34-38. But of course the mean-
ing of ‘love’ in a formal treaty context (cf. also W.L. Moran, ‘The Ancient
Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy’, Catholic
Biblical Quarterly 25 [1963], pp. 77-87 [78-79]) will hardly be relevant for the
term in this narrative of personal relationships.
68. They are ‘close friends’, says Peter D. Miscall, charmingly (1 Samuel:
A Literary Reading [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986], p. 130).
69. McCarter, I Samuel, p. 305.
70. McCarter, I Samuel, p. 342.
71. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr, II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction,
Notes and Commentary (Anchor Bible, 9; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984),
p. 77. If love ‘belonged’ to the language of political discourse, readers may
note, presumably wives, husbands, parents, children, courting couples and
the like only ever ‘borrowed’ (perhaps ‘stole’?) it.

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thought, even if it is to be laid to rest.72 But it is not, because the
commentator’s construction of masculinity has no room for the
homoerotic, and David is nothing if he is not a ‘real man’.73
How does David’s polygamy fare then? Not a word from
McCarter on the ten ‘concubines’ who are left to guard the house
when David flees before Absalom (2 Sam. 15.16; 16.21) except to
say that ‘By claiming the royal harem Abishalom publicizes his
claim to the throne’74—as if Absalom had put an advertisement
in The Times announcing his royal pretensions, rather than
undertaking, in a bizarre act of sexual athleticism and exhibition-
ism, to have sex with one after another of David’s ten secondary
wives in a tent pitched on the roof ‘in the sight of all Israel’
(2 Sam. 16.22). Polygamy and multiple rape are the unacceptable
faces of heterosexuality in the modern West, so the least said
about ancient males’ deviation from modern norms the better.
The commentator, who is no doubt a liberal intellectual, if not
even a ‘new man’ as well, displays a quite uncanny reticence
about the grotesque and the gross in this narrative, and in so
doing naturalizes the biblical text. In passing no remark upon the
harem system or the ethics of multiple rape the commentator
affects not to have noticed something nasty in the text; or, having
noticed it, judges that there is nothing to be said about it. The
72. The distinction between male friendship and homosexuality, though
always problematic, has been clearly enough recognized in other ages than
our own; cf. for example Alan Bray, ‘Homosexuality and the Signs of Male
Friendship in Elizabethan England’, History Workshop 29 (1990), pp. 1-19.
73. Perhaps the message that ‘real men’ read here is that male friendship
is dangerous; cf. Philip Culbertson, New Adam: The Future of Male
Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 90. Not everyone operates
with the distinction of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, between the homosocial,
which includes all same-sex relations, and the homosexual, which denotes
only that segment of the homosocial that is distinguished by genital
sexuality (Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire [New
York: Columbia University Press, 1985]). I mean that most people are not
aware how important such a distinction is; there are also those, of course,
who are aware of it but do not accept it (cf. Robert K. Martin, Hero, Captain
and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea
Novels of Herman Melville (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1986), p. 13.
74. McCarter, II Samuel, p. 384.

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10. David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity
behaviour of a David or an Absalom is thereby naturalized and
normalized, and the representation of masculinity in the text is
harmonized to our modern consciousness.
In a word, and metacommentatingly, I conclude: Once again, we
see that the function of commentary on biblical texts has been to
familiarize the Bible, to normalize it to our own cultural stan-
dards, to render it as undisturbing as possible, to press it into the
service of a different worldview; eventually, the effect will be to
write the Bible out of existence. That is what has been happening
to the Bible in the church, in my opinion,75 and it is no doubt
what happens to the Bible in any culture. I suppose it is what
happens to old books anywhere, and it is the task of scholars,
taking a step of critical distance as best they can from their own
culture and their personal scripts, to bring back into the fore-
ground the otherness of the familiarized.76
75. See my forthcoming book, The Bible and the Modern World (The Dids-
bury Lectures; Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1995), Chapter 4 ‘The Bible
and the Church’, where I present some empirical evidence for this claim.
76. I should like to thank my colleague Cheryl Exum for advising me
that this was the next paper I should write, though I doubt that it has
turned out as she would have imagined it, and Francis Landy for a typically
generous and thought-provoking series of comments on a draft of the chap-
ter (I incorporated all I could, and tried to fend off the others).