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A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: The significance of a flawed king?

January 8, 2016

A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Chapter 6 – The promise and failure of King David

The sixth chapter of John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible concludes Dickson’s treatment of the Old Testament. There is a lot of material to cover in the Old Testament and Dickson covers some major themes in a generally helpful way. Though ironically in this chapter as he describes flawed characters, his treatment is also somewhat flawed.

King David – a flawed king

The Old Testament is a large and complex series of writings and may be potentially daunting to the doubter. Yet Dickson rightly and helpfully focuses on a major theme of the Old Testament: the ‘anointed one’ or Messiah.

He helpfully explains what a Messiah is (p.104), what his role was to be (i.e. save God’s people (p.105)), who some of these Messiah figures were (e.g. David) and how these Messiahs saved their people in unexpected ways – notably in David defeating Goliath (p.106-108).

Most interesting in Dickson’s treatment was highlighting the ‘paradox of the Messiahs’. This paradox is whilst these ‘Messiah’ kings are ‘chosen by God and anointed with his power, but they are spectacularly sinful’. Dickson makes the fascinating admission that after reading literature from Egypt, Babylon, Greece or Rome, ‘I have never seen this approach [reporting the sinfulness of heroes] to historical writing in anything I’ve come across’. This obviously doesn’t ‘prove’ that the Old Testament is true, but it may allay the concern that the Old Testament is simply apologetic encomium. Dickson rightly suggests that this reflects the main themes of the Old Testament, the failure of Israel and the patient love of God (p.113).

Allaying the concerns of the more skeptical ‘doubter’ who may question the historical existence of King David, Dickson highlights some of the archaeological evidence for David. Dickson references Tel Dan inscription which makes a clear reference to the House of David which convinces many scholars that David was not a mythical character (p.109).

Dickson rightly concludes his chapter outlining the Old Testament promises of a perfect anointed one and Messiah. Thus leading us to the New Testament.

So what do atheists make of this theme – the anointed one/Messiah? Were you familiar/aware of the concept of the ‘Messiah’? What do you make of the way Messiahs were portrayed? And what of the Tel Dan inscription, were you aware of that?

I’d be keen to hear thoughts.

Weaknesses

As I mentioned in my introduction, there is a certain degree of irony in a chapter which speaks about the weaknesses of the leaders of Israel. For the chapter itself contains three main frustrations and weaknesses which I felt considerably weakened it.

  1. The chapter lacked a clear unifying thread. Unlike some of the earlier chapters which were much clearer, this one seemed a little haphazard. Was it about leadership? Failure? Humility? Servant leadership? It seemed as though the main point was about the ‘anointed Messiah’, but then why open the chapter with a discussion on Dickson’s own book on humility (pp.101-102)? It seemed unrelated to the main point and hence somewhat obscured later points (which as I’ve re-read are actually clearer). The opening story makes the theme of the chapter confusing and the value of this story also leads me to the second weakness.
  2. The value of personal anecdotes? Dickson included three personal stories in this chapter which were of dubious value. One about his book on humility (pp.101-102), one where he stood in the valley of Elah (p.108) and another about sharing a Psalm with a NFL team (p.112). It was unclear on each occasion how the personal anecdote added much to the main point and indeed felt a little like a bragging travelogue. Dickson uses first person stories to great effect, e.g. in sharing about the different types of literature he’s read (p.113), but these just didn’t seem to fit and distracted, rather than supported the point of the chapter.
  3. The Tel Dan inscription. Whist the Tel Dan inscription is important in giving us greater confidence in the existence of an historical David, care must be taken about how much can be extrapolated from it. Dickson claims that the Tel Dan inscription shows that King David was ‘as flesh and blood as Bar Hadad II’ (p. 109). Yet I’m confident that the scholar he quotes, George Athas, would disagree (and I was pulled up by Athas himself in an essay I wrote when I claimed so much). The Tel Dan description speaks only of the house of David, not of the individual person. I don’t think it’s illegitimate to connect the House of David with the real historical character and it is reasonable to suppose that David isn’t simply a mythical figure. But the Tel Dan inscription alone doesn’t allow us to say with complete confidence that Kind David was a ‘flesh and blood person’. Care must be taken when assessing archaeological evidence like this and ensuring we don’t press the evidence beyond what it tells us.

 

Overall

Unfortunately I found the weaknesses a little distracting (most notably the introduction) and made it harder to draw out the main themes. Nonetheless, Dickson has introduced this important topic and explained, with some of the concerns of doubters in mind, the Old Testament theme of the anointed one and how the Old Testament closes awaiting a perfect Messiah.

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