Today is the feast of king David in a few Western Christian traditions. The theology is a bit murky here, but celebrating David within the Christmas season makes sense if you follow the logic of the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Jesus was the Messiah (anointed one) in 1st century Christian tradition which means that he had to be descended from David, and born in David’s birthplace, Bethlehem. One puzzle that the patristic fathers had to solve was whether people born before Jesus was born could become saints, that is, ascend to Paradise. After all, they could not confess him as Lord and Savior, because they were dead. If you make that confession a criterion you are stuck having to do what Dante did in the Inferno, assigning them to limbo for eternity – neither heaven nor hell. Limbo is sort of like earth without all the pain and death stuff. Plato and Aristotle are there too, according to Dante. Patristic fathers solved the puzzle by asserting that Jesus went down to hell on his death and before his resurrection and saved all the souls there. Case closed. This is the stuff that theologians come up with when they accept the Biblical narrative as it stands, but then use Aristotelian logic to sort out the problems. David presents us with just as many historical problems, starting with the fact that he may not have existed, and the splendid kingdom that he, and his son Solomon, ruled over almost certainly did not.
David is described in the Hebrew Bible as the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. In the biblical narrative, David is a young shepherd who first gains fame as a musician and later by killing Goliath. He becomes a favorite of king Saul, first king over the united tribes of Israel, and a close friend of Saul’s son Jonathan. Worried that David is trying to take his throne, Saul turns on David. After Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, David is anointed as king. David conquers Jerusalem, taking the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and establishing the kingdom founded by Saul.
As king, David arranges the death of Uriah the Hittite to cover his adultery with Bathsheba. According to the same biblical text, God denies David the opportunity to build the temple and his son, Absalom, tries to overthrow him. David flees Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion, but after Absalom’s death in battle, he returns to the city to rule Israel. Before his peaceful death, after a lifetime of troubles with his sons, he chooses his youngest son Solomon as his successor. He is mentioned in the prophetic literature as an ideal king and an ancestor of a future Messiah, and many psalms are ascribed to him.
Historians of the Ancient Near East agree that if David existed at all it was around 1000 BCE, but that there is little that can be said about him as a historical figure outside the Biblical narratives. There is no direct evidence outside of the Bible concerning David, but the Tel Dan Stele, an inscribed stone erected by a king of Damascus in the late 9th/early 8th centuries BCE to commemorate his victory over two enemy kings, contains the phrase ביתדוד (bytdwd), which most scholars quite reasonably translate as “House of David” (beyth dawid). Ancient Near East historians, following archeology, generally doubt that the united monarchy as described in the Bible existed, but, instead, is a construct of 6th century priests – the Deuteronomists.
One Biblical history of Israel and Judah is called Deuteronomic history by many modern Biblical scholars because it has the hallmarks of one continuous narrative making a strategic political/theological point. These books are called Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, and I & II Kings in the Protestant canon, and flow from Moses and the exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, into the period when the 12 tribes were individual nations with their own territories and rulers, forming a loose confederation that was united occasionally under Judges (שופטים šōp̄əṭîm/shoftim). The Judges united the tribes for as long as necessary, and then went back to being regular guys. Saul changed that when he confronted a number of enemies, especially the Philistines, and instead of going back to normal life, became king of the tribes. David eventually overthrew him and established a dynasty in the kingdom of Judah that is described in detail in II Kings. The final king in that line was supposed to be Josiah, whom the Deuteronomists believed was the new Messiah (anointed king) in the line of David, who would overthrow the oppression of Judah by Egypt and Babylon and establish a glorious kingdom to rival David’s and Solomon’s. Unfortunately, Josiah was killed in the battle on the plain of Megiddo the Hebrew of which gives us the English word Armageddon. From that point on the propaganda had to be rethought.
We will probably never know what sources the Deuteronomists used; most of them may have been oral. The Tel Dan Stele that mentions the House of David is likely referring to a dynasty of the kingdom of Judah which traced its ancestry to a founder named David. Anthropology can step in here. We’re pretty good with kinship and genealogy. Both the temple priests and the Deuteronomists (as well as Luke and Matthew) used genealogy as the skeleton on which to hang their histories. As all anthropologists know well, the person who is at the head of a specific genealogy gives his character to all the people who follow in his line. Jacob was a cunning, but Godly, man who wrestled with an angel (or God) and almost won. His name was changed to Is – ra – el which in Hebrew sounds like “the man who contends with God.” His sons became the sons (tribes) of Israel, and they too were all cunning and contended with God. The founder is the spirit of the nation. Judah’s putative dynastic founder was David who came from one of Israel’s youngest sons, and was, himself, the youngest son, as was his successor Solomon. There’s a key point here. Typically, the eldest son inherits, but throughout the Torah and into Deuteronomistic history, it’s the youngest who inherits. Why? The simple answer is that at one time, the supposed Davidic era, Judah was nothing but an insignificant hill country backwater. But its (related neighbor), Israel, was rich and powerful. However, Israel was eventually destroyed by Assyria, and much of the population was deported and lost to history (the lost tribes of Israel). Judah (the poor young relative) survived, by paying tribute to Assyria rather than fighting. The youngest survived by being smart.
What I’m getting at is that genealogical history is designed to fit the propaganda narrative, not the historical facts. If David existed at all he would have been a tribal leader, in Hebrew a nagid (leader or prince), rather than a melek (king). In fact, David is often referred to as a nagid. Legends undoubtedly accrued to him and were embellished and amplified through oral tradition, until we end up with the propaganda hero whom Josiah is meant to emulate. Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians will take me to task over my interpretation. Let them. You can believe what you want to believe. The Deuteronomists did. It all has to do with how you see your identity. I’m not going to debate such issues: it’s a waste of time – mine and theirs. Cooking is more productive.
For David I’ve chosen a dish that may well have been common in 10th century Judah. It’s certainly very common throughout the Middle East and North Africa now. That is, mulukhiyah, (or mloukhiya, molokhia, molokhiya, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, or moroheiya (Arabic: ملوخية, Hebrew: מלוחיה), the leaves of Corchorus olitorius, commonly used as a vegetable in soups or stews that give their name to the whole dish. It is popular in Middle East, East African and North African countries. Mulukhiyyah is rather bitter, and when boiled, the resulting liquid is a thick, highly mucilaginous broth. Traditionally mulukhiyyah is cooked with chicken or at least chicken stock for flavor and is served with white rice, accompanied with lemon or lime.
The Standard Molokhia dish in the Levant is prepared by cooking a meat of some sort in a separate pot by boiling. Later onions and garlic are cooked to a simmer, then water and chicken stock cubes are added to form a broth. After boiling, the cooked chicken or meat and Molokhia leaves are added and further cooked another 15 minutes. Palestinians will serve Molokhia on a bed of rice topped with vermicelli noodles, and lemon juice and flat bread on the side. Palestinian Bedu ( بَدَوِي ) have an old tradition of cooking a different version of the dish. A whole chicken is cut open, the intestines removed, and the innards stuffed with herbs, spices and raw rice then sewn shut with thick thread. The chicken is then boiled to create the broth for the Molokhia soup which, after preparation, is served as five separate components: The Molokhia soup, Arabic flat bread, the chicken (stuffed with flavored rice), additional plain rice and a small bowl with a mixture of lemon juice and sliced chile. The soup is mixed with rice and lemon juice according to taste, while the chicken is eaten on a separate plate.
I’d wager that you are not going to find mulukhiyah in your local supermarket, but you might be able to get it frozen online. You can also get seeds online to grow it yourself, but that won’t be much help for cooking any time soon. Here’s a good recipe anyway, in case you luck out. Some Middle Eastern cooks are assessed locally according to their ability to make a good mulukhiya. The key is to make sure not to overcook the mulukhiya. If you do, the leaves will sink to the bottom and the soup/stew will be heavy.
1 kg mulukhiya
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
½ tsp. salt
1 bay leaf
5 cardamom pods
6 boneless chicken breasts
20 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp dried coriander
1 tbsp. lemon juice
If you have frozen mulukhiya, let it thaw thoroughly. If you have fresh leaves, parboil them in a large pot of fresh water.
In a separate pot, place the onion, chicken, and bay leaf. Cover with chicken stock and add the cardamom pods tied up in a muslin or cheesecloth bag. Add salt to taste. Bring to the boil and simmer until the chicken is just tender (25 to 30 minutes).
Remove the cardamom pods and bay leaf and discard. Remove the chicken breasts with a slotted spoon. Cut them into strips and then fry them in batches in olive oil in a clean skillet until they take on a little color.
Meanwhile use a slotted spoon to take the onion out of the soup, mash it and return it to the soup along with the fried chicken strips. Add the thawed, or parboiled, mulukhiya and simmer for about 5 minutes. Do not overcook them. They must remain floating at or near the top.
Mix together the crushed garlic and the dried coriander and fry it in the olive oil left from frying the chicken until it is barely golden. Add to the boiling mulukhiya and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice.
Serve hot in deep bowls with flatbread.
Yield: 8-10 servings