September 26, 2023

Was it rape? A powerful and charismatic man sees a beautiful woman bathing naked from his bedroom window and sends a couple of heavies to bring her up to his room. That night he has sex with her, and she becomes pregnant. Later, in an attempted cover-up, he would arrange the death of her husband.

So goes the biblical tale of King David and Bathsheba. In the stories that followed, Bathsheba was often depicted as a lascivious trollop who had offered herself to him on a plate. She was asking for it. Women — and not just women — were forever lusting after David. Even the Bible swoons over his good looks: “He was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.”

A post-MeToo reading of David and Bathsheba would tell the story in a very different way. It would emphasise that he was a dominant man, a king no less, full of the “vertigo of success”, as one commentator put it, and she was a vulnerable woman, whose husband was away fighting at the front. Did she have a choice? Could she have said no to the King? We don’t know because the Bible doesn’t see fit to let us know her side of things.

This much we do know: when confronted by the prophet Nathan, David crumbles. He composes the 51st Psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” Is this self-pity or genuine contrition? It’s hard to tell. But David’s son Solomon had a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines — so being sex-mad clearly ran in the family.

King David, this unprincipled lothario, was the original Messiah. He was the reason a heavily pregnant Mary travelled all those miles to Bethlehem: because that’s where David was born. It was all about the symbolism. Once in Royal David’s city, as we sing at Christmas. David was the once and future king, the high point of Israel’s political fortunes and the anticipated return of them. To speak of the Messiah is to make a political claim as much as a religious one. It is like wearing one of those Donald Trump hats with the words: “Make Israel Great Again.” Jesus will make Israel great again. Or Simon bar Kokhba will. Or Sabbatai Zevi. Or Rebbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They were all considered by some to be the Messiah, the ones who would return the fortunes to Israel. David returned.

Can King David teach us anything about our disgraced messiahs today? Nearly 10 years ago, Russell Brand began his Messiah Complex tour. “He swaggers on stage with the fanfare of a rock legend, all tight jeans, ripped shirt and glossy hair, and descends into the audience to be groped and drooled over while dispensing grooming tips and gentle mockery,” wrote Stephanie Merritt in a Guardian review. This was the tour on which he fantasised about having sex with his cat, which he blamed for wandering around with its bottom exposed. This obnoxious priapic bully offered up his wisdom about Jesus and messiahs alongside “orgasm impressions and sly digs about marriage”.

Of course Brand has a Messiah Complex. It cannot be insignificant that he looks like someone auditioning to be in a B-movie version of the life of Christ, except with orthodontics that are more Beverly Hills than first century AD. As it happens, that whole flowing locks, loose-fitting shirt Jesus-look is not yet a century old. It was started by a Chicago artist called Warner Sallman, whose Head of Christ (1940) painting became the basis of how millions of people visualised Christ in the 20th century. Brand is just a cheap pastiche. He has 33 tattoos — 33 being the age Jesus was when he died. He said he thought he too would die at 33. It’s all about the empty symbolism.

But Brand really does disturb me. However much I can’t abide the man, and I think that those who are taken in by him are gullible fools, I can’t help but wonder if this is what messiahs are really like. It bothers me to say this, but Brand and King David really do have more than a passing similarity. Both coming up from nothing and both “thrown into a washing machine of tits and money” (Brand’s words not David’s). However much Brand courts it, the comparison with Jesus clearly doesn’t work at all — not least because Jesus’s charisma wasn’t linked to his sexual power. And claiming to be the Son of God might be a delusion too far, even for Brand. But there is no getting away from the fact that the archetypal Messiah, David, is a Brand-like figure.

What can I draw from this awkward comparison? Yes, that charismatics are dangerous — and that we have to find ways to distrust and disrupt the weird psychological proclivity many of us have to fall for manipulative people with power, especially verbal power. This is not an academic problem. I am currently doing safeguarding training for leaders of church congregations, and am reflecting on the number of powerful men in churches who have abused their power over others. The Brand-David comparison suggests to me how deep the problem goes. That seductive cocktail of religion and sex allows some people to have a powerful hold over another, easily abused.

But I also know that the Bible is not full of plaster saints of unquestioned piety. Far from it, the Bible is a book about lots of dodgy people looking for salvation amid the ruins of their lives. Its central characters are often hypocrites and frauds, both looking for God and avoiding Him. As David is described by one of his many biographers: he “is a man of contradictions, noble and base, lyrical and brutal, all of which coexist in a quieter state in each human breast. We see ourselves in this man, and we see this man in ourselves.” And when I think of someone saying this about Brand, I want immediately to utter “God help us all”. Which, come to think of it, is probably the shortest summary of the Bible I can imagine.