IS THIS THE FACE OF KING DAVID?

or PERHAPS king saul…?

Since the publication of my book, King Saul in 2007, I’ve occasionally been asked about my cover illustration and the inspiration behind it. I’ve even given talks to universities, and more recently an online presentation, to the Mosaic Reform Jewish Community in which the cover came up, although I never fully explained the thinking behind it.

When envisioning the first kings of Israel of the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE we have very little archaeological evidence to help us, and that’s why I got so excited the first time I saw a grainy, black and white photo of the limestone bust below. The picture was in Moshe Dayan’s (otherwise unremarkable) book, Living With the Bible, and listed by him as possibly the head of an Israelite monarch – perhaps even king David. However, since then, the academic consensus feels it is more likely an Ammonite relic (Dayan obtained it from a dealer in Jordan), and of a deity, not a mortal ruler. In addition, whereas Dayan dated the bust to the late 11th century BCE, the scholastic majority decided it was of a later provenance – late to mid 8th century BCE.

The bust, as it stands today in the extraordinary Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, there remains a minority of respected academics who agree with Dayan, that this in indeed a “portrait” bust, of a very human king, and from the time of Israel and Judah’s first three kings; Saul, his son and successor, Ishboheth, and David. And although the majority of this minority maintain the bust is Ammonite, and not Israelite, there are a few voices who tentatively suggest this could actually be a likeness of one of Israel’s first kings.

Although, as an amateur biblical historian, I can add little to the debate over dating the relic (although I would say that the stylisation of the beard looks earlier than 8th century BCE to my eyes), as an artist, with a familiarity with the archaeology of the ancient Levant I can dare to say very firmly, that this is definitely a representation of a powerful human being, and not a god. And given that, and the fact it is indisputably Ammonite or Israelite, it must therefore be a likeness of anyone from Saul of Israel (circa 1020-1010 BCE) to Uzziah of Judah (circa, anything from 783-736 BCE).

My cover design, based upon the bust, and assuming the side wings were metallic, like the helmet itself, and not in fact feather plumes.

A major factor in my identifying the bust as a human likeness is the headgear, which seems to me to be a typical ceremonial crown of the time and the region. In my book, I went so far as to describe it – with its central helmet and side-wings – a form of “double crown”, resembling the Egyptian “pschent” worn by the pharaohs, to symbolise their rule over Upper and Lower Egypt – but in this case, possibly symbolising the wearer’s dominion over All Israel – i.e. both Israel and Judah. More recently however, I’ve considered the possibility of it being in fact, and more obviously, a triple crown, with the helmet representing Israel, and the two wings, Judah and trans-Jordan Israel respectively. And in which case, given it’s Ammon-geographical provenance, combined with a consideration of the biblical/historical context (far too involved to go into here), I feel certain that we are actually looking at a likeness of Saul’s son and heir, Ishboheth.

At first, this realisation disappointed me. After all, I had so wanted this to be Saul, even adapting it for the cover of my book. But in retrospect, the irony of this being the bust of the one early king of Israel virtually no one has ever heard of, has it’s own level of satisfaction, and moreover, if Ishboheth looked like his father, which is highly likely, it does offer us a fair idea of what All Israel’s first king looked like too. In any event, given it’s general dating and where it was discovered, at the very least, it gives us a damn good idea of what Saul or David would have looked like, and to someone like me, this is a thrilling concept.

Rembrandt’s famous painting of David playing the harp to sooth Saul’s troubled mind. This was the picture my publishing editor had actually wanted to use originally, forgetting that this was exactly the craven, pathetic image of Saul my book was written to challenge (anachronistic dress and harp notwithstanding!). Fortunately, I got my way, and in a highly unusual gesture, the publisher’s went with my own (the author’s) cover design.
The grovelling profile of King Jehu of Israel – The only known definite representation of an Israelite monarch is this image of Jehu of Israel making abeyance before Shalmaneser III of Assyria (c. 841 BCE), from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser (to be found in the British Museum).

IF KING SAUL HAD EMPLOYED A COURT ARTIST…

Sadly, of all the Near-Eastern kingdoms of the late 11th early 10th centuries BCE, one of the few to shun the services of visual artists were those of Israel and Judah. Even during their later years, when they had established dynasties under the likes of Omri, and Ahab, so far as we know, they never went in for recording themselves and their deeds other than by the written word.

So, when I came to illustrate my book on King Saul – the very first king of All-Israel (Israel and Judah), the only thing I had to go on for authentic pictorial reference was from the neighbouring contemporary empires and kingdoms from around 1020 BCE. The closest geographically and in time were the friezes of the Egyptian Pharaohs of the 21st Dynasty and the Kings of the early Neo-Assyrian empire. Then, I tried to imagine myself as King Saul’s court artist, working in their style and with their kind of materials.

I ended up with the ten plates you see here, in their original “mosaic” form. I thought the mosaic effect added somehow to their feeling of authenticity however, my editor at Lutterworth did not agree, and went with the “smooth” versions. See what you think…