Echoes of King David in President Donald

The monarch’s life offers lessons for how to respond to the Trump approach.

By Michael Segal

The Sabbath synagogue service pairs readings from the Five Books of Moses with a passage from the Prophets. The selections for each week of the year were chosen by rabbis centuries ago, but often they are eerily relevant to current events.

Consider the dying words of the patriarch Jacob, who gave insightful and high-minded blessings to his sons. The rabbis matched these words with the dying proclamations of a very different type of leader, King David. The monarch’s words to his son Solomon are jaw-dropping. He reminds his son of “Shimei the son of Gera the Benjamite of Bahurim, who cursed me with a grievous curse on the day when I went to Mahanaim.” The dying king then instructs: “You shall bring his hoary head down to the grave with blood.” David also tells Solomon to reward friends for their loyalty: “Let them be of those that eat at your table, for so did they befriend me.”

The annual comparison of Jacob and David took on a new meaning this year. David’s words seemed like a caricature of Donald Trump’s tweets.

It is tempting to dismiss David’s crass last words as random thoughts from a petty monarch. But David is a revered figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is admired for uniting his country, and for the piety that infused his acts of state. He also brought his subjects peace, prosperity and cultural advance.

As a new era begins in Washington, it is worth asking whether the similarity between President Trump and King David goes any deeper.

Both men came out of nowhere to deal with an urgent national matter. Each was initially treated as a joke by the experts. When David offered to face Goliath, King Saul told him, “You are a lad, and he is a warrior since his youth.” Yet both prevailed, and each did so by spending far less than his adversaries.

Mr. Trump and David also scandalized the sexual standards of their times. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, he danced in the procession in skimpy clothing. One of his wives said to him: “How honored was today the king of Israel, who exposed himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants.” David dismissed his wife’s complaint, and the biblical text adds a Trumplike comment that from then on she “had no child until the day of her death.”

Mr. Trump made appalling statements at campaign rallies: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” David actually did things like that, and the subject remains highly sensitive 3,000 years later. In 1994 Shimon Peres triggered a no-confidence vote in Israel’s Knesset by criticizing David’s actions with Bathsheba. David had noticed her beauty and then brought her to his palace. He subsequently sent her husband to certain death in war and married her. Peres’s comment caused pandemonium in the Knesset, but he eventually defused the situation by sending a letter to religious leaders saying he never had “any intention of insulting the ‘Sweet Psalmist of Israel.’ ”

Don’t look to David’s life for a detailed road map of what to expect from the Trump administration. Members of the U.S. government take an oath to the Constitution, not to a leader. But anyone who experiences the rabbis’ mash-up of Jacob and David would have no trouble matching Mr. Trump with David, rather than with Jacob.

The sudden and surprising rise of King David and President Trump make them, in modern parlance, “disruptive innovators.” Contemporary society exhibits a remarkable amount of forgiveness for rule-breakers in high-tech industries. Now, some people are agonizing over whether Mr. Trump should be “normalized”—treated the same way that any other leader would be. It is worth remembering that the Bible didn’t fully normalize David’s actions. The king was denied the pinnacle achievement that he sought, building the Temple. The Lord told him: “You have shed much blood to the ground before Me.” Still, David remains revered.

Whether Americans classify Mr. Trump as “normal” is less important than how they respond to his administration. One wise approach was enunciated by David Petraeus. During a November interview with the BBC, the retired general was asked whether Mr. Trump had the “correct” temperament to be president. He replied: “It’s up to Americans, at this point in time, not only to hope that that is the case, but if they can, endeavor to help him.”

Dr. Segal is a neurologist and neuroscientist in Massachusetts.

Appeared in the February 17, 2017, print edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Copyright© 2017 Michael Segal.