Questions for Book Clubs and Reader Discussions
These questions were written by Yochi Brandes, author of The Secret Book of Kings, to help book clubs and other readers discuss the book after reading it. There are spoilers contained in the questions, so proceed with caution if you have not yet finished the book!
The Secret Book of Kings exposes the concealed stories of the scribes of the House of Saul, which are hidden within the pages of the Bible. Yochi Brandes has turned these secret stories into a novel that speaks to the heart of contemporary readers. Find at least three examples of stories that you think the scribes of the House of David would have erased from the Bible if only they could have.
In his youth, Shelomoam becomes a thug and runs away from home after he discovers the secrets that his adoptive parents have hidden from him all his life. Which secrets, in your opinion, especially drove him crazy? With which of the secrets could he have gone on living in peace?
Hadad puts Shelomoam through a grueling program of merciless training in order to prepare him for the rebellion against King Solomon. Were all the elements of this training program necessary? Were there parts of the training program that were extreme or even extraneous, and why do you think Hadad included them?
Michal chooses to masquerade as the “Mad Princess” in order to go on living in Solomon’s palace without arousing suspicion. Michal says that she got the idea from King David, who pretended to be a madman when he was called before the king of the Philistines. Identify additional examples from history or from the arts (literature, theater, film, television) of people who pretended to be mad. What was their objective? Did their masquerades succeed?
Abner son of Ner defects from the House of Saul to the House of David, while Ithiel, David’s grandson, takes a similar path, but in the opposite direction, defecting from the House of David to the House of Saul. Abner acts openly, while Ithiel acts with cunning. Even so, the reader is led to despise Abner and admire Ithiel. How does Yochi Brandes succeed in causing her readers to sympathize with Ithiel’s betrayal?
The moles that Michal implanted among the scribes of the House of David are stunned to hear about the possibility that David did not kill Goliath of Gath. 2 Samuel 21:19 states explicitly that someone else killed Goliath (according to the original Hebrew text, which has been preserved in the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) English translation. The scribes ask Michal if she is sure of this, and she replies (p. 149), “No, I’m not sure. But I want future generations to be not sure as well.” Which other stories in the book made you have doubts about specific events described in the Bible? Is there a particular story that especially eroded your confidence in the accepted Biblical version?
Bathsheba designs a multi-phased plan with the help of her grandfather, Ahithophel, that succeeds in putting her son Solomon on the throne, despite the fact that he was the youngest of the princes. What were the stages of the plan, and which phases were the most important ones in your view? Is there a particular component without which Bathsheba’s plan would not have succeeded?
David caused terrible suffering to Michal and even murdered her only son. Michal seeks revenge, but at the same time she continues to be attracted to David throughout his life. Are such complex emotions even possible in reality, or is it the case that this is a matter of Biblical imagination that can occur only in literature?
The Bible describes the monarchical approach of the modest Saul as the complete antithesis of the monarchical approach of the arrogant Solomon. Which approach do you prefer? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different monarchical styles? Identify at least one element that you appreciate in each approach.
Shelomonam allows himself to acknowledge his love of Elisheba only after he discovers that she is not his biological sister. At what point in the course of your reading did you realize that he was attracted to her? Was it before it was stated explicitly? What was it that gave you that feeling?
The book describes the division of the kingdom as Michal’s punishment of David for the annihilation of the House of Saul. However, according to the Bible, the rebellion of the Ten Tribes against Rehoboam began as socio-economic unrest during the reign of Solomon. Which protest movements taking place in the world today remind you of this rebellion? Do you believe that these modern-day protest movements will also end with governments being overthrown?
Barbara Tuchman, in her book, The March of Folly, includes Rehoboam in her list of the most foolish leaders in history. The Secret Book of Kings explains his foolishness as sabotage by Ithiel, who persuaded him to contemptuously reject the request of the Israelites to lighten their tax burden. Similarly, Hushai the Arcite undermined Absalom by persuading him to act in a foolish way. Think about examples of patently foolish moves made by leaders in our own times. Is it possible that they, too, were maliciously led astray? Who was responsible? Why?
Hadad provides comic relief to the stories, and at the same time he is presented as a serious and level-headed character. Which of Hadad’s jokes made you laugh? Which of his decisions do you most admire? What literary methods does Yochi Brandes use in order to make it possible for us to laugh at Hadad’s jokes even at the height of pivotal scenes?
Yochi Brandes reveals to us that Shelomoam is Jeroboam son of Nebat only in the final quarter of the book because she fears that, if we knew who the story was about from the beginning, we would not sympathize with him and would not be interested in him (because Jeroboam is portrayed in the Bible as an extremely negative character). When did you realize that Shelomoam was not merely a fictional character, but rather an important Biblical leader? Which of his character traits do you like? Which of his traits do you not like? Will the traits that you like help him in his role as king, or will they actually hinder him? Does The Secret Book of Kings make you reconsider the negative Biblical portrait of Jeroboam?
Jeroboam son of Nebat espouses religious and cultic pluralism. Solomon, on the other hand, believed that only centralization of the cult in Jerusalem would guarantee the unity of the nation of Israel. Which approach do you most side with? Why? Identify at least one argument for each approach.
How many times in the course of your reading did you ask yourself if Yochi Brandes had made up these stories or if they were actually written in the Bible? If you had the chance to meet her and clarify the sources she used, for which story would you most want to find out if there was Biblical support?
The Secret Book of Kings presents an alternative tradition that, while based on the Bible and on later Rabbinic writings, sometimes contradicts what is written explicitly in prominent Biblical verses. How can religious people (Jews and Christians alike) who believe in the holiness of the Bible contend with a book like this?