Book review: “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel” by Robert Alter

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Book review: “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel” by Robert Alter

It is a bit perplexing that the ancient story of David — the giant-killer, king, adulterer, father, sinner and old man — doesn’t have its own book in the Hebrew Bible.

Instead, it’s spread over two full books (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel) and part of a third (1 Kings), 65 chapters in all. As a separate book, David would be the longest in the Bible with 40,000 words, much heftier than the actual leaders, Jeremiah with 33,000 and Genesis with 32,000.

Yet, maybe it makes sense, given that David’s story is so sprawling and so meaty and so full of character, event and human dilemmas. A single book of David would be something akin to a single Shakespeare play that would include the plots and psychological depths of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear.

Does that sound like an overstatement?

Consider what Robert Alter writes at the start of his 1999 book The David Story, a translation of all 65 chapters with a detailed commentary:

The story of David is probably the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses of body and spirit, the eventual sad decay of the flesh…the most unflinching insight into the cruel processes of history and into human behavior warped by the pursuit of power….

 

“Astringent narrative economy”

For nearly four decades, since the publication of his groundbreaking book The Art of the Biblical Narrative, Alter has been in the forefront of an effort to examine and understand the books of the Bible as literary creations.

This is not a denial of the role they play in religious faith. Rather, it is a recognition that, even as the biblical writers worked to understand the reality of God in human existence, many did so with high literary skill.

One measure of this is the artistry of the King James version of the Bible, completed in 1611 and a source of artistic influence ever since. Indeed, Alter’s 2010 book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible looks at how the words, rhythms, techniques and literary aims of that translation have permeated American literature from such writers as Abraham Lincoln to Herman Melville, and from William Faulkner to Saul Bellow.

When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, the human figure casting the longest shadow is David. Alter writes:

Nowhere [than in the David story] is the Bible’s astringent narrative economy, its ability to define characters and etch revelatory dialogue in a few telling strokes, more brilliantly deployed.

In Alter, David has found a talented translator and commentator who stands in wonder before the artistry of the writer (or writers) who brought this story into its present form.

Indeed, Alter describes himself as “someone trained in literature and deeply excited by the extraordinary narrative art of the David story, which becomes the vehicle for a penetrating representation of human nature, politics, and history.”

Alter’s book is worthy of this story.

 

“Here I am”

There is much that can be said about the depiction of David in these 65 chapters and about the evolution of his character.

But, for most of this review, I’m going to look at other personalities and scenes that the biblical writer draws with such pulsing life.

Consider the prophet Samuel. Not the Samuel who has become a prophet, but the boy who is apprenticed to Eli, the high priest of Shiloh. Here’s the scene of Samuel being called to be the Lord’s voice among his people:

1 Samuel 3: 4-10

And God called to Samuel, and he said, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and he said, “Here I am, for you called me,” and he said, “I did not call. Go back, lie down.” And he went and lay down.

And the LORD called once again, “Samuel!” And Samuel rose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” And he said, “I did not call, my son. Go back, lie down.”

 And Samuel did not yet know the LORD and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

 And the LORD called still again to Samuel, a third time, and he rose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” And Eli understood that the LORD was calling the lad. And Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down, and should someone call you: say, ‘Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening.’ ”

In his commentary, Alter highlights the folk-tale structure of the scene and its “intensifying pattern.” As a translator, he evokes this intensity.

The psychological nuances, however, are what raise this account into the realm of great literature.

Samuel acts like a boy — and like a particular boy, a dutiful boy and one who is completely clueless. Eli acts like the old man he is, being disturbed in his sleep, until, finally, he figures out what’s happening.

And, then, with great gentleness, he gives the boy his instructions.

 

“Came out behind him”

Near midway through David’s story, there is a scene from a battle between his troops, led by his nephew Joab, and those of the rebel commander Abner. David’s forces have won, and Abner is fleeing for his life.

Suddenly, another nephew of David, Asabel, a younger man who is Joab’s brother, known for his speed, sees a chance for great glory by slaying the enemy commander. Here’s the account:

2 Samuel 4: 18-23

And Asabel was as swift-footed as one of the gazelles of the open field. And Asabel chased after Abner, and he swerved not to the right or left in going after Abner.

 And Abner turned around and said, “Are you Asabel?” And he said, “I am.” And Abner said to him, “Swerve you to your right or your left and seize for yourself one of the lads, and take you his tunic.”

But Asabel did not want to turn away from him. And Abner once more said to Asabel, “Turn you away from me. Why should I strike you to the ground, and how would I show my face to Joab your brother?”

And he refused to turn aside, and Abner struck him in the belly with the butt of the spear and the spear came out behind him, and he fell there and died on the spot.

It’s a stunning moment and one of those scenes from the Bible — indeed, from any story — that seems to resonate with truth because of the idiosyncrasy of the actions. It feels true because who would make up a story this way? Its awkward details give it the feel of reportage.

Lest the reader misunderstand what’s happening, Alter includes in his commentary:

Asabel is pursing Abner at top speed. Abner, to save his own life, uses an old soldier’s trick; he suddenly stops short and thrusts his spear backward, under his pursuer’s shield…and into the soft belly.

Alter also notes that Abner was right to want to avoid Asabel. As the rebel expected, the young man’s death enraged Joab, a vendetta followed, and Abner in his turn was deceitfully murdered.

 

“Michal loved David”

In the 18th chapter of 1 Samuel, there is an unusual sentence that doesn’t seem unusual:

Michal the daughter of Saul loved David.

To the modern reader, that doesn’t appear to be such an odd thing, especially since it is in a paragraph in which she and David go to Saul to ask for permission to marry, and in a chapter in which the reader is told that Jonathan, Saul’s son, loved David as did “all of Israel and Judah.”

Alter’s commentary explains the significance of this sentence about Michal:

Not only is she the third party in this chapter said to love David, but she is also the only woman in the entire Bible explicitly reported to love a man.

Nothing is said, by contrast, about what David feels toward Michal, and as the story of their relationship sinuously unfolds, his feelings toward her will continue to be left in question.

In other words, Michal’s love is something special. She’s given her heart to David.

David, though, is a young man on the make, filled with ambition and holding his cards close to his chest.

 

“David’s inner responses”

Saul feels threatened by David, and he agrees to their marriage so that the young man will be nearby and easily killed at the right moment. That moment arrives a few pages later, and Michal makes sure her husband avoids his killers.

1 Samuel 19 11-16

And Michal his wife told David, saying, “If you do not get yourself away tonight, tomorrow you’ll be dead.” And Michal let David down from the window, and he went off and fled and got away.

And Michal took the household gods and put them in the bed, and the twist of goat’s hair she put at its head, and covered them with a cloth.

 And Saul sent messengers to take David, and she said, “He is ill.” And Saul sent messengers to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me in the bed, that he may be put to death.” And the messengers came, and, look, the household gods were in the bed and the twist of goat’s hair at its head!

Many have been the stories throughout human history of headstrong daughters standing up to their fathers on behalf of their husbands, but there’s a particular piquancy to this one, as Alter explains:

It is striking that we are given Michal’s urgent dialogue here but not a word of response from David, only the chain of his rapid actions after she lets him down (by an improvised rope?) from the window…It continues a pattern of occluding David’s inner responses that we observed in Chapter 18.

Not only does Michal let David down the wall to freedom, but she also buys him extra time by using the household gods (I envision statues of some sort) and the goat’s hair to serve as a dummy, mimicking David’s body shape and keeping his killer in the dark for a longer period. Alter adds:

Michal is risking a great deal in order to save David. We have no idea bout his feelings toward her as she does that.

This is an example of the subtle artistry of the David writer. The story of Michal, as it’s woven through these chapters, does not end up well for her. Those portions of the story about her could provide the skeleton for an evocative novel about falling in love with the wrong man.

 

“His tens of thousands”

And why is Saul out to get David?

In this same 18th chapter, the writer of the David story relates that, after David killed Goliath, Saul put him in command of a group of elite troops. But this backfired, at least from the King’s perspective.

1 Samuel 6-8

And it happened when they came, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, that the women came out from all the towns of Israel in song and dance, to greet Saul the king with timbrels and jubilation and lutes. And the celebrant women called out and said,

 “Saul has struck down his thousands

and David his tens of thousands!”

 And Saul was very incensed, and this thing was evil in his eyes, and he said, “To David they have given tens of thousands and to me they have given the thousands. The next thing he’ll have is the kingship.”

As with Michal, in this scene, the writer provides an insight into Saul’s thoughts. As for David? Who knows?

 

“In Saul’s hand”

A short time later, Saul tries to solve his problem in one move:

1 Samuel 10-11

And on the next day, an evil spirit of God seized Saul and he went into a frenzy within the house when David was playing as he was want to, and the spear was in Saul’s hand. And Saul cast the spear, thinking, “Let me strike through David in to the wall.” And David eluded him twice.

Notice that, in this account, the frenzied Saul doesn’t pick up a spear or grab a spear. “The spear was in Saul’s hand.” In other words, in his rage, Saul suddenly finds the spear in his hand. And flings it.

This happens twice.

And David? Still no indication about what he is thinking.

 

“You man of blood”

The turning point in David’s story is when he spies Bathsheba bathing on a nearby roof. This leads him to adultery. Then to murder by proxy by having Uriah her husband put at the frontline of troops in battle. And to many murders since many other soldiers also die in this unnecessary battle.

The young man who had been like a Greek hero in slaying Goliath, who had shone with greatness, a beautiful man, a great warrior, a soulful singer — he turns out to be as sinful as the rest of us.

At this point, the writer of David’s story begins to tell the reader some of what David is thinking.

Perhaps the nadir of David’s life is when the reader is given the greatest access to David’s internal dialogue.

It happens that, during a war with the troops of one of David’s sons, the King and his soldiers are on the road, and Shimei, a relative of Saul, comes out and walks in the midst of the military columns.

2 Samuel 16:5-8

And he came cursing. And he hurled stones at David and at all King David’s servants, and all the troops and all the warriors were at his right and at his left.

And thus said Shimei as he cursed: “Got out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless fellow! The Lord has brought back on you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you became king…”

One of David’s soldiers wants to kill Shimei, but David stops him, saying, “If he curses, it is because the LORD has said to him, ‘Curse David’…”

 

“David’s abasement”

How far the mighty has fallen! But also how much deeper has David gone in his self-knowledge! In his commentary, Alter writes:

This is one of the most astonishing turning points in this story that abounds in human surprises. The proud, canny, often implacable David here resigns himself to accepting the most stinging humiliation from a person he could easily have his men kill. David’s abasement is not a disguise, like Odysseus’s when he takes on the appearance of a beggar, but a real change in condition…

 The acceptance of humiliation is a kind of fatalism: if someone commits such a sacrilegious act against the man who is God’s anointed king, it must be because God has decreed it.

 Behind that fatalism may be a sense of guilt: I am suffering all this because of what I have done, for taking Bathsheba and murdering her husband, for my inaction in Amnon’s rape of Tamar and Absalom’s murder of Amnon. The guilt is coupled with despair as David goes on to say, When my own son is trying to kill me, what difference could it make if this man of a rival tribe, who at least has political grounds for hostility toward me, should revile me?

 

Subtle and striking beauty

The Bible’s story of David is like the Odyssey or King Lear. You can write it in modern prose or in poetry or in a movie, and others have, sometimes with great artistry.

But you’re never going to do as good a job as the original writer.

Robert Alter deserves great thanks for translating the David story with an ear to its sound in its original Hebrew and a sensitivity to the nuances of its words and phrasing.

And also for framing it in a commentary that makes clear the subtle and striking beauty of text and its psychological depths.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

5.31.18

 

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