Robert Alter, “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of I and II Samuel”

This is another fine translation by Professor Alter, about whom I wrote on this site in posts of his Psalms and Wisdom books translations.  With regard to I and II Samuel, he thinks they shared a common author, who was a genius and who gives an unflinching portrait of a complex David (ruthless, shrewd, self-possessed).  Alter is open to the books being all true, more or less.

I noted Alter’s observation that Michal is the only woman in the Old Testament said explicitly to love a man (115 n.20, discussing I Sam. 18:20).  And I photocopied four longer passages.

Here’s the first (168, discussing I Sam. 27:2):

2.  he crossed over … to Achish … king of Gath.  For those scholars who have argued that David is no more historical figure than King Arthur, this whole episode constitutes a problem:  why would a much later, legendary, and supposedly glorifying tradition attribute this act of national treachery to David?  (It would be rather like the invention of a story that Winston Churchill spent 1917-1918 in Berlin, currying the favor of the kaiser.). The compelling inference is that the writer had authentic knowledge of a period when David collaborated with the Philistines; he was unwilling to omit this uncomfortable information, though he did try to mitigate it.

Here’s the second (xvi-xvii):

   The representation of David is another instance, far more complex and compelling, of the complication of ideology through the imaginative reconstruction of historical figures and events. Before I try to explain how that process is played out in the David story, a few words are in order about the relation of this entire narrative to history.

   As with almost every major issue of biblical studies, there have been sharp differences among scholars on this particular question. On the one hand, Gerhard von Rad in the 1940s and others after him have seen the David story as the beginning of history writing in the Western tradition. On the other hand, one group of contemporary scholars, sometimes known as minimalists, is skeptical about whether there ever was a King David and likes to say that this narrative has about the same relation to historical events as do the British legends about King Arthur. The gritty historical realism of the story—what Hans Frei shrewdly identified as its “history-like” character—surely argues against the notion that it is simply legendary. Were David an invention of much later national tradition, he would be the most peculiar of legendary founding kings: a figure who early on is shown as a collaborator with the archenemies of Israel, the Philistines; who compounds adultery with murder; who more than once exposes himself to humiliation, is repeatedly seen in his weakness, and oscillates from nobility of sentiment and act to harsh vindictiveness on his very deathbed. (On this last point, the editorial intervention of the Deuteronomist that we observed suggests that he had inherited not a legendary account but a historical report that made him squirm.) If, moreover, the bulk of the story was actually composed within a generation or two, or perhaps three, after the reported actions, it is hard to imagine how such encompassing national events as a civil war between the house of Saul and the house of David, the Davidic campaigns of conquest east of the Jordan, and the usurpation of the throne by Absalom with the consequent military struggle, could have been invented out of whole cloth.

   This narrative nevertheless has many signs of what we would call fictional shaping–interior monologues, dialogues between the historical personages in circumstances where there could have been no witnesses to what was said, pointed allusions in the turns of the dialogue as well as in the narrative details to Genesis, Joshuah, and Judges.  What we have in this great story, as I have proposed elsewhere, is not merely a report of history but an imagining of history that is analogous to what Shakespeare did with historical figures and events in his history plays.  That is, the known general contours of the historical events and of the principal players are not tampered with, but the writer brings to bear the resources of his literary art in order to imagine deeply, and critically, the concrete moral and emotional predicaments of living in history in the political realm.  … The writer does all this not to fabricate history but in order to understand it.

Here’s the third (xxi-xxii):

   My guess is that the author of the David story thought of himself as a historian.  But even if he frequented the court in Jerusalem, a plausible but not at all necessary supposition, he was by no means a writer of court annals or chronicles of the kings of Judea, and, as I have argued, he was for from being an apologist for the David dynasty.  I would imagine that he was impelled to write out of a desire to convey to his contemporaries and to posterity a true account of the significant events involved in the founding of the monarchy that governed the nation.  It is conceivable that he had some written reports of these events at his disposal or at any rate drew on oral accounts of the events.  Perhaps he had spoken with old-timers who were actual participants, or, if one places him very early, he himself might have been an observer of some of what he reports.  He also did not hesitate to exploit etiological tales (Saul among the prophets) and folk tales (David slaying the giant Goliath) in order to flesh out his historical account and dramatize its meanings.  Though committed to telling the truth about history, his notion of historical factuality was decidedly different from modern ones.  His conception of history writing involved not merely registering what had happened and who might have been the principal actors but also reflecting on the shining interplay between character and historical act, on the way social and political institutions shape and distort individual lives, on the human costs of particular political choices.

   The author of the David story was in all likelihood firmly committed to the legitimacy of the Davidic line.  In the book he wrote, after all, God explicitly elects David once Saul has been rejected and later promises that the throne of David will remain unshaken for all time.  But the author approaches the David story as an imaginative writer, giving play to the dialectic fullness of conception that leads the greatest writers (Shakespeare, Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy, Proust, to name a few apposite instances) to transcend the limitations of their own ideological points of departure.  Even though the vocational identity of “imaginative writer” was not socially defined in ancient Israel as it would be in later cultures, the accomplished facts of literary art in many cultures, ancient and modern, suggest that the impulse of literary creation, with the breadth of vision that at its best it encourages, is universal.

And here’s the fourth (110-11, discussing I Sam. 17:55):

55.  Whose son is the lad, Abner?  It is at this point that the evident contradiction between the two stories of David’s debut is most striking.  If David had been attending Saul in court as his personal music therapist, with Saul having explicitly sent a communication to Jesse regarding David’s entering his service, how could he, and Abner as well, now be ignorant of David’s identity?  Efforts to harmonize the two stories in terms of the logic of later conventions of realism seem unconvincing (e.g., amnesia has been proposed as a symptom of Saul’s mental illness, and Abner pretends not to recognize David in deference to the ailing king).  The prevalent scholarly view that Chapters 16 and 17 represent two different traditions about David’s beginning is persuasive.  What we need to ask, however, is why the redactor set these two stories in immediate sequence, despite the contradictions that must have been as evident to him as to us. A reasonable conclusion is that for the ancient audience, and for the redactor, these contradictions would have been inconsequential in comparison with the advantage gained in providing a double perspective on David.  In the Greek tradition, there were competing versions of the same myths, but never in a single text.  Modern Western narrative generally insists on verisimilar consistency.  In the Bible, however, the variants of a single story are sometimes placed in a kind of implicit dialogue with one another (compare the two accounts of creation at the beginning of Genesis). Here, in the first, vertically oriented story, with its explicit instructions from God to man, David is emphatically elected by God, is assiociated with the spirit and with song, and gains entree in the court of Saul by using song to master the spirit. In the second story, with its horizontal deployment in space, David makes his way into Saul’s presence through martial prowess, exhibiting shrewdness, calculation, and rhetorical skill.  Interestingly, it is this folk-tale version of David’s debut rather than the theological one that will lead directly to the historical (or at least, historylike) narrative of David’s rise and David’s reign.  But the redactor must surely have felt that both the “spiritual” and the political-military sides of the figure of David had to be represented in the account of his origins.  It is also noteworthy that this whole episode, which launches David on his trajectory to the throne, ends with Saul once more in a state of ignorance, compelled to ask twice about David’s identity, and getting no answer until David himself speaks out.