Robert Alter established a whole school of literary appreciation of the Bible some twenty years ago with a pioneering book on Biblical narrative. Now he gives us his own translation and commentary on the most literary of all the Bible’s narratives, the story of David. The translation is conservative, fully in line with the Authorised Version (and all the better for that). The commentary is up to date, absorbing not only the latest scholarship but concentrating on the extraordinary narrative power of the story of family vendetta and power politics which spans the two books of Samuel. A large part of its first half recounts the battle of wills between Saul and David. Saul is the original charismatic leader whose grip on power weakens as David, the true hero of the Old Testament, its poet and its once and future king, moves to the centre of the story. If Saul is the model for Macbeth, David is the model for Henry V.
The contrast between the two is cruelly conveyed in the little taunt which the women, prime movers throughout the story, start to sing in 1 Samuel 18: ‘Saul has struck down his thousands/and David his tens of thousands!’ This is Alter’s translation and his comment on Saul’s angry reaction is, as throughout this book, nicely revealing, leading the reader into a brief appreciation of the way Biblical poetry works, according to James Kugel’s theory about the sharpening or intensifying nature of Biblical parallelism. It shows, too, how consistently in the David story style and politics go hand in hand:
It is a fixed rule in Biblical poetry that when a number occurs in the first verset, it must be increased in the parallel verset, often, as here, by going up one decimal place. Saul shows himself a good reader of Biblical poetry: he understands perfectly well that the convention is a vehicle of meaning, and that the intensification or magnification characteristic of the second verset is used to set David’s triumphs above his own.
Think of the Bible as one big couplet, in which the Old Testament is the first verset, and the New Testament the second. Everything which the first contains is magnified and made more crucial by the second. Or think of the story of Saul and David as a poem. Saul, the first king, dwarfs all around him and is chosen for his stature by the prophet Samuel, who gives him indirect access to Yahweh. David, however, is smarter and more handsome and has his own direct access to the divine power. And such is the customary unfairness of the Bible – perhaps the one firm generalisation which can be made about it – that David takes not only Saul’s sanity and his kingdom but the love of his son and daughter as well. As Alter shrewdly notes, the narrator tells us much about Saul’s son Jonathan’s love of David but gives no hint at all of David’s feelings for him. Similarly, the narrator tells us that Michal, Saul’s daughter, ‘loved David’, an amazing statement to which Alter draws due attention: ‘she is ... the only woman in the entire Hebrew Bible explicitly reported to love a man.’ But she ends up hating him and suffers the worst fate which can befall any Biblical woman, childlessness. In this story, as in Shakespeare’s histories, family is all.
Michal’s barrenness helps focus on one of the most perplexing things about the David story – his relationship with God. It is the more puzzling because, for all we know, David may be an entirely fictional character, in which case it is not so much his relationship with God as the narrator’s which is our concern. Put simply, did this narrator believe in Yahweh; or, a little less simply, what kind of god did he think Yahweh was? This is clearly a perverse thing to ask if we read the Old Testament as a consistently pious record of the relationship between Yahweh and his chosen people, but not so odd if we think of it instead as a cunningly constructed set of fictions, designed to entertain or to spin the necessary ideology for the set in power at the time of writing.
That there is skill in the design of such narratives as the one which is drawn out through the two books of Samuel, rather than their being, as Biblical criticism would often have it, a patchwork of ill-fitting historical sources, is borne out, for example, by the crafty use of the window in the rise and fall of Michal’s love. In 1 Samuel 19, as David’s new bride, she helps him escape through a window before bravely facing her father’s soldiers, who are hunting him down to kill him. Many years later, long after her father’s death and David’s triumph, she looks through a window and sees him vaunting himself publicly in a semi-naked victory dance to celebrate the recovery of the ark, leading her to ask in embittered sarcasm why he had chosen to expose himself to slave-girls. But everything David does, as befits his charismatic status, is right. He reproaches her for her blindness to his glory, hinting that as a daughter of Saul she is bound not to see it, and then the narrator adds his own laconic sign-off to Michal’s story as she disappears from the narrative for ever: ‘And Michal daughter of Saul had no child till her dying day.’
The difference between this kind of narrative judgment and the sort offered by the more pious narrators of, say, the Pentateuch, lies in its deliberate obscuring of the part Yahweh plays in Michal’s fate. Not, ‘and the Lord ensured that Michal had no child,’ but the simple statement of fact. Again, Alter’s comment hits the right note: ‘The whole story of David and Michal concludes on a poised ambiguity through the suppression of causal explanation: is this a punishment from God, or simply a refusal by David to share her bed, or is the latter to be understood as the agency for the former?’ All we might add is that Michal’s fate is part of the larger pattern of history whereby Saul, the man chosen by Yahweh to be king, has no succession, neither through his own male line nor indirectly through his daughters. David makes sure of this by arranging, more or less covertly, for the annihilation of all the male children with the exception of the crippled Mephibosheth, his lameness probably symbolic of his impotence, whom he keeps alive as some sort of good luck token.
The unfairness of all of this, for a modern reader at least, is that David inaugurates the messianic line, extending from Solomon to Jesus, by way of his murderous liaison with Bathsheba, while Saul loses God’s favour by refusing to commit an act of genocide. Commanded by Yahweh, through the prophet, to wipe out the whole Amalekite nation, Saul keeps the King alive and by doing so has his charisma revoked. At this point in the story there is a deliberate contradiction, which is normally obscured in modern translations but which Alter faithfully reproduces. The narrator records Yahweh saying to Samuel, ‘I repent that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from me,’ but the prophet himself tells Saul that Yahweh ‘does not repent, for He is no human to repent’. Modern versions prefer to vary the verbs here, from ‘repent’ to ‘change his mind’, say, but the Hebrew uses the same verb, leaving us with two very different ideas of Yahweh: the official one, voiced by the prophet, that he transcends human feelings; and the other, voiced by the narrator, that he is all too human.
The rest of the David story seems to bear out the narrator’s view rather than the official one. Yahweh, like everyone else, loves David and, as he does with everyone else, David exploits his love for all it is worth. The parallels with Shakespeare’s Prince Hal flow thick and fast, both men’s claim to heroic status lying in their careful cultivation of divine approval. Hal, because he knows that his title to the crown is illegal, has his army sing David’s psalm Non nobis domine immediately after Agincourt: i.e. it was not our doing but God’s; and he promises death to any man who boasts otherwise. The supreme tactic for consolidating personal rule over a God-fearing people is to insist that you are merely God’s instrument, his anointed one. This is why David is so scrupulous in not killing Saul when he twice has the opportunity; and when the wounded King is put out of his misery by an Amalekite, David, before having the Amalekite killed, remonstrates: ‘How were you not afraid to reach out your hand to do violence to the Lord’s anointed?’ Alter notes the piety of David’s words but also their political self-interest because now ‘he alone is the Lord’s anointed.’
One issue which such carefully ambiguous narrative raises is the extent to which the reader or hearer is encouraged to think of Yahweh as a fictional construct used first by the prophet to keep a king in check and then by a smarter king to hold power over a divided state. Early in his reign Saul begins to encounter Yahweh’s unresponsiveness: ‘And Saul enquired of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them in the hand of Israel?” And He did not answer him on that day.’ Like Macbeth he ends by using witchcraft to try to break the silence. David, in contrast, always gets an answer:
And David inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall I go and strike down these Philistines?’ And the Lord said to David, ‘Go and strike down the Philistines and deliver Keilah’ ... And David again inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him and said, ‘Rise, go down to Keilah, for I am about to give the Philistines into your hand.’
1 Samuel 23
And David inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall I pursue the raiding party? Shall I overtake it?’ And He said, ‘Pursue, for you will surely overtake it, and you will surely rescue.’
1 Samuel 30
And it happened afterward that David inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall I go up into one of the towns of Judah?’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Go up.’ And David said, ‘Where shall I go up?’ And He said, ‘To Hebron.’
2 Samuel 2
Only on such occasions as these does there seem to be a little unease in Alter’s commentary. He commits himself to the idea that David communicates with Yahweh through a form of oracular instrument, the ephod, the priest’s linen garment, or, more specifically, the urim and thummim, ‘two divinatory objects attached to the ephod, probably in a special compartment’. These objects, presumably stones or lettered tokens, ‘provided indication of binary oppositions: thus the question addressed to the oracle had to take the form of yes or no, x or y.’ However, the yes/no response which the urim and thummim offer does not easily fit the examples which I have just quoted, where Yahweh in his answers clearly expands on the questions he has been asked. In the first, in particular, there is a further problem in that it is only after these answers that David is reported as gaining possession of the ephod. In his note here Alter tries to take care of the ‘wrong’ order of events and simultaneously scotch the idea which some commentators have floated that David had a more intimate relationship with Yahweh: ‘The means of inquiry are not specified, but since his questions invite the usual yes-or-no response, it seems likely he is using the ephod and not, as some interpreters have claimed, a more immediate mode of communication with God. The information ... that the fugitive priest Abiathar has arrived ... with the ephod is probably retrospective.’
Here we need to decide whether we are going to read the David story as ancients or moderns. While ancients would have appreciated the wonder of the oracular stones, we are more likely to enjoy the puzzle of a leader who talks to God, or thinks he talks to God, or wants his followers to think he talks to God. David himself certainly projects the view that Yahweh tells people what they must do, as when in 2 Samuel 16 he surprisingly allows Shimei, a survivor of Saul’s clan, to hurl abuse and stones at him. To the suggestion that Shimei should be decapitated for his insolence, David replies: ‘If he curses, it is because the Lord has said to him, “curse David.” ’ And David actually swears an oath to leave Shimei unharmed. Alter’s note to this scene marks one of his most eloquent pleas that episodes like this lead us to read the whole story on the same level as any other piece of writing in which character evolves, develops and changes:
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’ when he takes on the appearance of a beggar, but a real change in condition – from which, however, he will emerge in more than one surprising way. 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.
But David’s fatalism is never a final thing. Like Saul, and like Macbeth, he endures to a lonely end, but unlike them he retains a potency which acts beyond the grave. The last of his enemies to feel the revenge of the now dead King is this same Shimei, many years later, when he makes the fatal mistake of leaving Jerusalem after David’s chosen son Solomon had made him swear never to do so. Hearing of his journey to retrieve some escaped slaves from Gath, Solomon plays out the final confrontation between the clan of David and the clan of Saul:
And the King said to Shimei, ‘You yourself know all the evil, which your own heart knows, that you did to David my father, and the Lord has brought back your evil on your own head. But King Solomon shall be blessed and the throne of David shall be unshaken before the Lord forevermore.’ And the King charged Benaiah son of Jeohaiada, and he went out and stabbed him, and he died.
There is a political motivation for this completion of the vendetta: Solomon is ensuring that no member of the rival family will be around to listen if Yahweh comes calling again.