Gerald Hammond

  • The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel by Robert Alter
    Norton, 410 pp, £19.95, October 1999, ISBN 0 393 04803 9

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.

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