Monday, November 18, 2013

1 & 2 Samuel: The Hebrew Bible's Best Novel

David's Grief over Absalom, Illustration from a Bible Card

And I should have known that my son so bold,
He'd bear my sword, he'd take my sword,
He'd take my sword to his grave.

—"Absalom," Families

Yesterday, my fiancée and I were asked to present our favorite scriptures to a Sunday school class we were participating in. After a little thought, she had come up with several lovely bits from the book of Matthew, things like "can any of you by worrying add a single hour to his life?" and "ask and it shall be given to you." I, meanwhile, was having much more trouble thinking of something to present. Not because I don't have favorite scriptures, but because I tend to think of them in terms of whole books, rather than individual verses from those books.

For the purposes of the Sunday school lesson, this was about as helpful as being asked my favorite movie quote and responding by acting out the entirety of Children of Men. I at least knew what my favorite book of the Bible was, though, so I had a decent starting place to start thinking on the question.

1 and 2 Samuel is my favorite book in the Bible. (In Bibles today, it's divided up into two books, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, but that's because when it was translated from Hebrew to Greek in ancient times, the Greek text was too long to fit on a single scroll, so it was split up into two scrolls. It's all one book, though!*) Broadly speaking, it's the story of how the ancient people of Israel went from being a hodgepodge of tribes with local rulers, often oppressed and attacked by neighboring tribes and peoples, to a unified nation under a single ruler, strong enough to defend itself adequately and play a role on the world stage of its era. But really, 1 and 2 Samuel is the story of one man: King David.

Samuel is interesting for a lot of reasons, but to me, it's the story of the ruthless rise to power and gradual aging and decline of King David that's the most fascinating. (There are other people's stories in it, including the story of the prophet Samuel, who the book is named for. These stories serve as a sort of lead-in to the main narrative about David.) Not just the story, though: while the plot of 1 and 2 Samuel is quite intriguing, it's the way the author** uses the literary tools at his disposal to portray that story that's truly compelling. Not only does the author present the history of David's life in a compelling way, he also uses the story to grapple with and explore big questions and problems in the human condition, on topics as diverse as aging, death, necessary evils, fame, political machinations, lust, avarice, treachery, murder, and, uh, hemorrhoids.

David and Goliath (Caravaggio) maybe the most famous image of David where he's not naked

Take this for an example: one of the basic tools the authors of the Hebrew Bible used to quickly define their characters was to make the first words a character says a key to understanding him or her. In 1 Samuel, David's first line of dialog takes place during the story of Goliath, a giant Philistine who has challenged the Israelite army to send a champion to fight him, and insulted them and their God when they do not immediately send someone. When David hears Goliath's challenge, he speaks for the first time:
"What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" (1 Samuel 17:26, NRSV)
The first thing David ever says in 1 and 2 Samuel (1) looks very pointedly for (political) gain—the answer to "What shall be done for the man...?" turns out to be "You get to marry the king's daughter!"—and (2) either balances out or, more likely, covers up this grab for personal profit with some pious, patriotic rhetoric. This ends up being key to the author's portrayal of David, a character who uses whatever means necessary to gain and consolidate political power, and then either makes up for it or covers it up (depending on how charitable you want to be as a reader) with expressions of piety and political necessity.

Combat between Soldiers of Ish-Bosheth and David (Gustave Doré)

I'd like to take an aside to defend the use of the word "novel" to describe1 and 2 Samuel. The author of 1 and 2 Samuel has a clear interest in depicting historical events; unlike, say, Job or Jonah, 1 and 2 Samuel does not appear to have been made up out of whole cloth for purposes other than communicating historical events. (Whether David and the other characters of the book are real historical figures has been debated, but 1 and 2 Samuel lacks characteristics one would expect of a portrait of a legendary figure, and it is certainly no fable or morality play.) Even though 1 and 2 Samuel is interested in history, it is not just a book of history; the author feels free to incorporate folk tales and legends into the work, as well as other fictional elements. Literary critic and Bible translator Robert Alter describes it this way:
This narrative...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 dialogue as well as in the narrative details to Genesis, Joshua, and Judges. What we have in this great 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. To this end, the writer feels free to invent an inner language for the characters, to give their dialogues revelatory shape, to weave together episodes and characters with a fine mesh of recurrent motifs and phrases and analogies of incident, and to define the meaning of the events through metaphor, allusion, and symbol. The writer does all this not to fabricate history but in order to understand it. (The David Story, pgs. xvii-xviii, emphasis added)
Taking historical facts and weaving them together with imagined events, thoughts, and speech in order to wrestle with both the history itself and the themes it represents seems less like history to me than a historical novel. There are other other novels in the Hebrew Bible, stories that follow the arc of a few characters through a plot, not straying far into straight history or poetry or other genres; Jonah is one, and Esther and Ruth. For my money, though, 1 and 2 Samuel is the Hebrew Bible's finest novel, for no other Biblical book can match it for artistry, depth, and sheer enjoyability.

Study of King David (Julia Margaret Cameron)

When it came time on Sunday for me to share my favorite scriptures with the Sunday school class, I chose my favorite moment in 1 and 2 Samuel. It's a little dark, but bear with me:
The Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, "While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm." But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, "Is the child dead?" They said, "He is dead."
Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food." He said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.' But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Samuel 12:15b-24, NRSV)
This story, particularly David's line at the end, is a turning point for his character. Before this incident, David is almost constantly gaining and consolidating political power, and nearly everything he says can be construed as having a secondary, political motive behind it. The heartfelt, wrenching line "Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" is the first time David feels completely real to the reader; his heart is laid bare.

After this point, David begins to turn into the old man he will be at the end of the book, shivering in bed and scarcely aware of what is going on in his kingdom. Along the way, he starts losing track of what is going on in his own household; his children end up violating and murdering each other, and one of them, Absalom, starts a rebellion against David, only to eventually be killed when David takes back the throne, much to David's sorrow.

1 and 2 Samuel is many things, but it is not least a moving portrait of an individual human life, conveyed with profound artistry and richness. I recommend it to any reader looking for such a portrait. For the general reader, it's hard to go wrong with Robert Alter's translation, The David Story, which I quoted earlier. It includes enough helpful commentary to both understand the ancient context and appreciate the artistry of the book without overwhelming the reader, and I highly recommend it.

*It's actually slightly more complicated than this: the end of the book, in which David is on his deathbed and giving his last instructions to Solomon, was later cut off and added to the book of 1 Kings, in order to serve as an introduction to 1 Kings' stories about Solomon. Thus, in modern Bibles, the story of 1 and 2 Samuel really goes all the way through 1 Kings chapter 2.
**The author is anonymous, like most of the authors of the Bible, especially outside the prophetic books, which tend to have been written by the people they're named for, with a number of exceptions. Given the time and place in which 1 and 2 Samuel was written, the author was almost certainly male.

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