Friday, December 20, 2013

King David, Unholy Warrior

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 26
Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel

Sunday school teachers and mitzvot scholars have loved King David since… well, since David’s reign. His resistance to tyrannical King Saul, zeal for justice, and harmony with G-d have made him central to two world religions, arguably three. But reading his real story in the Books of Samuel, David appears deeply flawed, his reign a study in unfulfilled potential. Who is David, whose line will supposedly reign forever?

Robert Alter brings a necessary outsider’s perspective to reading David. Trained in comparative literature, he made his name with celebrated studies on secular authors like Stendhal and Kafka, before applying literary standards to exegetical translation. Besides the Books of Samuel, Alter’s award-winning translations of the Torah and Psalms have blown centuries of worshipful dust off books that, when read in their original context, prove disquieting, even scary.

Hardly the gentle, almost girlishly fair depiction favored in children’s books, Alter paints a ferocious David emerging from savage times. Israel is a mountain-dwelling people besieged on all sides by bloodthirsty nations and barbaric warlords. The agrarian Israelites lack iron weapons and stone fortifications. They survive by their willingness to die defending their tribes. Unlike today’s ethereal oil paintings, early Israel was a harsh, muscular people.

From this milieu arises the prophet Samuel. Raised by Eli the priest, Samuel witnesses the hereditary priesthood’s decline into sybaritic rot. Eli’s wanton sons hasten war with the Philistines, losing the Ark of the Covenant and ending the Judges’ early, pastoral domain. This loss, and the people’s outcry over their Neolithic inability to face advanced enemies, pushes Samuel to do the unthinkable: anoint a human king over all Israel.

Samuel first crowns Saul, an army captain who doesn’t want power, but whom Samuel favors, apparently because Saul is very, very tall. But greedy, temperamental Saul proves unready, so Samuel anoints an alternate king: David. As Saul secures military victories but permits lawlessness at home, David gathers a rebel band. The dynastic struggle, bordered by constant war with enemies beyond number, makes A Game of Thrones resemble a bedtime story.

Alter's Samuel text seeks a broad audience with applications distinct from religious translators, who sometimes perform remarkable literary gymnastics to sanitize scripture for pious readers. Alter is unashamed that David is not some well-scrubbed young folk hero, but is a deeply conflicted and troubling figure. This translation uses multiple sources to reconcile the sometimes troubling Hebrew, and Alter’s extensive footnotes highlight how much information has been lost to the millennia.

The biblical historian describes the fall of Eli, Samuel, and Saul in lurid tones likely to shock the excessively pious. But if churchgoers blush at this, they’ll surely know fear at David's decline into bleak self-parody. Blinded by power, he turns monomaniacal, unable to rule his own house. Ultimately his eldest son rebels. Even for readers little interested in theological issues, the literary study in this translation is fascinating, controversial, and a real education.

David, Saul, and Samuel become truly fascinating characters in this translation, but the most interesting figure may be the author who crafted the text we now celebrate. Alter's attempts to trace multiple emendations of the master text will provoke controversy, but he shows just how conflicted the scriptural process inevitably must be. Alter traces the literary and theological choices which that author made in recording this powerful story for posterity.

Giambattista Vico, three centuries ago, noted that philosophers attempt to project themselves onto the past. But we can’t do that. Rome and Athens weren’t rough drafts for the present; past civilizations were just different. If that’s true about Greece and Rome, how much more does it apply to Bronze Age civilizations that lacked metal plows? Robert Alter reclaims ancient Israel from our modern romantic and religious notions.

Some readers will likely balk at parts of this translation. The supporting critical literature Alter chooses is more utilitarian than encyclopedic. Due to some linguistic gaps in the master text, there are several conjectural leaps on the page, which Alter acknowledges in his copious notes. Alter’s Samuel is literature, not pietism. Anyone who takes a dogmatic attitude toward the translation of scripture will probably reject some of this scholar's less-than-pious decisions.

But for improving comprehension of the original Hebrew literature for English-speaking audiences, Alter is a valuable addition to most libraries of study. His snappy, readable translation pairs well with his educational notes to create a book that will surely spur discussion and more intense thought about scripture. And it also makes the ancient epic into a fun read.

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