The David Story: A Translation With Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel

by Robert Alter

(Norton, 448 pp., $30)

Give Us a King!: Samuel, Saul, and David

by Everett Fox

(Schocken Books, 336 pp., $26)

It was the German-Jewish literary scholar Erich Auerbach who, in a masterly comparison of Homer and the Bible in the opening chapter of his book Mimesis, in the early 1940s produced the first modern analysis of the radical minimalism of biblical prose narrative. In Homer, Auerbach observed, everything is "foregrounded" and "brought to light in perfect fullness," so that "a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths"; but the Hebrew Bible works in a contrasting manner. Here, all is "left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal ... remains mysterious and 'fraught with background.'"

"Fraught with background" might not be a phrase that one would normally associate with biblical narrative, since background is precisely what is missing from it. And yet, as Auerbach suggests in speaking of the Bible's " call for interpretation," it is this very lack of a contextualizing environment that compels the engaged reader to search for one. It is as if the biblical story were composed largely of blank spaces that appear to be mere gaps at first glance, but prove infinitely capacious once they are entered--richly inhabitable recesses leading from one bare verse to the next. If midrash, to use the Hebrew word for the imaginative occupation of these spaces, has been a common response to the Bible over the centuries, this is not only because creative exegesis was often the only way of challenging or reformulating biblical authority. It is also because the biblical text is calculated to lure us into its depths. Thomas Mann set out to write a novella set in biblical Egypt and ended up producing the four volumes of midrash that are Joseph and His Brothers; and this is but an extreme example of what can happen when one wanders into the biblical texts.

Let us take a case in point from the Book of Samuel. (It is not surprising that Auerbach chose passages from Genesis and Samuel to illustrate his theme, since these are certainly the two sustained masterpieces of biblical prose.) Here, in Robert Alter's new translation, are the opening verses of Samuel II, chapter eleven, which tell of David's fateful liaison with Bathsheba:

And it happened at the turn of the year, at the time the kings sally forth, that David sent out Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. And David was sitting in Jerusalem. And it happened at eventide that David arose from his bed and walked about on the roof of the king's house, and he saw from the roof a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired after the woman, and the one he sent said, "Why, this is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam wife of Uriah the Hittite." And David sent messengers and fetched her and she came to him and he lay with her, she just having cleansed herself of her impurity, and she returned to her house. And the woman became pregnant and sent and told David and said, "I am pregnant." And David sent to Joab: "Send me Uriah the Hittite." And Joab sent Uriah the Hittite to David.

As Alter points out in his superb commentary, a number of things can be deduced from this terse passage, even though they are not mentioned in it. We know that it is a hot spring day, since springtime marks the beginning of the Middle Eastern dry season when military campaigns were commenced, and the weather must be warm enough for Bathsheba to bathe on her roof. We know also that David, whose troops (among them Bathsheba's husband, Uriah) are fighting in the field, is leading an indolent life in his palace, for, as Alter writes, "a siesta on a hot spring day would begin not long after noon, so that the king has been in bed an inordinately long time." And we know, too, that "the palace is situated on a height, so David can look down on the naked Bathsheba. "

There are still other narrative innuendoes that Alter--no doubt because, as he remarks, "the temptations to comment at great length on the minute details of this inexhaustible story are so great" that the commentator must restrain himself--does not discuss. We can safely assume, for example, that no other house in Jerusalem possesses a vantage point like that of David's palace, since Bathsheba would hardly choose to bathe naked in the public view. But does she know that David can see her? She must know, since his palace cannot be far-off; if it were, he would be unable to tell in the evening light that she is beautiful. (Hence we also know that Uriah is a high officer, as no ordinary soldier would be living so close to the king.) And this leads to a more momentous realization: if Bathsheba--who has just finished her menstrual period, during which she is enjoined by biblical law from sexual relations--knows she can be seen by the king and nonetheless takes her bath, then obviously she wants to be seen by him. And if David is in the habit of taking afternoon naps and stepping out on his roof for a breath of evening air, then she has deliberately picked the time of day when he is most likely to see her.

Let us press a bit further. Bathsheba is not a sexual victim commandeered by force majeure, but a seductress well aware of David's weakness (known to us from previous chapters) for beautiful women. Yet she is also subtle enough to spurn his first advances. How, you ask, can such a view be maintained when the Bible tells us explicitly, "And David sent messengers and fetched her and she came to him"? But that's just it: the text says "messengers," in the plural. Surely David has not sent a cohort of them to escort Bathsheba, an adulteress being summoned to a secret tryst, ceremoniously through the streets. No, the messengers are sent one by one; and if there is a need for a second and a third, the first and the second have been rejected...

Is all this and more actually "in" the biblical text? It is enough, I think, that it can be construed as being there. And if it can be so inferred-- saying little while implying much is the modus operandi of biblical narrative- -then the translator's task would seem to be an easy one. For what more need be done than choose words and sentences which, like the Bible's, are extremely simple, while letting the spaces between them do the work? Indeed, it is hardly possible to get much simpler than the prose of Samuel. The book's vocabulary is small; its syntax rudimentary and direct; its Hebrew tense system vague and primitive compared to the complex precision of English.

Why then do we hear so much about the enormous difficulty of biblical translation, or about the impossibility of surpassing the King James Version of 1611, which, despite its archaisms and its numerous competitors, is preferred by many readers to this day? Perhaps because spareness of language has at least as many pitfalls for the translator as plenitude. It might appear a commonsense proposition, for instance, that if Language X has five differently nuanced verbs to signify a cluster of actions for which Language Y has only one, then more meaning will be lost going from X to Y than vice versa; but this is not necessarily the case. Since the single verb in Y has the potential to mean what all five of the verbs in X mean, the need to eliminate four of these words narrows the semantic range of the translation, and thereby screens interpretative possibilities from the reader.

Consider the passage that I have cited. What might strike the English reader as the odd diction of Alter's "And David was sitting in Jerusalem" is an attempt to do justice to the Hebrew's ve'David yoshev be'Yerushalayim, in which the verb yoshev, which commonly means "sitting," has the meaning of " residing" or "staying in." (It can also mean "existing" or "enduring.") Why not, then, translate the verse as "And David stayed in Jerusalem," as Everett Fox has done in his new translation of Samuel? Because, writes Alter in his commentary, "it is best to preserve the literal sense because of the pointed sequence sitting, rising, lying, and because in biblical usage, 'to sit' is also an antonym of 'to go out' (or sally forth)." I would put it even more strongly: by remaining in Jerusalem while his army is campaigning, David is sitting--on his hands. Implicit in yoshev is a moral criticism of the corrupting influence of the kingship that has passed to David from Saul. As a rebel leader on the run from Saul, after all, David was always at the forefront of his troops; but he is there no longer, and it is this same laxness that now drags him into an affair with the wife of an officer and then into his murder.

Of course, all languages have words with multiple meanings: punning and verbal ambiguity depend on them. But the more lexically restricted a language is, the higher the incidence of them will be; and predicaments like having to choose between the more idiomatic but less suggestive "David stayed" and the awkward but psychologically richer "David was sitting" will occur more often when translating into them. The King James Version, which has "And David tarried still at Jerusalem," hit on a fine solution. Indeed, another reason that the modern translator of the Bible faces a daunting task is that the King James version has preempted so many fine solutions (while accustoming the English reader to numerous turns of phrase from which any innovative departure seems jarring) that operating in its shadow is a serious handicap.

In general, a language with a relative paucity of rhetorical means must resort to its own literary stratagems. And so, as Alter observes, "the Bible turns everywhere not on variation," as is generally the case with English, but on "significant repetition." Note, for example, how many times the verb " sent" recurs in our passage, building up with growing ominousness to the verse: "And ... David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah ... saying, 'Put Uriah in the face of the fiercest battling and draw back, so that he will be struck down and die.'" Although in English one instinctively recoils from such monotony, the translator seeking to vary the Hebrew "sent" with such contextually appropriate English words as "dispatched," "contacted," "investigated," and so forth, commits what Alter rightly calls "the abomination of synonymous elegance."

Note, too, how what is probably the best-known feature of biblical narrative style, its heavy reliance on the conjunction "and." (This is partly the result of a grammar in which this word proclitically converts a verb attached to it from the imperfect to the perfect tense.) The Biblical "and" isolates and magnifies each action, causing it momentarily to occupy our entire field of vision while at the same time making it an equal link in a long chain forged from every action preceding it and following it. Not even Hemingway, whose predilection for simple "and"-clauses may have owed something to biblical narrative, ever wrote English this way. Still, to naturalize biblical syntax by introducing dependent clauses and subordinating conjunctions such as "since" and "when," as has been done by recent translators such as David Rosenberg and Stephen Mitchell, is to denaturalize the biblical Hebrew. The Bible is a book from which translators who put a premium on naturalness are advised to stay away.

But how unnatural can a biblical translator want to be? Here is how Everett Fox, who has also done the Five Books of Moses, deals with the rape by David's son Amnon of his halfsister Tamar in chapter thirteen of Samuel II:

So Amnon lay-down and feignedsickness, and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king: Pray let Tamar my sister come and heat two heart- shaped-dumplings before my eyes, that I may be-fed from her (own) hand. So Tamar went to the house of Amnon her brother, while he was lying-down, she took some dough, kneaded (it), heated (it) before his eyes, and boiled the heart-shaped-dumplings....Amnon said: Have everyone go out from me! And everyone went out from him....So Tamar took the heart-shaped-dumplings that she had made, and brought them to Amnon her brother, into the inner room. When she had brought (them) close to him (for him) to eat, he overpowered her and said to her: Come, lie with me, sister! She said to him: No, brother, do not force me, for such is not to be done in Israel--don't do this vile-thing . .. you would be like one of the vile-ones in Israel! ... He overpowered her and forced her, lying with her. And (then) Amnon hated her with an exceedingly great hatred, indeed, greater was the hatred with which he hated her than the love with which he had loved her; Amnon said to her: Get-up, go- away! She said to him: About this great evil--more than the other-thing that you did to me--sending me away! ... Now King David heard about all these things, and he was exceedingly upset.

Fox's justification for such prose is that "hearing the Hebrew text of the Bible is as important as reading it," thus requiring "a translation that encourages the reader/listener to pay particular attention to the text's aural characteristics: its structures, its plays on names and other words, and its use of repetition." Fox has often cited as his model the renowned Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig translation of the Bible into German that was done in the 1920s. His translation has the merit of wrenching the English so out of shape that the structure of the Hebrew shows through, jolting us with its strangeness. Yet much of it (such as its many hyphens and parentheses) never reaches the ear at all, and the structure bared has the aesthetic value of the beams in a ruined house.

The same cannot be said about the Buber-Rosenzweig translation, which successfully sought to be both Hebraic and German. When Amnon asks in it for Herzkringel--a translation of the Hebrew levivot, which probably means no more than "pancakes" but is also a play on lev or levav, that is, "heart," or Herz in German--the word may be the translators' invention, but it sounds like a word that Amnon might use. Fox's "heart-shaped-dumplings," on the other hand, belongs in a note at the bottom of the page. Similarly, while Fox sticks verbatim to the apparently textually garbled Hebrew of Tamar's last line, Buber and Rosenzweig try to make sense of it by rendering it this way: " Sie sprach zu ihm wegen dieser noch grosseren Bosheit: Noch uber das andre was du mir angetan hast! mich fortzuschicken!," or "She said to him regarding this even greater evil: 'After the other thing you did to me! to send me away!"

Alter follows Buber and Rosenzweig more closely here than does Fox. ("And she said to him: 'Don't! this wrong is greater than the other you did me, to send me away now.'") On the whole, his translation of Samuel, like his previous translation of Genesis, is marked by the same mixture of good sense and erudition that characterizes him as a critic. It replicates the Hebrew's quiet gravity with a modest English that does not strive for effects, and even when questioning its choice of a word one sees the thoughtfulness behind it. Its main shortcoming is an occasional loftiness, as when it has Tamar tell her brother, "And you, you would be like one of the scurrilous fellows in Israel." Not that the King James Version, with its "And as for thee, thou shalt be as one of the fools in Israel," does any better. Fox is more accurate in conveying, if not Tamar's desperation, at least the harshness of the Hebrew word nevalim. "And the whole country will know how vile you are!" would be more like it.

In the end, though, it is hard to beat the King James. It is solemn but rarely inflated, and its cadences are flawless, each verse passing through our consciousness like footsteps that stop and start and leave us wondering. And it has had 400 years to be absorbed and feel like English--even longer in fact, since it leans heavily on older translations such as William Tyndale's. Moreover, this translation was still produced in an age of religious belief. Faith is everywhere in the King James, as present in its close literalism as in its scrupulous pursuit of the best English alternative. Its literary sophistication combined with its fear of tampering with the sacred aligns it more with the mentality of the biblical author than is possible today. That is why we keep coming back to it.

And it will be worth coming back to it with Alter's commentary in hand. Proceeding verse by verse, in the manner of the medieval Hebrew commentators, Alter shares their linguistic but not their homiletic and theological concerns. His own perspective is literary and psychological. Here is part of what he has to say on the verse "King David had heard all these things, and he was greatly incensed" "exceedingly upset" in Fox :

His imponderable silence is the key to the mounting avalanche in the house of David. Where we might expect some after-the-fact defense of his violated daughter, some rebuke or punishment of his rapist son, he hears, is angry, but says nothing and does nothing, leaving the field open for the full brother of Tamar Absalom's murder of his brother Amnon . In all this, the rape of Tamar plays exactly the same pivotal role in the story of David as does the rape of Dinah in the story of Jacob. Jacob, too, "hears" of the violation and does nothing, setting the stage for the bloody act of vengeance carried out by his sons Simeon and Levi. By the end of the episode, Jacob is seen at the mercy of his intransigent sons, and that is how this once- powerful figure will appear through the rest of the story. An analogous fate, as we shall abundantly see, awaits David from this moment on.

This double insight, which spots a submerged explanation of how David's inaction is responsible for his future woes (for it is Absalom's banishment after murdering Amnon that leads to his insurrection and the civil war that he dies in, breaking his father's heart) while pointing out a striking parallel with Genesis (a book to which Samuel is indeed closely related), is typical of the way in which Alter shows us how richly laden is the biblical text. And as always, it is even more laden than he has the space to expound on, for the book of Samuel does tell us, I think, why David's inaction is not "imponderable" at all.

The chapter relating the rape of Tamar comes after the story of David and Bathsheba, at the end of which David is harshly reproved by the prophet Nathan for Uriah's murder and suffers the first of the punishments that Nathan has predicted--the death of the infant son borne to him by Bathsheba. It is the first time that we read of things going badly wrong for the king. Until now he has been the darling of fate--or as Harold Bloom puts it in his quirky The Book of J., the "charmed object of Yahweh's election-love." Now the confidence that has unerringly guided him in the past falters all at once, as much because of his sense of guilt as because of the devastating realization that God has fallen out of love with him. It is this that paralyzes David, a man who has always been quick to act, since he cannot punish his son for behaving brutally on a sexual impulse when he himself has done worse.

Dashing in his leadership, steady in his courage, magnificent in his gallantry, David never touches us so deeply as when he is humbled by guilt and grief. These bring him closer to us; and it is fitting that, as a weakened old man in the opening chapters of the Book of Kings (which Alter has wisely included in his translation as the real ending of Samuel), he lives to see Solomon, his child with Bathsheba, crowned over his other sons. The choice of Solomon is God's, too, and it tells us that David is forgiven, and that God has secretly gone on loving him all along. Solomon is not, of course, the baby who has died; and yet in a sense, he is; for the God who takes is the God who gives; and in the soil of contrition, redemption grows from the seed of sin.

Solomon's rule will be a wise and peaceful one of royal splendor, and here, too, one is reminded of Genesis, which ends with the grand and reconciliating ascendancy of Joseph in the court of Pharaoh. Both books begin in innocence (the creation of Adam and Eve, and the young Saul crowned by Samuel, "a fine and goodly young fellow, and no man of the Israelites was goodlier than he"); both plunge into early disappointment as these creatures of bright hope let down a demanding God and a querulous prophet; both rise again on the crest of a new promise in and to the great-hearted figures of Abraham and David; both then sink into a morass of family quarrels, disputed inheritances, intimate betrayals, love turned to rancor, passion gone outlaw, the promise to all appearances wrecked; in both complication leads to complication and ensnarlment to worse ensnarlment by an inexorable psychological and emotional logic, the "and... and... and"-clauses of the narrative snapping shut link after link; and both conclude with wondrous pardon.

One might be allowed the surmise that both were written by the same immensely gifted, much saddened by life, and spiritually indomitable individual. Harold Bloom, who thinks that their authors, whom he places in Solomon's court, were merely good friends, has called these works " Shakespearian," and, as anachronistic as the label may be, one sees his point. It is in the work of Shakespeare, more than anywhere, that we have the true European equivalent of Samuel and Genesis, in the great courtly codas of the last plays, in which irrevocable loss is miraculously restored and made good in so poetically true a fashion that we actually believe, without for a moment forgetting life's bitterness, in life's great mercy. Every English translation of these Biblical narratives reveals things unseen before. "Turn it and turn it," the ancient rabbis recommend about a book such as Samuel, " for all is in it."

By Hillel Halkin