Tag Archives: Robert Alter

The Book of Samuel

Note: It took around three years for me to read the Bible, beginning with Robert Alter’s translation of The Five Books of Moses. At first the material — the text, the stories, the real thing the never teach you — was so new I was mostly reacted in stunned silence. My first blog post on the Bible was The Book of Kings in December 2014. In March 2017, I published my last reflections on The Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Sirach, and the The Prayer of Manasseh that formerly separated the Old and New Testaments.

The turning point for me was the Book of Samuel. I don’t know the words to say the importance of this book to me. The reason the Scripture contains different genres of books is to reach different genres of hearts — Samuel reached mine! Samuel was the first time my short facebook notes on my Biblical reading expanded into something more. Indeed, I wrote four different posts on the Book.

So, in order to combine my thoughts, I present those four takes here, a sort of redacted post from earlier documents. I’ve kept later editing to a minimum… only what was needed.

1 Samuel and 2 Samuel

The Book of Samuel is hard reading. Not hard to read — Atler’s translation is wonderful. But hard in its implications. The spiraling damage — to Saul himself, to the lives of his ‘enemies’ and even the moral character of David — only gets worse. But Saul did not seek the Kingship — his request to Samuel was only for the location of some lost donkeys, and he physically hid from his own coronation.

 

As Samuel makes his grand statement he believes he has discovered a great rhyme in history: LORD, Tomb, Donkeys, Father, Son. Israel is a stubborn people, perhaps the tribes are donkeys. But perhaps something else is being described

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said:
“Is it not because the Lord has anointed you commander over His inheritance?
When you have departed from me today, you will find two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say to you,
‘The donkeys which you went to look for have been found.
And now your father has ceased caring about the donkeys and is worrying about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’
1 Samuel 10:1-3

It very much feels like someone had the idea to make the young woman from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as monarch. Indeed, the horror of the paired “Is Saul, too, among the Prophets?” episodes — the first time Sunday-schooly and humorous,

Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you. You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.”

So it was, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, that God gave him another heart; and all those signs came to pass that day. When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them. And it happened, when all who knew him formerly saw that he indeed prophesied among the prophets, that the people said to one another, “What is this that has come upon the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?
1 Samuel 10:6-11

The second time is sad and terrifying — is the horror of “Repulsion”: Saul’s suffered from psychosis the entire time he’s been in the story.

So [Saul] went there to Naioth in Ramah. Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah.
And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night.
Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?
1 Samuel 19:24

I have a ways to go before the Book of Job, but that seems like small potatoes compared of the Book of Samuel.

If the Book of Numbers was war as an adventure, and The Book of Judges was war as a Western, the Book of Samuel is war as a tragedy. A few mistakes by a few people build and build, leading to a complete moral collapse that our heroes are drowning in.

Shakespeare’s got nothing on this.

Including the Beginning of 1 Kings

There’s a director’s cut!

The Book of Samuel, which mostly felt like a cross between House of Cards and Game of Thrones, ends in the dark. King David is an aging prisoner of Generalissimo Joab, who climbed the ladder of power and murdered the General of the Army of Israel, the General of the Army of Judah, and the pretender King Absalom (David’s son).

But Joab has another fate.

The last four chapters 2 Samuel are like the sepia-toned conclusion of The Godfather: four scenes that lose the psychological realism of the main work, and instead twist the knife. These stories are kind of fairy tales — they don’t have the bitter realism of most of the Book of Samuel, but they feel… wrong. Like the that sepia-toned ending of the Godfather, which ends with Michael all alone, the wrongness of the story is just below the service.

There’s a story of David condemning the sons of Saul, and regretting it. As he pardoned Joab, the murderer of Saul’s general, and surely regretted it.

There’s a poem from David’s youth, celebrating the Lord of Armies and how God granted him military victory. But from old age, surely King David knew who commanded the military — Joab.

There’s David’s last poem, praising the importance of a King and saying that “worthless men” must be dragged out. But Joab was originally of David’s “worthless men,” a man with nothing to lose who would follow him.

There’s a story of David conducting a census, against the recommendation of Joab, and regretting it. Because like Michael Corleone, like Frank Underwood, Joab, was many things, but never stupid.

So the Book of Samuel ends, David a prisoner, Joab the Generalissimo, and the reader’s head spins.

Although my house is not so with God,
Yet He has made with me an everlasting covenant,
Ordered in all things and secure.
For this is all my salvation and all my desire;
Will He not make it increase?
2 Kings 23:5

But there’s a director’s cut.

That’s not the original ending.

The Book of Kings, which immediately follows, is a compilation of 400 years of dynastic history. Like any such history, the writing style swings dramatically, because it is a compilation of chronicles, of wiki updates over the centuries.

And the first two chapters are the conclusion of Samuel. The same psychological realism. The same sadness. But a real ending.

David isn’t Michael Corleone. He’s Vito.

In his dying words, David praises God and theen asks Solomon to get him his revenge, to kill Joab so he cannot die peacefully. And Robert Alter said, David’s faith is so complete it borders on the subversive

Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man.
And keep the charge of the Lord your God:
to walk in His ways,
to keep His statutes,
His commandments,
His judgments,
and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn;
that the Lord may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’

“Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me,
and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel,
to Abner the son of Ner
and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed.
And he shed the blood of war in peacetime,
and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist,
and on his sandals that were on his feet.
Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace.
1 Kings 2:1-6

One by one, Solomon isolates Joab, using the law to his ends, finding judicial reasons to kill one supporter after another. Until Joab, old and feeble and no longer able to fight, flees to the Arc of the Covenant and holds on, crying for safety.

Who could kill someone in the House of the Lord? Who could deny sanctuary to a fugitive in the Tent of Meeting?

But unlike David (whose grasp of the Law of Moses was sentimentally and shaky), Solomon remembered the Law

But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.
Exodus 21:14

Well, mostly,

So Benaiah went to the tabernacle of the Lord, and said to him, “Thus says the king, ‘Come out!’”

And he said, “No, but I will die here.” And Benaiah brought back word to the king, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.”

Then the king said to him, “Do as he has said, and strike him down and bury him, that you may take away from me and from the house of my father the innocent blood which Joab shed.
1 Kings 2:30-31

The Witch of Endor

I vaguely remembered “The Witch of Endor,” the woman who summoned the Prophet Samuel to King Saul. The story includes with some comic relief — the witch screams and flees, not having expected her spell to actually work.

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice.
And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!”
1 Samuel 28:11-12

Saul has been beaten into frailty by the evil spirit, his psychosis. Samuel — the the prophet, seer & priest – berates him for being a horrible king, tells him that Saul and his sons will die tomorrow, and leaves.

Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy?
And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me.
For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day.
Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines.
And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.
The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.
1 Samuel 28:16-19

The witch, after the episode, slaughters a calf, giving Saul some food to eat and a place to sleep on the last night of his life.

Now therefore, please, heed also the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.”
But he refused and said, “I will not eat.”
So his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he heeded their voice.
Then he arose from the ground and sat on the bed.
Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she hastened to kill it.
And she took flour and kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread from it.
So she brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate.
Then they rose and went away that night.
1 Samuel 28:22-25

Before starting Alter’s translation of the Old Testament, I had only read Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan as a gentile. But they are even more meaningful in light of Jewish traditions. Who is the priest? Who is the good Samaritan?

Final Thoughts

Years after finishing it, I have never read anything like the Book of Samuel. I thought about this or that part of it daily for more than a year. The two ‘cuts’ of it in the Hebrew Bible (one ending at 2 Samuel 24, the other continuing through 1 Kings 2) are like a great theatrical cut and great directors cut: both brilliant but in different ways.

Reading Samuel under Alter’s translation has impacted my other readings. The Art of Biblical Narrative helped shape my view of how to understand the parts of the Bible I read on my own, while Saul, Doeg, Nabal, and the Son of Jesse helped me focus on “minor” characters in the text. I don’t think its possible to understand the Transfiguration without the context of the nightmare Israel experienced trying to reconcile the Kings and the Prophets.

I read the Book of Samuel in Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, in the Kindle edition.

“The Book of Psalms,” translated by Robert Alter.

I have now read all of Robert Alter’s translations of the Old Testament.  The last book of his translations I was yet to read is “The Book of Psalms.”

book of psalms by robert alter

The Music of the Psalms

But it makes me very sad I will never hear the psalms. Because they are songs, and we have lost the sheet music.

Even basic questions, such as which words are intended to be song and which are directions, are lost to us.

Consider Psalm 118:1-4

Acclaim the LORD, for He is good forever in His kindness
Let Israel now say: forever is His kindness
Let the House of Aaron now say: forever is His kindness
Let those who fear the LORD now say: forever is His kindness

Israel presumably (possibly?) refers to natural born Jews, “the House of Aaron” to the Priests, and “those who fear the LORD” to gentile converts, so is this call-and-response? Is “let… now say” a stage direction that was silent? We don’t know.

We have some idea of the instruments used, but a naive read would be wrong. For instance, it seems sensible to think that lyres would be used along with some Psalms. But couches and axes are presumably not (Psalms 149:5-7)

Let the faithful delight in glory
sing gladly on their couches
Exultations of God in their throat
and a double-edged sword in their hand

We are left with imagination, separated by millennia from the First Temple, Exile, and Second Temple periods in which these psalms were composed.

king david plays the zither

Psalms and Hip Hop

In the ambiguous instrumentation and focus on the word, Psalms appear to be the ur-genre of hip hop music, which wiki defines as “music genre consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted.” The basic components of a psalm are (a) description of one’s mistakes in the past, (b) enthusiastic descriptions of one’s dedication to the Lord, (c) enthusiastic defense of one’s homeland, (d) and praise to God. “Deliverance,” by Bubba Sparx, has all these elements

Can you recall a time people loved you unconditionally?
Toast in the New South: “This one is for history!”
Then I slipped fell and caused the number’s injury
Called the same people and it’s, “Yo, you just missed them, B.”

That hip hop piece has the the same format (a recollection of the indomitable past, a lamentation of the intolerable present) as Psalms 44:8-11

For You rescued us from our foes,
and our enemies You put to shame.
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time, selah
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
and did not sally forth in our ranks
You turned us back from the foe,
and our enemies took their plunder

psalms88-lament

Sometimes even the analogies are the same, such as the traveling road in Bubba Sparx’s “Comin’ Round

To see you coming ’round the bend
I just can’t think of anything
That could make me smile like you can
When you’re coming ’round the bend

I’ve been in love a time or two before
And all of that experience allows me to be sure
That you’re the one
Sure as darkness brings the rising sun

And traveling on the road in Psalm 123:1-3

A song of ascents.
To You I left up my eyes
O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the LORD our God
until He grants us grace

The Translator

Robert Alter, the translator, brings to this translation is the same many strengths and the same few weaknesses as in other translations. His notes contain withering scorn for the idea that Psalms are simply translations of Canaanite songs (one might as well say Paradise Loss is a “translation” of the Odyssey!), or over literal interpretations (such as the claim that any Psalm with a prison reference was meant exclusively for prisoners.).

7c-king-david-illuminated-manuscript-beauneveu-detail

But Alter is allergic to christological (what in The Five Books of Moses he referred to as pre-monotheistic) interpretations, which sometime mean that important cultural context is lost. Parts of the Hebrew Bible as quite “new” — the Book of Daniel is probably as close to the Nativity in time as is the Book of Revelations — and certainly both friends and enemies of the early Christians considered them to be a collection of “The House of Israel” and “Those who fear the LORD.” So what to make of Psalms like Psalms 69:18-19

And hide not Your face from Your servant
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me.
Come near me, redeem me.
Because of my enemies, ransom me.

Or Psalms 130:

I hoped for the LORD, my being hoped, and for His word I waited
My being for the Master — more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn
Wait, or Israel, for the LORD,
and with the LORD is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him,
and He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs.

Might Dr. Alter chose this moment to describe the forming of Hebrew messianic traditions or… no, no he won’t.

Final Thoughts

Unlike most of the Old Testament there is no plot, no heroes, no villains, no prose. Psalms is a collection of poems and songs. It feels like it serves as a bridge between the Temple from the latter parts of Kings to the wisdom literature in Job and Ecclesiastes. The Book of Job ends with God declaring the sea monsters, ancient foes of the Canaanite deities, to be His pet.

And that, at its heart, was Job’s mistake. Job was good as sarcastically quoting Psalms and Proverbs. But the monsters of the world are God’s pet too. They praise him too. The sun and the moon, the snow and the smoke, the sea monsters and the mountians all things praise the LORD

Hallellujah.
Praise the LORD from the heavens
praise Him on the heights
Praise Him, all His messengers
praise Him, all His armies.
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.

Praise the LORD from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.
Fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormwind that performs His commands
Palms 148:1-3,7-8

killer whale in alaska

I read The Book of Psalms in the kindle edition.

Review of “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” by Robert Alter

I finished The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter.

samuel-annoints-saul-king

Genre Conventions

Alter argues understanding of the Hebrew Bible is impossible without understanding the literary conventions that its human authors and audience were used to. Alter gives a funny analogy, of a future world in which only ten surviving Westerns remained. Nine featured a gunslinger who could also draw before this enemy. A tenth featured a gunslinger with a broken right arm, who uses a rifle with his left. In that future world, “scholars” of Westerns would conclude, either

1. in the Old West, a hereditary caste of gunslingers (With a genetic predisposition for quick drawing) were given political office, or
2. Westerns are actually garbled retellings of an ancient Aztek legend of creature that shot fire from its arms

and that all scholars would agree the tenth Western (the sheriff with the lame right arm) came from a different tradition and was inadvertently included as a “Western”

king_saul_lego

Of course, all those interpretations would be nonsense. A fast-draw gunslinger is a genre convention of a Western. It provides important information about the identity of the hero the audience is supposed to follow. It demonstrates the protective masculinity of the hero. And in the tenth story the genre convention is there by its absence: the hero overcomes adversity to protect the town in spite of his lameness.

Types of Conventions

Alter breaks down Biblical conventions into a few categorizes, including

1. lead words — repeated words of word-routes that provide information about a character at a particular time, like heavy use of “stone” after Jacob flees Esau
2. first words – the first direct quote of a character provides special insight into their concerns or personality
3. themes — a pattern repeated situations with one or more characters, like the firstborn’s loss of inheritance in Genesis
4. type scenes — specific complicated scenes that repeat with different characters, like the meeting of future spouses (the “betrothal type-scene”) or the promise of a son by God

Type scenes are the most interesting, because by seeing small (or large!) variations we get more insight into characters. Abraham’s betrothal type-scene with Sarah is diplomatic, long-winded, formal, and intentional, befitting his character. In Isaac’s type-scene with Rebecca, Isaac is passive while Rebecca is running the throw, like in their marriage. And in Saul’s type-scene with the young women — the scene is broken off, while Saul runs after Samuel… a tragic comment on a tragic king.

saul_david

The tragedy of Saul is compounded by his first words — searching for his flock, he is overcome with concern for his family, and asks his servant if they should simply go back. A good, but weak, man, Saul will be overcome and is completely unfit for kingship.

A Minor Complaint

Alter elsewhere stated that the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 1 thru 1 Kings 1) is the best story in the Hebrew Bible. Having read his translations, I agree. But in Samuel he sees two contradictions/inexplicable duplications that to me are not only consistent, but are vital to understanding Saul.

death_of_king_saul

In chronological order, these are

A1. As a test of his future Kingship, Samuel observes that Saul strips off his clothes and writes on the ground. Thus the old saying, “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?”
B1. Saul meets David for the first time, as a lute player who soothes Saul’s madness
B2. Saul asks who David is, after David slays Goliath
A2. As the war between Saul and David rages, Saul goes to Samuel. But during the meeting he stripes off his clothes and writhes on the ground. Thus the old saying, “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?”

  1. Samuel uses the “test of prophecy” to confirm Saul is a fit king.
  2. The reader sees the first hint of madness, that Saul is emotionally unstable
  3. The reader sees an even greater sign of madness, that Saul’s memory is impacted
  4. The reader realizes the “test of prophecy” was misinterpreted: Saul was mad from the beginning and Samuel is a terrible judge of kingship

Alter repeatedly uses analogy to film or Western literature, but completely misses the near perfect analogy to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Repulsion is shocking because the main character (a sympathetic young women) is mad for the entire duration of the whole time. But (unlike The Sixth Sense) this does not depend on a character forgetting the past and (unlike Turn of the Screw) the narrator is reliable. The “first hints” of madness are not this or that quirk at the middle of the film: the first hints of madness are the very activities that seemed to confirm the main character was worth rooting for.

The same seems to be true of Saul.

The Narrator

Alter concludes the book not with a dry summary, but an arresting observation: the Narrator of the Hebrew Bible is omniscient (and even knows God’s internal dialog with Himself!) but repeatedly excludes critical information from us. Why don’t we have access to David’s thoughts until the death of his son? Why don’t we know if David promised the kingship to Solomon (all we know is that Bathsheba and Nathan told him he had)? Why don’t we know if David massacred Israelite villages for the Moab king?

 

Ishbosheth_is_slain

Because if we did — suggests Alter — we would know which characters are good and which are evil, like God. We would be able to see with the heart. We would know the truth.

Instead, we see with our eyes. Like young Saul we are forced with multiple conflicting priorities — the flock we are responsible for, our loved ones at home, the young women at the well, the prophet somewhere in the distance — and we must choose where to walk, knowing that God has a plan He has not shared with us.
I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative in the Kindle edition.

The Book of Kings

ancient_isreal

The Old Testament is, among other things, a collection of the greatest ancient literature that survives.

  • The Book of Genesis is the story a family across four generations — Abraham thru Joseph – and what it means to be be a continuous family as the old die and babies are born.
  • The Books of Exodus and Numbers is “Breaking Bad,” with Moses (Walter White) going from a wimp, to a leader, to a monster, to a redeemed but dying man.
  • The Book of Joshua is a war story, that could be passed off as “The Rise of ISIS” with only minor changes to terms and descriptions.
  • The Book of Judges is a collections of westerns, of minister-sheriffs who ride in to save the day, but are continually needed because of the lack of a government, army, courts, or stability.
  • The Book of Samuel is a cross between the Godfather, House of Cards, and Game of Thrones, a brilliant example of psychological realism, in which everything goes wrong, but for all the right reasons

But The Book of Kings…. Kings is Battlestar Galactica.

battlestar-galactica-w

Battlestar Galactica, an example of post-9/11 film making, was a show of a disaster followed by a rebirth — followed by the tireless destruction of war. BSG didn’t have a naive anti-war message — at least at first, when the sides are clear, there is a clear “right” side — but in BSG, reality got a veto on the kind of war that was fought. Throughout the series things got worse.
And even the enemies become warn down, and betray each other, and by the end you’re no longer sure who you are supporting, or if your heroes were heroic at all.

elisha_and_the_bear_md

The Book of Kings begins with the death of David, the rally of Solomon, and then several centuries of a nation being worn down to almost nothing.

And like BSG, the ending of the Book of Kings is odd, ambiguous. The House of David is in captivity, in exile, but exalted above other captive monarchs. The branch of Jesse lives. Perhaps, one day, a King will return…

I read The Book of Kings in Robert Alter’s translation of The Former Prophets.