2000-05-05: The David Story

The David Story

A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (1999)

by Robert Alter (1935-)

This work combines a very lucid translation of the books of Samuel (and the beginning of 1 Kings), with commentary providing insight into the likely meaning behind obscure references and idiomatic turns of phrase. Alter has also translated Genesis, which I intend to read.

The David story is interesting to me from a memetics viewpoint, because it describes a social transition from the clan/tribal organization of the Israelites to a chiefdom organization. The concentration of power is clearly spelled out, even before Samuel is forced to anoint Saul as the first king. Also of interest is the way in which the problems of holding and transferring power are depicted. Eventually the problems divide and fatally weaken the incipient nation, as described (I guess) in Kings.

Although the commentary is helpful, there were a few items where I expected to find comments, but did not.

First, at the end of 2 Sam 8, when David has conquered the enemies of Judah and Israel, there is a short list of some bureaucratic offices, including “Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder. … and Seraiah was scribe.” Second, at the end of 2 Sam 20, David has suppressed two rebellions, there is a similar list, including “Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder. And Sheva was scribe”. Presumably these three were instrumental in writing the original texts that would have served as a kernel for the eventual David story as we have it today. I would have expected Alter, as a person interested in the problems of textual development and transmission, to mention them. He only mentions uncertainty about the responsibilities of their offices.

Third, in 2 Sam 11, there is an incident where David arranges the death of Uriah the Hittite, by sending him with a written message instructing his military commander to arrange for Uriah to die in battle. Alter says, “The letter would be in the form of a small scroll with either a seal or small threads around it. David is counting on the fact that Uriah as a loyal soldier will not dream of opening the letter.” It seems just as likely to me that Uriah is illiterate, and so cannot read the letter (at least not without involving someone else in a conspiracy that would amount to espionage). I also think it interesting that a similar plot device appears in the Iliad, perhaps a couple of centuries later.

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