When Robert Alter of the University of California gave a lecture in Toronto a few weeks ago, he remarked that we should read the Biblical story of King David in the way that we read the history plays of Shakespeare -- as great literature based on sketchy information. That may be a commonplace notion among Biblical scholars, but it startled me, and sent me off in pursuit of Alter's most recent book, The David Story: A Translation With Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (Penguin).
The two books of Samuel (plus the first two chapters of 1 Kings, which Alter tacks on to complete the narrative) invite the reader into a dark world of betrayal and vengeance, dominated by devious monarchs and traitorous generals, all of them seeking power and wealth while hoping somehow to please God. In this saga, God himself does not emerge as the most attractive character. He's easily hurt, insecure about His reputation, anxious to see His status recognized, and neurotically devoted to the burnt offering of small lambs. His sense of justice is at best capricious.
Alter, who teaches Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, has become a major figure in Biblical studies by moving beyond historical criticism toward new ways of reading and interpreting scripture. Earlier, in The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry, he brought to this subject some of the more illuminating tools of literary criticism.
He views the Hebrew Bible with the utmost seriousness, but he is not a believer in any traditional sense. In his Toronto lecture, at Beth Tzedec synagogue, someone asked whether a certain action was truly inspired by God. Alter said that was a matter of personal belief. He implied that it was none of his affair.
It's instructive and often exhilarating to watch a mind like Alter's approach the life of King David. Most people have some knowledge of this story's bizarre twists and turns, but Alter gives all of them fresh life. He uses centuries of accumulated scholarship to bring his English close to the tone of the original Hebrew, with its drumbeat repetitions, and he gives us a prose that's always readable. The vocabulary doesn't distance us: For instance, where most English versions say "behold," Alter says "look."
On the other hand, this is a translation, not a popularization, so he doesn't cut details just because we'll find them tedious. His first sentence describes "a man from Ramathaim-zophim, from the high country of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tobu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite." I mean, this is still the Bible.
On every page Alter's footnotes occupy as much space as his main text, or more, which turns out to be a large part of his book's charm. My experience of Bible reading is that footnotes often obscure more than they clarify, but Alter seems to know exactly what an ordinary reader needs to be told.
He often quotes from the many Talmudic scholars who have been arguing over David's life for centuries, some of them exotic figures: Discussing the propriety of David dancing before the Lord on one occasion, Alter cites the opinion of Isaac Abravanel, adding the irrelevant but fascinating detail that this scholar was also "Ferdinand and Isabella's financial advisor until the expulsion of 1492."
Alter considers the Biblical account of David's life one of the masterpieces of ancient literature, and it's not hard to agree with him. The comparison with Shakespeare seems justified when we move through the elaborate subplots and absorb the wealth of appalling and absorbing detail -- the murders, infidelities, distorted friendships.
Saul, David's father-in-law and predecessor as king of Israel, emerges as a desperate, paranoid killer, a Biblical version of Stalin. David is superior, though hardly noble. He's a great warrior, but he demonstrates that he will do anything to survive (even serve traitorously under the Philistines). When he impregnates Bathsheba, the wife of one of his officers, Uriah the Hittite, he arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle so that he can add her to his harem. This is the fulcrum of his life story and the beginning of his decline; it's also the point in The David Story at which a reader is likely to understand him best.
Alter sees this material as the beginning of political literature. Its central concern is what happens to individual character as it struggles to attain and then hold power. The fact that David evolves over 50 years or so makes him a rarity in ancient literature. The character of King Oedipus does not change as events befall him, nor does Agamemnon's or Christ's. But David, a shepherd boy with a talent for music and poetry, turns himself into (as Alter puts it) the first Machiavellian prince in literature.
We will probably never know who wrote the books of Samuel, but we have some idea where they were written, and why. They were likely set down at the court of King Solomon, to help give legitimacy to Solomon's reign by grounding it in the life and accomplishments of his father, David.
But Alter argues that scholars are wrong when they claim this was merely a national legend, something like King Arthur in England. If the scribes of 3,000 years ago were merely writing patriotic mythology, he says, they would surely not have given David so many faults. His spectacular failings were probably part of his real history, and couldn't be ignored because they were so well known.
On the other hand, Alter considers the Goliath story an inserted piece of folklore, typical right down to the detail of the young provincial hero winning the king's daughter as a bride by killing an ogre.
Maybe the books of Samuel were a form of propaganda, which was betrayed by the spirit of literature and the talent of the scribe. Shakespeare may have wanted to please his queen by supporting the Tudor view of history, but literary genius led him toward more complex and less comfortable forms of imaginative truth. Apparently the crucial section of the Bible dealing with David emerged from the same glorious process.