The stories of Samuel, Saul, and David are high points of Biblical narrative, and Robert Alter?s superb new translation with commentary is geared to make the slightest nuances of the richly woven stories available to the reader who must read them in English. Both translation and commentary are first-rate: The David Story alerts the reader to puns and plays on words in the Hebrew, while Alter?s own interpretations are enriched by his use of insights by other fine scholar/critics such as Fokkelman, Polzin and Sternberg, along with the traditional rabbinic sources. (A gentleman as well as a scholar, Alter gives credit where it is due.)
The Book of Samuel comes down to us in a Hebrew text that is clearly faulty in spots, and it is also obvious that more than one author has been at work. Some scholars, like Kyle McCarter, editor of the Anchor Samuel, looking for documentary origins, emphasize the breaks in the text, the inconsistencies that suggest that different traditions have been incompletely harmonized with one another. In accordance with his views in ??The Art of Biblical Narrative?? and his practice in his translation of the book of Genesis, Alter plays down the ??documents?? approach and instead emphasizes the skill of the final redactor of Samuel who wove those disparate stories into a single skein.
For example, we are confronted by two disparate stories of how David comes to be introduced into Saul?s court, first as a skilled musician in Saul?s entourage and second as the shepherd boy from Bethlehem who comes from his flock and slays Goliath. Early in chapter 17, that harmonizer is at work when he tells us that ??David would go back and forth from Saul?s side to tend his father?s flock in Bethlehem?? (1 Sam 17:15).
For me the problem is that the work of the redactor seems inconsistent. By the end of the chapter, Saul seems not to know who David is, for he asks his general, ??Whose son is the lad, Abner??? How can Saul not know his own musician? How can he not know the shepherd boy to whom he wanted to lend his armor? Alter argues that ??for the ancient audience, and for the redactor, these contradictions would have been inconsequential in comparison with the advantage gained in providing a double perspective on David,?? and Alter compares this feature of Biblical narrative with the competing versions of Greek myths.
Alter may be right in this, but there may be a different sort of explanation here. Perhaps Saul is asking whose son David is, not because he does not recognize David, but because he now wants desparately to make David his OWN son. Saul has already been told by Samuel that no son of his will succeed to the throne of Israel. Recognizing in David his successor, with all the ambivalence one might expect, Saul is soon negotiating for David to become his son-in-law, offering him first Merab and then Michal from among his daughters. Even after they have become bitter enemies, Saul asks ??Is this your voice, my son, David??? (1 Sam 24:17).
Alter is as good at seeing the forest as the individual trees, and keeps us aware of how the individual stories of Samuel, Saul and David repeat and echo each other. These narrative patterns include the way the sons of Eli, of Samuel, of Saul, and of David rebel against their fathers and betray their principles. All in all, The David Story is a genuine feast for the mind.