The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of One and Two Samuel

The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of One and Two Samuel

by Robert Alter, Robert Alter


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A chilling account of political intrigue, illicit sex, murder, war, and human frailty that could only have come from the Bible. The story of David is the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped by the pressures of political life and family, the impulses of body and spirit, and the eventual sad decay of the flesh. In its main character, it provides the first full-length portrait of a Machiavellian prince in Western literature. The beautiful, musical David, resourceful slayer of Goliath, loved by all, reveals himself as a calculating political animal. To advance his own cause, he becomes a collaborator with the archenemies of Israel, the Philistines. Later he commits adultery with Bathsheba, and compounds the betrayal with murder. He exposes himself repeatedly to humiliation, oscillates between noble sentiment and harsh vindictiveness, and with his dying breath charges his son Solomon to wreak bloody vengeance on his enemies. Historical personage and full-blooded imagining, David is the creation of a literary artist comparable to the Shakespeare of the history plays.
Robert Alter's brilliant translation and commentary enable a great work of literature to emerge from the Bible and stand on its own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393048032
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/28/1999
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.38(d)

About the Author

Robert Alter was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Lifetime Achievement and the PEN Center Literary Award for Translation. He is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and has published many acclaimed works on the Bible, literary modernism, and contemporary Hebrew literature.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

And there was a man from Ramathaim-zophim, from the high country of
Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son
of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. And he had two wives; the name
of the one was Hannah and the name of the other, Peninnah. And
Peninnah had children but Hannah had no children. And this man
would go up from his town year after year to worship and to sacrifice to
the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh, and there the two sons of Eli, Hophni and
Phineas, were priests to the Lord. And when the day came round,
Elkanah would sacrifice and give portions to Peninnah his wife and to
all her sons and her daughters. And to Hannah he would give one double
portion, for Hannah he loved, and the Lord had closed her womb.
And her rival would torment her sorely so as to provoke her because
the Lord had closed up her womb. And thus was it done year after
year—when she would go up to the house of the Lord, the other
would torment her and she would weep and would not eat.

And Elkanah her husband said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep and
why do you not eat and why is your heart afflicted? Am I not better to
you than ten sons?" And Hannah arose after the eating in Shiloh and
after the drinking, while Eli the priest was sitting in a chair by the
doorpost of the Lord's temple. And she was deeply embittered, and
she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while. And she vowed a vow
and said, "Lord of Hosts, if you really will look onyour servant's woe
and remember me, and forget not your servant and give your servant
male seed, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, no razor
shall touch his head." And it happened as she went on with her prayer
before the Lord, with Eli watching her mouth, as Hannah was speaking
in her heart, her lips alone moving and her voice not heard, Eli
thought she was drunk. And Eli said to her,

"How long will you go on drunk?
Rid yourself of your wine!"

And Hannah answered and said, "No, my Lord! A bleak-spirited woman
am I. Neither wine nor hard drink have I drunk, but I poured out my
heart to the Lord. Think not your servant a worthless girl, for out of
my great trouble and torment I have spoken till now." And Eli
answered and said, "Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant your
petition which you asked of Him." And she said, "May your servant but
find favor in your eyes." And the woman went on her way, and she ate,
and her face was no longer downcast. And they rose early in the morning
and bowed before the Lord and returned and came to their home
in Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife and the LORD remembered
her. And it happened at the turn of the year that Hannah conceived
and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, "For from the
Lord I asked for him."

And the man Elkanah with all his household went up to offer to the
Lord the yearly sacrifice and his votive pledge. But Hannah did not go
up, for she had said to her husband, "Till the lad is weaned! Then I will
bring him and we will see the Lord's presence, and he shall stay there
always." And Elkanah her husband said to her, "Do what is right in your
eyes. Stay till you wean him, only may the Lord fulfill what your
mouth has uttered." And the woman stayed and nursed her son till she
weaned him. And she took him up with her when she weaned him,
with a three-year-old bull and one ephah of flour and a jar of wine, and
she brought him to the house of the Lord, and the lad was but a lad.
And they slaughtered the bull and they brought the lad to Eli. And she
said, "Please, my Lord, by your life, my Lord, I am the woman who was
poised by you here praying to the Lord. For this lad I prayed, and the
Lord granted me my petition that I asked of Him. And I on my part
granted him for the asking to the Lord; all his days he is lent to the
Lord." And she bowed there to the Lord.




















25, 26


The story of Hannah provides an instructive illustration of the conventions of narrative exposition that govern a large number of biblical stories. First the main character, or characters, are identified by name, pedigree, and geographical location. The only verb used is "to be" (verses 1-2). In this instance the standard biblical story beginning, "there was a man," is in part a false lead because the real protagonist of the story is Elkanah's wife Hannah. Then there is a series of reported actions in the iterative tense—that is, an indication of habitually repeated actions (verses 3-7). (In all this, compare Job 1.) The narrative then zooms in to a particular moment, one of those annually repeated events of Hannah's frustration at Shiloh, by way of Elkanah's dialogue (verse 8), which could not plausibly be an iterative event. At this point, we have moved from prelude to story proper. The writer himself seems quite conscious of this play between recurring units of time and specific moments in time: the word yamim, "days," but often as in verse 3 with the sense of "annual cycle," is used five times, together with the singular yom, in an iterative sense, at the beginning of verse 4. (These recurrences are complemented by "year after year," shanah beshanah, in verse 7.)

2. And he had two wives. The reference to two wives, one childbearing, the other childless, immediately alerts the audience to the unfolding of the familiar annunciation type-scene. The expected sequence of narrative motifs of the annunciation scene is: the report of the wife's barrenness (amplified by the optional motif of the fertile co-wife less loved by the husband than is the childless wife); the promise, through oracle or divine messenger or man of God, of the birth of a son; cohabitation resulting in conception and birth. As we shall see, the middle motif is articulated in a way that is distinctive to the concerns of the Samuel story.

3. the two sons of Eli. The reference is initially puzzling but points forward to the focus on proper and improper heirs to the priesthood in Samuel's story.

5. and to Hannah he would give one double portion. The Hebrew phrase, which occurs only here, means literally "one portion [for the?] face," and has perplexed commentators. The conclusion of several modern translators that the phrase means "only a single portion" makes nonsense out of the following words that the allotment was an expression of Elkanah's special love. It seems wisest to follow a long tradition of commentators who take a cue from the doublative ending of 'apayim, the word for "face" (perhaps even a textual corruption for another word meaning "double") and to construe this as a double portion to Hannah who, alas, unlike Peninnah, has no children.

7. and thus was it done. The Hebrew is literally "thus did he do," but the impersonal masculine active singular is often used in this kind of passive sense.

    the other. The Hebrew simply says "she," but the antecedent is clearly Peninnah.

8. am I not better to you than ten sons? The double-edged poignancy of these words is that they at once express Elkanah's deep and solicitous love for Hannah and his inability to understand how inconsolable she feels about her affliction of barrenness. All the annunciation stories must be understood in light of the prevalent ancient Near Eastern view that a woman's one great avenue to fulfillment in life was through the bearing of sons. It is noteworthy that Hannah does not respond to Elkanah. When she does at last speak, it is to God.

11. I will give him to the Lord. Hannah's prayer exhibits a directness of style, without ornament or conventional liturgical phrasing, and an almost naïve simplicity: if you give him to me, I will give him to you. This canceling out of the two givings is reconciled by the introduction of another verb at the end of the story: Hannah "lends" to God the child He has given her.

    no razor shall touch his head. As an expression of her dedication of the prayed-for child, Hannah vows that he will be a Nazirite (like Samson), a person specially dedicated to God who took a vow of abstinence from certain activities. (The literal meaning of the Hebrew is "no razor will go up on his head.") The Nazirites also refrained from wine, which throws an ironic backlight on Eli's subsequent accusation that Hannah is drunk. A few biblical texts link Nazirite and prophet.

14. How long will you go on drunk? The central annunciation motif of the type-scene is purposefully distorted. Since Hannah receives no direct response from God—she prays rather than inquires of an oracle—Eli the priest should be playing the role of man of God or divine intermediary. But at first he gets it all wrong, mistaking her silent prayer for drunken mumbling, and denouncing her in a poetic line (marked by semantic and rhythmic parallelism) of quasi-prophetic verse. When in verse 17 he accepts her protestation of innocent suffering, he piously prays or predicts—the Hebrew verb could be construed either way—that her petition will be granted, but he doesn't have a clue about the content of the petition. The uncomprehending Eli is thus virtually a parody of the annunciating figure of the conventional type-scene—an apt introduction to a story in which the claim to authority of the house of Eli will be rejected, and, ultimately, sacerdotal guidance will be displaced by prophetic guidance in the person of Samuel, who begins as a temple acolyte but then exercises a very different kind of leadership.

15. bleak-spirited. The Hebrew, which occurs only here as a collocation, is literally "hard-spirited."

20. She called his name Samuel. There is a small puzzlement in the Hebrew because it is the name Saul, Sha'ul, not Samuel, Shmu'el, that means "asked" (or "lent"). This has led some modern scholars to speculate that a story originally composed to explain the birth of Saul was transferred to Samuel—perhaps because Saul's eventual unworthiness to reign made it questionable that he should merit a proper annunciation scene. But it must be said that the only evidence for this speculation is the seeming slippage of names here. That could easily be explained, as by the thirteenth-century Hebrew commentator David Kimchi, if we assume Hannah is playing on two Hebrew words, sha'ul me'el, "asked of God."

21. the yearly sacrifice. The annual cycle of iterative actions invoked at the beginning is seemingly resumed, but everything is different now that Hannah has born a son, and she herself introduces a change in the repeated pattern.

    votive pledge. Although this is the same Hebrew term, neder, that is used for Hannah's vow at the beginning of verse 11, its most likely referent here is a vowed thanksgiving offering on the part of the husband for his wife's safe delivery of a son.

22. Till the lad is weaned. The word for "lad," na'ar, is quite often a tender designation of a young son. Though it typically refers to an adolescent, or even to a young man at the height of his powers (David uses it for the usurper Absalom), it evidently can also be used for an infant. Nursing and weaning (compare the end of this verse and the beginning of the next verse) are insisted on here with a peculiar weight of repetition and literalness. This usage surely intimates the powerful biological bond between Hannah and the longed-for baby and thus points to the pain of separation she must accept, whatever the postponement, according to the terms of her own vow. In the Ark Narrative that follows, there will be a surprising recurrence of this image of nursing mothers yearning for their young. At this point, the only other indication of her feelings about the child is the term "lad" that she uses for him.

    we will see the Lord's presence. Or, even more concretely, "the Lord's face." The anthropomorphism of this ancient idiom troubled the later transmitters of tradition sufficiently so that when vowel points were added to the consonantal text, roughly a millennium after the biblical period, the verb "we will see" (nir'eh) was revocalized as nir'ah ("he will be seen"), yielding a more chastely monotheistic "he will appear in the Lord's presence."

23. what your mouth has uttered. The Masoretic Text has "His word." But a fragment of Samuel found in Cave 4 at Qumran reads "what your mouth has uttered," which, referring directly to Hannah's vow at Shiloh, makes much better sense since God, after all, has made no promises.

24. a three-year-old bull. This is again the reading of the Qumran Samuel text. The Masoretic Text has "three bulls," but only one bull is sacrificed in the next verse, and three-year-old beasts were often designated for sacrifice.

25. they slaughtered the bull ... they brought the lad. The plural subject of these verbs is evidently Elkanah and Hannah. The simple parallelism of the brief clauses is eloquent: both the bull and the child are offerings to the Lord, and Samuel's dedication to the sanctuary is, surely for the parents, a kind of sacrifice. It may be relevant that the term "lad," na'ar, is precisely the one used for Isaac when he is on the point of being sacrificed and for Ishmael when he is on the brink of perishing in the wilderness. Perhaps that background of usage also explains the odd insistence on "the lad was but a lad" at the end of the preceding verse. Given the late weaning time in the ancient world, and given Hannah's likely impulse to postpone that difficult moment, one might imagine the child Samuel to be around the age of five.

26. Please, my Lord. As in their previous encounter, Hannah's speech is full of deference and diffidence in addressing the priest—a reverence, we may already suspect, that he does not entirely deserve.

27. For this lad I prayed ... She spells out the act of petition and its precise fulfillment, insisting twice on the root sh-'-l, "to ask." The Hebrew is literally: "my asking that I asked of Him."

28. granted him for the asking to the Lord; all his days he is lent to the Lord. The English here is forced to walk around an elegant pun in the Hebrew: in the qal conjugation, sh-'-l means to ask or petition; in the hiph'il conjugation the same root means to lend; and the passive form of the verb, sha'ul, can mean either "lent" or "asked."

    and she bowed. The translation again follows the reading of the Samuel fragment discovered at Qumran. The Masoretic Text reads "and he bowed" (a difference of one initial consonant in the Hebrew), but it is Hannah, not Elkanah, who has been speaking for the last two verses.

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The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of One and Two Samuel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
zappa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Alter, whose reputation as a translator of Hebrew narrative has long been established, achieves the miraculous end of placing the David narrative on a par with the great narratives of Homer, or the timeless legends of, for example, Maui, at a time when Judaeo-Christian narratives are lrgely passe. In one respect it is almost necessary to use Atler's own technique to review this masterpiece: Atler places his stunningly clear and literary yet accessible translation of the narrative at the top of the page, and his explanation beneath it. In reviewing his achievement there are two distinct facets: above the line (as it were) is his translation, which compels the reader onwards through a text that many biblical translators have rendered soporific. Below the line he explains his linguistic choices, comments on detail, or makes links between the Davidic narrative and parallel biblical and other near eastern narratives. Yet this technical commentary is as distinctively compelling as the translation: I found myself reading Atler's comments as compulsively as I devoured the text. Above the line his re-presentation of an ancient narrative is outstanding.Below the line his explanations are no less addictive!Atler has achieved for the Judaeo-Christian tradition a remarkable feat: in a post Judaeo-Christendom world (to coin a phrase) he has re-provided and explained a profound ur-narrative that can be once more as socially seminal as it should always have been. This is a story - not of Atler's making - of the workings of the Divine through the foibles of humanity. Atler is a conduit for potential rediscovery of Judaeo-Christendom's fundamental narrative: this version of this story should be compulsory reading on every final year High School syllabus!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Alter blends scholarship and readability in translation and footnoting. He defends his translational uniquenesses, which is good enough for me, though I do not read Hebrew. He brings fresh insights into the characters of the books of Samuel, even though they are already among the best developed persoanlities in Scripture.