Robert Alter Wants Us To Think More Seriously About the Bible as Literature
The scholar, critic, and masterful translator remains dedicated to uncovering the full subtlety and intelligence of the stories in sacred texts
Judges is full of famous figures and stories—Gideon, Deborah, above all Samson, whose legends Alter compares to those of Hercules. So too are the later books, First and Second Kings, which include the cycles of miracle tales about the prophets Elijah and Elisha (as well as long annalistic lists of virtually interchangeable monarchs). But the heart of Ancient Israel can be found in the story of David, which occupies most of the Book of Samuel. (As Alter points out, the division of Samuel and Kings into two books is arbitrary, owed to the fact that they could not fit on a standard-length scroll.)
Alter has been thinking about the David story for decades—some of his observations in “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” from 1981, reappear in the text and notes of Ancient Israel—and for him it is one of the supreme achievements in all of literature. “The story of David,” Alter writes, “is probably the single greatest narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses of body and spirit, the eventual sad decay of the flesh.”
Perhaps the most powerful moment in the whole David story, Alter suggests, comes in II Samuel 12, at the conclusion of the episode of Bathsheba. The story is well known: David sees Bathsheba bathing from his rooftop and is filled with desire for her. He summons her and sleeps with her, but when she gets pregnant, he is faced with a dilemma: How to conceal his deed from Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband? Ultimately, David decides to have Uriah sent into battle where he will be killed, allowing him to claim Bathsheba for himself.
But “the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” the narrator tells us, and he pays a terrible price: When Bathsheba gives birth to a son, the baby falls ill. David prays urgently for his recovery: “And David implored God for the sake of the lad, and David fasted, and he came and spent the night lying on the ground.” He is so possessed by grief that his courtiers are afraid to bring him the news that the boy has died. When they finally tell him, they are surprised to see David immediately recover himself: “And David rose from the ground and bathed and rubbed himself with oil and changed his garments.” When they ask him about this sudden change of heart, David replies with a piercing line: “While the child was still alive I fasted and wept, for I thought, ‘Who knows, the Lord may favor me and the child will live.’ And now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I am going to him and he will not come back to me.”
Here, Alter suggests, we see David transformed from a warrior and politician to a representative human being, speaking out of his “existential nakedness.” Like King Lear confessing, “I am a very foolish fond old man,” or Hamlet’s “The readiness is all,” David manages to compress our experience of love, mortality, fear, and resignation in a single sentence. Reading the Bible in Robert Alter’s translation helps to bring such moments of literary and human power into focus—thanks not just to his clear and elegant translation, but to the comprehensive notes that pinpoint exactly what is happening at crucial moments in the text. Ancient Israel is a perfect opportunity to return to these foundational Jewish stories and see them with fresh eyes—and what you find there may surprise you.
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