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Reviewed by:
  • Give us a King! Samuel, Saul, and David
  • Lyle Eslinger
Give us a King! Samuel, Saul, and David, by Everett Fox. New York: Schocken Books, 1999. 294 pp. $26.00.

Continuing the work he began with his translation of the Torah/Pentateuch (The Five Books of Moses, Schocken, 1995), Everett Fox applies his adaptation of the Buber- Rosenzweig theory of Bible translation (see M. Buber and F. Rosenzweig, Scripture and Translation [tr. L. Rosenwald, E. Fox; Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994]) to the books of Samuel. Insofar as English translation allows, Fox tries to reproduce the aural registers, structures, and cadences of the original Hebrew. In support of this principle of “phonic equivalence,” the translation is laid out in the form of free verse. Likewise, familar anglicized translations of the biblical characters are reformed closer to the sound of the Hebrew originals (e.g., Samuel is rendered Shemu’el and Saul, Sha’ul). Fox continues his endeavor (from his translation of the Torah) to reproduce the Leitwörter (“leading words,” key repeated terms) so important to biblical literary style—a technique treated with indifference in most modern translations.

For a literary translation the difficult (corrupted) text of the books of Samuel in the primary manuscript tradition (identified, by the former name of its current archival home, as codex Leningrad) presents many obstacles. Fox takes a middle course between rigid adherence to the Masoretic tradition and a full-blown eclectic translation, which selects the best reading from the available manuscript evidence (principally, the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls versions of Samuel). Compared to Fox’s translation of the Torah, scholarly footnotes are kept to a minimum. In place of a more detailed apparatus, Fox offers brief introductory essays to major sections of Samuel, leaving the meaning of the text where it usually resides—in the nexus between the text and the reader’s imaginative engagement.

From the perspective of someone who has both taught Samuel to beginners in biblical Hebrew and engaged with it as a scholar of Hebrew narrative, the translation is a success. Nuances of Hebrew style are regularly preserved, as intact as translation allows. Compared to other translations, this is an achievement and an advance that non- Hebrew readers will profit from. The one great improvement that might be made would be to use the verse layout to mirror large-scale structures of repetition instead of wasting this significant technical potential on the trivial representation of “free verse” (for an attempt at such a layout see the four-volume commentary on the books of Samuel [1981–90] by Jan Fokkelman.) Scholars will always quibble over the nuances of [End Page 103] 103meaning in text and translation. I will not trouble readers here except to indicate one deviation from the “leading word” translation principles on which Fox works. In 1 Samuel 8.9 God tells Samuel to “designate” (higgadta, i.e., dictate) the constitution of the king that God will allow in response to the people’s request for a king. The underlying idea is that this monarchy is one dictated by God’s terms, not the people’s. The emphasis is repeated, in 1 Samuel 9.16, when God reveals to Samuel that Saul will be the “designate” (nag’d) who will rule over Israel (and under God’s and Samuel’s thumb). Fox’s translations, “tell” in 8.9 and “Prince” in 9.16, obscure the underlying “leading word” connection (the common Hebrew root of both words is ngd), which is crucial, between the two passages. “Prince” may be a stock translation of nag’d. So far as God’s rhetoric goes, however, it carries undesirable associations of autonomy and human splendor.

The translation is complemented by two maps (“the kingdom of Saul” [not Sha’ul] and “the kingdom of David”) and numerous interpretive illustrations (black and white) by the American-Israeli artist, Schwebel. Anyone who takes the time to ponder the translation and Schwebel’s illustrations is sure to come away with a deepened compre hension of the difficult business of God and Israel in the early days of the Hebrew kingdoms.

Lyle Eslinger
Religious Studies
University of Calgary

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pp. 103-104
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