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  • Taking the David Story out of its Box: Review Essay
  • Jan Wojcik
The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, by Robert Alter. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1999. 410 pp. $30.00.
King David: The Real Life of the Man who Ruled Israel, by Jonathan Kirsch. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. 368 pp. $28.00.
King David: A Biography, by Steven L. McKenzie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 232 pp. $25.00.

Forty years ago, at the same 18 years of age David was when he began his story as the harried and beloved of God, I became a novice in a Jesuit seminary. Callow like the young David, I had never read the Bible. Most Jewish and Christian religious people have not either, beyond poems and stories about the length of parables and rhythmic liturgical snippets, or stories easily cartooned like David and Goliath and Noah and the Animals and Eve and the Snake. The main difference for us novices is that we were ready to dedicate our chaste, poor, obedient lives to what the Bible said without knowing what it said. We each had been issued a new Bible in a box.

Inside the front cover of the box was a card listing all the passages I still was not supposed to read. The text itself came with little warnings in the margins to skip over whole books like the Song of Songs, and Susanna and the Elders, and the episode in 2 Samuel where King David spies a naked woman bathing on a roof, and sends his men to bring her to him. There was no accompanying explanation as to why we were to skip these parts of the Bible. And none was required for the perfectly obedient, so for a few weeks, the stories remained behind a wall secured by my betters. But one day I was weak and used the card to zero in on the naked Bathsheba story. I found the story enormously stimulating, sexually, because for one thing I knew it was forbidden, and for another, the rest of my imaginative landscape was bleak.

The translation was an English translation of a French translation (the Douay) of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of the Jewish Septuagint Greek translation of the original Hebrew. Yet I think my reading scored a direct hit with the original Hebrew story written thousands of years ago by someone who would find me as incomprehensible as I would have found him or her. I got the story. I had a deep response. Of course I could [End Page 96] see it was a lousy thing for David to do, but it was understandable, really, given the kind of court he was running. I read the next few chapters with the story about his son Amnon raping his sister Tamar, and another son Absalom killing the rapist, and then instigating a civil war which climaxed in David’s lament over his son’s dead body: “Absalom, O Absalom my son.” Later, David, warmed in bed by the young, beautiful and apparently continuously virginal Abishag, gets sick. Before he dies, and after apparently Abishag has been removed, he says beautiful and pious things on his death bed. He asks for everyone to forgive him. I could understand this. The sinner at rest at last in the bosom of an understanding God. And Bathsheba did well, too, since her second son with David, Solomon, succeeded him to the throne after the primary candidates had been killed off. Oddly, it all worked out for the best.

I started from the beginning of 1 Samuel then, and read the entire David Story, most of which was permissible for novices, probably because the bulk of the stories are about fights and bloodshed and thus not lascivious. It begins with Eli, a priest with two bad sons who steal and eat the poor people’s sacrificial meat. One day Eli notices a woman passionately praying and accuses her of being drunk. She protests she is sober. She is really very upset about being barren. Eli blesses her. She conceives and gives birth to Samuel, whose family takes over...

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