- Beginnings: The First Love, the First Hate, the First Dream . . .Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts
The Israeli novelist Meir Shalev set himself a curious task with this book: to reflect on a series of first occurrences in the Bible—the first love, first hate, first kiss, first king, first prophet, and so on. His only stricture was that the occurrence must be named as such in the text, rather than inferred through interpretation. The result is itself curious: consistently insightful, purposefully meandering, and, ultimately, polemical.
It is a cliché that novelists are good readers, attuned to the nuances of language, pacing, and plot. Beginnings reveals Shalev to be a particularly sensitive reader. For example, concerning the suitability of Saul's election as Israel's first king, Shalev notes the oddity of the biblical author's mention of Saul's height as a desirable criterion. The Bible notes the physical size of several gentiles, all of them foes of the Israelites. The only other Israelite whose height is remarked on is that of David's older brother, Eliav. When God and Samuel become disappointed in Saul's kingship, they seek a new leader from among David and his brothers. Although Samuel is impressed by Eliav's imposing height, God counsels him to ignore this physical quality, as if to say that they had already had a tall king and look how that turned out, adding, "For a man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart."
Shalev's observations on this bear quoting:
The reader is compelled to agree, but a nagging question remains— where was God's penetrating insight when he told Samuel to crown Saul as king? Why didn't God say the same words about Saul, about his looks and his height? Is it possible that God and Samuel deliberately chose as the first king someone a head taller than everyone else, who looked the part but lacked the right internal qualities, to make it clear to the people that the idea of monarchy was a bad one from the start? [End Page 144]
This passage also illustrates an important point: Shalev does not limit himself to discussing the first instance, using it instead as a jumping off point for a wider consideration of the phenomenon at hand. Thus Shalev begins with Saul but his attention then shifts to David—and how could it not, given how intertwined the two men's fates are and how important and compelling a character David is? It is also in this chapter (the third of eleven) that one begins to notice a thread in Shalev's prose that thickens as the book progresses.
Following a wonderful exposition of David's battle with Goliath—the pacing is masterful, and the description of how a sling actually works is illuminating for those of us who never really thought much about it—Shalev states that he finds the conventional interpretation of the story (the weak defeating the strong) unsatisfying. Instead, he believes its significance is that "the one with originality defeated the conservative. Improvisation beat conception, invention trumped routine." Support for this view comes from Saul's words to David: "You cannot go against this Philistine and fight him, for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth." It is precisely Goliath's conservatism, his training and experience, that handicaps him when confronted with an original thinker like David. "David won by virtue of new thinking, by ignoring the stodgy conventions of hand-to-hand combat, by using inventive and unexpected weaponry—and of course, with the help of God."
The last phrase is a bit ironic, as Shalev gradually reveals that, if he has any agenda other than reflecting on biblical firsts, it is to criticize Israeli Orthodoxy and especially its leaders. A particularly telling instance is Shalev's discussion of the snake, the first animal named in the Bible. After a discussion of biblical attitudes...