lethargic_man: "Happy the person that finds wisdom, and the person that gets understanding."—Prov. 3:13. Icon by Tamara Rigg (limmud)
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I've been sitting for months on the copy of Gary Greenberg's The Sins of King David I borrowed from [livejournal.com profile] curious_reader, waiting to get around to reviewing it. So now here's a review.

If you look closely—and are shown where to look (I'd have never spotted these on my own)—the Biblical accounts of King David is riddled with contradictions, particularly between the account in the Book of Samuel and that in the Book of Chronicles. For example, if I asked you who killed Goliath, chances are you'd say David (I Samuel 17). However, in II Samuel 21:19 it's attributed to one Elḥanan ben Ya`rei Orgim. Yet the parallel passage in Chronicles states that Elḥanan (there ben Yair) killed the Goliath's brother.

Drawing on the Documentary Hypothesis—that the Bible is redacted together from multiple accounts—Greenberg attempts to tease apart what's going on. His thesis is that there are two accounts of King David preserved in the Bible, one an anti-David portrayal by the followers of the Shilohite priesthood; the other a pro-David portrayal by the followers of the later Davidic monarchy. The former portrays David as a deeply flawed character, mercenary and power-grabbing; the latter smooths over all of the difficulties, except for those few—particularly his sin with Bathsheba—too big to be swept under the carpet, which must instead be explained away. Then later, after the Jews had gone into exile and the anti-David faction had ceased to exist, a new account was written for the Book of Chronicles which whitewashes David, and set up the trend towards the present conception (at least in Jewish circles) of David as the ideal king and hero.

By a careful reading of the text, Greenberg demonstrates that David isn't at all the nice guy we think of him; that far from being the innocent victim of persecution by King Saul, David was in cahoots with Samuel and actively plotted from early on to unseat Saul from his throne.

Or so Greenberg claims. His arguments are convincing, but sometimes I felt he extrapolates from them too far, and on too little evidence. For example in the matter of David and Saul, he says far from being plagued by continuous headaches, the only headache Saul had was David; whereas in fact though he demonstrates how David was a "headache" for Saul, he doesn't disprove that Saul suffered from depression.

With this kind of theory, there's always the chance the author's going out on a limb and is not accepted by the wider community; so I had a gander at what Amazon's reviewers had to say about the book, and found the comments there informative: two of the reviewers criticise Greenberg for various things, including not working from the original Hebrew, and then a third (actually the fourth) reviewer seeks to stand up for Greenberg by pointing out all the inconsistencies that Greenberg does point up. So, even if you don't agree with Greenberg's analysis, the book's worth reading at the least for drawing to one's attention the cracks in the plaster saint, to mix metaphors.

On the other hand, the criticisms of not going by the Hebrew text are quite telling: Greenberg writes (ch.3, p.51) "The first of the four battles occured between the Philistine Ishbinebob, who was 'girded with a new sword thought to have killed David,' and Abishai, the Israelite who slew him." Greenberg builds on this portrayal of David's supposed death in battle. The verse, II Samuel 21:16 reads in the KJV:
And Ishbibenob, which was of the sons of the giant, the weight of whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of brass in weight, he being girded with a new sword, thought to have slain David.
The original Hebrew, however, reads:
וישבו (וְיִשְׁבִּי) בְּנֹב אֲשֶׁר בִּילִידֵי הָרָפָה, וּמִשְׁקַל קֵינוֹ שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת מִשְׁקַל נְחֹשֶׁת, וְהוּא חָגוּר חֲדָשָׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-דָּוִד׃
Literally "Ishbi Benov [...] had a new sword, and he said to kill David." The misinterpretation derives solely from the English.

I'm a bit miffed about not spotting this myself; I'd been reading along with a Tenach open in front of me, because I started reading the book suspicious of the author, but had mostly been reading along in the English (JPS 1917 translation, heavily based on the KJV), because there's a lot to read, and translating the Hebrew is hard work.

One of the reviewers at Amazon also criticises the whole approach of trying to discover what actually occurred from the Bible, when there's no archaeological evidence or other inscriptions; no independent evidence for this period at all apart from the Bible, until a little over a century after the time of King David. Of course, this approach may be used to criticise the entire Documentary Hypothesis, and Hertz devotes a great deal of room in his Pentateuch commentary to exactly this:
Of course, the language, vocabulary and style [of Leviticus] differ considerably from that of the historical parts of the Pentateuch. But this is due to the nature of the subjects treated in Leviticus; e.g. sacrifices, leprosy, land laws, as against stories of family life, national history, and moral admonition in the other books. One hundred years ago, Macaulay drafted the Penal Code for India. In that work, his whole manner of writing—vocabulary, sentence-formation, and style—is different from that used by him in his History, Essays, Speeches or Ballads. Yet would anyone question Macaulay's authorship of the Indian Code, or would anyone advance the hypothesis of the existence of five separate Macaulays—one each for the History, Essays, Speeches, Ballads, and the Code—amd living centuries apart from one another?
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Nevertheless, the Documentary Hypothesis in a weaker or stronger form is currently pretty much universally accepted outside the Orthodoxy community. (That I myself am still, backgroundedly, wrestling with it merely slightly colours my reaction to this book; I have no difficulty with a late or mixed origin for non-Pentateuchal books.)

So, in summary: worth reading, but keep an open mind!

Jewish learning notes index

wrong translation

Date: 2006-07-16 10:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I checked in particular the parts in the original Hebrew. The 3rd chapter in the book which talks about who killed Goliath says the chronicles and Samuel were deliberetly wrong translated in the English Version. The Hebrew version does not say anything about a brother. In Samuel II and 1 Chronicle Elhanan killed Goliath. There is no relative involved. (see 1 Chronicle 20:5 and 2 Samuel 21:19)

Re: wrong translation

Date: 2006-07-17 06:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
<checks (http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il/i/t/t25a20.htm)> Ooops; you're right. This is what comes of writing the review at work at lunchtime, without the book in front of me. I remembered that the brother had been introduced into the KJV in Samuel; I'd forgotten that he was also introduced in Chronicles.


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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