For two decades or more, a diverse group of UCLA faculty has met once a week to study portions of the Tanakh (with a year out in which we read from the Pirke Avot). Jack Hirshleifer, long a leading light of our economics department, was among the group’s early members, and for many years he was its organizer (along with the learned and generous-minded Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel) and rapporteur. On his untimely death two years ago, the group decided to name itself in his honor.
Somehow, despite my ignorance of Hebrew and much else, I inherited the note-taking task when Jack’s strength began to fail. (His sharp intellect, his curiosity, his courtesy, and his cheerfulness never left him, to the very end.) Some of those notes have been published here.
After many years of working through the Book of Deuteronomy (D’Varim) at a rate of about four verses per week, the Hirshleifer group moved on to the Books of Samuel, translated by Robert Alter as The David Story. I remained the note-taker until this fall, when I was out of town, and have now resumed those duties.
At the jump, you will find several sets of notes, circling around Chapters 16-24: reports on four meetings last fall by various members of the group, and my two reports since we started up again this winter. In circling and repeating, the notes reflect the interweaving discussions among overlapping, but varying, sets of participants.
Here in particular I regret the comment-spam problem that forced us to shut down comments; reader responses to earlier Tanakh notes were uniformly valuable. If you have something to add, please send me an email and I’ll post it.
Rapporteur: Max Novak
Chapter 20 ends with the elaborate parting of David and Jonathan, as each weeps for the other and as Jonathan renews his vow of Love and fidelity extending to their families. Before this, there is the elaborate shooting of the arrows to the side of the rock where David lies hidden. As one participant remarked, much of this seemed to be part of a heroic tradition between two warriors who have sworn an eternal pact of friendship. It is also an acting out of the scheme agreed upon earlier in the chapter (Sections 20-22) to inform David about Saul’s resentment. The arrows shot to the side of the stone and the instructions to the youth with Jonathan to gather up the arrows.
Many of the group felt that the elaborate scheme is unnecessary. Others suggested that the court of a tyrant such as Saul, is filled with spies and informers and that the rationale for going to a deserted place for arrow practice and the sending of the young servant back to the town was necessary. The presence of Doeg as a spy in the next chapter will prove fatal for Ahimelech. Others pointed to the pattern of threes: three bows that David makes to Jonathan, the three arrows, and before that the three days of absence for David, as suggestive of fairy tale and folk material. The text notes that David wept “longer” than Jonathan at their departure, perhaps suggesting David’s greater depth and sensibility. At any rate the parting of the friends is a good example of the chiasmus that Fokkelman sees as dominating the rhetoric of the narrative.
Chapter 21:1-7 has David going to Nob to demand the consecrated bread from Ahimelech. The priest is troubled even frightened–by the appearance of David without a retinue. David, acting the role of the trickster, insist that he has a band of followers a short distance away and makes up the idea that he is on a secret mission for Saul. The priest wants to be sure that David’s followers have abstained from any sexual activity, since that would make them impure. David insists that his troops have undergone the kind of purification that warriors often did before battle.
The “consecration” of the warriors is a complete fabrication, but David’s appropriation of the consecrated bread is a religious violation. It was later used as an argument for being able to do anything in a case of necessity. By Jesus and his followers it was used as an argument for not taking the Law so rigidly. There may be some distinction drawn between the priestly followers of Eli, from whom Ahimelech is descended, and the more ecstatic followers of Samuel. Ahimelech’s willingness to help David eventually results in his destruction and the destruction of the priests of Nob. There is some possibility that David deliberately involves Ahimelech in his troubles, that there may be some antagonism between David and the priests of the king.
Rapporteur: Deborah Kennel
A small group of us met last Tuesday and succeeded in reading from Chapter 21 V 8 until the end of the chapter. We started with a puzzling insertion into the narration about David’s presence at Nob, an insertion that simply says a servant of Saul’s, and his chief herdsman, Doeg the Edomite, was detained that day at the sanctuary at Nob. To the question of why one of the Edomites, enemies of the Israelites, would be serving Saul, one participant cited a rabbinic commentary which explains the term really meant an Israelite residing in Edom—which is problematic in itself—and another cited a rabbinic commentary explaining that the word used for Edomite could also refer to a person with a ruddy complexion. An old Midrash even claims that Doeg was the head of the Sanhedrin! Alter argues that the mention of an Edomite attests to the presence of foreign mercenaries in the royal army (perhaps something the rabbis did not want to emphasize?) and says that this single sentence about Doeg is a foreshadowing of his fatal role in the next chapter. The group next discussed David’s request for a sword, which amazingly resulted in Ahimelech producing Goliath’s sword from behind the ephod. This seems to contradict Chapter 17 verse 54, which had clearly stated that David took Goliath’s head to Jerusalem, “but his (Goliath’s) weapons he put in his tent”
A discussant cited the Radakh, who argues that David had appropriated to himself Goliath’s other weapons, which are enumerated in Chapter 17 V. 45 as spear and javelin, but not the sword. In any event, Ahimelech seems to be both offering and withholding this sword from David. Verse 11 presented a problem because it says (in the Alter edition) “And David rose on that day and fled from Saul and came to Achish, king of Gath.” However, since we already know that David had fled, the discussion centered around the possibility that this isn’t an inadvertent repetition, but rather a continuation of a description of his flight. The bigger question is why David would flee to the land of Goliath, and particularly to the court. Was he hoping that he wouldn’t be recognized? If so the hope was in vain, since the servants of the king immediately recognized him. One suggestion offered was that perhaps any visitor was required to go to the royal court and “register” his presence. A second possibility is that there might have been a rule of hospitality at royal courts. One participant cited a medieval commentator called simply “the Jew of Metz” who suggested that David might have been trying to flee through the kingdom and was recognized and brought to the royal court. The final verses which tell how David feigned madness before the king were fortunately less problematic, and we concluded with reading Alter’s literary commentary that David was willing to humiliate himself even more than did Odysseus when he played the beggar, and that there is an interesting contrast between the sane and savvy David, who was willing to play the role of a madman when it was essential for his survival, and the genuinely mad Saul.
Rapporteur: Max Novak
The discussion began by focusing on the images of David in his Cave at Adullam and Saul sitting in Gibeah under a tamarisk tree on a hill—David still fleeing from the power of Saul and Saul fearing that his power is slipping away and that many of those surrounding him are conspiring against him. There was much discussion of what seemed to be involved here. David is warned by the prophet Gad to enter the land of Judah . Saul’s appeal to his followers, members of the tribe of Benjamin, suggests a gradual discontent with the way in which Saul has operated as a king, giving
land and vineyards to his followers and appealing to their loyalty based on the favors he has granted. On the other hand David has gathered about him “every man who was in distress, and every man who had a creditor, and every man of embittered spirit”—400 men who recognize his leadership. It raises questions about David’s character, at times hesitant about challenging Saul, at other times a charismatic figure, an obvious guerrilla leader.
It was suggested that what is implied is a gradual split from Saul’s monarchy, with many of those who feel unrewarded by Saul’s monarchy seeing a possible new leader. Meanwhile David deposits his father and mother with the King of Moab, feeling they would not be safe with him. A midrash has the King of Moab killing David’s parents and members of his family, but as with much of the commentary to this section, there seems to be an attempt to find a moral explanation for later events.
The crucial section involves Saul’s feeling of a conspiracy against him. He has found out about the pact between Jonathan and David, blaming his courtiers for failing to tell him and announces that “none of you was troubled for my sake to reveal to me that my son has set up my servant to lie in wait against me this very day.” Since Jonathan has always shown filial obedience to Saul, this seems strange, and there is nothing in the text to confirm Saul’s statement. At this point Doeg tells of having been present when Ahimelech gave food and the sword of Goliath to David. He adds that
Ahimelech “inquired of the Lord” for David, probably to provoke Saul even further. Ahimelech is sent for and while denying that he consulted the Lord for David, admits that he did give him food and the sword.
Ahimelech is a figure caught between the struggle of Saul and David. Unaware of Saul’s anger, he praises David (who among all your servants is like David, loyal…and honoured in your House). As one of the group remarked, everything Ahimelech says is unintentionally structured to enrage Saul. Ahimelech nervously gave David food and a weapon, believing his story about being on a secret mission. How was he to know that David was the focus of Saul’s fury? As a result, Saul orders him and all of the priests of Nob to be put to death. None of the Benjamites are willing to obey; so Saul orders Doeg, the Edomite, to do it. Doeg carries out this vengeance against all of the priests, their families, and even their animals.
This appears to have represented a moral crux for the commentators. They argued that Saul’s pity for Agag and pitilessness against the priests of Nob represented a “bath-kol” that resounded through Heaven. In the one case Saul was being “overly righteous” in the latter cruel beyond belief. The refusal of the Benjamites to obey such an order also has larger moral overtones.
At the end, Chaim raised the question of a commentator who
suggested that Jonathan shared some blame. Had he given food to David, David needed not take the bread from Ahimelech and then the priests would
have been spared. The argument suggested that Jonathan violated laws
of hospitality. The group seemed to question such a view. Was Jonathan who went through such elaborate contrivances to see David alone (the three arrows) supposed to have packed baloney sandwiches? Was the chain of causation and guilt a way of explaining why evil eventually befell Jonathan. Does it not defy the Existential notion that the murderers (Saul and Doeg) are those who actually kill?
Rapporteur: Mark Kleiman
Joe raised a key question: Whose story is this, anyway? The rest of us (like Alter) were focused on David, who becomes a hero by killing Goliath, is made the war leader under Saul, incurs his envy by becoming a popular her, marries his daughter, makes a pact with his son, flees the court after the king tries to kill him, and sets up as a guerrilla leader.
But Joe took the narrator’s emphasis to be on Saul, and his slow implosion as he sees his popularity stolen and his children’s loyalties alienated by his young, heroic subordinate and then descends into a tyrant’s cruelty and paranoia. Saul is humiliated again and again, partly by others but chiefly by his own irrational actions.
Saul, naturally, is wounded by Jonathan’s preference for his rival. After Saul observes that Jonathan is defending David against the suspicion of disloyalty occasioned by his absence from the king’s table, Saul says:
Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?
Alter notes the violence of the language, but offers no further interpretation. The rabbis read this as meaning that Jonathan’s unfilial behavior suggests that he is not actually Saul’s son; Jonathan’s actions thus accuse his mother of infidelity, and Saul seems to endorse that accusation. Does Jonathan’s disloyalty re-open an old psychological wound?
Why, Joe asked, does the narrator insist on displaying Saul’s collapse, and his wicked, foolish, and crazy actions, in such overwhelming detail? The narrator seems to be acting as the prosecutor at a show trial, building an historical record to blacken the reputation of the fallen ruler. If part of the text originates at the Court of David or that of one of his descendants, does that reflect fear on the part of the Davidic line about a Saulide resurgence? Or is Saul denigrated in order to discredit his fellow Ephraimites, the Kings of Israel? Or perhaps it is merely meant to justify what would otherwise seem to be David’s usurpation of the throne from the king anointed by Samuel.
Max pointed out that the rabbis treat Saul as a worthy figure rather than an unworthy one. In particular, his slaughter of Ahimelech and the other priests is taken as a fulfillment of the curse on the House of Eli. But the contrast between his enthusiasm for killing everything that moves in Nob and his mercy toward Agag the Amalekite seems hard to reconcile with the notion that his order to Doeg was meant to carry out the judgment of HaShem.
Arthur questioned whether treating the text as a single narrative and asking about the narrator’s (or redactor’s) intention did the document justice: the various chapters, and even sections within them, seemed to him largely independent, and even disconnected, reflecting multiple traditions.
Alter’s comparison of David’s willingness to feign madness to Odysseus’s disguise as a beggar (in each case reflecting a determination to survive and succeed at whatever cost in personal dignity) led us to explore the character of David. Alter seems to have missed a more obvious comparison between the two: Odysseus’s simulation of madness (sowing his fields with salt) in an attempt to avoid going to Troy, which Palamedes defeats by putting the infant Telemachus in front of the plow to force Odysseus to pull up short, thus betraying his sanity.
David and Odysseus are alike unscrupulous about, for example, keeping their word; Odysseus slays Dolon after promising to spare him in return for information, while David on his deathbed urges Solomon to kill Joab, whom David had assured of his life. And insofar as Jonathan imagines that David and his descendants will maintain him and his children (20:42: “HaShem will be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed, forever”) he is deceived, though whether by David or merely by himself is unclear.
David’s unconcern about his personal dignity emerges later, after he is acknowledged as king, with his dancing before the Ark, which causes his breach with Michal who cannot abide that her husband make a spectacle of himself before his inferiors. But David’s controlled capacity to abandon dignity at need is contrasted with Saul, who makes himself ridiculous (twice) by falling into an ecstatic trance and wandering about naked when he encounters bands of itinerant prophets. From Chapter 16, in which Samuel first finds and anoints David, to Chapter 24, in which Saul acknowledges David as his successor, 1 Samuel gives a joint narrative of David’s growth in power and guile and Saul’s descent into madness and tyranny.
Rapporteur: Mark Kleiman
The chapter divisions, though imposed on the text most of a millennium after its first redaction, track the flow of incident fairly closely.
Chapter 16: David is found and introduced into Saul’s court to ease his mental anguish, the “evil spirit from HaShem” that torments him after his disobedience in the matter of Agag leads Samuel to proclaim (to him) his deposition.
Chapter 17: David slays Goliath, using his own weapons and not those with which Saul tries to weigh him down.
Chapter 18: David assumes office, wins praise, and engenders Saul’s jealous wrath, which leads to Saul’s first violent attempt on his life. But David also wins the heart of Saul’s son and the hand of his daughter.
Chapter 19: Saul for the first time devises David’s death in cold blood, but Jonathan and Michal save him in their father’s despite. Saul pursues his enemy in person, but gets caught in an ecstatic frenzy in which he strips himself naked and makes himself the butt of public ridicule.
Chapter 20: Saul plots again and David escapes again with Jonathan’s help. Saul tumbles to the fact that Jonathan has taken the part of his rival, which sends him into a rage.
Chapter 21: David, in flight from Saul, pretends to be on a secret mission from the King. He thus tricks Ahimelech, descendant of Eli and chief of the Priests of Nob, into giving him consecrated bread and the sword of Goliath. This is observed by Saul’s courtier Doeg.
Chapter 22: David assembles a rebel band. Saul learns of this, and accuses his own tribesmen and courtiers of disloyalty. Doeg reveals to the King what Ahimelech did for David, adding some false details and concealing David’s trickery. Saul summons Ahimelech and his entire family, and has them slain by the hand of Doeg.
Chapter 23: David fights the Philistines. Saul pursues him, but is diverted by the need to fight the national enemy.
Chapter 24: In the cave at En-Gedi, David forgoes the chance to kill Saul. Saul recognizes David’s magnanimity and acknowledges him as the successor to the throne. David promises to Saul, as he had before to Jonathan, not to extirpate his house.
Throughout, the text seems designed almost as a trial brief on behalf of the House of David to defend its founder against the charge of usurpation. David is not portrayed as a pure-hearted hero; he displays a nasty cunning worthy of Odysseus. But the text displays Saul’s utter unfitness to rule, especially in Chapter 22.
Back in Chapter 15, Saul, ordered by Samuel in the name of HaShem to extirpate the Amalekites down to the very livestock, Saul flinched, sparing the best of the animals and Agag the king. But in Chapter 22, he orders the death not merely of Ahimelech, whom he suspects of having plotted against him with David, but all of his family, including the small children, and all the animals. The text offers no reason for this extirpation, and Saul’s own retinue, fellow members of the Tribe of Benjamin, refuse to carry out the order, not wanting to soil their hands with the blood of Cohanim. But Doeg, described as an Edomite and, previously, as the chief herdsman, carries out the sentence with apparent enthusiasm.
The obvious reading is that Saul, like many a king since, has found that a foreigner, not bound by tribal loyalty or respect for the national cult, is more responsive to the royal will or whim than are his own people. But this is not the first time Saul has issued a crazy order and had difficulty getting it carried out; earlier he had condemned Jonathan to death, the very day on which Jonathan won a military victory, for tasting honey when Saul had ordered the whole army to fast, but the army insisted on defending its victorious general against his father. (Perhaps that incident helps explain Jonathan’s lack of filial loyalty.)
The rabbis, for reasons not clear, try to soften the text’s apparent indictment of Saul. First it is said that in ordering the massacre he was simply putting into effect the curse pronounced on the House of Eli, though the text does not stress Ahimelech’s ancestry. Second Doeg is portrayed either as an Edomite convert or as an Israelite merely living in Edom. (This issue echoes the question of Samuel’s descent; his father Elkanah is described as an Ephraimite, which if read literally would mean that Samuel the Priest could not be of Levite ancestry and thus not among the priestly descendents of Aaron. But some commentators solve the problem by making Elkanah a Cohan merely resident in Ephraim.)
Then the rabbis interpret Doeg’s role as chief herdsman to mean that he was the chief of the shepherds of the people: i.e., the teachers of Torah. And Doeg’s being “detained” in Nob is explained as meaning that he was held by his desire to study. All of this seems fanciful enough; perhaps it reflects the tension between the rabbinate on the one hand and the priesthood and monarchy on the other that developed in the Hellenistic period when the court and the priesthood were more receptive to Greek cultural influence, and expressed itself eventually in the strife between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
However that may be, after the massacre David for the first time displays one of his occasional bursts of nobility. Ahitub the son of Ahimelech escapes the slaughter and comes to David, and David blames himself for the massacre; he knew, he says when he tricked Ahimelech (perhaps he means that he should have known) that Doeg would carry the tale back to Saul. He promises Ahitub protection.
Of course, as usual with David, even his magnanimity serves his political purposes. Ahitub brings with him the divinatory ephod, which gives David (in Chapter 23) what Saul consistently lacks: a means of communication with HaShem. (Even before that, “Gad the Prophet” conveniently appears to give David a timely warning to escape from Mizpah.) With his band around him and the ephod to guide him, David is ready to fight both the Philistines and the hapless Saul.