Sunday, January 19, 2014

The David Story, by Robert Alter

Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York: Norton, 1999. 410 pages. ISBN 0393048039.

This is a fascinating, annotated translation of 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as the first two chapters of 1 Kings. Robert Alter is a professor of Hebrew and Comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author or translator of numerous books about the bible, biblical literature, modern Hebrew literature, and more.

In a lengthy note to the reader, Alter provides a thorough introduction to the David story, and describes his methodology. As source material, he used the Masoretic Text, which was "established by a school of grammarians and textual scholars in Tiberias sometime between the seventh and the tenth centuries C.E." (p. xxv). The oldest complete manuscript of this text is the Aleppo Codex, which dates to approximately 1000 C.E. Also used as a source is a fragmentary version of Samuel that was found at Qumran (part of the Dead Sea Scrolls cache). Finally, ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible, that date as far back as the third century B.C.E. are available; Alter uses these translations to resolve or clarify what appear to be inaccuracies or other problems with the Masoretic text.

Throughout the translation, Alter provides historical context and clarifies details that may be confusing to the lay reader. He also explains when and why he used different sources for particular translation details (e.g., selecting the ancient Greek translation over the much later Hebrew text). As someone who reads history for pleasure, but who is not a historian, I found his commentary to be incredibly helpful in understanding the text. I recommend The David Story to anyone who is interested in biblical history.

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