Commentary Magazine


Certain People of the Book, by Maurice Samuel

A Rare Interpreter
by Spencer Brown
Certain People of the Book. By Maurice Samuel. Knopf. 363 pp. $5.00.

Biblical elucidation is as old as the text of the Bible itself, not only because of the greatness of the Book, but also because of its abundance of contradictions, gnomic utterances, ellipses due to conscious art, and omissions due to unsophisticated narration. Unfortunately much of this elucidation is mere obfuscation—vain repetition and pedantry. But these are peccadillos compared with the crimes of most Biblical popularization, which coats the narrative with a gummy mixture of piety and coziness.

Yet Maurice Samuel, scholar, critic, novelist, and translator, sets out, in Certain People of the Book, both to elucidate and to popularize, seemingly unaware of the horrendous difficulties of either undertaking, and does both with ease and modesty. One of the most engaging aspects of his book is its assumption, innocent or elegantly feigned, that almost any attentive reader of the Scriptures could come up with much the same sort of thing. This polite absurdity aside, however, Mr. Samuel keeps a balance between humor and reverence, humanity and mysticism, speculation and faith, exegesis and simplicity. He avoids both sentimentality and religiosity.

Certain People of the Book is ostensibly a series of character studies—of Ahasuerus, Balaam, Naomi, Rebekah, the three principal wives of David, Jezebel, and Joseph, together with thumbnail sketches of “the supporting cast.” It is hard for one who is not an expert to tell how much is original in Mr. Samuel’s treatment. Perhaps at this date originality in commenting on the Bible is no longer possible. But if it is still possible, Mr. Samuel has achieved it.

Consider, for example, his analysis of Balaam. Traditionally Balaam has been understood to be, on the one hand, one of the greatest of the prophets or, on the other hand, an evil self-seeker who wishes to curse rather than bless the Israelites in order to get King Balak’s money—or, paradoxically, both these characters. Mr. Samuel goes beyond even the paradox and finds Balaam to be a fool, not comic, but sinister and even disgusting. “Balaam’s temporary blindness was real, but it was purposive and obsessional. He knew perfectly what it was that he could not see and what the ass saw. Hence his towering rage.” “I shall perhaps be laughed at, but only by those who have never become acquainted with the lunacies of the artist. Balaam wants primarily to be an independent power, controlling a part of the universe. He does not care a goat’s bleat about Moab, or about Israel, about who defeats whom, and who is to be destroyed. He wants a share of the omnipotence and he thinks, God help us, that he has found a way of turning the trick. He will compel God to have him say what he wants, not what God wants.”

If Mr. Samuel can do this with Balaam, we may expect more and even better on characters as complex as David and Joseph. And we are not disappointed. The portrait of David is deft and realistic, though only incidental to the studies of the three women. The analysis of Joseph, however, is full and devastating. Mr. Samuel takes issue with Thomas Mann’s elaborate retelling of the Joseph cycle, perhaps wilfully overlooking some of its irony (for it is barely possible that Mann’s loving portrait may be taken ironically, as a consistently savage caricature, just as it is possible, or even likely, that Melville’s retelling of the Jonah story is an attack on God rather than on Jonah). In any case Mr. Samuel’s quiet scholarship makes Mann’s encyclopedic learning look cumbersome, often superfluous, and sometimes wrong. Mann is mistaken about the nature of the blessing of Abraham, which descends, Mr. Samuel shows, to all the sons of Jacob, not to Judah alone. And Joseph is at war with his brothers for domination, not for the blessing.

Joseph’s greatness is that of an economic and social theorist and as “a manipulator of public affairs.” He saves Egypt and—as a sort of afterthought, in a nasty, cat-and-mouse fashion—saves his own people. His reward is to be forgotten by the Egyptians after a few generations and to be revered by his own people forever. He has a supremely attractive personality and a peculiarly repellent character: in Shakespearean phrase he is one of those “who, moving others, are themselves as stone.” In his relations with Potiphar’s wife he is as inhuman as Hippolytus—with less reason—and nearly suffers the same fate; in his long-drawn-out revenge of practical joking on his brothers and even on Jacob he reveals himself as a monster.

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Not unreasonably, Mr. Samuel treats the chronicles as history, history more reliable than any we are likely to construct for remote times. Yet he is not concerned with the physical truth or falsity of miracles. “For me the burning bush, and the splitting of the Red Sea, and the thunder on Sinai are symbols of miracles, and I do not care how they are philosophized away. But who shall philosophize away the two seemingly harmless phrases: ‘Thou art the man,’ and: ‘Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?’ And who shall explain how the prophetic presence smote two such different men alike, without portents and without apparitions, but with simple, everyday syllables?”

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The apparently naive stories of the Bible have always been used as launching platforms for all sorts of intricate moralizing rockets—one-stage, two-stage, and duds. Mr. Samuel’s rockets are generally two-stage and are never duds. For example, on Uriah the Hittite: “He was either a hypocrite or a brutal pedant. . . . At best he was a brave, stupid, speechifying man, and what he said to the king . . . was pompously tactless. I hear it objected: ‘One should not talk like that about a man who was murdered.’ I do not see how getting oneself murdered improves one’s character; and God help justice if we must admire a victim of aggression before we undertake to protect him wholeheartedly.” And on Jezebel: “She makes me see the meaninglessness of ‘the virtues’; and in a manner I can never satisfactorily express she has convinced me that courage, loyalty, endurance, and all the other admired qualities are no more moral in themselves than a sound digestion, or a well-planned behavior pattern, which is only a system of conditioned reflexes. These things have nothing to do with goodness. They are good only as possessed by a good person, and they are horrible when possessed by a bad person. Such views get me in trouble with other people because I deprive them of the common refuge from moral emptiness; they get me in trouble with myself for the same reason.” At his best Mr. Samuel’s reading of parts of the Bible is analogous to Dover Wilson’s What Happens in “Hamlet.” He shows, I think for the first time, what actually happens in the story of Isaac and Esau and Jacob. Isaac “blesses” Jacob by mistake, not wishfully blind but genuinely thinking him to be his preferred Esau, unaware that Rebekah has effected a switch. But Isaac knows as well as Rebekah that Esau is no fit vessel for the blessing, the blessing of Abraham; hence he gives a neutral blessing, such as might be given any son by any reasonably prophetic father. When he discovers the deception, he gives the real Esau a similar blessing: there is almost nothing to choose between the two. The true blessing he saves for Jacob as Jacob is departing for Laban’s country; Isaac’s judgment overcomes his emotional preference, and the gift with its awesome responsibility is preserved in the right line.

Nowhere do Mr. Samuel’s critical understanding and sympathy show so brilliantly as in his discussion of the story of Ruth, which he insists is really the story of Naomi. He demonstrates the power of omission as a literary technique; he portrays Naomi as a person who inspires profound love, as a beneficent schemer who knows well that at certain times the highest art of managing things is to do nothing; he explains the reason for Boaz’ astonishing loquacity as embarrassment at having neglected his kinfolk upon their arrival.

Some scholars, assigning a late date to the composition of the Book of Ruth, feel bound to find it inferior to the earlier and therefore greater books. Mary Ellen Chase says, “Slight in its emotional appeal and its simple presentation of human psychology, it, nevertheless, is told with ease and charm and is brief enough so that its lack of variety in style does not become monotonous.” So vainly must the scholarly conscience struggle against the judgment of mankind; if the first chapter of the Book of Ruth is slight in emotional appeal, then Schubert’s song cycles are routine and Emily Dickinson’s poetry academic. Mr. Samuel’s learning stands him in better stead: he can see complexity of action and motivation beneath the simple surface, and he can say, of the first chapter, “We listen, awed, across the interval of three thousand years.”

The tone of this review may suggest that Mr. Samuel is the messiah of Bible interpreters, for whom the ages have been waiting. Such an impression would be false, and he would be the first to disclaim anything more than enlightened common sense and the ability to read sympathetically, humorously, and perceptively. We concur; but we cannot help noting how rare and precious such gifts are.

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