Commentary Magazine

Character in the Bible

How does the Bible manage to evoke such a sense of depth and complexity in its representation of character with what would seem to be such sparse, even rudimentary means? Biblical narrative offers us, after all, nothing in the way of minute analysis of motive or detailed rendering of mental processes; whatever indications we may be vouchsafed of feeling, attitude, or intention are rather minimal; and we are given only the barest hints about the physical appearance, the tics and gestures, the dress and implements of the characters, the material milieu in which they enact their destinies. In short, all the indicators of nuanced individuality to which the Western literary tradition has accustomed us—preeminently in the novel, but ultimately going back to the Greek epics and romances—would appear to be absent from the Bible. In what way, then, is one to explain how, from these laconic texts, figures like Rebekkah, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Tamar, Moses, Saul, David, and Ruth emerge, characters who, beyond any archetypal role they may play as bearers of a divine mandate, have been etched as indelibly vivid individuals in the imagination of a hundred generations?

It is true enough to say, as Erich Auerbach and others have done, that the sparely sketched foreground of biblical narrative somehow implies a large background dense with possibilities of interpretation, but the critical issue here is the specific means through which that “somehow” is achieved. Though biblical narrative is often silent where later modes of fiction will choose to be loquacious, it is selectively silent in a purposeful way: about different personages, or about the same personages at different junctures of the narration, or about different aspects of their thought, feeling, behavior. I would suggest, in fact, that the biblical writers, while seeming to preserve a continuity with the relatively simple treatment of character of their Mesopotamian and Syro-Palestinian literary predecessors, actually worked out a set of new and surprisingly supple techniques for the imaginative representation of human individuality.

Since art does not develop in a vacuum, these literary techniques must be associated with the conception of human nature implicit in biblical monotheism: every person is created by an all-seeing God but abandoned to his own unfathomable freedom, made in God’s likeness as a matter of cosmogonic principle but almost never as a matter of accomplished ethical fact; and each individual instance of this bundle of paradoxes, encompassing the zenith and the nadir of the created world, requires a special cunning attentiveness in literary representation. The purposeful selectivity of means, the repeatedly contrastive or comparative technical strategies used in the rendering of biblical characters, are in a sense dictated by the biblical view of man.

All this will become clearer through illustration. I would like to focus on a series of related passages from the story of David, the most complex and elaborately presented of biblical characters. A consideration of the entire literary portrait of David would take far too much space, but in order to see how the Bible’s artful selectivity produces both sharply defined surfaces and a sense of ambiguous depths in character, it will suffice to follow David’s unfolding relationship with his wife Michal, which also involves his relation to Saul, to his subsequent wives, and to his men. Michal is introduced into the narrative shortly after David, a young man from the provincial town of Bethlehem, has made his debut as a military hero and won the adulation of the people (I Samuel 18). We have just been informed, in a pointed pun, that the spirit of the Lord, now with David, has “turned away” from Saul and that the troubled king has “turned David away” from his presence by sending him into battle as a front-line commander. What follows is worth quoting at length because, as the initial presentation of David and Michal’s relationship, it offers a small spectrum of nicely differentiated means of characterization:

14. David succeeded in all his ways, and the Lord was with him. 15. Saul saw that he succeeded remarkably and was afraid of him. 16. But all Israel and Judah loved David for he led them in battle. 17. Saul said to David, “Here is my oldest daughter, Merab; her shall I give you as a wife. But you must be a good warrior for me and fight the Lord’s battles.” And Saul was thinking, “Let not my hand strike him down, let it be the hand of the Philistines.” 18. David said to Saul, “Who am I, and what is my life, my father’s family in Israel, that I should become the son-in-law of the king?” 19. But at the time Merab the daughter of Saul should have been given to David, she was given as a wife to Adriel the Meholathite. 20. And Michal the daughter of Saul loved David; this was told to Saul and he was pleased. 21. And Saul thought, “I shall give her to him and she can be a snare to him, so that the hand of the Philistines can strike him down.” And Saul said to David, “Through the second one1 you can now become my son-in-law.” 22. Saul instructed his retainers, “Speak to David privately in these words—‘The king desires you, all his subjects love you, and so now become the king’s son-in-law.’” 23. Saul’s retainers repeated these words to David, and David said, “Is it a little thing in your eyes to become the king’s son-in-law, and I am a pauper, a man of little consequence?” 24. Saul’s retainers told him, “These were the words David spoke.” 25. Saul said, “This is what you should say to David—‘The king desires no bride price but a hundred Philistine foreskins to take vengeance against the enemies of the king.’” And Saul intended to bring David down by the hand of the Philistines. 26. His retainers repeated these words to David, and David was pleased by the thing, to become the king’s son-in-law. Before the time had expired,1 27. David arose and went off, he and his men with him, and killed two hundred Philistines. David brought back their foreskins and counted them out1 for the king in order to become his son-in-law, and Saul gave him Michal his daughter as a wife. 28. Saul realized that the Lord was with David, while Michal the daughter of Saul loved him. 29. Saul feared David all the more, and Saul was David’s constant enemy. 30. The Philistine chieftains came out to do battle, but whenever they came out, David succeeded beyond all Saul’s retainers, and his name became very great.



Now, in reliable third-person narrations, such as in the Bible, there is a scale of means, in ascending order of explicitness and certainty, for conveying information about the motives, the attitudes, the moral nature of characters. Character can be revealed through the report of actions; through appearance, gestures, posture, costume; through one character’s comments on another; through direct speech by the character; through inward speech, either summarized or quoted as interior monologue; or through statements by the narrator about the attitudes and intentions of the personages, which may come either as flat assertions or motivated explanations.

The lower end of this scale—character revealed through actions or appearance—leaves us substantially in the realm of inference. The middle categories, involving direct speech either by a character himself or by others about him, lead us from inference to the weighing of claims. Although a character’s own statements might seem a straightforward enough revelation of who he is and what he makes of things, in fact the biblical writers are quite as aware as any James or Proust that speech may reflect the occasion more than the speaker, may be more a drawn shutter than an open window. With the report of inward speech, we enter the realm of relative certainty about character: there is certainty, in any case, about the character’s conscious intentions, though we may still feel free to question the motive behind the intention. Finally, at the top of the ascending scale, we have the reliable narrator’s explicit statement of what the characters feel, intend, desire; here we are accorded certainty, though biblical narrative, as the passage before us demonstrates, may choose for its own good purposes either to explain the ascription of attitude or to state it baldly and thus leave its cause as an enigma for us to ponder.

With all this in mind, if we return to our passage from I Samuel 18, we can readily see how the writer, far from being committed to a monolithic or “primitive” method of characterization, shrewdly varies his means of presentation from one personage to the next. Like many biblical episodes, the passage has a formal frame: David is said to be eminently successful, which is both proof and consequence of God’s being with him, and immensely popular because of his success, both at the beginning of the episode and at the end; and if, as I would assume, this passage was written later than Genesis 39, the story of Joseph, another precocious high-achiever in trouble, it probably alludes to that chapter from Genesis, which is similarly framed by verses at the beginning and end that stress the hero’s success, God’s being with him, and his popularity. In any case, the frame-verses here tell us something about David’s divine election to the newly created throne of Israel, but nothing about his moral character, and one of the most probing general perceptions of the biblical writers is that there is often a tension, sometimes perhaps even an absolute contradiction, between election and moral character. But it is important for the writer to leave this tension under a shadow of ambiguity in order to suggest a complex sense of David the private person and public man. David, then, remains a complete opacity in this episode, while Saul is a total transparency and Michal a sliver of transparency surrounded by darkness.

The means of presenting Saul are drawn from the top of our ascending scale of certainties. The narrator tells us exactly what Saul feels toward David—fear—and why he feels it—David’s astonishing military success (in this instance, the parataxis of “Saul saw . . . and was afraid” is a clear causal indication). We are given Saul’s decorous public speech to David (verse 17), but his words are immediately commented on and exposed by a revelation of his inward speech in which he plots David’s death. (In the Hebrew, these transitions from outward to inward speech are effected more elegantly and more pointedly because the same verb, amr, is used to introduce both actual speech and thought or intention.) The next discussion of betrothal between Saul and David (verse 21) neatly reverses this order: first we get the interior monologue of the plotting king, then his decorous statement to the intended victim of his scheme. By the time we are given Saul’s words to be conveyed by his henchmen, who are probably not conscious accomplices, to David, we know exactly what is behind those words.

As elsewhere in the Bible, attention is directed toward the use of language as a medium of manipulation. To make sure that we do not forget even momentarily just what Saul is up to, the narrator intervenes in his own voice in the second half of verse 27, after Saul’s stipulation of bride-price, to tell us what the king’s real intention is. The transparency of presentation might even be intended to imply a transparency in Saul’s efforts as a Machiavellian schemer: he is a simple character, inclined to clumsy lunges rather than deft thrusts, and perhaps for that reason not political enough to retain the throne. Does David himself see through the king’s scheme and decide to play along because he is confident he can overcome all dangers and bring back the gory bride-price? This is one of several key determinations concerning the characters about which the text leads us to speculate without providing sufficient information to draw any certain conclusions.

Michal leaps out of the void as a name, a significant relation—Saul’s daughter—and an emotion—her love for David. This love, twice stated here, is bound to have special salience because it is the only instance in all biblical narrative in which we are explicitly told that a woman loves a man. But unlike Saul’s fear, Michal’s love is stated entirely without motivated explanation; this does not mean, of course, that it is inexplicable, only that the writer wants us to conjecture about it. The people love David because of his brilliance on the battlefield; Michal might love him for the same reason, or for qualities not yet intimated, or because of aspects of her own character about which we will begin to guess only later.

The means used to represent David, meanwhile, are deliberately limited to the lower and middle range of our ascending scale of certainties. We know in a general way about his actions in battle, we know what others feel about him, but there is no ascription of feeling, as in the case of Michal, no revelation of interior speech and intention, as with Saul. What we are given is David’s speech, first to Saul, later to Saul’s intermediaries. These are strictly public occasions, and the words David chooses for them are properly diplomatic. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the entire David story is that until his career reaches its crucial breaking point with his murder-by-proxy of Uriah after his adultery with Bathsheba, almost all his speeches are in public situations and can be read as politically motivated. It is only after the death of the child born of his union with Bathsheba that the personal voice of a shaken David begins to emerge.2

What does David feel, what is he really thinking, when he responds to Saul or to Saul’s spokesmen? Does he genuinely feel humble as a poor Ephraimite farm boy suddenly taken up by the court? Is he merely following the expected effusive formulas of court language in these gestures of self-effacement before the king? Or, guessing the king’s intention but confident he has a stronger hand to play than Saul realizes, is he through his protestations of unworthiness being careful not to appear too eager to marry into the royal family because of what such a desire might suggest about his political ambitions? The narrator leaves these various “readings” of David hovering by presenting his public utterance without comment, and in this way is able to suggest the fluctuating or multiple nature of motives in this prime biblical instance of man as a political animal. One or all of these considerations might explain David’s words; precisely by not specifying, the narrator allows each its claim.



The subsequent episodes of the David-Michal story consistently maintain this studied effect of opacity in the presentation of the warrior-king, and may be touched on more briefly. In the next chapter (I Samuel 19), Saul sends his henchmen to David and Michal’s house in order to ambush David when he comes out in the morning. In some unspecified way, the alert Michal learns of the plot and warns David in these urgent, compact words: “If you don’t escape tonight, tomorrow you’re a dead man.” This is immediately followed neither by a verbal response from David nor by any indication of what he feels, but only by Michal’s brisk action and David’s emphatic compliance: “Michal lowered David through the window and he went off and fled and escaped.” These three verbs for the one in Michal’s breathless instructions underline David’s singleminded attention to the crucial business of saving himself.

Michal, meanwhile, is wily enough to cover David’s escape by improvising a dummy in bed out of the household idols (terafim) covered with a cloth and a goat’s-hair bolster for a head. This is obviously an allusion to Rachel, who in fleeing with Jacob from her father (Genesis 31), steals Laban’s terafim and hides them under the camel-pillow when he comes to search her tent. Perhaps the allusion is meant to foreshadow a fatality shared by Michal with Rachel, who becomes the object of Jacob’s unwitting curse because of the theft; what is certain is that the allusion reinforces our sense of Michal as a woman who has renounced allegiance to her father in her devotion to her husband. For when Saul, finding that David has slipped out of his hands, castigates his daughter for her treachery, Michal coolly turns around her own words to David and her actions of the previous night and pretends that David threatened her, saying, “Help me get away or I’ll kill you.”

It is noteworthy that the only words purportedly spoken by David to Michal are merely her invention, to protect herself. So far, their relationship has been literally and figuratively a one-sided dialogue. First we were told twice that she loved him while all that could be safely inferred about his attitude toward her was that the marriage was politically useful. Now she vigorously demonstrates her love, and the practical intelligence behind it, by her words and actions at a moment of crisis, while the text, faithful to its principle of blocking access to the private David, envelops him in silence, representing him only as a man in mortal danger who goes off, flees, and escapes.

David, after putting Saul’s homicidal intentions to the test one last time with the help of his friend Jonathan, heads for the badlands, accompanied by a band of tough fighting men disaffected from Saul. Michal now disappears from the scene. Bare mention of her occurs only at the end of I Samuel 25, in connection with David’s taking another two wives. The happily widowed Abigail, another of those extraordinarily enterprising and practical biblical women, has just been seen taking off after David in a chain of verbs: “Abigail hurried and got up and rode on her donkey, her five maids in attendance, and went after David’s messengers and became his wife.” This is followed by an observation about David’s matrimonial activity (probably to be construed as a pluperfect), which leads the narrator at last to inform us what has happened to Michal while David has been on the lam: “David had taken Ahinoam of Jezreel, and so both of them became his wives, while Saul had given his daughter Michal, the wife of David, to Palti the son of Laish from Gallim.” Michal, last observed as a forceful initiator of action, now stands in contrast to the energetically active Abigail as an object acted upon, passed by her father from one man to another. The dubious legality of Saul’s action is perhaps intimated by the use of the epithet “wife of David”; the motive, of course, for marrying off his daughter to someone else is political, in order to demonstrate, however clumsily, that David has no bond of kinship with the royal family and hence no claim to the throne. What Michal feels about this transaction, or about the absent David and his new wives of whom she may have heard, we are not told. The text is similarly silent about Palti’s feelings—indeed, about his very identity—though he will later have his brief moment of memorable revelation.

The strategy of setting up a screen around David’s intimate responses is deployed with almost teasing provocation a few chapters later (I Samuel 30) when Abigail and Ahinoam, together with the wives and children of all David’s men, are taken off as captives in an Amalekite raid on his headquarters at Ziklag. Returning from a sortie, David and his men find their town burned and their wives and children gone. David’s reaction is reported with the most artful ambiguity: “David and the people with him cried out and wept until they had no more strength to weep. David’s two wives had been taken captive, Ahinoam the Jezreelite and Abigail, wife of Nabal the Carmelite. And David was greatly distressed, for the people wanted to stone him, for all the people were embittered over their sons and daughters.”

First there is the public expression of grief, the long fit of weeping, in which David naturally participates. Then we are informed that his two wives are among the captives, and in the para-tactic flow of the verses, with no sentence divisions in the original text, it is easy enough to read this as cause and effect: “David’s wives had been taken . . . and David was greatly distressed.” The idiom I have translated as “distressed” (vatetzer l’) can refer either to a feeling of distress or to the objective condition of being in straits, in physical danger, and the next clause, “for the people wanted to stone him,” pirouettes on the ambiguity and turns around to the second meaning. Where we thought we had a spontaneous expression of David’s grief over the loss of his wives, we are again confronted with David the political leader in a tight corner, struggling to save both himself and the situation—which he promptly does by a devastating counterattack on the Amalekites in which the captives are rescued. It is not that we are led to infer any clear absence of personal feeling in David, but that again the private person has been displaced through the strategy of presentation of the public man, and the intimate David remains opaque.



Michal returns to the story as the result of a series of decisive political developments (II Samuel 3). Saul has died, and after a bitter civil war, Abner, his commander-in-chief, is prepared to sue for peace with David, who makes it a precondition to negotiations that he be given back his wife Michal, “whom I betrothed with a hundred Philistine foreskins.” This bloody reminder is meant to stress the legitimacy of David’s right to Michal, for whom he has paid the full bride-price stipulated by her father, and that emphasis suggests it is not any personal bond but political calculation, Michal’s utility as a means of reinforcing David’s claim to the allegiance of Saul’s subjects, which makes him insist on her return.

His demand is promptly met by Saul’s son: “Ish-Bosheth sent and had her taken from a man, Paltiel the son of Laish. Her man went with her, walking after her and weeping, as far as Bahurim. Abner then said to him, ‘Go back!’ and he went back.” The remarkable suggestiveness of the Bible’s artistic economy could scarcely be better illustrated. This is all we ever know of Paid the son of Laish. He appears from the darkness to weep for his wife and to follow her, until he is driven back forever into the darkness by a man of power with whom he cannot hope to contend. He is called twice in close sequence Michal’s man or husband (ish), a title to which at least his feelings give him legitimate claim, and which echoes ironically against David’s use in the preceding verse of ishti, my wife or woman, to describe a relationship with Michal that is legal and political but perhaps not at all emotional on his side. The contrast between David, again speaking carefully weighed public words, and Paid, expressing private grief through publicly visible action, is pointed. As for Michal, who has been living for years as Palti’s wife, we have no way of knowing whether she feels gratitude, love, pity, or contempt for her powerless second husband, though we may begin to guess that the feelings she now entertains toward David himself will be less than kindly.

The actual reunion between David and Michal is entirely suppressed, for the writer wants to leave us wondering a little longer while he attends to climactic political events (the murder of Abner, the end of the civil war, the conquest of Jerusalem), and thus to reserve the revelation of what their mutual attitudes now are for a final confrontation between them. The writer’s artful sureness of selectivity in the means he adopts to present character is evident in the striking fact that until the final meeting between Michal and David, at no point is there any dialogue between them—an avoidance of verbal exchange particularly noticeable in the Bible, where such a large part of the burden of narration is taken up by dialogue. When that exchange finally comes, it is an explosion.



David, having captured from the Jebusites the mountain stronghold that will be the capital of the dynasty he is founding, settles his family and entourage there and then personally leads the Ark of the Lord in a festive procession up to Jerusalem (II Samuel 6). Michal enters this picture as an unhappy spectator (verse 16): “As the Ark of the Lord came into the City of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out the window and saw King David leaping and cavorting before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.” With a fine sense of the tactics of exposition, the narrator tells us exactly what Michal is feeling but not why. The hiatus in explanation, which will in part be filled by the ensuing dialogue, again opens the gates to multiple interpretation. The scorn for David welling up in Michal’s heart is thus plausibly attributable in some degree to all of the following: the undignified public spectacle which David just now is making of himself; Michal’s jealousy over the moment of glory David is enjoying while she sits alone, a neglected co-wife, back at the provisional palace; Michal’s resentment over David’s indifference to her all these years, over the other wives he has taken, over being torn away from the devoted Paid; David’s dynastic ambitions—now clearly revealed in his establishing the Ark in the “City of David”—which will irrevocably displace the house of Saul. The distance between the spouses is nicely indicated here by the epithets chosen for each: she is the “daughter of Saul,” and she sees him as the king. Michal’s subsequent words to David seize on the immediate occasion, the leaping and cavorting, as the particular reason for her anger, but the biblical writer knows as well as any psychologically-minded modern that one’s emotional reaction to an immediate stimulus can have a complicated prehistory, and by suppressing any causal explanation in his initial statement of Michal’s scorn, he beautifully suggests its “overdetermined” nature, how it bears the weight of everything that has not been said but obliquely intimated about the relation between Michal and David.

There follow three verses which, leaving Michal in her fury at the window, describe in detail David’s performance of his ceremonial functions as he offers sundry sacrifices, blesses the people, distributes delicacies. Then David returns to his house to bless—or perhaps the verb here means simply to greet—his own family:

20b. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and she said, “How honored today is the king of Israel, exposing himself before the eyes of his subjects’ slavegirls as some worthless fellow might indeed expose himself!” 21. David said to Michal, “Before the Lord who chose me over your father and all his house to appoint me ruler of the Lord’s people Israel, I will play before the Lord! 22. And I will dishonor myself even more than this and be base in my own eyes, and with the slavegirls you spoke of, with them will I be honored.” 23. And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child till her dying day.

Michal, who at last must have her say with David, does not wait until he has actually entered the house but goes out to meet him (perhaps, one might speculate, with the added idea of having her words ring in the ears of his retinue outside). The exchange of whipsaw sarcasms between the two reflects the high-tension fusion of the personal and the political in their relationship. When Michal addresses David in the third person as king of Israel, it is not in deference to royalty but in insolent anger at this impossible man who does not know how to behave like a king. She makes David an exhibitionist in the technical, sexual sense (“as some worthless fellow might indeed expose himself”: apparently his skirts were flying high as he cavorted before the Ark), stressing that the hungry eyes of the slave-girls have taken it all in—an emphasis which leads one to suspect there is a good deal of sexual jealousy behind what is ostensibly an objection to his lack of regal dignity. David responds to the daughter of Saul with a sonorous invocation of the Lord who has chosen him for the throne instead of Saul and his heirs. As divinely elected king, David is to be the judge of what is a decorous celebration before the Lord: he seizes Michal’s sarcastic “honored,” turns it into a defiant “I will dishonor myself” (the opposed Hebrew roots suggest etymologically “heavy” and “light”), then, hurling back to Michal the idea of how he has shown himself in the eyes of other women, insists that he will be honored by these lowly slavegirls for the behavior his wife thinks degrading. In all this, the writer is careful to conceal his own precise sympathies. He does not question the historically crucial fact of David’s divine election, so prominently stressed by the king himself at the beginning of his speech, but theological rights do not necessarily justify domestic wrongs, and the anointed monarch of Israel may still be a harsh and unfeeling husband to the woman who has loved him and saved his life.

There is a strategically placed gap between the end of verse 22 and the beginning of verse 23. Michal, hardly a woman to swallow insults in silence, is refused the privilege of a reply to David, nor is there any indication of her inward response to this verbal assault. The breaking-off of the dialogue at this point is itself an implicit commentary. David has the last word because, after all, he has the power, as he has just taken pains to point out to Michal. The daughter of a rejected royal house and by now a consort of only marginal political utility to the popularly acclaimed king, and the least favored of three or more co-wives, Michal can do nothing, and perhaps has literally nothing more to say, about her rage against her husband. Verse 23, the last one in which Michal will be accorded any mention, is a kind of epilogue to the confrontation, fastened to it with the special kind of ambiguity to which biblical parataxis lends itself. (Modern translators generally destroy the fineness of the effect by rendering the initial “and” as “so.”) The narrator states the objective fact of Michal’s barrenness—in the ancient Near East, a woman’s greatest misfortune—but carefully avoids any subordinate conjunction or syntactical signal that would indicate a clear causal connection between the fact stated and the dialogue that precedes it. A theologically minded reader, and certainly any advocate of the divine right of the Davidic dynasty, is invited to read this statement as a declaration that Michal was punished by God for her presumption in rebuking His anointed king over an act of royal and cultic ceremony. A reader attending more to the personal drama that has been enacted between Michal and David might justifiably conclude that after this furious exchange, David simply ceased to have conjugal relations with Michal and so condemned her to barrenness. Finally, the paratactic link between the two verses leaves the teasing possibility, however less likely than the other two readings, that we may presume too much altogether in seeing here any definite relation of cause and effect: we cannot be entirely certain that Michal’s childlessness is not a bitter coincidence, the last painful twist of a wronged woman’s fate.



I would suggest that causation in human affairs is itself brought into a paradoxical double focus by the narrative techniques of the Bible. The biblical writers obviously exhibit, on the one hand, a profound belief in a strong, clearly demarcated pattern of causation in history and in individual lives, and many of the framing devices, the motif-structures, the symmetries and recurrences in their narratives reflect this belief. God directs, history complies; a person sins, a person suffers; Israel backslides, Israel falls. The very perception, on the other hand, of godlike depths, unsoundable capacities for good and evil, in human nature, also leads these writers to render their protagonists in ways that destabilize any monolithic system of causation, set off a fluid movement among different orders of causation, some of them complementary or mutually reinforcing, others even mutually contradictory. The mere possibility that there might be no clear casual connection between Michal’s anger against David and her barrenness, though marginal, serves to unsettle the sense of straightforward, unilinear consequence to which lazy mental habits—ancient and modern—accustom us. The accidents befalling and the actions performed by man as a free agent created in God’s image are more intricately layered, more deviously ramified, than many earlier and competing views of humanity might lead us to imagine, and the narrative technique of studied reticences which generate an interplay of significantly patterned ambiguities is a faithful translation into art of this view of man.

Every biblical narrator is of course omniscient, but in contrast, for example, to the narrator of the Homeric poems, who makes his characters beautifully perspicuous even (as in the Iliad) when he is dealing with the most darkly irrational impulses of the human heart, the ancient Hebrew narrator exercises his omniscience with a drastic selectivity. He may on occasion choose to privilege us with the knowledge of what God thinks of a particular character or action—omniscient narration can go no higher—but as a rule, because of his understanding of the nature of his human subjects, he leads us through varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes. We are compelled to get at character and motive, as in Impressionist writers like Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, through a process of inference from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld, and this leads to multiple or sometimes even wavering perspectives on the characters. There is, in other words, an abiding mystery in character as the biblical writers conceive it, which they embody in their typical methods of presentation.

This underlying approach to character is perhaps most easily seen in the capacity for change exhibited by the biblical personages who are treated at any length. Cognate with the biblical understanding of individual character as something which develops in and is transformed by time—preeminently in the stories of Jacob and David—is a sense of character as a center of surprise. This unpredictable and changing nature of character is one reason why biblical personages cannot have fixed Homeric epithets (Jacob is not “wily Jacob,” Moses is not “sagacious Moses”) but only relational epithets determined by the strategic requirements of the immediate context: Michal, as the circumstances vary, is either “daughter of Saul” or “wife of David.”3

Achilles in the Iliad undergoes violent fluctuations of mood and attitude, first sulking in his tent, then transformed into a blind force of destruction by the death in battle of his lover Patroklos, then at the end brought back to his human senses by the pleas of the bereaved Priam, but there is a stable substratum of the man Achilles, and these are, after all, oscillations in feeling and action, not in character. David, on the other hand, in the many decades through which we follow his career, is first a provincial ingénu and public charmer, then a shrewd political manipulator and a tough guerrilla leader, later a helpless father floundering in the entanglements of his sons’ intrigues and rebellion, a refugee suddenly and astoundingly abasing himself before the scathing curses of Shimei, then a doddering old man bamboozled by Bathsheba and Nathan, and, in still another surprise on his very deathbed, an implacable seeker of vengeance against the same Shimei whom he had forgiven after the defeat of Absalom’s insurrection.



As a final illustration of how the Bible’s strategies of narrative exposition reflect a sense of the unknowable and the unforeseeable in human nature, I would like to contrast two scenes of mourning, one from Homer, the other from the David story. Priam’s confrontation of Achilles in the last book of the Iliad to beg for the body of his son Hektor is surely one of the most poignant moments in ancient literature. “I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through,” Priam concludes his plea to Achilles, “I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.” Here are the first few lines, in the translation by Richmond Lattimore, that describe the effect of Priam’s bold entreaty:

So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed him gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled at the feet of Achilles and wept close for man-slaughtering Hektor and Achilles wept now for his own father, now again for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house.

The emotions of these two sadly remembering figures are as clearly exposed for us as their physical positions—old Priam huddled at the feet of the mighty young Achilles. In a moment Achilles will speak soft words of compassion to Priam. The transition from murderous rage to kindness is deeply moving yet not, in the biblical manner, surprising. Achilles’ anger has estranged him from his own humanity, but, in the view of the Greek poet, there are universal emotions, universal facts of existence, shared by all men, and Priam’s plea has reminded Achilles that though they are separated by enmity and age, they share identically in this human heritage of relation and feeling. All men have fathers, all men love, all must grieve when they lose those they love. Part of the power of the scene comes from the fact that the connection between these two figures, weeping together as each separately recalls his own lost ones, is so lucidly revealed through the narrator’s simultaneous overview of the external scene and the inner experience of both characters.

In II Samuel 12, when David’s first son by Bathsheba is stricken with an incurable illness, the king entreats God for the sake of the baby, fasting and sleeping on the ground. He refuses all sustenance for seven days, and when on the seventh day the child dies, his servants are afraid to tell him, assuming that if his behavior was so extreme while the child was still alive, he will go to even more extravagant lengths when he learns of the child’s death.

19. David saw that his servants were whispering to each other and he realized the child was dead, and he said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” and they answered, “Yes.” 20. David then got up from the ground, bathed and anointed himself, changed his robe, went into the House of the Lord, prostrated himself, went home, asked for food, which was set before him, and he ate. 21. His servants said to him, “What is this thing you have done? For the living child you fasted and wept, and when the child died, you got up and ate food!” 22. He answered, “When the child was still alive I fasted and wept, for I thought, ‘Who knows, perhaps the Lord will take pity on me and the child will live.’ 23. But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I am going to him but he will not come back to me.” 24. David consoled his wife Bathsheba. He came into her and lay with her, and she bore a son and named him Solomon, and the Lord loved him.



The paradox of David’s behavior in his grief is mirrored in the strategies of narrative exposition adopted to present it. The whispered words of the servants (which were directly reported in verse 18) prepare us for a terrific outburst from the king. Instead, as soon as he hears the monosyllabic confirmation of his worst suspicions, “Yes” (in the Hebrew, met, “dead”), he rises, and we see him in a rapid sequence of acts, conveyed in a chain of nine uninterrupted verbs, which are left entirely enigmatic until his simple, starkly eloquent words of explanation to the baffled servants. All men may indeed grieve over the loss of their loved ones, but this universal fact does not produce a universal response because the expression of feeling, the very experience of the feeling, takes place through the whorled and deeply grained medium of each person’s stubborn individuality. As readers, we are quite as surprised as the servants by David’s actions, then his words, for there is very little in the narrative before this point that could have prepared us for this sudden, yet utterly convincing, revelation of the sorrowing David, so bleakly aware of his own inevitable mortality as he mourns his dead son.

The exchange between David and the servants is cut off after his answer, without any dramatic closure. Their reaction is no longer of any interest, and, in typical biblical fashion, as we leap forward to the conjugal consoling of Bathsheba and the birth of the divinely favored son that balances out the death of the first child, we are given no hints from the narrator for the imaginative reconstruction of David’s recovery from this bereavement. The symmetrically marked pattern of divine punishment for the founder of the Israelite dynasty followed by divine compensation frames the whole episode, but David, as his speech to the servants vividly illustrates, is a sentient person, not just a pawn in God’s grand historical design, and about many facets of the person—in contrast to the Homeric heroes—we are left to wonder. But this sober moment of strange mourning will continue to echo in our memory, for we shall soon enough be provided in the stories of Amnon and Tamar, and of Absalom, with still more troubling instances of the aging David’s anguish as a father.

The Greek tendency to narrative specification, as I suggested earlier, seems to be one that modern literary practice has by and large adopted and developed. Precisely for that reason, we have to readjust our habits as readers in order to bring an adequate attentiveness to the rather different narrative maneuvers that are characteristic of the Hebrew Bible. But the underlying biblical conception of character as often unpredictable, in some ways impenetrable, constantly emerging from and slipping back into a penumbra of ambiguity, in fact has greater affinity with dominant modern notions than do the habits of conceiving character typical of the Greek epics. The monotheistic revolution in consciousness profoundly altered the ways in which man as well as God was imagined, and the effects of that revolution probably still determine certain aspects of our conceptual world more than we suspect. This altered consciousness was of course expressed ideologically in the legislative and prophetic impulses of the Bible, but in biblical narrative it was also realized through the bold and subtle articulation of an innovative literary form. The narrative art of the Bible, then, is more than an aesthetic enterprise, and learning to read its fine calibrations may bring us closer than the broad-gauge concepts of intellectual history and comparative religion to a structure of imagination in whose shadow we still stand.


1 Textual uncertainty in the Hebrew.

2 Scholarly opinion still tends to assume, on rather tenuous stylistic and form-critical grounds, that there is a separate “Succession Narrative” which begins in II Samuel 13, but the evidence for a unified imaginative conception of the whole David story is persuasive.

3 A similar observation on the lack of fixed epithets has been made by Shimon Bar-Efrat in a 1975 Hebrew University dissertation, Literary Form in Biblical Narrative (Hebrew).

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