Ancient Israel

By Robert Alter

W. Norton & Company, 2013


As with his other splendid books on the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter offers readers in this volume called “Ancient Israel,” a vibrant translation in clear modern English of the early books of the second section of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, the books of the early prophets. Alter’s commentary is clear. He does not overburden his commentary. He comes straight to the point, and what he writes is enlightening. His commentary contains both modern and ancient views concerning the biblical text, what it is saying, what the characters are really doing, and what is motivating them. Alter also reveals the literary genius in the biblical wording and the clever irony that is often inserted. His uses religious and non-religious sources, Jewish and non-Jewish; his goal being to make the Bible understandable.

Reading a book by a knowledgeable author such as Alter not only gives readers a deeper understanding of the particular book that is being studied, but of all biblical books, for one derives an insight into the biblical style that most schools are unqualified and unable to teach. But even more, readers get a different understanding of the book and its characters. For example, while the book of Samuel is filled, as are all Bible books, with obscurities, it is possible to see that Samuel was not as good a man as most people like to see him.

Samuel’s principle activity, which he was forced to perform by the people, and which was sanctioned by God, was the anoint a king for the nation of Israel. Alter shows how the election of Saul constantly bothered the prophet who felt that after years of service he and his two sons were rejected by the people he served from his birth until his old age. He berates his nation on three occasions for demanding a king, even during the occasion of Saul’s anointing. It is possible to read the Samuel text and see how Samuel later sabotaged Saul, the man he selected.

Alter clarifies seemingly minor points that others might overlook showing their significance. For instance, the simple innocuous reference to the Philistine garrison deep within the Benjamin territory is an indication of the Philistine bothersome and humiliating ascendancy over the Israelite tribes.

Alter sometimes informs readers of comparable tales outside of scripture. For example, Saul came forward to lead his people in war, after leading cattle on his farm. “The archetypal tale of a farmer who steps forward to save the nation in time of crisis will recur in Roman tradition in the story of Cincinnatus at the plow”

Samuel give Saul three signs to prove that he is correct in predicting that Saul will be king over Israel. One of the signs is that Saul will be changed when he meets a school of prophets. Alter with a fine-tuned ear to irony, points out that this metamorphosis when meeting a school of prophets is repeated in chapter 19 near the end of Saul’s career. In the first instance, Saul is invested with the divine spirit, in the second he is divested of it. Similarly, at the outset of Samuel’s story, before his birth, ironically, Hannah promises that her child will be a Nazarite, and Nazarites do not indulge in intoxicating drinks, yet, even as she is saying this, ironically, the priest Eli charges her with being drunk. Another irony is the fact that lotteries are used in scripture is in order to discover a culprit. Alter notes that in choosing Saul as king by using a lottery, “Samuel has chosen a mechanism associated with incrimination and punishment.” Still another irony among many more is the irony of Saul mentioning God during his negotiations with a divinely-forbidden conjurer of spirits, an irony which Alter tells readers is caught by Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, “Whom did Saul resemble at that moment? A woman who is with her lover and swears by the life of her husband.”

This biblical statement in the book that God does not change his mind about his decision concerning the kindship is at least ironic, if not troubling; for according to the book, Samuel says that God rejected Saul in 15:11, 23, 26, 35, and 16:1, which means that God changed his mind about Saul whom he had previously chosen. Alter suggests that this casts “a shadow of doubt as to whether the election of Saul in the first place was God’s, or whether it was merely Samuel’s all-too-human mistake.”

While it was common for ancient military leaders in the ancient Near East to consult an oracle before battle, Alter highlights that Saul’s constantly seeking knowledge of what will happen in the future, by over-doing it, is a negative pattern in Saul’s behavior, a fault in his character.

Alter quotes the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai who catches the dubiety of the mature Samuel in an ironic and sardonic little poem: “When Samuel was born, she said words of Torah, / ‘For this lad I prayed.’ / When he grew up and did the deeds of his life, / she asked, ‘For this lad I prayed?’”

These are just samples. Alter’s book itself is filled with clever and informative insights that turns this biblical book into an exciting drama.