Give Us a King

In the Bible class I’m taking, we were asked to compare translations of the I Samuel passage (chapters 8-12) where Saul is first anointed as king by Samuel.  The looked at the Jewish Study Bible (the newer Jewish Publication Society (JPS), along with Everett Fox’s translation of I and II Samuel (from “Give Us a King”) and Robert Alter’s (“The David Story”).

King Saul Postage Stamp - Photograph by Karen Horton

It’s a fairly spell-binding narrative that I haven’t read in a while.

1.  It reminded me of a pattern on saw on HBO’s “The Tutors”.  The king would promote someone to a duke or some high position, they would have a party, … then the king would say something like “Now I need a little favor from you…” – which could be almost anything – and typically not something pleasant for the new nobleman.   Saul, immediately on his kingship (or pseudo-kingship) is immediately faced with a challenge – Nahash (I like the way Fox says “Nahash/Snake” – even though I know Nahash means “snake”, it doesn’t always come to mind when reading English and people’s names).

2.  It struck me that Saul seems almost like a puppet in this passage.  Other than being tall (and goodly – whatever that might connote), he doesn’t show any heroic or great traits.   He is sent by his father on an errand, he can’t find the she-asses, even his servant has the idea to go see the “seer”, and then has to offer to pay the shekel to the prophet Samuel.  Then, boom, Saul gets a super-dose of God’s spirit, and now he is king, chasing out enemies and making wise decisions – overnight, with no training.  Even though he doesn’t have the woman difficulties of Samson, Saul reminds me of him, with “the Spirit of God” coming on each of them, to accomplish miraculous fetes.

3.  The end of the “Give us a King” passage really stresses how bad it was for the people to ask for a king, but never really explicitly says why, only implicitly.  We are told upon their first request all the things that a king will do (that the people probably won’t like).  But Samuel never seemed to came out and say that Israel was supposed to be a theocracy, or that it was God’s plan to work only through judges..  12:11 implies that the four rescue-ers were doing a fine job (despite the evil in Samuel’s children).

4.  11:11-14 seem to be pivotal verses – about the people wanting to put-to-death those that wanted a king.   It’s almost like they new what was coming in Chapter 12.  11:11 was a little confusing, I had to read it several times in several versions to actually see who won and who lost, because the way it connects to 11:12 might imply that Israel lost.  Vs 11 uses unclear antecedents – “they” were left – “they” were scattered.  Alter’s footnote helped.  [He says that the word “not” appears in some variant manuscripts, he translates as “Whoever said, “Saul shall not be king over us…”.  Alter says “The report of continuous dissidence about Saul’s claim to the throne, as at the end of the previous chapter, in fact sets the stage for much that will follow.”]

After posting the above to my online forum, two day’s later I read all of Alter’s translation.

If a new translation was published, I think there are several keywords that one would open to see how they handled it:
a) the rant/prophetic ecstacy (Fox in 10:5 says “and they will be ranting-in-prophecy”, Alter says “they will be speaking in ecstacy”).
b) what the spirit did to Saul – seized, surged, gripped (VA-TITZLACHAH – same root-word as “success” – HATZLICHAH)
c)  I like the way Alter said “he pretended to keep his peace” in  10:27.  It might be stretching or flavoring the text, but I think it gave it a good feel vs the rather bland “He was like a silent one.” (K’MACHARISH)
d) the “troublemakers”, scoundrels, children of Belial (KJV treated it as a proper noun?), certain-base-fellows (I Sam 10:27)
e) and what happened to Saul’s heart – Alter – “God gave him another heart”, Fox –

New Heart - Photograph by Monazza Talha

“Changed him another heart” (VA-YAHAFACH… LEV ACHER).  In more recent Hebrew, HAFACH can mean opposite, no? Maybe turn inside out or upside down?  In 10:6 Samuel prophesied that Saul would be “turned into another man” (same root verb).

f) the offerings in the final verse vary from “fellowship offerings” (JSB), “slaughter offerings of shalom” (Fox), and “communion sacrifices” (Alter).

I prefer the indentation used by Fox, but I really appreciated the footnotes (almost 2 to 1 ratio) that Alter included.

As a kid, I remember the story about Saul hiding in “the baggage”, which to me was associated with “luggage” and thus “suitcases” (I must have pictured sort of a train station with lots of suitcases piled up.)  Thus, I much prefer the translation to “gear” than to “baggage”.

Alter’s footnote on 12:21 caught my eye about “serve”/”LO TASURU” – he said it was a Deuteronomistic word.   My mind immediately jumped to the third paragraph of the SHEMA – “LO TASURU/TATURU ACHEREI L’VAVCHEM” (Numbers 15:39) – don’t explore/spy after your hearts (same word used as when the 12 spies went to “explore/spy” the land of Canaan).  But this is an undotted TAV (Sephardic say TATURU but Ashkenaz say “TASURU”), so it’s actually a different word [a Hebrew homophone, like “bear” and “bare” in English, pronounced the same, but different spelling and meanings] – but could have been another potential wordplay.  The word is translated “swerve” by Alter; it’s the word “TASURU” from the verb “SUR”, which starts with the Hebrew letter “Samech”, and means any of the following: turn-aside, go-away, leave, fall away, keep-far, avoid, stop, cease.  It indeed occurs 15 times in Deut, 3 in Numbers, 10 in Leviticus, and even 11 times in Genesis.

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