I planned to write a pithy review of this book and move on, but when I saw some of the negative comments here I decided to offer a bit more than that. One reader here takes the author, Gary Greenberg, to task for indulging in historical speculation. But THAT is the point, isn't it? Of course we have no outside material to rely on to refute or alter the biblical tale that has come down to us. But Greenberg's point is obviously to look at the text itself, in light of its extensive inconsistencies, redundancies and apparent errors, to try to sort it all out. What he succeeds in doing is not telling us the way it really was but rather how it might have been, constructing an alternative scenario which attempts to straighten out the peculiarities in the original text. And these are legion.
We're told, for instance, that Saul was made king at two different times in two different ways, once during a lottery conducted at a tribal gathering and once after he heroically defeats Nahash of Ammon on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Saul falls down and prophesies twice, too, once early on in his career and once later, and each instance, it is suggested, is why the proverb "Is Saul too among the prophets?" came into common usage.
Samuel breaks with Saul twice, too, in very similar circumstances: the first time during Saul's conflict with the Philistines, when he takes certain priestly prerogatives for himself (i.e., sacrificing to the Lord before Samuel, who is late, can arrive to officiate); the second time when Saul fails to follow Samuel's instruction to slay ALL the Amalekites including their women, children and beasts . . . in fact Saul spares the king and cattle to sacrifice later and Samuel announces that Saul will lose his kingdom because of this failure to fully effect the genocide he was ordered to commit.
But the oddities don't stop there. Saul meets David for the first time twice, too, and on the second occasion he and Abner, his general, have no idea who the young shepherd boy, David, is . . . even though we were previously told David was a heroic man of war inducted into Saul's entourage for his musical talents and to serve as the king's personal armor bearer. But suddenly he's a boy again and Saul and Abner have no idea who he is?
Of course we read that David slew Goliath in the original text but that same text also reports, much later in David's career, that Elkhanan, one of King David's champions, was the slayer of Goliath. In Chronicles, the slain Philistine warrior killed by Elkhanan is reported as Goliath's brother instead, though his description matches the terminology in the earlier descriptions in "Samuel I and II" of Goliath (same spear "like a weaver's beam", etc.).
When Saul hunts the fugitive David, we get two remarkably similar incidents in which David sneaks up on Saul and has the opportunity to kill him but magnanimously refrains from doing so. In the course of his flight from Saul, David also manages to run a protection racket which culminates in the death of a well off local farmer with David marrying the widow, who just happens to have the same name as David's sister (the only times this name is ever found in the Bible) who, other textual allusions suggest, may have been a daughter of Nahash of Ammon. If David's sister is related to Nahash, then what about David, himself?David, of course, conveniently inherits all the farmer's property along with his wife.
When Saul dies on the battlefield in his last stand against the Philistines, we're given two distinctly different reports of his demise, one described as a suicide, the other a mercy killing by a wandering Amalekite . . . who shouldn't be around anyway since the text in "I Samuel" reports that Saul killed all the Amalekites at the behest of Samuel, except for their king and beasts . . . and Samuel subsequently slew the king . . . so where did this Amalekite, and others who appear in the story afterwards, come from?
David's own story is just as jumbled. In the wake of Saul's death and David's consolidation of the kingdom, David seeks out and protects Jonathan's son, Saul's grandson, who is reported to be the last surviving scion of Saul's family. But later on in "II Samuel" we're told that a famine struck the land and that David, trying to undo it by appeasing the Lord, determines that the famine is the Lord's punishment because of harm done to the Gibeonites by Saul. No explanation is ever offered as to why the Lord waited so long to punish the land for Saul's alleged offense (which had not previously been reported or described). But the solution David hits on is to deliver the remaining sons and grandsons of Saul up to the Gibeonites so they can kill them. Where did they come from if Jonathan's son was Saul's last surviving male relative?
Of course, David shows his true colors more than once when his enemies conveniently die at the hands of others (usually his general and cousin, Joab) despite David's repeated regrets and proclamations of innocence. Most interestingly, when the killers are outsiders, like the wandering Amalekite who claimed to have dispatched Saul at his own request or the Gibeonites who assassinate David's rival for kingship, Saul's son Ishbaal, David usually has them executed on the spot . . . before they can tell their tale to anyone else.
So the story of David as the bible tells it is full of holes. What Gary Greenberg has endeavored to do is sort through it all and reconstruct the tale in a way that makes sense and reduces or eliminates the extensive discrepancies. Like any good criminal attorney, which he apparently is, Greenberg reorders the tale, knocks out the parts that seem illogical or without support and tells us what he thinks most likely occurred. The reader, like a jury, must look at the reconstructed tale and weigh it against the official tale because there is no other evidence, one way or the other, to decide between them.
While I was not entirely convinced, I came away with a sense that Greenberg's reconstruction makes far more sense than the discrepancy-ridden narrative in the original text. For years I've wrestled with all the confusions and duplications in this story and tried to sort them out. I just got bogged down in the morass that is "Samuel I and II." But Greenberg broke through that logjam with his carefully thought out alternative scenario. If Greenberg's suggestion that the descriptions of the Philistine giants or of Goliath's sword are metaphors doesn't quite ring true, much of the rest does. David's odd good fortune at the fortuitous deaths of so many of his adversaries and his peculiar alliance with the Philistines as they march toward their final confrontation with Saul's forces on Gilboa speak more about the character of the man behind the events than the apologists and spin doctors of biblical narrative ever could.
I agree that Greenberg left some unfortunate errors in the book including an all too frequent confusion of "Saul" with "Samuel" and even "David" (in at least one instance). Other typos also caught me up short. But on balance this is a very credible, if speculative, reconstruction of a tale that has too long mesmerized credulous readers. Greenberg's David is not a particularly nice guy and is very much a Type A despot, the kind of tinpot dictator that still besets so much of the world today.
The King of Vinland's Saga