Reflections on 1 Samuel

A few days ago, I finished reading all of 1 Samuel in Hebrew. As such, I have a few comments based on my reading.

First, there is a strong distinction between the narrator’s voice and the speech. In terms of syntax, the narrator’s voice tends to be significantly less complex. Speech by various characters, though, contains syntax which is significantly more complicated. In other words, there is a shift in the linguistic register from narrator to speech. Although this is not a novel discovery in the field of scholarship, it is notable for myself. In English translations of the Hebrew Bible, the change is linguistic register between narration and speech is difficult to notice, whereas in Hebrew it exceedingly noticeable.

In light of the clear distinction between speech and narration evident in Hebrew but not English translation, what can we learn about how one should translate Hebrew texts? Distinction between speech and narrative is an aspect of what gives 1 Samuel its literary character and genre. When translating into English without noticing the change in linguistic register, a substantial aspect of 1 Samuel’s literary character becomes invisible. Thus, it is my contention that all translations of Hebrew should translate more than the semantics and morpho-syntax. Translations should be attentive to linguistic register and explore the ways in which English can be commensurable to Hebrew with regard to linguistic registers of the narrator and various characters.

That said, I may check out Robert Altar’s translation in order to consider how he deals with the issue of linguistic register in narrative texts for his translation.

Second, thinking in terms of some of my recent readings, I was intrigued by David and his men’s meandering through Judah. Though I am skeptical about the historical precision of 1 Samuel, it contains refractions of 10th and 9th century BCE ways of expressing leadership throughout the Levant. In a recent article, Mahri Leonard-Fleckman argues that “House of David” language is reflective of the broader Neo-Assyrian and Aramaic ideas, wherein “House of X” language is more about a particular population and leader, as opposed to a particular geographic designation and central town [1]. So, though I by no means think that 1 Samuel is a perfect representation of history, it parallels the ways in which other groups of people were represented in the 10th and 9th century BCE.

Third, 1 Samuel is complex. The literary structure of 1 Samuel is not self-evident; the major themes are not exactly clear; Saul’s interactions with cult matters are complex, as are David’s. That is to say, 1 Samuel requires regular, close reading in order to begin to develop a sense of what are the major aspects of 1 Samuel.

[1] Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, “The bīt X Formula in Assyrian Documentation and Aramaean Social Structure,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel Vol. 7 No. 2, Epigraphy, Theory, and the Hebrew Bible (2018), 170.

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