Journal of Hebrew Scriptures – Volume 10 (2010) – Review

Borgman, Paul, David, Saul, & God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story (Oxford and New York: OUP, 2008). Pp. x+335. Hardcover. US$39.95. ISBN 978-0-19-533160-8.

“Who is David?” asks Paul Borgman, Professor of English at Gordon College, at the start of his book, David, Saul, and God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story. The question of David’s identity is asked by a foolish landowner in 1 Sam 25:10 and it is one that modern readers of the David story (1 Samuel 16–1 Kings 2) are also being asked. While various interpretive options are available, perhaps most prominent are the two opposing readings of David as either the purely pious shepherd or the Machiavellian Mafioso. Borgman presents the modern reader with another David, one who shows “a frequent synergy . . . of political acumen and moral behavior” (p. 183), a David who is simultaneously politically savvy and appropriately pious.

Borgman begins by offering the reader an introduction to the perceived problem of David. He reviews the various reconstructions and interpretations that have been offered in recent years and proposes a different reading, one that takes into account the ancient “techniques of repetition” (p. 3).

In the following nine chapters, Borgman analyzes eleven patterns that he has identified as key to the interpretation of the David story. Borgman's eleven patterns are as follows:

  1. Saul's three anointings (1 Sam 9:1–10:16; 10:17–27a; 10:27b–11:15)
  2. Saul does wrong and responds poorly, twice (1 Sam 9:11–10:9/13:3–15; 15:1–31)
  3. The multiple introductions of David (1 Sam 16:1–13, 14–23; 17:1–54; 17:55–18:5)
  4. Saul's fear and David's fear (1 Sam 18:11, 29; 21:12; 27:1–28:2; 28:3–25; 29:1–31)
  5. The motif of sword and spear (1 Sam 17:45, 47; 17:39, 50–51; 18:10–11; 19:9–10; 20:33; 21:1–6; 1 Sam 24–26; 30; 31)
  6. David spares an enemy, three times in a row (1 Sam 24, 25, 26)
  7. The ark, communal well–being, and women (Judg 19:1–21:25; 1 Sam 4:1–7:2; 2 Sam 6:1–23; 15:7–16:14; 1 Kgs 7:51–8:1)
  8. Failed fathers: personal indulgence, public woe (1 Sam 2:12–4:22; 2 Sam 13:1–29; 13:30–19:15; 1 Kgs 1:5–2:25)
  9. News of death; public and private Davids (1 Sam 4:10–18; 2 Sam 1:1–27; 3:28–29; 4:5–12; 12:15–24; 13:21–39; 18:24–19:8; 1 Kgs 1:5–31)
  10. Chiastic conclusion: warriors, leadership, poetic reflection, and Saul and David sinning (A: 2 Sam 21:1–14; B: 21:15–22; C: 22:1–51: C’: 23:1–7; B’: 23:8–39; A’: 24:1–25)
  11. David and wrongdoing-confrontation-response-consequence (1 Sam 25; 2 Sam 11:1–12:25; 19:1–8; 24:1–25)

One illuminating example of Borgman’s “patterns” is the introduction(s) of David in 1 Samuel 16–17. It has long been noted that there appears to be multiple and conflicting “introductions” to David in these chapters. Borgman analyzes these introductions as a pattern. He is aware of the likelihood of various sources behind these multiple introductions. However, true to one interested in the final form of the text as a literary achievement, Borgman analyzes what the final writer does with those sources which he argues, “is an indication of narrative purpose and genius” (p. 41). Borgman finds in these multiple introductions a “complex David,” a slayer of Goliath who is capable of taking Jerusalem and Bathsheba, as well as a “private and responsive musician” (p. 48) who is capable both of responding to a prophet's critique and of allowing a widow to “dupe” him into certain actions with his sons. In short, Borgman argues that David’s “multiple introductions” are necessary because they show the differing sides of this complex character that will be seen throughout his narrative.

Several factors are crucial to Borgman's reading of the David story. The first is Borgman's insistence upon the importance of the literary technique that he calls “patterning.” Within these patterns, Borgman argues, the ancient listener “discovered the story's embedded meaning” (p. 3). While this observation may be true enough, Borgman's rhetorical appeal to the “ancient storyteller” gives a perceived weight to his readings, which may or may not be appropriate. Certainly an oral audience would be much more attuned to patterns of repetition, but nowhere does Borgman make a case for the kinds of repetition that are found in ancient literature but simply assumes the patterns that he finds would have been self-evident to an ancient listener. Second, Borgman argues that part of the purpose of this narrative is to reveal the kind of person that David is. More importantly, he argues, coming to know David's character helps to explain God's character, “insofar as [David] is the particular mortal whom God found suitable” (pp. 4–5). Borgman argues that the purpose of the narrative is to introduce the mystery of David's person and then to slowly solve that mystery throughout the telling of the story. Third, Borgman finds great interpretive value in the contrast between Saul and David. Embedded in this contrast Borgman sees the keys to understanding why God chose David and not Saul. This particular element is very helpful in light of the tendency to read God's choice of David over Saul as nothing other than a baseless exercise of divine will. It is probably important for readers to note that the narrative of David's story does not give a clear answer as to why God chose David and rejected Saul. However, as Borgman correctly observes, the narrative constantly compares David and Saul, which causes the reader to at least consider the possibility that God preferred David over Saul for a reason.

Borgman's readings are always insightful and his observations of patterns are always worth careful reflection. However, it seems that some of his patterns are more self-evident than others. For instance, Borgman is much more justified when he finds interpretive information in the difference between the public and private Davids, seen most clearly in his reaction to news of the various deaths in the story (ch. 7), than when he finds similar information in contrasting David and Saul with the pattern he calls “the motif of sword and spear” (pattern 5 in ch. 3). Why Jonathan's yielding of his sword to David in 1 Sam 18:4 should be considered in the same motif as Saul's attempt to spear David in 1 Sam 18:10–11 and 19:9–10 is unclear and seems perhaps forced. However, this does not mean that the majority of Borgman’s readings are not compelling. On the contrary, this reviewer finds many of Borgman's interpretations to be very convincing. However, the literary analysis of biblical texts is always subject to the difficulty of applying modern literary criticism to an ancient Near Eastern text. Borgman attempts to tackle this problem by applying what he calls an ancient literary technique of patterning in which the meaning of a story is given. However, though many of his patterns are illuminating, his claims to have access to an ancient technique imply that his readings are more self-evidently correct than they actually are.

In the final chapter Borgman draws together his portrait of David and compares David’s relationship with God to Odysseus’ relationship with Athena. This comparison shows that the “biblical writer develops character, while the Homeric writer demonstrates character” (p. 222). This final exercise in comparative literary analysis highlights Borgman's reading of David in a very helpful and interesting way.

Not infrequent typographical errors, such as mistaken references to II Samuel instead of I Samuel (or vice versa) and listing Saul's name as “Soul” in the title of chapter 9, detract a little from the book's professionalism, but do not detract from its valuable content. Walter Brueggemann is correct in his endorsement, when he says that Borgman “cannot offer any 'final interpretation'” (back cover), and indeed, Borgman's interpretations are often less self-evident than he implies. However, his presentation of David is a worthy counterpart to many modern reconstructions. While we will never have full access to the historical David, nor perhaps even to the David the author intended to portray, Borgman's interpretation helps us to access a David that deserves careful consideration and study. This complex David may be closer to the David the final author intended, but the genius of the ambiguity in the David story of 1 Samuel–1 Kings 2 is that we will never fully understand him. Therefore, Borgman's book, while it is not a “final interpretation,” is a wonderful introduction to the complexity and narrative genius of 1 Samuel–1 Kings 2.

Benjamin J.M. Johnson, Durham University