Sub-atomic particles in biblical literary composition

One “good question” I’ve explored in recent years, working with Bible publishers and translators, is this: How can we illustrate the structure and composition of the biblical writings by the way we lay out the text on the page? My most recent layout experiment has been with the episode in the book of Samuel-Kings that tells how Adonijah tried to claim the throne when his father David was dying.

As a rule, such episodes are the basic building blocks of that book—its “atoms,” if you will. This particular episode is one of several that make up the succession narrative that describes how Solomon followed David on the throne of ancient Israel.  (Readers find out shortly afterwards how Solomon dealt definitively with the threat of Adonijah.) This narrative, in turn, is part of the long history of the Israelite monarchy in Samuel-Kings. But we can sometimes get a glimpse of literary “sub-atomic particles,” that is, even smaller pre-existing literary units that have been drawn into the composition to provide the structure and framework of an individual episode. I believe that’s the case here.

David swore an oath to Bathsheba that her son Solomon would succeed him. As was common in this culture, David made this a solemn pronouncement by speaking it in poetry.  (I discuss that practice in this post.) David’s original poetic couplet is quoted five times over the course of this episode, guiding the narrative flow as the words move from the mouth of one character to another. The oath is quoted:

– By Nathan to Bathsheba;
– By Bathsheba to David;
– By Nathan to David (with a delightful ironic twist);
– By David to Bathsheba, reasserted in slightly lengthened form;
– By David to his officials, as a fresh assertion in renewed language, embedded in a series of instructions that will actually make Solomon king.

When we see the episode through this lens, we recognize that the concern is not just “Who will be king?” but “Will the king’s word be upheld?”  This thematic perspective connects the episode to one of the largest concerns running all through the Bible, the memory of God’s sovereign words and the hope of their ultimate fulfillment.

To highlight the function of this oath within the narrative, in the layout below I’ve set it off as poetry in each case. Have a read through and see what you think. Particularly if you’ve read this episode before, does seeing the oath set off as poetry help you “catch the flow” any better?

(This is how the episode comes out in the WordPress template.  A typesetter might decide to use different line spacing for a printed version, but I personally think this works well for online reading. Also, I’ve used the ESV translation because it presents the oath as a direct quotation in the first four cases. The Hebrew original could also be rendered as an indirect quotation in certain of these cases, as in other translations.)

– – – – –

Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, “Why have you done thus and so?” He was also a very handsome man, and he was born next after Absalom. He conferred with Joab the son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest. And they followed Adonijah and helped him. But Zadok the priest and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and Nathan the prophet and Shimei and Rei and David’s mighty men were not with Adonijah.

Adonijah sacrificed sheep, oxen, and fattened cattle by the Serpent’s Stone, which is beside En-rogel, and he invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah, but he did not invite Nathan the prophet or Benaiah or the mighty men or Solomon his brother.

Then Nathan said to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon, “Have you not heard that Adonijah the son of Haggith has become king and David our lord does not know it? Now therefore come, let me give you advice, that you may save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in at once to King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying,

“Solomon your son shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne”?

Why then is Adonijah king?’ Then while you are still speaking with the king, I also will come in after you and confirm your words.”

So Bathsheba went to the king in his chamber (now the king was very old, and Abishag the Shunammite was attending to the king). Bathsheba bowed and paid homage to the king, and the king said, “What do you desire?” She said to him, “My lord, you swore to your servant by the Lord your God, saying,

‘Solomon your son shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne’?

And now, behold, Adonijah is king, although you, my lord the king, do not know it. He has sacrificed oxen, fattened cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the sons of the king, Abiathar the priest, and Joab the commander of the army, but Solomon your servant he has not invited. And now, my lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are on you, to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. Otherwise it will come to pass, when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers, that I and my son Solomon will be counted offenders.”

While she was still speaking with the king, Nathan the prophet came in. And they told the king, “Here is Nathan the prophet.” And when he came in before the king, he bowed before the king, with his face to the ground. And Nathan said, “My lord the king, have you said,

‘Adonijah shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne’?

For he has gone down this day and has sacrificed oxen, fattened cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the king’s sons, the commanders of the army, and Abiathar the priest. And behold, they are eating and drinking before him, and saying, ‘Long live King Adonijah!’ But me, your servant, and Zadok the priest, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and your servant Solomon he has not invited. Has this thing been brought about by my lord the king and you have not told your servants who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?”

Then King David answered, “Call Bathsheba to me.” So she came into the king’s presence and stood before the king. And the king swore, saying, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my soul out of every adversity, as I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, saying,

‘Solomon your son shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne in my place,’

even so will I do this day.” Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the ground and paid homage to the king and said, “May my lord King David live forever!”

King David said, “Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada.” So they came before the king. And the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel. Then blow the trumpet and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ You shall then come up after him,

And he shall come and sit on my throne,
For he shall be king in my place.

And I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah.” And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada answered the king, “Amen! May the Lord, the God of my lord the king, say so. As the Lord has been with my lord the king, even so may he be with Solomon, and make his throne greater than the throne of my lord King David.”

So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.

Adonijah and all the guests who were with him heard it as they finished feasting. And when Joab heard the sound of the trumpet, he said, “What does this uproar in the city mean?” While he was still speaking, behold, Jonathan the son of Abiathar the priest came. And Adonijah said, “Come in, for you are a worthy man and bring good news.” Jonathan answered Adonijah, “No, for our lord King David has made Solomon king, and the king has sent with him Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites. And they had him ride on the king’s mule. And Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet have anointed him king at Gihon, and they have gone up from there rejoicing, so that the city is in an uproar. This is the noise that you have heard. Solomon sits on the royal throne. Moreover, the king’s servants came to congratulate our lord King David, saying, ‘May your God make the name of Solomon more famous than yours, and make his throne greater than your throne.’ And the king bowed himself on the bed. And the king also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day, my own eyes seeing it.’”

Then all the guests of Adonijah trembled and rose, and each went his own way. And Adonijah feared Solomon. So he arose and went and took hold of the horns of the altar. Then it was told Solomon, “Behold, Adonijah fears King Solomon, for behold, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not put his servant to death with the sword.’” And Solomon said, “If he will show himself a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the earth, but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” So King Solomon sent, and they brought him down from the altar. And he came and paid homage to King Solomon, and Solomon said to him, “Go to your house.”

Raphael, The Anointing of King Solomon

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Sub-atomic particles in biblical literary composition”

  1. Is there some way to identify this text as poetry? I know Hebrew poetry does not need to use the same conventions as English poetry, but I would like to understand how it is recognized as such.

    1. I see it as poetry because it is a couplet in which the second line basically repeats the meaning of the first without adding materially to the meaning (although with a slight intensification, as Robert Alter notes is characteristic of Hebrew poetry in his work on the subject). This alone might not be enough to determine that it is poetry, as this might happen incidentally in speech, but the way the couplet is repeated five times suggests that it is a solemn royal pronouncement that Bathsheba and Nathan are appealing to, and which David is reasserting. As I discuss in the post I reference, such solemn pronouncements were spoken in poetry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s