In search for understanding through text

By Limor Shiponi

G decided to start working with “David’s lament”. I’ll tell you a little about the context so you’ll know where G is coming from.

For someone who grew up in Israel and Jewish, David’s lament is part of a collective memory background sound. You learn the text at school, I don’t know about now but back then you were required to learn it by heart (4th grade), and recite it. The text is used over and over again in memorials, you’ve heard it many times read out loud in a voice full of pathos. Even now, as writing these words, I can hear in me the formal-pathos-voice of the person who used to read it during annual memorial day national ceremonies. Here’s an example:

That’s G’s starting point in addition to knowing it’s an “important” text and “sad”.

“Mind to read?” G prefered I’ll do it and I did, warning him there will be no pathos or an emotional stand – only the text. “That’s all?” he asked after I concluded, “I remember something much bigger”. The outcome of pathos, obviously.

“Ok, your turn now, how are you going to tell it? Imagine you are David, how would you go?” G had no idea, after realizing pathos was out of the question. “What’s missing?” I asked. He repeated the issue he spoke about before “I can’t see anything. I just know it’s David lamenting over two men he appreciated, one whom he loved. I can feel what he felt but I can’t see anything”. “Where are the visuals going to come from? what visuals do you basically need to ‘see’ a scene in a text?” (David’s lament isn’t a story but we’ll get there later).

“Place for one,” said G, “I have no idea where, when, why, who was involved and therefore cannot see a picture or grab a motivation besides – close people were killed, it’s sad and it’s from the Bible”.

Gathering relevant details from the narrative

G wanted to know where David was, so we read the first part of the chapter and found out he was in Ziklag. Ziklag no longer exists but after some research we found it belonged to King of Gat. David returned there after the slaughter of the Amalekites. “Minute,” said G, “I know the area in modern Israel (around Kibbutz Lahav) but King of Gat wasn’t a Hebrew king, how come he gave David a city?” So we had to find out. After realizing Ziklag wasn’t a large place even in Biblical terms and that it served David’s forces as a provincial hiding-place good for initiating raids from, we started wondering about the amount of people who stood in front of David while lamenting. That would indicate something about vocal projection. “Thousands,” guessed G thinking “military”. It turned out to be around 600 men in a provincial court 1040-970 B.C.E.

The pictures in G’s mind shifted. He could see the court (approximately but good enough which is enough), the size of the space, number of people and after some more research – who they were. He realized it was a rough wartimes situation and that most probably not many women and children were present. “That’s not exactly the time, place or company for an overt lament if you’re a man. I don’t get the guy”. Very good point, we had to dig some more.

I read him various anecdotes about David (you can find some here), until I reached the time the lament took place. G gathered these ideas:

  • David knew from young age he was blessed by God to become king. He kept good relationships with Samuel – the man of God. Although his ferocious opponent, David dare not kill King Saul because he too was anointed by God. G was realizing some of David’s values.
  • David trusted his physical ability. He knew what he could do – exactly. His strategy and tactics were outstanding, and what seems to many as “temper” G interpreted as “very well calculated”.
  • G figured women adored David and were willing to go quite far to be in his presence. He was most probably very good looking and had a good body which, in light of the previous realization, he could use well also in “softer” arrangements. He was also a musician.
  • David was poor but could easily fit in a “rich man’s suite”, when given the opportunity.

Interpreting narrative details

Notice what G gathered. You might gather differently. This difference points at the fact every storyteller visiting a narrative, has a different point of view. This should be the source of different interpretations, styles in telling and dramatic choices. That’s where it has to come from – the deep work inside the text’s narrative, not any external or habitual source. Some of the information G clutched to because he could strongly identify with. Some of it grabbed him as relevant to understanding the background, and more importantly – the drama. In any case, his questions were drivig the process of discovery.

Aside: as going through the narrative, G realized some details brought up references to other texts he knows, one of them a famous tale, the other part of a myth. In the larger scheme of being a storyteller, these cross references lead you to understand what is really important for people to figure-out and look at.

Back to the text, seeking voice

“Can you tell the lament now?” I asked. G searched inside, “No, not yet. I can see the pictures, I now know things about David as a person, but I can’t feel much, can’t find the right voice”. Finding the right voice is finding the emotional charging. Voice is an extension of inner movement. Inner movement is caused when you feel something and as G said, at that moment he wasn’t feeling much.

“Look at the lament. Who’s charged?” “David. I need to find out what was going on inside him”. We know the background, now we need the specifics. Back to the text, from the beginning of the chapter. I’ll read, G will try and get ‘into’ David’s mind, emotions and body. What he knows about the narrative will help him, together with personal experience and being aware of his inner events as I proceed.

L: “Now it came to pass after the death of Saul, when David had returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and David had stayed two days in Ziklag”

G: continue, this is just the setting.

L: “it came even to pass on the third day that, behold, a man came out of the camp from Saul with his clothes rent and earth upon his head; and so it was, when he came to David, that he fell to the earth and did obeisance”.

G: I see a person arriving at my court. From the way he is dressed I understand someone has died. He falls at my feet. I want to know what happened.

(G’s additional remark) If David didn’t know what happened, the first verse isn’t only the setting. The story starts to unravel something the reader knows before David does. The character is unaware of something everybody outside of the story already knows. That’s a good trick.

L: “And David said unto him, “From whence comest thou?” And he said unto him, “Out of the camp of Israel am I escaped.”

G: I would most probably ask the same question. As David, the answer tells me the man carries news from the war-front, bad news. I feel tension.

L: “And David said unto him, “How went the matter? I pray thee, tell me.” And he answered, “The people have fled from the battle, and many of the people also are fallen and dead; and Saul and Jonathan his son are dead also.”

G: I feel a spear hit my heart. I also realize I’m about to become the ruling king. And there are all these people of Israel who have fallen dead, the rest fled from the battle. It was a lost battle. This is very bad.

I feel and think a couple of things:

  • Piercing pain over Jonathan. As a warrior I know how to silence the pain and the voice that comes with it. It goes deeper and deeper into my body, I’m shutting it off.
  • I’m sorry for Saul. Our relationship was complicated but still, I’m sorry over the man and king.
  • Everybody in court heard what the man said. Besides shock and sorrow they realize it means “The king is dead, long live the king”. They will be looking up to me to take command and lead them.
  • I need to be sure I’m doing the right thing. Think straight, David.

L: “And David said unto the young man who told him, “How knowest thou that Saul and Jonathan his son are dead?”

G: (smiling) Good question, but if I’m back into David so yes, first check for the facts.

L: “And the young man who told him said, “As I happened by chance upon Mount Gilboa, behold, Saul leaned upon his spear; and lo, the chariots and horsemen followed hard after him.”

G: I can see the picture. It’s terrible.

L: “And when he looked behind him, he saw me and called unto me. And I answered, ‘Here am I.’”

G: continue.

L: “And he said unto me, ‘Who art thou?’ And I answered him, ‘I am an Amalekite.’”

G: He is the enemy. What did he come here for? Bastard? Brave? Defector? Why did Saul ask him to kill him? Maybe he knew none of his people would dare. I don’t know. Confusion, anger, thought.

L: “And he said unto me again, ‘Stand, I pray thee, upon me and slay me; for anguish is come upon me, because my life is yet whole in me.’”

G: (in a muffled voice) continue. I want to know.

L: “So I stood upon him and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after he was fallen. And I took the crown that was upon his head and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord.”

G: He said he killed Saul. What he has brought proves – it was Saul. Saul was anointed by God. He shouldn’t have done that. A great man has died. I feel bitter for Saul’s miserable death, for Jonathan dying and all the rest. What I see is unbearable. I need to destroy something.

L: “Then David took hold on his clothes and rent them, and likewise all the men who were with him.”

G:  As G I’m thinking “that’s a clever custom”. As David I’m thinking “they are already looking up to me, they’re not only following the custom”.

L: “And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.”

G: Yes. Justice can wait.

L: “And David said unto the young man who told him, “From whence art thou?” And he answered, “I am the son of a stranger, an Amalekite.”

G: I don’t like this. I’m furious.

L: “And David said unto him, “How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?”

G: He’s dead meat.

L: “And David called one of the young men and said, “Go near, and fall upon him.” And he smote him so that he died.”

G: Still, this needs to be justified.

L: “And David said unto him, “Thy blood be upon thy head, for thy mouth hath testified against thee, saying, ‘I have slain the Lord’s anointed.’”

G: Bitter, that’s what I feel. War is shit. Still, they are waiting. I can’t walk away to deal with my agony in private. Open your mouth David, breath and speak.

G found the inner movement in David and realized where the voice is coming from. Yet when he tried to attach it to the text, a new problem appeared – he didn’t understand all the words and terms, so again, he was lost. In order for him to understand the words and why they were chosen over others, we needed to learn something about decorum.

Homework: find as many words and expressions that will make a listener think “feminine” without using the word “feminine”. Yes, I know it has nothing to do with David’s lament but I’d rather have G looking outside of the text and Biblical language, first.

Next: Deeper into the narrative

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