Country Girl Makes Good

"Avishag" by Yael Lotan, Toby Press, Michigan, $13.97

Yairah Amit
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Yairah Amit

"Avishag" by Yael Lotan, Toby Press, Michigan, $13.97

Yael Lotan is a writer, an activist for leftist causes and, today, mainly a translator and a critic of works in translation. "Because I don't have a literary ego, ambition or envy," she says, "I have no problem diving into other writers' worlds. I am not a creative writer and it is easy for me to write a story with a skeleton that already exists, like the story of Avishag, and I just expand it."

Indeed, her latest book is devoted to the character Avishag, who is mentioned three times in the Bible - all of them in the First Book of Kings in connection with the last days of King David. The first time she is mentioned is when a young virgin is sought to look after the aging king, see to his needs and keep him warm on cold Jerusalem nights, and the "fair damsel, Avishag, a Shunammite," is found (I Kings 1:3). The second time she is mentioned is when Batsheva comes to David to remind him that in the past, he had promised her that Solomon would be his heir to the throne. The narrator takes the trouble to specify that Avishag was present at this interview and "ministered to the king" (1:15). The third mention comes when David's son, Adonijah, who was older than Solomon but did not inherit the kingship, sends Batsheva to her son, Solomon, who has already been anointed king, to ask him to agree that Adonijah take Avishag as his wife (2:13-21). This (ostensibly innocent) request is interpreted by Solomon as subversion of the existing regime, as the concubines of a deceased or deposed ruler would pass on to his successor (see Samuel II 15:20-22). It is no wonder, then, that the request cost Adonijah his life.

The three scenes in which Avishag is mentioned serve Lotan as the skeleton of the novel she devotes to the life of Avishag the Shunammite, a beautiful village girl from Shunam in Jezreel, who was selected to serve the king during the last days of his life. Lotan describes Avishag from the moment she arrives at the palace to her final departure, and shows how the frightened country girl achieved a position of power in the royal court and finally prefers to retire from that world and its intrigues and brutal struggles to a life far from the royal court - a life centered around the cult of the Sky Goddess.

Thus, the novel follows Avishag's life in David's court at a crucial period, as the king is already old and the struggle for the succession is at its height. She is the one who convinces the king to change his mind about anointing Adonijah, who was entitled to become king by virtue of his seniority, and to keep his promise to Batsheva to make Solomon his heir. Avishag's choice of Solomon is influenced by a number of factors: the recognition that only under Solomon's leadership will the kingdom remain united, thus fulfilling David's vision of heading a large and powerful kingdom; her perception of Solomon's intelligence and knowledge, which give him an advantage over any other candidate; her knowledge that Solomon, who was of Hittite origin and broad-minded, would not damage the various cults and especially not the cult of the Sky Goddess; and, finally, her feelings of love for him.

Love of the Bible

It is difficult to define Lotan's book [written in English] as a historical novel, as even the biblical depiction of the period is a depiction in which fiction, imagination and style come into play together with information that had its sources in chronicles and oral traditions. The biblical narrator relied, perhaps, on a historical nucleus, but to this nucleus, he added details that would help him develop a complex and sophisticated plot and the appropriate characters.

Specialists in Bible research and the Israelite history of the biblical period find it difficult to write historical descriptions of this period, and their descriptions range from depictions of David's kingdom as a great and enormously powerful empire, through a rewriting of the biblical text while emphasizing certain elements and dropping others, to the minimalist description of David as a kind of Judaic tribal headman who founds a tiny kingdom at the edge of the desert. In other words, as it is difficult for us to talk about this period in terms of historical facts, of which the lives of the characters are supposed to serve as a literary illustration, I would prefer to call Lotan's book a biblical novel.

There is no doubt that Lotan has made an effort to take the reader back to the biblical period and to fashion a reasonable picture of ancient times in which the everyday, the human and, especially, the feminine enjoy maximum attention. A reader of the Book of Esther might form the impression that the women of the harem spent their time going between "six months with oil of myrrh and six months with sweet odors, and other ointments of women" (Esther 2:12-14). However, Lotan has learned about the whole world of David's women, how they lived, what they wore, what they ate and what the relationships among them were.

The depiction of the social and political life stresses the inter-tribal tension between Judah and Israel, and the relations of David's kingdom with neighboring nations like the kingdom of the Philistines and Egypt. The depiction of the world of art and opinions gives prominence to the polytheism that prevailed in Israelite society at the time, when alongside the Israelite nation's God, people also worshiped Asherah, the Sky Goddess and other deities. The rituals of sacrifice are a recurring motif throughout the book and contribute to the atmosphere of ancient times. Unlike Jospeh Heller in his novel "God Knows," Lotan does not try to confront the old and the new. She tries to be faithful to the landscapes, the sounds, the colors, the smells and the customs of the ancient period.

Above all, Lotan's love the Bible and her faithfulness to it are evident in this book, so that it seems as though the "skeleton," i.e. the biblical source, takes over from the creative artist in her. Every reader, commentator or researcher who tries to understand the biblical text often finds himself engaged in trying to close the gaps, as the Bible is a succinct and thrifty text in which there are many lacunae. Therefore, the commentators on this text, from the time of the writers of the Midrash to the modern commentators who claim to be faithful to the literal meaning, all often fill in details that are not reported. This is even more true of anyone who uses a biblical text as a source of inspiration or as the skeleton for a new story. In this case, filling in the gaps is legitimate and expected, and the reader even tries to follow the writer's preferences and choices - that is, when he has chosen to supply missing information and how he does this, when he changes what appears in the Bible, and when he is faithful to it.

David's life story

Lotan does not change anything that is related in the Bible, but only adds to it and is thus even more faithful to the Books of Samuel and Kings than the writer of the Book of Chronicles. She can tell us until when the eldest son of David and Batsheva (who was conceived adulterously) died, and when exactly David promised Batsheva that Solomon would be the next king. She can also tell us about the fate of Absalom's sister, Tamar, and describes her suicide and adds many other details.

But as her main aim is to tell the biblical story, she depicts Avishag as the antithesis of Scheherazade, as a woman who listens at night to the old king's stories. This choice allows her to put into David's mouth the entire story of his life from his youth in Saul's court and his relationship with Jonathan and Michal, to the revolts against him by his son, Absalom, and Sheba, the son of Bichri. Lotan's David is mainly an elderly, nostalgic bore who is glad that a kind of feminine caretaker has been appointed for him who is also a good listener. And as if stories weren't enough, the two of them also sing and thus in Lotan's book, Solomon's "Song of Songs" becomes the "Song of Songs" that David sang when he was young, which Avishag knows from her own childhood in Shunam, and parts of which she writes herself and goes on to sing to Solomon.

Moreover, the entire novel is full of biblical references. King David's court resembles the description in Ecclesiastes, "I got me men-singers and women-singers" (2:8), as indeed every free moment at the royal court and among the king's powerful associates is devoted to banquets and the enjoyment of human pleasures. Jonathan is described as very tall, but to describe his stature, the author has recourse to the description of the giants in Chapter 6 of Genesis, and Jonathan is as tall as the children of the sons of God who took the daughters of men as wives.

It is hard for me to imagine this book written in Hebrew. The English helps Lotan avoid biblical syntax and biblical vocabulary, which can present difficulties for the modern reader. She colors the flowing, modern English in biblical tints by using mostly the Hebrew pronunciations of the main characters' names (an exception is Jonathan, who is not called Yonatan), as well as biblical phrases like "gathered unto his fathers" and more.

Yael Lotan's respect for the biblical literature shines from every word in this novel, and the book displays a blend of sharp observation of reality with the vocabulary and scenes of the biblical text.

Yairah Amit is a lecturer at the Bible department at Tel Aviv University.

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