God Knows, by Joseph Heller, is written in the voice of King David at the end of his life, as a kind of memoir. Entirely fictional, obviously, Heller’s book has the kind of humor you find in his well-known Catch-22, although it is most funny if you’re familiar with the Biblical account of David’s life.
Adding to the farcical effect, Heller’s David knows historical figures and events far after his lifetime and, in a particularly nice touch, cites the King James version of the Bible rather than any Hebrew translation. This is put to particular comic effect in an exchange between David and Jonathan as they puzzle over a phrase as rendered by the King James Bible translators. I think this challenges assumptions about the Bible in the same way that Heller challenged assumptions about war and humanity in Catch-22. As a Jew, I think Heller has more license to challenge Jewish history with humor such as when he has Solomon telling David that he got a particularly good deal because he “Jewed them down.”
It isn’t all farce and humor, though. King David also considers the consequences of his decisions, from Bathsheba to the death of his son Absalom to the feeling that God had abandoned him later in life.
I’m posting these excerpts here as my small way of bringing attention to this book. It isn’t very well known and there was only one copy available from the several libraries I’m able to access. And I’ll admit up front to being unable to finish the book; even though it is entertaining it is lengthy and some parts are less compelling than others. The following are my favorite bits or what I found to be most entertaining.
Some Promised Land. The honey was there, but the milk we brought in with our goats. To people in California, God gives a magnificent coastline, a movie industry, and Beverly Hills. To us he gives sand. To Cannes He gives a plush film festival. We get the PLO. Our winters are rainy, our summers hot. To people who didn’t know how to wind a wristwatch He gives underground oceans of oil. To us He gives hernia, piles, and anti-Semitism. Those leery spies returning from Canaan after their first look described the place as a land that eats up its people, a land inhabited wholly by giants. The reports were false but not altogether off the mark. True, there were figs, pomegranates, and clusters of grapes to heavy they could be borne back only on a thick staff shouldered between two men. But the land does tend to eat up its people. Still, it’s the best that’s been offered us, and we want to hold on to it.
I would spend whole mornings and afternoons practicing with my sling in order to help the time go faster. I knew I was good. I knew I was brash. I knew I was brave. And with Goliath that day, I knew that if I could get within twenty-five paces of the big son of a bitch, I could sling a stone the size of a pig’s knuckle down his throat with enough velocity to penetrate the back of his neck and kill him, and I also knew something else: I knew if I was wrong about that, I could turn and run like a motherfucker and dodge my way back up the hill to safety without much risk from anyone chasing me in all that armor.
“Saul is the king and can always take as much money, land, and sheep as he chooses. No, the king desireth not any such dowry for his daughter. He wants but a token, some tangible earnest of good faith.”
“What tangible earnest?” I asked warily.
“A trifle, a pittance for the king’s daughter that will not impoverish your father or you or leave you even temporariliy strapped. Saul does not want wealth.”
“What will I pay for her, then?” I was now constrained to ask.
“With a pound of flesh,” was the answer I got.
“A pound of flesh?” I echoed with surprise.
“Or ten or twelve ounces, whatever they all add up to,” Abner remarked in an offhanded way. He watched me levelly with hooded eyes.
I had trouble figuring it out. “What kind of flesh?”
“I just don’t get it,” I admitted frankly.
“Foreskins,” said Abner with exaggerated patience, as though I had been privy to all conversations and was obtuse in overlooking a fundamental point. “The king wants foreskins. Bring him but a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of his enemies, and you shall be his son-in-law. That’s all that he wants. A hundred foreskins.”
Foreskins? I nearly jumped for joy when I understood. A hundred Philistine foreskins? I could bring him a thousand!
“I will give him two hundred!” I cried exultantly, in a mixture of boastful liberality and conservative good sense. “When does he want them?”
“The sooner the better, I should think,” Abner decided, “from everyone’s point of view. While she still has her looks and is young enough to bear children. Saul wants grandsons.”
“I’ll start at once.”
“How long will it take? You can have what men you need.”
You would have been charmed by the proficiency with which I began calculating aloud. Abner appeared spellbound. It would require, I projected fluently, a minimum of four able-bodied young Israelites to take hold of a live Philistine and wrest him motionless to the earth in a supine position, a fifth to lay hands on his privy parts and elevate his member with a firmness sufficient to overcome any spontaneous urges to flinch from the surgical procedure intended, and a sixth with a sure hand on the blade to trim the Philistine foreskin expertly from the glans of the penis. I have a mania for neatness in some matters that is almost anal. The last two men could contribute with their weight to the total force necessary to hold the unconsenting subject pinned in place on the ground. I was not counting on voluntary compliance. Allowing about an hour, on average, to locate and seize each Philistine for circumcision, and working with four squads of six men taking their daylight nourishment on the prowl rather than breaking for lunch, I estimated hopefully that we could gather daily—
Abner abruptly shook free from the trance in which he had been listening to me. “David, David,” he interrupted. He rolled his eyes skyward and weakly raised a hand, requesting forbearance. “I think you may be missing the underlying goal of this exploit. We want you to kill the Philistines, not convert them. We don’t care if you bring back the whole prick.”
Again I found myself overjoyed, and nearly whooped out my feelings in a squeal of rapturous hallelujahs. I was able to perceive that killing the Philistines and bringing back the whole prick would facilitate my task considerably.
Bathsheba takes an unexpected veer toward the philosophical. “The rich have many friends,” she remarks. “But the poor is hateth even of his own neighbor.”
“What makes you say that?” I demand touchily.
“I heard Solomon say it, and I thought it was very wise. Why do you ask?”
“He got it from me,” I tell her coldly, “that’s why I ask. You’ll find it among my proverbs.”
“Solomon has lots of proverbs too,” she boasts.
“And the best of them,” I tell her, “are mine. The next thing you know, he’ll be claiming he wrote my famous elegy.”
“What famous elegy?” asks my wife.
For a moment I am struck completely dumb. “What famous elegy?” My piercing cry is one of indignation. “What the hell do you mean, what famous elegy? My famous elegy, on the death of Saul and Jonathan. What other famous elegy is there?”
“I don’t think I ever heard of it.”
“You never heard of it?” I am beside myself with disbelief. “They know it in Sidon. They sing it in Ninevah. ‘The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places.’ You never heard that before? ‘They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.’ ‘How are the mighty fallen!’ ‘He clothed you in scarlet, and with other delights, and put ornaments of gold upon your apparel.’”
She sits up straighter, her eyes widening. “You wrote that?” she inquires.
“What, then?” I demand. “Who the fuck do you think wrote it?”
“Solomon?” I shout. I have a queasy sensation that none of what is taking place now is really happening. “This was ten years before I even moved to Jerusalem!” I roar at her. “They were telling it in Gath, they were publishing it in the streets of Askelon, a dozen years before I even met you. You don’t remember it’s mine? Solomon? How the fuck could Solomon have written it when he wasn’t even born?”
“There was more, David, much more,” Jonathan went on, with his stricken look. “He called me an imbecile too, practically. Then He told me I was the son of a perverse, rebellious woman, and that I had chosen to side with you to my own confusion. Half the time I did not know what he was talking about. He added something else that makes no sense to me at all. David, you’re smart, maybe you can figure it out. He told me also – this is not easy to say – that I was a confusion to my mother’s nakedness.”
“A confusion to your mother’s nakedness?”
“Do you know what that means?”
“A confusion to your mother’s nakedness?” I repeated a second time, to make sure I had heard him aright.
“That’s exactly it,” Jonathan affirmed. “He told me I had chosen you to my own confusion and unto the confusion of my mother’s nakedness. It kept me awake all night.”
What did he mean by that?”
“I asked you.”
“It’s Greek to me,” I was forced to confess. “Jonathan, there’s something more that’s troubling you. I can tell it by your eyes.”
“He also said,” Jonathan revealed with great difficulty, glancing away, “that neither I nor my kingdom would be established as long as the son of Jesse was allowed to remain alive on the ground.”
In the silence that followed, our eyes met. “That’s me.”
“Do you believe him?”
He was truthful. “I don’t know.”
I came through when it counted, didn’t I? So did Joseph and Moses, and God should give thanks to all three of us for helping Him make good on His promises to Abraham. I did it with the sword. Joseph did it by translating a confounding dream of the Pharaoh’s about stalks of corn and fat cows and skinny cows into a familiar two-word precept that might have earned him a stinting accolade from Sigmund Freud and ignited a flash of esteem in the eye of every trader in commodity futures. The interpretation?
“Buy corn,” said Joseph.
“Buy corn?” Said the Pharaoh.
“The dream,” said Joseph. “The dream wants you to buy corn.”
When the famine struck, only the storehouses of the Pharaoh were full. Hungry people came with money from round about the lands of Egypt and Palestine to buy the food they needed in order to live. When the money failed, they paid with cattle, horses, and asses. When the livestock was gone, they paid with their land, and then with themselves. The Pharaoh owned it all, except for the land of the priests. Joseph decided on a fifth for the Pharaoh of everything produced, and lo – among the other amazements of their civilization, the Egyptians had also devised feudalism and sharecropping.
Milton was a mile off the mark in his Samson Agonistes. The Samson we remember was too coarse and obtuse to define himself as “eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves” or to picture himself dying with “all passion spent.” Although his own last words aren’t bad with his “strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.”
Though John Milton is frequently imperfect – the first of his two “Tetrachordon” sonnets is contemptible and the second is not excellent – I beg the same indulgence for him that I occasionally require for myself. Our art comes first. He and I are poets, not historians or journalists, and his Samson Agonistes should be looked at in the same fair light as my famous elegy on the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, along with my psalms and proverbs and other outstanding works. Adore them as poems. Look to us for our beauty rather than factual accuracy. A striking case in point can be found in my notable “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice.” If literal truth and common sense were factors, there would be no way to account for the enduring popularity of this mellifluous statement, for the people in Gath and Askelon knew about Saul’s defeat and death at Gilboa a good two and a half weeks before I did. Such departures from reality may generally be explained on aesthetic grounds. Milton was a man of considerable ability. Who knows – who can say for certain that his works will not last as long as mine have and perhaps enjoy someday a readership as large as does my famous elegy?
What a merry dirge I was able to produce under pressure on the spur of the moment! Considered objectively, my famous elegy is really as high-spirited as an ode to victory and joy. The death of Saul did open doors to me and clear a path. How lively my humor when I saw what I had written and concluded as my own severest critic that I would have to change not a word and delete not a line. At times since, I’ll admit, I have regretted that I did not look longer at “Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Now that’s the troubling statement that gave birth to all the unsavory and unfounded speculations by people seeking to deprecate me or wishing to supply impressive justification for their own deviate inclinations. What’s wrong with it? My meaning is as clear and frank and wholesome to me now as it was when I wrote it. John Milton might have said the same thing if he’d thought of it first.
But Milton was a grave Puritan in a cold climate, while we were a raunchy and polygamous lot in a warm and teeming locale. So we reveled in intermarriage, inbreeding, and outbreeding, and always had, even in the days of Abraham, first father to us all. And here’s something else. We started out with short beards and straight noses – you can look at the wall paintings – and who knows? With a slightly different genetic break in our wanderings and couplings, we might all be as blond and gorgeous today as Danish schoolchildren. No wonder our moral philosophers then and since have tended to be glum, censorious, and ascetic. Milton was a prude and a pedagogue and made his daughters learn Hebrew; I never made my mine learn English. And I think I had a nobler subject in Saul and Jonathan than he did in Samson, that crude, blundering jackass who bullied his parents into arranging marriages they disapproved of and couldn’t keep his cock out of Philistine harlots. A naar like him they make a Judge, while I don’t even have one book in the Bible named after me. What really gets my goat is that Samuel has I and II, even though he dies in I and doesn’t get a single mention in II, not one. Is that fair? And those two books of Samuel should be named for me, not him. What’s so great about Samuel?
“Solomon,” I used to counsel him when I still assumed – preposterously, as it turned out – that every living being has some potential for salutary intellectual change, “there is really no better thing a man hath to do under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be merry, for who can tell when the silver cord shall be loosed and the golden bowl be broken and our dust be returned to the earth as it was?”
The prick wrote it down studiously, pausing with the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth before requesting me to please repeat the one about the silver cord. And soon he was noising these words of mine about the city as his own. Solomon writes down on his clay ledger everything I say, as though the ramifications of knowledge were coins to be gained and husbanded avariciously, instead of liberating influences to expand and gladden the psyche.
“Shlomo,” I address him familiarly, in a heavyhearted attempt to feed him something that will sink in. “Life is short. The sooner man begins to spend his wealth, the better he uses it. You should learn to spend.”
There followed one of the few times in both our lives that I was privileged to see his face brighten. “Last week, my lord, just last week I spent a good deal to buy silver amulets and marble idols from Moab that are already worth more than three times what I paid for them.”
“That was saving, Schlomo,” I explain, as thought talking to a child with a learning disability. “You don’t seem able to enjoy the difference between spending and saving.”
“I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it a lot,” says Solomon soberly. “I Jewed them down.”
“You did what?”
“I Jewed them down.”
Everybody’s death, I have written, simplifies life for someone, and I will not pretend that the death of Saul and his three legitimate sons did not simplify mine. But don’t get the idea I was glad. Of course I was grieved. And then I wrote my famous elegy.
Now, frankly, we artists do not normally write well when we are distraught, if we can bestir ourselves to write at all. But my famous elegy is a glorious exception. Though composed rapidly, it’s a better elegy than Milton’s to Edward King or Shelley’s on the death of John Keats, which is pure dreck – revolting, sentimental dreck. “Oh, weep for Adonais, he is dead.” What kind of shit is that? Adonais instead of Adonis? Shelley needed that extra syllable? I worked with simple English names like Saul and Jonathan and never had any trouble. And everyone in the world knows the words to mine. But do me a favor and don’t take them all as gospel. Forget the ones about Jonathan that gave rise to all those denigrating insinuations about homosexuality that plague me even into the present and will probably dog me to my grave. I wish I could forget them. It is unjust and outrageous that impressionable young people like Abishag the Shunammite might be led to believe I really was gay. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of my private life would know that Jonathan’s “love” definitely was not more wonderful to me than the love of women! Count my wives. Consider my carnal involvement with Bathsheba. I loved Jonathan as a brother, that’s all I meant. But no, people would rather snicker and wallow in smut at someone else’s expense, wouldn’t they? And how come, if there’s even one iota of truth underlying those base rumors, you find me mixed up only with women for the rest of my life and never again linked in that disgusting fashion with any other fellow?
Let me tell you something straight from the shoulder: good name in man or woman is the immediate jewel of their soul. A good name is better than precious ointment. Who steals my purse steals trash, but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed, and I wish I could set the record straight on this matter of Jonathan and me once and for all. Certainly we were close – do I deny that? – and sure I was flattered when he embraced me so warmly with his avowals of undying friendship right after I killed Goliath and settled in Gibeah. Who wouldn’t be? Jonathan was older, legendary, cosmopolitan, and not bad-looking. He was a popular man-about-town in Gibeah. He was the hero of the battle of Michmash, for which he was looked up to by everyone but Saul, who was to remain, until the day they both died, uncontrollably jealous of the initiative shown by his son there. Jonathan told me the story. With me Jonathan held nothing back. He did tend to be effusive on occasion and often expressed himself in a florid way I found disconcerting and even incomprehensible – frankly, I hadn’t the slightest idea what he meant when he told me that his soul was knit with my soul, and I still don’t. But I can tell you this: we were never fags. Not even once. You want to know who was a fag? King James the First of England was a fag, that’s who was a fag. His court was full of fags. And that’s why his scholars relied more on Greek sources than Hebrew for their Authorized Version of the Bible. What would you expect them to come up with? They weren’t much good with Hebrew, and they weren’t much better with English, either. Go figure out what they’re saying half the time. I’ll tell you honestly that I did not know what was in Jonathan’s mind when he told me he loved me as his own soul and then stripped off the robe that was on him and other garments and gave them to me, along with his sword and his bow and his girdle. But I do know what was in mine. I was glad to get them.
I rail introspectively again at the libidinous male vanity that made me want so many wives when younger. Look at the trouble they cause me. And their children too.
Celibacy has few pleasures, I know, but marriage has many pains. And harems are not always what they’re cracked up to be. Rarely in the long run are they worth the cost and endless bother. They congest the palace with people, noise, and odors, and they intensify the problems of garbage removal and sewage disposal, which are already hopelessly insurmountable throughout this raucous, teeming city. So many people these days are pissing against the walls that they practically have to wear boots. It’s futile to try to divert any of my sons from their pleasures and personal goals to contend with the commonplace problems of civic administration. A lot they care, these fruits of my unions. And if marriage has many pains, polygamous marriage multiplies those pains to an unforeseeable extent with the commotion generating from squabbling wives and contending offspring. Even God’s faithful servant Abraham had his poor hands full, didn’t he?
In the beginning there was Abraham, in that first Jewish family, expelling, with Sarah egging him on, the one son Ishmael from the nomadic fold for mocking the second son Isaac at the celebration of his weaning and for any future aggressions against him foreshadowed by that action. Ishmael, the son of that alien bondswoman Hagar, was an archer who would turn out to be a wild man with his hand against every man, and with every man’s hand against him. They were better off without him. But then – when Abraham was finally rid of Hagar and Ishmael, guess what he did next. He took another wife! He had six more children! And at his age?
He needed more children? Like a hole in the head. He couldn’t live without another wife? A man like him so full of years? I guess he did need another woman. Sex is so powerful in this Mediterranean heat, and I was not the first to turn at times as horny as a goat. Reuben humped Bilhah, and Judah swerved off the road to stick it to a woman in a harlot’s dress who proved to be his dead son’s wife. Lust isn’t bad in a warm climate with long dry summers.