Alan Irvine: Storyteller 



Living With David:

Composing the Biblical Epic

By Alan Irvine

(originally published in The Journal of Biblical Storytelling, Vol. 10, Number 1)


The sun had only just risen over the eastern hills.  Rays of golden light slanted across the field.  Drops of dew still glittered like diamonds in the grass; the cool, damp smell of dawn still filled the air.  The silence was broken only by the song of a single bird, by the creak of leather, the clank of metal as two armies marched forth to draw up in ranks and files, facing each other across the fieldÖ 

So begins David: The King, the epic tale of the life of King David of Israel, a tale unfolding over the course of the evening.

I have told biblical tales for many years.  The tales have ranged from fairly serious retellings that keep close to the original text to fairly outlandish adaptations into modern language, settings, and situations.  David: The King, however, is by far the most extensive and ambitious of these, one which took almost a year and a half to develop, research, compose, and rehearse, one which takes over two hours to tell.  Despite its scope, however, composing David: The King involved the same questions and challenges in telling any Biblical tale; indeed, because of its scope, it involved all of these questions and challenges, which makes it an ideal model for examining the concerns and issues of developing and telling these tales.

The first issue, after you have found a Biblical tale you wish to tell, is to decide why you want to tell it, what attracts you to the tale.  Is it the central theme?  The theological implications?  The picture of a long-ago culture?  Something relevant to modern-day life?  Do you just like the story regardless of where it came from?  All of these are legitimate reasons for telling the tale, but each leads you along a different path in developing the tale for telling, leads you to a different story.  In my case, I was interested in the character of David himself.  David is repeatedly held up as the ideal earthly king, an exemplar of faith, yet David was not a particularly holy man.  All too-human weaknesses balanced his virtues; his sins almost destroyed the good that he did.  What then made David so great?  That question immediately begins to define my approach to the story, for what draws me to it is the material that is not in the Bible.  Unlike modern literature, the Bible is not particularly interested in psychology and character development.  Its history sections, where we find Davidís story, are concerned with what people did, not why they did it.  To tell the story that interested me, I could not simply retell the biblical account, I would have to compose my own story, drawing on the Biblical text as my source material, but adding to it as well.  Answering the question of why you want to tell defines what your relationship to the material will be, what you can and can not do with the text.

Once you know why you want to tell the tale, you must decide how you wish to tell it.  Do you want to stay as close as possible to the original text or do you want to play with it?  Do you want to be serious, or light-hearted, or comical?  This issue is closely connected to the first.  If your ďwhyĒ is that this tale can show a bunch of teen-agers that the Bible is relevant to their lives, you will probably want to adapt the story into familiar terms and settings and concentrate on communicating the central theme rather than worrying about fine points of terminology and details.  On the other hand, if you plan to use the story to illustrate some point of theology to seminary students, a serious tone and close adherence to the Biblical text is probably called for.  When I began working on David: The King, a friend offered to supply me with several collections of folktales about David.  I declined the offer.  I had already decided that I was not interested in a folktale/legendary telling of the story.   Instead, I approached the story as history Ė serious in tone, historically accurate in detail and setting.  There may be many valid approaches to the tale you wish to tell; you need to decide which one is best suited for your purposes.  This clear idea of your approach provides an essential guide through the remainder of your work.

The next step often does feel like work.  It is time for the research.  Even the most detailed of Biblical texts provides us with only part of the story.  The writers of those accounts assumed an audience familiar with the culture, politics, and every-day life of the times; a familiarity a modern audience does not share.  The writers did not bother to explain things their audience already knew but a modern audience does not.  They also wrote in different languages, employing terms and concepts that do not always translate clearly.  So we find gaps in the Biblical accounts - actions, events, concepts that seem inexplicable.  If we wish to truly understand what happens within, what drives the stories, we need to know more about the world of 2000, 3000 years ago.

One line of research leads us into the history of Biblical times , of the middle East, of the peoples who lived and struggled there.  Fortunately, archaeology and anthropology can now provide us with a wealth of information about the Biblical world, about the rise and fall of kingdoms, the jostling of rival peoples and powers,  the influence of geography, the impact of technology.  This information can help us understand the larger context that shaped and influenced the events of the story.  For example, the Philistines play an important role in the early part of Davidís story.  From my research I learned that the Philistines arrived in the region from across the sea some time before Davidís day.  Significantly, they brought the secret of iron-working into a bronze-age world, which gave them stronger, deadlier weapons than other people, a tremendous military advantage.  The Philistines first tried to invade and conquer Egypt, but their superior weapons were not enough of an advantage to offset the vastly superior numbers of the Egyptians.  The Egyptians pushed the Philistines north, into the coastal plain now known as the Gaza Strip.  From this base, the Philistines could only expand in one direction: through the hills and highlands held by the tribes of Israel.  Long years of war followed as the Philistines fought to expand their empire and the overmatched Israelites desperately tried to defend their homes.  Under the pressure of this relentless pounding, the old political structures of the tribal confederacy of Israel collapsed, forcing the Israelites to create a new, more centralized power structure Ė a king.  David was only the second king to reign in Israel (Saul being the first,) and so much of Davidís story centers around the concept of the king: who should be king?  What qualities should the king possess?  How much power should the king wield?  Did the old, tribal laws still apply to the king?  Understanding the history of the kingship, of how and why it was created, and the crucial role of the Philistines in this process helped me to see these concerns underlying the story, helped me to understand how important these questions were in the very structure of the tale.  I could see that Davidís story was very much the story of the nation trying to grapple with these issues.  That, in turn, led me to see that I needed to weave these questions into my story as well, to give them a central role in the tale, just as they were central to the original authors.

Knowledge of the larger context clarifies otherwise inexplicable events in the story as well.  David initially serves under King Saul, but eventually they quarrel.  As the conflict between them escalates, David flees to the Philistines, joining the enemy.  Why would he turn traitor?  Understanding the political context makes Davidís motives clear to us.  Only two powers existed in Davidís world: Saul and the Philistines.  Since David had broken with Saul, his only hope lay in joining the Philistines; there was no other place to go, no other king to protect him.

Historical research can help flesh out the everyday experience of the ancient world.  Biblical texts tell us little about what people ate or what clothes they wore, little about the sights and sounds they encountered.  Fortunately archaeology has pieced together much of this information for us, providing the details that bring a story to life.

Along with historical information, we may want to investigate the thematic structure and concerns of the story, the meaning and significance of it, the lessons we should draw from it.  There is a wealth of material written commenting on, reflecting on, discussing the Biblical texts, generically known as simply commentaries.  They range from collections of notes to lengthy discourses, and come from a wide range of perspectives: Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, liberal, conservative, scholarly, meditativeÖ  All can provide insights into the themes and meanings of the text that can prove useful.

Just as knowing why you want to tell a story helps you develop the material, understanding what the Biblical authors hoped to accomplish helps you understand how they shaped and developed their material.  For example, the most important organizing principle for the authors of the Bible was theological, not chronological. Davidís conquest of  Jerusalem was much more important for the development of the Jewish religion, since Jerusalem was to become the center of the religion, than his final victory over the Philistines, however important that was politically.  As a result, the Biblical account places the conquest of Jerusalem first, although chronologically it probably came after the victory over the Philistines.  I restored the chronological order, primarily because that order fit best with my main organizing principle Ė ending the first half of the story with the conquest of Jerusalem gave a more dramatic conclusion to that part of the tale.

Similarly, the Bible was not written to present an objective report of facts, our view of what history is supposed to be (a view only a couple of centuries old.)  For the authors of the Bible, history was written to present a particular point-of-view, to justify actions taken.  King Saul comes off rather badly in the Biblical text, always doing the wrong thing, always a poor choice for a king.  The accounts of  Saulís reign, however, were written long after, when David and his descendents were firmly in control.  The accounts were written by Davidís supporters who had a vested interest in making Saul look bad, so that David might look better in comparison.  Furthermore, all of Saulís supporters were dead; there was no one left to tell his side of the story even if anyone was interested in hearing it.  All of this suggests the possibility that Saul may have been a better king, or at least a more sympathetic king, than the Biblical accounts present.  Such an interpretation also fits with what we know of politics and history.  The more I thought about it, the more I could see the dramatic potential in such an interpretation.  As a result, I began to treat Saul, not as a villain, but as a tragic figure.  The story of Davidís rise played out against the story of Saulís fall, lending it greater depth and power.  Such an interpretation would never have occurred to me had I not learned about how the accounts came to be written and what might have been left out of them.

In returning to the Bible, we find yet another wealth of resources to draw on in, this time in the wide variety of translations of the Bible.  Different translations offer not only different words and phrasing, but even different interpretations and thematic concerns. All tellers, but especially tellers planning to stick close to the Biblical text, should look over a number of available texts, if only to decide which text they wish to go with.  I knew I wanted to include a number of Davidís psalms within my story, allowing David to speak in his own voice.  When I began working on these psalms, I often worked with four or five Bibles open in front of me.  I kept looking form one to another, comparing and contrasting the translations, the words, the rhythms, the images and poetic feel of the lines.  Bit by bit I pieced together lines and phrases from different translations to yield versions of the psalms that best suited my story.

After the research is completed, you need to return to the original text, to read over it again in light of your new understanding.  You should see more in the story than you did before.  Your new understanding and knowledge should help you to understand the story.  Your research will probably have generated new ideas and directions for the story, ideas which can now take more concrete form as you weigh them against the original text.  I had known from the beginning that David: The King would have to be an epic tale.  From my initial reading of the text, I even had a general idea of which events of his life the story should include.  My research helped to shape these general ideas into specific form.  I saw that the story should fall into five distinct parts: a short prologue relating the battle with Goliath, and sections focussing on the conflict with Saul and the war with the Philistines, the civil war between David and Saulís heirs leading up to the reunification of the kingdom and the conquest of Jerusalem, Davidís affair with Bathsheba, and the revolt of Davidís son Absalom.  Furthermore, given the direction I wanted to take with Saul, and the necessary political and historical background concerning the effects of the Philistine wars, I knew that this first section would have to be significantly longer than the other three.  (And, indeed, ďDavid and SaulĒ runs 40 minutes, twice the length of any of the other sections.)

From this point on, however, your work is basic compositional work, shaping the material into tellable form.  Although I frequently consulted my research notes and source material in this phase of the work, I usually did so only to  refresh my memory as to some detail or interpretation I could not completely recall.  The overall design, the basic framework of plot and character, the underlying themes, these had already been decided upon.

The last step, of course, is the performance. After almost a year and a half, David: The King was ready.  The show debuted with two performances on April 3 & 4, 1998.  All that hard work paid off; audiences both nights received it enthusiastically.  Afterwards, many people commented that the tale made the Bible come alive for them like it never had before, that this was the first time they had understood the whole sweep of Davidís life.  And several commented that the story showed them for the first time just why David is considered such a great king, and beloved by God.  I enjoyed that comment the most, since that was what had inspired me to choose this story in the first place.

Any Biblical tale, whether a two minute parable or a two hour epic, requires the same basic work.  Decide why you want to tell the tale, what you want your audience to draw from it.  Then decide how you want to tell the tale, what approach is both relevant to your point and comfortable to you and your audience.  Figure out what you do not know about the tale, about the background, about the intent or theme.  Research the story until you know everything you need to know.  From that point on, compose, rehearse, perform.  The Bible is one of the richest collections of stories and story material we have, and conversely, storytelling is one of the most effective tools we have for making the Bible come alive for people today.




Here are a few of the sources I found particularly useful for Old Testament research:

Anderson, Bernhard.

1957    Understanding the Old Testament, Prentice-Hall

Asimov, Isaac. 

1968    Asimovís Guide to the Bible, Vol. 1, Avon

Herzog, Chaim and Mordechai Gichon

1978   Battles of the Bible, Random House

Keller, Werner, translated by William Neil,

1980    The Bible as History, 2nd Ed., Morrow

Rogerson, John and Philip Davies. 

1989   The Old Testament World, 1989