The Name is David --King David[1]

A colleague of mine who specializes in the study of ancient Jewish preaching likes to remind me that in Talmudic society the synagogue sermon functioned as the central form of entertainment for a Jewish community that was deprived of television or cinema, and was discouraged from attending the theatre or circus. This desire to spice instruction with amusement accounts for some of the more poetic, as well as the bizarre and sensational elements, that find their way into works of "aggadic midrash," a literary genre that is composed largely of snippets from ancient sermons. Not all of our contemporary preachers have proven as skillful in packaging their words in such an attractive form.

The recent screening of a festival of James Bond thrillers on cable television got me to pondering how well the ancient rabbis would have succeeded in competing with such exciting fare. Predictably, it did not take me long to come to the conclusion that the standard 007 format was in fact invented by the ancient Jewish sages, and examples of it are found in the pages of the Talmud.

If you find this claim difficult to accept, allow me to cite in evidence the following story. It is translated almost verbatim from the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 95a), in a story that is in itself an expansion of two verses in the Bible (2 Samuel 21:16-17). Other than a few words of my own enlightening commentary, all that I have added are some headings to call your attention to basic ingredients of what will later be regarded as the standard formula for a James Bond thriller. The swashbuckling hero of the Talmudic adventure is none other than King David.

Element #1: The formidable villain:

This role is filled by the Philistine Ishbi-benob, brother of the notorious (and deceased) Goliath. Ishbi possesses a horrendous arsenal of destructive weaponry (2 Samuel 21:16: "the weight of his spear weighed three hundred shekels of brass in weight, he being girded with a new sword"), and is determined to wreak vengeance upon his brother's slayer.

Element #2: The hero's briefing with his Superior Officer:

Since this is a Bible story, David gets his orders not from a mortal "M," but from the Supreme Commander, the Almighty himself. The session begins with a chastising of David for the recklessness that has led to unnecessary loss of life. His present mission: to penetrate the headquarters of Ishbi-benob.

Element #3: Getting all those neat gadgets from "Q":

Well, this is not actually described in the midrash, but from later episodes we can deduce that David has been issued a number of astounding bits of high-tech (or miraculous) weaponry. These include:
  1. A miniature earth remover.
  2. A secret communications system to signal his accomplice.
  3. A warp-speed mule.
  4. An anti-gravity device.

Element #4: Getting captured by the arch-villain:

David is inadvertently drawn to the headquarters of the Philistine enemy while tailing what he believes to be a simple deer. It is in fact, none other than Satan in disguise.

Element #5: Hero is cruelly imprisoned, rather than killed, by the villain:


Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Free Press
Ishbi binds David and buries him in the earth under a heavy olive-press beam. Painful death is so certain that Ishbi does not make allowances for:

Element #6: Hero's last-minute escape from death, using gadget #1:

Miraculously (literally), David is able to dig himself out of his earthy grave. He makes an appropriately wry comment (predictably, a quotation from the book of Psalms [18:37]): "Thou dost enlarge my steps under me and my feet have not slipped."

Element #7: He calls in reinforcements, with the help of gadget #2:

The sidekick here is David's cousin, Abishai ben Zeruiah. The red-alert is communicated through one of the following two coded signals:

  1. by injecting bloodstains into Abishai's hair-conditioner.

  2. by having a distressed dove appear before Abishai.

The impetuous Abishai immediately speeds to David's rescue, but his pace is slowed by the stuffed-shirts bureaucrats. He wishes to drive on David's super-fast mule (gadget #3 above), but first needs official permission from the rabbis for this extraordinary use of His Majesty's property. Once the permission has been approved, he zips over to Ishbi-benob's lair, to discover encounter...

Element #8: The villain's exotic hit-man:

In this case, it is a hit-woman, Ishbi's mother Orpah, to be exact. He meets her as she is, in apparent innocence, spinning away at the spinning-wheel. Quickly he realizes that her spindles are in reality deadly weapons that she can hurl at her victims with great agility.

Element #9: Villains always miss. Heroes hit their mark on the very first shot:

Her first needle misses him. She asks Abishai to return it, but he takes advantage of her error to throw it at her head, killing her instantly.

Realizing that he is now outnumbered, Ishbi plots certain death for King David. He throws him up in the air (remember that he is Goliath's brother), and plants a sharp spear in the ground to skewer him on his descent.

Element #10: When the situation seems hopeless, the hero is saved in the nick of time by his partner:

Abishai employs Gadget #4, the anti-gravity trick, to suspend David in mid-air.

Element #11: The heroes escape from the villain's stronghold:

With Ishbi hot on their heels, David and Abishai flee (after letting the king alight safely to earth, of course).

Element #12: Each stage of the struggle is accompanied by ironic humour:

In the present tale, the heroes employ puns based on the names of the villages through which they pass on their way out of Philistine country. At Kubé they say to each other "Kum beh"--Stand up to him! At "Be-Trei" they quip "With two [be-trei] whelps they killed the lion."

Finally the two take advantage of the villain's weakness, his love for his belligerent mother. In the midst of the struggle they invite him to join Mom in the grave. In that moment of emotional frailty, David and Abishai are able to overcome and execute him.

That is the story, pretty much as it appears in the Talmud. I believed that my contention is irrefutably demonstrated, that it contains the original prototype for the classic James Bond formula.

Nevertheless, I am sure that there are some among you who are not entirely satisfied. There is still something missing:

Element #13: The gorgeous women:

Folks, remember with whom we are dealing here. This is King David, paramour of Bathsheba; a monarch whose romantic escapades rivaled even those of an American President!

No doubt, such stories succeeded in drawing large audiences into the synagogues, even as their current imitations fill the contemporary cinemas.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

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