Yehuda Amichai[1] is one of Israel's leading contemporary Hebrew poets (b. Germany, 1924). In "David Hatsa'ir" ("Young David"), written in the 1950s,[2] he exhibits sensitivity to the suffering of the Arab enemy in the early years of the State's existence. He challenges the adequacy of the David and Goliath myth as a basis for understanding the experience of fighting as a soldier in the Arab-Israeli wars.

Young David

After the first cheers
David returned to all the youths
and already the armored revelers
were so grown up.

With slaps on the shoulder, with a hoarse laugh.
And someone curse and others
spit. But David was lonely
and felt for the first time there were no more Davids.

And suddenly he did not know where to put
Goliath's head that somehow he forgot
and still held by its locks.

Heavy and superfluous it now was
and the birds of blood that wandered far
again heard not, like him, the people shouting.

One of the most important ways in which Amichai questions the significance of the original Biblical story is by eliminating almost all of the story of David and Goliath recounted in I Samuel 17. The Philistine threat, Goliath's taunting of the Israelites, the Israelites' fear, the humble bravery of young David based on his unswerving faith in God are simply not mentioned in the poem. Instead the poem focuses on the period immediately following David's victory. Such a shift of focus challenges the Israeli tendency to celebrate each Israeli victory over its Arab foes as analogous to the divinely inspired victory of young David over Goliath.

This challenge to the mood of national celebration is expressed as David returns to his fellow youthful soldiers, whose noisy revelry is nothing more that the haughtily attempts of insecure adolescents to play at being adult by imitating the actions and speech that to them are so adultlike: slapping the hero on the shoulder, laughing hoarsely, cursing, and spitting. The speaker's negative evaluation of these young soldiers vicariously celebrating with the only true warrior among them, comes through clearly when the speaker sarcastically describes them as "already . . . / . . . so grown up."

Detail from Dore,
"And David took the head of the Philistine"
(1 Samuel 17:54)
View enlargement

David cannot celebrate with his fellow soldiers. They relate to him as if he were a soccer hero who saved the game by scoring a goal. Unlike them, however, David has actually shed the blood of the enemy, and he therefore knows this is not a game. The biblical David triumphantly brought the head that he had severed from Goliath's body to King Saul as concrete proof of the victory he had accomplished. The David of the poem, however, does not know what to do with Goliath's head, which he sees as "superfluous." Indeed, as the speaker notes, David realizes that in modern times there are no more David-like heroes, because the celebration of victory in the unselfconscious manner of David in biblical times is no longer possible.

In the biblical story Goliath had taunted David by declaring that if David came near him, he would soon become flesh eaten by the birds of heaven and the beasts of the field. The birds (of hashamayim) of Goliath's taunt return in this poem as the "birds of blood" (tsiporei damim) who come to prey on the dead body of Goliath. As in the natural order of things, they eat their prey and then wander off oblivious, like David, to "the near absurdity" of the cheering people's cry.

As Glenda Abramson notes, the position of the kamohu ("like him") in the final line ("again heard not, like him, the people shouting") creates an effect of ambiguity: Did the birds not hear the cries, but David did, or did neither? It is most likely that neither David nor the birds hear the shouting. Only he who actually sheds the blood, and the birds who feed off the dead victims of war, are fully in touch with the reality of violence that war brings. Because this process of war as a spectator sport — in contrast with the reality of war — reoccurs over and over again (shuv), those who are fully conscious of the violence inherent in war must therefore be oblivious to the shouts of those who celebrate it from afar.


[1]Yehuda Amichai was born in Germany in 1924 and emigrated with his family to Israel in 1936. He has published eleven volumes of poetry in Hebrew, two novels, and a book of short stories. His work has been translated into thirty-three languages.

His collections of poetry available in English include The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai: Newly Revised and Expanded Edition (University of California, 1996);Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994; Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers (1989); Poems of Jerusalem 1988); Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers (1983); Love Poems (1981); Time (1979); Amen (1977); Songs of Jerusalem and Myself (1973); and Poems (1969). He lives in Jerusalem. [back]

For more about Amichai, see:

[2] From Shirim 1948-1962 (1962; Schocken, 1977) [back]

From: Does David Still Play Before You? Israeli Poetry and the Bible, David C. Jacobson. © Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Reprinted by permission of WSUP.

KING DAVID Table of Contents



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