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Journal of the Bible and its Reception

Managing Editor: Kraemer, David / Marsengill, Katherine

Ed. by Black, Fiona C. / Oekland, Jorunn / MacDonald, Nathan / Ocker, Christopher

Together with Strawbridge, Jennifer R.

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A Father’s Lament Doubly Received: Robert Alter, Nigel Butterley, and David’s Lament for Absalom

Anthony Rees
  • Corresponding author
  • Lecturer in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, North Parramatta, New South Wales 2151, Australia
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Published Online: 2018-09-05 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2016-0030


David’s lament in 2 Sam 18:33, on hearing of Absalom’s death, has been an extremely popular text for composers to set to music. The traditional English language settings utilise a text that begins ‘When David Heard’, though these words are absent from the 1611 King James Bible, and the 1560 Geneva bible, and no other extant text supports this rendering. However, a cluster of some thirteen settings of the text in the seventeenth century which appropriated this translation established somewhat of a ‘tradition.’ Settings through to the twenty-first century have continued to utilise this text, with one prominent composer assuming that the textual tradition came from the King James Bible. However, Australian composer Nigel Butterley has produced a setting which makes use of Robert Alter’s translation of the David story. Rather than focus on the single verse, Butterley redacts four chapters of Alter’s translation into a comprehensible narrative, punctuated by the refrain ‘Beni Avshalom. Beni, veni Avshalom’ which appears three times, and the full lament which occurs on the last two occasions. This paper examines Butterley’s appropriation of Alter’s translation, and the musical vocabulary which is employed in conveying this deeply moving text. Interested as it is in issues of interpretation, it reveals Butterley as a both sensitive and powerful reader of scripture.

Keywords: Old Testament; David; Absalom; Nigel Butterley; Biblical Reception

Works Cited

  • Alter, Robert. 2004. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar

  • Alter, Robert. 2007. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar

  • Alter, Robert. 2011. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar

  • Alter, Robert. 2013. Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar

  • Alter, Robert. 2015. Strong as Death is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel: A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar

  • Arnold, Bill T., and John H. Choi. 2003. A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Butterley, Nigel. 2007. “Beni Avshalom.” Sydney: Australian Music Centre.Google Scholar

  • Di Grazia, Donna M. 2009. “Funerall Teares or Dolefull Songes? Reconsidering Historical Connections and Musical Resemblances in Early English ‘Absalom’ Settings.” Music & Letters 90 (4): 555–598.Web of ScienceCrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Gyger, Elliott. 2008. “Nigel Butterley and the Problem that Wasn’t.” Resonate Magazine, February 28.Google Scholar

  • Gyger, Elliott. 2015. The Music of Nigel Butterley. Sydney: Wildbird.Google Scholar

  • Jacobs, Alan. 2010. “Robert Alter’s Fidelity.” In Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, edited by Alan Jacobs, 12–22. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.Google Scholar

  • Long, Siobhán, and John F. A. Sawyer. 2015. The Bible in Music: A Dictionary of Songs, Works, and More. London: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar

  • Shea, Natalie. 2007. “When David Heard…” Program notes for a concert by the Sydney Chamber Choir, June 30.Google Scholar

  • Updike, John. 2004. “The Great I Am: Robert Alter’s New Translation of the Pentateuch.” The New Yorker, November 1.Google Scholar

About the article

Published Online: 2018-09-05

Published in Print: 2018-09-25

Citation Information: Journal of the Bible and its Reception, Volume 5, Issue 1, Pages 49–60, ISSN (Online) 2329-4434, ISSN (Print) 2329-440X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2016-0030.

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