Steven Millhauser’s Encounter with the Book of Samuel in The New Yorker

Steven Millhauser’s Encounter with the Book of Samuel in The New Yorker

The December 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker features a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, “A Voice in the Night.”

The story revolves around a close reading of 1 Samuel, Chapter 3, which recounts how Samuel’s first experience of the Divine voice launches him on his prophetic career, as he is serving in the Sanctuary at Shiloh. In this dramatic nocturnal revelation, the child Samuel learns of the dreadful punishment awaiting the House of Eli the priest, his mentor.

Millhauser’s narrator weaves the deep impact that this biblical story has had on the nights of his own childhood with a recounting of a sleepless night afflicting him in the present, in his advancing age. Along the way, we learn of his coming of age as a conflicted secular Jew who appears to have a yearning for a Jewish past about which he knows but little. Also present in the story is another voice:

His father has explained it to him: the Bible is stories. Like “Tootle” or “the Story of Dr. Doolittle.”

The narrator does not appear to buy this argument, and perhaps his father, an atheist, an English professor and his role model, does not entirely mean it. The search for the voice (and Samuel’s experience of it, as metaphor) becomes the narrator’s lifelong preoccupation, perhaps representing for him his own quest for identity, for remnants of the legacy that preceded the secularization of his father’s generation, and for the sources of inspiration for both prophet and writer.

Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night. When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.

The story resonated for me not only through its exploration of the tensions between tradition and modernity, but also because I feel a personal connection with the Book of Samuel. This literary masterpiece, the central preoccupation of which is actually the life and career of King David, lent the name of its title character to my father, Dr. Shmuel Nahshon, whose 30th yahrzeit will be marked in a few weeks. After spending his early years in an essentially medieval Jewish environment in Iran, he was suddenly thrust into modernity when his family made aliya in the 1920s, and he later went on to earn his Ph.D. at Columbia University. The harmonies and dissonances of the different voices that informed his spiritual and intellectual inner life are among the key legacies that he left me. I miss him in more ways than my own inadequate voice can express.

Read Millhauser’s story here.

Nadav Nahshon is an information technology professional and enjoys studying the Hebrew Bible. He recommends Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, “The David Story,” for those interested in exploring the Book of Samuel.

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