Were Saul and David just good friends? Don't ask

Robert Fisk on the scholar whose work turns established interpretations of the Old Testament on their head
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Professor Kamal Salibi has done it again. Eleven years after he enraged the Israelis and Saudis by claiming that the events of the Old Testament took place in the west of Saudi Arabia rather than ancient Palestine, he has just completed a new book of biblical translation and "reconstruction" which suggests that Saul and David were homosexual lovers.

And, just for good measure, he adds three more chapters of linguistic research which, he believes, provide further proof that ancient Jericho, Mount Nebo, Shiloh, Dan and Jerusalem stood in the land that today contains Islam's two holiest shrines.

Biblical scholars will be variously astonished, amused or enraged by Professor Salibi's new book. When The Bible Came from Arabia was published in 1985, the Jewish Chronicle memorably lampooned him as "Professor Silly- billy", while the Saudis - fearful that the contents might be true and the Israelis might up stakes and move south - embarked on an orgy of destruction by sending bulldozers to eradicate the remains of ancient villages in the Hijaz. But in his new work, Of Dan and Beersheba, the professor even says that the biblical Nob, the "city of the priests", was in a suburb of present-day Mecca, where millions of Muslim pilgrims gather each year to walk around the holy Kaaba stone.

Outrageous? Heretical? Sacrilegious? What kind of man would dare try to upset the whole apple-cart of Old Testament Hebrew translation and biblical geography? Visitors to Professor Salibi's history department at the American Univer- sity of Beirut will find nothing more ferocious than a kindly 68-year-old scholar of ancient Hebrew, a Lebanese Protestant whose social histories of his own country are regarded as little short of brilliant by his academic colleagues, but who seems permanently astonished by the fury that has greeted his biblical work.

"I expect that people who don't take the work seriously will try to discredit it with sarcasm," he says. "My intention was biblical study, in particular an interest in biblical Hebrew and biblical literature, an understanding of what these messages from a very remote past have to say to us. I do not consider that the study of texts that are more than 2,000 years old - considerably more in some cases - should have any implications on modern politics. This was not written to challenge any political system."

Professor Salibi regards the references to David's possible homosexuality as biblical accusation rather than proof, peppering his text with dense textual references and translations that combine Hebrew and Arabic mean- ings: "The Hebrew muwqa'iym is the masculine plural of muwqa, the passive participle of howqiy which is the causative hiph'iyl form of yaqa ... From the Arabic word waqa'a, two causative derivatives yield the sense of 'have intercourse with'." All of which is heavy going for Bible-lovers expecting a scandalous read.

"From my work, it appeared to me that when Samuel quarrelled with Saul, he was accusing him of something much more than idolatry," Salibi says. "He was accusing him of pagan practices involving sexual deviance and disobedience to the divine commandments on this score. It has always been supposed that relations between David and Saul's son Jonathan were homosexual. This has often been asserted, even in popular writing. But I can't recall that anyone detected such an accusation with regard to Saul coming from Samuel."

Lest he may be thought a crank, it is essential to note that the Salibi dedcations?? on biblical locations - which he intends to publish privately after the uproar that greeted his Saudi tome - are accompanied by a mass of scholastic inquiry and a breathtaking coincidence of dozens of Hebrew place names in the Bible with ancient and sometimes extant Arab villages and hills in eastern Saudi Arabia. Mount Nebo is thus identified as the Saudi al-Nabah mountain promontory near Taif, Shiloh as the now ruined village of al-Sulah, Nob as al-Nawbah in Mecca, Ramah (in the Book of Samuel) and Gilgal as Dha al-Ramah and Juljul in the Lith region of western Arabia, and the mountain of Ephraim with an ancient Arabian tribe called al-Afram which lived in the Taif mountains. While acknowledging that a sacred city called Jerusalem existed in Palestine since Hellenistic times, Salibi suggests that ancient Hebrew and Arabic (which is also a Semitic language) indicate the capital's original location was in the Great West Arabian Escarpment.

The Salibi method of biblical reinterpretation (which often combines different pieces of the two Books of Samuel) involves what he calls a reconstruction or "ironing out" of sometimes jumbled Bible stories caused by the early fusing of texts by unknown writers. His process, he says, would elicit no reaction "if my work had been on a text less hallowed than the Bible". Nor does the professor, who is also director of the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies in Amman, expect the entire population of Israel to flock across the Gulf of Aqaba into Saudi Arabia as a result of his research. "I doubt that this will happen," he says with great seriousness. "The international circumstances that led to the establishment of the Israeli state in Palestine are not repeatable."

So what could one conclude from his latest book, I asked the professor? Was David gay? "Oh please, please don't use that headline in your newspaper," he pleaded. "It was an accusation by Samuel. Don't let me read 'Was David gay?'." Sub-editors beware!

A question of translation

The Word according to the New King James Bible, I Samuel xvi, 21:"So David came to Saul and stood before him. And he loved him greatly, and he became his armourbearer."

The Word according to Salibi: "When David came to Saul and stood before him, Saul loved him greatly and took him that same day."

King James Bible, I Samuel xviii, 12: "Now Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him, but had departed from Saul."

The Word according to Salibi: "Saul stood in fear of David, for he had been in love with him."

The Word according to the New King James Bible, I Samuel xv, 23: (Samuel to Saul) "For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry."

The Word according to Salibi: (Samuel to Saul) "Surely, contentiousness and iniquity are an error of foresight, and thrusts from the behind are an offence."