Bibliothèque National, Paris

“How the mighty have fallen!” David laments on learning of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19). In this miniature illumination painted in about 1475 by Jean Fouquet for a French manuscript, the Amalekite who dealt Saul his deathblow presents David with the former king’s crown and armlet.

David’s lament is one of the most famous—and most beautiful—passages in the Bible. But its cadences may be familiar to classicists as well as biblical scholars: Echoes of it appear in the Iliad. Christensen believes that the source for David’s song, the Book of Jashar, may have served the same purpose as other historical poems written in the eastern Mediterranean at about the same time: Those epics chronicled a people’s achievements on the road to nationhood in a form easily transmitted among the general population.