Baden-Absalom’s miscalculation

With Joel Baden’s The Historical David as a guide, I continue to reflect on what happened at the beginnings of the Davidic dynasty in Israel.

David’s son Absalom rebelled against him and tried to make himself king  2 Samuel 15-19). There is no question that this is a historical event.

The question is what Absalom’s motive was.

Baden makes a strong case that the story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar never happened. He thinks the narrator modeled it on the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. Nowhere else do we hear that David had a daughter named Tamar. So Baden concludes that she is a fictional character. (The episode was a private event, so there can’t be any evidence for it, one way or another.) The follow-up to the story, though, was public knowledge and historically true. Absalom killed Amnon.

But the reason for this was that Amnon was the son of Ahinoam, the wife David had taken from Saul when he first unsuccessfully tried to stage a coup against him. David approved the elimination of Amnon because of his connection to the house of Saul. With Amnon gone, Absalom became the primary heir to the throne.

But, if Absalom’s ambition drove him to murder his brother, David was naive to think such a man would wait patiently to inherit the throne. The next obstacle for Absalom was David himself.

Even though David had approved Amnon’s murder, he would have had to punish Absalom if he could lay hands on him. So Absalom spent years in Geshur. (At the time, this was an independent kingdom along the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s capital was on the site of the important New Testament village of Bethsaida. During 2016 archeologists located the 10th century gates and are now excavating them.)

David was fine with Absalom being away. It solved a problem for him. The story of the wise woman of Tekoa is fictional. The notion that it was really Joab who wanted Absalom to return is also part of the cover-up of David’s involvement in Amnon’s death. The time Absalom spent away was a price both he and David paid for getting rid of Amnon.

Eventually David welcomed him back to the court, but Absalom was already plotting. He spent four years undermining David’s popularity. Then he went to Hebron and had himself declared king.

It strikes me that, although several of these stories seem to have an agenda, we really do not know what happened historically in much detail. In Egypt we have tombs and funeral inscriptions that give us insight into succession struggles and plots. The Egyptians have even left us pictures. But, for Israel, we mostly have just the biblical text.

The Absalom story makes me think of Aiden Dodson’s reconstuction of what happened in Egypt after Pharaoh Merneptah died. Seti II was likely Merneptah’s son and the designated successor. However, inscriptions and tomb evidence point to a Pharaoh Amenmesis who some scholars put before Seti II and some put after. Dodson thinks Amenmesis was the son of Seti II, who proclaimed himself king in Nubia and Upper Egypt a few months after Merneptah’s death. A few years later he disappears from Egyptian history, although Dodson argues that the next Pharaoh, Siptah, was his son. This is all in Aiden Dodson’s The Poisoned Legacy.

My point here is that a son unwilling to wait for his inheritance, who proclaims himself king and starts a civil war, is not without example in the ancient Near East. If Baden is right and David put out something like a contract on Amnon, that certainly would have raised doubts for Absalom about whether his own position was secure. These doubts were probably wrong. Baden sees David’s grief at Absalom’s eventual death as authentic. David really did want Absalom to succeed him.

David was completely taken by surprise when Absalom rebelled. So Absalom’s plot was more successful than David’s original plot against Saul. David has to flee Jerusalem. Absalom took Jerusalem and marked his territory, so to speak, by bedding women from David’s harem. The details of the Bible’s report on the strategy and battles that follow are unverifiable. Baden’s method is to look for places where the story protests too much. He points out that Joab serves the purpose of deflecting blame from David throughout the narrative.

So here, when the text casts Joab as the one who was responsible for the death of Absalom, this means that David, although the decision pained him, ordered Absalom’s death. He had no choice. And when the story tells us that David got stuck in grief and Joab had to stage an intervention, this means that David got over his grief without too much trouble.

Joab serves as a literary device throughout the story. Baden, however, does not think Joab is a fictional character. So Joab actually did things. Some of them may have fit the purpose of the narrative. Some of them may not have.

Joab is said, to have killed Amasa. This was the relative of both David and Joab, who had led Absalom’s army. The king extended an amnesty to Amasa and used him to help bring Judah back under his sway. But then during the minor rebellion of Sheba, Joab killed him. Baden does not find anything about this story historically convincing except that Amasa died because David could not allow the leader of the rebel troops to live.

David reestablished himself after the revolt, but began a decline that led to Bathsheba becoming the decisive power at the end of this reign.

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Baden-the historical Bathsheba

Over the last few days I have read through the rest of Joel Baden’s The Historical David. I have decided to rearrange the order in which he treats Absalom and Bathsheba. He treats the rebellion of Absalom as the major event in the midst of David’s reign and Bathsheba as the engineer of Solomon’s succession. He treats both as real historical figures.

However, Bathsheba enters the biblical story before the rebellion. Baden finds most of that story historically untrustworthy. It is skewed by the motive of telling the story of Solomon’s birth so as to promote his legitimacy as David’s heir. Yet I want to keep to the chronological order. As I have pointed out before, I have trouble with Baden rejecting the historicity of anything he deems a “literary construction.” What else is there in the Bible? It is all literary construction. But some of it corresponds with actual events. And some of it does not.

Anyway, the story of Bathsheba and David’s treacherous murder of Uriah belongs to the campaign against Ammon.

2 Samuel 8:1 ff. lists a number of wars that it credits David with winning. The impression given is that he conquered the Philistines, the Moabites, the Edomites and the Syrians.. People have used this to make expansive maps of David’s kingdom. The reality was that most of these claims do not have enough specificity to say more than that David won sporadic battles. Edom may have become his vassal, because Solomon still held sway there some years later.

The one area David probably actually conquered and occupied was the Ammonite kingdom. There is a lot of specific detail about that operation in 2 Samuel 12:26 ff. It was against the Ammonites that David sent Uriah to his death.

But the story raises questions. Unlike Baruch Halpern, Baden believes David did have Bathsheba’s husband killed.  He agrees, though, with Halpern that Solomon was not actually David’s child. The story of the first-born child who died is an invention. David took Bathsheba for his wife when she was already pregnant with Uriah’s child, Solomon.

The story of David watching her bathe is told, not to titillate, but to show that she was going through the ritual required in Leviticus after her period. Therefore, she was not pregnant when David took her.

She named her child Solomon, which means something like “the replacement”. The story of the other child was made up to give a reason for this name. Solomon was a replacement for the first child. But actually she named him Solomon because he replaced her husband, whose death David had arranged. Solomon was given a second name, Jedediah. This carries the idea of being beloved, and so connects with David, whose name means “beloved.” This is part of the literary construct that skews the story in favor of Solomon’s right to succeed David.

I am wary of reading this much invention into the story. It seems more natural that a child would be named as a replacement for a lost brother than a lost husband. That, for instance, was the reason for Seth’s name as the replacement for Abel (Genesis 4:25).

Moreover, the story makes Bathsheba into a mere pawn of David. David wants her, so he takes her.  He does away with her husband and moves her into his harem. This is a very popular way of understanding the story today. It is politically correct. Bathsheba is a victim of patriarchy.

However, Bathsheba turns out to be very manipulative in the story of how she managed to get her son made king. Did she change from being a helpless victim in her youth to being a conniving conspirator in her maturity? Or was she always a conniving conspirator?

Baden seems to make her actions at the end of David’s life about revenge. He makes a lot of her being the granddaughter of Ahitophel (you have to put 2 Samuel 23:34 together with 11:3 to get this relationship). Ahitophel backed Absalom in the rebellion against David, then killed himself about the time the rebellion failed.

Baden thinks the suicide might be an invention to cover that David had him killed along with other rebels. Baden conjectures that Bathsheba’s father, Eliam, may also have joined the rebellion. So maybe David killed her husband, grandfather and father. Perhaps her plot to put Solomon, son of Uriah, on the throne was about revenge. She actually hated David.

There is a lot of speculation in this theory.

Perhaps she was looking out for her own best interests all along. Perhaps, to continue my reflections on Leonard Cohen’s songs, her seduction of David was parallel to Delilah’s seduction of Samson. From Hallelujah:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

Of course this way of seeing the story does not absolve David. Cohen may be too pious if he sees David has just weak. And yet I have to prefer Cohen’s David to Baden’s almost exclusively ruthless David.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

The important fact is that Bathsheba was a strong women. Baden sees Solomon as mostly a pawn of the queen mother at first. That seems to me very probable.  I am thinking of Egyptian parallels, where a young king’s mother took on a powerful role in the government.

That brings me to a theory about Bathsheba and the writing down of the narrative of David’s rise and rule.

In the ancient world scribes usually served the palace or the temple. There was no independent Jerusalem newspaper looking for real news as opposed to fake news. Scribes wrote to serve their employers. So my question:  in whose interest was it to blame other people for the deaths of most of David’s enemies, but to leave the responsibility for Uriah’s death directly on David? Could the queen mother have employed scribes to produce a narrative that served her interests more than those of either Solomon or David?


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Religion is all about the base

I am a Christian but I have a bone to pick with the Christianity I often encounter. Shallow Christianity, it seems to me, has never discovered its base in Judaism.  Our base Bible is the Hebrew Bible.  Too many Christians want to skip over that.

Deeply devotional and profound is this meditation on Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker.  Cohen is the accomplished song writer who just died.  The speaker is a British rabbi and philosopher Henry Sacks.  He goes into what seems to me to be at the base of both religions.

One of the things he says is that the first time love occurs in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 22:2 where Abraham hears God say that he must kill his only son, Isaac, “whom you love”.  That puts the biblical idea of love in a fraught and conflicted context from the beginning.

Cohen, in his song, says that the help never came, the love never came.

At this time of year Christians affirm that “love came down”.  We tend to say that the help did come and the love did come in Jesus.  But for all who have the long dark death-strewn plight of the people of God under Stalin and Hitler high in their consciousness, I see how it is easy to say the help/love never came.

And yet Cohen’s song affirms God as a lover and puts himself at God’s disposal.

I dealt with the death of one of my children.  I have dealt with my father getting Alzheimer’s.  I have been through deep worry about my granddaughter’s health and my wife’s health.  Sometimes the love of God seems to come to our aid.  But sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes the only stance you can take is that of Cohen.  You see God as great and yourself as small.  You do not let go completely of hope and trust.

To go deeper into the idea of love, I am very interested in  Jon Levenson’s new book The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.  As a Christian I should read and compare this to another new book that I hear is groundbreaking: John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift.  So I am making a reading list for 2017.

I know I have put up a video of this song before.  But there is now a better version available.


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Baden-David as raider of the misplaced ark

There are all kinds of theories about what the ark of the covenant was. Joel Baden in The Historical David admits we do not know very much. His point about David is that he used the ark to make Jerusalem the religious center as much as the political and administrative center of his kingdom.

Functionally, he says that the ark of the covenant served as the Hebrew equivalent of an idol while having a different theological meaning.

Like an idol in a non-Israelite temple, the ark stood in the innermost sanctum, the place where the deity was understood to dwell. Just as copies of ancient Near Eastern treaties were placed in the temples of the respective parties so that the gods could act as witnesses, the ark–at least in Deuteronomy–was the location of the most fundamental covenant between God and Israel. Just as non-Israelites took their idols out to battle with them to guarantee victory, so too the Israelites took the ark with them. Obviously, it was not really an idol–it was not worshiped as if it were God himself. But its function was the symbolic equivalent (p.165).

The ark had been at the northern sanctuary of Shiloh originally. Shiloh may not have been like the other sanctuaries. It was the site of an annual festival. And Baden thinks it probably was a place people came for oracles, an “Israelite Delphi”. And it was the one that laid claim to the ark. (I have often wondered, though, how accurate that memory is. Since Shiloh held an annual festival, is it possible that the ark was brought there from another location for each festival? Shechem is the more natural location.)

Somehow, in the course of the Philistine wars, it ended up in the keeping of the Gibeonites just east (this is what Baden says, but I think it is west) of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem already had religious significance. It’s name is based on Shalem, the old Semitic god of dusk or the evening star. David needed to start anew and make it a religious center for the God of Israel.

So he obtained the ark and brought it to Jerusalem. The story of how this happened in the Bible is mostly an untrustworthy literary construction. Behind the large military contingent mentioned in 2 Samuel 6:1 is probably hidden the fact that David took the ark by force or a show of force.

Certain details about the move of the ark to Jerusalem sound exaggerated. Did they really stop and make sacrifice an ox and a fatling every time the ark had been carried six paces (that is what Baden says 2 Samuel 6:13 means–not that they sacrificed just after the first six paces)? And did David really provide cakes and meat for the “whole multitude of Israel” (2 Samuel 6:19)? Both of these claims are meant to show David’s immense wealth, but they are unlikely to be literally true.

Also the story of the death of Uzzah who accidentally touched the ark sounds like a folk legend.

However, that the ark came to Jerusalem accompanied by music and dancing is very likely something that happened.

David put the ark in a shrine on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24:18). Since Baden thinks David pretty much did away with the Jebusites, he does not trust the story of David buying the place. If Araunah was the Jebusite leader from whom David took Jerusalem, he fell to “David’s hungry sword”. The story in 2 Samuel is like the story of Abraham buying the cave of Machpelah in Genesis 23. It establishes legal ownership for the site of the shrine.

Another apologetic tendency in 2 Samuel is in the reasons given that David let the ark rest in a shrine and did not build a temple. This apology was only needed at a later time. David, in fact, did not build a temple, because he had no need for one.

What David did accomplish was to make Jerusalem the religious center for his whole kingdom. Baden emphasizes that there may have been an economic reason for this alongside the political and religious reasons. Like the placement of relics in Christian cathedrals in Europe, the placement of the ark in Jerusalem became a “draw” for pilgrims and festival-goers and a source of income for Jerusalem and David’s administration. This was one reason Jeroboam’s break-away northern kingdom had to set up new objects as draws at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:25 ff).

I know that solid evidence for David’s religious sentiments is lacking. Yet, I wonder if playing up the political and economic side doesn’t miss something real. I see good reason to trace Psalm 132 back to the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. It was a part of the liturgy of dedication. Anyway, although the Psalm is not authored by David, it may go back to a time when its author was in a position to know something about David. Here are the sentiments he attributes to David:

…he made a vow to the Lord,

and swore an oath to the powerful ruler of Jacob;

He said, “I will not enter my own home,

or get into my bed.

I will not allow my eyes to sleep,

or my eyelids to slumber,

until I find a place for the Lord,

a fine dwelling place for the powerful ruler of Jacob” (NET Bible).

In verse 8 that Psalm shows an archaic understanding for the ark, calling it God’s resting place and the ark of his might. At the very least, it seems to me, Psalm 132 puts us in touch with a  religious understanding about the ark from the united monarchy.

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Baden-the city of David

Joel Baden in The Historical David, points out a progression in royal grandeur from Saul to David to Solomon. Saul had been willing to rule from under a tree. We do not know about David’s accommodations in Hebron. (The archeological finds relating to that period are interesting. This is from an article by archeologist Jeffery Chadwick:

The beginning of David’s reign is generally dated to about 1000 B.C.E., the transition point from Iron Age I to Iron Age II. At this time Hebron was not only walled and occupied, but judging from finds both inside and outside the wall line, its thriving population seemed to be growing.)

David eventually got the Phoenicians to build him a palace. Maybe King Achish had a palace at Gath and David used that as his example.

David did not build the palace at Hebron but at Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a small fortress city at the time without room for the buildings and staff of a large, centralized government.

Baden sees Judah as a backwater. Ruling all Israel from there would not have been appropriate. However, ruling from somewhere in Saul’s old kingdom apparently did not appeal to David either. Jerusalem had been the capital of a small highland state ruled by a vassal of Egypt in the Amarna period. So it was historically a royal site. It was in a strong defensive position because of the steep terrain around it. And it was centrally located between Judah and Israel. It was home to Jebusites, a people who lived peacefully with Saul’s kingdom and with Israel during most of the period of the Judges.

David wanted it for his capital. So he took it.

I am curious as to what caused Baden to romanticize the Jebusites, whom he imagines had ruled Jerusalem for several centuries. He mourns their demise. He even uses the word “genocide” for what David did to them.

Doesn’t this go beyond the evidence? Jerusalem was known to the Egyptians by that name from the 20th through 14th centuries BCE. In the Amarna Letters it appears that the vassal king there was Hurrian. In Judges, the Bible called the city Jebus. So the Jebusites maybe took the city after the Amarna era. We do not know very much about this. (Is it possible that the Gibionites, who seem to have been Hurrians, were displaced from Jerusalem?)

Also there are theories that David incorporated the Jebusites into his government and even his priesthood. Although the theory that Zadok, the high priest, was a Jebusite is unlikely; David often seems to have brought former enemies into his kingdom. There is an analog for incorporation rather than genocide in David’s relationship with the Gibionites.

Baden uses a later prophetic statement in Zechariah 9:7 that the Philistine city of Ekron will suffer the same fate as the Jebusites. However, I am not sure that requires that David exterminated them. The Message Bible interprets this to mean that Ekron “will go the way of the Jebusites, into the dustbin of history.” Haven’t lots of peoples gone into the dustbin of history without genocide?

An important observation that Baden makes is that David did not use either troops from the formerly pro-Saul tribes or his own new Judean tribe to take Jerusalem. He used his private army and body guards that seemed to be mostly Philistines. So Jerusalem was his “private royal fiefdom–rightly called the “City of David” (p. 157).

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Baden-a new nation founded

I am reading Joel Baden’s The Historical David. I have come to the point where David conquers the old kingdom of Saul in the north. Here is a summary of the events as Baden sees them:

The situation is that the Philistines defeated and killed Saul, after which David took Hebron in the south and created Judah by bringing together the Calebites and several other communities. David ruled as king of Judah from Hebron. In the north Saul’s cousin and general, Abner, attempted to put things back together and make a little-known son of Saul, named Ishbaal, king.

It is hard to know the timing and sequence of events, but David probably moved against the north early. There were some indecisive battles. Abner slept with a woman from the royal harem, which was a sign of an attempt to seize power. So the seeds of rebellion were sown in the north.

David’s general, Joab, finally killed Abner. Then some northerners tried to win favor with David by killing Ishbaal. So David took the old kingdom of Saul. In a near repeat of the anointing of David as king of Judah at Hebron, we read:

So all the elders of Israel came to the king to Hebron; and king David made a league with them in Hebron before the LORD: and they anointed David king over Israel (2 Samuel 5:3 KJV).

For the Philistines, this was a move too far. They now sought to curb David and battles ensued.

David then did as ancient kings usually did and moved to eradicate the house of Saul–but carefully, because he did not want to alienate everyone who had been loyal to Saul.

Baden sees a lot of spin going on in the stories in 2 Samuel. Certainly the story of Abner slaying Joab’s brother (2 Samuel 2:23) is there to give Joab a personal motive for killing Abner. This tends to absolve David. The text (2 Samuel 3:28 ff.) shows David as unhappy with Abner’s death, but he never disciplines Joab. On the other hand he has the assassins of Ishbaal executed. This probably really happened and became the basis for the invented story of David executing the Amalekite who brought him Saul’s crown.

Baden argues that the story of the Gibeonites demanding revenge against Saul’s family (2 Samuel 21) is another invention. He thinks the Gibeonites were never part of Saul’s kingdom. David brought them into his and used them as an excuse for killing more of Saul’s family.

The Gibeonites are indeed a mystery. But is the report that Saul engaged in some sort of pogrom against them unlikely?

So, while recognizing the spin in 2 Samuel, I am a little less prone to think the more legendary material is invented rather than exaggerated or bent.

On the other hand, I am surprised that Baden takes the Bible’s generalization of the Philistines at face value. The Bible treats the Philistines as a monolithic polity. In fact, the Gaza Philistines had no central government. They were five independent city states. David had close ties with Gath. But I do not see the evidence that he was allied with the “Philistines” as such or that he fought against the Philistines as such. The Bible may even have included all Sea Peoples, including those settled around Dor, under the blanket name of Philistines. But David, in battles against the Philistines, may have been allied with some of them and fighting against others. The situation was probably much more complicated than the Samuel books suggest.

Nevertheless, Baden gives us a historical perspective on how important what David accomplished was.

. . .David achieved something entirely new: the consolidation of the kingdoms of Israel in the North and Judah–which he had created out of nothing–in the south. For the first time in history, a single kingdom spanned the length of Israel, from Dan in the north to the Negeb desert in the south. For the first time, Israel was united. This was a moment of truly world-changing import. The idea of the people and land of Israel that we find throughout the Bible and beyond, and that is realized to this day in the modern state of Israel, is authentically due to the person of David (p. 140).

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I judge Fidel Castro

Who is a good person and who is a bad person?

I was thinking about King David, a morally ambiguous historical figure.

I was also thinking about Fidel Castro, a leader who some remember as a great leader in spite of the firing squads and the political prisons on the Isle of Pines.

One way to judge a life is by what evil it prevented or promoted. Some otherwise bad people have prevented terrible things from happening. Some have accomplished things in flawed ways that turned out for the best.  We often do not get to choose between pure right and pure wrong.

God and history will judge the leaders of the old USSR. God and history will hold American leaders like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon accountable for escalating the Vietnam war or ordering the Watergate cover-up.

However, during the stewardship of those leaders on both sides of the Cold War, we avoided nuclear war. For those who didn’t live through that time, perhaps this is a given. But some of us remember nuclear war as a real threat overhanging our lives for decades. Remarkably, it never happened.

Whatever else you can say about the Western and Soviet leaders, they actively worked to avoid a thermonuclear war.

The exception to this was Fidel Castro. In a letter to Castro in 1962 it becomes clear that Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, is horrified that Castro had sent a cable urging a nuclear first strike. You can read Khrushchev’s letter here.

As morally compromised a person as Khrushchev was as a Communist dictator, he appears in this letter as a person with a desire to choose life rather than death. I am grateful to him for that.  I would not say that he was completely a bad person.

Other leaders on both sides from the 1950s through the 1980s worked to find other ways to further their interests. Sometimes those ways were bloody and dirty, but they were not nuclear war.

So of all the leaders on either side, only Castro really wanted to do a kind of global suicide bombing. Some of the other leaders gave their allegiance to awful agendas and violated human rights in many ways. But at least they eschewed the use of nukes.

Fidel Castro did not. So I am comfortable saying without reservation that he was bad. He was the only head of state on either side who sought a nuclear war.

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