Wright-a literary war memorial

I am reading  David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory by Jacob L. Wright.

He goes off on what seems like a tangent talking about war memorials.  He has in mind a particular kind of war memorial.  In Boston there is a memorial to black soldiers who volunteered for the Union during the Civil War.  In the south Jewish women organized to create war memorials for Jewish soldiers who fought for the Confederacy.

He says these memorials serve a political purpose for minority or marginalized people. They seek to show that, because of sacrifice and service, these people have earned a place in the community.

He comes back to the Bible to argue that the Hebrew Bible emphasized war so much because many of the stories were constructed as war memorials in order to show that Israel as a whole or subgroups within Israel had status and privilege due to past service and sacrifice. He claims, for instance, that the Song of Deborah is a constructed literary war memorial.

This approach shows why there is so much war and violence in the Bible.  It also shows how there might be a reason for constructing these stories in the time just before and after the defeat of the nation by Babylon and the exile.

Specifically, as to the story of David, he says this:

Of all the Bible’s diverse figures, the one who is portrayed most graphically, and who enjoyed the most vibrant post-biblical afterlife, is King David.  In a multitude of texts, the life of this ambitious sovereign served as a symbol around which competing literary circles struggled to come to terms with both the boon and bane of centralized monarchic rule.  Yet David is more than an illustrative illustration of the Bible’s political-philosophical discourse.  He is also an iconic figure.  As I will attempt to show in the chapters to follow,  the biblical writers use him as a cynosure to negotiate status and belonging among the people of Israel and within Judahite society, both before and after the destruction of the state in 586 BCE (p. 28).

I got a vocabulary lesson from this.  I saw that “cynosure” came from Greek and had something to do with a dog.  It is not even in many dictionaries.  But it means “dog’s leg” and refers to the position of the north star, Polaris, in its constellation.  So it means guiding star or focusing point.  (I plan to use it in Scrabble if I get a chance.)

He calls the people behind the biblical narrative “competing literary circles”.  There is something to this.  But I worry about taking the social construction of history too far. Of course it is true that we cannot approach history as a biologist or chemist would approach their subject matter.  The empirical verification of events in the past is complicated.  So we do have to, in some sense, construct our picture of the past.

But how much freedom did ancient scribes have to depart from their sources  or to work without sources?  How much of what they wrote about David were they allowed to make up?

Deconstruction seems to work by imagining what the political motives of writers might have been.  But, it seems to me, there is a whole lot of guess work involved in this.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Bible | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Wright-the David story as a parable of power

I am interested in the historical happenings behind events recounted in the Bible.  So what I have read about David has often been speculation about the events of his rise and rule.

I say “speculation” because, apart from the biblical text itself, events in David’s time are thinly attested.  There was a person named David who founded in Judah a “house of David”.  It seems to have been during a time when the Philistines of Gaza were a power in the southern Levant.  There are archeological finds at Hebron and Khirbet Qeiyafa that probably touch on David’s time.  But we have to make some inferences. To do that we unavoidably use the biblical text.  So we do not know much about David from secular history alone.

From the beginning of Jacob L. Wright’s David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, I can see that I am going to find myself often disagreeing.  So I want to emphasize how I my disagreement will be within an approach that accepts both historical criticism of the Bible and the lifting up of the Bible as relevant authority for today.

There are those who reject not only the historical accuracy of the Bible, but its moral and religious authority as well.  Sometimes such scholars are just neutral and try to treat the Bible as they would other ancient literature.  But often nowadays they are hostile to religion in general or to biblical religion in particular.  They see historical problems as a sign of the illegitimacy of the whole biblical world view.

Far on the other side are those who defend the religious and moral authority of the Bible by asserting its historical accuracy.   Usually this view involves a doctrine of biblical inerrancy.    Some people who hold this view are less extreme than others.

J. W. McGarvey, in my own tradition, was at one extreme in that he claimed that even Jesus’ parables had to be historically accurate.  He thought that if Jesus had just made them up, that would undermine biblical authority.  (I always wondered about the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus where part of the action takes place in Hades.  In what sense could that be historically accurate?)

But most inerrancy advocates today moderate their view and accept as creative and artistic parables and other fictional, poetic, and rhetorical features of the biblical text. But they still link historical accuracy of the narratives that look like history with the overall authority of the Bible.

There is another world of thought that accepts the Bible as a source of moral and religious authority but does not think the authors sometimes fudging on history undermines that.  I want to point out at the beginning that both I and Jacob L. Wright fall into this category,  Neither of us think that the precise historical accuracy of the David story is essential to the authority of the Bible.

Wright sees the biblical story of David as  “a parable of power”.  In other words, it is an imaginative literary production written as a profound reflection on certain truths of the human condition.   That is partly the impression I get from reading the story as well. Wright’s sense of the literary power of the story is something missing in some other treatments.

He agrees that the story has a political purpose.  But Wright says that purpose was not to exonerate David from accusations by his opponents during or close to his own lifetime as Joel Baden and Baruch Halpern have claimed.

Rather, the story has implications for the privileges and status of people who, long after David, held power in Judah and considered themselves descendants of David. Furthermore, he brings in the idea that originally Caleb was a rival figure to David among the population of Judah that came under Edomite rule in later times.  Part of the purpose of the David story is to exalt David at the expense of Caleb.

The main reason Wright does not think the story originated in the royal court shortly after David’s reign is that it is too critical of David.  He cannot imagine that a story showing David’s flaws as much as this story does would have been tolerated in the court of the “house of David” in the early monarchy.

This point certainly calls on those of us who favor an earlier date of composition to explain the parts of the story that are David-negative.

So Wright takes a mostly literary approach to the narrative.  He sees the story in Kings as part of the primary history of Israel composed hundreds of years after David.  He sees the story in Kings as not that far distant from the story in Chronicles.  Both he sees as having a similar purpose.  He is opposed to source criticism, or, at least, he prefers a different approach.

I disagree with this, but his approach does have its value.  The story of David is indeed great literature.  I see what he means when he compares the character of David to the great tragic characters in Shakespeare.

So, even knowing that I am likely to disagree with his view of the origin of the story, I will be looking for the insights I can get from Wright as he comes at the David narrative from a point of view quite different from most of those I have read before.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Where are the temples and shrines?

Avraham Faust has a study “The Archaeology of the Israelite Cult: Questioning the Consensus (hat tip to James Pate of James’ Ramblings for calling my attention to this article).

The consensus Faust is questioning is for the widespread distribution of worship buildings in the period of the monarchy:

. . .the view that the Israelites built temples and local shrines in almost every locale, and that beyond the household cult there also existed neighborhood and village shrines, town shrines, regional cultic centers, and central temples in the national capitals.

In other words, scholars have painted a picture of state sponsored worship existing all over the place until attempts by kings Hezekiah and Josiah to curtail this widespread use of “high places” and other outlying shrines.

The problem is that we have not been able to find evidence of buildings dedicated to such worship except at Arad and, possibly, at Dan.  This is in contrast to finds outside of Israel, where pagan worship seemed to flourish even at the local level, as it also did in Bronze Age and early Iron Age Palestine and Israel.

We should have expected to find buildings and rooms dedicated to worship purposes in many places.  But we did not.  Faust recognizes that his questioning of the consensus is based on an argument from absence, but he thinks this is valid if you expected to find something and then did not.  The apparent absence of worship centers throughout Israel and Judah during the monarchy requires an explanation.

But Faust doesn’t offer an explanation.  He just calls upon scholars to rethink this aspect of life during this period.

He wants to consider just the archeological evidence, not the texts.

There must have been a worship building at Bethel  We haven’t found it. Perhaps, in this case, absence actually confirms the text about Josiah having utterly demolished it (2 Kings 23:15).

Psalm 74:4-8 describes, I think, the utter destruction of one or more northern sanctuaries by the Assyrians.

Of course there was the temple at Jerusalem, but we can’t dig at that site.

So we know about these places from the text, but we haven’t found them in the archeological layers.

But it is the absence of other, more local buildings that is surprising.

I do not know the answer to Faust’s question.  I just have one thought, for now.  We have found the remains of city gates, city walls and public buildings.  Texts often mention city gates even in smaller places.  At Khirbet Qeiyafa Garfinkel says that he found three large shrine rooms in the structure.  From the Wikipedia article:

In May 2012 archeologists announced the discovery of three large rooms that were likely used as cultic shrines. While the Canaanites and Philistines practiced their cults in separate temples and shrines, they did not have separate rooms within the buildings dedicated only to religious rituals. This may suggest that the rooms did not belong to these two cultures.

This is a little earlier than the period Faust is talking about.  But is it possible that, rather than separate temples, Israelite palaces, fortresses and other public buildings had shrine rooms?

Note: beginning next week I plan to report on reading Jacob L. Wright’s David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory

Posted in Ancient Israel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The stabbing of Eglon and the fall of Jericho

I want to comment on the odd geography of the story of the assassination of Eglon and the revolt of the Benjaminites in Judges 3:12-30.

The obese Moabite sheikh, Eglon, has seized Jericho and made some Benjaminites his vassals. There follows a well-told, humorous story of how Ehud brought tribute to him and killed him leaving a locked room murder mystery for his lax secret service to figure out.

But the geography of the story is kind of confusing. Most assume that the hill country of Ephraim (v. 27) puts Benjamin in or near the Benjaminite territory north of Jerusalem. But Eglon supposedly is at Jericho (the city of palms), which is just west of the Jordan.  Ehud would have to cross from the east to come to him. Also, when Ehud flees back to the Benjaminites, he goes to Seirah, which means “toward Seir”.

So on the basis of the story itself, if we did not know that the Benjaminites of Saul’s time and later had a territory in the hills north of Jerusalem, we would assume the Benjaminites were in the Transjordan southeast of Jericho in the direction of Edom and Seir.

It seems to me that the oldest version of the story runs from verse 15 to verse 26. So the mention of the hill country of Ephraim in 27 is editorial.

Did the story originally tell of sons of the South (the meaning of Benjamin) seizing the fords, crossing the Jordan and attacking Jericho?

If so, could this be the kernel of the story behind Joshua 6. In Joshua the story has been subject to elaboration from a priestly point of view. In other words, the story in Joshua is now more the story of a religious ceremony with priests in procession and trumpeters accompanying an act of worship than it is the story of a battle.  Jericho, according to archeology, was not walled or much populated in the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age. But a nomadic chieftain could have operated from there for a while.

By the way, though Jericho was often an important military site controlling the fords over the Jordan and the route to Jerusalem and the coast, its actual location varied. New Testament Jericho, for instance, was not exactly in the same place as Bronze Age Jericho  So we only know approximately the place Eglon would have been.

People who want to make the authority of the Bible depend upon its exact historical accuracy have been at pains to find archeological evidence for the battle of Jericho. This usually takes the form of arguing that the Exodus and Conquest correspond to a Middle Bronze Age destruction. A walled city did exist at Jericho in the Middle Bronze Age. And it was destroyed. Historians usually attribute that destruction to either the Egyptian of the Mittani empire in connection with the wars against the Hyksos around -1550.

Bryant Wood is a solid evangelical scholar who has tried to make the case that this destruction actually took place around -1400 and fits with an Exodus and Conquest about that time. So the apiru allies of the Hittite and Amurru kingdoms that were harassing and fighting against Egypt according to the Amarna letters would have been Joshua’s Israelites. He has a long way to go to convince some of us.

So I go back to the funny geography of Judges 3. Could this have been based on the reality that the burst of villages and farmsteads in the 12th century in the hills west of the Jordan began with paleo Israelites from across the Jordan gaining control of the fords in the vicinity of Jericho?

As another aside, the “carved stones at Gilgal” (vs. 19 and 26) tell us something. Israel had several places with rock circles, all called Gilgal. The rock circles or ellipses are what give these places their name. The Israelite sites seem to have had unengraved stones. But the one in Judges 3 has carved or engraved stones, and so would have violated the (later?) restriction on graven images.

Posted in Ancient Israel | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment


I am not ready to start a longer term reading project.  So I am reading some online articles.  I am struck by the quality of some of what is available online.

Today I am linking to this one. It is “The Veto on Images and the aniconic God in Ancient Israel” By Trygve Mettinger.

Mettinger has done a lot of work on the concept of aniconism, the avoidance of images to represent God. Aniconism, he shows, was a feature of several religious cultures and not just Israel. Mettinger studied in detail the use of standing stones as non-graven images to represent, but not envision, the presence of deity. This is what he calls material aniconism.

He has also developed the concept of empty space aniconism. This means there is a space for the deity like the space above the cherubim in the Jerusalem Temple. He found several examples of this even in pagan religious cultures. These concepts are fleshed out in his book No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context.

The present article asks when the command to avoid graven images arose in Israel. Taken at face value, the Bible makes this command a part of the law given by Moses. But there are reasons to think that the Deuteronomist read the prohibition back into earlier times.

In the time of the Judges there seemed to be no problem for Gideon to have an ephod (8:27). And Micah’s silver image was dedicated to YHWH (17:3). The Deuteromomist has edited in negative comments on these uses of images that the contemporaries did not see.

Mettinger argues that the empty space aniconism in Israel arose in connection with the ark of the covenant as something like the footstool or resting place of God. He cites Moses.

And when the ark traveled, Moses would say, “Rise up, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate you flee before you! And when it came to rest he would say, “Return, O Lord, to the many thousands of Israel!” (Num. 10:35-36 NET Bible)

He apparently sees this text as representing an old understanding. This empty space aniconism applied to the shrine at Shiloh as well. David brought it to Jerusalem and used it to promote the unifying Jerusalem religious culture.

When the kingdom split, Jeroboam had the practical problem of offering the northern Israelites an alternative to the Jerusalem religious culture. His bull at Bethel probably was also an example empty space aniconism. The bull was related to the idea of YHWH as the rider of a powerful animal. It was not supposed to be a deity. This is confirmed by Jehu’s coup, when Jehu targeted Baal worship, but left the Bethel cult alone (2 Kings 10:25).

Mettinger puts Hosea at the beginning of the attack on the Bethel symbols. Thereafter the polemic against the bull shrine at Bethel became a way of promoting the Jerusalem temple. In the light of Josiah’s reform and the centralizing of all worship at Jerusalem, the Bethel shrine gets condemned. This involved some rewriting of history, though. Originally the Bethel shrine also avoided images of God and merely provided an empty space above the bull for the deity.

The commandment against graven images then would have arisen sometime after Jehu and Elijah’s sons of the prophets and Hosea. If we know this for sure, it would give us more of a clue about the time of the composition of the Pentateuch sources. There was a theological development concerning the meaning of aniconism. I was particularly struck by his brief commentary on Deuteronomy 4.

Deuteronomy 4:12 says,

“Then the Lord spoke to you from the middle of the fire; you heard speech but you could not see anything – only a voice was heard (NET Bible).”

God’s word as the means by which he revealed himself at Horeb precludes images.

Then in vs. 15-19 the people are commanded not to make images of anything in all creation and the language (male and female, things that creep upon the earth) very much recalls the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1. I had not seen that before. But yes, D seems to draw upon P here!

The taboo against graven images affirms the transcendence of God over the things he has created.

Mettinger sums up stating his

insight that the prohibition of images was probably formulated quite late, but that the official cult was early aniconic: over the cherub throne and the ark, the God of Israel was enthroned in unseen majesty. The place usually occupied by the image is empty. There is thus in Israelite religion a vacuum, a vacuum which tends to be filled. The roles played by the word of God, the name of God, and man as the of God in the O.T. should be studied in this larger perspective as functions in a structure of which the notion of the aniconic god is the very centre.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Bible | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Khirbet ed-Dawwara–Israelite, Philistine or Judean?

The theory of Yosef Garfinkel that his excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa (KQ) points to state formation in Judah under David may also revise other theories about state formation in early Israel.

Previously the site called Khirbet ed-Dawwara (KD) played an important role in theories of state formation.  This site is located on a ridge overlooking the Jordan Valley and on the edge of the desert in the territory of Benjamin, NE of Jerusalem. The site is odd because it seems to come from the early Iron Age, but does not match the usual agricultural sites–hill country villages and farmsteads.  It is enclosed by a wall and  does not have silos or sickle blades that would point to an agricultural settlement.

Israel Finkelstein excavated the site in the 1980s and has fitted it into his theory that the first Israelite state formed in Benjamin.  So this would have been a fortress of King Saul.

Avraham Faust has also discussed the site in Israel’s Ethnogenesis (pp. 129-130).  He narrows the dates down to a time of disruption in the rural villages.  He sees state formation in early Israel, exemplified by fortress building, as a response to the Philistine threat.

The most intriguing theory is offered by Nadav Na’aman who thinks KD was a Philistine outpost and relates it to the Battle of Michmash (1 Samuel 13:16 ff.). Finkelstein had rejected the idea that it was a Philistine site.  Casement walls are not found in Philistine Gaza.  There is no evidence of pigs or dogs in the diet at KD. Philistine pottery also does not appear.

However, Na’aman says that the site may not have been occupied by Philistines but by another people working for the Philistines.  Particularly, he suggests that apiru mercenaries under Philistine command built and occupied the site.

Many have noticed the peculiar use of the word “Hebrew” in 1 Samuel 13-14 (13:3,7 and 14:11).  In these verses “Hebrews” means something different from Israelites. Na’aman suggests that the mercenaries stationed at KD switched sides (14:11) when they saw the Philistines were losing.

This is in his article “Khirbet ed-Dawwara – A Philistine Stronghold on the Benjamin Desert Fringe”. See here.

However, Na’aman is having his cake and eating it too.  On the one hand, he repeatedly reminds us that the text of 1 Samuel is late and unreliable.  On the other hand, he uses chosen nuances in that text to support his theory.  The best thing supporting his case is the geographical proximity of KD to Michmash.

But now, with the finds at KQ, there is another possible way to understand KD.

“The excavations at Khirbet ed-Dawwara made it possible to clearly date the fortified settlement at the site, which covered an area of 0.5 ha. The 3 excavation seasons at the site uncovered a single phase of settlement with “four-room houses” and fortified by a double wall (Finkelstein 1990); however, the excavators misdated the site and suggested that it existed for several hundred years. But now, the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, and the appearance of similar pottery vessels at both sites, reveal that the 2 sites plainly existed in tandem. Significantly, both were built on bedrock, and not over the ruins of a Canaanite city. Both mark the beginning of a new period in the history of the Land of Israel: the appearance of the Kingdom of Judah. The location of the 2 sites seems significant: Khirbet ed-Dawwara is about half a day’s walk from Jerusalem to the northeast, and Khirbet Qeiyafa is about a day’s walk to the southwest. These 2 sites might mark the boundaries of the Kingdom of Judah: Khirbet Qeiyafa in the west and Khirbet ed-Dawwara to the northeast.” (STATE FORMATION IN JUDAH: BIBLICAL TRADITION, MODERN HISTORICAL THEORIES, AND RADIOMETRIC DATES AT KHIRBET QEIYAFA

Yosef Garfinkel • Katharina Streit • Saar Ganor • Michael G Hasel p138).  Online here.

Posted in Ancient Israel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guillaume-narrative and calendar

I had been traveling for a couple of weeks. So when I was back in my home church Sunday, I had to reorient myself. I had been gone on Pentecost Sunday, and did not think about it being Trinity Sunday until I realized that the colors, scripture readings and prayers all took in the theme of the Trinity.

When I was active clergy I would have been much more aware of the church calendar. In fact, I was sometimes the “calendar police” enforcing the proper colors on the chancel and otherwise ensuring that the calendar was kept.

This is to say that the religious calendar is often more a concern of clergy than of others.

So when we try to understand the large parts of the Pentateuch or the Hebrew Bible as a whole that have a “priestly” background (P), we should expect the calendar to be something those people cared about. We know that it became a huge issue in the centuries before Christ. We see this in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Enoch literature and the Book of Jubilees.

There is a Swiss scholar who has departed from the usual literary analysis and attempted to understand the P by recognizing that it had particular calendar concerns.

Phillippe Guillaume argues that the priestly narrative, beginning with the story of the seven days of creation, is largely about supporting a Sabbatical calendar instituted by priests returning from the Babylonian exile and trying to displace the Babylonian lunar calendar. For his article, TRACING THE ORIGIN OF THE SABBATICAL CALENDAR IN THE PRIESTLY NARRATIVE (GENESIS 1 TO JOSHUA 5) see here.

When the Babylonians had conquered the land, they had replaced Jerusalem as the capital with Mizpah (see Jeremiah 40:6 ff.). But the priests who came home from Babylon opposed the administration at Mizpah and sought to reestablish Jerusalem. Part of their program was to undermine the Babylonian administrative calendar used at Mizpah with a new religious calendar suited to festivals and pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

According to Guillaume, the P narrative follows a seven-day structure that includes other complex calendar related structure.

1 Creation Gen 1:1-2:4 –seven days, basis for the Semitic week.

2 Violence Gen. 5:1-6:10–seems to use the number 6, symbolic of incompletness and destruction

3 Re-creation Gen. 6:11-8:19–more septets, for instance, it took 7 months from the “resting” of the ark on Mount Ararat to the opening of the ark.

4 Exiles Gen 9:1-11:3 –I did not understand Guillaume’s discussion of the pre-patriarchal era and the counting of those years. Perhaps he is suggesting that this material comes from a pre-exilic source that was not so concerned about the Sabbatical calendar. Into this the post-exilic priests seem to have introduced their system of intercalating one year every 7 sabbatical years.

5 Exodus Gen. 12:1-Ex 40:35 — Guillaume sees this period as a movement from Haran, where there was a sanctuary to the moon god, to the wilderness where there was a tabernacle filled by YHWH. This corresponded to the move away from a lunar calendar.

6 Wandering Ex. 12:40-Josh 4:19 –This period from the rejection of the 12 spies to the camp at Gilgal was one of purification. It was 40 years minus 3 days, which corresponded to the priestly system of intercalating a week every fifth sabbatical year.

7 Shabbat Josh. 18:1 — The tabernacle established at Shiloh and the land subdued is interpreted as a concluding Sabbath rest.


This is just an outline of his interesting proposal. For some scholars P means a source document existing before the final editing of the Pentateuch. Others see it as added for the purpose of making that edition.

Note that Guillaime’s extension of P into Joshua is a minority view.

I am sure that P material existed during the time before the exile. The Silver Scroll with its Aaronic blessing is proof of that. I also think that Hosea 12 draws on P’s Jacob narrative, although Hosea takes a much more negative view of Jacob. Jeremiah also seems to know P material, particularly the opening of the creation story (Jer. 4:23). Moreover, Jeremiah knew about scribal activity of the priests and did not always approve (Jer. 8:8).

This does not mean that there was not a reediting of the material at the beginning of the Persian period. In fact, Ezra’s work shows that there certainly was. P was both an old narrative strand and a new redactional reinterpretation.

Guillaime’s proposal is speculative, as he acknowledges. But it has value for understanding that the times and numbers given in the Pentateuch are symbolic. The scribes did not care about historical and chronological precision, but they did care about the religious calendar.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Bible | Tagged , , | 1 Comment