Was King Saul a wife-beater?

I know the title sounds like a tabloid headline.  But, I have my reasons for asking.

There is a difference between hearing the exact words of a biblical character and hearing the voice of that character. As we have just seen in the series of posts about Stephen Cook, Deuteronomy revives the voice of Moses at a much later date. Something like that seems to be going on in the Gospel of John with its Jesus-discourses as well.

But for the purpose of getting closer to actual history the speeches in the Bible, which may not convey the exact words of a character, sometimes help us see what likely actually happened.

I have already talked about Samuel and his cutting down the Amalekite king, Agag. The narrative makes it about Saul failing to carry out the ban and kill all the Amalekites and all their cows.  As Cook showed, the ban is sometimes symbolic for the editors of the historical books. Killing all the Amalekites (and their cows) has become a call for a much later generation not to tolerate non-Yahwist religion.

So what really happened? If Samuel killed Agag in real history, the voice of Samuel that we hear in 1 Samuel 15:33 points to retribution as the actual motive. The verse may not be Samuel’s exact words, but, since it provides a more plausible motive for the execution than the narrative it is embedded in, it has a better claim to reflect history.

I would apply this also to the voice of King Saul that we hear in 1 Samuel 20:30 where he calls Jonathan’s mother a “perverse, rebellious woman.” It is precisely because this is out of left field, so to speak, that I suspect there is something really historical about this–perhaps the authentic voice of Saul.

Ahinoam was Saul’s wife (1 Samuel 14:50), probably the mother of both Jonathan and Michal.

An Ahinoam was an early wife of David.  She was a Jezreelite (1 Samuel 25:43).  She was the mother of Amnon, David’s first son (2 Samuel 3:2).  She along with sister wife, Abigail, was abducted by the Amalekites (1 Samuel 30:5).

Ahinoam is not the name of anyone else in the Bible.

Jon Levenson has argued that the two Ahinoams are the same  (Jon D. Levenson, “1 Samuel 25 as Literature and History,” CBQ 40 [1978] 27).  He pointed to 2 Samuel 12:8 where the prophet Nathan, speaking to David for God, says:

 I gave you your master’s house, and put your master’s wives into your arms (NET Bible).

Objections to this might be that if Ahinoam was Jonathan’s mom, she would be too old for David and that, since David married Michal, he would have been married to both mother and daughter.  But this was probably not too kinky for the time and culture, for example, some of the Egyptian royal marriages.

Consider that one of the purposes of royal marriage was to cement political alliances. David’s Ahinoam was from Jezreel.  Jezreel was a political entity loyal to Saul (2 Samuel 2:9).  Israel Finkelstein (The Forgotten Kingdom) has argued that Jezreel was the key to power in the northern Levant both for Labayu in the Amarna period and a few centuries later for Saul.  So (and we can only conjecture) was Saul’s marriage to Ahinoam part of the way Jezreel joined Saul’s kingdom?  It is striking that David from Judah would marry someone from Jezreel.  Her defection to David would have been a blow to Saul.

Another weird thing about royal sex and marriage was that rebel leaders sometimes slept with the king’s women as an act of rebellion or empowerment.  Look at 2 Samuel 3:7 and, especially 2 Samuel 16:22:

So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and Absalom had sex with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel (NET Bible).

If I was making an HBO film about this, I would have Absalom do them all in a single orgy, rather than separately.  Maybe he did.  (I recently streamed HBO’s Rome).

My point here is that Saul’s rant to Jonathan may be the actual voice of a man stung by a wife’s betrayal.

There seem to be both manic and depressive episodes in Saul’s life.  As a historian I would not try to diagnose Saul over 3,000 years of time.  But if I was a historical novelist, I would write Saul as prone to domestic abuse.  I would write David as someone who saved the mother of his friend from a dangerous man by putting her under the protection his house through marriage.

The most likely thing historically, however, is that there was a power play involved and little romance or chivalry (against this, romantics might point to David’s heroic rescue of Abigail and Ahinoam in 1 Samuel 30:18).  It is possible that Ahinoam really was a “perverse, rebellious woman”.  Alternatively, Saul’s slut shaming may reflect the dark side of his own personality.

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Cook-canonical shaping

I have been reading people who use Canonical Criticism to understand Scripture since I read Brevard Childs’ introductions to the Old and New Testaments in the late ‘80s,  But I have been uncomfortable with this and related approaches even while finding value in the results.

Stephen L. Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy has had the same effect now that I have finished his commentary.  I mostly agree with his exposition, but I worry about the ethereal nature of canonical shaping.

Many of his results agree with my own understanding.  Deuteronomy has a setting in the late monarchy and into the exilic period.  Therefore, it is not really the direct words of Moses nor is it a very good source for the history of the exodus and the wilderness experience of Israel.

This has the advantage of making the kill-them-all passages about the Canaanites and Amalekites mostly symbolic rather than historical.

One of the problems modern interpreters have to struggle with is the Hebrew Bible’s inhumane commands concerning non-Israelite people and the whole issue of Holy War. Not only pacifists, but supporters of just war theory as well, have this problem.  Under no modern theory are the Hebrew wars of ethnic cleansing and extermination justified. However, there is good reason to question the way Deuteronomy and, especially, the Book of Joshua, claim these wars happened.

So Cook’s understanding of them as symbolic and reflecting a time when Canaan and Amelek were not real nations, is very likely on target.

I appreciate that Cook is no minimalist who thinks the Exodus and the whole Moses tradition is just fiction.  He has a relatively conservative view of the historicity of biblical traditions.  Yet, he sees Deuteronomy as reflecting concerns that are centuries later than Moses.  And he makes a good case.

But he does so using the idea that Deuteronomy is a canonical shaping of the Moses tradition.  There is an article here by Bill T. Arnold, “Deuteronomy as the Ipsissima Vox of Moses” that sheds some light on this approach.  Arnold distinguishes between authoritative teachings and the transmission process that reinterprets these for new historical situations.  The authoritative old traditions embedded in Deuteronomy would include the Covenant Code and the Ten Commandments.  But interpreting these for Josiah’s day and later legitimately involve much editorial activity.

So, according to Arnold, what we hear in Deuteronomy is not the authentic words of Moses, but it is the authentic voice of Moses.  This is close to the understanding that Cook has as well.

My question about this has to do with the transmission process.  The tendency of canonical theologians is to attribute personality to the process.  In one place Arnold says that the transmission process was “continually developing but always respectful of the authority of the traditions”   (Bill T. Arnold, Deuteronomy as the Ipsissima Vox of Moses, Journal of Theological Interpretation 4.1 (2010), p. 68).

How can a transmission process, which is an abstraction not a person, be respectful?  No doubt, if I pushed this, someone like Arnold or Cook would say that it was the scribes who handled the transmission process who were respectful. I worry about the idea that the final version of biblical book has authority because of a transmission process handled by anonymous scribes and editors.  It seems to give a mysterious authority to a vague process.

Nevertheless, the canonical theory has produced results and become more and more influential.  In regard to Deuteronomy, Arnold sums up what happened in a way that I take to be very similar to Cook’s position:

In sum, the deuteronomic authors set out to transform Israelite religion and society by means of relying on a prestigious and authoritative older text as a resource, not merely a textual source. Without refuting or appearing to supersede the Covenant Code, the deuteronomic authors attempted to centralize the cult by transforming the altar law (Exod 20:24) and transforming and centralizing Israel’s festival calendar as well as its entire judicial system, all while continuing to affirm the now outmoded Covenant Code (Arnold, pp. 69-70).

I am open to the possibility that Deuteronomy draws not just on the Covenant Code but on an extensive collection of traditions, some of which go back to the period of the Judges. Thus, using redaction criticism scholars might be able to see where the deuteronomic scribes have both respected and sometimes distorted authentic older traditions.  Cook’s own understanding of the roots of Deuteronomy in the circles of the Levites and village elders–Hosea, Micah, the Psalms of Asaph, the Elohist, and oral traditions of the People of the Land–seems to me to go along with a redaction criticism approach.

A question I have is what role a priestly and family tradition at Anathoth might have played in the development of Deuteronomy. Anathoth was a village a short walk north of Jerusalem in Benjamin. Abiathar, one of David’s priests, had opposed Solomon’s succession.  So he took refuge at Anathoth (1 Kings 1:26), where he had an estate and which was also a designated city of refuge.

This left the Zadokites as the Temple priests in Jerusalem. They saw the banishment of Abiathar as the fulfillment of a curse against the house of Eli, the priest of Shiloh.  But Eli’s house descended from Moses! ( See 1 Samuel 2:27.) The Levites in the north and in the villages outside Jerusalem may have remained loyal to Abiathar.  Generations later, Hilkiah and Jeremiah of Anathoth played roles in the Josiah reforms.

There is a big gap in our knowledge.  Jehoida, the priest who overthrew Athaliah (2 Kings 11:4 ff.), does not appear in the list of Zadokite priests (1 Chronicles 6:4-15).  So was he one of the Anathoth priests?

If there was a “transmission process” going on that would lead to Deuteronomy, a setting at Anathoth–sort of in the north and in touch with the villages of the land, but very close to Jerusalem–would eliminate some of the vagueness about the process.  It would fit with the “umbilical theology” and kinship connections Cook sees as so important.

All this is speculative.  What I most appreciated about Cook’s commentary was more practical.  He did a good job of showing that Deuteronomy is about the formation of Israel as the people of God.  It is not a rigid rule book, but a call for a change of heart.

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Cook-Moses dies alone

In Stephen L. Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy I have come to the final chapter and the death of Moses.

Moses dies alone on Mount Nebo.  No one knows where exactly.  “He buried him” (Deuteronomy 34:6) means that God buried him.  No one else was there.  Deuteronomy seems determined that Moses; great leader, servant and prophet that he was; must not outshine God as the redeemer of Israel.

Various temples or sanctuaries claimed to be the site of Jacob or Abraham’s burial.  But Deuteronomy knows of no shrine for Moses.  He must be absent from the new endeavor of settling the land.  This is to make sure that Israel’s allegiance is to God and not a man. Also, it shifts the voice heard when Israel assembles to that of scripture rather than that of the messenger.

According to 34:10 Moses is incomparable.  No prophet like him has since come to Israel. Although God continued to send prophets to Israel, none replaced or overmastered Moses.  Israel must now get by with what Moses has given them.

Cook calls the death of Moses vicarious.  I am sure he does not mean that Moses died in place of Israel or even as an atonement for their sin.  The main emphasis is that Moses is an example.  He is the “servant of the Lord” (v. 5).  But all God’s people are servants.  The sufferings, especially, of later prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah imitate the servanthood of Moses.  But at the time of the exile, the whole people had died a kind of death like that of Moses.  So Moses dies ahead of the people not instead of them.

Of course, many of us will think of the servant of the Lord, the suffering servant, of Isaiah 53 and other passages in Second Isaiah, which is also an exilic work.

Anyway the death of Moses here is very poignant.  He goes up on the mountain and surveys the land that he can never enter.  This implies that despite his advanced age, his eyesight was just fine.  There is no hint that Moses was sick or infirm in any way.  Death does not come to him as a friend.  It is very sad that Israel must go on without him.  Yet his death puts an emphatic end to the phase of the Exodus and journey to Canaan.  Now Israel must rely upon God and cross the river.

I personally think that there was an Israelite worship center at Mount Nebo at one time. According to the Moabite king, Mesha, the site fell to Moab in the 9th century BCE. (2 Kings 3 has an Israelite account of this war and paints it as an Israelite victory, although one wonders about the “great wrath” that came against Israel in v. 27.)

And Kemosh said to me, “Go, take Nebo from Israel.” And I went in the night and fought against it from daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I had put it to the ban for Ashtar Kemosh. And from there I took Yahweh’s vessels, and I presented them before Kemosh’s face.

That he captured “Yahweh’s vessels” means there was a Yahwist sanctuary there.  There also was a large Israelite settlement.  Even if Mesha was exaggerating, there must have been a significant Israelite presence.   But after the Moabite conquest the site fell into obscurity and scribes with a bias toward a central sanctuary suppressed knowledge of the old sanctuaries. Was it also supposed to mark the grave of Moses?  It would be surprising if it did not have something to do with Moses.

Among the many theories about the treasure that the Copper Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls supposedly gives directions to find, is that the treasure is what some Israelites took from the Nebo sanctuary and hid from the Moabites.

Next week I will do one more post to wrap up this series on Cook’s commentary.

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Cook-the Blessing of Moses

Although given a literary framework by exilic editors, the poem in Deuteronomy 33:6-25 is probably even older than the Song of Moses in the previous chapter.  Stephen L. Cook in Reading Deuteronomy puts this poem, the Blessing of Moses, back at the very beginnings of the monarchy.  The Levites offering “whole burnt offerings” (v. 10) ended with Solomon’s reign.  The diminishing of the tribe of Reuben (v. 6) refers to wars with the Ammonites in the days of Jephthah and Saul.  And Cook takes the “foes” of Judah in v. 7 to be the Philistines.

The tribes who get the most lavish blessings are Levi and Joseph.  This fits with Cook’s understanding of the roots of Deuteronomy.  Those roots lie with the Levites and in the northern kingdom.  The blessings are earthy rather than spiritual.  The fruitfulness of the land and success in warfare are chief among them.

Yet these are framed by the situation at the time of the exile.  So they are open to more spiritual interpretations.  So, of instance, Cook sees the warlike language of v. 11 about the Levites tempered by their role as teachers in the previous verses. Perhaps their weapon is now the Torah.

The reference to the incident at Massah and Meribah in v. 8 is interesting.  Cook says it changes some of the details from other texts about the incident.  Exodus 17:2, 7 say that Israel tested the Lord there.  But Deuteronomy 33:8 says God tested Israel (or Levi) there. This agrees with Psalm 81:7–another sign of the common tradition with the Asaph psalms.

In Exodus Moses is the one really under pressure at Meribah.  The people are angry with him and want to stone him.  But Moses is a Levite, and Deuteronomy sees him as a self-sacrificial model for all Levites.

In regard to another striking verse, I note that Cook says that the mountain in Zebulun/Issachar in v. 19 may refer to there having once been a sanctuary at Mount Tabor.

Deuteronomy 33:28 expresses the longed-for blessed state of Israel as a garden land secluded from enemies.  Cook shows how passages in other Deuteronomy-related works like Micah, the Psalms of Asaph, and Jeremiah also express this vision.

As Genesis 49 has the deathbed blessing of the tribes pronounced by Jacob with prophetic overtones, so Deuteronomy 33 has a similar deathbed blessing by Moses.  But its position in Deuteronomy after a lot of emphasis upon the curses that befall a disobedient Israel shows that blessing is God’s ultimate desire for his people.

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Cook-3 successors to Moses

I am always looking for something I had not considered before.

As an interim pastor, I have often talked about the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua.  It fits the theme of a transition of leadership from a resigned or retired pastor to new, often younger leadership in a congregation.  An interim pastor is often there to ease the way into such a transition.  So Deuteronomy 31 is familiar territory.

But in Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen L. Cook finds more in chapter 31.  He says that in the chapter Moses really has three successors.

First, of course, there is Joshua.  From the Elohist account, Deuteronomy takes over the notion of Joshua as Moses’ understudy (see Exodus 17:14).  There is a building progression in the transition to Joshua in chapter 31.  First, Joshua is offstage (v. 3).  Then Joshua appears for Moses’s blessing, still in a subordinate position (7-8).  In vss. 14-15 God calls them both before him so that he can directly commission Joshua.  And by v. 23 Moses is offstage as God inaugurates Joshua as the leader to bring Israel into the land across the Jordan from Moab.

Second, in 31:9-13 and 24-27 Moses makes a different preparation for his death.  He provides Israel with the written Torah.  So there is a sense in which scripture is the successor to Moses.  We see this transition happening as the Levites are commanded to archive the scroll and to see that it gets periodically read to the assembly (vs. 11).

Cook says:

“Amazing!  Deuteronomy narrates its own future canonization (28:58, 61; 29:27; 30:10; 31:9,11-13, 24, 26), just as its principal speaker and protagonist, Moses, narrates his own death and burial (ch. 34)!”

Deuteronomy 31:24 ff. seems to be from the exilic edition as Moses anticipates the future stubbornness and rebellion of Israel.  After his death things will continue to go wrong until evil or disaster befalls Israel (v. 29).  So Moses writes in tears, not only because of his own impending death, but because he forsees Israel betraying God and suffering for it.

Finally, there is another successor to Moses, the song of Moses that will take up chapter 32.  In 31:19-22 we read that in times of prosperity Israel will be chastened by the witness against it that the Song of Moses contains.  Actually, Cook says the Song is meant for the people of exilic times and the dark days they face.  It is a prophetic poem and reinforces the prophetic role of Moses in Deuteronomy.

Chapter 32 is an old poem.  Its core goes back at least to the ninth century BCE.  It has much in common with the Psalms of Asaph.  Although its final editors saw it as reproof to the exilic generation, the poem reminds us of the kind of prophetic oracle that took the form of a lawsuit against Israel for breach of contract (Psalm 50, Hosea 4:1-6, Micah 6:1-5, etc.). The poem understands itself to have a constructive purpose as “instruction”.

I was interested in how Cook would deal with 32:6-9 which seems to contain pre-monotheistic language.  The main value of Cook’s The Social Origins of Biblical Yahwism is that it challenged the notion that Israel’s religion is an evolutionary development from paganism.  Yet these verses are part of the opposite argument–that in 32:8 “the Most High” was the top god among many gods of a polytheistic religion.

Cook admits that the song “shockingly” draws upon such imagery.  There is indeed an undigested piece of polytheistic myth here. But it has been co-opted and put to good theological use.  He thinks those scholars who see the “Most High” as just one god among many are too hasty in coming to that conclusion.  In Deuteronomy God and the Most High are one and the same.

He calls Psalm 78 the sister song to the Song of Moses and points to Psalm 78:35:

Then they remembered that God was their rock, And the Most High God their Redeemer (NKJV).

So I guess the point is that co-opting pagan mythology (think John Milton) is not the same as evolving your own theology from it.

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Cook-the passionate God

In his introduction to Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen L. Cook has already argued that there was a post-exilic edition of Deuteronomy that added some references to the Babylonian exile.  We find some of these in chapters 29 and 30.  Deuteronomy 29:28 has Moses project this comment on to a future generation:

So the Lord has uprooted them from their land in anger, wrath, and great rage and has deported them to another land, as is clear today (NET Bible).

The first ten verses of chapter 30 also come from the post-exilic edition.

The effect of this is to extend the inclusive language of Deuteronomy to future generations.  Deuteronomy was already using very broad language to extend the covenant:

You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God – the heads of your tribes, your elders, your officials, every Israelite man, your infants, your wives, and the foreigners living in your encampment, those who chop wood and those who carry water (29:10-11 NET Bible).

But in their current form chapters 29-30 go beyond this to include also “those who are not here with us today” (29:15).

Another specific feature of these chapters is the move to say that the curses of Deuteronomy may target individuals as well as the society as a whole.  Deuteronomy 29:21 has God “single out” individuals who have disobeyed the covenant precepts.

Cook is quick to say that this has a context.  The individual’s sin has to be one that threatens the larger community, not just a private peccadillo.  Also God’s judgment is mysterious, not mechanical.  There are “secret things” that belong to God and are beyond human ability to figure out (29:29).  But what everyone does know, thanks to Deuteronomy, is exactly how to avoid God’s wrath.

Deuteronomy shows God becoming ever more passionately involved in Israel’s journey. That is what the talk of wrath and “fierce anger” is about.

 As we approach the end of Deuteronomy, Israel’s  journey has proven to lead to many dead ends.  This is true of the original journey of the Moses host in the wilderness. which has arrived at the point of Moses’ death.  And it is even more true of the journey of Israel and the Davidic monarchy, which by the time of the additions to chapters 29 and 30 has led to the downfall of the monarchy and the exile of Israel.  But this does not mean that the journey was not worth it.

The journey is not over and God is still at work sculpting their hearts (30:6).  The journey is not too difficult for them.  Keeping the commandments is not too hard (30:11-14).  The whole point of Deuteronomy is to make the torah accessible and realistic as a lifestyle.

Thus the call to ratify the covenant and “choose life” in 30:15-20 rounds out what has been the third speech of Moses.  Cook says that there is an almost shocking intimacy in verse 20 where Israel “clings” to God.  The Message gets it right when it says “firmly embracing him”.  This language goes beyond that of the vassal treaties that lie behind the literary form of Deuteronomy.

There is a passionate personal connection between Israel and God.

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Cook-blessings, curses and siege warfare

The impressive curses of Deuteronomy 28:15 ff. are probably what awed young king Josiah when he heard them.  He interpreted the curses to mean that Israel in his time stood under the wrath of God (2 Kings 22:11-13).  However, it is important to observe that the blessings also are impressive and come first.

Stephen L. Cook in his Reading Deuteronomy interprets Deuteronomy 28 in the light of ancient Near Eastern texts.  Blessings and curses were also part of vassal treaties.  In such treaties the curses often came from the hand of the state.  In other words, the vassal that broke the treaty would soon face violent reprisal from the master state.

The transfer of this notion of a wrathful king to God probably seemed natural to ancient people. People today with democratic notions will have trouble with the concept.  So Cook interprets this chapter in keeping with his thesis that Deuteronomy is about the spiritual formation of the people of God.

In Deuteronomy’s vision the people flourish when they allow themselves to be formed into the kind of community that God wants.  Some of the blessings are natural consequences of a lifestyle dedicated to God, his people, and his land.  So also the curses are at least partly consequences–like a kind of Karma–of departing from that lifestyle.  There is a sense in which the Deuteronomy lifestyle is inherently advantageous.

Yet Deuteronomy excludes any kind of  prosperity gospel or simple tit-for-tat system of rewards and punishments.  The curses are not just meant to punish.  The curses were disciplinary.  Hardships teach the people to rely on God’s word and not the seek to live by bread alone (8:3).  This is what the long, hard trek of Israel through the wilderness was about.  Some of the curses put Israel back in that situation of learning to depend upon God.

It is only after Deuteronomy 28:46 that the curses turn totally destructive.  So they are graded.  The earlier curses are meant, like some of the hardships of Israel in the wilderness, to encourage a return to God.  Verses 36-37 and 41 refer to the Babylonian Exile and are later additions to Deuteronomy.

Siege warfare was horrific.  The disturbing kinds of suffering evoked in 28:50 ff. reflect that reality. In 28:55 a father is  eating his children.  This kind of suffering raises the problem of evil, especially since these curses come from God.

Cook’s response is that Deuteronomy depicts a journey through death to new life.  He says that the death of Moses on this journey is programmatic.  All Israel must follow Moses in letting go of self and life in order to achieve spiritual transformation.  There is a natural progression from Deuteronomy’s view of suffering to the prophet’s vision of apocalyptic renewal that arose during and after the exile.

Deuteronomy certainly does not speak about resurrection from the dead.  But its view of life as a journey through death to another destination points that way.  Recently Cook has published online a short essay about the rise of belief in the resurrection within biblical religion.  See here.

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