I am reading Joel Baden’s The Historical David. This is one of several attempts to reconstruct the actual events that happened about a thousand years before the Christian era and gave rise to the dynasty that ruled Judah for a long time and also to the hope of a Messiah in the line of David that played such a role in the New Testament.
Most recognize that some parts of the story of David are unhistorical. Baden thinks the story of David and Goliath is a legend. I, in my last post, took a little more conservative position. But arguing that there really was a Goliath around whom a legend arose does not help my inerrantist friends who need the whole story to be precisely true for their view of biblical authority to hold.
On the opposite side from such biblical literalists are those who think the whole story is pretty much fiction. This has been a more popular academic position in recent decades. But there are many who think it is a lazy position that fails to grapple with the complex history of the texts and the growing archeological evidence that the Bible contains genuine memories going back to the beginnings of the Iron Age.
Baden argues that, aside from the hero story of David and Goliath and the claim that David wrote many of the Psalms, we have a chronological account of David’s career that relates to actual events. That account is not a history. It fits into a different form of ancient literature. It is a political apology.
We have a clear example of such an apology in Hittite literature. It is called the Apology of Hattusili and, although it differs from the succession narrative of David in that it is in the first person, it seems to have a remarkably similar purpose and thrust. It is the story of a man who had no hereditary right to be king. But he had great military success credited to the favor of a goddess. He aroused the envy of the sitting king who persecuted him. Hattusili claims to have shown great restraint in the face of this. He finally became king due to his popularity with the people and the blessing of the deity.
So Baden follows in the footsteps of P. Kyle McCarter in calling the David narrative “The Apology of David”.
The David story looks like an ancient form of political spin. But this should make us optimistic that we can recover historical information. An apology or defense is always written over against a counter narrative. An apology would make no sense if it explained events that never happened. The reason for an apology is that events did happen and that those events need to be spun in a particular way.
So Baden rejects the idea of a fictional David. An apology made up centuries after the events would have little point. For this reason, an apology is going to be “roughly contemporary” with the events it spins. Chronicles was written six centuries later so it was free to leave out anything negative about David. On the other hand, the accounts in 1 and 2 Samuel counter a lot of negative impressions of David, so they must have been composed when the reality of David’s career was fresh.
This leaves the historian with a way forward. Strip away every element that goes out of its way to put David in a positive light. Then bring to bear what we know from other sources about the social and economic situation at the time. Also bring to bear what we know about geopolitics and geography. This method holds the promise of giving us a picture of the historical David–who he was and what he did.
The setting for the beginning of David’s career was Saul’s kingdom. Baden recognizes that this was a new and unique thing. The shifting tribal alliances of the period of Judges gave way to something more centralized. Saul’s kingdom was not grand. He does not seem to have had a palace. His military does not seem to have been a united inter-tribal militia. Rather, it centered around his own family, who were the commanders.
One important point he makes about Saul’s kingdom is that it did not include Judah.
I have a lot of questions about this period. New archeological finds, like the fortress in the Elah Valley, may alter our view.
I am curious about the tribes at this time. I doubt that we should read back into this period the 12 tribes as they are presented in the Pentateuch. Several of the early polities seem to represent regions rather than ancestral groups: Gilead, Jezreel, Ephraim, and Zebulon. Judah also seems to have been the name of a desert and a mountain range before it was the name of a tribe.
Baden says that Israel did not exist as we think of it today before Saul. I think he means that we think of a permanently united set of tribes. That kind of a polity was an innovation.
But “Israel” existed, according to the Merneptah stele in the 13th century. That Israel may have been like the coalitions in the book of Judges: Deborah’s coalition against Sisera or Gideon’s coalition against the Midianite raiders. Or was there, as I sometimes speculate, a more united Israel that existed north and east of the Sea of Galilee, which an Egyptian army laid waste and left without crops? Did the scattered remnants then, in the 12th century, constitute some of the founders of all those villages that sprang up in the central highlands?
This would mean that Saul’s kingdom restored something that had existed before. My thoughts about this are conjecture and I hold them lightly.