Jacob L. Wright in David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory asserts that the literary genre of war commemoration accounts for many of the stories about David.
Sometimes war commemoration has a negative purpose. That is, sometimes cowardice or betrayal is what the literary war commemoration recalls. An example of this, Wright says, is Keilah, a town that David saved from Philistine harassment (1 Samuel 23). Yet the town was prepared to betray David to Saul.
Wright points to another story (a complete literary construct, according to him) where the wise woman of Abel Beth-Maacah persuades the town’s people to cut off the head of the rebel, Sheba, and toss it over the wall (2 Samuel 20). That was probably the fate that was supposed to have threatened David at Keilah.
The story of David at Keilah reflects old tradition from the original history of David’s reign (HDR). But the story as we have it has an insertion at 1 Samuel 23:6-12, where Abiathar serves as an oracle to predict Keilah’s planned betrayal. This account injects Saul into the story and provides a memory that puts Keilah into a bad light.
Wright doesn’t know why the editor wanted to vilify Keilah. But he gives us some interesting history about the place.
Keilah is probably the same place as Qiltu of the Amarna letters. There it is the object of a struggle for its allegiance between the ruler of Jerusalem and the ruler of Gath. Wright suggests that Keilah, as a border town, tended to switch back and forth in loyalty between Gath and interior Canaanite or Judean kingdoms. It was true in the Amarna period and continued to be true in the time of David. So Keilah was subject to suspicion of having divided loyalites.
The story of the Ziphites is next to that of Keilah in 1 Samuel 23. And there is a doublet to the story in 1 Samuel 26. Wright does not see this as a reflection of different sources, but as a doubling down on hostility toward Ziph. In the constructed story, the Ziphites betray David to Saul twice. Wright sees this has having something to do with a polemic against Caleb. Ziph was Caleb’s first son according the the genealogies.
A different border town was Jabesh-gilead across the Jordan from Saul’s Benjamin. It played a major role in the independent history of Saul’s reign (HSR). That history began with Saul rescuing Jabesh-gilead from a cruel Ammonite king. And the final episode of the HSR had the men of Jabesh-gilead risking their lives to recover Saul’s body from a wall at Beth-shan, where the Philistines had it hung up on display (1 Samuel 31:11 ff.).
So that was a positive war commemoration.
But it turned into a negative war commemoration in 2 Samuel 21:12 where David recovers the bones of Saul, which the people of Jabesh-gilead had “stolen”. So what had once been remembered as an act of heroism and high respect has become a cowardly theft.
According to Wright, this has to do with the ambiguous situation of the transjordanian tribes in the Hebrew Bible. There were late literary circles that drew the borders of Israel so as to make the Jordan the border, excluding the transjordanian tribes.
Wright has certainly described two very different biblical perceptions on the actions of the men of Jabesh-gilead.
However, I cannot go along with Wright in his claim that the brief continuation of Saul’s dynasty there came from the imaginations of later editors.
Indeed, Wright claims that Saul’s son, Ishbosheth, was a literary construction–a fiction. He sees 1 Samuel 31:6 (“So Saul, his three sons, his armor bearer, and all his men died together that day.” NET Bible) as a definitive statement from the HSR that Saul and all his sons died at the hands of the Philistines in battle on Mount Gilboa. The other sons of Saul, Ishbosheth and Mephishbosheth, were made up by later editors.
It seems to me that there are a lot of reasons to think that Ishbosheth, at least, was a historical person. There may have been some question about his lineage from Saul. But, if he was made up, it was probably in the sense that Saul’s general, Abner, promoted him and constructed a claim to the throne for him. But, then, Wright may think Abner is a fiction too.
One of the helpful ideas of Wright is that the HSR began and ended with stories about Saul and Jabesh-gilead. This makes sense.
I was interested to see how Wright treated the version of 1 Samuel from the Dead Sea Scrolls that has additional verses between 1 Samuel 10:27 and 11:1 about Jabesh-gilead and the Ammonite war (see here). Wright thinks these verses are from Hellenistic times but acknowledges that many scholars think they are old.
The main implication of the verses for Jabesh-gilead is that it was a refugee camp with thousands of newly-arrived inhabitants. If this was a historical reality it would mean that Jabesh-gilead was a unique kind of city and provide context to the rise of Saul and the the attachment of the city to him.