In David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, Jacob L. Wright deals with the story of David as a literary, ahistorical construction. And yet some of what he says and some of his analysis is still useful for those, like myself, who have not taken the postmodern turn and continue to think that there is a historical reality behind the Bible, difficult as it may be to uncover today.
Wright deals with the David/Uriah/Bathsheba episode in this ahistorical way. What we have now in this story is great literary tragedy. But the story was developed from earlier layers. It is his analysis of those layers that interests me.
But first, here is his slant on the developed narrative. He focuses on the civic virtue of Uriah, a non-Israelite who, nevertheless, was faithful and rigorous in his service of Israel. Wright treats the story as a war commemoration from the time of the return from exile. Uriah represents those who have status in the new, non monarchial Israel. The people who constructed the narrative wanted to show that the point of nationalism was not to “make a name” for the king, but to serve God and make a name for him.
David, in the story, stands for the tendency of the state to become an end in itself. So the anti-monarchy side of 1 and 2 Samuel does not come from a “republican source” or even from the Noth’s deuteronomistic editor, but from a situation and a literary circle after the exile and return when the nation needed to move forward without the davidic dynasty.
Wright tries to trace the development of this story from one literary level to another. First, there was just the name, that is, the mention of “Uriah the Hittite” at the end of a list of David’s mighty men (2 Samuel 23:39). This was then combined with an old account of a siege at Rabbah and how David obtained a crown there (2 Samuel 12:29-31).
This developed into a longer story and eventually included a conversation between the commander in the field and David. Joab reported that soldiers from within the city had made an attack and killed some of David’s troops (2 Samuel 11:17). But the verse did not originally mention Uriah’s death. David replied to Joab’s reports, saying, “Don’t let this upset you”, “press the battle” ect (11:25).
At some point scribes added Uriah’s name to the story and portrayed David as honoring his fallen soldier by bringing his widow to the palace and fathering a son with her.
In the original versions of the story David behaved honorably. The widow was probably just called Uriah’s wife. The name, Bathsheba, came with the final edition of the story.
It is a late editor who has turned the story into one of adultery, murder, and tragedy.
I guess where I would question Wright is on whether this story is just a war commemoration about Uriah. After all, its outcome is the birth of Solomon and the continuation of the line of David, a topic whose importance overshadows Uriah’s character traits. Perhaps there was once a story that told of the birth of Solomon in an honorable way, stemming from David’s charity toward the widow.
However, that would not explain the historical reality that Solomon became king when there were better candidates.
I have previously raised my objection to postmodern debunking of history by recalling a book I read about the battle of Gettysburg. It made lots of interesting corrections to the way the story of that battle is told at the memorial in Pennsylvania. But all that seemed trivial to me when set against the fact that Lee was defeated. You can debunk all the history you want, but certain historical realities still shine through.
In the case of our David-Uriah-Bathsheba story there is the fact that Solomon succeeded David. The story that Bathsheba was at the heart of a conspiracy to make that happen fits with other harem conspiracies we know about in the Ancient Near East. And that would have to mean that Bathsheba was more than a late construction.
Nevertheless, the story as we have it was certainly doctored, if not constructed. Wright’s analysis of layers to the story is food for thought about how that might have happened.