Jacob L. Wright spent the first ten chapters of his David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory exploring what he sees as the literary construction of the David narrative. He especially emphasized that many of the stories were war commemoration literature, constructed to negotiate disputes about belonging and status in Judah hundreds of years after the supposed time of King David.
In three additional chapters he deals with the Bible’s stories about Caleb in a similar way. The Calebite’s place in Judah was somehow problematic, so they constructed war memories to include tales of the Calebite’s ancestor “performing indispensable deeds of valor on behalf of Judah and all Israel” (p. 167) during the exodus and conquest.
He says there is evidence that Judah as a tribe emerged very late and even then was “loosely consolidated”. So we shouldn’t think of the Calebites joining an already existing tribe. The Bible’s ideas of the origin of the Calebites do not all agree. But they originally seem to have been Kennizites, an Edomite tribe. So the Calebites were not-Israelite.
But then, as Wright sees, the whole Pan-Israelite notion came about as as a creative, unhistorical narrative. The tribes were not actually descended from the 12 sons of Jacob. So what does it even mean to say that the Calebites were not Israelite?
Wright believes that the passages in Genesis 15 and 36 that say Caleb was a Kennizite are supplements added at the time of exile or later. After the Babylonian conquest, southern Judah from Hebron south, came under Edomite control. So it was at this time that people living there came to be identified as Edomite.
So the stories about Caleb, Wright thinks, came about as a result of this border shift after the Babylonian conquest. Before that time there would have been little problem with the people in southern Judah being just another one of the varied constituents of Judah. But then they became de facto Edomites. So depicting their ancestor as a Judahite hero was a way of dealing with their status after the exile.
Some have interpreted this as a defense of the right of Calebites to call themselves Judeans. But Wright gives it a unique turn. He thinks the Calebites were an elite and aristocratic group within Judea. The Caleb stories are meant to uphold this status and defend their distinctive merit as devout and valiant YHWH worshipers among the clans.
In reading this I feel conflicted. On the one hand, when Wright talks about the late emergence of Judah and its formation from a diverse set of people, he is agreeing with something I have long thought. On the other hand, when he implies that many narratives about David or Caleb were entirely invented hundreds of years after these characters lived, I see it differently. Certainly folk lore about these characters developed over the years. But to rule out the possibility that later writers were working with very old sources that provided real information about David and Caleb, seems unwarranted.
One good thing about Wright is that he does not cover up the fact that many other scholars have come to completely different conclusions.