The stories of Caleb and David come together in the story of Nabal and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. Nabal is a wealthy Calebite, perhaps their chief. And David brings the Calebites into Judah as a result of the death of Nabal and his marriage to the widow.
Baruch Halpern and Jon Levenson, who have written about the political significance of David’s marriages, claim that this story originated in the royal court at a time when people still remembered how David brought the clan of Caleb under his sway. They raise the question of how much special interests within the royal court shaped this story.
In the next to the last chapter of David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, Jacob L. Wright goes his own way on this question.
“In the course of this chapter, I will adopt a new approach to this question. Instead of attempting to discern the intentions of the historical David–an endeavor that is severely impeded by the nature of our sources–I will demonstrate the degree to which competing political factions delineated Caleb and David as rival figures that vie with each other for the position of Judah’s greatest hero (p. 207).
According to Wright, Hebron was the capital and central city of Judah during Judah’s early centuries. The story about David going up to Hebron with Abigail, settling there, and receiving the crown there (2 Samuel 2:1-4) is a projecting back into the time of David of this state of affairs. The stories about Caleb were originally a counter narrative by Calebites who first felt displaced by the Davidic state and later by Edom.
But Calebites seem to have originally occupied territory even further south than Hebron. So Nabal, for instance, is at Carmel. (You should distinguish this from Mt. Carmel, a range of hills in northern Israel.) Wright thinks the claim of Caleb to Hebron was invented late. There may have been Calebites settled in the vicinity of Hebron who were uncomfortable with the growing power of the Davidic monarchy.
One of the ways that scribes promoted nation building under the monarchy was with war commemoration stories about David. They continued to elaborate these stories after the end of the kingdom. The war commemoration stories about Caleb served to recall the deeds of Caleb as a counterweight to the David stories.
In Wright’s scenario, Jerusalem was just a border fortress in the north until after Assyria destroyed the kingdom of Israel. Then, after -722, Judah attempted to annex the southern parts of Israel and relocated the capitol to the north. It was at that time that certain stories, for instance the story about Absalom being proclaimed king at Hebron, were constructed to deal with resistance to the relocation of the capitol.
To counter this narrative, other stories, like expansion of the story of the burial of Sarah at Mamre to explain that this was near Hebron and the shift of Jacob’s burial place from the Transjordan to Mamre, underwent construction or reconstruction. Hebron was touted as the city of the Patriarchs. These stories reflect a rivalry between Jerusalem and Hebron.
A study from the 1950s by Alfred Jepsen argued that Calebites were behind the stories about Abraham and Hebron. Hebron means something like “covenant place”. So Jepsen thought Hebron was the location for the cutting of a covenant between the clan of Caleb and other clans when Judah originally accepted YHWH as God. Wright thinks this thesis is a little too speculative.
Wright’s alternative, which he believes is less speculative, is to move the context for these narratives to the period after the Babylonian conquest when Edom occupied southern Judah, including Hebron.
The Persians reconstituted the state of Judah, but Hebron remained disputed territory. 1 Esdras 4:50 claims the king of Persia decreed that the Edomites should give up any Jewish town that they held. But they probably didn’t.
During this period the Calebites, according to Wright, continued a kind of literary defiance, and the war commemoration stories about Caleb are a witness to this.
The political use of Caleb continued down through history as Jews, Christians, and Muslims appropriated the story. Hebron remains a disputed site.
I am grateful for some insights into the text, but am unconvinced by much of Wright’s treatment. I will wait until I have read the concluding chapter to make more comments.