Today I am looking back on my reading of Jacob L. Wright’s David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory. Often we are tempted to avoid books we know we are going to disagree with. Early on I knew I was going to have a different point of view than Wright. He used the Song of Deborah as an example of war commemoration and as a late construction having to do with the status of the various tribes. I, however, take seriously the studies of ancient Hebrew poetry that see the Song of Deborah as one of a handful of examples of authentic pre-monarchic material.
I am not going to get into details about post-structuralism and the anti-realism of many contemporary historians. These philosophical issues are probably at the root of my problem with Wright’s approach. The main thing I want to point out is that just because you know you will not like an author’s conclusions is no reason not to read his or her work.
He made several observations that helped me. His notion of an old History of Saul’s Reign and an old History of David’s Reign ring true even though I doubt they were so completely disconnected that they shared no events or characters. Also he developed vividly the literary grandeur of the story of David as high tragedy. He pointed me in some new directions that may prove fruitful in my own research.
Up until our time, when we see history as an academic discipline supported by footnotes and peer reviews, history existed as a form of rhetoric.
Wright avoids the term “propaganda” for his idea that exilic and post-exilic writers supplemented older material in order to help Judah deal with defeat. To those of us who remember the Cold War, propaganda connotes the blatant distortions used by totalitarian states. But what the literary circles that produced the Bible have done in regard to David and Caleb is to create memories as war commemoration in order to deal with identity politics in Judah.
To the extent that this is true, I try to remember that this probably arose from a desire to interpret history, not to utterly distort it.
Wright’s specialty is the post-exilic period. He wrote another book whose title gives insight into this one: Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah-memoir and Its Earliest Readers. He sees the David and Caleb stories as a part of the rebuilding of identity in this period.
I do not deny that we see some of this agenda in the final form of the Hebrew Bible. But I think it came about more by shaping material than by creating narratives. Wright is very suspicious of the idea of sources. And yet other people are quite sure they see sources behind David and Caleb narratives.
A contemporary example of what I am talking about is the Drudge Report. This is a website that puts a strong right-wing slant on the news. Yet Matt Drudge is an aggregator. He doesn’t create sources. Some of the news articles he puts up are from left-wing sources. He just shapes it all to put out his own message. Some of his sources are crap sources. But my point is that he doesn’t have to create them himself. It is possible to use sources and yet put out your own point of view by the way you select and shape them.
Finally, at the end of the book Wright says he does not embrace Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man Theory” of history. Wright does not see history as created by heroes. He does not see David as having a pivotal impact due to the force of his own greatness. The great hero, David, is an invented character.
But sometimes history and other social sciences today seem dehumanized. They are all about structures, paradigms and models and not much about people. So I sympathize with Carlyle. After all, he was writing over against the utilitarians and a deterministic view of history. Better than Carlyle, though, is Isaiah Berlin’s lecture on “Historical Inevitability”. He insisted that history is about people and the choices they make.
If David lived and made choices, he had an impact. We are just more limited than we would like as to how much we can discover about him.