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Jim West on P. R. Davies on the Origins of “Biblical” Israel: Parts 2 & 3

3rd November 2005

Jim West has taken up the mantel from Christopher Heard and blogged on the second and third part of Philip R. Davies’s recent article “The Origin of Biblical Israel” in the in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures vol. 5, article 17 (2005). My comments on the first section may be found here; what follows are some of my thoughts on the second and third sections of Davies’s essay and Jim’s comments.

Jerusalem vs. the World

In the second section of his essay, Davies puts forward the argument that prior to the neo-Babylonian period, Jerusalem was not the only religious centre of ancient Israel. Other sites included Mizpah, Bethel, and Gibeon. Here I think Davies is bang-on; of course the issue is whether or not Jerusalem should have been the only cult centre. From the perspective of the canonical prophets and the pro-Judah writers of the DtrH, Jerusalem should have been the only cult centre.

Jim’s comments on this section are intriguing. Extrapolating from Davies’s observation he comments:

So then, do we have in the DtrH the attempt to secure Jerusalem as the “navel of the world” against rival claimants Bethel and Samaria? And if so, is the picture of a “United Kingdom” under “David” even possible? Solomon? Is it not more likely that the picture of a united kingdom was retrojected into the past in order to glorify what never really existed?

In my mind, it is a pretty big leap that Jim wants us to take. It is undisputed that one of the concerns of the DtrH is to secure Jerusalem as the chosen cultic centre of Israel. That, however, doesn’t mean that Jerusalem never was. It would seem more likely, IMHO, that each of these cultic centres have a long and varied history.

Search for the Historical Saul

For example, I wonder whether the strong anti-Benjamin and anti-Saulide polemic that you find throughout the DtrH (e.g., Judges 19-21, 1Samuel, etc.) is an indication that there was a historical “Saul.” If anything, the legitimacy of David is predicated on asserting the illegitimacy of Saul. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here arguing that the biblical account of Saul’s reign is entirely historical; all I’m saying is that the strong polemic supports the notion that there was a “Saul” who was king of something called “Israel” and his dynasty was cut short by a usurper called “David.” If there never was a Saul or any Saulide in power in Israel, then what would be the point of the polemic and why would the interest in Saul’s line persist all the way to the time of the Chronicler and the author of Esther? I guess it all could be a retrojection in order to establish the priority of Benjamin and its cultic centres; but if there was no Saul, then what makes the connection between Benjamin and Saul in the first place? The same argument could be made for David and Solomon. Again, I am not here arguing that all aspects of the court narratives about David and Solomon are historical. All I am arguing for is that there was a monarch named “David” who began a dynasty (see, for example, Chris Heard’s blog entry on finding the historical David here), and that there were others who felt David was a pretender to the throne and that a Saulide should be in power. This in my mind would be a plausible “concrete setting” that underlies a “specific rivalry” that Davies is looking for.

Remnants of Pro-Benjamin Elements

In the third section Davies addresses some of the implications of his first point. In particular, he argues that “the literati of Benjamin originated the skeleton of an account of the rise of the kingdom of Israel, beginning with a conquest of the territory by Benjamin, a sequence of ‘judges’ initiated by a Benjaminite, and how Benjamin finally provided the first king of Israel.” I can agree with Davies, even though only remnants of this Benjaminite skeleton remain visible. But I would probably differ from Davies on the aspects of the historicity of this skeleton.

In response to this third section, Jim rightly raises a fairly big omission by Davies: the role of Judges 19-21 in the discussion. While Brettler (“The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics” JBL 108 [1989] 395-418) and Amit (“Literature in the Service of Politics: Studies in Judges 19-21″ in Politics and Theoolitics in the Bible [Sheffield 1994] 28-40) have clearly (and convincingly) highlighted the propagandistic character of this passage (Pro-David/Judah, Anti-Saul/Benjamin), I think that there may be more to the passage — especially in terms of Saul’s genealogy. Either way, this passage must be given a concrete setting of when there was a strong rivalry between Saulides and Davidides, IMHO. It just seems more plausible to see an earlier origin to this rivalry, rather than see it as a later reality that then had to “make up” a history.

Finally, another problem I see with Jim’s notion that “the picture of a united kingdom was retrojected into the past in order to glorify what never really existed” is that the DtrH does not glorify the past. While the DtrH is on the whole pro-David and pro-Judah, it clearly is not unabashed political propaganda. The negative elements about David (e.g., 2 Sam 9-20, esp. 11-12) and Solomon (1 Kings 9-11) in my mind demonstrate that the DtrH is not the product of the royal court or a late propaganda piece. If you are looking for a history of Israel that is the product of the Persian period and presents a far stronger legitimization of the Davidic line, you need to look no further than Chronicles.

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