Thursday, 13 October 2011

David and Solomon

As a teenager I was fascinated by the story of King David.  It was a part of the Bible I read over and over again.  Looking back on it, I think it’s because David is the most complete and the most human character in the Bible, even including Jesus.  Despite his flaws and his repeated failures he keeps trying to do right and enjoys tremendous success.  Plus, there’s lots of action, plenty of blood and guts and a fair amount of sex.

At one point I even wrote an ancient history assignment about King David’s role in Israelite history.  However, I lost marks because of my na├»ve acceptance of the Biblical accounts as accurate history, my failure to evaluate them as sources.

To be fair to my teenage self, back in the 1970s most historians had a fairly generous view of the historicity of Samuel and 1 Kings.  Not that I knew anything about it at age 16, but most critics regarded elements of these stories as reaching back to two narratives written close to the time of David himself – one they called “David's Rise to Power” which charted David’s rise from bandit chief to king of a united Israel, and another called the “Court History” or “Succession History” which was mainly written to explain or justify why Solomon ended up as his successor. 

This doesn’t mean scholars accepted the accounts as objectively accurate in all respects.  They were seen as being written as defences of David, royal propaganda to counter charges that David was nothing but a bandit and mercenary who killed his master Saul and stole his throne, and that Solomon was a usurper who may not even have been David’s legitimate son and certainly not his heir.  However, setting their creation close to the time meant these critics accepted the broad historical picture of David as a powerful king of a united Israel, and Solomon as the wise and wealthy builder of the temple and palace.

I would like to think that this was true.  However, I’ve just been reading David and Solomon by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.  Both authors, and Finkelstein in particular, are distinguished archaeologists, and this book summarises the vast amounts of archaeological evidence about the period of David and Solomon uncovered in digs over the past few decades, and combines this with a re-reading of the Biblical text in the light of this evidence.

The result is a much more sceptical view of these two kings.  In the tenth century BCE, when they are presumed to have lived, Judah was a largely subsistence agrarian community with as few as 5000 inhabitants.  Its towns, including Jerusalem itself, were small villages.  The population as a whole, and probably most of its leaders, was illiterate and writing was hardly used for even the simplest communications.  The realms of Israel and Judah were clearly separate, with Israel far more wealthy and populous.  David, who they assume was a real person, could have been no more than the bandit chief and local leader portrayed in the early parts of the account in 1 and 2 Samuel.  The elaborate temple attributed to Solomon was built at least 100 years later.

So where did these elaborate, detailed and vivid accounts come from?  You’ll have to read the book to get the full picture, but they suggest a number of stages in the creation of the story.  The first is the creation of a folk tradition, preserved in orally transmitted stories and songs, of David the bandit chief made good and his mighty men, as well as the rival tradition from further north containing the deeds of the Benjamite King Saul.

The second, dating from the destruction of the Northern kingdom by the Assyrians and the prosperous reign of Hezekiah in the 8th century, involved combining these two traditions in a more sequential account used to justify the legitimacy of David’s dynasty in the face of Assyrian aggression and a wave of refugees from the north.  The third, dating from the time of Josiah in the 6th century, placed stronger emphasis on the territorial extent of the united kingdom and the religious purity of David’s reign as a way of justifying Josiah’s religious and territorial ambitions.  The fourth and fifth, compiled by priests after the exile, focused even more on the importance of the temple and religious purity as the key to the kingdom’s greatness.  At each point, the new editors used David and Solomon as foils for their own concerns and needs, and so the story kept on growing and changing. 

Nor did it stop there, they say, with Jews and Christians continuing to develop the story through their expectations of the Messiah and the development of their own ideas of kingship.

It doesn’t make it any less fascinating as a story, or the character of David any less inspiring.  What it calls into question, though, is the concept of static religious truth.  Each if the successive tellers of the story, in their view, felt free to re-interpret and retell the tale to fit the needs of their time.  Rather than an abstract and absolute truth, the stories evolved with their writers and readers, being brought to bear on new and urgent problems.

Jewish religious teachers have a term for this – midrash.  A midrash is a creative reading of the text.  A portion of scripture will be read, then its message embellished in the light of the issues faced by the listeners at the time.  The aim is not to analyse the text as we would, digging into its “true” meaning.  The aim is to use it to help the listeners and to bring God into their situation.  Both Jesus and Paul regularly use this technique, perplexing well-educated evangelical preachers who see their statements as divinely inspired but also know they violate all the principles of sound exegesis.

We can see this process reaching back in time.  The kings of Judah used the stories of their ancestors, David and Solomon, to shore up their own positions in the face of Assyrian imperialism, as a way of uniting their kingdom after a wave of northern refugees, and as a way of explaining their religious reforms.  The priests of post-exilic Jerusalem used these same stories as part of a the grand narrative of national continuity and faith in God that helped their temple worship to survive and helped cement Jewish identity.  The first Christians radically reinterpreted the idea of a Davidic messiah to provide continuity with the Jewish faith, while also opening it up for non-Jewish believers.  Later Christian theologians continued the process, interpreting the lives and putative writings of these kings as symbolic representations of Christ, or as examples of godly kingship.

I would suggest that we do the same thing.  Modernist Christians have reread these stories in the light of our own need for scientific factuality.  We have needed, within our modernist culture, to see them as having actually happened the way they were written.  We have needed to see the Bible as the kind of scientific history written by Finkelstein and Silberman.  We are so blind to the cultural nature of this reading that we believe our faith stands a falls by it.  If the authors are right, then it must fall.  Then again, maybe it is our culture that is temporary.


Tamsyn said...

Hello Jon,

I imagine you won't really like this article, and Mike will like it even less (:p), but I found it an interesting different point of view on how much we can rely on archaeologists to know the whole truth at any one time.
I find it too skeptical of archaeology and leaning a little too much towards blind faith for my tastes, but I think it makes some good points.

Tamsyn said...

... when rereading the article, I should add that I like until the 'Biblical Truth' bit and following, after that I think he goes off the deep end and is closed minded.

Jon said...

Thanks for that link Tamsyn, it's a very interesting article.

He is certainly right that the conclusions of archaeology are always tentative - they are interpretations of data, and archaeologists like Finkelstein and Silberman try to make the best sense they can of a vast amount of ambiguous information.

However, my problem with Mr Climer is best shown in this statement from the near the bottom of his section on archaeology.

"Now that event either took place or it did not take place."

It is also possible that it did take place, but not in exactly the way described in the biblical account (or Homer's account of the Trojan war). This is what Finkelstein and Silberman are saying about David and Solomon. The stories have grown and changed over the years but something like the incidents described probably did happen. They say Solomon probably did build a temple, but it could not have been as large and ornate as the one described in 1 Kings.

Nor are the Biblical editors really at great pains to conceal these later editings, since they are not trying to compose scientific history anyway - so the book of Samuel, as well as recording the story of David killing Goliath, has an alternative version (2 Sam 21:19) in which he is killed by Elhanan.

The "Biblical truth is different to archaeological truth" line, however, does have a lot of sense to it. The problem is Climer wants to make Biblical truth the same as archaeological or "scientific historical" truth, so the two end up in conflict and you have to decide between them. That was never the purpose of the Biblical writers.