Did the shepherd boy David really slay the Philistine giant Goliath? Did Saul’s son Jonathan, the crown prince, really covenant with David? Did David really commit adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba and then have her soldier-husband Uriah surreptitiously murdered? If not, why were these stories composed and by whom? These are the kinds of questions addressed in the latest book by Baruch Halpern, professor of Jewish studies at Penn State University and codirector of the excavations at Megiddo, Israel.
The book is a product of the current controversy between the so-called minimalists and maximalists over the historicity of the biblical narratives about David and Solomon. This controversy has its roots in the school of biblical interpretation founded by William F. Albright in the mid-20th century. The agenda of the school was to “prove” the historicity of the biblical account through archaeology.
The minimalist attack on this highly influential school of biblical historicism began in 1978, when John Van Seters and Thomas Thompson independently demonstrated that the patriarchal narratives were composed centuries after the time they depict. Van Seters and Thompson concluded that the numerous anachronisms in these texts meant that there was no such thing as a Patriarchal Period as described by the Bible. Scholars conceded the point, and turned their attention to Moses and the Exodus. Here, too, they found little if any evidence for the historicity of the event or the man. Similarly, contradictions between the Books of Joshua and Judges called into question the historicity of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. At the same time, archaeological surveys disclosed a gradual emergence of Israel in the central hill country. As a result, biblical historians retreated from their formerly optimistic positions, and began their histories with either the period of the Judges or the United Monarchy of Saul, David and Solomon.
The minimalists have gathered such momentum over the last 20 years that now even the existence of David and Solomon has come under assault. The so-called Copenhagen School of minimalists, led by Thomas Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche, points out that the Davidic and Solomonic narratives are part of the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), which they claim was written in Persian or Hellenistic times (fifth to fourth century B.C.E.). Because the Bible dates David and Solomon to the tenth century B.C.E., the stories about the two figures must be legendary, comparable to the legends of King Arthur.
The minimalist assault has been so vocal that scholars have begun to debate whether a history of ancient Israel can even be written. In response to that question, Halpern brings forward an array of linguistic and epigraphic evidence allowing for such a history. He shows that the Hebrew of the Deuteronomistic History and geographical citations contained therein require that it be dated no later than the sixth century B.C.E. More important, all extrabiblical references to Israelite kings are corroborated by the biblical text, in the correct chronological order. Conversely, all biblical references to foreign kings are corroborated by external evidence, again in the correct order. Since the correlations begin in the late tenth century B.C.E. with Pharaoh Shishak’s invasion of Judah, it is not unreasonable to begin a history of Israel with the reigns of David and Solomon.
Halpern’s greatest contribution is to augment existing scholarship on the apologetic nature of the Davidic narratives. Because the narratives seek to defend David from a variety of charges connected with his usurpation of the Saulide throne, they can be dated to his reign or shortly thereafter. Only at that time was such a strenuous exoneration of David necessary. Clearly he is no King Arthur, since the stories primarily legitimate his bloody rise to the throne and forceful suppression of Absalom’s revolt. In other words, David not only existed, he murdered a series of powerful men, he usurped the throne and he violently put down a popular uprising. That is, the stories about David are not legends but royal propaganda used to cover up and explain David’s brutal behavior. As such, the texts are best understood in the context of other ancient Near Eastern royal propaganda.
Halpern reconstructs the actual circumstances of David’s rise and reign in great detail. Using what he calls the “Tiglath-pileser principle,” he limits David’s “empire” to the territory between Dan and Beersheba, as opposed to the wide swath from Egypt to 041the Euphrates River that the Bible seems to want us to believe David controlled. (Tiglath-pileser was an Assyrian monarch who claimed in his victory stelae far more than he had achieved, but who always left hints about what he actually did accomplish.) In David”s case, the Bible indicates that David defeated the king of Aram by a river. Readers are left to assume this is the Euphrates, on the eastern edge of the Aramean kingdom. But Halpern suggests that the Jordan is equally possible textually and far more probable historically. Also, by paying attention to the silences in the text, Halpern concludes that while King David allied himself with the Philistines and other foreigners, who are portrayed in an unusually positive manner, Saul maintained a nativist policy.
The most startling of Halpern’s findings concerns the David and Bathsheba story. Many scholars agree that this story defends Solomon’s succession to the throne. However, most posit that the story attempts to prove that Solomon was not the offspring of the adulterous affair (that baby died, according to 2 Samuel 12:18), but the son of the legitimate marriage that took place after Bathsheba was widowed. Halpern demonstrates that, on the contrary, the story was created to establish Solomon as David’s son and not the son of Bathsheba’s first husband, Uriah. According to Halpern, the name “Solomon” (Hebrew, Shlomo), which means “his replacement,” more logically refers to the son’s replacement of his dead father, Uriah. In other words, the Bathsheba story was designed to cover up the fact that David’s successor was not only not the designated heir, he may not even have been David’s son!
There are some flaws with the book. Primarily, Halpern’s source analysis is idiosyncratic and poorly argued, leading to the false conclusion that all the Davidic narratives were composed in Solomon’s court. (Most were composed in David’s court, which we know because most exonerate David, not Solomon. The Bathsheba story stands apart in that it anticipates Solomon’s succession; it should be attributed to his historian.) Secondly, the text criticism is nonexistent, which is a problem given the corrupt Masoretic Text of the Book of Samuel. Finally, much of the presentation is overly technical and not accessible to a general audience. Nevertheless, the book is exhaustively researched, covers enormous ground and is brilliantly original, offering great reward to the brave reader.
Did the shepherd boy David really slay the Philistine giant Goliath? Did Saul’s son Jonathan, the crown prince, really covenant with David? Did David really commit adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba and then have her soldier-husband Uriah surreptitiously murdered? If not, why were these stories composed and by whom? These are the kinds of questions addressed in the latest book by Baruch Halpern, professor of Jewish studies at Penn State University and codirector of the excavations at Megiddo, Israel. The book is a product of the current controversy between the so-called minimalists and maximalists over the historicity of the […]