Reckoning With David In Scholarship and Media

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By: Zachary Thomas, Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

Oh how the mighty had fallen! As our college Juan Manuel Tebes recently described here on the ASOR blog, the too-and-fro over the historicity of David and Solomon’s kingdom may recently have begun to tip just that much back towards a positive historical reconstruction of our biblical description of the United Monarchy. Of course there are not a few scholars out there, such as Amihai Mazar, Thomas Levy and Baruch Halpern, who would probably say that David and Solomon never went away. They have been some of the major voices against a line of scholarship that has argued that a) we have misdated archaeological strata previously assigned to the United Monarchy in the tenth century and that b) the biblical picture of David and Solomon’s time, while it might contain a few historical memories, is largely an ideological account retrojected back by authors writing during the later Judean monarchy, say around the 7th BCE. I suspect that proponents of this line of thought, especially its leader Israel Finkelstein and some of his Tel Aviv University colleagues, would probably say that there is no such resurgence in the historicity of David and Solomon.

2015 marks the twentieth anniversary of this debate, at least in its current form. In 1995 Israel Finkelstein proposed that we should move the beginning of the Iron Age IIA period down from its traditional place at the beginning of the 10th century BCE to the beginning of the 9th century. This meant that all the archaeology previously thought to have demonstrated that reliability of the account in Samuel and Kings for this period was now gone, reassigned to the early kings of the breakaway Northern Kingdom, probably Omri or Ahab. Most notable amongst the casualties were the six-chambered gates and associated monumental architecture from the Iron IIA at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. 1 Kings 9:15 tells us that these cities were built by Solomon. But was this perhaps just false ‘Golden Age’ thinking on the part of a later author?

The reason why this debate has endured and the reason why I have devoted my own academic research to it is that it is about as complex, fascinating and frustrating as an academic debate can get. It has exposed new and old questions of evidence and method and forced both archaeologists and biblical scholars to think about them in new and challenging ways. In the academic community, it has forced our field to confront two questions: how do we do historical reconstruction, and how do we integrate text and archaeology? But it is not, as they say, all academic. The United Monarchy is not all ancient history now. David and Solomon are central figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition that still permeates the Western world. Their stories, like the Bible as a whole, are relevant to many people both as windows into ancient Israel’s history and as part of the word of God. So how do we communicate our scholarship in popular media, and what responsibilities do scholars have when engaging with the religiously-interested and secular public alike?

I was reminded once again of all these questions and how they might be answered when reading a recent article in the online magazine Ancient Jew Review on some recent scholarship concerning the historical David and how it has been communicated in the media by Dr. Michael Press, presently of Indiana University. Let us now to engage with the points of discussion that he brought up. As readers will see, I provide a very different perspective on many of these issues.

Press begins by noting some prominent recent discoveries that have made it into the media, such as the Large Stone Structure in the City of David, Jerusalem. The archaeologist who oversaw its excavation, Eilat Mazar, has stated categorically in both academic publications and the popular media that it is the palace of king David described in 2 Samuel 5:11, built as a diplomatic gift of sorts by king Hiram of Tyre. Amihai Mazar and Avraham Faust prefer to see it as the metsudat Tsion, literally the ‘fortress of Zion’ of 2 Samuel 5:7, which David had captured in his conquest of Jerusalem. Of even more interest to Press however are two recent articles by Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa, which discuss new light being shed on the area of ‘Palistin’, part of the Neo-Hittite and Aramaic ambit in Syria to the north of Israel at around the time of David.

The Large Stone Structure in the City of David. Photo by the author.

The Large Stone Structure in the City of David. Photo by the author.

Newer hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions and excavations at Aleppo and Tell Tayinat, the biblical Calneh, are shedding new light on the period of early Iron Age, the 11th to 9th centuries BCE in northeast Syria and southern Cilicia. Inscriptions such as those found in the Temple of the Storm God at Aleppo indicate that in this period the kingdom of Palistin was ruled by a king named Taitas. Given the somewhat different dates of the inscriptions, there were probably two successive kings with that name. Under the second Taitas or slightly later this large kingdom seems to have fragmented into smaller states occupying its former domain, including at least Unqi, Arpad, and Hamath. Galil agrees with Hittitologist Charles Steitler that we can identify the name Taitas with the biblical king Toi of Hamath, who in 2 Samuel 8:9-10 joins with David in an alliance against their mutual foe, Hadadezer of Aram-Zobah. In this reconstruction the biblical Toi is probably the second Taitas or an even later dynastic king baring that name. The name ‘Palistin’ will of course strike readers as similar to ‘Palestine’, a word derived from the name of the Philistines, one of the Sea Peoples and Israel’s neighbour, and Galil does again agree with previous scholarship that the name ‘Palistin’ is derived from a northern branch of the Sea Peoples’ settlement in the Levant.

An approximation of the Levant in the tenth century BCE. Gershon Galil, used with permission.

An approximation of the Levant in the tenth century BCE. Gershon Galil, used with permission.

Finally, Galil proposes that the development and then split of a large Levantine kingdom in the late eleventh and early tenth century BCE known from extra-biblical sources demonstrates that the similar narrative of the United Monarchy, established and enlarged under David only to divide after the death of his son Solomon, is historically plausible and realistic, though not directly proven. Galil also announced the conclusions of his articles in a press release through the University of Haifa. Dr. Press however is of the view that this as well as other recent communiques to the public of other discoveries tend to sidestep the contested historical issues and give a misleading impression of what historians and archaeologists actually do. I will return to the subject of recent public communication below, but first I wish to take a good look at Press’s critiques of Galil’s articles in full.

Press’s first problem is with the biblical Toi’s name: He doesn’t accept that Toi is the correct spelling, because the parallel passage to 2 Samuel 8:9-10 that we find in 1 Chronicles 18:9-10 spells it ‘Tou’, where, “all versions of the text – including the Hebrew – have Tou” to quote Press. Our texts are actually rather inconsistent. The Greek rendering for the Chronicles passage is ‘Toua’, while in the Samuel passage as Press notes the Greek has both Toi and Tou. On top of that, we have ‘Thaei’ in one Greek manuscript and ‘Thainos’ in the 1st century CE historian Josephus. As such I find it difficult to accept Press’s conclusion that, “Text criticism therefore suggests that the original form of the name was very likely Tou, and that Toi was a scribal error.” Press is correct that there is something going on here, but given the inconsistency I’m not sure that ‘Toi’ needs to be explained as a scribal error from an original ‘Tou’. The letters yod and waw that respectively give us the -i and -u sounds of ‘To’i and ‘Tou’ could often be mixed up by the time we get to the Hebrew script of the Herodian period because by that stage they looked so similar. These factors leave the situation ambiguous, so either reading is possible but neither certain.

Other names vary somewhat between Samuel and Chronicles: Is Toi’s son named Joram as in 2 Samuel 8:10 or Hadoram as in 1 Chronicles 18:10? David’s friendly Phoenician counterpart is Hiram in 2 Samuel 5:11 and Hirum in 1 Chronicles 14:1, with the same variation between yod and waw as vowel letters that we see with Toi and Tou. Nor can I accept Press’s statement that, “the names Tou and Taitas have nothing in common beyond the first letter;” Steitler had already provided an explanation for the shift from the ‘a’ of Taitas to the ‘o’ of Toi and Tou that Galil recognises, the so-called Canaanite Shift that moves ‘a’ vowels to ‘o’ vowels.

It is broadly agreed that Chronicles is clearly a document compiled after the Judean exile in 586 BC. While the role of linguistic elements in dating biblical texts is currently a topic of controversy, scholars such as William Schniedewind have shown that much of Samuel and Kings was quite certainly first composed before the exile, when our epigraphic evidence shows that Hebrew writing was actually at its zenith in the 8th century BCE. Variations in the text cannot and should not always just be explained as scribal errors, and in the absence of more direct contrary evidence, it seems Toi is likely still the original name.

Press also brings up a problem with the name ‘Palistin’ and its connection to the Philistines, which he rejects. First, Press notes that we only have this name from the inscription of Taitas found in the Temple of the Storm God at Aleppo, otherwise the other inscriptions, from Tell Tayinat, two from near Hama and two more found near the bay of Isekderun appear to call it ‘Walistin’. Press is of course correct in considering this problematic, but I’m not prepared to say that we should reject the ‘Palistin’ reading. As was noted by Galil, leading Luwian scholar J. David Hawkins does not consider this variation particularly problematic; he like Steitler and Tayinat’s current excavator Timothy Harrison see it as possibly just an unsettled variation between two similar vowels, much like the letter pey in the Hebrew name of the Philistines that can be pronounced either soft or hard.

Press also argues that the ‘-in’ in ‘Palistin’ is not found in the name of Philistines in the ancient languages that mention them, that is Egyptian, Hebrew and Assyrian/Babylonian, so as part of the name of ‘Palistin’ it again renders the connection to the Philistines implausible. However, we have potential explanations for this as well. To call again upon Hawkins, he has suggested that the -in may be derived from the similarly written Aramaic plural marker. Hawkins doubted that the -in could be related to the same sound in the Greek term Palaistinē used by Herodotus, but the late Itamar Singer, a noted Hittitologist, proposed that given the likely Aegean origin of the Sea Peoples this explanation is also possible, if we are willing to entertain the connection in the first place of course.

Still, we should not confuse suggested explanations with direct evidence that Palistin/Walistin was named and populated by a Sea Peoples group. But there are two more concrete points of evidence that Press does not mention which need to be acknowledged. First, we have the reliefs and texts from Rameses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, which record the Pharaoh’s repulse of the Sea Peoples two battles, one by sea and one on land. A new examination by Dan’el Kahn of the University of Haifa suggests that while they have traditionally been thought to indicate a land battle on Egyptian soil, they more likely indicate that Rameses III fought them in the northern Levant, even in the area that the kingdom of Palistin/Walistin seems to have later controlled. The strongest piece of evidence however comes from excavations in the territory of Palistin/Walistin itself, the Orontes valley. Excavations at Tayinat and elsewhere in the area have found that with the advent of the early Iron Age we see the arrival of Aegean material culture in the area, most noticeably Mycenaean pottery and loom-weights of the same type found in Philistia, and in substantial amounts.

Tell Tayinat from above: Photo by Murat Akar, courtesy of the Tayinat Archaeological Project.

Tell Tayinat from above: Photo by Murat Akar, courtesy of the Tayinat Archaeological Project.

Thus we have a direct material culture link to the Philistines. As a result, I don’t think that, “any attempt to link this kingdom to the Philistines is merely guesswork,” as Press does. In fact, I would say it is at least reasonable.

That covers Press’s more specific critiques of Galil’s work. Let us now take a look at his more methodological critiques, which are perhaps even more interesting. As I mentioned above, Galil proposes that that the situation we apparently see in Palistin/Walistin, a short-lived large kingdom or even small ‘empire’ that later fragments, is similar to that of David and Solomon’s biblical kingdom, which splits in two after Solomon’s death, thereby ending the domination his father had established over his surrounding nations. To add weight to his argument Galil notes that similar instances can be seen in the kingdom of Carchemish in the 12th century BCE in the region of the upper Euphrates and the conquests of king Hazael of Damascus in the late 9th century BCE, the latter of whom controlled much of northern Syria and also campaigned in the Transjordan and as far as Philistia, only to have his position broken up after his death by Assyria. Excavations at the ancient Philistine site of Gath have revealed evidence of his siege of the great city, which never fully recovered thereafter. Press is sceptical because the examples Galil provided were all in Syria and not in the southern part of the Levant where Israel is located, and because, “before the modern period, the states of the southern Levant lacked the manpower and resources to control large areas, as was possible in the northern Levant.”

But how does Israel’s particular geographic location make a difference? In the game of ancient Near Eastern politics, defence and conquest, I would argue that geography influenced how ancient leaders did what they did more than what they could do. In the absence of a clear reason why David could not have extended territorial hegemony out from Israel in the 10th century BCE purely by dint of his southern location I cannot accept Press’s argument. I am also not sure whether or not we can we say what manpower had to do with maintaining the kind of rule that kings like Taitas, Hazael or David had. Do we know how much manpower was needed for controlling a given amount of territory and if so, how? If we do, do we know that Syria had it and Israel didn’t? I don’t think we have the answers to these questions, and as I will discuss below, I think they are misleading anyway.

In order to discuss Press’s most thought-provoking paragraph, I must quote it in full:

“As may be clear by now, a major problem with this reconstruction is the lack of critical historical methodology in reading sources. Proper historical analysis involves at its very core the evaluation of sources and their reliability. But here, each source is treated in the same way, as equally reliable. Royal inscriptions from the time of the ruler in question are approached no differently from the biblical texts, which consist of extended literary narratives extensively edited, if not written, centuries after the events they purport to describe, and preserved only in divergent manuscripts dating centuries later still. The main underlying assumptions here are that these sources must fit together as part of a single world, a historical one; therefore, the Bible is represented essentially as a historical document. This is a flattening of the huge differences in genre, audience, and goals of each text. It represents a naïve, and ultimately misleading, approach to reading texts.”

Press is of course correct to draw out attention to the matter of “historical methodology,” but I am concerned that we may find ourselves taking an unnecessarily sceptical approach to doing history. We should evaluate our sources critically, but we must be nuanced; evaluation does not equal rejection, why should we judge a source unreliable without a good reason?

To be fair, Press is indeed correct that Galil doesn’t provide much in the way of background or methodology for his use of sources, but I think that same problem besets Press’s approach as well. Consider again the issue of David’s so-called “empire” that I mentioned above. It seems that throughout his article Press assumes that the biblical text in 2 Samuel would have us believe David actually exercised direct and ongoing control over the lands and peoples that he conquered, as though he made the Transjordanian kingdoms and the territory of his Aramean foes into his own and administered them from Jerusalem. But if we apply some “critical historical methodology,” we see that this is almost certainly not the case. Thanks to the work primarily of Baruch Halpern, we know that even if the author(s) of 2 Samuel and ch. 8 in particular had this intention, it was a deliberate façade, a great rhetorical ploy that spun David’s actions out to the maximal possible extend for the purpose of his glorification. This is not surprising; in fact Halpern has shown it is just what we should expect from a text detailing the deeds of an ancient Near Eastern king. As Christopher Hays has recently pointed out in some detail, the same thing is going on with Solomon: 1 Kings 4:21-25 is highly nuanced in describing the extent of Solomon’s rule beyond the traditional borders of Israel. From Egypt to the unnamed river he ‘was sovereign’, he ‘had dominion’, and was brought ‘tribute’, but we are not told he was ‘king’ anywhere but Israel, even if that is the direction in which the texts wants to leads us. As Lawson Younger showed some time ago, the description of Solomon’s reign in replete with other examples. This is propaganda, the expression of power, and hence the reason that I think questions like how much manpower was needed for controlling a given amount of territory are rather beside the point.

In fact, it is a small number of texts that are relevant to the discussion we are reviewing here. It would not matter if Galil and others were “flattening” different genres across the biblical texts; the texts we are concerned with comprise only 2 Samuel and inscriptions mentioning Taitas and Palistin/Walistin. The genre of those inscriptions is not even of much concern, as much as that they make mention of a kingdom and a king that could be linked to the biblical text, unless we are to suppose that the authors of these inscriptions made them up? Obviously the historical nature, or lack thereof of the Samuel accounts is a much more complicated issue, but it is only by being open to new strands of evidence that we can hope to reach a full and defendable understanding, as part of an ongoing dialogue. We should not disregard the contribution that new evidence and analysis can make based upon any prior judgement; our judgements must be provisional because we never know what could be just around the scholarly corner to make us shift our thinking.

Regardless, we were not exactly without evidence before Taitas was linked to Toi for the historical nature of the Samuel accounts. Even Israel Finkelstein, who as I mentioned above is far from the most bullish about the historicity of these accounts, has accepted that there are some very early memories behind the narratives of the United Monarchy. How else did the writer(s) know of Gath’s prominence before it destruction by Hazael in the 9th century BCE? Or, to use an oft-repeated example, did they know of the pharaoh Shishak’s campaign into the Levant shortly after Solomon’s death? We still have record of his campaign, albeit incomplete, in Egypt. These are just two primary examples of course, but they remind us that we are dealing with neither a later invention or a text created in a historical vacuum devoid of context in the time of its setting.

I would argue much the same for the dating of the biblical texts. Press is by no means out of step in saying that they were likely written or edited centuries after the time in which their stories are set, for indeed most scholars would say the same for much of the Hebrew Bible. This is because, as I have said above, we know that Hebrew writing reached its zenith towards the end of the monarchic period, from the late 8th century BCE until the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Though we have some books such as Chronicles and Esther that date from the Exile or later, Schniedewind has shown us that our archaeological evidence indicates that the writing of Hebrew went into a decline after a Hebrew-language state ceased to exist, and so the best historical place to locate the writing of much biblical literature is in late-monarchic Jerusalem. Even though this may leave us with stories of David that long postdate his life in their written form, Jens Bruun Kofoed has also reminded us of two important caveats: first, that later texts do not automatically mean unreliable texts because second, both written and oral sources can in fact remain available and quite stable over extended periods of time when they are meaningful to their custodians.

What’s more, we need to remain as provisional in our conclusions about dating biblical texts and their sources as we are about their historicity, because such dating is also an ongoing interaction of different lines of evidence and argument. If we lock ourselves into an idea about dating Samuel and Kings, and say such-and-such a proposal or piece of new evidence is invalid because of the text’s late date of authorship, we run the risk of neither evaluating that new idea on its own terms or allowing it to contribute to a comprehensive discussion about the texts’ dating, historical character or genre. We can at least entertain the possibility of a genuine historical link between Taitas and Toi and the impact such a link would have on our questions about the attributes of the text, otherwise our answers will be self-perpetuating. Could not a Taitas/Toi link be another indication that a later composition had earlier sources, or that some of this text may in fact date even earlier than the late monarchic period?

Fortunately I am able to end on a more agreeable note, because I do largely concur with Press’s view of the way recent scholarship has been communicated to the public, in that it gives the impression that, ”we spend our entire careers trying to evaluate (or, even worse, prove) the historicity of David’s great empire.” I myself regard the evaluation of David and Solomon’s empire as a worthy an important topic within the overall historical and archaeological discussion of the United Monarchy. As I mentioned at the above, this is a discussion that is both alive and robust at present. Even so, it is hard to avoid Press’s observation that when such research is communicated to the public, there has been a tendency to avoid the fact that it is part of a mature and complex scholarly debate. What we end up with is the appearance that scholars have not moved beyond the sort of research foci that characterised the old ‘biblical archaeology’. As Press points out, modern archaeological and biblical research explores a multitude of other subject fields and approaches that are just as valuable, from household archaeology or sociology to historical memory studies or the sociolinguistics of Hebrew. I suppose the problem is that these fields don’t always produce the kind of scholarship that will be of as much interest to the public or media, be it religious or secular, as eye-catching historical claims, whatever their validity.

We should spare a thought for those scholars who want to tell the public about eye-catching ‘discoveries’ or’ insights’, because we have to remember that they are operating in world where finances are tight and students sometimes hard to attract, which only fuels the need to get one’s work noticed So despite my criticism of much of Dr. Press’s article espoused here, I can only finish by repeating his call for a more broad and inclusive approach to showing the public how much we have come to learn about ancient Israel and its world.

*My thanks to Kyle Keimer and Gareth Wearne for their comments on this post. All opinions are of course mine.


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