Locating Memory between Story and History – By Mark McEntire

Mark McEntire on Jacob L. Wright’s David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory

Jacob L. Wright, David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 284pp., $29.99
Jacob L. Wright, David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 284pp., $29.99

The field of biblical studies has yet to escape from its nineteenth century move toward a largely positivist historical paradigm. Stephen Moore and Yvonne Sherwood’s The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto portrays a century and a half of scholarship as a dead end path, hopelessly bound to a historical paradigm despite the emergence of postmodern methods in recent decades. They advocate a rigorous examination of the history of the discipline that would reveal paths not taken in its early stages. A more recent essay by Ronald Hendel, “Mind the Gap: Modern and Postmodern Biblical Studies” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 2014), addresses similar questions and engages the work of Moore and Sherwood. Hendel identifies a “strong” and a “weak” form of postmodernism within contemporary biblical studies; he rejects the former because of its radical subjectivity. He attempts to link Moore and Sherwood’s work to the more desirable weak form and advocates using Nietzche’s understanding of philology — “the incomparable art of reading well” — as a bridge between modern and postmodern biblical scholarship.

Both works are helpful and I do not dispute the critiques they offer. Yet for two reasons I found myself vaguely troubled as I read them. First, the authors write about academic biblical studies as an activity in which others are engaged, even though they are all productive scholars who have been actively engaged in the field themselves. Whatever I may think of the last three decades of biblical scholarship, I have been a participant, not an observer above the fray, and my academic work has taken shape in that context. Sherwood and Moore, in particular, want to erase the past century and a half without recognizing how their own work is integrally connected to it, even when reacting against it. Second, while Sherwood, Moore, and Hendel attempt to move beyond diagnosis to treatment, they offer no concrete solutions. I came away from these laments unsure what their new vision of scholarship looks like.

I began my own formal, academic study of the Bible in 1986 and soon felt caught in the middle. Behind me was an enormous body of historical-critical scholarship my reading list expected me to master; in front, a murky sea of new methods vying for attention. Often the newer methods that tend to be more literary made room for themselves by declaring the historical-critical era failed, bankrupt, or too beholden to cultural power. In the game of biblical studies the ball was loose, and the elbows were flying.

For the past few decades, as we have attempted to describe how written texts operate and to determine what we should do with them, biblical scholars have struggled to find convenient and useful terminology for the perceived divide in our discipline. The central question has been whether we understand an ancient text by seeking its origins and discovering the process of its composition, by paying careful attention to its present form, or by asking how readers have responded to it. Various groups of methods had to decide whether the author, the text, or the reader determined meaning. The strong postmodernism Hendel describes, which might be better described as rigid, insisted on either/or choices in response to this question. Hendel’s weak form, which received this unfortunate name because of its flexibility, holds out the possibility that all three ways can work together. Integrative work within the field of biblical studies also requires a broader, interdisciplinary engagement with the humanities, so its procedures and results hold the possibility of more constructive interaction with other academic fields.

The methodological conflicts of biblical studies in the late twentieth century also had an important socio-political aspect. As in most other academic disciplines, our guild has grown more diverse. The historical-critical approach had been the product and playing field of white European and American men, and many considered it an irredeemable hierarchical structure. Interpreters with liberationist or feminist concerns found historical-critical methods hardly conducive to their work and experimented with a wide variety of new methods, most of which focused on the finished text and the intersection between text and reader, while overtly rejecting questions about the composition process. The historical-critical enterprise had become larger than the historical evidence could support, and the project itself was associated with cultural power, so readings wishing to critique cultural power had to reject methods allied with it. Researchers still invested in historical-critical scholarship often bemoaned the fragmentation of the discipline and longed for the days of a perceived consensus on methodology. Yet much of the energy drained from the conflict during the first decade of the twenty-first century. The newer methods with staying power — rhetorical, narrative, and sociological approaches — had established themselves and created venues for oral presentation and print publication of their results. Biblical studies became compartmentalized and those using like methods began to communicate exclusively with each other.

Some recent projects, like Jacob L. Wright’s David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, have begun to move in a more integrative direction, finding ways to cross methodological boundaries. Wright’s work demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the final form of the biblical literature and the historical realities that produced it, allowing methods to enhance each other instead of fighting for individual attention. Perhaps those experiencing similar frustrations with rigid methodological boundaries in other fields within the humanities may find analogous ways forward.

The primary texts for Wright’s examination of David, 1 and 2 Samuel, are too complex for any one method to explain. Wright begins with narrative observations about the kind of character David is in the canonical forms of the books called 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, and the constellation of the characters around David in these texts. Much of the scholarship on David over the past few decades remains entirely in this realm, viewing the story of David as a grand work of art — which it is. But the nature of the narratives leads naturally into questions about how and why someone composed them this way, and Wright chooses to pursue those questions rather than stay within one methodological compartment.

Many interpreters concerned primarily to examine the composition process of the text isolate a set of passages that defend David’s character and his reign, but they fail to return to the final form of the text and the striking tensions in its portrayal of David’s relationship with Saul. According to Wright, “What we need then is a more plausible, and robust, model to explain why the biblical authors composed such colorful, detailed, and revealing tales about David.” To produce this model one must move back and forth between examination of the final narrative and the sources and processes involved in its composition.

When separated into apparent sources, one strand of passages within 1 and 2 Samuel demonstrates David’s superiority over Saul, but a second group criticizes royal power in ways that do not fit a narrative primarily intended to defend a king. Wright argues that the purpose of the latter group, which often presents David’s human failings with startling openness, is to present a portrait of a community capable of surviving devastating defeat and the loss of its monarchy. If even the greatest king has flaws sufficient to throw the nation into chaos, then the monarchy can hardly be indispensable. A third category of passages requires crossing an additional methodological boundary, and has received the least scholarly attention: those that negotiate membership and status within the social group called Judah at various times. Wright contends this is the reason the David story is so packed with names of people and places. His most innovative proposal concerns the use of “war commemoration” to negotiate political status and relations. He brings contemporary sociological perspectives into the discussion by using a monument of the American Civil War as a starting point to examine how human societies use war commemoration in their negotiation of status and relationships. Moving back to the Bible he establishes war commemoration as both literary form and ideological tool. With David commemorated as Judah’s greatest hero, later writers could identify groups and establish their status by telling stories of how their ancestors either helped or opposed David. Wright’s flexible approach does not restrict him to the world that produced the ancient text, the narrative world inside the text, or the world of the modern reader.

Wright demonstrates another kind of flexibility in his examination of the Bathsheba and Uriah episode when he moves behind the biblical text and beyond its colloquial world to older parallels provided by archaeological work in the region around ancient Israel. Two older texts come from outside of Israel, and both are records of correspondence involving ancient kings. In one, a Hittite king during the thirteenth century BCE writes to an advisor of an Assyrian prince; in the other pair, a general and a servant write to Zimri-Lim, the eighteenth-century ruler of Mari. Both are private letters discussing the significance of a king establishing a powerful public reputation. Wright compares these letters to the communications between David and Joab in 2 Sam 11. The massive difference is that archaeologists found the letters of these other kings in royal archives, while the biblical writers publicly display the messages between David and Joab to their readers, unmasking royal machinations.

Wright also makes use of material data produced by archaeology. The biblical text gives the most attention to Judah in the south, ignoring the northern state of Israel almost entirely in Chronicles. Archaeological evidence, however, reveals that in terms of population, economics, and political influence, the northern state was far superior. To determine the motives of the writers, Wright carefully reads the Bible’s story of Israel and her relationship with Judah against the backdrop of the Israel modern historians have reconstructed with the help of archaeology.

But his methodological alacrity finds its greatest payoff in the conclusions about a “War-Torn David.” The biblical authors use the past to address their own present, which we can understand in light of our own present. According to Wright, “[t]he same activity that produced the monuments dotting our national landscapes propelled the Bible’s formation. Using representative individuals, the biblical writers appealed to memories of wartime contributions and sacrifice as they addressed issues of belonging — both within the community of Israel and between Israel and other peoples.” People of all eras struggle to make their version of a great story the dominant one and to decide who is allowed to attach themselves to the tradition surrounding the story. The tugging and pulling on David behind, within, and in front of the biblical text illuminate one another in ways obscured by artificial boundaries between methods of interpretation.

Despite all he accomplishes, Wright has not yet fully accounted for the complex seam between the Saul and David traditions in the present form of 1 Samuel 16-17. How can David be the forgettable kid-brother out watching the sheep in I Samuel 16:11, the valorous warrior in 16:18, the errand boy in 17:15, and the unknown hero in 17:55? Why would those who produced the final form of the text have tolerated narrative incoherence in the extreme? Observations of such inconsistencies are the primary force driving a search for earlier sources. Wright criticizes the search for “self-standing sources” in this and other parts of the Bible and argues for a more supplemental approach, but if our reading process begins with a recognition of incoherence in the present text, an explanation of its composition should lead to something more coherent behind it, lest we engage in infinite regress. The presence of earlier written sources with some degree of authority offers a plausible explanation for editorial limitations faced by the final authors. Problems both resolved and remaining reveal the need for an inter-disciplinary approach to ancient texts as diverse in its conversations with the humanities as the text was with the array of issues facing its composers.

David Killing a Lion. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
David Killing a Lion. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The most prominent boundary between historical and literary approaches became a point of contention in another recent article by Ronald Hendel called “Is the ‘J’ Primeval Narrative an Independent Composition? ” (in The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research in 2012). Hendel commented on the revival of source criticism and responded to those who had declared the J source of the Pentateuch a dead idea. One of these critics claimed the J source had no discernible style, to which Hendel responded: “This position may have been credible a generation ago, when literary study of biblical narrative was virtually nonexistent. But I submit that it is not credible today, when there are many lucid descriptions of the literary art of biblical prose.”

I cannot imagine anybody making such a statement even ten years ago. Hendel claims the advances in the study of narrative art (sometimes called poetics) in the last quarter of the 20th century have provided a tool for source criticism’s revival — just when it seemed the latter had been eclipsed. While those who have worked in the past to identify sources used vocabulary, syntax, theology, and duplication as their primary tools, they now have very carefully developed understandings of characterization, settings, and plot development at their disposal. Hendel’s use of the term “narrative art” pointed back to the work of two scholars of the Hebrew Bible who wrote influential books in the early 1980s: Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative) and Shimon Bar-Efrat (Narrative Art in the Bible). Nobody could have guessed thirty years ago that these two books, which were leading the field away from methods that divided the text into more original units and toward those that read the final form of the text closely, might eventually bring the field back, full-circle, to consideration of the production of biblical books from earlier sources.

Wright’s study of David has followed the course at which Hendel hinted. It is a path that looks through the text at the past that formed it, at the text in its current beauty and complexity, and at the ways the experience of readers can illuminate the text, allowing the results of these diverse lines of inquiry to converse with each other. Interpretations claiming to be purely historical seek an ancient text’s origins while ignoring the productive possibilities of a deliberate engagement with the world of the reader, and postmodern approaches offer a corrective to this tendency. But postmodern readings of the Bible have failed to separate themselves from the historical paradigm of Modernity because such divisions in the ways humans construct knowledge are artificial.

Ways of reading an ancient text that ignore that text’s past are problematic for the same reason as those disregarding its present. King David is a figure created in the past, preserved in texts, and encountered in the present. Methodologically pure investigations attempt to lock these processes away from each other. The movement from a figure in the past to recounted stories about that figure to complex literature that selects and arranges the stories for multiple purposes is a dynamic process best understood holistically. The overlapping nature of the procedures involved in the development of traditions means that a text’s production and reception are not independent of each other, and there is no pure text independent of its production and reception. Rending the literary process damages or truncates the part it seeks to separate from the whole, and leaves traces of the other parts that continue to exert their influence, even if against the will of the interpreter. With his reading of King David, Wright has demonstrated the creative capacity of an integrated approach to a complex literary tradition that is at the core of so many Western cultural identities.