J. Van Seters, The Biblical Saga of King David

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Van Seters, John, The Biblical Saga of King David (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009). Pp. xiv + 386. Hardcover. $49.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-170-2.

The Biblical Saga of King David culminates John Van Seters's distinguished research on the Davidic narratives.[1] Examining 1 Sam 16–2 Kgs 2, minus 2 Sam 21–24, Van Seters concludes that there are two “extensive and competing traditions” that are “obviously contradictory in the sense that one idealizes David … and the other regards both David's rise to the throne and the manner of his reign as typical of oriental despots and hardly a fitting model for a just society” (p. 1). Account A is the work of the Deuteronomist, while account B corresponds to what he labels “The Saga of David.”[2] The scope of the research and the conclusions offered are quite significant. Van Seters is very well informed and his conclusions are challenging. It is a recommended read for any specialist of biblical literature, but a necessary one for those who specialize in Davidic literature.

Van Seters opens his study with an extensive and highly informative literature review that critiques classic and contemporary voices within Davidic studies. Those voices include but are not limited to Wellhausen, Gunkel, Gressmann, Rost, von Rad, Whybray, Veijola, McCarter, and Dietrich. Van Seters also discusses the value of synchronic and diachronic studies in his opening chapter. His conviction that both synchronic and diachronic studies have a role within biblical studies becomes clear; such a posture is laudable. Synchronic studies appreciate the artistic quality of the biblical text in ways that diachronic studies often cannot. Synchronic studies are also hesitant to dissect the biblical text into redactional layers, which prevents the over-sharpness that often plagues redaction critical analyses. However, the unavoidable diachronic realities of the Old Testament's composition cannot be ignored. An interpretive method that preserves the integrity of this dialectic is necessary.

Genre is an important issue in Van Seters's literature review, and he rejects the prevailing view that the Davidic narratives are historiographic texts with an apologetic purpose. There are two main reasons for his rejection (p. 40). First, Van Seters believes that the socio-historical milieu of David's era was not conducive to such literary creativity, particularly since a capable state did not exist. Second, Van Seters believes that many scholars misunderstand the models and texts to which the Davidic narratives are compared.[3] As an alternative, Van Seters advances the work of David Gunn. Account B is classified as a saga in the Icelandic sense.[4] Van Seters perceives a sociological and functional equivalency, and his most important reasons are (pp. 40–49):

  • The Davidic and Icelandic sagas are loosely based on early “historical sources.” The Davidic Saga uses account A, which is Dtr's pro-Davidic account, merely as a framework.
  • Both the Davidic and Icelandic sagas are anonymous, a deliberate convention used to convey a sense of realism.
  • Such sagas are primarily concerned with “serious entertainment.” Thus, the Davidic saga is more of an artistic endeavor than an antiquarian one.
  • There is a prevailing motif of rivalries and feuds in both the Davidic and Icelandic sagas.

In chapters 2–3,Van Seters fleshes out his conviction that much of the Davidic narratives, including what has been traditionally labeled as the Succession Narrative, is not apologetic historiography. Invoking archaeological research from scholars such as Jamieson-Drake and the Tel Aviv school, Van Seters argues that the nuances of the accounts do not accurately mirror what is socio-historically known about tenth century Israel: “The archaeological evidence from Jerusalem and Judah … does furnish us with valuable negative evidence in that it strongly confirms that there was no royal monarchy or court, such as the David story suggests, and it is equally unlikely that there was any ‘united kingdom’ of all Israel, let alone an empire” (p. 119). Van Seters also emphasizes the role of mercenaries and the military throughout the Davidic narratives, for he considers it indicative of a Persian Period composition date for the Davidic Saga (see below).[5] Chapter 4 addresses the copious literary-critical and textual problems of 1 Sam 16–17, and Van Seters ultimately concludes that a once independent David vs. Goliath narrative was added to a pre-existing account. In this process, 1 Sam 17:55–18:4 was composed in conjunction with the insertion to soften the narrative transitions of the immediate context (pp. 161–2). Chapters 5–7 discuss in detail 1 Sam 18–1 Kgs 2. Van Seters identifies two narrative threads. Account A—Dtr's account—is overwhelmingly positive and presents David as the divinely chosen successor to Saul, the founder of a divinely sanctioned dynasty, and the heir to the Mosaic traditions. Conversely, account B—the Davidic Saga—is largely negative, sarcastic, and more substantial in length than account A. Furthermore, account B utilized account A as a framework to entertain and undermine its positive attitude. Both chapters 2 and 3 by Van Seters are meticulous. The reader must possess limber fingers and a sharp mind to accommodate the continual cross-referencing and re-reading that is necessary to grasp fully the subtleties of Van Seters's arguments and commentary. The conclusion of this work synthesizes these arguments and discusses them against the Deuteronomistic History with its royal ideology.

Although Van Seters's terminology can at times be somewhat idiosyncratic, the reader should admire the way in which he masterfully synthesizes the data to provide provocative proposals. Furthermore, much of Van Seters's proposal is quite reasonable. There is much to agree with in the idea that a more negative, sobering, and satirical account supplements an overwhelmingly positive account of David's life, rise, and reign. Moreover, Van Seters's conviction that literary-critical analyses of the Davidic narratives should consider socio-historical data is correct (pp. 89, 120). One may even accept the possibility that a shift in the genre accompanies the separate accounts of David's life, rise, and reign. However, Van Seters's view of historiography is open to criticism, namely with regard to the place of historical accuracy. While this issue and more have already been discussed,[6] it is important to recall Van Seters's position that ancient historiography is largely ideological. For Van Seters, it is fundamentally concerned with discussing the origins of nations and states (p. 353, n. 4). Thus, historical accuracy is not a basic concern amongst ancient historians. A saga goes a step further as it is fundamentally concerned with “serious entertainment.” Consequently, if one accepts the posture of Van Seters regarding the place of historical accuracy in defining the central tenants of ancient historiography and a saga, one is necessarily hard pressed to find in the Davidic narratives anything more than ideologies and perceptions surrounding the person and legacy of David. The possibility that the text, though largely ideological, may also preserve more accurate memories of David is not really considered, and some readers will probably find Van Seters's approach unsufficiently differentiated in this respect.

Considering the position argued by Van Seters, the reader may regret the absence of a discussion about Khirbet Qeiyafa and its impact for evaluating the Davidic narratives. This is particularly significant because Van Seters emphasizes that a literary-critical analysis must reflect the socio-historical realities behind the text (pp. 89, 120). The data unearthed at Khirbet Qeiyafa do not validate the traditional notion of a quasi-imperialistic Davidic/Solomonic kingdom, but they may invite us to reconsider the question of the existence of a capable governmental entity in this area during the 10th century.[7] In this case, the socio-political structures assumed by account B (the Davidic Saga) may not be as anachronistic as Van Seters proposes. To be fair, this book was published in 2009, while the discussion about Qeiyafa is more recent for a large part. Still, future discussions about the relationship between the David traditions in Samuel-Kings and Iron Age political realities will have to consider the question of the possible implications of the finds at Qeiyafa.

The reader may also regret that Van Seters did not tackle the Appendix of Samuel, especially considering the fact that these chapters present their own literary-critical problems (p. 1). It may be asked whether Van Seters is correct in assuming that “there is nothing in the rest of the story of David that depends on or even assumes knowledge of the material contained within the appendix” (p. 1). Scholars have long noted the connection between 2 Sam 5:17–25 and 2 Sam 21:15–22, and it is quite reasonable to postulate that these two passages existed in connection in an early account of David's exploits.[8] Furthermore, the implications of the Appendix may add a third and final phase to the development of the Davidic narratives and its perception surrounding the royal institution. Assuming for the moment Van Seters's scheme, that account B supplemented and revised account A, the addition of the Appendix would have redeemed the perception of the monarchy. What was initially positive in its assessment of the institution became negative and finally cautiously optimistic.[9]

One final issue deserves comment, namely, the dating of Van Seters's proposal. In short, Van Seters proposes that account A was composed in conjunction with the Deuteronomistic History and account B was composed sometime in the fourth century b.c.e. Again, critical for Van Seters is the observation that David functions as a mercenary and militaristic leader throughout account B. In fact, he believes that the portrayal of the military institutions throughout account B provides near certain dating (pp. 118–9). However, such a bold claim is open to question. Much of Van Seters's conclusion is based on the references to Greek mercenaries in the Davidic narratives, mercenaries whose social context can be securely dated (p. 119). However, Van Seters admits that the use of mercenaries in the ancient Near East began in the Neo-Assyrian period (pp. 100–1). Furthermore, he recognizes the Saite use of Greek mercenaries and even the possibility that the kings of Israel and Judah may have used them (pp. 101–3).[10] Indeed, there is an increase in the quantity of literary references to mercenaries and their way of life during the Persian and Hellenistic periods, but one wonders if this phenomenon is linked to the types of texts preserved along with their emphases. As such, Van Seters is not necessarily convincing in his insistence that account B was composed in the late Persian Period. Even taking into consideration the overall message of account B, one could also view it as a product of the exilic/post-exilic period, which would also mean the possibility of dating somewhat earlier account A. In this sense, a case could be made regarding a pre-exilic date of composition for account A followed by an exilic or early post-exilic date for account B, which was later supplemented by the insertion of the Appendix.[11]

In spite of these criticisms, the value of this work is unquestionable. Anyone who reads this work will be challenged, forced to reconsider many of their presuppositions and ideas surrounding these narratives. I thank Professor Van Seters for a stimulating read.

David B. Schreiner, Wesley Biblical Seminary

[1] See pp. 372–3. In particular, John Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983; repr. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997); idem, “The Court History and DtrH: Conflicting Perspectives on the House of David,” in A. de Pury and T. Römer (eds.), Die sogenannte Thronfolgegeschichte Davids (OBO, 176; Freiburg: Universitätsverlag, 2000), 70–93. reference

[2] Van Seters includes an appendix that efficiently demarcates accounts A and B. See pp. 361–3. reference

[3] In particular, Van Seters accuses those who assert apologetic parallels of form-critical abuse (p. 59). First, the comparative texts are first person royal inscriptions, and the third person style of the Davidic narratives finds no parallel in the apologetic texts. Second, for an apology to function properly, its composition must be contemporary with the events recounted. For Van Seters, the Davidic narratives are a later composition. However, Alastair Fowler has argued that genres exhibit development whereby they move from a “pure” state to a state of variation that preserves only the genre's main elements (“Life and Death of Literary Forms,” New Literary History 2 [1971], 149–69). Furthermore, Donna Lee Petter has invoked this principle in her analysis of Ezekiel, wherein she argues that Ezekiel's genre is an adaptation of the Mesopotamian City Lament (The Book of Ezekiel and Mesopotamian City Laments [OBO, 246; Fribourg: Academic/Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011]). Consequently, the criticism of Van Seters that the third person style of the Davidic Saga precludes an apologetic comparison may be tempered. reference

[4] Not to be confused with the German Sagen. reference

[5] For his discussion, see pp. 99–120. reference

[6] In particular, Baruch Halpern, “Review of John Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History,” JBL 104 (1985), 506–9; Lawson Younger Jr., “Review of John Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History,” JSOT 40 (1988), 112–7. reference

[7] On the major facets of the Qeiyafa debate and the site's importance for biblical studies, see David Schreiner, “What Are They Saying About Khirbet Qeiyafa,” TrinJ 33 (2012), 33–48. reference

[8] See David Schreiner, “For the Sake of Jerusalem the City Which I Have Chosen: On the Lord's Choice of Zion/Jerusalem and Its Development Within the Old Testament” (Ph.D. diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2012), 134–5. reference

[9] Undoubtedly, the Appendix is intrusive, but its chiastic structure alludes to its hermeneutical function. The Appendix focuses upon the psalms (22:1–23:7), which praise the Lord's salvation of David, his covenant with him, and espouse the need for a monarchy rooted in obedience to the covenant. Furthermore, the lamp symbolism in 2 Sam 21:17 cooperates with 2 Sam 22:29 to voice the belief that while the institution represents the community's vitality and endurance moving forward, the Lord is to be the source of guidance and vitality. Thus, one can understand a message of qualified legitimacy. Interesting is the observation that these psalms are bracketed by warrior lists and military exploits, issues that are critical for Van Seters's dating of account B. Could it be that the writer responsible for compiling and inserting the Appendix was aware of this emphasis and utilized it to advance his communicative intention? reference

[10] However, Van Seters quickly qualifies this possibility by emphasizing his belief that it is anachronistic (p. 103). reference

[11] Such a scheme accommodates many positions frequently held amongst biblical scholars: that there was probably a pre-exilic, pro-Davidic edition, or editions, of Israel's history (whether a Deuteronomistic History or something similar); that pro-Davidic history was tempered in light of the realities of the exile; and that there was a post-exilic resurgence of Davidic hopes, which can be seen in other post-exilic literature (i.e. 1 and 2 Chronicles). reference