Philip R. Davies, The Origins of Biblical Israel

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Philip R. Davies, The Origins of Biblical Israel (LHBOTS, 485; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2007). Pp. ix +197. Hardcover, US$115.00. ISBN 978-0-567-04381-8.

Davies recent book, The Origins of Biblical Israel, asks “Why did Judeans call themselves ‘Israel’?” (1). In an attempt to answer this query Davies undertakes to explain how the ‘Israel(s)’ of the biblical narratives came into existence as a literary phenomena. After a survey of past scholarship on the historical study of the OT/HB, he identifies his approach as “new historicist” to which he would add the concept of “cultural memory” and asserts that we should understand the biblical narratives as such. Davies is clear to point out that cultural ‘memory’ does not imply ‘history’ as it may not be based on oral or written prehistory or even “preserve memory at all” (31). Davies notes the selectivity of memory and emphasizes its function to reshape the past in order to construct an identity in the present. Cultural memory preserves a shared story of the past, but implies no direct link with it. It is not concerned with real events (“it does not matter whether the past is ‘true’”) but with the identity which the memory creates.

Having identified the biblical texts as cultural memory, Davies' method is to read them in part I (chs. 3-6) using new literary methods (unconcerned with historicity, authorship etc.), then to read them again using literary-historical methods which observe “the ideological contours” of the text, instead of employing traditional literary-critical methodology of which he is sceptical.

Davies reads the biblical narratives as two works which he calls the First (Genesis-Kings) and Second (Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah) Histories. In his reading of the First History he isolates four ‘Israels’: 1) a branch of the family of Abraham (the family of Jacob); 2) a nation comprising twelve tribes descended from Jacob but also constituted by religion and culture; 3) a small group of tribes under Saul (with Benjamin at its centre); 4) a group of 10 tribes which forms the nation of ‘Israel’ under Jeroboam. One of Davies' purposes here is to show that Judah is actually absent from both nos. 3 & 4 (though this appears to be more of a literary-historical judgment than a narratological one).

Throughout his narratological reading of the First History, Davies highlights the role of Benjamin. In Joshua, he notes that the narration of the conquest of Benjamin territory is given surprisingly great narrative space. In the book of Judges Davies detects two strands (odd for a narratologist), one of which emphasizes Judean superiority (the introduction to the book, the Othniel account, the attack on Benjamin) and the other of which emphasizes the role of Benjamin (the stories in between). Davies views the latter strand in the book of Judges as beginning (Ehud) and ending (Saul!) with Benjaminite heroes (66). Davies sees Benjaminite emphasis continue in book of Samuel as Samuel judges Benjaminite territory exclusively and Saul reigns over an Israel comprised almost exclusively of Benjaminite territory. Davies emphasizes that Saul's Israel did not include Judah.

In his reading of the Second History Davies finds only the Pentateuchal ‘united’ Israel represented. Of importance for Davies' work here is the frequent use of the phrase “Judah and Benjamin” in the Second History. This emphasis on Benjamin as distinct from Judah leads Davies to question whether the First History is purposely ‘forgetting’ something about Benjamin (that is, a memory has been ‘repressed’).

Davies' narratological reading leads him to literary-historical analysis as he views the problems impossible to solve in purely literary terms (that is, within the story itself). Therefore, Davies posits the existence of a written Benjaminite history (which antedates the canonical Judean version) which he examines at length in part II of his book (chs. 7-8). Davies suggests that this historical work can be recovered in an analogous way to Freudian psychoanalysis which retrieves memories which were repressed due to some type of trauma (106).

Pointing to Martin Noth's suggestion that Dtr wrote his history from Mizpah, Davies finds it reasonable that a historical work would be written from the Benjaminite Mizpah (though rejecting Noth's theory of the Deuteronomistic History) and that such a history would not have promoted the Davidic monarchy or presented the Benjaminite Saul in a negative light (110). Davies finds further support for his Benjaminite hypothesis in the book of Jeremiah, where he sees the “birthplace of biblical Israel” (126). Jeremiah (whether fictional or real) was a Benjaminite whose sympathies would have been with Benjamin. Davies explains Jeremiah's frequent use of the phrase ‘Yhwh Sebaoth, god of Israel' as a sustained polemic aimed at uniting two deities, the ‘god of Israel’ and ‘Yhwh Sebaoth’ and accommodating both supporters of the Jerusalem cult and Benjaminite sanctuaries. The Benjaminite Jeremiah did not mourn Jerusalem's destruction (such laments are late additions) and did not even want the exiles to return; however, ironically, the Benjaminite Jeremiah is eventually transformed into a Judean and a Deuteronomist with a Zionist perspective.

Davies concludes that the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem enabled the creation of a united Israel as Benjamin's leadership came to the fore and the previously distinct societies of Israel and Judah began to worship the same deity. This is the trauma that Jerusalem cultural memory repressed, forgetting from where its Israelite identity came.

In part III (chs. 9-11) Davies examines Judah and Israel from a critical historian's perspective and explores possibilities for when and how Benjamin and Judah became united. After briefly considering several possibilities for when Judah would have adopted the name ‘Israel’, Davies concludes that this occurred in the neo-Babylonian period (a.k.a. ‘exilic’) during which Mizpah began its 150-year reign as the new capital of Judah (relying on D. Edelman's work, The Origins of the “Second Temple”: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem). According to Davies, it was Bethel's resurgence as cultic centre during Mizpah's supremacy which accounts for Judah's eventual adoption of the name ‘Israel.’ Israel was not a political designation but a religious one, based upon Bethel's status as the home of the cult of the god of Jacob/Israel, which was a cult practiced in Benjamin as well.

To buttress his theory Davies focuses on Bethel for an entire chapter (ch. 10) and suggests that the cults of Judah and Israel were united between 586 and the latter part of the 5th century when Bethel served Judah as cult centre (160). While acknowledging that archaeology cannot assist in this regard, Davies concludes that it is “virtually certain” that Bethel occupied a leading position during this period and that it was the unification of the royal cults of both Israel and Judah that brought “the people of Judah for the first time… into the family of Jacob” (171).

In conclusion Davies conjectures that the earliest historical Israel was a small group of tribes centered on Benjamin and that Judah adopted Benjamin's memories as their own. After the original Benjaminite history was written in the Neo-Babylonian period, it was appropriated and transformed into a Judean history after Jerusalem was re-established in the post-exilic era. Davies then offers a reconstruction of how the biblical texts of the OT/HB came into being, asserting that the biblical histories were formed entirely during the Second-Temple Period.

Davies' innovative rereading of these biblical texts in light of his Benjamin hypothesis is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion about the history of Israel and the use of the biblical text in historical reconstruction. Davies' attempt at actually constructing a possible biblical Israel rather than simply deconstructing other scholars' conceptions of such is certainly a positive step forward. However, given that Davies consistently displays tremendous skepticism toward the historicity of virtually any biblical source, it appears somewhat strange when he uses the same sources to reconstruct his Benjaminite history. If the sources are late and unreliable, how can one use the same source to reconstruct a new picture? Perhaps with a clear methodology this could be accomplished, but Davies' methodology is only tersely referred to and is very unclear.

An example would be the way he uncovers the kernel of an original Benjaminite history beneath the husk of a late Zionist Judean history. First, he must show a heavy emphasis on Benjamin that suggests the existence of this history. In his reading of the former prophets Davies notes ambiguity in the allotment of certain cities to different tribes. Some allot: Jerusalem to Benjamin (Josh 18:28) or Judah (Josh 15:63); Bethel to Benjamin (Josh 18:22) or Joseph (16:1); and Kiriath-Jearim to Judah (Josh 15:9, 60) of Benjamin (Josh 18:28). Davies suggests these cities were “objects of contested tribal ‘ownership’” involving claims on behalf of Benjamin (61). However, Josh 18:28 does not mention Kiriath-Jearim in the MT but only in the LXX. It is interesting that Davies does not use Josh 15:7 which locates Gilgal in Judah as a reference to ambiguous tribal allotment (perhaps because it would weaken his case for Samuel's lack of involvement with Judah). Davies uses these observations to expand the Benjaminite emphasis in the biblical narratives by considering Bethel a Benjaminite city. Building on this, Davies identifies Samuel as a Benjaminite by pointing out his association with Mizpah, Gilgal, and Bethel, which are all Benjaminite cities (if we grant Bethel as Benjaminite). Davies suggests that Samuel was a Benjaminite since his father is said to be from Ramathaim (1 Sam 1:1), which he identifies as the Benjaminite city of Ramah (Josh 18:25). However, the same verse locates Ramathaim in the hill country of Ephraim. This does not deter Davies as he expresses doubt that the hill country of Ephraim is in Ephraimite territory and asserts that when he refers to Benjaminite territory in his book, he includes the hill country of Ephraim (56 n. 3). This conclusion is perplexing given that the same verse (1 Sam 1:1) explicitly presents Samuel as the son of an Ephraimite ( אֶפְרָתִי), yet this receives no comment from Davies. Davies emphasizes how Judah is excluded from the Israel of Samuel claiming that Samuel had nothing to do with Judah. However, his sons are said to judge in Beersheba and Samuel is said to go to Bethlehem to anoint David. Presumably, Davies would see the anointing of David in Bethlehem as a part of a later Judean redaction, but there are no comments in this regard.

In arguing that Saul's kingdom did not include Judah he ignores the fact that Saul musters 300,000 from Israel and 30,000 from Judah, only commenting on the fact that Israel and Judah are listed separately. If Saul is able to muster troops from Judah, does this not imply that his rule extended there? In his efforts to exclude Judah from Israel, Davies discounts 1 Kgs 11:32, which appears to refer to Judah/Jerusalem as being part of Israel by an appeal to a very unlikely translation. Instead of Jerusalem being the city chosen “ out of all the tribes of Israel,” Davies proposes the translation “ in preference to all the tribes of Israel.” Thus, God is said to elect Jerusalem, overriding the election of Israel as “one will be abandoned for the sake of the other” (72). However, given the use of the phrase elsewhere this translation appears unjustified, as his proposed translation would make no sense in those contexts (Deut 29:20; Judg 21:5). For example, in 1 Sam 2:28 the Levites are said to have been chosen “from among all the tribes of Israel,” not in rejection of the rest of Israel. In the book of Kings itself, the same phrase is in reference to the election of David and Solomon's Jerusalem out of the tribes of Israel (clearly not in preference to Israel [that is, rejecting Israel] as both kings are said to rule over Israel!). It appears that Davies is forced into this position of special pleading in order to explain what would be damning evidence for his theory.

We find a similar assertion in Davies' explanation for familial language in the book of Jeremiah where he claims that the identification of Judah as Israel's ‘sister’ denotes nothing more than that Judah is Israel's ‘neighbour’ (125). Davies also rejects the twelve tribe makeup of Israel (which would presumably include Judah) as presented in 1 Kings 4 by appealing to the LXX which inserts the name Judah at the end of verse 19. Davies then argues that there are thirteen officials and that their number is not indicative of the twelve tribe structure of Israel. Elsewhere, Davies explains the reference to the twelve tribes in 1 Kgs 18:31 as a reference to the nation of Israel (excluding Judah), despite the fact that the reference is to the twelve sons of Jacob, of which Judah was one. It is therefore unclear why Judah should be seen as excluded from the Israel referred to in this verse.

One drawback to Davies' monograph is the paucity of actual biblical references cited in Davies' text which would enable readers to be able to judge for themselves whether his reading of the text is accurate. At times he switches topics mid-paragraph yet fails to give the biblical reference for the pericope to which he refers (e.g., p. 83). In other instances Davies claims that the addition of Judah to earlier narratives is “quite transparent” but gives no data or references of such ‘transparent’ additions (111).

However, the biggest weakness to Davies reconstruction is his unclear methodology. He claims in Part 1 to read the biblical narratives as a narratologist, but continually finds contradictions and separates every variation in Israel as a distinct Israel. In his initial reading of the narratives Davies maintained that the text should always be allowed to make sense when it is reasonable, but in practice he allows no room for progression or development in the narrative. While it is possible to deny that such progression or modification/development in the nation is historical, he does not demonstrate why it does not at least make sense as a story. Given his use of narratological reading in this section, it is unclear on what basis he separates the different aspects or changes in Israel as distinct cultural memories. He offers no source-critical analysis and gives no clear justification for juxtaposing different parts of the story which are clearly chronologically connected and narrate progression. A clearer methodology is needed, especially when he views Israel as a literary production rather than a historical entity.

On another note, besides the inordinate amount of typographical and grammatical errors in the book, Davies frequently makes many inaccurate statements (that do not evince a close reading of the text) asserting that: in the Pentateuch Israel becomes a nation after acquiring its own land (44); that Abraham's brother Haran (Heb. הרן is the same name as the city of Haran (Heb. חרן) (45); that the DtrH narrative runs up to the Persian period (105); that Ahaz is pressured to join the Syro-Ephraimite coalition in 2 Kings 16 (142); that Chronicles records the fall of Samaria (131) and draws upon Genesis 1 in its genealogies (82).

In the end, it seems unlikely that most will be convinced by Davies that his reconstructed Benjaminite memories are more reliable for determining the origins of biblical Israel than the extant Judean memories. Though he confidently characterizes his reconstructed Benjaminite memories as “a coherent and extended cultural memory, forming a well-plotted sequence” (115) this instills in the reader little confidence in his reconstruction given its origins in an unclear methodology which excised what did not fit. Also, Davies' identification of the biblical narratives as cultural memories is questionable. For instance, Davies notes that cultural memories are “unaware of their earlier drafts; memory obliterates its own previous history” (33), yet the book of Chronicles clearly remembers the earlier ‘draft’ of Samuel-Kings and does not attempt to obliterate it, but clearly presupposes it and its knowledge on its readers. Even if there is some validity to viewing the biblical narratives as cultural memory, it does not evidently follow that one can do psycho-analysis on them and recover ‘repressed’ memories any better than source-critical and redaction-critical studies.

This being said, Davies' use of the concept of cultural memory brings up some stimulating and helpful perspectives on viewing ancient historiography and is definitely a welcome contribution. His book presents a provocative thesis that will no doubt stimulate continued discussion on both the origins of ‘Israel’ and the ‘OT/HB’ itself. It should be commended for both its willingness to question scholarly consensuses and for its creative proposal of a new hypothesis that deserves further consideration.

Paul S. Evans, Ambrose University College