Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Eric A. Seibert, Subversive Scribes and the Solomonic Narrative: A Rereading of I Kings 1-11 (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 436; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2006). Pp. xiv + 209. Cloth, US$120.00. ISBN 0-567-02771-6.

When I first picked up this book, its title made me expect a deconstructive, trendy analysis of an ancient text portraying cardboard cutout authors and characters operating with easily identifiable motives. Instead, this book analyzes the problem of scribal motivation and technique with sympathy and sophistication. Even when one does not accept one of Seibert's specific proposals, his careful attempt to be “sociologically sensitive while combining insights from traditional historical criticism with newer literary modes of reading” (p. 101) deserves both applause and cooperation. Meeting such a goal would help us escape the reductionist traps into which we too often fall.

Seibert's book falls into two major parts. The first consists of two chapters: “Propaganda, Subversion, and Scripture” and “Scribes and Scribal Subversion.” These chapters together examine a range of earlier studies of the problems they name and rescue the terms “propaganda” and “subversion” from obloquy by defining them, respectively, as “a form of persuasion consciously deployed with the intention of convincing others to see things from the point of view of the propagator” (p. 13) and “a form of propaganda whose persuasive efforts are directed toward undermining, criticizing or otherwise ëcorroding' an ideology, institution, or individual” (p. 16). Seibert shows considerable subtlety when he notes that elite groups themselves may have conflicting ideologies or factional goals, and that subversion may be either concealed or conspicuous.

His treatment of scribal motivation (Chapter 2), with similar awareness of complex motivations, constructs a pair of ideal types of scribes, “tethered” and “untethered,” i.e., those employed by a patron whose views they must celebrate and those not. He recognizes that even such categories may not take into account the motivations or ideas of an individual scribe, even if they do accurately describe such a person's relationship to his written product. Seibert also suggests clues to seek in identifying a scribe who practices subversion: rhetorical excess, multiple examples of evaluative ambiguity, unchallenged inclusion of corrosive elements, the lack of other explanations for contradictory readings, and (perhaps most questionably) the precedent in the exegetical tradition of finding ironic or subversive elements in a text.

Though a bit repetitive, this chapter identifies elements in prior scholarship that will help future research, and it offers replicable tests for subversive scribal activity in a text under consideration.

The second half of the book succeeds less well in my view, because of an overly sketchy treatment of 1 Kings 3-11. Chapter 3 argues that 1 Kings 1-2 show little Deuteronomistic coloring and therefore must be older. Thus any subversion of the text would take place against the backdrop of the ideology of the Judahite monarchy, probably even constituting a Solomonic apologia. Chapter 4 fleshes out this idea regarding 1 Kings 1-2. Picking up earlier studies (Walsh, Conroy), Seibert notes however, that the text repeatedly leaves the reader with a sense of unease at the actions of Solomon, as though the scribe protests too much his master's innocence. At times, Seibert's reading is compelling, and his overall argument is plausible if not irresistible. Yet, on occasion, other interpretive options present themselves, as for example, with the case of the execution of Joab. It may be, as Seibert suggests, that 1 Kings 2:28-35 shows a scribe's discomfort with the execution as an act “simply replacing the old guard … with [Solomon's] own supporters,” rather than as an act of justice (p. 149). Perhaps, but on the other hand, the text places in the mouth of David himself the damnatio memoriae of his erstwhile hatchetman. Arguably, 2 Samuel's portrayal of Joab has led the reader to expect or even desire his demise. How one reads the text depends on how much of the material in the final version of the Deuteronomistic History one wishes to consider.

Much the same goes for chapter 5, which sketches stories about Solomon that seem somehow subversive. This chapter is perhaps the least satisfactory in the volume, primarily because of its brevity and, on a few occasions, a failure to attend to which level of the text's history is under consideration (p. 170).

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this work centers on a simple question: what precisely does 1 Kings 1-11 subvert? At times, Seibert assumes that we have here a Solomonic apologia, while at other times he speaks more loosely of the pre-Deuteronomic text coming from the royal court and thus being an advertisement for some post-Solomonic ruler's agenda. But none of this is certain. The court did not offer the only location for a scribe's work, nor is it necessary to think that every later king would have found Solomon's rule a happy model. In short, the diversity of the goals of the elites of ancient Judah means that an ambiguous picture of Solomonñwhich Seibert has demonstratedñneed not reflect subversion at all, or at least not of a patron's ideas. For this reason, Seibert's work, though careful and often very insightful, does not end the discussion, though it does force us to consider these texts in a new light. For that we owe him a debt.

Mark W. Hamilton, Abilene Christian University