Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Dietrich, Walter, The Early Monarchy in Israel: The Tenth Century B.C.E. (trans. Joachim Vette; Biblical Encyclopedia 3; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007). xvi + 378 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 9789004157354. $174 or €119.

How do Israel's communal memories of the early monarchy relate to historical reality? Are the traditions embedded in the Deuteronomistic History late and unreliable or otherwise, and how would one know? In this sensible and learned volume, Dietrich addresses these questions by making the case that the basic contours of the DH's story of the origins of the monarchy are correct even if numerous embellishments appear within them. Originally published in 1997 by Kohlhammer (Die frühe Königszeit in Israel), the volume has not received a thoroughgoing revision to interact with the latest discussions of the so-called United Monarchy, but the copious bibliographies at the beginning of each subsection, as well as footnotes especially in the last third of the book, have been updated to the early 2000s, and most of Dietrich's discussion remains relevant and worthy of consideration. The time lag may indeed be advantageous given the quantity of smoke thrown up by the fires of the past decade.

The book consists of three major units plus a theological summary. Section 1 (pp. 1-98) offers an extended literary-critical commentary on the biblical presentations of the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon (mostly in the DH), often giving astute interpretations of texts as coherent stories. Section 2 (pp. 99-226) attempts to reconstruct the history of the tenth century BCE drawing on archaeological and textual evidence, and arguing for some historical core to the narratives about the origins of Israelite monarchy. Dietrich gives due consideration to the Tel Dan and Sheshonq Megiddo inscriptions, though the most recent work at Megiddo and Jerusalem (if E. Mazar is correct) is naturally missing. This part of the text is well illustrated by line drawings and maps at relevant points. Section 3 (pp. 227-316) reconstructs the literary documents behind 1 Samuel 8-1 Kings 2 (and beyond), arguing again for the survival of extensive pre-Deuteronomistic narratives, some dating to shortly after the time period they describe. The final section (pp. 317-49) identifies several major theological themes in the Saul-David-Solomon stories (state rule, election, gender roles, etc.), both offering the author's own perceptions of the issues and placing the biblical text in dialogue with as varied a cast of interpreters as Karl Barth and Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The basic structure of the book, which covers some of the same ground several times, fits the pattern of all the volumes of the Biblische Enzyklopädie. Dietrich recognizes the difficulty of coordinating the sections—at times the book seems more like several discrete volumes than one work—but has on the whole succeeded at the multileveled reading of the text that he undertook.

Scholars will undoubtedly differ in their assessment of this volume. Because Dietrich attributes much of the material about Israel's first kings to sources prior to the seventh century, some will find his work overconfident and too wedded to the biblical tradition(s). My own view is different. I think that Dietrich does all of us a great favour by carefully articulating a methodological approach that tries to identify ideological patterns in the text and isolate them from the sorts of data they might reliably report, while also asking what historical reality the ideological elements might reflect. In a general way, his discussion of historical method on pp. 100-19 does not differ very much from the classical histories of Israel by Ewald or Kittel, but Dietrich's clarity and common sense cut through much of the methodological confusion evident today. Rather than making sweeping deductions based on general principles, he works through the evidence in a sophisticated case-by-case way, exercising measured skepticism toward both the biblical text and his own assumptions. By beginning with the DH's presentation as a Gesamtkunstwerk that can be resolved into its constituent elements, synchronically as well as diachronically (and finding limits to that very dichotomy), moving to an engagement with artifactual and textual (biblical and not) evidence, and then attempting to find the underlying literary sources in the Bible and to identify their agendas, Dietrich has eliminated much of the woolly thinking and excessive suspicion sometimes evident in the so-called minimalist camp, as well as the perhaps naïve positivism of prior generations of scholars typified by the work of Albright and some of his associates.

Again, not everyone will take such a view of Dietrich's work. Yet it would be difficult to gainsay the care with which he reads the biblical texts. He shows sensitivity to the aesthetic qualities of the stories of the early kings, while also seeking to distil from them material for reconstructing the history of the tenth century BCE. Thus he finds earlier texts, short notices or texts embedded in larger units, and units reflecting agendas different from those of later textual layers to be more reliable (pp. 154-55). He also exercises great caution when attributing disunity or radical redactional reconstrual of texts, as when he understands the “succession narrative” to be a collection of preexisting material roughly shaped (p. 242) or understands the pro-Davidic impulse in the story of David's rise to power as coming from the earlier (monarchic-era) layers of the tradition, not some time later (pp. 237, 246), or when he argues for a late eighth or early seventh century BCE date for the Ark narrative (p. 277). On the other hand, several judgments will provoke debate: his equation of “Beersheba” with Ziklag (p. 180), his view of the scope of Solomon's rule (p. 197), his positing a sharp distinction between Canaanite hierarchicalism and Israelite egalitarianism (à la Gottwald; p. 223), or his (mistaken, I believe) placement of the Ark on the Jerusalem scene on the Arch of Titus (p. 208). Again, however, his coordination of fine details with broad-gauged syntheses should commend the admiration of other scholars.

To my mind, the most successful part of the book is the third section, in which Dietrich maps out the sources behind the DH presentation of the so-called United Monarchy. Opening with a critique of strictly synchronic readings, especially in North America, he argues that “Samuel and Kings confront us not with novels but with literature containing many traditions” (p. 228). He then proceeds to discuss what he thinks those traditions are, settling on the usual suspects: the succession narrative, the narrative of David's rise, the Ark narrative, the narrative of Samuel's youth, the book of the history of Solomon, all of which he dates to the mid-monarchy, avoiding both the more radical prunings and the late datings favoured by many contemporary scholars, who envision a long period of development for the material. Dietrich's treatment of the succession narrative is especially telling: while he is less confident than Rost in our ability to identify the clarity (or rather, monovocality) of the themes and goals of that tradition, he also believes that a coherent work did develop quite early about Saul and David, and that the work took a nuanced view toward both kings (pp. 229-40). He is more reluctant to peel away layers of the text for supporting a redaction-critical schema than one has come to expect of German scholarship. Whatever one thinks of his views—I find them mostly congenial—his refusal to jump to hasty conclusions deserves respect.

In addition to these layers, he also identifies a number of smaller textual complexes: the Samuel-Saul narrative, material on the rise and fall of Saul, the Bathsheba novella, and various notices on the reign of Solomon. One may question whether the Saul narrative, for example, is as coherently shaped in its pre-Deuteronomistic version as Dietrich believes, but an answer to the question depends less on the data of the text than on a definition of “coherence.” That is, how disjointed can a literary complex or layer or source be—given that, as Dietrich says, “later textual levels depend on older, partially oral traditions. Biblical historiography is thus strongly influenced by traditional material” (p. 272)? The problem of method inevitably confronts us when we read the stories of the early Israelite kings.

This brings me to my last point. Dietrich's volume does what any good work of biblical scholarship does. By attending to the evidence, textual and otherwise, it advances our conversation about method. This is not a detached discussion of reading strategies divorced from the actual texts. This work's detailed engagement with many texts (which the author knows in intimate detail) helps us read the stories of the early kings with greater insight. Yet in doing so, it forces us to ask about how and why we read them. Specifically, it provides a springboard for the sort of serious discussion we need to have about how we read texts that use older traditions, as Samuel-Kings does. To advance the discussion, I propose we address several questions. (1) What controls exist for identifying the rhetorical strategies and agendas of ancient texts? Corollary: how do we know when a shift of viewpoint is part of a single rhetorical strategy versus an indicator of a new literary layer? A significant desideratum would be a volume delineating the rhetorical strategies available to ancient Near Eastern authors, particularly in Israel. (2) Since ancient persons (much like us, in fact) passed on stories of their past within an interpretive framework, do we do well when we spend as much time as Dietrich on separating the data from the framework while still understanding the latter as a feature of historical reality. How can we do this better? (3) How can we emulate Dietrich in paying close attention to the motives of the implied authors of texts (quite apart from identifying the motives of the actual authors, which may be varied and beyond recovery)? His recognition that the biblical stories were related to complex intellectual discussions from the beginning (rather than only in their reuse during the post-exilic period) is a salutary corrective to the widespread tendency in our guild toward understanding “political” texts, even very sophisticated ones such as those about early Israelite monarchs, in a very flat and implausible way (as “propaganda” narrowly conceived). Can we recognize in ancient authors the same sort of sophistication we expect of ourselves, even if their ideas, methods of work, and audiences differed markedly from ours? If we can, then work like Dietrich's will help us do so. For that, we should all be grateful. His work deserves a large audience, toward which the paperback edition of the book should lend itself.

Mark W. Hamilton, Abilene Christian University