Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Oswald, Wolfgang, Nathan der Prophet: Eine Untersuchung zu 2Samuel 7 und 12 und 1Könige 1 (ATANT, 94; Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 2008). Pp. 318. Paperback. €44.00. ISBN 978-3-290-17490-3.

Wolfgang Oswald's investigation of the biblical Nathan is the revised version of his Habilitations-Schrift submitted at Tübingen University.

His search for “Nathan the prophet” addresses strictly the assertions in the three biblical text units where Nathan appears (2 Sam 7; 2 Sam 12; 1 Kgs 1); he avoids all “speculation” about the historical background of the figure, for which he finds no textual evidence. The book thus aims to reconstruct the image of Nathan on the basis of a thorough analysis of the three respective texts.

The book contains a clear structure: Oswald dedicates an extensive chapter to each of the three texts. The point of departure in each case is a detailed presentation of prior scholarship. This is followed by a careful syntactical, semantic, and “pragmatic” interpretation of each respective text within its literary-historical context. In this step he aims to reconstruct the historical communication between author and addressee, not the historical dimension of the plot. Oswald's interpretation of the three texts presupposes three large literary works as reference points: the so called “Succession History” or “Court History” (of David), a first Deuteronomistic historical work covering the main parts of Samuel–Kings (Dtr1, exilic), and a second Deuteronomistic work covering the content found in Noth's classic formuation (Dtr2, running from Deut to 2 Kgs). The fourth chapter synthesizes the foregoing three analyses. Its first section places the three texts in a relationship to each other and to their contexts. Then the profiles of Nathan, both in the Court History and in the first Deuteronomistic work, are retraced.

In his analysis of 2 Sam 7 Oswald argues, to a large extent, for the literary unity of the text. He determines that only vv 10–11aβ, 23–24 do not belong to the original layer. David's intention to build a temple for Yhwh follows ancient Near Eastern royal convention. In the subsequent intervention Yhwh does not criticize this intention, but only expresses the author's opinion that building a temple for Yhwh is not necessary (cf. vv 5–7). A crucial point for this understanding of the oracle is the interpretation of v 5. According to Oswald the rhetorical question “Shall you build me a house for me to dwell in?” points to both 11b: “Moreover Yhwh declares to you that Yhwh will make you a house” and to 13a: “He (David's successor) shall build a house for my name.”[1] In the continuation of the oracle, the main theme is the promise of an eternal dynasty for David. The theme of building a temple, which is mentioned only very briefly in 13a, is marginal. An important characteristic of the promise is its lack of concretization: though it is obvious that the successor to David will be Solomon, the allusions to his transgressions and Yhwh's punishments are formulated so generally that the reader may see a reference to events concerning later Judean kings as well. Oswald also notes the lack of any geographical indications (referring to Jerusalem or Judah).

David's prayer (18–29) shares linguistic and stylistic characteristics with the preceding oracle (cf. the double question at the beginning and the designation of the king as Yhwh's servant). The content of the prayer also matches that of the oracle. While the oracle tends to shift the activity from David to the deity, the prayer expresses the king's gratitude and modesty. As for the final passage of the prayer (25–29), the striking accumulation of demands for the fulfillment of the promise is interpreted as the author's uncertainty with respect to the latter. This insecurity at the end of the prayer correlates with the missing concretization of the preceding promise.

Next Oswald investigates 2 Sam 7 within its literary context. He claims that the passage stands in tension with the closer context: David is not at “peace with his enemies” as 7:1 implies. Furthermore, in contrast to the assertion in 2 Sam 7:6, a Yhwh temple is mentioned in 1 Sam 1–3. On the other hand, both oracle and prayer fit the disposition of Dtr1 quite well. Like Gerhard von Rad, Oswald sees the oracle expressing a similar message as the notice about king Jehoiachin in 2 Kgs 25:27–30. Through both texts Dtr1 expresses a slight, cautious hope for the restitution of the dynasty of David.

Oswald persuasively argues that the oracle and the prayer contain the same theological message, and this shared message is readily apparent in the “final text” (but only that of the Masoretic version, see below). His view on the link between the chapter and the final passage of 2 Kings also merits attention. However, several doubts arise with regard to his  contention that 2 Sam 7 is a unified text. It is questionable whether v 5 originally pointed to both the assertions of v 11b and that of 13a. As for David's prayer, the middle section has a very distinctive focus and probably stems from the late postexilic period. The main objection of the reviewer is directed against the attribution of the unit to the “first” Deuteronomist (covering, according to Oswald, Sam–Kgs): How could this author on the one hand stress the importance of the centralized cult in Jerusalem temple and on the other hand insinuate that the sanctuary is not “really necessary”? Viewing 2 Sam 7 (including the temple-critical vv 6–7) as a Dtr text is at most imaginable as the oeuvre of a later Dtr editor for whom cult centralization is no longer a primary focus. Finally a methodological critique: Oswald never addresses the problem of textual diversity in 2 Sam 7. Above all the LXX offers important variants, which merit at least a short discussion. According to the Septuagint (Codex Vaticanus) of 2 Sam 7:11 Yhwh announces that David will build a temple for the deity (cf. recent publications by A. Schenker and P. Hugo).[2]

For Oswald, 2 Sam 12 seems to form a unit with the preceding story of David's affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah (ch. 11), and is attributed to the Succession History.[3] In Nathan's parable, the first part of ch. 12, Oswald sees an artificial composition that perfectly serves the author's literary purpose: The lack in conformity between the parable and David's “case” is important insofar as it hinders David from immediately recognizing whom the parable refers to. The reader, however, who has just read ch. 11, naturally connects the fictive story with David's deeds reported in the preceding chapter. David's judgment (“As Yhwh lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. And he must make restitution for the lamb fourfold because he did this thing and had no compassion”) is both unrealistic and juridically untenable as a punishment for the rich man of the parable. The best explanation is that it was formulated by the author for this case. Oswald only considers the first small sentence (“you are the man!” v 7a) of Nathan's complex reaction to David's verdict (vv 7–12) as part of the original account; all the rest he ascribes to Dtr1. In 12:9 (MT, “Why have you despised the word of Yhwh”) Oswald discerns a link to the oracle of 2 Sam 7 (attributed by Oswald to Dtr1, see above). By taking Bathsheba illegitimately to be his wife and having a child with her (cf. 11:27), David acts against the word of Yhwh in the oracle of 2 Sam 7 according to which Yhwh (and not David himself) will build David's “house.” This is a fine argument. Nevertheless, it is not clear that this linkage is created by the author (Dtr1 according to Oswald): the Lucianic text of 12:9 reads, “Why have you despised Yhwh,” which fits well with v 10: “… because you despised me.” As other examples of inserted words in the MT of 1–2 Samuel suggest (i.e., 12:14), the expression דבר “word” in MT could be an interpolated mot-tampon (buffer word), which prevents the immediate juxtaposition of the verb “despise” and the divine name.

Nathan's announcement of the divine punishment (the death of David and Bathsheba's first child, while the king himself is spared) is part of the original account (belonging to the Succession History) as is the following story about the death of the child and the birth of Bathsheba's second child, Solomon. The last sentence of the chapter relating Nathan's sudden reappearance (v 25)—he gives a second name (“Jedidiah”) to the newborn child—which is seen by some scholars as a secondary insertion, Oswald also attributes to original layer. Moreover, he accords a key function to this and the preceding verse (“and Yhwh loved him”) within the larger context of the Succession History: Solomon is Yhwh's chosen prince among David's sons.

In the analysis of 1 Kgs 1 one of Oswald's main interests is the evaluation of the reported events. Many modern interpreters see the open description of the incidents related to Solomon's anointing and the following hard and violent measurements of the new king (ch. 2) as a reflection of the author's critical attitude. Some of these exegetes try to separate passages reflecting a positive view of the events. Oswald, however, recognizes signals in the text that point to the narrator's appreciation of Solomon's actions: it is not Solomon and his “party” who act as conspirators but Adonijah who, by saying “I will be king!” actually “exalts himself” 1 Kgs 1:5: מתנשא), and who confers with a number of David's servants (cf. 1:7). Nathan's actions should be seen as positive insofar as he supports the case of Yhwh's chosen prince (as noted above, Oswald sees the story strongly connected with 2 Sam 12*). The question of whether the author presupposes a “real” oath by David in favor of Solomon as his successor (as purported by Nathan and Bathsheba, cf. 1:13, 17, 30) or not is irrelevant for the interpretation. In fact, according to Oswald, essential to the story is the appearance of someone to restore order to the somewhat chaotic circumstances in David's court. Solomon's purge (1 Kgs 2) is seen as justified; the measures he took, in comparison with the general practices of ancient Near Eastern kings, are not to be viewed as especially cruel. As for the above mentioned composition-critical options, Oswald attributes minimal material to Dtr1 in ch. 2 (2:3–4, 10–12, 27); ch. 1 is seen as a unity.

Oswald's treatment of this section is problematic. He does not give ch. 2 (because Nathan is absent from the chapter) the thorough analysis accorded to ch. 1. However, the composition-historical differentiation of various layers in this very chapter remains an important topic in modern research. Reflection on this chapter makes it questionable if one can attribute 2:5–9 (concerning, among other topics, David's demand for the killings of Joab and Shimei) to the original account as Oswald does. David's positive attitude towards vengeance and violent measures differs strongly from other parts of the “Court History.” Why does he only now come to the conclusion that Joab and Shimei should be punished? In Joab's case, aside from his two murders, he has made considerable contributions to David's success and the welfare of Israel as a successful general and loyal servant. The order to kill Shimei is also astonishing. In the “Court History,” David accords forgiveness to Shimei after his victory over Absalom and promised Shimei by swearing an oath that he will not be put to death (cf. 2 Sam 19:24).[4] If one was inclined to follow Oswald and to attribute the “testament of David” to the earliest layer of 1 Kgs 1–2, it becomes difficult to see these chapters as sharing the same point of view as the account of 2 Sam 15–20.

In the book's synthesis (its fourth and final chapter) Oswald concludes, along with J. W. Flanagan and P. K. McCarter,[5] that 2 Sam 11–12 and 1 Kgs 1–2 form a later addition to the “Court History.” The reason for this distinction does not concern tensions in contents (see the discussion of 1 Kgs 1–2 above), but differences in literary genre. While 2 Sam 13–20 very likely include old traditions, the framing chapters are allegedly unrealistic rather than representing historical accounts of events from the early epoch of Kings. As for the characterization “unrealistic,” Oswald justifies it by arguing for the impossibility of the stories stemming from eyewitness accounts. He argues they are in fact invented stories from the late preexilic period, and he tends toward a date near the end of or shortly after the reign of Josiah (see below). He considers the chapters in question as “educational” (lehrhaft); they mould the entire work into an “educational story” (Lehrerzählung). Furthermore, through the addition, the “Court History” mutates into a “Succession History.”

The second part of Oswald's synthesis is devoted to the image of Nathan. Characteristic for the Nathan of the Succession History is his “non-prophetic” presentation. Neither in 2 Sam 12* (minus the assumed Dtr insertion 7b–12) nor in 1 Kgs 1 does Nathan proclaim a Yhwh oracle (In 2 Sam 12, however—in contrast to 1 Kgs 1—Nathan is sent by Yhwh [cf. 2 Sam 12:1]). A second trait is the secret character of the conversation between the prophet and the king. So Nathan's actions, above all in 1 Kgs 1, are instead described as those of a secret counselor. This is a feature that Oswald finds missing in most of the prophet depictions in the biblical prophetic books and the records of ancient Near Eastern prophetic traditions. Oswald also recognizes this feature—a prophet advising a king in secret as a counselor—in the book of Jeremiah (Jer 37 and 38) and in the traditions of the Israel-Aram wars in 1–2 Kings (cf. 1 Kgs 20:22 and 2 Kgs 6:9). Oswald also sees a thematic affinity between Jeremiah and the Nathan chapters: In Jer 37 and 38 Zedekiah is depicted as a hesitant king who lacks the power to prevail over his powerful anti-Babylonian advisers at court. His conversation with the prophet Jeremiah does not lead him to change course. In contrast, the Nathan stories show the openness of a king towards the critiques and suggestions of a prophet; this openness results in the reconciliation of significant differences in the kingdom. Because of differences concerning the attitude towards the Davidic dynasty, Oswald does not posit a dependence of one text on the other but nevertheless discerns the same “prophetic image.” Following his dating of the aforementioned texts in Kings and Jeremiah, Oswald thus attributes this “prophetic image” to the late preexilic period. Oswald sees the purpose of 2 Sam 11–12 and 1 Kgs 1–2 as follows: the Nathan stories are an example of ideal problem solving in the Davidic court—namely through “prophetic” intervention. Only in the later Dtr texts (2 Sam 7; 12:7b–12, according to Oswald) does Nathan become a typical prophet who begins his speech with the proclamation formula and who announces events that later come true.

Several queries arise for this reviewer with regard to Oswald's synthesis. First, is it imaginable that in the days of Josiah or his sons an author would invent stories that on the one hand blame king David—who was the founder of the dynasty after all—for murder and adultery (cf. 2 Sam 11), and on the other depict the king as an old weak monarch that lost control of his court (cf. 1 Kgs 1)? A detail in 1 Kgs 2 may challenge the notion that 1 Kgs 1–2 is an “artificial” composition invented long after king David's reign: after being killed, Joab is interred “in his house in the desert” (1 Kgs 2:34). This concrete indication of the burial place is anachronistic for the late preexilic period: interments in a residence (to which 1 Sam 25:1 and 2 Sam 17:23 GL also allude) are not attested in the archaeology of Judah during the later Iron Age.[6] Oswald's stress on the “exceptional” role of Nathan in comparison to the prophets of the prophetic books and prophets in the surrounding ancient Near East is problematic in its absolute formulation. As for the biblical evidence, Oswald himself points to several instances, first of all in Sam–Kgs, where prophets address kings by way of a speech that is not designated the word of Yhwh, or where they communicate with the king alone without an audience present. As regards prophetic activities in Israel’s environment, it is on the one hand true as a rule that that the relationship between the prophets and the kings was rather indirect. On the other hand, there are examples in the prophetic texts from Mari of direct contact between prophets and kings.[7]

The few objections and critical queries in this review do not express a disapproval of Oswald's work. On the contrary, the reviewer appreciates the latter's attempt to retrace the image of Nathan “through” the text. The exegesis of the three literary units is accurate and offers innovative ideas that are worthy of discussion.

Jürg Hutzli, Collège de France

[1] Cf. the explicit use of the personal pronoun in 5a (אתה) and 13a (הוא). reference

[2] Adrian Schenker, “Die Verheissung Natans in 2 Sam 7 in der Septuaginta: Wie erklären sich die Differenzen zwischen Massoretischem Text und LXX, und was bedeuten sie für die messianische Würde des davidischen Hauses in der LXX?” in The Septuagint and Messianism (ed. M. A. Knibb; BETL 195; Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 177–92; Philippe Hugo, “L'archéologie textuelle du temple de Jérusalem: Étude textuelle et littéraire du motif théologique du temple en 2 Samuel,” in Archaeology of the Books of Samuel: The Entangling of the Textual and Literary History of the Books of Samuel (ed. P. Hugo and A. Schenker; VTSup 132; Leiden: Brill, 2009), 213–36. reference

[3] There is no evidence in Oswald's exegesis suggesting that 2 Sam 11 would form an older tradition of which the author of 2 Sam 12 would make use. On the contrary, he tries to rebut all scholarly attempts to separate on a historical-historical level these two chapters. Nevertheless, in his conclusions Oswald often uses formulations referring only to ch.12 instead of 11–12. Alike as for 1 Kgs 2, it is regrettable that Oswald does not include 2 Sam 11 in his thorough text analysis. reference

[4] Cf. Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings (OTL, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 60. reference

[5] James W. Flanagan, “Court History or Succession Document? A Study of 2 Sam 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2,” JBL 91 (1972): 172–81; P.Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (AB 9; New York: Doubleday 1984), 11–13. reference

[6] Cf. my contribution (“Indices littéraires pour l'enterrement dans la maison d'habitation en Ancien Israël”) in the volume to the colloquium “les vivants et leurs morts,” held in Paris 14.–15. April, 2010 (forthcoming). reference

[7] Cf. Dominique Charpin, “Prophètes et rois dans le Proche-Orient amorrite,” in Prophètes et Rois: Bible et Proche Orient (ed. A. Lemaire; Paris: Cerf, 2001), 21–53, here 34–41; idem, “Prophètes et roi dans le Proche-Orient amorrite: Nouvelles donnés, nouvelles perspectives,” in Florilegium marianum VI: Recueil d'études à la mémoire d'André Parrot (ed. idem and J.-M. Durand; Mémoires de NABU 7; Paris: SEPOA, 2002), 7–38, here 16–22. reference