Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Wilson, Ian D., Kingship and Memory in Ancient Judah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Pp. xi + 308. Hardcover. US$105.00. ISBN: 9780190499907.

W. H. Auden once remarked that, “people write in order to be read.”[1] The modest truism conceals more than it reveals, since the ways to read (and misread) are legion. All texts, including ancient ones about Israelite kings, presuppose the possibility of an audience who can find the words on the page intelligible, if not always agreeable, because of shared commitments or interests or memories.

Yet what precisely do the Israelite texts report about kings and to whom? In this provocative and well-written book, Wilson attempts to rethink the historiography of monarchy (not only in the Deuteronomistic History) and what he calls the metahistoriographic texts in the prophets. His work brackets previous phases of scholarly research, which have tried to solve the texts' multivocality through appeals to sources and redaction or to the history of reception. Based on a wide reading in contemporary theory, he resorts instead to an analysis of these texts as exercises in collective memory for literati in the Persian period.

The book proceeds in several steps. Chapter 1 situates the biblical texts in the early Second Temple period as the era in which they “took shape” (p. 5), while admitting that the literary community of that era must have remained small. Again, Wilson acknowledges that much material in the DH and other texts predates the fifth century BCE, but argues that the complete works and their readership among the “literati,” a vaguely defined group, should be the subject of analysis. The reception of these texts by Chronicles provides an anchor point of sorts, though a tenuous one.

Throughout this chapter and the book at large, then, the concept of “social memory” provides a lens through which to understand these texts. However, Wilson distinguishes his approach from that of Jan Assmann, which, he argues, differs little from traditional historical criticism.[2] The new approach attends little to the process of textual creation and opts instead for “how late Persian-period Judean society remembered and imagined its past, present, and future with that literature” (p. 33). One might accuse this maneuver of begging the question by privileging the procedures of memory to its content, or indeed ignoring successive cultural memories that may lie within the developing biblical texts about kings. Certainly Ricoeur's work on archivism and the multiple dimensions of memory, especially in his Memory, History, Forgetting (which Wilson cites but does not engage in detail) would provide an important conversation partner here.[3]

In any case, chapters 2 and 3 address significant glitches in the social memory of Israelite kingship, the Deuteronomic king law in Deut 17:14–20 and the stories of the “transition(s) to monarchy” in Judges–1 Samuel. The first problem is a longstanding one because it seems to fit ill with the notion of a Josianic Deuteronomy, at least one sponsored by the crown. Wilson “solves” the problem by locating the law in the Persian period as a framing device through which to read stories later in the DH. The law both “restricts power, at least in terms of traditional Near Eastern politics, but at the same time enables a kind of Israelite uniqueness” (p. 75). Certainly Wilson's subtle reading of the law as a historiographic lens shows he is on to something important, and many suggestions in this chapter are illuminating. Yet the discontinuity between the law and the later stories of monarchy (no king is said to follow it, and no text remarks upon this failure) should at least give us pause. Similarly, his note that the Deuteronomic tradition cannot remember Moses as both king and lawgiver (p. 70) is correct, but it raises the deeper question of why the creators of these texts needed to separate the two roles. That separation in itself reveals the depth of their reflection on the monarchic period as a failure in the final analysis.

Similar cautions obtain for chapter 3, as well. Whether the memories of the pre-Davidic period were really “hazy” for the Persian period literati (p. 129) or not, Wilson is surely correct that Judges neither rejects nor accepts monarchy per se, that all the stories of Judg 1–1 Sam 7 are “testing discursive possibilities” (p. 90), and that this “testing” bespeaks a hesitancy to accept monarchy's place in the historiography. Yet one may still ask, does this hesitancy reflect only a postexilic reality or something else? Does the jaundiced view of all political solutions evident in the construction of these stories (if not in each individual tale) come only at the end of the process of their development?

Chapter 4 explores the key monarchic stories of David and Solomon in both the DH and Chronicles. The comparison of the two allows Wilson wide room for exploring memory and forgetting (à la Ricoeur), marking the book's most significant contribution to detailed exegesis, I think. He shows convincingly that the two works do not exist simply in a literary vacuum of source and revision but as two parts of a more complex social phenomenon. Chronicles' omissions become, then, not bowdlerizing, but sophisticated attempts to make sense of the past. While I think that the DH's Solomon narrative contains more criticism of the monarch than Wilson seems to allow for (see especially pp. 166–67), and that situating Cyrus in the “Davidic program” (p. 180) oversimplifies the agenda of Chronicles, his readings on these and many other points should stimulate further exploration.

Chapters 5 and 6 advance the conversation and bring it to a conclusion. Wilson steps across rarely crossed boundaries by bringing the prophetic texts into discussion of historiography, labeling them “metahistoriographic,” i.e., texts that reflect on the past remembered and on the structure of the remembering of the past. He argues that the prophetic texts are “more akin to ancient historiography than to ‘prophecy’ per se” (p. 187). Of course, those two literary categories are not the only ones available, yet Wilson is surely right to point to the ways in which the texts ascribed to Israelite prophets repeatedly reflect on the past and the future of kingship and its relationship to Israelite identity. At times, this reflection hides behind other topics, as though the text's creators wish us to forget the monarchy, but this too is an aspect of memory.

To conclude, then, just as Wilson's Israelite writers are of two minds about their past, I find myself of two minds about his reading of their texts. On the one hand, his emphasis on memory surely marks a major advance in our consideration of these texts, and at many points Wilson forces a reconsideration of long held views of individual stories and their concatenation in the major historiographic works (DH and CH especially).

On the other, simply to assume that DH reflects the collective memory of the Persian period “literati” underplays major theoretical issues: (1) How do the pre-Deuteronomic layers of the text, the extent of which is debatable but probably significant, reflect past collective memories of Israelite thinkers, and how do those earlier layers of memory relate to others? Can we reconstruct a sort of archaeology of memory without descending into the arbitrariness that sometimes seems to accompany more traditional literary-critical approaches? (2) Does memory as an intellectual phenomenon relate in an unmediated way to the creation of texts, as Wilson seems to assume but does not fully explain? Can we elide memory and textual creation, or do we need more extensive work on their relationship(s)? (3) How does the textualization of prophecy relate to memory and forgetting, since, again, this process seems to have occurred over time? These fruitful questions, and others, should occupy scholars for some time, thanks in large part to Wilson's stimulating and learned book. One may hope for it an appreciative readership and numerous responses.

Mark W. Hamilton, Abilene Christian University

[1] W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1977), 309. reference

[2] Notably Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing Remembrance and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); idem, Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion, trans. Robert Savage (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2014). reference

[3] Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). reference