All King David’s men — official records or literary fictions?

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by Neil Godfrey

The following points about the biblical narrative of David are taken from The Biblical Saga of King David (2009) by the eminent scholar John Van Seters. Not that this post reflects the purpose or theme of Van Seters’ study. I am focusing on a small segment in a much larger study that analyses both the archaeological research relating to the Davidic period and the Davidic literature. Van Seters believes the evidence points to the Saga of King David being composed in the Persian period. But I leave those arguments aside for now.

2 Samuel lists dozens of named officials, military officers and sons that to the average modern reader are so boring they have to be genuinely official records!

Van Seters references Nadav Na’aman (1996) who thinks the following lists must be derived from authentic written records. (“No-one would make them up”):

  1. Lists of officials (2 Sam 8:16-18; 20:23-26)
  2. Lists of wives and sons (2 Sam 3:2-5; 5:13-16)
  3. List of military officers and heroes (2 Sam 23:8-39)

The Court Officials

2 Samuel 8:16-18

Joab son of Zeruiah was head of the army;

Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was clerk;

Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests;

Seraiah was secretary;

Benaiah son of Jehoiada was over the Kerethites and Pelethites;

And David’s sons were priests.

2 Samuel 20:23-26

Now Joab was over all the host of Israel;

and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and over the Pelethites;

and Adoram was over the men subject to taskwork;

and Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was the recorder;

and Sheva was scribe;

and Zadok and Abiathar were priests

and also Ira the Jairite was chief minister unto David.

Don’t we have every right to give such details a presumption of authenticity?

Van Seters is not convinced for four reasons:

  1. Court administration records in the Mid East and Egypt yield nothing comparable; there is no hint of ranking and no hint how such a list would be used or why it would be preserved
  2. The lists give an impression of an imperial state with a high level of literacy and bureaucratic institutions that the archaeological record does not acknowledge existed in tenth-century Jerusalem/Judah
  3. Though a number of scholars have argued for some of the words in the lists (“Sheva”, “clerk” above) being derivatives of Egyptian words, other specialists have disputed these arguments
  4. On the strength of the Bible’s account of Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of a Pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty it has been argued that there was a cultural/administrative influence into David’s court from Egypt; however this account of Solomon’s marriage is said to be a late Deuteronomist historian’s addition, and the next Pharaoh of Egypt mentioned in the Biblical account, Shishak, is hostile to Israel. It is only towards the end of the monarchy that we have evidence of close relationships between the Kingdom of Judah and both Assyria and Egypt.

From these observations one must conclude that a good case has not been made for understanding these lists as official documents reflecting the period of David and Solomon. (p. 93)

Were these above lists of court officials the “inner cabinet” of David’s officials?

Against this suggestion is the simple fact that none of the stories about David presents them in this way. The narratives only drop in names of officials as they serve a plot function and from those indications there is no way to understand what rank they may have had in relation to the larger bureaucracy. They never function as an “inner cabinet” or “inner circle” of advisors.

It is much more likely, it seems to me, that the lists were created by drawing on figures from the larger story context and by imitation of officials found in the historical narrative of later kings. (p. 93)

Further, the name of Zadok appears with a patronymic, Ahitub, that appears nowhere else in Samuel-Kings, but Ahitub belongs to the lineage of Abiathar and Abiathar’s genealogy is inverted.

Thus scholars usually reconstruct his name as Abiathar the son of Ahimelek the son of Ahitub (see 1 Sam 22:6-23, 23:6, 30:7).

Another anachronism is Benaiah. He is listed as being in charge of David’s “bodyguard” — “which is just another way of referring to him as commander of the foreign mercenaries” (p. 94):

2 Samuel 23:20-23

And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man of Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds, he slew the two sons of Ariel of Moab: he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow.

And he slew an Egyptian, a goodly man: and the Egyptian had a spear in his hand; but he went down to him with a staff, and plucked the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand, and slew him with his own spear.

These things did Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and had a name among the three mighty men.

He was more honorable than the thirty, but he attained not to the first three. And David set him over his guard.

Van Seters later points out that the archaeological evidence does not permit us to think that Judah or Jerusalem was of such a size in the tenth century that could ever support mercenaries. Finkelstein, he notes, the Cherethites and the Pelethites linked with Benaiah in the first list above “are to be identified as Greek mercenaries, and Greek mercenaries were known to have been used by the Egyptians in the late 7th century B.C.E.” But Van Seters goes further:

However, as we shall see below, these particular groups of Greek mercenaries were only used in Asia from the 4th century onward. Thus, the references to these groups as mercenaries and a royal bodyguard are anachronistic before the late Persian period. (p. 94)

Another strange — and suspect — line is that saying that David’s sons are priests.

The form of this expression is said to be “quite different” from the rest of the list, no names are cited, and it contradicts the earlier statement that Zadok and Abiathar are priests. If, however, David’s sons were priests of a lesser rank, one must ask why they are in the list at all. No other king is known to have made his sons priests.

Another oddity is the introduction of the list in 2 Samuel 8:16-18. 8:15 reads:

And David reigned over all Israel; and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people.

This sounds as if it is a concluding summary of the virtues of David’s reign and that we should expect to read next of the succession of Solomon.

But what follows is anything but “judgment and justice” — 2 Samuel 9 to 20 chronicles David’s murder of Uriah, adultery with Bathsheba and the rebellion of his son Absalom. This train of misjudgment and injustice is rounded off by a repetition of that list of court officials first read in 8:16-18.

Van Seters explains this oddity by suggesting the events of 9-20 were added to an earlier narrative that did conclude around 8:16-18, and that summary conclusion was partly repeated at that new ending (20:23-26).

Van Seters discusses the second list (2 Samuel 20:23-26) with reference to the roles the name play in the subsequent narrative, thus reminding us of his intuition that the names have been collated from their appearances in the larger story.

This list begins with the two rival commanders, Joab and Benaiah. In the narrative that follows Benaiah murders Joab and becomes head of the army, and is again here linked with the mercenaries.

Zadok and Abiathar appear this time without the patronymics and are also involved in the rivalry for the throne.

Adoram is a new figure appearing in this second list as one in charge of the forced labour. We later read of this person for his notorious role in the revolt of Rehoboam — Rehoboam sent him to collect tribute from the northern tribes but they stoned him to death thus provoking the open revolt against David’s Dynasty (2 Kings 12:18). The implication is that this oppressive rule of kings went back to David himself.

Finally the last line, as in the first list, does not conform to the style of the lines above. The last line of the first list claimed David made his sons priests. Here the last line introduces a “foreigner”, Ira the Jairite (or Jethrite) who is named David’s priest. Van Seters suggests that the point in each case may be to draw attention to David’s questionable religious practices.

The Sons of David

Again we have two lists:

2 Samuel 3:2-5

And unto David were sons born in Hebron: and his first-born was Amnon, of Ahinoam the Jezreelitess;

and his second, Chileab, of Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite; and the third, Absalom the son of Maacah the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur;

and the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith; and the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital;

and the sixth, Ithream, of Eglah, David’s wife. These were born to David in Hebron.

2 Samuel 5:13-16

And David took him more concubines and wives out of Jerusalem, after he was come from Hebron; and there were yet sons and daughters born to David.

And these are the names of those that were born unto him in Jerusalem: Shammua, and Shobab, and Nathan, and Solomon,

and Ibhar, and Elishua, and Nepheg, and Japhia,

and Elishama, and Eliada, and Eliphelet.

While these are often regarded as late interpolations there are many who still believe them to be drawn from early archives.

Van Seters argues that the first list is simply too well-tailored to fit the surrounding plot to be anything but a creation of that narrative’s author. The first names are listed in order, with the mothers, and related to the surrounding narrative events. “Remarkably” the third wife and mother of Absalom is the daughter of the king of Geshur — in anticipation of Absalom’s flight to his father-in-law in Geshur. The next son is Adonijah who will be presumed to be the next in line after Absalom’s death — until he is displaced by Solomon.

By contrast the second list omits the names of mothers and lists the sons of wives and concubines in no particular order.

This also applies to Solomon. It is not even clear that the list includes only sons and not daughters as well. The two lists could hardly belong to the same “archival” source; and it is also hard to imagine any useful bureaucratic function for such lists. Yet the second list does seem to refer back to the earlier list, and therefore it was likely an addition made by the same author. It seems to suggest that none of these sons (and daughters) had any claim to the throne. (p. 96)

David’s Heroes

2 Samuel 23:8-39

8 These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite, chief of the captains; the same was Adino the Eznite, against eight hundred slain at one time.

9 And after him was Eleazar the son of Dodai the son of an Ahohite, one of the three mighty men with David, when they defied the Philistines that were there gathered together to battle, and the men of Israel were gone away.

10 He arose, and smote the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clave unto the sword; and Jehovah wrought a great victory that day; and the people returned after him only to take spoil.

11 And after him was Shammah the son of Agee a Hararite. And the Philistines were gathered together into a troop, where was a plot of ground full of lentils; and the people fled from the Philistines.

12 But he stood in the midst of the plot, and defended it, and slew the Philistines; and Jehovah wrought a great victory.

13 And three of the thirty chief men went down, and came to David in the harvest time unto the cave of Adullam; and the troop of the Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephaim.

14 And David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then in Beth-lehem.

15 And David longed, and said, Oh that one would give me water to drink of the well of Beth-lehem, which is by the gate!

16 And the three mighty men brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Beth-lehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David: but he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto Jehovah.

17 And he said, Be it far from me, O Jehovah, that I should do this: shall I drink the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives? therefore he would not drink it. These things did the three mighty men.

18 And Abishai, the brother of Joab, the son of Zeruiah, was chief of the three. And he lifted up his spear against three hundred and slew them, and had a name among the three.

19 Was he not most honorable of the three? therefore he was made their captain: howbeit he attained not unto the first three.

20 And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man of Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds, he slew the two sons of Ariel of Moab: he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow.

21 And he slew an Egyptian, a goodly man: and the Egyptian had a spear in his hand; but he went down to him with a staff, and plucked the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand, and slew him with his own spear.

22 These things did Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and had a name among the three mighty men.

23 He was more honorable than the thirty, but he attained not to the first three. And David set him over his guard.

24 Asahel the brother of Joab was one of the thirty; Elhanan the son of Dodo of Beth-lehem,

25 Shammah the Harodite, Elika the Harodite,

26 Helez the Paltite, Ira the son of Ikkesh the Tekoite,

27 Abiezer the Anathothite, Mebunnai the Hushathite,

28 Zalmon the Ahohite, Maharai the Netophathite,

29 Heleb the son of Baanah the Netophathite, Ittai the son of Ribai of Gibeah of the children of Benjamin,

30 Benaiah a Pirathonite, Hiddai of the brooks of Gaash.

31 Abialbon the Arbathite, Azmaveth the Barhumite,

32 Eliahba the Shaalbonite, the sons of Jashen, Jonathan,

33 Shammah the Hararite, Ahiam the son of Sharar the Ararite,

34 Eliphelet the son of Ahasbai, the son of the Maacathite, Eliam the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite,

35 Hezro the Carmelite, Paarai the Arbite,

36 Igal the son of Nathan of Zobah, Bani the Gadite,

37 Zelek the Ammonite, Naharai the Beerothite, armorbearers to Joab the son of Zeruiah,

38 Ira the Ithrite, Gareb the Ithrite,

39 Uriah the Hittite: thirty and seven in all.

Again Van Seters sees this as a very artificial construction drawn from several sources with some anecdotes apparently drawn from 1 Samuel 21:15-22. These anecdotes are restricted to conflicts with the Philistines, in particular with Gath, and are not easy to reconcile with other episodes in David’s narrative.

They reflect the Samson type of stories in their glorification of single combat and military prowess, and as such are quite at odds with the other accounts of wars against the Philistines (2 Samuel 5:17-25).

Some of the problems in this list that do not support the notion that they are from an official record:

  • There is no separate entry for Joab —
    • Abishai gets two entries, and the brother of Joab, Asahel, gets one, and Joab’s armour-bearer gets one — but not Joab.
  • Some entries appear to be dependent upon the larger narrative —
    • Others contradict them: “In fiction anything is possible.

The list of Thirty is not easy to reconstruct. Additions — mostly foreigners — have clearly been tagged on to the end.

Judging from the place names from which those belonging to the thirty originate, the list assumes David’s control of a rather large territory. (p. 97)

This literary impression of “a rather large territory” contradicts the material evidence. Earlier Van Seters concluded from his survey of the archaeological reports up to 2009 that

the archaeological material recovered from Jerusalem from the 10th century showed a very small town that could hardly serve as a state capital . . . . (p. 66)

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “All King David’s men — official records or literary fictions?”

  1. Long lists of names bring to mind the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession and the inventiveness of Eusebius in constructing new bridges between his own time and the “apostolic age.” It appears that even Hegesippus is a Eusebian product.

    Robert L. Wilken (The Myth of Christian Beginnings, p. 5) writes, “The way nations and religions imagine and reconstruct their pasts, the times they choose to recall as well as the events they choose to forget, the idealizing and romanticizing of whole epochs, the embellishing of seemingly insignificant events, the creation of heroic types and symbols out of unknown men, are as much a clue to a nation’s self-understanding as its laws, political institutions, music, literature, or art. Men need a past, and if they do not have one, they will create one to suit their purposes. A nation, like an individual, cannot bear the idea that it has no beginning and no history.”

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