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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

Massacre Survivor David Hogg and the Origin of Biblical Prose Narrative Writing

Now Talking about Changing the World (NYT 3/30/18, image by Erin Schaff)

Massacre survivor David Hogg, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior in Parkland, Florida, offers a different model or paradigm for the understanding of the origin of biblical prose narrative writing than customarily used today. Typically biblical scholars retroject themselves to the presumed biblical writers of millennia ago.

Biblical scholars attend graduate schools. Biblical writers attended scribal schools.
Biblical scholars study canonical texts. Biblical writers studied “canonical” texts.
Biblical scholars write learned esoteric articles and books intended for each other and not the general public. Biblical writers wrote for each other and not the general public.
Biblical scholars’ writings are politically irrelevant. There is no press coverage of the annual SBL conference and what is said there has no political import. By contrast biblical writers may have some political significance but it isn’t always easy to determine who took their writing seriously.

The general exception today is for biblical archaeologists. Over 90 years ago, William Foxwell Albright went on an over 100-stop national tour in the United States. Hershel Shanks and BAR demonstrate a continued interest in biblical archaeology in the public. The findings of biblical archaeologists today still may command attention and press coverage especially if they involve Jerusalem. For textual authors, the story is quite different.

Budding journalist and writer David Hogg presents a different scenario. His words and actions have commanded extensive media coverage. He is able to disseminate his message to the general public aided by new technologies. In ancient times, one would have to go from town to town to spread the word much as the way movies used to open or the Declaration on Independence was communicated in 1776 (leading to the famous Hazor-like tumbling of the new statue to King George III in Manhattan when word arrived a few days later). Massacre survivor David Hogg is now very politically active. His targets are the NRA and its minions. Did something like this happen three millennia ago?

Origins of Biblical Alphabet Prose Writing

When the Hyksos Levites became part of Israel, they brought with them the Egyptian scribal tradition. Amorite Benjaminites were Mesopotamian oriented. They looked to Sargon the Great, Nebuchadnezzar I and his Enuma Elish story, and to Gilgamesh flood stories. The Levites looked to Egypt with its Horus birth story, Sinuhe wilderness story, Pharaoh smiting the enemy, and to the rejection of that very Egyptian cultural construct. They would have known about the Mernepath Stele claiming they had been destroyed. They would have known that the Quarrel Story of Seqenenre and Apophis was about Hyksos in the present and not the past. Therefore they would have known of the literary technique of using historical figures as well as mythical figures to comment on the present.

For centuries, this expertise and knowledge did the Levites little good. They lived in the boonies with no institutional apparatus or need for such political commentary. Yes, there were songs in the Book of the Wars of Yahweh (against Egypt) and celebrations at Mount Ebal and Shiloh. Long before the 9th century Assyrian monuments in northern Syria, people in the land of Canaan would have been familiar with Egyptian monuments and writing, too. But as for writing alphabet prose narratives, there was nothing in the Iron I period to suggest they existed. Something had to happen to trigger that development.


I suggest that Saul was the catalyst for the development of the alphabet prose narrative in ancient Israel. For centuries Israel had lived without a human king, a capital city, a temple, a palace, taxes, or forced labor. The maintenance of an Israelite identity from Merneptah to monarchy in and of itself was an extraordinary achievement. Now a significant change had been proposed. An individual human being wanted to be king. A non-Levite human being wanted to be able to call men to battle just as Deborah once had done. Saul was the change agent and alphabet prose stories was the response.

The debates among Mesopotamians when kingship first descended from heaven and among Egyptians when the king first ascended the throne have been lost to history assuming they ever even existed in written form in the first place. Part of the uniqueness of Israel, is that we do have the ancient equivalent of the opposite writings of the Patriots and the Loyalists from the American Revolution about King George III and that both became part of a single cultural tradition. Did the Israelite tradition also include pro and con stories when kingship emerged and who would have written them?

One can find in the biblical narrative the idea of kingship was a rejection of Yahweh:

I Samuel 10:17 Now Samuel called the people together to Yahweh at Mizpah; 18 and he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But you have this day rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses; and you have said, ‘No! but set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the Yahweh by your tribes and by your thousands.”

The battle over kingship was engaged and responsibility for the Exodus was a battlefield.

Volkmar Fritz suggests Jotham’s Fable (Judges 9:8-15) as another example of an anti-monarchic diatribe with no ancient Near East parallel.

Judges 9:8 The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, `Reign over us.’ 9 But the olive tree said to them, `Shall I leave my fatness, by which gods and men are honored, and go to sway over the trees?’ 10 And the trees said to the fig tree, `Come you, and reign over us.’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, `Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to sway over the trees?’ 12 And the trees said to the vine, `Come you, and reign over us.’ 13 But the vine said to them, `Shall I leave my wine which cheers gods and men, and go to sway over the trees?’ 14 Then all the trees said to the bramble, `Come you, and reign over us.’ 15 And the bramble said to the trees, `If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.

He delicately deems it a mocking, scathing, sarcastic denunciation of the office of king. Fritz posits that it “originated at the earliest in the early monarchic period when the new form of government must have been asserted against contrary opinions.”1 Saul’s quest for the kingship initiated a war of words that continued long after he was dead.2

There is a story to be told about Saul becoming the first king of Israel and Israel told it, both pro and con. This claim presumes the historical existence of Saul as king of Israel consistent with the geographic boundaries delineated in II Sam. 2:9 when his son Ishbaal succeeded him:

and he made him king over Gilead and the Ashurites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel. 3

It is reasonable to conclude that Saul would have his supporters (non-Levite Benjaminite priests) who could tell his side of the story stressing his successes and legitimacies.

Scholarly opinions on Saul vary. A non-inclusive sample of scholarly deliberations reveal a range of opinions about him as an individual and the writings about him found in I Sam.4

J. Maxwell Miller’s analysis of the Saul narrative reveals a deliberate linking of the stories of Saul and David’s rises to power.

Diana Edelman focuses on how the Deuteronomist in the 7th century BCE would tell the story of Saul’s rise to power while recognizing that Saul did not emerge in history as a character at that time.

Joseph Blenkinsopp despairs that “access to usable historical information about Saul and his reign has been rendered extraordinarily difficult by politically and theologically inspired polemic” which he traces back to a pro-Samuel Ephraimite prophetic source without identifying when it originated or naming an individual.5

In his Anchor Bible Commentaries on I and II Samuel, McCarter identifies a “Saul Cycle” containing precisely such stories praising him in the savior style of a hero from the Book of Judges. Yet for some reason he dates the cycle to the 9th century and the northern kingdom of Israel provenance even though Benjamin at the that time was part of the southern kingdom of Judah. By contrast, he dates the biblical story of David’s rise to power to the time of David himself.

Marsha White more vigorously advocates for the composition of a “History of Saul’s Rise” contemporaneous with that rise and serving as a base text for the story of David’s rise to power.

Drawing on White, Mark Leuchter posits pro-Samuel and Saul factions at Shiloh (and Benjamin) dating to the 11th century BCE which continued on afterwards. He proposes a four-level composition process beginning with anti-Saul polemics in Judges to pro-Saul stories based on Samson elements extending to Josianic-era shapings in the 7th century BCE. In this process Shiloh regrouped with the support of David but lost power during the Davidic dynasty. His proposition adds a dimension to polemical writings whereby stories are not necessarily about the person named in the story but someone in the present.

Nadav Na’aman’s casual reference to “the author of the Saul story-cycle” along with “the author of the Jacob story-cycle” recognizes that actual individual authors are involved. However, he is constrained because he rejects the possibility of the existence of such writers in 10th century BCE Jerusalem regardless of the political turmoil at that time. Only centuries later could they write about it due to a “genuine antiquarian literary interest.” On the other hand, he also states “that scribal activity was introduced in the court of Jerusalem no later than the time of Solomon, and possibly already in David’s time….(which) must have been confined to a small group of scribes in the court of Jerusalem and was mainly used for administrative and diplomatic exchange [why not political as well?].” Na’aman’s positions echo those of David Carr who suggests the possibility “that the shared script tradition in Judah and Israel is an indicator of a shared scribal system that emerged already in the 10th century, when biblical traditions depict both kingdoms as being ruled from Jerusalem by David and Solomon.” His view runs counter to recent trends in biblical scholarship against there being a distinctly Hebrew scribal system in the 10th century BCE or there being a united monarchy.6

Scholars also have proposed various stories through which the Saulide debate unfolded. Consider for example, one prominent anti-Saul text of terror story using the alphabet pose narrative alluded to by Leuchter: the rape in Gibeah, Saul’s home and capital of his kingdom, of a Bethlemite woman, from the home of David, who was with a Levite from Ephraim where the priests of Shiloh were based (Judges 19). Mario Liverani addresses the close connection between the writing of history and the validation of political order and political action in the ancient Near East targeting Judges 19-21 as a possibly pro-Davidic, anti-Benjaminite story from the time of Saul.7 Yairah Amit declares:

Literature has always been susceptible to involvement in political struggle, so the political mobilization of biblical literature should occasion no surprise….I have chosen to discuss…the anti-Saul polemic hidden in chs. 19-21 in the book of Judges.8

…the confrontation between the house of Saul, whose origin is in Gibeah, and the house of David, whose origin is in Bethlehem Judah, is in fact the core of the story.9

Marc Brettler echoes Amit’s statement in seeing the alphabet prose narrative story as an anti-Saul polemic in the use of literature as politics. He wonders why what is seemingly so obvious is rejected by scholars. How can a story which mentions the homes of Samuel, Saul, and David not be a political polemic? Of critical importance as well is to recognize that the unnamed female figure also exists by the creation of the author as part of the polemic. Like Lady Liberty, she symbolizes the people. The story is “a world of unrelenting terror” because that is the message the author wished to deliver in his polemic.10


So who wrote it? Who would have had written anti-Saul polemics using the alphabet prose narrative? Let’s name names. Or at least one name. Who was the massacre survivor who had the motive, means, and opportunity to transform early poetics of heroes to prose narratives of heroes and villains in a political context?

1 Samuel 22:18 Then the king said to Doeg, “You turn and fall upon the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned and fell upon the priests, and he killed on that day eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod. 19 And Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; both men and women, children and sucklings, oxen, asses and sheep, he put to the sword. 20 But one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David. 21 And Abiathar told David that Saul had killed the priests of the LORD. 22 And David said to Abiathar, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father’s house. 23 Stay with me, fear not; for he that seeks my life seeks your life; with me you shall be in safekeeping.”

I suggest the person was Abiathar, priest of Shiloh, priest of Moses, Levite. I suggest that Abiathar is the father of the alphabet prose narrative. I suggest Abiathar wrote throughout his life in the time of Saul, David, and Solomon. I suggest that it is possible to trace his development as a writer from his revisions of early poetry to his prose narrative masterpieces. I suggest it is possible to identify his Benjaminite and Jebusite rivals. I suggest it is possible to identify his successor. Finally, I suggest that 10th century BCE Israel is the best documented century in the ANE for the amount of writing, quality of the writing, and the diversity of the writing. Writers were passionate, angry, and relevant, not faceless acronyms. Let massacre survivor David Hogg guide us to the origin of biblical prose writing and recognize that Saul was Abiathar’s NRA.

“I wanted to make a difference through storytelling and political activism,
but I am already doing that now.” David Hogg (NYT 3/30/18)


1. Volkmar Fritz, The Emergence of Israel in the Twelfth and Eleventh Centuries B.C.E. (Biblical Encyclopedia 2; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 221-223, quotation from 222.

2. The situation at the birth of the United States was quite different from the birth of kingship in Egypt or Mesopotamia. The pro- and anti-Constitution opinions of the American people during its creation and the extended ratification process were written down and are studied to this very day. The possession of multiple and contradicting opinions in the ancient Near East where the king tended to monopolize the information system is less frequent. Perhaps the most famous non-biblical example of differing opinions occurred after the battle of Kadesh when the participating Egyptian and Hittite kings remembered the confrontation differently. In biblical traditions, there are the competing biblical and archaeological versions of the actions of Shoshenq, Mesha, Hazael, and Sennacherib to name a few. All these examples are cross-cultural not intracultural as exist in the biblical narrative starting with Saul.

3. Israel Finkelstein, “The Last Labayu: King Saul and the Expansion of the First North Israelite Territorial Entity,” in Yairah Amit and Nadav Na’aman, ed., Essays on Ancient Israel in its Near Eastern Context: A Tribute to Nadav Na’aman (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 171-187. By contrast, Na’aman considers it a retrojected attempt at historical reality (“The Kingdom of Ishbaal,” BN 84 1990:33-37; Nadav Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of >Biblical Israel (continued, Part 2),” ZAW121:335-349, here 347.

4. For Saul see, Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Quest for the Historical Saul,” in James W. Flanagan and Anita Weisboro Robinson, ed., No Famine in the Land: Studies in Honor of John L. McKenzie (Claremont: Scholars Press for The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 1975), 75-99; Diana Edelman, “The Deuteronomist’s Story of King Saul: Narrative Art or Editorial Policy,” in C. Brekelmans and J. Lust, ed., Pentateuchal and Deuteronomistic Studies: Papers Read at the XIIIth IOSOT Congress, Leuven 1989 (BETL 94; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1990), 207-220; Diana Edelman, King Saul in the Historiography of Judah (JSOT Sup Series 121; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); Israel Finkelstein, “The Last Labayu: King Saul and the Expansion of the First North Israelite Territorial Entity,” in Yairah Amit and Nadav Na’aman, ed., Essays on Ancient Israel in its Near Eastern Context: A Tribute to Nadav Na’aman (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 171-187; Mark Leuchter, “‘Now There Was a [Certain] Man’: Compositional Chronology in Judges-1 Samuel,” CBQ 69 2007:429-439; P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., I Samuel (AB 8; Garden City: Doubleday, 1980), 26-27, 29; P Kyle McCarter, Jr., “The Apology of David,” JBL 99 1980:489-504; J. Maxwell Miller, “Saul’s Rise to Power: Some Observations Concerning I Sam. 9:1-10:16; 10:26-11:15 and 13:2-14:46,” CBQ 36 1974:157-174; Nadav Na’aman, “The Kingdom of Ishbaal,” BN 84 1990:33-37; Marsha C. White, “The ‘History of Saul’s Rise’ and the Compositional History of I Samuel 1-14,” paper presented at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 20, 2000, Nashville; Marsha C. White, “‘The History of Saul’s Rise’: Saulide State Propaganda in 1 Samuel 1-14,” in Saul M. Olyan and Robert C. Culley, “A Wise and Discerning Mind”: Essays in Honor of Burke O. Long (BJS 325; Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2000), 271-292.

5. Blenkinsopp, “The Quest for the Historical Saul,” 82.

6. David M. Carr, “The Tel Zayit Abecedary in (Social) Context,” in Ron E. Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., ed., Literate Culture and Tenth-Century: The Tel Zayit Abcedary in Context (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 113-129, here 121 and 122; Nadav Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel (continued, Part 2),” ZAW 121:335-349, here 342-345, quotation 345; Nadav Na’aman, “The Settlement of the Ephraites in Bethlehem and the Location of Rachel’s Tomb,” RB 121 2014:516-539, here 527; Nadav Na’aman, “Sources and Composition in the History of David,” in Volkmar Fritz and Philip R. Davies, ed., The Origin of the Ancient Israelite States (JSOT Sup Series 228; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 173-186, here 172-173; see also Nadav Na’aman, “The Conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua and in History,” in Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Na’aman, ed., From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994), 218-281, here 218).

7. Mario Liverani, Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 160-192.

8. Yairah Amit, “Literature in the Service of Politics: Studies in Judges 19-21,” in Henning Graf Reventlow, Yair Hoffman, and Benjamin Uffenheimer, ed., Politics and Theopolitics in the Bible and Postbiblical Literature (JSOT Sup Series 171; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 28-40, here 28.

9. Yairah Amit, “The Use of Analogy in the Study of the Book of Judges,” in Matthias Augustin and Klaus Dietrich Schunck, ed., Wünschet Jerusalem Frieden: Collected Communications to the XIIth Congress of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament, Jerusalem 1986 (Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1988), 387-394, here 391.

10. Marc Brettler, “The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics,” JBL 108 1989: 395–418, here 412-413; Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary‑Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 65. For an American example, see the ending of the movie version of the French book The Planet of the Apes where only the torch of Lady Liberty is visible from the ground.

Portions excerpted from my book Jerusalem Throne Games: The Battle of Bible Stories after the Death of David