The Demise of the Warlord: A New Look at the David Story

01.03.11 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Daniel Bodi

    A review by Richard Hess of the book "The Demise of the Warlord"

    Book - Demise of the Warlord

    Bodi, Daniel.  The Demise of the Warlord. A New Look at the David Story.  Hebrew Bible Monographs, 26.  Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010.  xii + 270 pp.  Hardback, $85.00.  ISBN 978-1-906055-82-0. 

    As Associate Professor at the Paris School of Oriental Studies, Bodi has had unusual access to the unpublished Mari texts, as well as other cuneiform archives.  The result has been a collection of studies that have opened our understanding of the biblical accounts in new and previously inaccessible ways.  Bodi’s latest publication is no exception.  In this volume he examines the story of 2 Samuel 11-12 and the manner in which David and Uriah appear in this narrative.  Bodi argues that there exists a topos of the warlord in ancient Near Eastern literature and that this thematic concern both predates and influences the culture behind the narrative of David and Bathsheba.  2 Samuel 11:1 and 12:26-31 form an inclusio that integrates the whole story of David’s adultery into that of the Ammonite war.  It also contrasts David as one who remains at home while his army is in the field, with David as a warlord who fights and defeats the enemy. 

    The book begins with a review of critical scholarship on the rise of Solomon, i.e., what has long been regarded as the Succession Narrative.  Bodi rejects this analysis in favor of understanding a rivalry between two houses of tribal leaders. These are best represented by Saul and David.  He argues that this is closer to the truth as reflected in a tribal society at Mari in the eighteenth century B.C.  Behind this lay the concern for extermination of entire households such as that of Saul.  No one would be left to challenge the power of the new ruler.

    The illustrations from Akkadian texts provide examples of how a Mari king instructs his lazy son in the art of warfare and leadership.  He extols the virtues of leading his army into battle and crudely mocks his son for sitting at home and for occupying his time with his wives.  Bodi observes a shift from the nomadic ideal of a tribal leader and warrior to a settled ruler who lives in a city and a palace, rather than a tent.  This occurs at Mari and is marked by, among other things, the acquisition of a harem that can include hundreds of women.  Numbered among these would be support staff for the honored wives and concubines.  To acquire another’s harem was a sign of power and dominance over the defeated ruler.  All this compares well with David’s decision to leave the fighting to his general Joab as well as his involvement with Bathsheba.  In these activities he demonstrates a change from the tribal and nomadic warrior (or warlord, as Bodi uses the term) ideal to the settled and often despised (at least by the warriors) ruler in a palace.  This picture contrasts with David during the time of Saul, when he lived in a tent, was at the forefront of the battles, and acquired the wives of Nabal and of others.  It also corresponds to Absalom’s later acquisition of David’s harem and to Solomon’s much larger harem – although not impossible in light of the numbers of women mentioned in the Mari texts (and the manner in which Solomon would have acquired the harems of his father David and of the various rulers that he conquered).

    Into this overall picture, Bodi introduces his theory of an unwritten law related to the care of the honored sojourner.  For this, Bodi turns to a variety of Akkadian texts, but especially Amarna letter EA 162, in which the pharaoh demands that Aziru extradite a number of ciriminals.  One of them is not named but simply described as someone who treated badly an ubãru.  This term relates to a sojourner in a foreign country.  However, its usages describe someone representing the authority or interest of a sovereign from another land.  Thus this does not apply to any and every foreigner, but only to those of a special category.  In so doing, it also demonstrates the complex nature of this question of foreigner and sojourner in the literature of the ancient Near East. 

    Bodi incorporates insights for the purpose of understanding specific terms and expressions.  Thus the reference to “the enemies of Yahweh” in 2 Samuel 12:14 and to “the enemies of David” in 1 Samuel 25:22 is not to be understood as a textual corruption.  Following Anbar, who cites Mari parallels, it expresses a euphemism to identify animosity directed toward Yahweh or David.  The reference to the ark of Yahweh as found in a “house” (Hebrew bêt) in 2 Samuel 12:20 is not an anachronism from a later period when the ark had moved from a tent to the temple.  As at Mari, where a nomad chieftain’s tent can be described by the cognate Akkadian word for “house,” so here David uses the term to identify a tent as the ark’s dwelling.    

    Bodi describes the customary priniciple of retribution across the ancient Near East, as similar to that found in Nathan’s claim against David in 2 Samuel 12.  Among other sources he notes a Mari letter from king Yasmah-Addu to the god Nergal.  The significance is the narrative history contained within the letter that outlines this principle as experienced by earlier kings and commanders.  Bodi also observes the Emar texts from the thirteenth century B.C. that outline a “sacred history” for the site.  All this provides background for the narrative of David in Samuel. 

    Following a method whereby comparative observations are reinforced with later Rabbinic analyses and thus provided with a second “witness” to the claims of the text, Bodi argues that this should be used in the analysis of the ideal warrior Uriah with reference to his wife, Bathsheba.  The Rabbis maintained that when such a man went to war he left with his wife a letter of divorce.  This could be used if the husband disappeared or was taken prisoner.  The wife was then free to remarry.  Rashi suggested that it had retroactive effect if the husband died in war as it then allowed the woman the status of a divorcee, rather than the need to undergo the requirements of the levirate marriage.  Something similar is found in the Middle Assyrian laws.  Law A §45 describes how a woman whose husband has not returned from battle after two years receives a “Widow’s Tablet” that allows her to remarry.  Since it assumes that the husband owns land and property, this law may have in mind only officers.  This may have been what happened in the case of Uriah, providing his wife with a legal right to remarry.  Thus David was legally able to take her as his wife and to provide for her child, despite all the wrongdoing that led to that event. 

    Overall, this is an excellent volume that contributes much to our understanding of David, Bathsheba, Uriah, and the events of 2 Samuel 11-12.  A minor point has to do with Bodi’s analysis of the names of Uriah and others connected with Jerusalem in the second millennium B.C.  Bodi claims that the name of Jerusalem’s leader in the fourteenth century, usually written as Abdi-Heba, must be West Semitic.  While it is true that the goddess Hebat was an ancient Semitic deity, there was nothing to prevent this goddess from being incorporated into the Hurrian pantheon.  Indeed, many of the names containing this theophoric element, as cited by Bodi (p. 187) as queens among the Hittites, were almost certainly Hurrian and Hittite names; and not West Semitic names.  Further, the presence of “Heba(t)” in a personal name from the Taanach texts of the Late Bronze Age does not demonstrate that the name is West Semitic.  To the contrary a sizeable percentage of these names are Hurrian.   Further, the first element of the name of Jerusalem’s king is always written with a logogram (the third value of IR) and never spelled out.  As attested by the presence of many Hurrian and other non-Semitic names in the region of Jerusalem and the hill country of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age, this name possibly should be read as Hurrian, i.e., Purame-Heba.  Even so, the existence of Hurrian names in the second millennium B.C. does not vitiate the likely argument that Uriah’s name is West Semitic.  He may have been from the first millennium Neo-Hittite states, as Bodi suggests, or he may have come from Syria, which Egyptian New Kingdom texts refer to as the land of the Hittites.  In either case, the attestation of numerous West Semitic peoples throughout these areas allows for Uriah to be understood as both a “Hittite” and a possessor of a West Semitic name.

    The work as a whole is an excellent source for cultural backgrounds to 2 Samuel 11-12 and to many of the other stories found in the books and Samuel and originating in the eleventh and tenth centuries B.C.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in the exegesis of the text of this key story in the life of David. 

    Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
    Denver Seminary
    January 2011

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