Ian D. Wilson, Kingship and Memory in Ancient Judah. Oxford University Press, 2017.
How historical figures are memorialized shed light on the social conditions of those evoking them in the present. For U.S. Americans, abolitionist John Brown, who attempted an armed insurrection to overthrow slavery at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, is a notorious example. Is John Brown a terrorist akin to Ted Kaczynski (Chowder 2000)? Alternatively, should John Brown’s conviction that slavery be eradicated through armed insurrection arouse sympathy (DuBois 1909)? Underlying both interpretations of John Brown and his insurrection are debates about broader political issues, such as white supremacy. Just as the memorialization of figures in U.S. history speak to larger social issues in the present, Ian D. Wilson’s Kingship and Memory in Ancient Judah argues that the Judean literati during the Persian Period negotiated various viewpoints about kingship in Israel’s past.
“Ancient Judah and Its Literature” (Chapter 1) defines the Judean literati as a small group of scribes who valued learning and the devotion of energy to complicated literature. The Judean literati during the Persian Period, Wilson contends, read biblical literature with the recognition that it is multivocal, “not to be read with a single meaning or purpose in mind” (p. 11). A major methodological framework Wilson adapts is that of memory studies. Unlike previous scholars, such as Jan Assmann or Ronald Hendel, who employ memory studies to determine the historicity of biblical narratives, Wilson focuses on Israel’s texts as sites of memory (lieux de mémorie) that function as “frames for the present (and future)” (p. 34).
Chapter 2 focuses on Deuteronomy’s king law (Deut 17:14-20) as a mnemonic frame that lays the groundwork for discourse on kingship. While the law is narrated in the distant past, it conveys a norm that is to be enacted in the future (even if such laws are “utopian”). As a textual site of memory, Deuteronomy’s king law simultaneously promotes the Torah so that kingship may endure while its language implies that kingship is entirely optional. The obligation of an indigenous monarch in Deuteronomy 17 would have been read in tension with positive evaluations of Cyrus as an anointed ruler of Yahweh’s people, despite being a foreigner, yet may have contributed to framing Cyrus as a quasi-Davidic king. Juxtaposed with Deuteronomy’s non-kingly king are the figures of Moses and Joshua. Even though they are never called kings, their leadership creates continuity between pre-monarchic and monarchic Israel.
The tension between judgeship and kingship in the Deuteronomistic History preoccupies much of Chapter 3. This tension can be seen in the characterization of various figures of Israel’s past, for instance, Samuel, Gideon, and Abimelech. Although Gideon rejects Israel’s call to rule over them, “Gideon essentially becomes an anti-Deuteronomic king” (p. 90). Gideon’s son Abimelech too plays the part of a monarch (Judg 9:6), and his brutality towards his brothers at Shechem and his brother Jotham’s fable give pause regarding the benefits of monarchy before its establishment in Israel. This kind of “doublethink” as Wilson terms it is likewise present in the figure of Samuel, who not only functions as a judge but both critiques and paves the way for the monarchy. Israelite monarchy thus becomes impossible and is yet is also supported by Yahweh.
Wilson then turns to the figure of David in “Remembering/Forgetting David and Davidic Kingship” (Chapter 4). While Chronicles brackets information contained within Samuel-Kings (e.g., Chronicles never mentions David’s assassination of Uriah the Hittite), both historiographies were read by Second Temple Judean literati. Thus, the account of David’s sexual coercion of Bathsheba cannot be forgotten while Chronicles’ omission of it “would give the literati license to deemphasize the import of Bathsheba in the monarchic past” (153). The different endings of each historiography only enhance a multivocality regarding the future status of Judah’s monarchy: Samuel-Kings ends with king Jehoiachin in exile but alive in Babylon indicating that exile could lead to exodus, while Chronicles’ ending keeps the Davidic monarchy alive in the non-Davidic monarch (e.g., Cyrus) who will rebuild the Temple.
Chapter 5 centers on the multivocality of kingship throughout prophetic literature. Texts like Isaiah 10 or Micah 4:1-5 (and its parallel in Isaiah 2:1-4) imagine Yahweh as the future monarch of Israel. Other biblical passages evoke the Davidic monarchy, such as Isaiah 11-12, which predicts a superhuman Davidide arising from the stump of Jesse. The enigmatic figure Zerubbabel also plays a role in discourse about the Davidic monarchy. Chronicles reads his status ambiguously due to its ending, proclaiming Cyrus as the rebuilder of the Jerusalem Temple, while Haggai and Zechariah depict a Zerubbabel as offering hope for future reinstatement of the Davidic monarchy. Adding to this multivocality is alternatives to kingship where Israel as a people are understood as sovereign: Israel is a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exod 19:6) or Israel collectively inherits David’s everlasting kingdom (Isa 55:1-5). Such visions recall Israel’s pre-monarchic era, which lacked a monarch, and circumvent human kingship altogether.
In the conclusion, Wilson submits that prophetic and historiographic literature work in tandem with one another: prophetic works were poetic, but their attribution to past historical figures brings them into closer alignment with historiography. Taken together both genres convey metahistoriography, historiography with a speculative outlook, with Israel’s prophetic literature dialoguing with and informing historiographic literature (p. 231).
Kingship and Memory in Ancient Judah is useful in reframing historiographic methods in biblical studies. Wilson aptly moves beyond the use of memory studies to merely determine the historicity of events of Israel’s past. Hayden White’s views on historiography come to mind insofar as embedded in historiography are certain political claims and that past events give meaning to those claims. Moreover, Wilson’s book provides an insightful link to reception history, especially showing how texts continue to function as sites of memory for later writers. Finally, for those interested in political theology, Wilson’s book usefully demonstrates the multivocality of biblical literature concerning the institution of kingship.
Chance P. McMahon is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Chowder, Ken. “The Father of American Terrorism.” American Heritage (February/March 2000): Cited February 24, 2018 Online http://www.americanheritage.com/content/father-american-terrorism?page=show.
DuBois, W.E.B. John Brown. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1909.