Absalom's Audience (2 Samuel 15–19)

By Sanders, Seth L. | Journal of Biblical Literature, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Absalom's Audience (2 Samuel 15–19)


Sanders, Seth L., Journal of Biblical Literature


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I.Reading the Politics of Ancient Hebrew Literature

In arguing for the priority of the political interpretation of literary texts, the critic Fredric Jameson addressed a dilemma for modern readers of ancient literature. How can we read in a way that is relevant to us without anachronism? We typically analyze ancient literature in either an antiquarian way, as a product of a mostly lost ancient context that informs us about a long-dead past, or in a modernizing way, via exegetical attempts to make it relevant. Jameson argued that placing literary texts in the broader history of political imagination-of shared human struggle across time-gives us another option.1

In this article, I will argue that the political interpretation of Absalom's uprising in 2 Samuel helps us bridge the gap between its early historical context and its continuing literary value by recovering its sense of threat and urgency. The uprising's strength has long puzzled interpreters, but it turns out to draw on deep-seated political symbolism that is documented in ancient West Semitic literature over a broad period of time. What links the story's drama to the circumstances that produced it is the question of why Absalom's revolt is portrayed as so powerful that it nearly dethrones David-a question about the political ideals and assumptions that would have made the story plausible to people who encountered it.

The Absalom story raises questions of audience in two senses: a literary sense (the audience the story portrays) and an ancient media sense (the one its creators addressed through writing). First is Absalom's audience as imagined within the story and how it becomes persuaded that King David will not give them a hearing and therefore should not be king. This group is depicted as sharing with Absalom a political view in which kingship is predicated on granting audience.

The second audience is the one that the story's creators assumed for it: how it would plausibly have circulated and who would have been expected to hear it. This makes the question of media crucial to the story's ancient historical context and political significance. Epigraphic evidence is only now beginning to be put in serious dialogue with the history of ancient Hebrew literature, despite its being longstanding and well-attested primary evidence for literary production.2 After the first detailed synthesis, the significance of ancient Hebrew as media is now being connected specifically to the creation of literary and historical prose by such scholars such as Daniel Pioske.3 It is here that the Absalom story can provide an interesting new angle.

II.The Succession Narrative as Good Literature but Bad History

The Davidic Succession Narrative (conservatively, 2 Sam 11-20)4 occupies a key place in the Hebrew Bible, and there are two basic ways of reading it: as world literature, valid across many times and places, and as history, anchored in the time and place to which it refers.5 As the longest coherent and unified narrative in the Bible, it is formally distinct from the complex mosaics and interweavings we find in Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, and the Pentateuch. 6 As literature, it provides the sharpest counterpoint to the standard view in biblical criticism of ancient Hebrew prose as an assembly of "loose, disconnected individual parts" only unified by later theological editors.7 Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Succession Narrative has been studied as a timeless masterpiece of storytelling, a self-contained narrative world. From this viewpoint, its meaning does not depend on its authors' context or on that of the audience they were addressing.8 Well over a century ago, Bernhard Luther had already recognized the elements of this story as artful literary units, "novellae." But it was Leonhard Rost who placed it at the pinnacle of biblical literature. By going beyond the view of its episodes as individual novellae strung together, he established the view of the Succession Narrative as an extended literary product, "the finest work of Hebrew narrative art. …

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