Sabbatical Update – stuck on King David (but also literature)

My discussion of David has been recurrent in the sabbatical posts (principally connected to my research). For some reason the allure of monarchical power is something I’ve not managed to escape from when I sit down to do research – and it’s not just that there’s never enough time to sit down and research!

As I’ve looked more at literary connections between David (and his family) and the Genesis narrative in rabbinic literature, it has become clear that the sages were sensitive to the very literary nature of the biblical text. It is a common practise to read rabbinic literature ‘out’ to the historical context in which it was created/composed, but before these historical, cultural theories are applied, we must also be conscious of hermeneutics – of exegetical strategies by which the biblical text could be read. In other words, before (or whilst) we jump to the world beyond the text we must also be sensitive to the text itself and the way in which it may be read. The two are not mutually exclusive – on the contrary, in a society (such as late-antiquity) in which orality has a big part to play in the transmission of ‘texts’ the inter-connectedness of the reader, the context and the text are always at work.

When it comes to the David, I have just spent some time reading about the way in which the Davidic stories (and the succession narratives) can be seen as deeply connected to the Genesis stories (and particularly that of Judah and Tamar). Notably, biblical scholars who regard the Genesis text as a text somehow generated from the texts, stories and experiences of Davidic monarchy. Judah/David, Hirah/Hiram, Shelah/Shlomo, Er/Na’ar, Bat Shua/Bat Sheva, Tamar/Tamar, Onan/Amnon – is just one example of the interconnected narratives (put forward by Rendsburg and discussed by others – but that is by no means the earliest discussion of the topic).

The two texts can then already be seen as intertexts (the textual historical debate of which came first to one side for the moment). Thus, the sages in their reading of the biblical text as interconnected is less surprising because we imagine they would undoubtedly be sensitive to the literary warp and weft of the text. What I am now questioning is where the connections are drawn and emphasised (both where in the biblical text and where in the corpus of rabbinic literature) and also where the surprises lie. And of course, Why? For example, the biblical text evidently has some intertextual play drawing motifs of Esau and David together – they are both described as אדמוני (ruddy) and both command a troop of four hundred men. The only time this connection seems to even be acknowledged is in Bereshit Rabbah (a midrashic collection from the land of Israel – and there, on the whole, it’s to differentiate David from Esau), yet the Bavli account of David’s 400 children as warriors riding at the front of the troops seems to echo one of the Bereshit Rabbah sources. My challenge is to see if I can connect the Bavli to Bereshit Rabbah to argue confidently for their relationship – as yet, this is only a suggestion.

If this all seems a little obscure to you – (leaving aside the playful characterisation of civic power in the least favourable terms as your arch enemy) let me put it like this: what I’m dealing with here is a way to think about the nature of texts, textuality and their function in the way we talk about life and things. It’s a kind of intertextuality which also sees the conscious and unconscious role of cultural forms (be it text in the written form or otherwise) in both being reused but also reshaped and reshaping the way we discuss the world around us. I’ll have to come back to this another time because it is complicated and there are those who have articulated the issues better than me whose books are sitting in the pile waiting to be read (hopefully before my next sabbatical!).

Sabbatical update…in time for Purim

After a brilliant meeting with my supervisor in Cambridge I’ve had some additional texts on which I’ve been focussing. Notably, developing the connections between the representation of King David with the shock troops in the Babylonian Talmud which I previously mentioned and the midrashic figure of Esau. It’s work in progress and needs to be developed, but we were struck by the strength of allusion between Esau and David.

Esau of course is both the ancestor of the Amalekites (and therefore also of Haman) and is also symbolic of Rome in midrashic literature. So the question which I will be turning to, in due course, is the significance of colliding the image of David with the image of Esau (both of whom are described as ‘ruddy’ אדמוני in the Tanakh – Genesis 25:25, I Samuel 16:12).

I’ve also spent the last few days doing a more in depth analysis of rabbinic texts which contain reference to בלורית  – some kind of hairstyle associated in rabbinic literature with non-Jews and idolatry. It has led me to read a text which I had never looked at closely that is utterly hideous in its imagination of zealous violence. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a-b describes the actions of Pinchas and his zealous vengeful murder of Zimri and Cozbi (in the book of Numbers). It is not the only place where some of the motifs are found, but that doesn’t detract from the ghastly imagery. The Talmudic text describes Zimri as grabbing Cozbi by her hair (that is the בלורית) and dragging her in front of Moses – demanding whether she is permitted to him and if not, then how come Moses could marry a ‘non-Jew’ (only describing her as ‘Jethro’s daughter’).

In the manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud (as opposed to the printed edition known as the Vilna Shas) Zimri is described as the daughter of Balak (something that is also done in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, an Aramaic translation). There’s lots to do with this text, notably since Balak’s other descendent – as mentioned in bSanhedrin is Ruth, from whom of course we eventually get King David (whose children also have the same hairstyle – all of course according to the Talmudic account).

More about the methodological implications of this thick intertextual approach another time.

More another time. The pressure is slightly on to write up some more as I’m just over half way through the sabbatical. I’ve just switched off from ‘regular’ work but can now see it again on the horizon.