Beginning Seow’s Myth, Drama, and the Politics of David’s Dance

I started C.L. Seow’s Myth, Drama, and the Politics of David’s Dance.  In the Book of I Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant is in two major locations.  First, it was at the sanctuary in Shiloh, which was run by Eli and his family.  Second, it arrived at Qiryat-Ye’arim, after spending some time in the land of the Philistines.  At Qiryat-Ye’arim, Abinadab and his family cared for the Ark.  In II Samuel, David moves the Ark in a triumphant procession from Qiryat-Ye’arim to Jerusalem, a city that he had recently conquered.

I have three items:

1.  According to Seow, Shiloh identified YHWH with El, whereas YHWH was more Baalite in Qiryat-Ye’arim.  On page 77, Seow summarizes his argument that Shiloh identified YHWH as El as follows (and, in my quotation, I will spell El as “El”, without Seow’s markings on the name):

“At Shiloh, YHWH had come to be identified with El, the supreme deity of the Canaanite pantheon.  Personal names like Elqanah, Yero[ch]am (Yera[ch]me’el), and Samuel provide some evidence of Elism at Shiloh in the eleventh century.  The deity was also known by the epithet YHWH [Tzevaot], an epithet of the deity as the victorious divine warrior, creator, and king.  Like El, YHWH appeared to people in dreams and spoke through intermediaries.  He responded to the plight of the barren Hannah, granting fecundity as El did to Danel and Kirta.  Like El, YHWH was depicted at once as an itinerant, tent-dwelling deity and a king enthroned in his palace.  The image of YHWH as El is in accord with the biblical and archaeological indications that Shiloh functioned as a central sanctuary in that period.  In any case, the association of YHWH with El, the Most High god of the Canaanite pantheon, is found already at Shiloh, as suggested by the name of the High Priest, Eli.  That tradition was not bestowed on Israelite religion from a putative cult of El Elyon of the Jebusite sanctuary, as is often supposed.”

In addition to these reasons, Seow offers another one on page 42: Psalm 78 discusses the northern sanctuary of Shiloh, and the deity associated with it is “repeatedly called El (vv 7, 8, 18, 19, 34, 41), Elyon (vv 17, 56), and El Elyon (vv 35, 36).”

On pages 77-78, Seow summarizes his argument that Qiryat-Ye’arim ascribed Baalite characteristics to YHWH:

“At Qiryat-Ye’arim, however, the Elistic model of YHWH seems to have given way to the model of the deity as the feisty warrior-god, Ba’l.  The appropriation of the Ba’l myth…reflects the socio-political realities, for the dominant position of the deity at Shiloh had been betrayed by the ignominy of defeat.  The ark was captured by the Philistines and the sanctuary at Shiloh was destroyed.  The supremacy of the Israelite god was called into question.  Hence the elaborate story of the adventures of the ark, which is based on the mythic pattern of the rise of Ba’l from defeat to victory.  Like Ba’l, the ark suffered an initial set-back.  The demise of the ark was marked by mourning, even as the defeat of Ba’l was marked by mourning.  The absence of the ark prompted the lament ‘Where is Glory?’…even as the absence of Ba’l led ‘Anat to ask ‘Where is Ba’l?’…But as Ba’l eventually triumphed over his enemies, so the presence of the ark in the temple established the dominion of YHWH over Dagon.”

Seow’s comparison of I Samuel 4-6 with Ugaritic literature about Baal is significant to his argument that Qiryat-Ye’arim attributed Baalite characteristics to YHWH.  There are areas in which the two appear to coincide: there is mourning at the departure of the Ark and the death of Baal, and the Ark dismembers the statue of Dagon, as Baal’s enemy, Mot, was dismembered.  But Seow acknowledges that there are differences between the stories.  Whereas Baal dies, YHWH does not, but many Israelites in the biblical story die on account of the sins of Eli’s sons.  In one case, Seow draws a parallel between I Samuel 4-6 with a story about Baal by noting that Dagon, like Baal, falls to the ground.  But the problem here is that Baal is supposed to be similar to YHWH/the Ark, whereas Dagon is like Baal’s chaotic adversaries.

Also significant to Seow’s attachment of Qiryat-Ye’arim to Baal are the various names of Qiryat-Ye’arim in the Hebrew Bible: Qiryat-Baal (Joshua 15:60; 18:14), Baalah (Joshua 15:9), Mount Baalah (Joshua 15:11), and Baalah of Judah (II Samuel 6:2; cf. I Chronicles 13:6).

Seow’s overall thesis in his chapter on “Myth” is this: When the Ark was at Shiloh, the sanctuary there viewed YHWH as similar to El, the high God.  El sat supreme over the cherubim and made the land and the people fertile, and so did YHWH of Shiloh.  But, when the Ark was moved to Qiryat-Ye’arim, there was a different political reality, for Israel was no longer as secure.  After all, Israel had just been defeated by the Philistines, who destroyed the sanctuary at Shiloh!  Those who ran the sanctuary at Qiryat-Ye’arim, therefore, identified YHWH more with Baal, who continually fought against chaos, which “constantly threatened to oust him” (page 76).

But was not El also a warrior, according to Seow?  If so, why couldn’t El continue to function as a model for the Israelite conception of YHWH, even when Israel was vulnerable?  As Seow shows, El indeed was a warrior at some point, for, according to Sanchuniathon’s “Phoenician History” as told by Philo Byblius, El (who is called “Kronos”) along with other gods successfully fought Ouranos (heaven).  But El’s warrior days appear to have been a thing of the past when he was king.  Baal, however, was continually waging war against the forces of chaos. Baal’s story fit the situation of Israel when Qiryat-Ye’arim had the Ark: insecure in the midst of threats.

When David took the Ark to Jerusalem, however, that was presented in light of YHWH becoming king after defeating chaos, and the procession celebrating that event continued after the time of David as a way to legitimate David’s kingly descendants.  Seow states on page 78 that the time when the Ark dwelt in Qiryat-Ye’arim was not a happy time for the Israelites.  The Israelites were embarrassed that the Ark was at such an obscure site, and biblical traditions present the Ark’s sojourn in Qiryat-Ye’arim as a time when the Ark was forgotten (Psalm 132:6) and neglected (I Chronicles 13:3), and the Israelites “lamented after YHWH” (I Samuel 7:2).  But David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem was a triumphant procession: God, through David, had triumphed over chaos.  It was a time of celebration!

According to Seow, this event also allowed for a synthesis of the El and Baal traditions within the Israelite cult.  That such a synthesis occurred at some point is evident in II Samuel 22:14/Psalm 18:14, which presents El Elyon thundering, even though Baal was the god who spoke through thunder.  At this stage, YHWH was El and yet had Baalite characteristics.

2.  Seow offers thoughts on the functions of certain biblical stories.  I Samuel 4-6, for example, is about how the Ark of the Covenant got to Qiryat-Ye’arim.  According to Seow, the story reflects the eleventh century, when the Ark actually was in Qiryat-Ye’arim, and had recently arrived there from Shiloh.  The story of Uzzah in II Samuel 6, for Seow, was a propagandistic story about how the Ark passed from the house of Abinadab to David.  Uzzah, of the house of Abinadab, must have shown when he touched the Ark that his house was unworthy to handle it!

3. Seow presents interesting tidbits of information.  He shows that the Ark was similar to idols in other nations.  On page 39, Seow refers to Diodorus Siculus’ claim that the Carthaginians took an image of a deity with them into battle, and housed that image in a tent.  Similarly, the Israelites throughout the Hebrew Bible take the Ark with them into battle.  On page 70, Seow states that the Philistines in I Kings 5 were treating the captured Ark as captured images were treated in Mesopotamia.  And, on page 104, Seow notes a scholar who compares David’s procession of bringing the Ark to Jerusalem with Akkadian inscriptions on the return of divine images—which are marked by military personnel, music, rejoicing, and regular sacrifices “made to the deity at regular intervals.”

On page 94, Seow comments on I Samuel 18:7, where the Israelites anger Saul by saying that Saul killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.  Seow states that, originally, this was a taunt of the Philistines, not Saul, for, in Canaanite poetry, “thousands” and “myriads” were not contrastive, but rather were a fixed pair.  For Seow, the Israelites here were celebrating the victories against the Philistines by both Saul and David, not asserting that David was better than Saul.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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