2 Samuel 23 and the Tel Qeiyafa Ostracon

In my last post I commented that 2 Sam 23 is a “wisdom psalm” and quite similar to Proverbs 31:1-9, the Sayings of King Lemuel.  The content of both songs is similar, being advice from an older, wiser person on how to be a successful king.  Both include the name of the king and his father and both are described as “oracles.”  The word translated oracle in different in Prov 31:1, but the sense of the same.  The word translated “Massa” in older translations ought to be read as a noun, מַשָּׂא, “pronouncement.”  The word is used frequently in Isaiah (13:1, 14:1, 17:1, 19:1, 21:1, cf. Hab 1:1) to introduce a prophetic oracle.  Isaiah 17:1-3 uses both terms to describe the prophetic speech.

A potential problem for this being an authentic Psalm of David is that Wisdom is thought to me a later development in the history of Israel.  While few these days would argue that Wisdom is entirely post-exilic, a text like 2 Sam 23:1-7 is suspect because it has so many elements of wisdom.  David, it is thought, did not create this sort of literature, it comes from a later time when the kingdom was more established.  However, a recent discovery may indicate that Wisdom as a genre appeared quite early in Israel’s history.

In 2008 an ostracon was discovered at Tel Qeiyafa, a military installation near the Elah Valley, more or less along the border between Judah and the Philistines.  (For details on the Ostracon, visit the Qieyafa excavation blog.)  The sherd has been dated to the late 11th or early 10th century B.C.  If this dating is confirmed, this would be the oldest Hebrew text ever found.  While this makes the ostracon extremely significant, the content of the text is extremely important because it resonates with biblical texts which claim to reflect the same period.

William Shea offers a unique translation of the text which recognizes that some of the letters are in fact pictograms.  His suggested translation of the first twos lines is a command to the king to “not make two servants of the judge and the prophet” (604).  He suggests that the text was “written in a time of transition” from local judges and prophets to kings. These lines would be advice to a king to not usurp the tradition roles of the judges or the prophets. As Shea puts it, the judge and the prophet may have diminished in authority when the monarchy was established, but they were to continue “independent of the king” (610).

There are other suggested readings of the text, some differing a great deal from Shea’s reconstruction.  For example, Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa (see also this press release) has also studied the text closely.  He renders the second and third line as“judge the slave and the widow and the orphan and the stranger.”  This translation is remarkably similar to Prov 30:9, “open your mouth and judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”  2Sam 23:3 indicates that the king who “rules justly” will be like the morning sun for his people.  Despite the variety of suggested reading of the ostracon, they all sound like advice to the king, whether that advice sounds like the voice of a prophet or a sage.

After reading 2 Sam 23:1-7 and Prov 31:1-9, I would suggest that whatever the Tel Qeiyafa Ostracon is, it represents advice to a young king on how to rule wisely.  Perhaps there was a sub-genre of wisdom literature which might be called “Advice to a Royal Heir.”  Certainly 2 Sam 23:1-7 and Prov 30:1-9 reflect  similar style and content, perhaps the Tel Qeiyafa Ostracon should be included in this category as well.

Bibliography: William H. Shea, “The Qeiyafa Ostracon: Separation of Powers in Ancient Israel,” Ugarit-Forschungen 41 (2009): 601-10.