Monday, March 9, 2015

Pipe Dreams: How We Tell the Story of David’s Conquest of Jerusalem

In a recent essay, I discussed some of the problems with historical reconstructions of the empire of King David. Among the most significant of these is the lack of methodological rigor – in particular, the lack of appropriate approaches to texts and other kinds of sources. An Iron Age royal inscription is not a 5th century CE manuscript of a biblical book is not a stone wall or a potsherd. Each has its own very different problems of interpretation. 

Here, I want to explore one specific case of an attempted historical reconstruction in depth: David’s conquest of Jerusalem. If you are familiar with the archaeology and history of ancient Israel, you may have well heard that David’s general Joab was able to conquer Jerusalem by leading a group of Israelites up a water shaft in a surprise attack on the city. This story has been quite popular among scholars and public alike. During her excavation of Jerusalem in the 1960s, the great British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon remarked “I’d hate to think of Joab getting up that way!” of one possible shaft.[1] Today Elad (the Ir David Foundation) uses the story as part of its efforts to Judaize the City of David.

But what is the basis of that reconstruction? 

As with most things relating to ancient Israel, understanding the history of scholarship means starting with the Bible. The story of David’s conquest of Jerusalem appears twice in the Bible: in the Second Book of Samuel (chapter 5, verses 6-8) and in the First Book of Chronicles (chapter 11, verses 4-6). I will begin by reproducing the text of each passage, in Hebrew and in English translation (the English translation is my modification of the 1917 JPS [Jewish Publication Society] version):

2 Samuel 5:6-8

וַיֵּלֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ וַאֲנָשָׁיו יְרוּשָׁלִַם אֶל-הַיְבֻסִי יוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ וַיֹּאמֶר לְדָוִד לֵאמֹר לֹא-תָבוֹא הֵנָּה כִּי אִם-הֱסִירְךָ הַעִוְרִים וְהַפִּסְחִים לֵאמֹר לֹא-יָבוֹא דָוִד הֵנָּה
וַיִּלְכֹּד דָּוִד אֵת מְצֻדַת צִיּוֹן הִיא עִיר דָּוִד
וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כָּל-מַכֵּה יְבֻסִי וְיִגַּע בַּצִּנּוֹר וְאֶת-הַפִּסְחִים וְאֶת-הַעִוְרִים שנאו (שְׂנוּאֵי) נֶפֶשׁ דָּוִד עַל-כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ עִוֵּר וּפִסֵּחַ לֹא יָבוֹא אֶל-הַבָּיִת
6And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land. And they said to David, “You will not come here, except if you turn away the blind and the lame,” thinking, “David cannot come here.”

7And David captured the fortress of Zion – that is, the city of David.

8And David said on that day, “Whoever strikes the Jebusites and reaches [by?] the tsinnor [water channel?] and the lame and the blind, those hated by David’s soul . . .” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame cannot come to the house.” 

1 Chronicles 11:4-6

וַיֵּלֶךְ דָּוִיד וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל יְרוּשָׁלִַם הִיא יְבוּס וְשָׁם הַיְבוּסִי יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ
וַיֹּאמְרוּ יֹשְׁבֵי יְבוּס לְדָוִיד לֹא תָבוֹא הֵנָּה וַיִּלְכֹּד דָּוִיד אֶת-מְצֻדַת צִיּוֹן הִיא עִיר דָּוִיד
וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִידכָּל-מַכֵּה יְבוּסִי בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה יִהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וּלְשָׂר וַיַּעַל בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה יוֹאָב בֶּן-צְרוּיָה וַיְהִי לְרֹאשׁ

4And David and all Israel went to Jerusalem – that is, Jebus – and there were the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land.

5And the inhabitants of Jebus said to David, “You will not come here.” And David captured the fortress of Zion – that is, the city of David.

6And David said, “Whoever strikes the Jebusites first will become a chief and captain.” And Joab the son of Zeruiah went up first and became chief.

Some parts of the story are the same in each version, but others are quite different. How do we explain these differences? If we approach these texts like historians approaching two different sources, we might begin by noting their date. Samuel is widely thought by scholars to have been put into something approaching its current form around the 7th or 6th centuries BCE (that is, the end of the First Temple period and the time of the Babylonian Exile, in terms of Jewish history). Chronicles, on the other hand, is without doubt a product of the Second Temple Period (maybe the 4th century BCE, the late Persian or the early Hellenistic period). Samuel, then, is the earlier source. But the Hebrew text of Samuel is notoriously corrupt: there are many cases of scribal errors and other textual problems, some easily resolved and some less so. In these three verses alone we see multiple difficulties: the repeated reference to “the lame and the blind,” whose meaning is never clear (it appears to refer to some idiomatic expression which has long since been lost); the apparent beginning of an if-then statement in verse 8 (“Whoever . . .”) that is never resolved; and the meaning of the word tsinnor.
Chronicles presents us with a clearer text, but it is important to understand how Chronicles relates to Samuel. In general, we can see that the books of Chronicles rely heavily on the earlier books of Samuel and Kings, retelling much of the same story. We see that reflected in these two passages, as Chronicles tells the same basic story, and repeats some parts word for word. However, we also know that Chronicles did other things with the text of Samuel (and Kings): it expanded on some passages, it omitted others, and it paraphrased others still. Here, Chronicles has removed all of the difficulties in the text of Samuel that we noted: it removes all references to the lame and the blind; it provides a resolution to the if-then statement; and it removes the word tsinnor. In other words, it appears that the author of Chronicles deliberately tried to smooth out the difficult passages in Samuel in order to tell an intelligible story. In particular, Chronicles ends up shaping the story into an etiological one about how Joab became David’s commander: this is the first appearance of Joab in Chronicles, but in Samuel he appears earlier in 2 Samuel as a leader of David’s men. We cannot be sure that that is what is happening here – at times, Chronicles appears to preserve what is likely an original reading that became corrupted in the transmission of Samuel – but that is the likeliest explanation.

If we return to the common historical reconstruction of David's conquest, we will note that neither version has it in full. Joab appears only in Chronicles, while the water shaft is apparently only in Samuel. The common reconstruction, then, does not evaluate the date and reliability of the two sources; instead, it seeks to harmonize them. Given what we know of Chronicles' relationship to Samuel, in general and in this specific passage, this is not a critical way of dealing with the problems of the text. As critical readers, we would prefer the Samuel version as original while noting its difficulties. (Or, alternatively, we might try to argue for the Chronicles version and suggest it was corrupted in Samuel through the process of transmission, though this may be unlikely.) What we would not do is treat both sources as equally reliable – and in this case, completely true. 

This is one major problem with the common reconstruction. But there is more. Let’s now turn to the problematic word tsinnor. Tsinnor is the basis for the interpretation of “water shaft,” but is that what the word actually means? Beginning with the known: in modern Hebrew, tsinnor is the common word for “pipe,” and this or a similar meaning can be traced back to the time of the Talmud, the early to middle 1st millennium CE. But what about its meaning in biblical Hebrew a millennium earlier? Tsinnor occurs in one other passage in the Bible, in Psalm 42:8, where it is clearly something conveying water (interpreted as “cataract”/”waterfall”, “water-spout”, “sluice”, etc.). There is also the word tsanterot, from the same root, which occurs in Zechariah 4:12 and appears to mean spout or pipe. All of this suggests a broad range of meaning referring to a pipe or something else that conveys water. And in fact, if we look at the history of English translation of 2 Samuel 5:8, this is precisely how the passage was always understood. Early English Bibles all understood tsinnor here as “gutter” – specifically, the gutters on the roofs of houses.[2] This meaning passed from these earlier English Bibles into the King James Version, and from there became very influential in understandings of the passage. However, the 19th century saw a shift in the translation. Usually it was rendered in Bibles of the time (Young’s Literal Translation, 1862; RV, 1885; Darby Bible, 1890) as “watercourse”; alternatively it was sometimes understood as “cataract” or “waterfall” (e.g., Julia E. Parker Smith translation, 1876). None of these translations, however, understood tsinnor as tunnel, let alone a tunnel through which David’s men snuck into the city. So what changed?
  Charles Warren (via Wikimedia Commons)

The answer lies with a seemingly unlikely man: Charles Warren, a captain in the Royal Engineers, a corps of the British army . . . and later notorious as the London police commissioner who failed to catch Jack the Ripper. Warren was hired by the newly founded PEF (Palestine Exploration Fund) in London to carry out excavations in Jerusalem in the late 1860s. He and his team explored sites throughout the city, looking (in good Protestant fashion) for the original locations of holy sites – specifically, Solomon’s Temple and Calvary, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion. In order to comply with the Ottoman authorities and not dig too close to sites such as the Haram esh-Sharif (the Temple Mount), Warren dropped a series of shafts at a distance (down some 60 or 80 feet) and then tunneled to the walls of the Temple Mount. Of course, these techniques would hardly be seen as scientific by archaeological standards today, but at the time archaeology was in its infancy; and Warren’s mining techniques, honed in the Royal Engineers, were more or less cutting-edge. Tunneling, after all, was a technique employed by Austen Henry Layard in his pioneering digs at sites in Mesopotamia two decades earlier. Through this work, Warren was able to find things such as the original street level of the Second Temple and map out the ancient topography of the city.

Charles Warren tunneling under Jerusalem near the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharim, drawn by P.W. Justyne (from C.W. Wilson, C.Warren, et al., The Recovery of Jerusalem, 1871)

During his explorations, Warren found an ancient tunnel leading to a vertical shaft – an ancient one, not one he himself dug – that intersected with the ancient city’s water supply and connected to the winding tunnel that became known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel or the Siloam Tunnel. While that tunnel had been previously explored, Warren’s Shaft (as it came to be known) was a new discovery. And it seemed to show how people within the city might have accessed water from the spring outside the city walls at the time of David: by drawing up water through the vertical shaft as if from a well.

Warren’s plans and sections were not published until 1884, the same year that his official account of the excavations was published by the PEF. However, Warren had already published more popular versions of his work in Jerusalem: in The Recovery of Jerusalem (with Charles Wilson et al., 1871) and Underground Jerusalem (1876). And these quickly had a profound impact on understandings of the city’s history –including how David conquered it. So the Rev. W.F. Birch could suggest in 1878 that:

One word in the Hebrew (Tzinnor), followed by Captain Warren’s wonderful discovery of the secret passage leading from the Virgin’s Fount, has enabled us to understand a most obscure and baffling passage in the Old Testament, and to follow the very track by which the adventurous Joab gained access to the stronghold of Zion. (W.F. Birch, “Zion, The City of David,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, July 1878, p. 132)

Eventually, this interpretation became the predominant one of tsinnor and David’s capture of Jerusalem. Many archaeologists and biblical scholars repeated the identification with Warren’s Shaft.[3] English Bibles in the 20th and 21st centuries have largely reflected this shift, as tsinnor now is typically translated “water shaft” (for example, RSV, ISV, NIV, NRSV; also Everett Fox’s translation); the Lexham English Bible (2011) even has “water supply”.[4]

From the very beginning, many biblicists and Semitic philologists – that is, those who knew biblical Hebrew the best – warned against this interpretation.[5] Some archaeologists, too, rejected it for reasons relating to the physical remains. But these warnings had little effect on the enthusiasm for this reconstruction of Joab’s daring entry.

Enter Yigal Shiloh, who conducted excavations in the City of David in the 1970s and 1980s, and especially Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, who worked there the mid-1990s on.[6] Their findings, and those of geological studies around this time, changed our understanding of the history of Warren’s Shaft. It now seemed unlikely that the shaft had ever been used to draw water, and moreover it seemed that the shaft was a natural one whose top was not uncovered by the inhabitants of Jerusalem until the 8th century BCE. Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks loudly proclaimed on the pages of his magazine “I Climbed Warren’s Shaft (But Joab Never Did)”. And archaeologists were left to find a new candidate for the tsinnor: in 2008, Eilat Mazar announced that she may have found the real tunnel, and her claim was amplified by the Israel Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But as we have seen, the primary problem with this interpretation of David’s conquest of the city is not the date of Warren’s Shaft, but the meaning of the Hebrew. In fact, the meaning of the word itself is not even the only problem with reading the passage in this way. The verb of the clause, nagaʻ, has the basic meaning “to touch” – perhaps “to reach” or even “to strike,” but certainly it does not suggest anything like going up or climbing through a tunnel. In addition, the word order of the sentence argues against the idea of a sneak attack. We have two activities, striking the Jebusites and touching the tsinnor; if the tsinnor were the means of entrance to the city, we would expect this to be the first clause of the sentence – but it is the second, following the striking of the Jebusites. When we consider all of these problems together – in a badly corrupt passage, we must remember – we see there is no foundation to argue for a sneak attack through any water shaft. 

This example is remarkable, for we see clearly how an archaeological discovery completely altered the understanding of a biblical passage. This discovery drove subsequent interpretations, against all the evidence of biblical Hebrew and of the texts of Samuel and Chronicles. But this direction of the interpretive history has been largely forgotten by scholars today, who often assume the reverse: that is, they suggest that the meaning of tsinnor was always thought to be “water shaft,” and that the discovery of Warren’s Shaft only provided a suitable candidate.[7]

But an even larger problem highlighted by this example is how we are reading the Bible. Text scholars have highlighted the literary structure and devices used in biblical narrative, techniques often resembling those we know from fiction writing.[8] Whatever historical background might lie behind a biblical passage, then, that passage should certainly not be read as an attempt to give a straightforward, factual narrative. Even scholars who have tried to historicize the biblical David have found problems with reading this passage in Samuel and Chronicles for history.[9] Meanwhile, it is notable that (to my knowledge) none of the adherents of the identification of Warren’s Shaft as the tsinnor ever suggested that the date of the shaft is not in itself a problem, since the 2 Samuel passage could have been written later than the 10th century (so, after the shaft came into use in the 8th century), with the author projecting it onto the city’s past. Instead, the new information about the date of Warren’s Shaft led to the conclusion THIS IS NOT THE SHAFT THAT JOAB USED TO CONQUER THE CITY.[10] These scholars are reading Biblical texts are flatly, armed with a narrow concept of historicity. The books of Samuel and Chronicles are not evaluated as sources but harmonized together with the archaeological evidence, despite the very different problems posed by each. And this is not a scholarly way to read the Bible.

If there is a way forward in understanding the tsinnor, it is not through finding a new tunnel, or any other archaeological feature in Jerusalem. It is through careful study of the context of the passage, linguistic study of words like tsinnor, consideration of textual variants (e.g. from the Dead Sea Scrolls), and of early translations (Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Syriac). It is not to find how David conquered Jerusalem, but to think about what the authors of Samuel and Chronicles had in mind in these passages, and what their earliest readers thought about them.

[1] Anecdote reported by Svend Holm-Nielsen, “Did Joab Climb ‘Warren’s Shaft’?” in History and Traditions of Early Israel: Studies Presented to Eduard Nielsen (ed. A. Lemaire and B. Otzen; Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 50; Leiden: Brill, 1993), p. 46.

[2] For example, the Wycliffe Bible (the earliest complete Bible translation into English, late 14th century), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Douay-Rheims Bible (1609).

[3] Among many: Père Louis-Hugues Vincent, who help to popularize the identification in his own Underground Jerusalem (London: H. Cox, 1911) and later writings; Kathleen Kenyon (Digging Up Jerusalem [London and Tonbridge: E. Benn, 1974]), who concluded that “Joab’s feat in climbing the shaft must have been even greater than that of Warren in 1867, for he could have expected an enemy round every corner; he therefore very fully earned his reward of being made ‘chief and captain’”; J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. 3: Throne and City (II Sam. 2-8 & 21-24) (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1990), p. 161; Philip J. King, Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), p. 66.

[4] The Lexham English Bible rendering as “water supply” is an example of what Robert Alter has called the “heresy of explanation” (The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2004], pp. xvi-xlv). The word tsinnor clearly does not mean water supply; instead this represents a translation of tsinnor as water shaft, an identification of this particular shaft with Warren's Shaft, and an interpretation of Warren's Shaft as part of the water supply of Jerusalem – that is, three steps of interpretation. For Alter, substituting explanation for translation means that we lose many of the literary characteristics of the original. This case reveals an additional problem with the heresy of explanation: sometimes those explanations are incorrect.

[5] Archibald Sayce, a leading Assyriologist at Oxford in the late 19th century, declared, “How the vertical shaft, up which the water was hauled in a bucket, can be identical with the tsinnor, or ‘waterfall,” of 2 Samuel v, 8, is more than I can understand.” (“Prae-exilic Jerusalem,” PEF Quarterly Statement, July 1884, p. 175). See also, among others, the very cautious comments of Samuel R. Driver, the prominent biblical scholar and Hebrew linguist, in Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890), pp. 199-200. Meanwhile, an alternative interpretation can be traced back at least as far as Julius Wellhausen, who suggested that tsinnor, “tube,” was a vernacular term for different body parts (Der Text der Bucher Samuelis [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1871], p. 164. He himself suggested Gurgel, “throat,” here, an interpretation followed by Buber and Rosenzweig and by P.K. McCarter in their translations. W.F. Albright (“The Ṣinnôr in the Story of David’s Capture of Jerusalem,” Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 2 [1922]: 286-290.) favored “joint,” while the German biblical scholar Gustaf Dalman suggested “penis” (“Zion, die Burg Jerusalems,” Palästinajahrbuch 1915, p. 43).

[6] For Shiloh’s work, see for example the posthumously published “Jerusalem: the Water Supply System,” in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2, ed. E. Stern (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Carta; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), pp. 709-712. For Reich and Shukron, see their popular publication “Light at the End of the Tunnel: Warren’s Shaft Theory of David’s Conquest Shattered,” Biblical Archaeology Review 25:1 (Jan/Feb 1999), pp. 22-33, 72; and the academic article “The History of the Giḥon Spring in Jerusalem,” Levant 36 (2004): 211-223.

[7] Again among many, see Robert Alter, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2013), p. 452: “The most likely reference, then, is to a daring route of surprise access into the city. A frequently proposed candidate is Warren's Shaft . . .”; Terence Kleven, “Up the Waterspout: How David’s General Joab Got Inside Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review 20:4 (July/Aug 1994), pp. 34-35; Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 37; Carol Meyers, “Kinship and Kingship: The Early Monarchy,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World (ed. M.D. Coogan; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 191.

[8] This is true of scholars with backgrounds in both comparative literature and Hebrew Bible. For the former, consider seminal studies such as Menakhem Perry and Meir Sternberg’s “The King through Ironic Eyes: Biblical Narrative and the Literary Reading Process,” published in Hebrew in Hasifrut 1 (1968): 263-292, translated into English in Poetics Today 7 (1986): 275-322, or Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981, reprinted 2011); for the latter, see Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Bible and Literature Series 9; Sheffield: Almond, 1983), or the work of James Muilenburg or David Gunn. To the extent that the theoretical assumptions behind these studies have been rejected, they have been superseded in biblical studies by even more complicated approaches to biblical texts, not more straightforward, literal ones.

[9] Steven L. McKenzie discusses the issue of the tsinnor in King David: A Biography (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 133-134, and notes many of the problems that I do here: the difficulty of “the lame and the blind” (and their relationship to the tsinnor clause); the relationship between Samuel and Chronicles (the smoothing out);and Chronicles’ addition of Joab as an etiological story (to explain how he became the commander of the army). Other recent  studies by Baruch Halpern, Joel Baden, and Jacob Wright ignore this passage altogether.

[10] This is at least implicit if not directly stated in the work of Shiloh, Mazar, and many others. On the other hand, Reich and Shukron (“The History of the Giḥon Spring in Jerusalem,” p. 216) conclude that “The question of the Ṣinnor is first and foremost a philological and not an archaeological one,” a statement with which I completely agree. 

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