Monday, May 12, 2008

Framing Stories in I-II Kings

It's been over a month, I know, since my last post. Apart from being just busy, somehow I don't feel like any of my thoughts (and I do have them still!) are really in a shape to be blogged. But since I just got a prod from a loyal reader (hello, Eric R!) , let me give my readers some new content.

Yesterday, I finished I and II Kings (very delayed, I know). The more I read it, the more I believe the kind of reading I've been giving it in previous posts, one which focuses on irony, on disjunction between the narrative voice and the author's, is not a figment of the imagination, but an essential reading.

Notes for the future: the Elijah-Elisha cycle is introduced by a mother and child story (the widow of Zarephath and her son), just as the Samuel-David cycle (Hannah seeks a child), and the Solomon cycle (the two prostitutes quarreling over a child). In each case this is a metaphor for Israel and her king. How does this story reposition our reading of the Elijah-Elisha cycle? Elijah saves the widow's child, after she reproaches him for having given her hope of a child when she didn't even think of it, and then letting her darling die. So what is the implicit story then? God and His prophets save the kingship, when Israel reproaches God for first giving her a king when she hadn't even thought of it, and then letting her darling monarchy die. The framing story and my reading of it thus highlights Elijah and Elisha's implicit symbiosis with the kingship, their "pulling their punches" and ultimate support of it in the struggle with Damascus. Reread the whole thing -- you'll see it works out.

The systematic repetition of the Elijah and Elisha stories (almost everyone is a doublet) is worth noting (just like the Isaac-Abraham doublets). If we don't accept the source critical explanation (that there were a series of standard prophet-legends, some with Elijah's name on them, some with Elisha's, and the two were combined without recognizing them as the same), we need another explanation.

It should be noted, though, that the notorious bear tearing the kids episode is a good lead into Elisha's role as the one who promotes (despite his tears), the massacre of Jezreel (Jehu's ascension, cf. Hosea 1:4). Stories involving children seem to have a key framing role everywhere in the Deuteronomistic History.

Another point I noticed is how the message of the Rabshakeh (=field commander) of Assyria to Zion is strikingly parallel to the prophetic messages: idols will not keep you safe, your kings cannot protect you, siege and exile is coming, but if you accept this as judgment it won't be so bad and you will sit under fig tree and vine. When the king hears it he tears his robes. It is of course rejected by Hezekiah, and Isaiah, and God, but it is an important reflection of the Deuteronomistic History's theme of the ambiguity of prophetic utterance: prophets lie all the time. Here is a prophecy that is entirely true, and is not a prophesy of smooth things, but of judgment and woe -- and it's all a lie too! But when Josiah (a sort of second Hezekiah) finds a book that prophesies woe and exile, and tears his clothes: this is true prophecy.

I can't help but note here the reading of Richard Polzin, that the prophet of Deuteronomy 18 is the author of the Deuteronomistic History itself, and the insight of Richard E. Friedman that Josiah is described in the Deuteronomistic History as the best king bar none, the only true leader since Moses, and that the Deuteronomistic History was written by Jeremiah or an associate, first in the time of Josiah, with the rest added after. (The close association of the Deuteronomistic History with the language and concerns of Jeremiah is widely acknowledged.) Put them together and the two go together: the Deuteronomistic History is leading up not just to the rediscovery of Deuteronomy's Law but also the apprehension of the course of Israel's history by Jeremiah (or Baruch) as author of the Deuterenomistic History.

But the interpretation of Friedman's, dependent as it is on a two-fold compilation process, first under Josiah, and then an epilogue, so to speak, written in exile, would then leave the post-Josiah history of Israel hanging. It would be more satisfying to see the whole as a single story, with the end envisioned from the beginning. What's the point, then? That even when, through the Hegelian mission of the prophets to describe to Israel her story, the truth is set forth before Israel, the truth is not accepted. The moment of insight -- does nothing, and destruction follows.

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