Saturday, June 27, 2009

2 Samuel 11: Sanford is No David

I did promise in recent weeks to be slightly less topical in my blog posts: the Bible possesses deep and abiding meaning, and I needn’t try to make it relevant to every little HuffPost news story.

But this one’s just too juicy to pass by.

So I know you’ve all been following the hilarious mis-steps of Governor Mark Sanford from down in SC; if you haven’t, here’s just the most recent Times story covering the kerfuffle. Basically, it was recently revealed—after a week of obfuscation—that Sanford was using state funds to finance occasional trips to Argentina to see a mistress. (He is married with four children.) And yes, all the now-standard “social conservative” Republican hypocrisies apply: as a House member, Sanford signed bills in the late 90’s condemning Bill Clinton for his sexual infidelities and calling for his resignation. (Sanford himself has yet to step down.)

Why do I care? Well, because on Friday, during his first meeting back with state heads, Sanford apologized to his staff and compared his plight to that of the Bible’s King David. The exact quote: King David “fell mightily, fell in very, very significant ways, but then picked up the pieces and built from there.” Sanford’s referring to the married David’s erotic dust-up with Bathsheba, a beautiful woman who was not (yet) his wife. And to the fact that David escaped the scandal relatively unharmed. But the scandal itself? Whew!

Now I have few kind words for Sanford, another fallen moral crusader (as if there were any other kind). But here’s perhaps the only case where I think the governor’s being a little hard on himself. Seriously. Do you know the full story of David and Bathsheba? Let’s take a little trip back in time.

David was and is still considered the most successful, most beloved king of Israel (which, considering the competition, isn’t really saying much). On the whole, he leads an exemplary life, except for one major screw-up. It’s outlined in 2 Samuel 11.

Our story takes place “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle” (11:1), as opposed to the winter, when kings go out to Arizona to take advantage of the dry heat. The Israelites are at war with the Ammonites, but the king is at home, far from battle. One afternoon, he’s strolling on his roof when he catches a glimpse of a beautiful bathing woman off in the distance. This is Bathsheba, and she is gorgeous. (And David’s a bit of a perv here … though I’ve never been one to condemn a little voyeurism.)

However, because he’s a king and not a commoner, David needn’t merely look; he can touch. He calls Bathsheba to his palace and, in the parlance of the time, “lays with her.” (But let me tell you, there’s a lot more than “laying” going on in the kingly bed that night.) When morning comes, he says he’s got an early meeting, sends her away, and has a cup of coffee, right? Well, not quite.

Because you see, Bathsheba is married, and her husband, Uriah, is actually fighting in the war against the Ammonites that (we presume) David instigated. Awkward, right? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet, because Bathsheba conceives. And Uriah’s still at the front, fighting his ass off the Israelite cause.

So David has an idea: he’s going to bring Uriah back from the front, get him rippin’ drunk, send him home to his hot wife, and let a horny, trashed, sex-deprived man do what horny, trashed, sex-deprived men do.

But Uriah’s such an unbelievably good guy that he refuses to go to his marital bed when his brothers-in-arms are in tents at the front. In an act of remarkable solidarity, he sleeps on the ground outside the city gate and never enters his wife’s home. Listen to Uriah and get a taste for how shitty David must be feeling right now … because this guy’s bona fide: “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in the booths; and my lord Joab [the army commander] and the servants of my lord are campaigning in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and drink, and lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing” (11:11).

David is moved but unconvinced, and he tries the same trick the next night. But to no avail. So David does the only thing he can do (?): he arranges for Uriah’s murder. He asks that Joab, the army commander, send a group of soldiers—Uriah among them—to the hottest part of the battle. Then he commands Joab to have the rest of the men pull back, leaving Uriah to be slaughtered. Joab, it seems, has some compunction about this, but he basically sees this horrible scheme through. The hero is cut down, and David has his morally dubious victory.

In the wake of the disaster, David calls Bathsheba back to his house and marries her. And in another of the Bible’s fantastic dramatic ironies, it is their son Solomon who takes over the throne from David and becomes the last of the great Israelite kings. Now, God isn’t altogether pleased with this state of affairs, and he basically lets the first child—the one that led to Uriah’s death—die. And David does earn the Lord’s curse, but it’s a comparatively slight curse, especially considering those doled out to Saul and Solomon.

So, basically, I’m saying that Sanford has a long way to go before he can reach the heights (or depths, as it were) of Davidic romantic sin. He’d have not only to sleep with his Argentine mistress, but to arrange for the mistress’s husband to head off on a “fact-finding” mission to FARC-controlled Colombia and then have his entourage abandon him in an angry drug lord’s lair after telling them that the husband really wants to take over the cartel … and then invite his now-widowed mistress back to his home and marry her too (keeping his other wife Jenny around) and then watch as God kills their first-born as punishment and then be sure to let his new wife convince him to name their second child the new governor of South Carolina one day.

Let’s just admit it: Governor Sanford is no David.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Isaiah 2: Israel's Plowshares, or Lack Thereof

I don’t always intend my blog posts to be topical. Actually, I reject the obsessive cyber-need to be eternally contemporary. However, recent news has given me so many interesting opportunities to discuss Biblical literacy with respect to current events that I can’t pass them up. So here I go again …

Coincidentally, this topical blog post—like a previous entry on Donald Rumsfeld’s misuse of Bible passages on intelligence reports—brings us back to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel—the northern half of the split promised land—during its fall to Assyrian invaders in the eighth century B.C.E. (Actually, most Bible scholars now believe that Isaiah is at least two, and maybe even three, separate books, only the first of which happens in eighth century, but I’ll let you look that up.)

Last Sunday, June 14, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a major policy speech in which he for the first time offered conditional support for a Palestinian state. (The Times’s coverage of the speech can be found here.) This is no small thing for a hard-line Israeli leader who has previously rejected calls for an independent Palestine, and the international news media perked up its collective ears. And as they did, they were treated to a healthy little dose of the Bible.

Near the beginning of the speech, Netanyahu calls for regional peace by quoting Isaiah 2: “We want our children and your children to ‘know war no more’ […] We want us and our neighbors to devote our efforts to ‘plowshares and pruning hooks’ and not to ‘swords and spears.’” (You can read the full text of the speech here.)

This is a piecemeal version of Isaiah 2:4, given here (as always) in the NRSV translation: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, / and their spears into pruning hooks; / nation shall not life up sword against nation, / neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4).

Isaiah’s call for peace is one of the best known—and most frequently quoted—passages in the Hebrew Bible, and it is not surprising that the prime minister would turn to such reliable prophetic wisdom to add religious and scriptural depth to his call for reconciliation.

However, even when quoting such well worn adages, original context matters, and the rest of Isaiah 2 is not nearly so pacific as the verse itself.

Though we begin with the hope that the Lord’s Temple be lifted up—that “the Lord’s house / shall be established as the highest of the mountains” (2:1)—and that God will judge justly from his elevated throne—“He shall judge between the nations” (2:4)--we quickly recall that God’s judgment does not always mean the people’s reward.

Immediately following the talk of plowshares and pruning hooks (and rose petals and flowers and teddy bears?), the prophet begins to do what prophets do best, launching into a long list of Israelite sins. The most startling of these misdeeds—at least, presumably, for Mr. Netanyahu—involves “[clasping] hands with foreigners” (2:6). Isaiah, we must recall, speaks for a God who doesn’t always want the Israelites to accept the neighbor in their midst. And all of a sudden, we wonder if the prime minister might have picked another chapter from which to quote.

Later, Isaiah suggests—in what I read as a xenophobic rant—that the Lord will have His day, and will be exalted above other local nations, among them Tarshish, Bashan, and Lebanon (2:13-16). (And do the hairs on our necks raise a bit after this last, especially after the incursions of 2007?)

By the end of chapter 2, we are left cowering in caves fleeing the Lord’s wrath; the Israelites shall “enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts in the crags, / from the terror of the Lord […] when he rises to terrify the earth” (2:21). Isn't the translator's stumbling alliteration on the "c" sound beautiful? But poetry aside, perhaps in the face of divine anger, we’ve begun searching for our swords and spears once more.

I don’t mean to question Mr. Netanyahu’s motives, nor (really) to excoriate him for Biblical illiteracy. I only wish he and his speech writers would read a bit more carefully before turning to the easy adage. Because while the prophets of the Hebrew Bible occasionally want farm tools, they much more frequently want weapons. And more weapons are the last thing Israel and Palestine need right now.
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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Genesis 17: Abraham, Ishmael, and the One-State Solution

As another president wades into the murky waters of the Israeli/Palestinian land dispute—and “murky waters” seems an exercise in drastic understatement—some commentators have taken the opportunity to recall the Biblical roots of the split between the Arab Muslims and Israeli Jews.

It all begins (quite literally, I suppose) in Genesis. Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac—the first by the maidservant Hagar, the second by his wife Sarah. In the history of religions, Muslims trace their lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael, Jews through Isaac.

For Jews and Christians—and more generally, for the Bible—Isaac is the preferred son. It is his lineage that the narrative follows and his line through which the divine covenant will persist. As God confirms, “My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (17:21).

However, even in the Hebrew text, Ishmael is no black sheep. It bears remembering that he too receives a blessing directly from God: “As for Ishmael […] I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (17:20). And his mother, Hagar, actually receives two direct revelations from the Lord—or theophanies. No small thing for a woman in the Bible text, or for any character, for that matter. (By contrast, Joseph never gets a direct call from God.)

Charlotte Gordon explores the contemporary relevance of this double blessing in a recent piece in Religion Dispatches, and coyly suggests that it is the Lord who first proposes the much-ballyhooed “two-state solution.” (Thanks to Martyn Oliver for drawing my attention to Gordon’s piece on his blog.)

However, Gordon’s line of thinking only takes us so far—to a certain equality between Ishmael and Isaac and, by extension, Arabs and Israelis. I’d like to complicate matters a bit, however, by posing the question: Whom does Abraham like more?

The knee-jerk response is, of course, Isaac. The faithful Abraham, we presume, must take God’s cue and prefer his second, “legitimate” son to his first, right? Well, the text actually suggests otherwise.

In chapter 17, God appears to Abraham and announces the thing we think he’s been waiting for: his own son by his own wife. “I will give you a son by her,” say the Lord, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations.” Abraham, upon hearing the news, actually does something unexpected; he laughs. Usually, it is Sarah whom we remember laughing at the birth announcement. However, Abraham does so first, busting out at the notion of his 90 year-old wife having a child.

But his next utterance is more telling: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” Abraham, it seems, is perfectly satisfied with the son he already has. Not concerned with our own—or perhaps medieval—notions of legitimacy, Abraham hopes that his “bastard” son will pick up the covenantal love.

Later on, once both sons are born, there is predictable tension between Hagar and Sarah. So much so that Sarah pulls rank and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be turned out. But the text is revealing; Sarah, not a little cattily, complains to her husband, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Wow! And remember, it was Sarah’s idea that Abraham get with this “slave woman” in the first place.

But the following line tells more: “The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son” (21: 11). Notice – his son, one son. And I don’t think there’s any other way to read this passage than as referring to Ishmael. And the singular case is notable, too … as if the narrator is tacitly suggesting that for Abraham, there is only one son, his son, Ishmael.

Nonetheless, Sarah’s will is done, and the slave and the boy are cast out, but with divine protection. (Notice that here, as with Rebekah later, God’s choice confirms the woman’s choice. Sarah backs Isaac and gets her way, just as Rebekah will back Jacob—against her husband Isaac’s wishes—and prevail.)

Of course, it is God’s will that counts, and the divine preference for Isaac will also prevail. However, given Allah’s eventual championing of Ishmael in the Qur'an, the gods cancel each other out. And perhaps Abraham is the arbiter whose choice will tip the scales.

And Abraham, even in the Hebrew Bible, would choose Ishmael. So now what do we do with the two-state solution?
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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Esther 8: The Lords of the Ring

Well, my preciouses ... next year, as part of its new season, the New York Metropolitan Opera will offer a brand new staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle—an epic trilogy which is also perhaps the greatest operatic work of all time. (Of course, new versions of Wagner are only front-page news in New York City, but since I’m currently an insomniac in the City that Never Sleeps, I figure I’ll sample the local fare—after all, when in Rome …)

The cycle is a loose update of ancient Norse lore that nonetheless revolves around a unique element not found in that mythology: a magical ring forged from gold sunk deep in the waters of the Rhine that grants its wearer world-altering power. (And yes, Tolkein did admit Wagner’s influence in the development of his own Ring cycle.)

(For an excellent audio introduction to Wagner’s magnum opus, check out this installment of NPR’s excellent program, Radio Lab.)

I was thinking about the symbolism of the ring in Wagner last Saturday, during that time of the week I usually set aside for thinking about nineteenth-century German opera. Which got me to thinking of important rings in the Bible.

Perhaps no ring is so crucial as the one worn--and occasionally loaned out--by King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther. Esther is, most importantly, the Bible book that legitimates and starts the festival of Purim—which is, for the uninitiated, a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras. And I’m a fan of any book that paves the way for drinking and eating hat-shaped cookies. (Look it up, goyim!)

In any case, Esther tells the story of a beautiful Jewish woman--um, Esther--who becomes the preferred concubine of the Persian king Ahasuerus. (I know: “preferred concubine” doesn’t sound like much of an honor, but trust me, it is.) Using her beauty, her cunning, and her position, Esther is able to thwart a dastardly plot by the courtier Haman.

You see, Haman, for reasons that are never fully explained, develops an intense hatred for the Jewish population of ancient Persia and persuades the king to issue and edict commanding their genocidal slaughter. (And yes, this does seem a frightening preview of the Holocaust.) Upon hearing of the plan, Esther convinces the very changeable Ahasuerus to subvert Haman (who is eventually impaled on a hugely phallic pointy stake), empower her adoptive father Mordecai, and issue a counter-edict allowing the Jews to defend themselves.

But what of rings, you ask? Well, when Haman rises to the top of the courtly pack, he is given Ahasuerus’s signet ring--which becomes a physical signifier of kingly favor. Later, after Haman is dead and Mordecai is elevated, Mordecai is given the same ring—and the same esteem: “Then the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. So Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman” (8:1-2).

Thus, a small piece of jewelry confers incredible power—power to destroy and to redeem. However, the ring is also closely associated with violence—both Haman’s proposed slaughter of the Jewish population of Persia and the actual slaughter of the Jews’ enemies.

Tensions arise, though, when you bring Wagner into conversation with Esther. Because Wagner was a notorious anti-semite who bought into early—and nefarious—theories of racial purity, later versions of which would be championed by Adolf Hitler. (Hitler famously loved Wagner’s music.) And Wagner's Ring cycle is often read as an allegory for racial struggle. Thus, some still characterize Wagner’s operas—no matter their genius—as proto-Nazi propaganda.

By contrast, Esther is early Jewish resistance literature. Here, we have a map for Hebrew self-defense and an example of bloody, effective revolt against national enemies. Whenever I read Esther, I think of the extreme bravery of the Jews of Warsaw, who mounted a gutty guerrilla campaign against the Nazi invaders in the waning years of World War II.

I’d wager that Wagner wasn’t thinking of Esther when he composed his Ring. But when we listen to it, perhaps we should.
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