Sunday, December 21, 2008

Kosofsky on Jewish Customs in the context of the Old Testament

From the radio program Speaking of Faith:

When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered The Book of Customs in the late 20th century, he did so not as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed still to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate a Book of Customs, in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility, but participating in its power.

A fascinating conversation with Kosofsky that draws on his experience of the Old Testament and history can be found here. In Judaism, "What you believe follows only after what you do," says Kosofsky. "So Judaism is very much about doing God's commandments and doing the right thing rather than believing a specific credo."

The Real Audio file is here. Near the end, he ponders whether we, the modern readers of the Old Testament, are dealing "with God or with the memory of God." Kosofsky is the author of The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Another look at Milton on church and state

Theo Hobson, John Milton’s vision:
It is far more accurate to say that Milton was a key founder of the American liberal tradition, than of the British one. This is not just because of his republicanism: even more important to him than republicanism was his aversion to religious establishment. During the interregnum (1649-60) he worried that England's revolution was uncertain until Oliver Cromwell had clearly separated church and state, and instituted an explicitly secular liberal state (which Cromwell never quite did). This was the ideological obsession of Milton's life.

So if Milton were to revisit us today he would not rejoice at the progress of liberty since his death. He would be depressed to see that the country of his birth retains a monarchy, and even more so an established church. 
via wood s lot

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Michal in Purgatorio X

A friend recalls the passage in Purg X where Michal looks down upon David:

Li precedeva al benedetto vaso,
trescando alzato, l'umile salmista,
e piu' e meno che re era in quel caso.

Di contra, effigïata ad una vista
d'un gran palazzo, Micòl ammirava
sì come donna dispettosa e trista.

The idea that David is "more and less than king" in his robust dance seems to be precisely what marks him as special both within the Old Testament and within the way the New Testament marks itself as the fulfillment of the Old.

Milton at 400

Via NPR (thanks Shaw):

Dec. 9 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, and fans around the world are celebrating with literary events, exhibits and readings of his epic poem Paradise Lost.

Milton, who visited Galileo in 1638, was also the first writer to ever use the word "space," in the sense of "outer space," to consider the infinite scope of the universe. As he wrote in Book 8 of Paradise Lost:

... this earth a spot, a grain, 
An atom, with the firmament compared 
And all her numbered stars that seem to roll 
Space incomprehensible (for such 
Their distance argues and their swift return 
A rare first American edition of Paradise Lost is included in the Morgan Library exhibit. It was published in 1777, one year into the American Revolution. Kiely says that Milton opposed the monarchy in England — and that the founding fathers read him.
"His theories of republicanism, of the people's right to overthrow a magistrate, or a king, or any ruler if they were not carrying out the will of the people, was directly influential on the Constitution of this country," says Kiely.

Addendum: a bit more on the idea that Milton's God rejects kings:

The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King

Michael Bryson
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)

The Tyranny of Heaven argues for a new way of reading the figure of Milton's God, contending that Milton rejects kings on earth and in heaven. Though Milton portrays God as a king in Paradise Lost, he does this neither to endorse kingship nor to recommend a monarchical model of deity. Instead, he recommends the Son, who in Paradise Regained rejects external rule as the model of politics and theology for Milton's "fit audience though few." The portrait of God in Paradise Lost serves as a scathing critique of the English people and its slow but steady backsliding into the political habits of a nation long used to living under the yoke of kingship, a nation that maintained throughout its brief period of liberty the image of God as a heavenly king, and finally welcomed with open arms the return of a human king.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A note on Michal

Samuel is a book largely about succession -- how one kind of order succeeds, and in so doing, succeeds another. Eli the priest is followed by Samuel the Prophet. Saul's failed kingship is succeeded by David.

These figures would be large in any tapestry representing the stories of Samuel. Others would be smaller, set in the distance - the rather large cast of such characters in varying degrees of presence and importance giving the whole work a rich dimensional sense of space and time.

Take Michal - we see and hear of her only a handful of times, but what a richly suggestive figure she is:
  • She becomes the bride of David - after he wins her by slaughtering 200 Philistines.
  • She "loved David" and helps him escape through a window from Saul's hired killers.
  • She is taken away from David and given to Paltiel by a paranoid Saul.
  • She is taken from her husband, and is returned to David - her husband follows, weeping.
  • She looks down through a window, "despises David in her heart," then castigates him for vulgarity.
  • She dies childless.
Despite an apparent prohibition in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 on re-establishing a marriage with a previous spouse who has subsequently remarried, David demands the return of Michal after he is crowned in Judah following Saul's death. It is important to note by explanation that David had not divorced Michal at this point in time but rather Saul had made the act to break the marriage[1]. Therefore they were not technically divorced and David had not issued a writ of divorcement according to the biblical law.

Thus she's been a pawn, a symbol of alliance and allegiance, a means of uniting the houses of Saul and David, and dividing them. A complicated and conflicted connector in the succession. We hear her voice once -- at the moment David arrives to bless his house, after the harmonies of his dancing before the ark. Whatever Michal feels, she seems to project the self-image of aristocracy. In her eyes, David has been vulgar - as such, he's beneath the station he's arrived at. His peasant roots are showing. (We've seen Saul's roots -- nothing to put on airs about. Yet the airs are there.) 

With this, the succession of David's house reaches a dead end in Michal. Solomon will be born to Bathsheba.

Friday, December 12, 2008

David's disrupted dance

These and other extraordinary images of the Hajj and Eid al-Adha - the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that has just ended - can be found here.

While the entire purport and historical reality of the event is far different from the ecstatic dance of the Israelites following the Ark with David in 2 Samuel 6, these scenes might suggest something of the energy and religious intensity with which the recently united people are said to have escorted their Lord and king to the new center of their nation, Jerusalem.

It is interesting that this high moment of the Old Testament, where the tribes and monarchy and their relation to the Lord are all "centered" in (precarious) harmony, is a moment of passage, rather than stasis. The Jews do not go to a fixed place to worship in this scene, rather, they are captured in motion, transporting the ark, encountering a major disruption, then reassembling and dancing their way into the capital.

The high energy of the historical moment, combining solemn awe with at least the hint of vulgarity, ends in the confrontation of David and Michal, who looks down upon him from her window and feels complete revulsion. Instead of coming to rest in a moment of peace after the dynamism of the preceding scene, something like a crack runs through the middle of the moment. Instead of closure, there's a divide between the wildness of David's dance one one hand, and the icy hatred in the heart of Saul's daughter on the other. Something feels irretrievably broken. It's as if the curse upon Michal was sprung from her encounter with the most blessed act in the history of Israel. 

Interesting to ponder how this epitomizes the movement of the Old Testament -- it never rests, there's always the next challenge in the incessant movement of history. Consider how this compares with the geometric balance and equilibrium of Homer's narrative structures, or the sense of closure in Greek tragedy.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The world of Samuel

The transition from loose confederacy to monarchy in Samuel is fraught with complications.

In 1 Samuel, the story is set in motion by the importunate words of Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 11), to the Lord that he grant her a son, whom she promises to dedicate to His service. (Recall the priest, Eli, at first thinks she is drunk, when in fact she’s moved by inspiration).

Her prayer takes place within a context established at the outset through two opening statements, which, taken together as true, predicate a crisis:

1. In gratitude that her prayer is answered, Hannah offers a song that says, in effect, that the Lord is the author of change:

The LORD3068 killeth,4191 and maketh alive:2421 he bringeth down3381 to the grave,7585 and bringeth up.5927

As a result, she says:

The bows7198 of the mighty men1368 are broken,2844 and they that stumbled3782 are girded247with strength.2428

(Which will, parenthetically, evoke the symmetrically balanced poem of David at the beginning of 2 Samuel, lamenting the fate of Saul and Jonathan:

How349 are the mighty1368 fallen,5307 and the weapons3627 of war4421 perished!6 )

2. A second key statement is that access to the Lord, intelligence of his will, is intermittent, not always secure, in this time:

“ …the word of the Lord was rare in those days, vision was not spread about.” (1 Sam. 3:1)

From Eli to Samuel to Saul to David to the House of David, the transition from loose confederacy to a "stable" dynasty lurches along. It's a hostile, murderous world full of unpredictable surprises and wrong turns. What comes about has much to do with the characters' intelligence of the ways of men, and of the Lord, in the many senses of the word.

A bit of knitting

It might be useful to bring together at this point a few of the many rich threads we've been following over the past year or so. The David story in Samuel is clearly about change -- from local tribal rule to the establishment of a nation under a king, for one.

We've talked about some parallels and differences between the Biblical narrative and Homer: Saul-David and Achilles-Odysseus.

In Plutarch we read the lives of Cato, Caesar and Alexander – all three narratives concerned central characters caught up in resisting, or bringing about, large scale changes to the state, society, and government. These stories involved relationships to power, human and divine.

· Cato – the quasi-prophet citizen who saw the inevitability of what flowed from Caesar. Critic of accumulated power. Shepherd of the common people.

· Caesar – agent who effected, but did not live to administer, the transition from Republic to Imperium. Gambler ("Toss the dice high"), strategist, huge risk taker, always calculating.

· Alexander – king who conquered and seduced kings, queens, all the powers of the known earth into the fragile harmony of the cosmos.

And in Plato we've looked at the vision of the philosopher king, whom we might at some point contrast with David, the warrior-poet king. (Something to think about: Plato intends to banish the poets, while David is Israel's chief poet.)

But the overarching story told in Samuel traces the transition from a loose confederation of tribes instructed and governed by priests, judges and perhaps prophets to the establishment of a house – a royal dynasty. What are some of the salient ways in which the basic "plot" of the Bible tale differs from those of Plutarch? The relation of human civil order to God in the Bible vs. that order vis a vis the gods of the Greeks and Romans? 

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Opening 2 Samuel

There appear to be some major differences between 1 and 2 Samuel. For one, the triangle Saul - David - God is no longer generating story tension. David rises to what appears to be a seamless bond with the Lord - at least until he spies Bathsheba.

But 2 Samuel also begins with a man, a seeming wanderer:

2  It came even to pass1961 on the third7992 day,3117that, behold,2009 a man376 came935 out of4480 the camp4264 from4480 5973 Saul7586 with his clothes899rent,7167 and earth127 upon5921 his head:7218 and so it was,1961 when he came935 to413 David,1732 that he fell5307 to the earth,776 and did obeisance.7812 

He's about to spin a tale -- the tale will not be believed; in fact, speaking the death of Saul will occasion the death of this stranger. David is facing something more threatening than Goliath: a world of complex motives and lies that will demand from him -- and from us readers -- a hermeneutic of suspicion.

A lesson from Hadrian

NPR's Guy Raz offers a classical parallel to Obama's historical moment:

When he takes office in January, President-elect Barack Obama will inherit the gloomiest economy since the Great Depression, prompting comparisons to another president who came into office during tough economic times: Franklin D. Roosevelt. But there's another leader Obama could draw inspiration from — a 2nd century Roman emperor.. . .

Hadrian did what few of his predecessors would even consider: He went on a road trip and visited nearly every corner of the empire. He knew that for Rome to bolster its influence, it had to show at least some respect for the nations so affected by its power. Hadrian also increased foreign aid and started a program of nation-building throughout the empire.

By and large, it worked. -More-

Monday, December 01, 2008

Outlines of 1 and 2 Samuel

As we go along it might be useful to have reference to outlines of  1 and 2 Samuel, to help see something of their structure. Here are links to a very simple outline for each book, along with a slightly more detailed one:

1 Samuel (Polyglot Online)

2 Samuel (Polyglot Online)