Wednesday, February 18, 2009

...something other that is promised...

In light of our last discussion today that led to our considering the openness of Biblical speech, its ambiguity, shadows, and the unendingness of its interpretability, (which we contrasted with the powerful, closed "fully lit" systems built by the Greeks), this quote from Erich Auerbach's "Figura," bringing his preoccupation with figuration to bear upon the understanding of history, seems relevant:

History, with all its concrete force, remains forever a figure, cloaked and needful of interpretation. In this light the history of no epoch ever has the practical self-sufficiency, which, both from the standpoint of primitive man and of modern science, resides in the accomplished fact; all history, rather, remains open and questionable, points to something still concealed, and the tentativeness of events in the figural interpretation is fundamentally different from the tentativeness of events in the modern view of historical development. . . . In the figural system the interpretation is always sought from above; events are considered not in their unbroken relation to one another, but torn apart, each in relation to something other that is promised and not yet present.

Type and Figure

As Christianity consolidated its system based on the gospels and the writings of Paul, it faced the challenge of reconciling the Old Testament with the New. Paul wrote about the Old Testament as offering foreshadowings, types, of the truth revealed in the New Testament. Augustine wrote much about this, throughout works such as On the Spirit and the Letter.

A couple of good resources that might prove useful for understanding the later typological traditions of Biblical interpretation are:

Jewish Encyclopedia - allegorical interpretation (or typology)

Wikipedia - typology

Catholic Encyclopedia- types in scripture

A New History of Literary Terms - "typology"

As the last reference shows, the development of literary attention to typology owes much to Erich Auerbach, who sketched the idea in Mimesis, and wrote a seminal and very detailed essay entitled "Figura" exploring the terrain. In it he attempted to distinguish the sense of "figural" or typological interpretation from the more usual modes of literary tropes and figures inherited from classical rhetorical thought.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Themes and motifs in Samuel

If we were to underscore the key themes and motifs of the story of David, what would we find? Here are few that come first to mind:
A tale of two kings.

A story of the development of Israel from loose tribal groups to monarchy. Reservations about monarchy.

An exploration of the problem of succession and modes of legitimate authority: Eli -> Samuel -> Saul -> David -> Solomon.

A study in the uses of intelligence -- of voice and of the word -- versus the power of the sword.

A study of the relations of authority and its factors: servants, messengers, counselors, commanders.

Spy and counterspy: the elaborate game of intelligence.

Recurrent scenes in which what is said or understood is different from what is meant (messengers, traitors, parables).

Sharp contrasts between Saul's helplessness to do anything other than repeat and David's agility and uncanny ability to adapt.

Fathers and children; the family romance.

Music, poetry, temperament, distemper, well-tuned harmony (of mind and polis) vs. turmoil.

A complex exposition of human action, limits, and the workings of divine power.

Motifs (and leitmotifs) are plentiful: a rich and poetic play of words having to do with calling, summoning, hearing, hearkening, heeding another's voice;  the "heart" figures potently in a number of scenes; moments of showing, revealing; remembering; "house" as in dwelling and dynastic entity; also various houses. "Walls" and gates; roofs; construction. Hanging, decapitation. 

This is just a start -- what are some other themes, motifs or other aspects of the story?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

"As a woodcock to mine own springe..."

In reading the Book of Samuel as a literary artifact, we have gathered some indications of how tales from the Old Testament remained crucial to very different cultures and traditions over time. A brief review might be in order.

The David story employs a tremendous variety of styles and genres in the telling. At one moment, we're in an intimate drama of a child hearing a voice in the night; another sequence offers court intrigue worth of Hamlet; there's the fabulous legend of David and Goliath embedded into a series of scenes portraying Saul with vivid psychological realism. We have battle scenes, rapes, narrow escapes, loves, lusts, betrayals, power struggles -- and intertwined with these, complex overtones and allusions to earlier stories in Genesis, Exodus, Judges, etc. There are generational conflicts, subtle counselors, lying messengers, true oracles, demanding prophets, poems of tragic sorrow and psalms of triumphant thanks and praise. This multi-voicedness, this profusion of styles and genres (each with its own implied mode of reading) at times seems more like a post-modern bricolage than like a uniform (and unified) single work, e.g., the Iliad.

One effect of the continual shifting of mode is to place side-by-side stories that demand interpretive decoding and stories that appear to be literal representations of historical events. Take the case of speaking truth to power in 2 Samuel 12: Nathan's parable of the poor man and his ewe, which he narrates to David after the murder of Uriah. At first the king takes it literally -- and, clearly seeing the injustice, he is outraged. Only then does Nathan turn the tables, aiming the lesson directly at David -- "You are the man!" -- teaching him another way to read the parable. 

In essence, to capture the conscience of the king, Nathan creates a kind of trap -- a figurative tale that speaks allegorically of something far from yet very near that conscience. This requires a guarded kind of storytelling, one that anticipates complications of interpretation. 

Parabolic language turns away from the literal mode, but does so with purpose, a purpose that deeply involves the one to whom the story is addressed. Nathan is speaking to the king about something other than the king in order to speak truly about the king. The change in genre from literal history to admonitory fable has the reader squarely in its sights. 

We also recall David and Jonathan's use of aimed arrows as code to carry a message having nothing to do with arrows. We may not be all that far from Dante's description of poetry as una bella menzogna - a beautiful lie

The parable scene in 2 Samuel 12 turns out to be a turning point in the story of David. Before it, David lived a charmed life in which all his efforts, his cunning, his patience, came to fruition. After Nathan delivers this shattering insight into the truth, the king is like Adam -- the same man he was a moment ago, but entirely different: a fallen man. 

The story returns to narrate a rush of concatenated events -- the rape of Tamar, the schemes of Ahitophel, the revolt and death of Absalom, the exile of David, civil strife and the usurpatory betrayals of Joab. Then, very near the end, in 2 Samuel 24, we have the scene in which, after ordering a census, David asks God to sacrifice him, instead of killing the people through the messenger/angel of the plague. The moment marks the term of the plague, the founding of a sacrificial site, and the end of the Book of Samuel. Even as the fall of David points back to the first man,  it contains foreshadowings that could be interpreted as premonitions of a future "king of the Jews." Medieval readers would pick up these cues.

As we've noticed previously, the odd detail of the threshing floor in 2 Samuel 24 can be read as obliquely pointing to the act of winnowing wheat from chaff, meaning from fable, truth from fiction. It appears at the moment the story of David is coming to an end, as if to say: "Consider, reader, whether this is merely the tale of a long dead man, or whether it may concern you more nearly."

As Erich Auerbach long ago noted, more is in play in Old Testament narrative than the bright mythos of men and gods represented in action. Figures come alive in the Old Testament as vivid individuals in history, but also resonate backward and forward within a larger tapestry that tempts us with the promise of parable.

The book of books as book

Jutta points us to a review of  The Bible and the People, by Lori Anne Ferrell, which looks at the Bible's long career in European culture. Along the way it seems to speak to the idea of what a classic is and how it thrives, changing yet continuously speaking to radically different generations and cultural constellations.

Amazon blurb: Ferrell, a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University in California, tours the history of the Bible as it has been copied, translated, annotated, dressed up and every which way adapted to changing times for English-speaking readers.

From the review:
The thesis is straightforward: throughout its history in the West, the Bible has rarely appeared ever in its original languages, has been continuously “translated” in every sense of the word, and still the text has remained remarkably, even amazingly, stable over the centuries. Thus, the Bible has, at times, found itself transformed from a working book to a venerated item. It has been universalized through vernacular translations. It has been sliced, diced, and reassembled by figures as different as the pious Nicholas Ferrar and the Deist Thomas Jefferson.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The finale of 2 Samuel

Last time, a question arose about the threshing floor at the end of 2 Samuel and its relation to the site of the Temple later built by Solomon:

24  And the king4428 said559 unto413 Araunah,728 Nay;3808 but3588 I will surely buy7069 7069 it of4480 854 thee at a price:4242 neither3808 will I offer5927 burnt offerings5930 unto the LORD3068 my God430 of that which834 doth cost me nothing.2600 So David1732 bought7069 853 the threshingfloor1637 and the oxen1241 for fifty2572 shekels8255 of silver.3701

25  And David1732 built1129 there8033 an altar4196 unto the LORD,3068 and offered5927 burnt offerings5930 and peace offerings.8002 So the LORD3068 was entreated6279 for the land,776and the plague4046 was stayed6113 from4480 5921 Israel.3478

Araunah's threshing floor (via Wikipedia):
Threshing floors would usually be in places likely to catch the wind so that the wind would assist the separation of wheat from chaff. Hence, it is quite plausible for the threshing floor to have been located on a high hill. The narrative of the Book of Chronicles claims that the altar built by David on the site became the Temple of Solomon, and that the site had formerly been Mount Moriah; the equation of the Temple of Solomon with mount Moriah is viewed as dubious by many scholars, though David's altar being the same site as Solomon's temple is seen as plausible.

Note: It is difficult to avoid wondering about echoes of the imagery of wheat, chaff, winnowing.

Chaff and wind (ruach) return in Psalm 1:

1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.

2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.

4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
In the Middle Ages, the act of separating the wheat from the chaff served as a common metaphor for the task of reading -- separating the inner kernal of meaning, truth, from the outer (verbal, literal) husk of the text. As you'll recall from our reading of Dante's Purgatorio, many medieval commentators assume that ancient texts are allegories that require careful attention to be read aright.

At the very end of Samuel, a book that has much to say about hearing and interpreting indirect, often devious messages and messengers, it is difficult to avoid considering whether this threshing floor where the messenger of the plague ends and sacrifice begins might obliquely beckon us to reflect upon our experience of the text, glimpsing new dimensions of significance through intelligent reading.

A text that problematizes interpretation could well provoke questions about how it is to be read. This returns us to the fundamental differences between Homer and the Old Testament raised by Erich Auerbach (in his Mimesis) some time ago, when we read Hesiod's Theogony. For Auerbach, the brighly lit world of the Greeks gives us a wealth of information and descriptive detail - we enjoy the brilliance of the creation. The murky, enigmatic, elliptical tales of the Old Testament -- "fraught with background," in Auerbach's memorable phrase -- appear to hold something back, calling for further interpretive work.