Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tales From The Dark Side

One of the more tiresome complaints I hear about the Bible from people who don’t know what’s in the Bible is that, “It’s just a bunch of fairy tales.” I have several problems with that statement, beginning with the disparagement of both the Bible and fairy tales.

Many of us consider the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to be among the giants of world literature. Their stories – and those of countless other “fairy tale” writers and transcribers – are vibrant, powerful shared memories that connect us across time, culture and technology. There’s a reason we pass these stories on from generation to generation, and that artists in other media continue to seek new ways to interpret and portray them for new audiences.
Unquestionably, some of the narrative portions of the Bible resemble fairy tales and other forms of traditional story-telling: The legends, romances, and fables that often began as oral transmissions and only came to be written down later. The reason for that resemblance is that some of these Bible stories undoubtedly began in just the same way. The Biblical authors – like the Grimms – were documenting for future generations the stories their kinfolk and fellow tribesmen had passed down to them.

That doesn’t discount the worth of the Bible stories any more than it discounts the work of other fairy tale scribes.  The term “just fairy tales” implies a lack of value that doesn’t bear out under any level of scrutiny.

Moreover, characterization of the Bible as “just” anything is ridiculously wrong-headed. To my knowledge, world literature contains no other collection of comparable complexity or inclusiveness. The contents of the Bible range from these folk tales to the complex moral and philosophical writings of the Prophets, Paul and James, encompassing the elegiac reflections of Ecclesiastes, the poetry of the Psalms, the political history of Chronicles, the aphorisms of the Proverbs, the stunning psychological portrait of King David in Samuel and much more.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately re-reading and examining the books that have in the last century come to be known as the “Deuteronomistic History”: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges,  Samuel and Kings.

Even within this small portion of the Bible, which may have been written  by a single author (the Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has posited that that writer is the prophet Jeremiah), the breadth and diversity of topics and treatments are astonishing. Apparently written in a time of great turmoil, when the northern kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians and the southern kingdom of Judah was under threat of annihilation by Babylon, the books collectively portray a society rife with conflict and confusion, uncertain whether to put their faith in the supreme god Yahweh or to spread their bets among a pantheon of traditional middle eastern deities. The Jews of the Deuteronomistic history are at war with enemies external and internal – and the internal enemies include both their neighbors and themselves.  The strongest enemies of all are their own psyches, struggling to find meaning in this war-torn landscape.
The history begins majestically, with the long, valedictory address of Moses to his people. This greatest of Biblical figures has been denied the triumphant climax to his career – entry into the Promised Land -- because he failed to follow an explicit instruction from God. Told to bring forth water from rocks for his thirsty people with words, Moses instead struck the rocks with his staff, twice. As a result, he is allowed a brief view of the Promised Land from just outside its borders, but is forbidden to go further and dies in the mountains to the east.
The Israelites are led across the Jordan and into Canaan by his hand-picked successor, Joshua, whose eponymous book can be read as a model of effective project management. Joshua never takes his eyes off the prize – in Biblical terms he looks neither to the right nor the left – and as a result, the conquest of the Promised Land proceeds from success to success, with one brief interlude of failure when one of his followers steals and hides for personal gain bounty that should have been part of a collective sacrifice. But while triumphant, Joshua is incomplete in his victories. At the end, the Israelites dwell ominously in a land peppered with enemy tribes: The Canaanites, Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites and more.
And after Joshua’s demise, things go sour quickly. The books of Judges, Samuel and Kings constitute a roller-coaster ride through a history that careens back and forth repeatedly from spectacular triumph to unimaginable disaster, giving us along the way some of the most memorable heroes and villains in the historical record: Gideon, Deborah, Samson, Delilah, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jezebel, Saul, Goliath, David, Absalom, and Solomon, to name just a few. These are the characters we learn about in Sunday School, but too often our training doesn’t put these stories together in a way that illustrates the wild ride of the Jewish people during this remarkable period.
Other writers of the time addressed the same tumultuous history that is the focus of the Deuteronomist’s account, perhaps none more poignantly than the prophet Hosea. A resident of the northern kingdom, who apparently lived and wrote about 100 years before the Deuteronomist, Hosea fell – madly, head over heels – in love with a prostitute, Gomer. His feelings for Gomer were so strong that he experienced them as a message from God. But Gomer, though she agreed to marry Hosea and bore three children by him, was drawn back to her earlier life. When she left Hosea and her children, he chased after her and purchased her back, unwilling to give up the great love of his life. (The writer Karen Armstrong believes that Gomer was a cult prostitute in a temple of Baal, the mighty Canaanite god, but I think the Biblical evidence for this is questionable). In his writings, Hosea sees his history with Gomer as a metaphor for the Israelite people, torn between worship of Yahweh and worship of pagan gods. Like Hosea, Yahweh is powered by love for these faithless people. Over and over, he forgives them and welcomes them back. But like Gomer, the Israelites can’t stay away from the temptations offered by the pagan pantheon.
Hosea compressed the history of the Israelites into a single story of a faithful man and his faithless wife. The Deuteronomist takes a more leisurely approach,  telling the story through a thousand years of history and incorporating a host of stories that may have circulated among the various tribes of Israel throughout the generations.
Nowhere is the Deuteronomistic history more obviously a collection of stories than in the book of Judges. The eight major stories and several minor ones that constitute this collection are linked in only a rudimentary way to each other. Essentially, the author tells a story, says that its hero or heroine dies, says that the land was at peace (or not) during the central figure’s time, and then talks about the people backsliding before the next hero emerges. Thus Caleb gives way to Othniel gives way to Ehud gives way to Gideon, etc.
The story of Samson, probably the most familiar of the Judges tales thanks for Cecil B. DeMille, resembles a Greek or Roman myth. Samson is a Hercules-like figure of superhuman strength, killing a lion with his bare hands. But like Achilles, he has a weak spot: If his hair is cut, he will lose his strength. Enter Delilah and the tragic conclusion in which the weakened Samson is put in chains before he regains the strength to bring down the palace on both himself and his captors.
Many people are familiar to some extent as well with the story of Gideon and the fleece, but many of the stories in Judges get left out of Sunday School class and with good reason: These are some of the most disturbing stories you will ever read, rife with human sacrifice, rape, torture, and violent murder.
At least one story – that of Ehud – is a comically scatological tale that might have survived because it held the attention of teenaged boys over the generations. The Israelites are under the thumb of a Moabite king, a hugely fat ruler named Eglon. Ehud, who is described as ambidextrous, gains a private audience with Eglon and – having hid a dagger under his clothing against his right thigh – manages to stab the king to death, the dagger disappearing in Eglon’s folds of fat, so that Ehud cannot remove it. As sometimes happens at the point of death, Eglon has a bowel movement – “the dirt came out,” in the words of the King James translators. Ehud then sneaks out a back door. Meanwhile Eglon’s guards notice the foul smell and joke crudely that the king is really stinking up the place ("Whew! Smells like something died in there," you can almost hear them saying), before getting worried after a period of time passes with no activity and opening the door to find their slain ruler. Ehud’s murder ushers in an era of peace for the Israelites, with the usual backsliding after his death. All in all, a story worthy of a summer frat-boy movie.
In other parts of Judges, women are key figures, In a way they rarely are in the Bible. Deborah, for example, is not only a prophetess who serves as a Judge, but a warrior heroine whose battlefield victories against Canaanite foes are punctuated and sealed by the actions of yet another fierce woman, Jael, who lures the Canaanite general Sisera into her tent, lulls him to sleep and then drives a tent spike into his forehead.

Other women, though central to the stories of Judges, are not so lucky in their fates. Jephthah, a later judge who is introduced as the son of a harlot, has a beloved daughter who is his only child. In the heat of battle, Jephthah promises Yahweh that if he is allowed to be victorious and return home, he will sacrifice to Yahweh the first living thing he sees when he enters his front yard. Upon his arrival home, that first thing turns out to be the daughter who has run out to greet him. At her request, Jephthah allows her to go off for two months with her girlfriends to bewail her virginity, but when she returns home he carries out the promised sacrifice.
And in perhaps the most disturbing story in all of the Bible, a woman who is a concubine (concubines being a sort of second-tier wife) to an unnamed Levite, runs away from her husband and returns home to her father. The Levite goes after her, spends several days in the father’s house, and in an undescribed way regains his concubine. On the way home, they stop in the city of Gibeah in the land of the Benjaminite tribe and are offered a bed for the night in the home of a hospitable old man. In an echo of the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the locals turn up at the door and demand the Levite be turned out so they can gang-rape him.
Like Lot in the earlier story, the old man offers women -- his daughter and the concubine -- as alternatives to the rapists, and in this story the concubine ends up being handed over to them. After a horrific night, the concubine crawls back to the door in the morning and dies at her husband’s feet. The husband takes her body home, cuts it into pieces and sends a piece to each of the Israelite tribes with the exception of the Benjaminites, sparking a war between the Benjaminites and the other tribes of Israel.
If these horrifying stories have a moral purpose, it is hard to discern. I could come up with something in each case, but, frankly, the morals would be baloney. As far as I can tell, these stories are the tabloid shockers of their day, and I suspect they were retold in the ancient culture in just the same way the Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson murders are recounted at backyard barbecues today. They are told over and over again for the sheer shock value. Eventually, the Deuteronomist collected and assembled them, linking them together in a quasi-historical way as part of the shared history of his culture.
Cautionary tales? Maybe, in part. Certainly Jephtah and his daughter could be a warning not to make solemn oaths without thinking through the possible consequences. Or maybe just a collection of stories, the Hollywood Babylon or Urban Legends of their day.
But given conditions in the Holy Land at the time they were assembled into book form, I think they serve as a portrait of a culture struggling to understand how it found itself in its current condition. What horrors had we perpetrated to justify this onslaught from all sides, you can almost hear the writer asking. Shocking, and shockingly well told, the stories of Judges survive as artifacts of an ancient culture in much the way that the stories of the Brothers Grimm tell us about the psyches of central Europeans on the cusp of the modern age. And our world is richer for it.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting interview in Salon with the scholar Jack Zipes discusses the traditional role of fairy tales as stories for adults, not children.