Making fun of foreign kings (2)

Ninive, Koenigspalast / nach Layard - Nineveh, Assyrian palace / watercolour -

Painting of Nineveh by James Ferguson 1853

Good satire or parody can be hard to detect. The better it is, the more likely it is that someone will take it seriously and won’t get the joke. I well remember when I was a much younger man having a conversation with a good mate about the clichés that were used in church prayers far too often. Between us we came up with an impressive list of all the prayer-clichés we could think of. A few days later my mate’s church had a social function in the church hall and my friend was called on to say grace before dinner. Being young, brash, and a bit of a smart-arse, my friend decided to have some fun while having a pointed poke at what had become a traditional, yet irrelevant style of prayer. He made use of every one of those clichés in a rather lengthy parody of grace before dinner. Later that evening an elderly lady came to him and said “I’ve been a member of this church for forty years, and that was the loveliest prayer I’ve ever heard!” That’s a sign of truly clever parody – people will be divided as to whether it is serious (and in this case pious), or is making a joke at the expense of those who take it seriously.

The royal court scene in Jonah 3 in my view is a case of clever satire (and parody), which commentaries have traditionally interpreted very seriously (while missing the humour, and, therefore, the real point of the story). It must have been the briefest evangelistic campaign in history (Jonah preached for only one day in a city which normally took three days to cross), consisting of just five words (in Hebrew, a few more in English): עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Remarkably, the people responded to this short message by repenting, proclaiming a fast, and putting on sackcloth (Jonah 3:4-5). It’s remarkable for several reasons: Jonah was unheard of in Nineveh, and had only just arrived; being from Israel his message would suggest that the god of tiny Israel was more powerful than all the gods of Nineveh and the mighty Assyrian empire; the five-word message gave no details and no call to repent or opportunity to avert the disaster. News of this reached the king, who immediately responded in much the same way as his people. His response was even more remarkable because he only heard the message second-hand, and was in a much better position to evaluate the likelihood that an unknown preacher from some backwater would know the fate of a great city like Nineveh, soon to be the most powerful city in the world. This is all so astoundingly unlikely the initial readers or listeners of this story would almost certainly have recognised it as humorous.

So the king decided to issue a decree that everyone should fast and put on sackcloth. The problem with this is that everyone had already decided to do just that! His decree would therefore be meaningless, simply ratifying what the masses had already decided. It would confirm that the king wasn’t in control, and that the mob made the rules. Nineveh wasn’t a democracy, and wasn’t about to become one, so the king issued a different decree:

“By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty.” (3:8)

The royal decree affirmed what the masses had already decided, but the king extended it to livestock as well! The animals even had to repent from their evil ways and cry out to God! The writer is having a joke at the king’s expense. He makes him out to be powerless – if he can’t rule his own people at least he can issue decrees to dumb cattle. The writer of Jonah has a final punchline right at the end of the book, where God is discussing with the prophet whether or not he should save Nineveh, because, after all, it was a big city with a lot of (dumb) people (because they couldn’t tell one hand from the other) but with “many cattle” (who were smart enough to cry out to God and to repent!) (4:11).

But there’s a twist in the story. When the king issues his decree he adds “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9). In the words of one biblical scholar, this is “a piece of rather sophisticated theology” [1]. The Ninevite king demonstrated an apparent awareness of Hebrew scripture, or at least the theological issues which gave rise to or came out of those texts, because he uses the specific language of several texts in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Chronicles and frames it as a question in an almost identical way to the book of Joel. Is the writer implying that the Ninevite king was familiar with all these biblical texts? The idea is comical, which may very well be the point of the ridiculousness of the allusions. 

In using these texts in the way he does, the writer simultaneously ridicules the foreigner and makes his question the central issue of the story. The king would certainly have been unaware of one or other of these texts, yet the writer puts words into his mouth with which the reader or listener would have been familiar, implying that he was aware of the theological discussion about these texts. This is a story-telling device which is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Nebuchadnezzar is ridiculed on the one hand, but makes profound statements about God on the other. Naaman, a Syrian military commander, was humiliated by the prophet Elisha, but teaches the king of Israel a valuable lesson at the same time (2 Kings 5). It’s a clever device. It’s easy to ridicule a foreigner, but then to have sophisticated theological truths come from their mouths is akin to saying “See, these stupid idol-worshippers get it, why don’t you?” The audience is first softened by the humour, and in doing so the writer/speaker prepares them to be more receptive to the hard-hitting message that follows. 

[1] Good, Edwin M., Irony in the Old Testament.London: SPCK, 1965, p.50

Making fun of foreign kings (1)

Nebuchadnezzar-cameo

Cameo of Nebuchadnezzar on display in the Florence Museum, dated to 585 BC

Several times in the Hebrew Bible the writers make fun of foreign rulers, often with an interesting twist. Here are two examples which have some striking similarities.

Daniel 3 tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and how he “sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue” (v.2). And then, in case you missed it, the very next verse says “So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue” (v.3). Then, once all these people had assembled the king makes a proclamation that “when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue” (v.5).  Then, again in case you missed something, “as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up” (v.7). But just to make sure we really get the point, the writer tells us that certain officials came to him and said “You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue …” (v.10). Tiresome as it may be, we get the same list again in verse 15 when the king addresses three Jews: “Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good.” Why do we need such repetition? It seems that the writer is emphasising that the Babylonians had an endless stream of officials and bureaucrats and that everything was done with a great deal of pomposity. He makes fun of it by repeating the long lists of officials and instruments.

The book of Esther begins by explaining that “King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa,  in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers” (1:3).  Then, at least ten times throughout the book, we are told about banquets. The book is actually structured around these feasts. It’s as though the writer is letting us know that it seems that all the Persian officials do is eat and drink wine! Like repetition in Daniel, the writer of Esther makes fun of the endless feasting of the Persians by mentioning it at every turn in the story.

These are possibly the two best examples of making fun of foreign rulers and their courts in the Hebrew Bible, but there are also other occasions when foreign rulers were ridiculed, suggesting it was a common practice. But these humorous stories often contain a twist and the joke is turned back on the reader or listener. More about that to follow in my next post.

Irony, satire and humour in 1 & 2 Samuel

 

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Samuel anoints Saul. Ridpath, John Clark Cyclopedia of Universal History (Cincinnati, OH: The Jones Brothers Publishing CO., 1885)

To do justice to this subject I would need to write several posts, an entire book perhaps. Indeed, Virginia Ingram wrote an entire PhD thesis on irony and satire in the 9 chapters of 2 Samuel commonly called the “Succession Narrative”. [1] Who knows, perhaps when I’m done with Jonah I will turn my attention to satire elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. In this post I’d like to follow-on with some thoughts introduced in previous posts about whether the ironies in Samuel about good-looking men are part of an ironic style which pervades the book.

The introduction to the “succession narrative” in 2 Samuel 11, for example, says:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

The writer couldn’t have been any clearer in highlighting the remarkable irony that when kings should have been fighting battles king David was at home gazing out of his window at a beautiful woman. The juxtaposition of two opposing ideas like “when kings go out to battle” with “David remained at Jerusalem” is a style the writer uses frequently in this book. In this case it highlights David’s failing as a king. One of the main purposes of a king was to fight battles; it was the expressly stated reason why the people wanted a king in the first place, to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19). Yet David sends his general Joab to do his fighting for him. His affair with Bathsheba sets in train a series of disasters: first an adulterer, he then becomes a murderer, his family is a wreck, his administration of the kingdom is chaotic, there is civil war, his own son leads a coup against him, his friends and family abandon him in droves. And it all began because he wasn’t doing what the people wanted a king to do, and what he was appointed and anointed to do in the first place. As I’ve said before, the writer of 1 & 2 Samuel thinks monarchy is bad for Israel, and he demonstrates this by showing David, the “model” king to be a prime example of why it doesn’t work.

This juxtaposition of opposing ideas is similar to the positioning of the description of David as “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” immediately after the rejection of David’s good-looking brother on the basis that appearance is not important.  The writer of 1 & 2 Samuel seems to deliberately put seemingly contradictory statements side-by-side in order to draw attention to them. A further example of this, earlier in the story about whether or not Israel should have a monarchy, appears in the story about the elders of Israel coming to Samuel and saying “appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). Samuel disliked the idea and prayed about it. The LORD responded by saying to Samuel “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (v.7). In fact he says it twice: “Listen to them” (again in v.9). Samuel returned to the elders and tried to talk them out of the idea, giving a long speech about all the bad things a king would do (vv. 11-18). But the people insisted on having a king, and Samuel prayed about it again. Again the LORD said “Listen to their voice and set a king over them” (v.22). So, having been told three times by God to give them a king, you would think that’s what Samuel would tell the elders. God was in favour and they would get their king. But what does Samuel do? “Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home'” (v.22). Samuel may, in fact, have reported fully about his conversation with God, but if so the writer has chosen not to tell us. He wants to leave the impression that Samuel was still convinced that he was right, and by implication, God was wrong, and he’s not going to tell the people that they will get their king after all! (This may sound shocking, but the prophet Jonah does something very similar, arguing with God about his policy of being compassionate and merciful! Job also argues with God about divine justice, and whether God is just in allowing the righteous to ever suffer. More about this another time). As the story continues, God has to later tell Samuel he’s going to send someone to him to be anointed as king, and he sends Saul to Samuel the next day. Samuel made no effort himself to find a king or even to ask God about it. He just sulks about not getting his way.  What would Samuel have preferred? The writer leaves us in no doubt about that, right at the start of the story: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel” (v.1). He didn’t have a problem with hereditary leadership, he just wanted it to be his own dynasty that ruled Israel!

In this story we have something of a repetition of an incident earlier in Israel’s history, also involving a judge and an attempt to establish a hereditary office. Judges tells the story of the judge Gideon who successfully saved Israel from their enemies. So impressed were the people with his victories that they said to Gideon “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian” (Judges 8:22). Gideon’s reply was theologically almost identical to Samuel’s reaction later: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (v.23). However, there is a remarkable irony in the Gideon story in the events that follow. First, Gideon asks for the people to pay him a gold earring each (a tax if you like); then he uses this gold to make an אֵפֹד ephod, which was probably some kind of garment designating a high office (the same word is used to describe the garments of priests, especially the High Priest, and which was used in consulting God and determining the divine will). Then Gideon has a son and names him Abimelech (v.31) which literally means “My father is king”! So, having rejected the office and title of king, Gideon then levies a tax (like a king), produces a garment to designate his high office (like a king), and names his son “My father is king”. After the death of Gideon Abimelech goes about to establish himself as king, clearly on the supposition that Gideon had founded a dynasty.

By appointing his own sons as successors Samuel was following the precedent set by the judge Gideon. Theologically they were on the same page (God is Israel’s king), but in practice they ruled as kings and wanted their sons to rule after them. By using similar language in his story to that used in Judges, the writer of 1 & 2 Samuel is making a literary connection, letting the reader know that history was about to repeat itself. The juxtaposition of God’s words to Samuel, “give them a king”, set against Samuel’s words to the elders of Israel in the finale, “go home”, highlight the irony. Samuel was not opposed to hereditary rulership; he was opposed to the idea that it shouldn’t be his family that would rule! No wonder that Samuel criticised almost everything that king Saul did and undermined his kingship.

Not all irony is humorous, although it can be. However, the repetitive nature of the ironies in 1 & 2 Samuel, highlighted by the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas, tends to ridicule the key characters, principally Samuel and David, and portrays their weaknesses in a somewhat comic way.

[1] “A King and a Fool? Verbal irony in 2 Samuel 11:1-19:8a” 2016, Murdoch University