TRAGEDY AND COMEDY IN THE BIBLE by ArchBishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz
Tragedy and Comedy in the Bible
J. Cheryl Exum, ed.
Copyright © 1984 by Society of Biblical Literature.
Published in Decatur, GA.
Contributors to This Issue
Isaac, Samson, and Saul: Reflections on the Comic and Tragic Visions
J. Cheryl Exum
Apocalyptic as Comedy: The Book of Daniel
Edwin M. Good
Tragedy and Comedy in Hosea
Martin J. Buss
Tragedy and Comedy in the Latter Prophets
Norman K. Gottwald
Tragedy, Comedy, and the Bible—A Response
∪ and ∩ in the Bible
The Anatomy of Divine Comedy: On Reading the Bible as Comedy and Tragedy
David M. Gunn
Are We in the Place of Averroes? Response to the Articles of Exum and Whedbee, Buss, Gottwald, and Good
Contributors to This Issue
Martin J. Buss Department of Religion
Atlanta, GA 30322
J. Cheryl Exum
Department of Theology
Chestnut Hill, MA 02167
Edwin M. Good
Department of Religious Studies
Stanford, CA 94305
Norman K. Gottwald
New York Theological Seminary
New York, NY 10001
David M. Gunn
Columbia Theological Seminary
Decatur, GA 30031
Department of Religious Studies
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2E5
Department of English
University of California at Davis
Davis, CA 95616
J. William Whedbee
Department of Religion
Claremont, CA 91711
Department of Bible
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
J. Cheryl Exum
What have tragedy and comedy to do with the Bible? The four articles and four responses which comprise this volume answer this question differently. At the outset one should dismiss the popular notion of comedy as something “funny” and tragedy as something “sad.” The contributors to the volume use the concepts of tragedy and comedy in their wider literary sense; some, following the lead of Northrop Frye, speak of plot movement or mythos, others refer to a tragic or comic “vision,” a description used by Murray Krieger and Richard Sewall, among others. While some theoretical discussion appears here, especially in the first two essays, what is offered in these studies is detailed consideration of specific texts rather than attempts to work out a full-fledged theory of tragedy and comedy as applicable to the biblical material. Different perspectives are brought to bear upon different types of biblical literature—narrative, apocalyptic, prophecy—and the conclusions drawn represent a wide spectrum of opinion regarding the nature and extent of tragic and comic perspectives within the Bible.
My thanks go to the contributors for their interest in this project, their enthusiasm, and their perseverance. Editorial tasks were carried out partly in Jerusalem and partly in Göttingen and I gratefully acknowledge support in the form of a grant from the Penrose Fund of the American Philosophical Society and a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. I also wish to thank Boston College for financial assistance and for the generous provision of a research leave following a sabbatical year. Mary Luti, a doctoral student at Boston College, ably handled a variety of tasks in connection with the preparation of this volume.
Isaac, Samson, and Saul: Reflections on the Comic and Tragic Visions
J. Cheryl Exum
J. William Whedbee
The stories of a patriarch, a judge, and a king are examined to illustrate the characteristic patterns of comedy and tragedy in the Bible. The comic and tragic visions are discussed and differentiated from three perspectives: 1) plot, 2) stylistic and thematic patterns, and 3) characterization of heroes. The dominant vision in the Bible is comic, a vision highlighted by the presence of tragedy such as we find in its most radical form in the story of Saul.
Holy Books never laugh, to whatever nations they belong.
1.1 Within the more standard approaches of biblical criticism, the categories of comedy and tragedy have played a peripheral role. At first glance such a state of affairs should not be surprising: after all, the terms are Greek in origin, usually Aristotelian in their literary critical application, and hence seemingly remote from the central and characteristic genres of biblical literature. Yet in the long history of the Bible’s place in the Western tradition, comedy and tragedy have had a powerful involvement with the Bible—an involvement often subtle, sometimes strained, at times fascinating. Interpretation has swung from one extreme to the other; comedy, in particular, has had a checkered past: from early on some interpreters opposed any significant link between comedy and the Bible, whereas Dante immortalized the Christian biblical vision in the grand Medieval poem he named the Commedia. More recently Northrop Frye has made the Dantesque view a central aspect of his own approach to the Bible:
From the point of view of Christianity … tragedy is an episode in that larger scheme of redemption and resurrection to which Dante gave the name of commedia. This conception of commedia enters drama with the miracle-play cycles, where such tragedies as the Fall and the Crucifixion are episodes of a dramatic scheme in which the divine comedy has the last word. The sense of tragedy as a prelude to comedy is hardly separable from anything explicitly Christian. (1964: 455)
1.2 What is striking is that biblical scholarship has paid so little attention to the implications of Frye’s claims. Thus the potential of comedy and tragedy as illuminating perspectives for explicating biblical texts has never been carefully and systematically explored, at least to our knowledge. To be sure, biblical scholarship has not totally ignored the usefulness of comic and tragic models: here we would point to H. Gunkel’s trenchant remarks on comic episodes in Genesis (see below) and single out for special praise E. M. Good’s Irony in the Old Testament, a volume that offers pioneering, provocative interpretations of comic and tragic irony in the Hebrew Bible. Apart from Good’s book, we find articles on Job and Saul as tragic figures (see below) or on tragic dimensions of the crucifixion. But comedy in particular as an interpretive category appears infrequently in the standard biblical commentaries and journals, though as we have noted, outside biblical scholarship comedy holds a higher, more honored place. Even when tragedy or comedy enters the picture in biblical criticism, its particular form is usually unclear and ill-defined. In recent years biblical scholars have begun to look more seriously at the possibilities, but the exceptions are rare that seek to lay a solid groundwork in literary criticism before building an interpretive edifice.
1.3 In this article we wish to make some amends for the desultory application of comedy and tragedy to the Hebrew Bible, with the necessary qualification that we keenly recognize the limited, tentative scope of our treatment. We hope our reflections will be suggestive as to what could and should be done, but we offer them in all diffidence before the enormity of the task.
1.4 As an epigraph for our presentation we have cited Baudelaire’s assertion, “Holy Books never laugh …”—an assertion we have chosen ironically as a backdrop against which to offer a contradictory thesis: the holy book we call the Bible revels in a profound laughter, a divine and human laughter that is endemic to the whole narrative of creation, fall and salvation, and finally a laughter that results in a wondrous, allencompassing comic vision. Moreover, we wish to argue that the passion and depth of this comic vision derives precisely from its recognition of the place and power of tragedy, of that vision of the dark, jagged side of human existence which knows of unredeemed death and unmitigated disaster, and which holds in unresolvable tension the facts of human culpability and hostile transcendence (Ricoeur: 220; see below). But the tragedy is episodic in the overarching structure of the Bible and ephemeral in its ultimate effects; though nonetheless excruciating in its reality. The comic vision can embrace the tragic side of existence without eliminating or negating it. Tragedy cannot be felt in its full force apart from comedy, nor can comedy be understood and fully appreciated apart from tragedy. So it is in general—and so it is, we suggest, in the concrete forms of biblical literature.
1.5 If N. Frye is correct that the book of Job is “the epitome of the narrative of the Bible” (1982: 193), and if he and others are correct that Job is best construed as a comedy, then the book of Job with its subtle subordination of the tragic vision to the more dominant view of comedy tellingly illustrates our thesis (see Whedbee). We do not wish, however, to argue again the thesis of the comedy of Job; we want rather to move to the narratives about Israel’s patriarchs, judges, and kings to explore the centrality of comedy and the paradoxical, powerful interplay between the tragic and comic visions in the Hebrew Bible—visions that ultimately are reincorporated and refocussed in the Christian Bible.
1.6 Before turning to Genesis, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel, we need to consider briefly the nature of the comic and tragic visions. We do not wish to offer a definition as such or a reductive formula where voluminous critical discussion is available; rather we want to draw out certain recurrent dimensions of comedy and tragedy—dimensions which reflect established lines of literary criticism and which appear in major comic and tragic works. Here we are acutely sensitive to the risk of imposing later and perhaps alien schemas on the Bible. Obviously the persuasiveness of any interpretation of biblical literature in terms of comic and tragic visions depends on the degree to which one can argue for a form of comedy or tragedy that is intrinsic to the biblical texts within their native Hebraic and Near Eastern setting. We would hasten to add, however, that a larger comparative context embracing the relationship between the Bible and its ongoing role in Western culture is also a germane factor: going back and forth between the Bible and its literary and dramatic “afterlife” may open up the possibility for new insights into both the original biblical texts and later works which have been influenced by the Bible.
1.7 We wish to focus on the comic and tragic visions from three major perspectives: (1) plot; (2) thematic and stylistic patterns; (3) characterization of heroes. First, the plot lines of comedy and tragedy follow similar trajectories, but then conventionally break apart at the decisive endpoint. Thus both comedy and tragedy usually begin with a view of a harmonious, integrated society, a situation that is challenged or tested in some way as the action unfolds; but comedy typically swings upward at the end and shows the hero happily reintegrated within her or his rightful society, whereas tragedy typically ends with a fallen hero and a vision of disintegration, alienation, and death. To use N. Frye’s apt image, comedy follows a U-shaped plot line, whereas tragedy has an inverted U-shaped movement. Tragedy may grant its protagonist a moment of glory, but then descends into darkness and stays there, whatever the glimmerings of a new day. Comedy, on the other hand, ultimately ascends from any momentary darkness and concludes with celebration, joy, and new life. In a word, tragedy ends in catastrophe, whereas comedy ends in carnival. Using this pattern of parallel but ultimately diverging plot lines, D. Robertson has offered a stimulating comparative treatment of Exodus 1–15 as a comedy over against Euripides’ tragedy, The Bacchae.
1.81 Second, comedy and tragedy have characteristic thematic and stylistic habits which set them apart, yet here too one should not think of polar opposites. Comedy typically delights in various forms of verbal artifice such as word plays, parody, exaggerated repetitiousness, burlesque, hyperbole and understatement. Comedy exploits incongruity, stressing specifically the ludicrous and ridiculous. Though comedy cannot be reduced to a simplistic equation with the humorous and laughable, comedy nevertheless seeks habitually to elicit laughter—even though the laughter sometimes might be pained and embarrassed, not joyous and celebrative. Thus the laughter may be at someone’s expense when comedy takes the form of satire in order to deflate the pretentious. Comedy indeed celebrates the rhythm of life with its times of play and joyous renewal, but frequently comedy must first resort to ridicule and bring down the boastful who block the free movement of life. Comedy takes up its arms against the forces that stifle life and laughter; and though its barbed arrows can sting fiercely, they usually do not kill. If satire fails to move on to the genuinely restorative and celebrative, then it becomes a real question whether it still remains in the domain of comedy (cf. Frye, 1966:233–39).
1.82 When we turn to tragedy, we find that its thematic movement, so intimately interwoven with its plotline, characteristically oscillates between the fatedness of the hero’s fall and the fierceness of the hero’s assertion of transcendence. The issue of the hero’s so-called flaw is subordinate to the inexorable movement toward catastrophe and the increasing isolation of the hero in a cosmos that appears inhospitable and capricious. At the heart of tragedy is always “a vision of extremity”—to borrow M. Krieger’s telling phrase. Any tempering of this extremity beclouds the clarity of the tragic vision (see G. Steiner: xiiff.). Such a sombre thematic configuration typically demands an elevated, even exalted style: “The rhetoric of tragedy requires the noblest diction that the greatest poets can produce” (Frye, 1966:210). To be sure, the presence of common rhetorical strategies such as irony, parody, and repetition in central tragic works reveals the stylistic crossovers between comedy and tragedy. Thus any distinction between so-called “low” and “high” styles must be precisely delineated in the context of particular texts and their discrete literary traditions.
1.91 Third, the characterization of comic and tragic heroes differs, though again it is often a matter of degree and relative emphasis. As Frye reminds us, “comedy tends to deal with characters in a social group, whereas tragedy is more concentrated on a single individual” (1966:207). The tragic hero’s glory and burden is that he or she is isolated, an individual who stands somehow apart from or above humanity, yet is still one of us. Social stratification often plays a pivotal role in this process of differentiation and isolation; hence in antiquity and in fact until recently the tragic hero was customarily a king, prince, or warrior, and rarely a person of low rank. (A. Miller’s Death of a Salesman illustrates how twentieth century attempts at tragedy are far removed from the dominant tradition.)
1.92 On the other side, the characteristic figures of comedy—rogues, tricksters, buffoons, fools, clowns—incarnate the human, all too human, sometimes in fact assuming sub-human or animal form. When seemingly great or noble personages appear, they are usually satirized and subjected to ridicule, thus undercutting their pretentiousness and reducing them to the common lot of humanity. Even when comedy isolates a figure for some sort of special attention, the ultimate goal is still reintegration into the social group to which he or she properly belongs.
2.1 We have indulged enough in generalities and must now attempt to give life to these dry bones of critical commonplaces about comedy and tragedy. Analysis of concrete texts must come into play in order to test the illuminating power of such categories. We begin with Genesis, which in many respects may be more appropriately called “the epitome of the narrative of the Bible” than the book of Job. Against the backdrop of the exile from Eden and the wandering of the children of Adam and Eve—a backdrop which Milton justly treated as tragic in Paradise Lost—we have the narratives about Israel’s fathers and mothers. If the comic vision animates the whole Bible, then surely we should expect to find its seeds in the patriarchal and matriarchal traditions. Although all three major patriarchs provide appealing subjects for analysis from the perspective of comedy, we have space here to consider only Isaac, often overlooked because he appears so bland and uninteresting, a figure overshadowed by his father Abraham, on the one side, and his son Jacob, on the other. Yet perhaps his shadowy presence in the biblical tradition makes him all the more inviting as a test case for our exploration.
2.2 Isaac at first glance appears the least likely candidate for the role of comic figure, whereas Abraham and Jacob have occasionally been portrayed in a comic light. Jacob, for instance, can be viewed as a rogue or trickster who by dint of his guile and wit makes his way successfully in the world (cf. Good and Williams). Isaac, however, has usually been represented as a tragic figure, especially in light of the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of young Isaac. Elie Wiesel, for example, illustrates the more common approach in “Isaac: A Survivor’s Story,” where he calls Isaac “the most tragic of our ancestors” (97). We wish, however, to argue an alternative position: whatever the fate of Isaac in the many “afterlives” of his tale, he is better represented in the biblical narratives as one of the most comical of Israel’s ancestors. The evocation of various forms of laughter in the name “Isaac” precisely finds its most congenial home in a narrative best defined as comedy, a narrative which embodies all the ingredients that have conventionally made up the comic vision.
2.31 To capture the full panorama of Isaac’s story we must go back before his birth and look at those engrossing accounts of the promise of his birth. Yhwh reiterates the promise of numerous progeny to the aging father-to-be in Genesis 17, narrowing the promise to focus on the single son in the closing speech to Abraham, who responds with skeptical laughter. Yhwh then repeats the promise in Genesis 18, where it meets with Sarah’s amused but incredulous laughter.
2.32 However we evaluate the traditio-historical and theological interpretations of the aged couple’s laughter in response to promises about a new baby, their laughter at bottom is most easily taken as an all too human reaction to an incongruous situation filled with amusing, even absurd ingredients. Despite all the sombre trappings of a theophanic revelation, Abraham’s laughter and his skeptical questions are not surprising—at least from his intense human awareness as to how things customarily work in the world: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gen 17:17); nor is his petition in behalf of his “other” son unreasonable: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” (Gen 17:18). Yhwh simply brushes aside Abraham’s concerns, reiterates Sarah’s maternal role, and then adds a significant new element—the name of the promised child: “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” יצחק “he laughs,” Gen 17:19). Yhwh does not allow the sound of laughter to die in Abraham’s throat, but rather seizes upon the verb יצחק and declares that it will be the name of the coming heir. In so doing Yhwh permanently embeds laughter into the line of Israel’s ancestors: Isaac will bear in his very being the image of laughter.
2.33 After this first outburst of incredulous laughter and the ensuing dialogue between the skeptical Abraham and the insistent Yhwh, we will hear again and again the echoes of laughter around this promised child. Thus the following narrative about Sarah’s equally incredulous laughter with her even more earthy reaction stands as a perfect complement to the preceding story about Abraham: it is a case of like husband, like wife. The narrative is one of the master strokes of Genesis, which must be read in its entirety to appreciate fully its artistry (see Gen 18:9–15). The seemingly preposterous promise of a new baby, the eavesdropping Sarah who is discovered, the divine visitor who feels insulted, the tête-à-tête between Yhwh and Sarah who attempts to cover up her laughter by lying to her guest(s)—all these elements add up to something equivalent to Hebrew farce. That the dialogue breaks off without any clear resolution heightens the suspense and leaves the reader hanging in the balances—not to mention the aging couple.
2.41 Before Abraham and Sarah have their long awaited son, the major story line is complicated twice more. First, the rather dreary story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the partial rescue of Lot and his family interrupts the main flow of the narrative, yet it still serves to reinforce the structural and thematic configuration of the surrounding stories. It functions in particular as a kind of parodied replay of such themes as unexpected divine visitors, equivocal human response marked more by incredulity than faith, and births of national ancestors. Moreover, as E. M. Good has noted, the story is not without its comical moments: for example, “Lot’s ludicrous delay is comically ironic” (94). More germane to the birth story of Isaac is the etiological tale of Moabite and Ammonite origins: the kinship between Israel and its closest neighbors is recognized—they are cousins; yet the quality of the kinship is undercut because Moab and Ammon are the products of an incestuous union. Such a use of an invented story about the questionable origins of one’s hated relatives is a stock-in-trade strategy of ethnic humor. In fact, according to N. Frye, “the possibilities of incestuous combinations form one of the minor themes of comedy” (1966: 181).
2.42 The second complication comes in the guise of a repeated story—Abraham’s decision once again that his wife’s “loyalty” חסך to him would be best demonstrated by a denial of her wifely status, a strategem designed ostensibly as a self-protective measure when Abraham feels threatened on foreign soil (Gen 20; cf. Gen 12). Ironically, of course, Abraham’s timorous action threatens the future of the clan since he loses his wife to another man’s harem. Here the episode re-enacts an earlier cycle of human failing and propitious divine intervention (see Gen 12); even more significantly, it retards and even jeopardizes the long awaited fulfillment of the promised birth of Isaac. Moreover, it embodies the U-shaped plot line so endemic to comic tales: the innocuous beginning that locates Abraham and describes his status as resident alien, the precipitous decision to have his wife lie about her status, the induction of Sarah into the royal harem, the timely divine intervention which averts permanent harm to Abimelech’s household, the return of Sarah to her husband along with lavish gifts, the rather incongruous prophetic intercession in which the “guilty” Abraham prays in behalf of the “innocent” Abimelech in order to heal the divinely inflicted barrenness of the royal household—all these elements, whatever their inner complexity, move ineluctably along the comic trajectory, averting potential disaster and ultimately reintegrating all protagonists in their rightful society.
2.5 At last the oft-delayed birth of the promised child takes place. Isaac comes as a gift out of season, and his birth is a happy surprise to the aged couple, resolving the long-standing problem of Sarah’s barrenness. Hence Yhwh fulfills the promise—even if not necessarily according to human timetables. The festive occasion now evokes a laughter from Sarah different from what we heard before: ” ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.’ And she said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age’ ” (Gen 21:6–7). Once again is heard a play on the name Isaac, sounding the notes of laughter in response to such an amazing turnabout in the fortunes of the erstwhile barren couple. As we recall, the divine announcement of the promised birth had initially been greeted by skeptical laughter in the face of absurdity; but now promise finally joins hands with fulfillment to create joyous laughter. Sarah’s laughter is full-throated, vibrant, and infectious because it is born in one of life’s most beautiful moments—the birth of a child. In contrast to Abraham’s earlier laughter that was marked by disbelief, or Sarah’s initial laughter that was choked back in denial, Sarah’s new laughter is wonderfully contagious: she extends it beyond the charmed circle of Yhwh, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, announcing that “everyone who hears will laugh over me.” But ultimately it is Isaac who becomes the chief bearer of this richly ambiguous tradition of laughter—for his very name (“he laughs”) tells the tale. In the end Isaac emerges from this complex of comical stories as a being who is a sexual joke of sorts—but a joke as profound as it is whimsical, as serious as it is playful, for it contains all the mysterious rhythms of laughter and life both human and divine.
2.61 We would normally expect such a story to end here and finish with a fairy tale flourish, “and they lived happily ever after.” But this is not the way of the Genesis narrators, who are telling a series of connected family stories which are open-ended by the necessity of the case. Thus the story continues, and the narrator strikes a note of discord: Sarah remains hostile about the disturbing presence of Hagar and Ishmael in Abraham’s clan (Gen 21:8ff.). During the festive event of Isaac’s weaning, Sarah spies Ishmael while he is “playing” מצחק, Gen 21:9). Though we have here still another word play on Isaac’s name, the exact meaning is opaque. Is Ishmael playing with Isaac מצחק עם יצחק—so the Greek)? Or is Ishmael simply playing (so the Hebrew which lacks the name of Isaac)? Or is Ishmael playing Isaac—that is, pretending to be Isaac and thus usurping his role as legitimate heir (so the interpretation of G. Coats:97)? We simply do not know the precise intent—only the presence of the root צחק echoes Isaac’s name, suggesting some type of pun. In any event, Sarah is angry over Ishmael’s activity and demands the permanent expulsion of a rival wife and a potential rival to her own son: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Gen 21:10). Though Abraham is displeased—after all Ishmael is his first-born son—he complies with Sarah’s demand, but not until he receives further clarification from Yhwh about the exact status of his two sons: “… through Isaac shall your descendants be named; yet I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:12–13).
2.62 Again, as in Gen 16, we have a bittersweet conclusion: Hagar and her son are banished to the desert where the forlorn mother laments the imminent death of her son; but Yhwh hears שמע Ishmael’s voice (note the twofold play on Ishmael’s name in Gen 21:17) and rescues boy and mother, reiterating one last time the promise of a great future for this other son of Abraham. This little narrative offers in miniature a U-shaped plot line. Beginning with an integrated society (the larger family unit of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and the two sons), the story has a downturn in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael; but in contrast to a tragic ending, the story has a wonderful upturn when Yhwh intervenes, saving both mother and son and reaffirming the promise of a new society—”a great nation” to which Ishmael and his descendants will rightfully belong.
2.71 If Hagar’s story has moments of pathos and near tragedy, the portrayal of Abraham’s greatest trial represents the sharpest descent of Isaac’s whole story into what is potentially a terrifying tragedy. The imperious divine voice startles us: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen 22:2). If Yhwh’s action has been puzzling before, now it becomes utterly incomprehensible, perhaps even contradictory: Abraham is to take the son of promise, whose name evokes and echoes “laughter,” and sacrifice him to the God who originally gave him. Talk about the Joban God who gives and takes away! Here the story indeed comes dangerously close to tragedy, and E. M. Good uses the language of “tragic irony” to characterize the inexplicable command to kill Isaac (195).
2.72 Yet we must once again be alert to the U-shaped plot. Even this sudden jolt in the story need not catch us completely off guard. As Frye reminds us, “An extraordinary number of comic stories, both in drama and fiction, seem to approach a potentially tragic crisis near the end, a feature that I may call the ‘point of ritual death’ ” (1966: 179). Frye’s observation provides a legitimate and illuminating context for interpreting this famous story which has undoubtedly elicited more volumes of commentary than any other text in the Isaac sagas. We, the readers, know at the outset that the commanded sacrifice is a test for Abraham: like Job, Abraham must pass a trial by ordeal. We also know that despite Abraham’s occasional moments of weakness, we can generally count on him to trust Yhwh (cf. especially Gen 12:1–4 and 15:1–6). Thus we are somewhat prepared for Abraham’s instantaneous response in faith: as Kierkegaard’s “prince of faith” he is ready to sacrifice Isaac to God. We know further that such heroes of faith, after enduring their trials, receive their due reward. Finally, in such a world, we know about dramatic interventions by a divine figure—the fabled deus ex machina. Therefore we are predisposed for Yhwh’s last-minute intervention to save Isaac by staying Abraham’s hand and substituting a ram. Like the preceding story about the divinely sanctioned expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, the story of Abraham’s most demanding trial ends happily: Isaac is spared, Abraham receives a reaffirmation of the promise of abundant blessing, and father and son return to their rightful society.
2.73 Too often interpreters have unduly isolated Gen 22 from its literary context, thus failing to see how well it fits into the dominant structure intrinsic to the surrounding narratives. Isaac’s whole story, like the tales of Abraham and Jacob, not only fits into an overarching U-shaped plot line, but each individual episode similarly has a U-shape. We find, in short, “a series of little U’s” (A. Bingham) all intertwined with the comprehensive U-shaped pattern. Thus Gen 22 is not exceptional in its basic structure.
2.8 The emotional intensity of this tale of a father’s willingness to offer up his son to a demanding deity gives Gen 22 special force. In the present movement of Genesis, it serves as the climax of Abraham’s story, while at the same time functioning as the center of Isaac’s story. Commentators have traditionally stressed its climactic role for Abraham in his relationship to Yhwh, but we must not lose sight of how well it epitomizes Isaac’s whole career both in its U-shaped structure and in its characterization of Isaac as a type.
2.9 We have already noted how Gen 22 is almost a tragedy, a dimension evident in the Medieval mystery play Abraham and Isaac. What is crucial, however, in the biblical form is the absence of any heart-rending cries of either father or son—in sharpest contrast to David’s lament over Absalom. Moreover, as we have emphasized, Gen 22 breaks off from the tragic arc at the strategic moment as opposed to the genuinely tragic tale of Jephthah’s daughter where no fiat from heaven stays the executioner’s hand. For Isaac there is a joyous upswing which puts his story back into a comic light, a comedy in the shadow of threatened death, but nonetheless a comedy with its celebration of life.
2.10 Here also in Gen 22 we find a piquant representation of Isaac as a type: he is passive victim and survivor. A rapid review of his story from the vantage point of his role in Gen 22 illustrates his passive, submissive nature: he is born to over-aged parents (Gen 21); he is protected from the assumed threat of his older half-brother whose potential as a rival is taken care of by his mother Sarah (Gen 21); he is preeminently the victim in his near sacrifice at the hands of his father, emerging as a survivor only because of divine intervention (Gen 22); he is a compliant son in the idyllic, romantic tale of Abraham’s match-making on his behalf (Gen 24); he is the one to yield ground in order to avoid conflict with the Philistines in a series of well-disputes (Gen 26); he is duped by his shrewd, strong-willed wife and his wily younger son and tricked into giving his deathbed blessing to the “wrong” son (Gen 27); he somehow survives for apparently twenty more years after the “death-bed” debacle and after his death is buried by his two sons (Gen 35).
2.11 The only time Isaac acts “independently” he imitates his father’s pattern of perpetrating a lie about his wife’s marital status in order to protect himself while in foreign territory—a case of like father, like son (Gen 26). R. C. Culley has perceptively contrasted this episode with the two earlier parallels in the Abraham cycle (Gen 12 and 20), singling out for special comment Isaac’s dull-witted, awkward handling of the situation. First, argues Culley, Isaac misperceives the danger of the situation, since no one apparently wants Rebekah—in contrast to Sarah. Second, misperception is coupled with an unnecessary act of deception to create an awkward, abnormal situation: Isaac continues to live with his wife who is purportedly his sister. Not surprisingly, Isaac cannot control his sexual urges and gets caught in a bit of sexual play with Rebekah. It is comically ironic that he is fondling or “playing around” (מצחק) with his alleged sister. Once again we hear a word-play on Isaac’s name—echoing that intimate connection of eroticism, play, and earthy humor which are staple ingredients of the comic mix from time immemorial. Abimelech’s discovery leads to a sharp rebuke of Isaac from a justifiably angry king because of the danger of guilt and divine punishment (Gen 26:10–11). Here again, however, the U-shaped pattern asserts itself: despite his reprehensible conduct Isaac gets off scot-free, and Yhwh blesses him beyond measure; so that once more Isaac receives divine protection and material prosperity simply because he is Abraham’s heir (Gen 26:2–5, 12–13). “All ends well,” as Culley laconically puts it. In fact, “the shape of the story suggests … the hero as a bumbler who in spite of his inept handling of the situation comes out on top” (Culley: 39). Thus on the one occasion when Isaac acts on his own he hardly appears as a strong, resourceful individual and only emerges successfully because of who he is—passive recipient of divine favor—not because of his ability to act wisely and independently.
2.12 In sum, apart from the partial exception of the episode in Gen 26 involving his wife, Isaac through and through is a victim, characteristically acquiescent to personages stronger and more clever than he. Paradoxically, the brightest, happiest moment in Isaac’s whole life perhaps occurred when he was most passive—the occasion of his birth. A child of his parents’ old age, he bore a name that evoked laughter; yet, as we have seen, laughter can have many faces, often mirroring incredulity as well as joy, embarrassment as well as amusement, cruelty as well as relief. As passive victim Isaac is one more often laughed at or over rather than one who laughs himself or laughs with others (though he does enjoy sexual play with his wife!, Gen 26:8). Although sometimes a victim is a candidate for tragedy (Jephthah’s daughter is the chilling biblical example), such is not the case with Isaac: he is survivor as well as victim, emerging from difficult and even dangerous circumstances as one who is successful and blessed. His story always has a comic upturn, aborting the possibility of tragedy. He is typically an innocent, passive man and is set up again and again—a classic half-pathetic, half-humorous dupe whose story is filled with ludicrous moments. His role is widely attested in comedy through the ages—his type of comic figure is well depicted in Charlie Chaplin’s pose as a rumpled tramp who is often laughed at, but who survives all his hard times.
2.131 To illustrate most vividly Isaac’s role as dupe and victim who is manipulated but who nonetheless comes forth as a survivor, we turn lastly to Gen 27. If Gen 22 is the center of Isaac’s story, then surely the climax comes in Gen 27: the account of the famous deathbed scene when he is deprived of what should have been his last noble gesture, the passing on of his inheritance in the form of the paternal blessing to his firstborn son who is also his favorite. Though the story contains elements of pathos, it is dominantly cast in a comic mode, as Gunkel saw long ago and as Thomas Mann captured so pointedly in his title of this section, “Der große Jokus”, in Joseph und seine Brüder. This episode has the potential for a tragic development—note only the similar opening scene in King Lear, where the old father passes on his inheritance to his daughters; but the Genesis story takes a significantly different turn and ends happily.
2.132 Let us look more closely at the story in light of its comic dimensions. The opening lines of the deathbed scene, when we read how Isaac thinks first of his stomach, strike a humorous note: “prepare for me delectable food such as I love and bring it to me that I may eat; that I may bless you before I die” (Gen 27:4). (The earthiness of the Genesis narratives comes out often in the eating scenes: Isaac’s favorite son, Esau, already has manifested a similar propensity of thinking of food first, the future second—another case of like father like son.) The clever rogue Jacob pulls off the hoax, though he expresses doubts and misgivings when his enterprising, resourceful mother first conceives the plan and urges him simply to follow her instructions. The story is marked by turns with both ludicrousness and pathos. Picture the scene: an old man, blind and senile, lying on his deathbed, hungrily awaits his beloved elder son’s arrival with choice cuisine; but meanwhile the younger son, the favorite of his mother, enters and identifies himself as Esau. The dissembling Jacob has been preposterously outfitted with animal skins on his arms, aping the appearance of his hairy brother, lest his blind father feel his smooth, hairless skin and discover the ruse. To complete the disguise Jacob wears his brother’s garb in order to emit the right body odor. Jacob then proceeds with a bold-faced lie when his blind, befuddled father becomes suspicious. The dialogue between deceiving son and confused father is immediately followed by the moving account of Esau’s later arrival and his anguished plea for a blessing (Gen 27:18–40). Pathos is indeed present, but more pervasive is comic incongruity and irony: Isaac blesses the “wrong” son who is paradoxically the “right” son according to the prenatal oracle (Gen 25:23). What a bizarre way of working out the divine will! Though somehow involved, God is curiously absent. Moral categories are not invoked; apparently they are just not appropriate (cf. Gunkel, 1964: 307). Isaac is deceived, Esau is cheated out of his blessing; yet nobody gets seriously hurt, at least not in any ultimate sense.
2.133 Gunkel seems to have been the first modern scholar to discern the comic, humorous aspects of Gen 27: “The substance of the story is and remains that a deception finally has a happy ending: Jacob the rogue really wins for himself the blessing; Esau draws the shorter one, without being morally guilty, and the hearers are the happy heirs of the deceiver” (307). Like the near tragedy of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac, this story of deception has the happy outcome characteristic of comedy—though this ending must await the adventures of Jacob the rogue during his sojourn in a strange land, where he will show his marvelous ability as a trickster who ultimately manages to come out on top. Isaac’s “wrong” blessing for his two sons therefore will finally be “right” for both of them: Jacob as deceiver will become Israel, a “prince of God” who prevails against both God and men, reflecting perhaps the image of his grandfather Abraham; whereas Esau as the deceived seems to display at crucial times the image of his father Isaac, a victim who is usually outwitted and manipulated by personages more resourceful than he, but who nonetheless emerges as a magnanimous, generous survivor (cf. his deportment in the reunion with Jacob in Gen 33). Apropos of the plot line of comedy, the two brothers become reconciled in the end, even though becoming founder figures of two separate societies (Gen 33).
2.14 The final encounter between Isaac and his twin sons, so decisive in determining the dynamic of the subsequent story of Israel, meshes with the recurrent pattern of comical moments in Isaac’s story which begins with the dramatic announcements of his birth. His name, “he laughs,” indeed begets his character and destiny, but in a different sense from what such a happy appellation might initially suggest. Apart from the one occasion of his birth, he is not usually the source of joyous laughter, nor is he a clever wit himself. Again and again he is laughed over, often manipulated, victimized, even duped—but his life at bottom is not tragic, for he survives and survives and survives. In fact, Isaac lives longer than either his father, Abraham, or his son, Jacob. According to biblical chronology, he lives twenty years after the deathbed scene. In the conventional style that describes a complete and successful life, the narrator tells us that “Isaac breathed his last; and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days” (Gen 35:29). The burial scene epitomizes the typical ending of comedy, stressing that the different protagonists are reintegrated into the society to which they properly belong: the dead father “gathered to his people,” and his two reconciled sons united at his burial.
2.15 In conclusion, the Isaac story contains all three ingredients of the comic vision as we have defined it. First, its plot line both in the parts and the whole follows the U-shaped pattern intrinsic to comedy. Though it indeed has its moments of near tragedy and pathos, each time we find the decisive upturn to a happy ending. Second, style and theme display typical comic traits: word plays are plentiful, especially the pivotal pun on Isaac’s name; ludicrous and farcical moments abound; and comic irony and incongruity are pervasive. Finally, the characterization of Isaac as passive victim is best construed as comic. A hallmark of his role is his ordinariness; things typically happen to him, he is never the powerful protagonist actively shaping events. But in his very ordinariness, in his tendency to drift along on currents that sometimes threaten to submerge him, in his ability to survive and somehow to muddle through—in all these ways he is a comic hero familiar to us all, one who evokes from us a secret smile of recognition, a half-comic, half-pathetic figure who incarnates and mirrors the human, all too human, and is therefore all the more laughable and lovable.
3.1 Our interpretation of the Isaac story as a fundamental embodiment of the comic vision which characterizes biblical narrative, as well as our general remarks on the relationship between comedy and tragedy in the Bible, makes clear our agreement with the observation that the Judaeo-Christian vision is not a tragic one (see Frye, Steiner). We have argued that the account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, with all its implicit pathos and horror, must be read, finally, in its proper comic context. Even the Book of Job, which to many interpreters appears to have dressed its protagonist in tragic garb, we have defined as comic (see Whedbee). There remains one obvious choice for a biblical representation of the tragic vision, the story of King Saul. This story offers the clearest example of what might properly be called biblical tragedy—though we might use Steiner’s phrase, “tempered tragedy” (xiii). For just as Denmark will be a better place under Fortinbras and Scotland under Malcolm, we know that Israel finds security and prosperity under Saul’s successor, the king after God’s own heart. Nevertheless, all the essential tragic ingredients meet us in the story of Saul, chief among them, and indispensable to the tragic vision, the Aeschylean paradox of human guilt and the wicked god (see Ricoeur: 211–31).
3.2 “Saul is the one great tragic hero of the Bible,” says N. Frye (1982: 181), an observation most biblical exegetes would take as a commonplace. Few of us would quarrel with G. von Rad’s classic statement that “Israel never again gave birth to a poetic production which in certain of its features has such close affinity with the spirit of Greek tragedy” (325). E. M. Good offers a compelling reading of this narrative in terms of its tragic dimension, and more recently, both W. L. Humphreys (1978, 1980, 1982) and D. M. Gunn (1980, 1981) have argued at length for its tragic character. In order to advance our thesis about the comic and tragic visions in the Bible, we propose to set the tragic story of Saul over against what we would classify as the comic story of Samson, a narrative which resembles Saul’s at enough points to deserve Wellhausen’s designation of Samson as a Vorspiel to Saul. Both are hailed as deliverers of Israel from the Philistines, both fail at the task, and both die seeming ignominious deaths at the hands of their oppressors in the process. How then is one a comic figure and the other tragic? The difference between the comic vision and the tragic vision becomes clear when we compare different handling of similar elements.
3.3 We have already alluded to the difficulty of differentiating sharply between comedy and tragedy, except in their extreme forms. Thus we shall find some crossovers in these stories, just as we found moments of pathos and near tragedy in the story of Isaac. Nevertheless, the difference between the two visions is evident in spite of a certain admixture of comic and tragic elements. As S. Langer remarks, “The matrix of the work is always either tragic or comic; but within its frame the two often interplay” (1981a: 72). This interplay, we have suggested, is essential to the vitality of these visions, for without the tempering of a comic perspective, tragedy moves into the realm of melodrama, while comedy without a recognition of tragic potential becomes farce (cf. Frye, 1965:50).
3.4 Stock elements of comedy abound in the story of Samson in Judg 13–16: wit and humor, bawdy riddles and amorous escapades, a rapid pace, an episodic structure, and a hero of incredible vitality. The Philistines are the blocking characters who inhibit movement toward a harmonious society; they are caricatured, as is Samson himself, and clear distinctions are made between hero and villains. Unmistakably tragic elements appear as well—the hero’s betrayal, blinding, and death providing the most obvious examples. When Milton sought to make a tragedy of the Samson story he produced a powerful drama, but even here the inherent comic plot line which he took over from the biblical tradition defeats the realization of the tragic vision. Neither in Samson Agonistes nor in the biblical account does the death of the hero carry the final or the central message. It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the biblical story, as we shall argue below, that Milton’s Manoah offers us the crucial insight, “No time for lamentation now,/Now much more cause; Samson hath quit himself/Like Samson …,” and the chorus assures us, “All is best, though we oft doubt …”
3.5 Biblical scholars have been content to note either comic or tragic features of the Samson saga or both, without exploring adequately the nature of their relationship. Rarely do they give more than a superficial definition to the terms comedy and tragedy. J. L. Crenshaw is typical in concluding that the Samson saga is a tragicomedy because “neither tragedy nor comedy becomes sufficiently pronounced to drown out faint echos [sic] of its opposite” (129), yet he fails to move beyond generalities to make his case. While such assessments are cognizant of the interplay between comic and tragic elements, they fail to locate properly the matrix of the saga. That matrix, in our opinion, is best described as comic, a designation which does not necessarily mean that we like the way the story ends. What Frye says about comic drama is applicable here.
Does anything that exhibits the structure of a comedy have to be taken as a comedy, regardless of its content or of our attitude to that content? The answer is clearly yes. A comedy is not a play which ends happily: it is a play in which a certain structure is present and works through to its own logical [festive] end, whether we or the cast or the author feel happy about it or not (1965:46).
In spite of Samson’s suffering and death, the story, with its emphasis on restoration and resolution, exemplifies the comic vision, and only when viewed in its proper comic context can its tragic moments be rightly appreciated.
3.6 Similarly, the Saul story has its moments of comic incongruity, such as the unsuspecting lad who seeks lost asses and finds a kingdom (chs. 9–10), and the future king who hides among the baggage when he is chosen by lot (12:20–24). These incidents bring comic relief to the foreboding atmosphere of ch. 8, which predisposes us to expect the worst from the institution of a monarchy. But the real alternative to the tragic perspective in 1 Sam 8–2 Sam 1 is provided by the story of David, which gives the narrative another, sanguine, mood alongside the somber mood of Saul’s tragic tale. Shortly after David is introduced comes what must count as one of the great comic scenes in the Bible, the slaying of the Philistine champion, “a man of war from his youth,” by a ruddy, handsome shepherd boy with a sling. David’s story follows the plot line of romance and his spectacular rise in these chapters epitomizes the romantic hero’s successful quest (see Frye, 1966:186–206). Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, the narrative of 1 Sam 8–2 Sam 1 is contrapuntal. Two plots, David’s rise and Saul’s demise, are developed at the same time, each preserving its own integrity, while interwoven and connected by intricate verbal, thematic, and structural patterns (cf. Frye, 1965:27). For purposes of this analysis we shall consider only the tragic tale of Saul.
3.7 Let us begin with the plot line in the stories of Samson and Saul, Judg 13–16 and 1 Sam 8–2 Sam 1. Each of our heroes meets his death fighting Yhwh’s battles against the Philistines. But preceding the death account in each story comes the point where the hero experiences his moment of greatest desolation. These two parts of each story, the low point in the fortunes of the hero and the account of his death, provide the points of greatest similarity between the tales and thus serve well to demonstrate the way in which the comic and tragic visions clearly diverge, one moving toward reconciliation and affirmation, the other toward isolation and lamentation.
3.8 The Samson saga has the characteristic comic U-shaped plot. Its low point is reached when Samson is shaved and Yhwh leaves him, a departure all the more devastating because Samson, at first, does not realize it. On three earlier occasions, when Delilah had tried to subdue him, Samson tricked her and remained invincible. But her fourth attempt brings about his undoing, just as she knew it would (16:18). In what we might consider a moment of hubris, Samson sets out “as at other times” to better the Philistines, only to discover the bitter reality that “Yhwh had left him.” Betrayed by Delilah, bereft of his hair, his strength, and the presence of his god (and these three things are inseparably connected in the narrative), Samson is blinded and imprisoned. He is brought out for “sport” at a sacrifice to Dagon, where vast numbers of Philistines gather to celebrate victory over their enemy. In this, his moment of deepest humiliation, Samson calls on Yhwh with a petition for vindication and death (16:28–30).His prayer, with its conventional invocation and plea to be remembered, expresses his sense of abandonment by Yhwh (see Greenberg: 12), as he makes urgent supplication for divine favor just this once: “O Lord Yhwh, remember me please and strengthen me please only this time, O God …” Samson’s prayer reestablishes his relationship to Yhwh and thus gives the plot its upward surge. This restoration of broken relationship is decisive for the comic vision in Judg 13–16. Yhwh’s departure from Samson, which occurred when he was shaved, is not final; rather a responsive deity is swayed by prayer. Samson’s request for strength “only this time” is granted as is his desire to die with the Philistines. Strictly speaking, his death is not a suicide, for death is in Yhwh’s hand, not Samson’s. The distinction is an important one: Yhwh’s power—not Samson’s own or some mysterious force which resides in his hair—enables Samson to bring about the destruction of the Philistines and his own death. Samson’s death is the logical conclusion of the narrative; it brings release from a world of darkness (an aspect heightened by Milton) and vindication for the ignominy he has suffered at the hands of the Philistines (the object emphasized in the biblical account).At his death, Samson fulfills the destiny Yhwh had appointed for him, to “be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines (13:5)”. Moreover, his final triumph over the Philistines surpasses his earlier exploits, winning him even greater glory: “The dead that he killed at his death were more than those he had killed in his life” (16:30). Finally, his burial by his brothers in the tomb of Manoah his father serves as the final symbol of his integration into the society which he represents, but in which he has functioned so obstinately and independently.
3.91 In contrast to the U-shaped plot of Judg 13–16, the story of Saul in 1 Sam 9–31 displays the inverted U plot structure typical of tragedy. The story develops against the negative backdrop of Yhwh’s misgivings about kingship in ch. 8, and its movement to catastrophe is impelled by the rejection stories of chs. 13 and 15. Saul encounters various setbacks, from anxiety over his loss of prestige in the eyes of the people (18:7) to his inability to apprehend David; and his fortune, not to mention his sanity, deteriorates until the narrative reaches its lowest point with the vision of Samuel conjured up by the medium at En Dor. For sheer starkness and terror, and in its gripping evocation of isolation and hopelessness, this scene stands out amid biblical narrative. Notice, for example, the number of references to Saul’s anguished state of mind: he is afraid (v. 5), his heart trembled greatly (v. 5), he is in great distress (v. 15), filled with fear (v. 20), there is no strength in him (v. 20), he is terrified (v. 21). After this journey into the abyss of divine abandonment, Saul’s death can only be seen as anticlimactic.
3.92 The scene is set at night. Night not only covers the movements of the king, hiding him from Philistine observation, but symbolizes as well the realm of darkness and uncertainty he is about to enter. Night is traditionally the time of spirits and necromancer’s rites, and it provides an archetypal symbol for the ultimate darkness, death. It is no accident that just as Saul left his first meeting with Samuel in ch. 9 at the break of day; i.e., the dawn of his career, he both arrives and departs from his last encounter with Samuel while it is still night.
3.93 The isolation Saul experiences manifests itself even before this final rejection by Samuel. Try as he may—and there have been no indications that Saul was not a faithful Yahwist—Saul cannot get Yhwh to answer him (“And when Saul inquired of Yhwh, Yhwh did not answer him either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets,” 28:6; indeed, Yhwh never addresses Saul directly in the narrative, but speaks to him only through Samuel, or, as in ch. 14, through the sacred lot). Why does Saul seek out the prophet Samuel, who has already rejected him? When Gunn (1980:108) answers that Saul can stand no more ambiguity, he identifies the root of the dilemma of the tragic hero. Not content to let his tragic destiny unfold, the tragic hero stalks it. Like Oedipus, who relentlessly pushes for the full truth to be disclosed while the answers steadily close in upon him, Saul must know.
3.94 A feeling of uncertainty and apprehension permeates the chapter; what occurs is not only secretive but forbidden as well. Ironically it was Saul himself, apparently in the service of Yhwh, who put the mediums and wizards out of the land (v. 4). Now Yhwh’s silence and the failure of ordinary means of inquiry drive Saul to consultation with the dead. Though reluctant, the medium whose life stands threatened by Saul’s edict against necromancy becomes the sole source of the knowledge he seeks. Neither Saul nor Samuel is identified at first; Saul goes in disguise and instructs the woman, “Bring up for me whomever I say to you” (v. 8). Both Saul’s and Samuel’s presence at the seance is revealed at the same time: when she sees Samuel, the woman recognizes Saul. Saul, for his part, recognizes Samuel on the basis of the woman’s description, “an old man … wrapped in a robe.” It has taken twelve verses to establish the mood and set the scene, during which time suspense has been mounting as we await the fateful confrontation.
3.95 With characteristic brusqueness, Samuel asks Saul’s reason for disturbing him. Saul’s reply that “the Philistines are waging war against me,” recalls the situation of ch. 13, when Saul first erred by offering the sacrifice in Samuel’s absence; and when he implores, “I have called you to reveal to me what I should do,” we remember that he did not wait for Samuel to tell him what to do then (“Seven days you shall wait until I come to you and I will reveal to you what you shall do,” 10:8). Samuel’s reply, “Why do you ask me?” (ולמה תשאלני) puns ironically on Saul’s name, and his answer reiterates in painful detail what Saul knows already: because Saul disobeyed in not carrying out the ban against the Amalekites (ch. 15), Yhwh has rejected him and given the kingdom to David. Moreover, Israel will be defeated and Saul and his sons will die in the forthcoming battle. Overcome by weakness and fear Saul collapses (v. 20), prefiguring as it were his fall on the field of battle.
3.96 Though the meal that follows provides one of several points of contact between Saul’s last meeting with Samuel and his first (in this case the meal which takes place in ch. 9),it seems at first glance somewhat incongruous in this terrible rejection scene. A remark by George Steiner with reference to Racine’s Bérénice not only provides, in our opinion, the clue to the meal’s function, but also sheds helpful light on the nature of the tragic vision in 1 Sam 28—a vision as terrifying and uncompromising as any in the tragic corpus, yet ever so slightly tempered.
Can Bérénice remain standing under the hammering of sorrow on Racine’s naked stage or will she have to call for a chair, thus bringing on to that stage the whole contingency and compromise of the mundane order of the world? I admit that, today, this question and the executive conventions from which it springs, seem to me to crystallize the truth of absolute tragedy with an integrity, with an economy of means, with a transcendence of theatrical “business” and verbal orchestration beyond that which we find on Shakespeare’s loud and prodigal scene. It needs no cosmic storms or peregrine woods to reach the heart of desolation. The absence of a chair will do (13–14).
Henri Bergson, in a classic essay on “Laughter,” makes a similar point.
No sooner does anxiety about the body manifest itself than the intrusion of a comic element is to be feared. On this account, the hero in a tragedy does not eat or drink or warm himself. He does not even sit down any more than can be helped (94).
In a scene built around dialogue, Saul’s words are dramatic in their brevity, “I will not eat.” The meal which Saul allows to be prepared and which he eats with his servants meliorates the despair and pathos of the scene. Saul would have it otherwise, but he gives in, as he has before, to human urging. Pure tragedy would have left him without any resource. Samson prays for and receives strength (כח, 16:30) from Yhwh; but as for Saul, we are told he has no strength in him (v. 20). Relief comes as he receives nourishment from the medium whose kindness offers a dramatic contrast to Samuel’s severity (cf. Preston: 36). This delicate tempering of the tragic vein enables Saul to eat, rise, and go his way—though he goes now with the sure knowledge of the fate that awaits him: “Tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me …” (28:19).
3.101 In the account of Saul’s death in 1 Sam 31, the narrative yields fully to the tragic vision. Wounded and fearing abuse by the Philistines, Saul tells his armor-bearer to thrust him through. But the young man is afraid. As in the ill-fated decision to make the offering himself in ch. 13, it appears that Saul has no option but to take matters into his own hand. Unlike Samson, whose prayer brings reconciliation to Yhwh, Saul cannot call on God to let him die, because already in ch. 28 God has effectively and decisively ended communication. Thus, whereas Samson’s death was in the hands of Yhwh, Saul’s comes by his own hand. In contrast to Samson’s death which belongs to a larger, comic resolution, Saul’s death stands in tragic isolation. Whether grounded in a “failure of nerve” (so Good:78) or symbolic of a “final moment of grandeur [when] he seizes control of events” (so Humphreys, 1980:79–80), Saul’s suicide functions as his last desperate attempt to wrench from his destiny its final meaning. As an act of his own will, it can be compared to Oedipus’ self-blinding even though in both cases the circumstances are from God.
Apollo, friends, Apollo Has laid this agony upon me; Not by his hand; I did it.
3.102 Tragic events pile up in 1 Sam 31. First, Israel is routed and many are slain (v. 1); then Saul’s sons meet their deaths (v. 2); next comes Saul’s suicide and that of his armor-bearer (vv. 3–6), after which the Israelites abandon their cities to the Philistines (v. 7). The next day brings further dishonor: the Philistines mutilate and desecrate Saul’s body (vv. 8–10). They send messengers throughout their territory to carry the good news, and, as a token of their victory, they exhibit Saul’s armor in the temple of Ashtaroth and his body on the wall of Beth-shan. The scene recalls the Philistines’ celebration of Samson’s defeat and their merrymaking in Dagon’s temple over his disgrace (“Our god has given [Samson] our enemy into our hand,” Judg 16:23, 24). But no deus ex machina steps in to aid Saul and bring about a comic resolution, as in the Samson story. The cruelest part of Saul’s fate lies in his death in isolation from Yhwh. Typical of the tragic vision, there is no reconciliation, no restoration, no future for the house of Saul.
3.11 Catastrophe does not strike the tragic protagonist alone. Like the curses that work themselves out in the house of Atreus and the house of Oedipus, Saul’s misfortune extends beyond himself to his whole family. Three sons, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, are also killed in the battle on Mount Gilboa and their bodies exhibited with their father’s at Beth-shan. Accounts which lie outside the boundaries of the Saul story in 1 Sam 8–2 Sam 1 describe the tragic circumstances which befall the remaining members of the house of Saul. Ishbosheth is slain in his bed (2 Sam 4). In 2 Sam 21, other sons of Saul meet tragic deaths as the result of blood guilt on Saul’s house for apparent crimes against the Gibeonites. Only Mephibosheth is spared; but Mephibosheth has his own troubles as a cripple to whom David shows questionable loyalty (2 Sam 9) and whose loyalty to David is questioned (2 Sam 16:1–4; 19:24–30). Finally there is Saul’s daughter Michal, who is taken from David, whom she loves, and given to Palti, only later to be taken from Palti and returned to David (1 Sam 18:20; 25:44; 2 Sam 3:15–16—the fact that Palti followed after her weeping suggests the severing of a strong bond). Michal and David quarrel over his behavior before the ark of Yhwh (2 Sam 6:12–23) and the outcome for Michal has an air of tragic finality about it. She dies childless, bringing to an end another branch of the house of Saul.
3.12 In our introductory remarks, we alluded to characteristic thematic and stylistic habits of comedy and tragedy. Here we would like to consider the different handling of that most common feature of biblical narrative, repetition.Frye, in the Anatomy, observes that repetition overdone or not going anywhere is comic (168). Samson, as we are all aware, keeps doing the same thing, and in this, he is quite laughable. True, he encounters obstacles and suffers temporary setbacks, but we see over and over again that Samson bounces back, and we come to expect it. Samson exemplifies Ben Jonson’s theory of the “humor” and Bergson’s concept of mechanical behavior as a central element of comedy. He is obsessed by a fatal weakness for women, and this leads him into repeated scrapes with the Philistines (14:1–15:8; 16:1–3; 16:4–22). Twice he falls for the same ruse and reveals his secret to a woman, and the repetitive factor in these episodes accentuates his incorrigibility. The Philistines threaten one woman and bribe the other to “entice” (14:15; 16:5) Samson, first (ch. 14) in order to learn the answer to his riddle and then (ch. 16) to discover the secret of his strength (in both cases the key word is נגד). Both women manipulate him by appealing to his affection, “You only hate me, you do not love me,” 14:16; “How can you say ‘I love you’ when your heart is not with me?” 16:15. After enduring the Timnite’s urging for seven days (14:17) and Delilah’s every day (16:16), Samson gives in. In both cases “he told her” (14:17; 16:17) “because she harassed him” (14:17; 16:16). The betrayal of his secret leads both times, once indirectly and once directly, to the handing over of Samson to the Philistines. In 15:13 they bind him with two new ropes and bring him up from the rock of Etam. In 16:21 they bring him down to Gaza and bind him with bronze fetters. The climax of both accounts occurs when Samson calls on Yhwh (ויקרא [שמשון] אל יהוה, 15:18; 16:28), in both cases bringing about a dramatic turn of events. The extensive repetition in the story both amuses and instructs, for each account leads to the same point: the strong man cannot save himself; Samson depends on Yhwh for life and death.
3.13 The repetitive phenomenon in Judg 13–16 differs noticeably from the twofold account of Saul’s disobedience and rejection and other doublets in the narrative, such as Saul’s casting his spear at David, and Saul’s pursuit of David which both times results in David’s sparing Saul’s life—all of which have a cumulative effect. When, for example, Samuel rejects Saul for disobedience the first time (ch. 13), a number of details remain hazy. It is not altogether evident wherein Saul’s disobedience lies: he did wait the seven days required by Samuel and only then made the offering because “the people were scattering.” Nor is the accusation, “You have not kept the commandment of God,” quite clear, since the narrative records no instructions from Yhwh but only from Samuel (10:8). Even the outcome lacks an apparent resolution, for it leaves us in the dark about Saul’s response. Having delivered his diatribe, Samuel simply goes off to Gibeah, leaving Saul to prepare for battle, and the narrative makes no further reference to Saul’s error in offering the sacrifice. But by the second rejection scene, there is no mistaking that Yhwh has had second thoughts about the fledgling monarch. Ch. 15 reinforces and spells out what ch. 13 presented tentatively, and it confirms what we may have suspected about Saul there. Yhwh clearly gives the command to annihilate the Amalekites and Saul equally clearly does not carry it out, whatever the reason. Here we see more deeply into Saul’s personality and the motivation behind his decisions, particularly his desire to win the favor of the people. Saul may well be acting in good faith; that is, he may truly believe that a sacrifice of the spoils to Yhwh in Gilgal is compatible with the demands of holy war.But whereas his defense in ch. 13 seemed reasonable, it is somewhat feeble in ch. 15, as he shifts his pronouns as well as the blame: “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to Yhwh your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (15:15). No doubt attends the outcome; the conclusion strikes a tragic note: “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death but Samuel grieved over Saul. And Yhwh repented that he had made Saul king over Israel” (15:35).
3.14 Samson repeats his folly and Saul repeats his errors. The repetition has different force and is evaluated differently in the comic and tragic worlds. Samson is not judged negatively by Yhwh. Though certainly not the most perceptive of heroes, Yhwh never castigates him for it, and commentators who condemn Samson for betraying his Nazirite vow engage in a moral evaluation which the narrative itself does not make (see Exum, 1983). In contrast, Saul is judged negatively by both Yhwh and Samuel; and each repeated weakness, each instance of vacillation, each violent and unstable action adds to the case against him.
3.15 A comparison of the treatment of the two heroes shows how little Samson is held accountable by Yhwh (biblical exegetes are not so forgiving). Judg 13–16 does not make an issue of obedience. At best, it is implied in 13:5 and 16:17, but demands for obedience, warnings against disobedience, and homilies about the results of disobedience are strikingly absent in the story. Neither Yhwh, nor the narrator, nor any of the characters censures Samson for any of his actions, though his parents demur at his choice of a spouse (14:3). This lack of specific moral judgment finds its home in comedy. The comic hero is neither good nor bad, as Langer points out, “but is genuinely amoral,—now triumphant, now worsted and rueful, but in his ruefulness and dismay he is funny, because his energy is really unimpaired and each failure prepares the situation for a new fantastic move” (1981a:78). Tragedy, on the other hand, plunges its protagonist into moral conflict. Obedience plays a central role in the tragedy of Saul. Samuel stresses its importance for both king and people: “If you fear Yhwh and serve him and obey his voice and do not rebel against the commandment of Yhwh, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow Yhwh your God, it will be well; but if you do not obey the voice of Yhwh, but rebel against the commandment of Yhwh, then the hand of Yhwh will be against you and your king” (12:14–15 following LXX). This admonition sets the stage for Saul’s failure and consequent rejection when he obeys the people (15:24) rather than Yhwh (15:1, 19, 20, 22). And Samuel does not miss a last opportunity to remind Saul that his disobedience has cost him the kingdom (28:18).
3.16 On various occasions people around him call attention to Saul’s weaknesses and shortcomings. Samuel calls him a fool (13:13) and rebukes him for his feelings of inferiority (15:17), his own son admits that he has “troubled the land” (14:29), and David twice forces him to admit his failings (“You are more righteous than I,” 24:17; “I have played the fool and erred exceedingly,” 26:21). Such negative estimations expose Saul’s vulnerability while assuming his accountability.
3.17 Although space does not permit a full investigation of the subject, one of our observations about different styles and techniques at work in comedy and tragedy can be well illustrated by the death scenes in Judg 16 and 1 Sam 31. We hasten to add, however, that it is difficult to generalize about these matters, since the same literary devices can serve both comic and tragic modes. Fine distinctions between what is particular to the stories and what is typical of comedy and tragedy remain to be tested and probably can never be fully drawn. Nevertheless, we believe these two accounts demonstrate our point about the playfulness and artifice of the comic expression and the high seriousness of the tragic style.
3.18 The techniques of irony and reversal as used in Judg 16:23–31 are not appropriate to the seriousness of tragedy. The entire scene depends for its surprise and delight on the technique of ironic reversal, and its unfolding is splendidly manipulated by the skillful employment of paronomasia. The Philistines assemble to praise their god for victory over their Israelite enemy, but in the end Yhwh (through Samson), not Dagon, is the victor. The Philistines rejoice at the captivity of one who has greatly multiplied (הרבה, v. 24) their slain, and ironically, these very merrymakers at his death become the slain who outnumber (רבים, v. 30) those he killed in his life. When Samson is brought out for the amusement of the Philistines, he leans on the two pillars which support the house (v. 26); later he will lean on these supporting pillars again, but this time for destruction (v. 29). At first, the sightless Samson depends on a mere lad for support (הנער המחזיק בידו) but his petition to Yhwh to strengthen him (וחזקני) results in a dramatic change of circumstances. The crowning pun, and the one which carries the scene, revolves around Samson’s prayer itself: the people call (קרא) Samson to make sport, but while they watch, Samson calls (קרא) on Yhwh! This superb ironic twist) rq reverses the downward movement of the narrative and turns Dagon’s festival into Yhwh’s victory.
3.19 The situation is different in 1 Sam 31. The tragic vision at this point, we suggest, could not tolerate a delight in word play such as we find in Judg 16.The account is terse and straightforward, with an almost uncharacteristic lack of repetition. Of the few repeated terms, the recurrent phrase, “Saul and his (three) sons,” reminds us of the end of the Saulide dynasty prophesied by Samuel, and the reappearance of such words as “fall” (נפל), “dead” (מות), “slain” (חלל), and “fled” (נוס) casts a somber shadow over the whole.
3.20 Restoration in Judg 16 comes from God. In spite of the brute fact of Samson’s death among the enemy, the story ends, as comedies typically do, on a note of triumph: through Samson, Yhwh achieves a glorious victory over Israel’s oppressors. There is no restoration in 1 Sam 31, but there is relief. Just as in ch. 28 relief had come in the form of human kindness on the part of the woman of En Dor, so now it comes from the men of Jabesh-Gilead. Again, it is a kindness of the night. In one of the many instances of inclusion in the Saul narrative, the men of Jabesh act on Saul’s behalf as he had on theirs, at the beginning of his kingly career (ch. 11). Then he delivered them from the threatened shame of mutilation; now they retrieve his mutilated body, sparing it further humiliation. Saul’s burial does not have the integrating symbolism of Samson’s. The fact of divine rejection overshadows this act of acceptance into human society, though it does not negate it. Moreover, the treatment of Saul’s body raises uneasy questions (cf. Humphreys, 1980:83–85). Mutilation and desecration of the body occur; in a practice uncommon in Israel, the body is burned; and only then are the bones buried in Jabesh, a location remote from Saul’s home in Benjamin.The tragedy of King Saul ends with fasting (1 Sam 31:13) and lamentation (2 Sam 1:17; cf. also the tragic vignette of Jephthah’s daughter). David’s lament, “How are the mighty fallen,” like the chorus’ “Behold, this was Oedipus, greatest of men,” serves as a commentary not just on the fate of Saul, but on the tragedy of the human condition in general.
3.21 Comedy can embrace pain and death in the larger context of restoration. For Samson, this is possible because he is an instrument of the divine plan in which we implicitly trust. In contrast, tragedy shows the uncompromising terror of suffering and death which Saul must face alone. Here we find a crucial difference between the tales: divine intention and motivation are ambiguous in Saul’s case but not in Samson’s. Though we are introduced to Samson with high expectations which remain unrealized (ch. 13),we are nevertheless repeatedly reminded that Yhwh controls Samson’s folly and ludicrous escapades, “for [Yhwh] was seeking an occasion against the Philistines” (14:4). This fact allows perhaps for perplexity on the part of the reader, but not ambiguity. We, like Samson’s parents, may find it odd that Samson desires a Philistine wife, but the text assures us that “it was from Yhwh,” 14:4. Not simply sexual desire but also the spirit of Yhwh drives Samson to his confrontations with the Philistines (14:19; 15:14). Significantly, Yhwh does not promise that Samson will ultimately deliver Israel from the Philistines, only that he will be the first to do so, 13:5. The opposite holds true for Saul, of whom Yhwh says, “It is he who will deliver my people from the hand of the Philistines” (9:16). Do we have here a hint of divine unreliability? In the comedy, Samson fulfills Yhwh’s plan for him; part of Saul’s tragedy derives from the fact that Yhwh’s prophecy of 9:16–17 does not come to pass.
3.22 In the Saul narrative the portrayal of the deity is uncomfortably ambiguous (see chs. 8 and 9). Any way you look at it, Yhwh has an ambivalent attitude toward kingship. Gunn (1980) has argued, with good evidence, that the deity’s angry feelings of rejection as king by the people (ch. 8) give rise to a predisposition to reject Saul. Rejection (מאס) appears at strategic points in the narrative. “Because you have rejected the word of Yhwh, he has rejected you from being king,” 15:23, echoes Yhwh’s bitter complaint of 8:7, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Yhwh selects Saul but at the same time views him as an unwelcome usurper of divine leadership. Thus the first king must pay dearly for the people’s sin (“evil” according to 12:17 and 19) of requesting a human monarch. To use Gunn’s phrase, Saul becomes kingship’s scapegoat. Whether one accepts Gunn’s thesis or sides with commentators who defend Yhwh as justified in rejecting Saul, such widely differing interpretations bear witness to a complex picture of deity in the narrative.
3.23 But it is not just Yhwh whose portrayal is ambiguous. Saul himself appears as a particularly complicated personality. He emerges as a strong leader (ch. 11), yet wavers in precarious situations (chs. 13 and 15). Appearing not to want the kingship at the beginning of his career, at the end he struggles to hold on to it at all costs. Though capable of magnanimity (11:13) and inspiring loyalty among his followers, he sometimes displays sinister, inflexible qualities one hardly anticipates—e.g., his willingness to carry out his rash oath and have his own son killed in ch. 14, his evil designs against David, and his slaughter of the priests of Nob. If Gunn is correct in arguing that Saul acted in good faith in chs. 13 and 15, then even Saul’s best intentions bring about the worst of consequences. Is his problem that he is, as Good puts it, “a man not fitted for a job that should not have been opened” (58)?
3.24 The tragic vision until relatively modern times has typically cast as its hero a royal figure such as we find in Saul. The privileged position of kings, which enables them to break laws ordinary people must respect, renders them well-suited to tragic treatment. In Israelite as in Greek thought, the king in his role as mediator and representative stands in a special position between the sacred and the profane (C. Segal:44–46) and, as the Deuteronomistic Historian so fondly points out, the people’s welfare depends upon the king’s proper performance of the royal functions symbolized by obedience. We observe Saul at the height and depth of his worldly fortunes. When we meet him, he stands “head and shoulders above the people”; yet all too soon we discover that he is little in his own eyes, and we follow his demise to his final rejection when his imposing stature lies “full length upon the ground, filled with fear.” Saul is thrust into a position of leadership he did not seek only to have it torn away from him and promised to another who is better than he. Though he remains head and shoulders above the people who, like us, are less significant in the shaping of history, he is not so far above us that we fail to recognize in his hamartia our own potential to make similarly destructive, though certainly less far-reaching, errors of judgment.
3.25 And what of Samson? We are told he “judged Israel,” but commentators have long observed that he does not behave like a judge. Samson, rather, is the typical rogue, a Hebrew Rob Roy, a Til Eulenspiegel in biblical dress. His wit and prowess provide the occasion to ridicule the Philistines and have a good laugh at their expense. He constantly gets the better of them, and the narrative shows a hearty, lusty approval of it all. Comedy may serve as a release for anti-social instincts and in this context wit in its various expressions often functions, as it does in Restoration Comedy, as a form of aggression (see E. Segal). Indeed, the frequently cruel laughter at the Philistines gives vent to Israelite hostility—so much so that J. A. Wharton has aptly described these anecdotes about Samson as “resistance stories” (see especially 53–54). The narrative allows no place for remorse over the Philistine casualties of Samson’s pranks and angry outbursts. The comic spirit which animates these escapades does not permit us to pause over any of them long enough to ponder the potential tragic dimension before plunging us into another laughable adventure. Like the story of Isaac, we have a plot composed of a series of little U’s. Only in ch. 16, with Samson’s betrayal, blinding, and death does a tragic perspective threaten seriously to intrude. But here also the comic vision prevails. Immediately after the betrayal and blinding, we catch a glint of hope and a hint of victory which is to come: Samson’s hair begins to grow (v. 22). The clue to its direction planted, the comic movement proceeds, as we have observed, reversing the fortunes of our hero and his captors, and finally bringing about a victory for Yhwh and Israel.
3.26 A typical comic hero, Samson displays a remarkable absence of character development, a factor Milton was forced to alter considerably if his hero was to attain tragic proportions. We all know that the biblical Samson does not learn from past mistakes. This simple, if not simplistic, characterization is not a function of the short span of the story—only four chapters as opposed to the much longer narrative about Saul. One gets the impression that even if there were further Samson stories, they would be more of the same. Characteristics of the picaresque are evident not only in the episodic structure of the narrative but also in the hero who moves from one adventure to the next with little or no character development. In the end, of course, Samson is released from his “humor.” Whether or not he learned anything about himself or his mission in the process the narrative does not say. We may take our clue from other comic heroes that the freedom from an obsessive trait does not necessarily bring with it a deeper self-understanding (see Frye, 1965:79).
3.27 Whereas Samson’s insouciant, comic character does not develop (as was also the case with Isaac), Saul’s tragic one becomes a veritable battleground for opposing emotions and traits. Unquestionably Saul is a troubled man. His rigidity with regard to Jonathan (ch. 14), his suspicions of David and attempts on his life (chs. 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, and 26), his massacre of the priests of Nob (ch. 22), his random paranoia regarding the loyalty of family and servants (chs. 19, 20, 22) are all signs that something is amiss. The tragic hero is haunted by demonic forces from both within and without. We witness as Saul, driven by petty fears and jealousies, becomes a disintegrated personality, but most disturbing is the realization that the evil spirit which torments him and makes his plight even more desperate is the agent of none other than Yhwh. In this acknowledgement of the root of Saul’s distress, we discover why Saul alone of biblical heroes attains a truly tragic stature, and we reach the core of the tragic vision: the problem of evil.
3.28 In no other biblical story is the problem of evil so pressing and so uncompromising as in the story of Saul. Saul’s downfall is of his own making, and in more than one instance he has incurred the divine wrath. But whereas Saul is guilty, he is not really evil. The tragic vision gives rise to the uneasy awareness that the hero’s punishment exceeds any guilt. The question is not why is Saul rejected. That we know, regardless of whether or not we consider the rejection justified by Saul’s actions. The question is why is there no forgiveness.
3.29 Saul encounters God’s dark side in a way that Samson never experiences it, for Samson endures only a temporary abandonment. Saul knows the demonic side of God not only through divine absence, but also, paradoxically, through Yhwh’s persecuting presence, in the form of an evil spirit. In Greek tragedy, the hero faces an indifferent, arbitrary world alone. Saul, in contrast, knows the agony of rejection by the God whose aid he repeatedly seeks—the biblical God whom we expect to be trustworthy—and more, he feels directly the terror of divine enmity. In a turn of phrase as telling as it is disquieting, Samuel exposes the problem “Yhwh has become your enemy” (28:16).
3.30 Critics from Aristotle on have found various ways of formulating the problem of hostile transcendence, for it constitutes the essence of tragedy. Paul Ricoeur offers a particularly discerning discussion in The Symbolism of Evil, where he writes,
The tragic properly so called does not appear until the theme of predestination to evil—to call it by its name—comes up against the theme of heroic greatness; fate must first feel the resistance of freedom, rebound (so to speak) from the hardness of the hero, and finally crush him, before the pre-eminently tragic emotion—φόβος—can be born (218; cf. Frye, 1982:181).
It is hardly necessary to point out that when we speak of predestination to evil in the biblical story of Saul, we are not speaking of predestination in any simple sense, but rather as something undefinable and irreducible, and therefore all the more terrifying. Saul is caught between his own turbulent personality and the antagonism of God toward human kingship. He displays heroic greatness in his refusal to acquiesce to the fate prophesied by Samuel, taking extraordinary steps to hold on to his kingdom. A lesser man, a man without hubris, might merely accept his destiny. Saul, however, wrestles against it. Again, to borrow an insight from Ricoeur which fits the story of Saul admirably,
Without the dialectics of fate and freedom there would be no tragedy. Tragedy requires, on the one hand, transcendence and, more precisely, hostile transcendence … and, on the other hand, the upsurge of a freedom that delays the fulfillment of fate, causes it to hesitate and to appear contingent at the height of the crisis, in order finally to make it break out in a “denouement,” where its fatal character is ultimately revealed (220–21).
Yhwh rejects Saul on two occasions early on in the narrative, and while tormenting Saul with an evil spirit, proceeds to further the fortunes of his rival. Since a large part of the narrative develops the plot of David’s rise, we see Yhwh act simultaneously to subvert Saul and strengthen David. Saul manages to delay his downfall but not to avoid it. He rules some years after his rejection; there are signs that he still commands loyalty even though he himself doubts it (23:7, 23:19; 24:2; 26:1); he manages apparently to keep the Philistines at bay; and he even shows on occasion a conciliatory attitude toward David (19:6–7; 24:17–22; 26:21–25). Moreover, to the end, he seeks Yhwh’s counsel (ch. 28). But, as we have seen, he meets ultimately with divine silence and a crushing reiteration of rejection from the ghost of Samuel.
4.1 Tragedy confronts us with what R. Sewall has called “the terror of the irrational.” The tragic hero is the victim of forces she or he cannot control and cannot comprehend. Faced with an inhospitable world, the tragic hero encounters on all sides unresolved questions, doubts, and ambiguities (see Sewall, Steiner). In contrast to tragedy, the comic vision can tolerate the presence of evil, resolving the fact of evil into a larger, harmonious whole. Though comedy is no stranger to ambiguity and doubt, and on occasion catches glimpses of tragic despair, it mitigates their terror. Even death, as we have tried to show for the story of Samson, is not a serious threat, for out of death can come restitution and renewal.
4.2 The exceptional quality of Saul as a tragic hero heightens by way of contrast the more dominant comic movement of biblical narrative. The biblical world view of a harmonious universe with a benign deity results in a natural evolution toward comic resolution. As G. Steiner observes, tragedy is alien to a universe which operates according to principles of reason and unthinkable in relation to a deity who acts in accordance with the demands of justice (4–5). We suppose the ways of the biblical God to be rational and just and thus we expect biblical stories to turn out for the best. Here the stories of Isaac and Samson fit our expectations, and, as we have argued, are inherently comic, however much subsequent interpreters have attempted to transform them into tragedies. In the all-embracing comic vision of the Bible, it is the presence of tragedies, like that of Saul, and perhaps a Jephthah or a Jeremiah, not their absence which is striking. But their presence in the wider biblical story, like the presence of tragic moments in the individual comic stories, contributes to the fullness and richness of biblical narrative.
4.3 These three stories of a patriarch, a judge, and a king epitomize, in our judgment, the characteristic patterns of comedy and tragedy in the Bible. One cannot remain on the level of narrative genres to deal fully with comedy and tragedy. As we have implied in the title, “Reflections on the Comic and Tragic Visions,” and as we have sought to show in this study, comedy and tragedy express essentially different views of reality. It remains the task of biblical scholarship to delineate more precisely the interplay between the genres of comedy and tragedy and the differing visions of existence reflected in the concrete forms of biblical literature.
1980 “Laughter,” in Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Pp. 59–190.
1981 Ruse, Romance, and Resolution: The Comedy of Jacob, Unpublished Essay, Pomona College, Claremont, Ca.
1955 Tragic Themes in Western Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Coats, George W.
1980 “Strife Without Reconciliation: A Narrative Theme in the Jacob Traditions,” in Werden und Wirken des Alten Testaments. Ed. R. Albertz, et al. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Pp. 82–106.
Corrigan, Robert W., ed.
1981a Comedy: Meaning and Form. 2d ed. New York: Harper and Row.
Corrigan, Robert W., ed.
1981b Tragedy: Vision and Form. 2d ed. New York: Harper and Row.
Crenshaw, James L.
1978 Samson: A Secret Betrayed, a Vow Ignored. Atlanta: John Knox.
Culley, Robert C.
1976 Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Narrative. Semeia Supplements 3. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Exum, J. Cheryl
1981 “Aspects of Symmetry and Balance in the Samson Saga,” JSOT 19:3–29. Errata in JSOT 20:90.
Exum, J. Cheryl
1983 “The Theological Dimension of the Samson Saga,” VT 33:30–45.
Freeman, James A.
1982 “Samson’s Dry Bones: A Structural Reading of Judges 13–16”, in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, II. Ed. K. R. R. Gros Louis with J. S. Ackerman. Nashville: Abingdon. Pp. 145–60.
1964 “The Argument of Comedy,” in Theories of Comedy. Ed. Paul Lauter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. Repr. from English Institute Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948.
1965 A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
1966 Anatomy of Criticism. New York: Atheneum.
1982 The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Good, Edwin M.
1965 Irony in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster.
1983 Biblical Prose Prayer. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Greenstein, Edward L.
1981 “The Riddle of Samson,” Prooftexts 1:237–60.
1913 “Simson,” in Reden und Aufsätze. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Pp. 38–64.
1964 Genesis, 6. Aufl. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Gunn, David M.
1980 The Fate of King Saul: An Interpretation of a Biblical Story. JSOT Supplements, 14. Sheffield: JSOT.
Gunn, David M.
1981 “A Man Given Over to Trouble: The Story of King Saul,” in Images of Man and God: Old Testament Short Stories in Literary Focus. Ed. Burke O. Long. Sheffield: The Almond Press. Pp. 89–112.
Humphreys, W. Lee
1978 “The Tragedy of King Saul: A Study of the Structure of 1 Samuel 9–31”, JSOT 6:18–27.
Humphreys, W. Lee
1980 “The Rise and Fall of King Saul: A Study of an Ancient Narrative Stratum in 1 Samuel,” JSOT 18:74–90.
Humphreys, W. Lee
1982 “From Tragic Hero to Villain: A Study of the Figure of Saul and the Development of 1 Samuel,” JSOT 22:95–117.
1960 The Tragic Vision: The Confrontation of Extremity, vol. I of Visions of Extremity in Modern Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1971 The Classic Vision: The Retreat from Extremity, vol. II of Visions of Extremity in Modern Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1981 “The Tragic Vision Twenty Years After,” in Corrigan 1981b:42–46.
1981a “The Comic Rhythm,” in Corrigan 1981a:67–83. Repr. from Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner’s, 1953.
1981b “The Tragic Rhythm,” in Corrigan 1981b:113–23. Repr. from Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner’s, 1953.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr.
1980 1 Samuel. Anchor Bible, 8. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
1973 The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Preston, Thomas R.
1982 “The Heroism of Saul: Patterns of Meaning in the Narrative of the Early Kingship,” JSOT 24:27–46.
von Rad, Gerhard
1962 Old Testament Theology, vol. I. Tr. D. M. G. Stalker. New York: Harper & Row.
1967 The Symbolism of Evil. Tr. E. Buchanan. Boston: Beacon Press.
1977 The Old Testament and the Literary Critic. Philadelphia: Fortress.
1981 Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
1972 “Marlowe’s Schadenfreude: Barabas as Comic Hero,” in Veins of Humor. Ed. Harry Levin. Harvard English Studies 3. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pp. 69–91.
Sewall, Richard B.
1980 The Vision of Tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
1980 The Death of Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press.
1980 “The Meanings of Comedy,” in Comedy. Ed. W. Sypher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Pp. 191–260.
1981 “In Strange Ways: The Story of Samson,” in Images of Man and God: Old Testament Short Stories in Literary Focus. Ed. Burke O. Long. Sheffield: The Almond Press. Pp. 58–73.
1981 Genesis. BKAT. II. Teilband, Genesis 12–36. Neukirchen.
Wharton, James A.
1973 “The Secret of Yahweh: Story and Affirmation in Judges 13–16”, Interpretation 27:48–65.
Whedbee, J. William
1977 “The Comedy of Job,” Semeia 7:1–39.
1976 Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. New York: Random House.
Williams, James G.
1978 “The Comedy of Jacob: A Literary Study,” JAAR 46/2, Supplement B.
Apocalyptic as Comedy: The Book of Daniel
Edwin M. Good
Comedy is taken, in Northrop Frye’s sense, as a term of mythos, and as such it proposes literature in which the plot moves from happiness through disaster, real or threatened, to resolution in a renewal of society. Significant aspects of comedy are presented, with examples from classical and later Western literature. The Book of Daniel presents such a plot line in general, but also in its major parts. The stories (chs. 1–6) show an overall comic plot line, and each of them presents both a comedy in miniature and moments of humor. The visions, more ambiguous, are presented as partly comic (especially chs. 7–8) and partly verging too far into determinism for identification as comedy (chs. 9–12). Thus the article presents the Book of Daniel as mainly, but not entirely, comic.
0.1 “Comedy,” said L. C. Knights in the process of disentangling it from laughter, “is essentially a serious activity” (182). To connect comedy and laughter inextricably is to confuse the thing with an effect of it, a final cause or an experience. That a given experience of comedy involves laughter does not mean that every experience of comedy must involve it.
0.2 Laughter itself is not the way to define comedy, if only because other causes issue in laughter: physical ones like tickling, chemical ones like nitrous oxide, psychological ones like embarassment, contempt, or joy. “Laughter is only a symptom, and not a very reliable one” (Olson: 11). Many critics have denied that the comic need be overtly funny. There is not much humor in Dante’s Commedia, but no one within my ken has proposed that Dante mistitled his great work.
0.3 The distinction between comedy and laughter is necessary for my subject, for apocalyptic literature has not been noted as a great source of belly laughs. I shall show below that humorous moments and effects turn up in Daniel, but that is not by itself enough to establish the claim of comedy. Funny moments are to be found in tragedy too; perhaps one of the reasons that Hamlet is so inexhaustible a tragedy lies in its moments of humor.
0.4 Another sense in which comedy is sometimes called a serious activity is the insistence that it be socially significant. In the Philebus, Plato has Socrates argue that comedy exhibits vice and folly in order to expose them and to expunge them from society. It is the confusion of subject with effect again, and this one is if anything more damaging. Many comedies have certainly exposed vice and folly. Aristophanes detested the politician Cleon and portrayed him as a hateful fool in more than one play. The danger is that comedy becomes an agent of propaganda, and whoever is at any moment in charge of propaganda will determine which vices and follies may be exposed and expunged, with the effect that the really important ones will be kept off the stage.
0.5 Comedy is always in some way subversive, if only because it proposes a vision of absurdity and its resolution in a new or reconstituted society. In order to actualize the new age, the comic protagonists must overcome obstacles and opponents that may be potentially harmful and not merely stupid. For the comic resolution to have the maximum bite, the opposition must be a foe worth a victory. In any comedy with contemporary reference, it is very likely that the powerful will be alluded to in the portrayal of the opposition. What pleasure is there in putting down those already down?
0.6 To be sure, comedy sometimes does just that along the way. Roman comedy is full of slurs on slaves, and in some European comedies women are caricatured in the same ways. Perhaps that kind of keeping people in their places was what Aristotle had in mind when, in those enigmatic remarks about comedy in the Poetics, ch. 2, he said that tragedy presents people as better than in ordinary life, comedy presents them as worse. At the same time, the tricky slave who turns the tables on his master in the end is a staple figure in Roman comedy, and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (but not Beaumarchais’) is a comedy in which the men, excepting Figaro, are distinctly the losers, whereas the women without exception get what they wish. Yet the comedy in The Marriage of Figaro does not arise simply from exposing the Count’s philandering as a vice. One gets the impression that he will likely do it again before many months have passed. The comedy lies in the fulfillment of desire, the success of the lovers and their helpers in winning through to the marriage. Meanwhile there is enough potential tragedy by dint of ill will and stupidity to make the success pleasurable.
0.7 Thus just as there may be laughter in tragedy, there may be tears in comedy. Perhaps the two are not so far apart. At the end of Plato’s Symposium, after everyone else has either gone home or has passed out from drink as dawn begins to break, Socrates alone is still talking, arguing to Agathon, the tragic poet, and Aristophanes, the comic one, that anyone capable of writing good tragedy or good comedy is equally capable of the other.Aristophanes is the first to fall asleep during this lecture on comic theory, and Agathon soon follows.
0.8 That should be enough to put anyone on guard before any theory of comedy. A single-minded theory of anything has never appealed to me, and a splash in the bracing waters of comic theory has persuaded me that none of the theorists has definitively handled the subject. I must, however, identify, if not define, what I will take as comedy. Then we can investigate what is comic about apocalyptic, as it is exemplified in the Book of Daniel.
1. Comedy: Fragments of a Non-Theory
1.1 There are some holdouts against the idea that comedy originated in fertility ritual (e.g. Dover), but the structures and images convince me that a ritual origin works. Not that an origin is all we need. To establish the origin does no more than to identify a context in which the text’s intention may be comprehended. But as literature has a way of circling back to its origins, if Northrop Frye is right, comedy’s context in fertility rite may very well turn up where one would forbid it if one were thinking only of an author’s intention and not of the text’s intention.4
1.2 The ritual, as Cornford was the first to argue, had to do with the myth of the old king (or old year) who must be done away with in order that the new king (new year) might come to reign. It thus involved the decline of fertility, the efforts of the old king to hold his place in the face of his decline, the contest in which the new king was declared victor, his festive installation, and the renewal of fertility, which included a marriage, real or symbolic. The pattern is visible in many societies the world over.
1.3 Aristophanes was too mercurial a wit to be constrained within a pattern, but certain more or less constant structures in Aristophanes’ comedies cohere with the ritual pattern described. First is a prologue or exposition, in which the situation or the issue is described or exemplified by characters. The chorus enters, and in its presence and sometimes with its participation occurs the agon, the contest between the two major characters. The contest won, the characters leave the stage, and the chorus advances downstage and addresses the audience (parabasis) on a topic of the playwright’s choosing. After the parabasis, which divides the play into two parts, come three further structural members: a sacrifice or feast or both, some episodes in which the sacrifice or feast (or both) is interrupted by other characters, who are worsted by the protagonist, and finally the concluding festive procession (exodos) in honor of Dionysos. (On this structure see Cornford and, less clearly, Dover: chs. IV–V.)
1.4 Within this plot structure, the characters have their functions. It has often been said (see Cornford: 170–80) that tragedy was focused on plot, comedy on character. That is true enough in the sense that, as Old Comedy developed into the New Comedy of the Greek Menander and the Romans Plautus and Terence, stereotypical characters were evolved, such as the Angry Old Man (senex iratus) or Heavy Father, the Swaggering Soldier (miles gloriosus, the title of one of Plautus’ most famous plays), the Tricky Slave, the Parasite, and, of course, the Hero and Heroine. Such characters remain a major source of the comic tradition, as exposure to any episode of any television situation comedy will demonstrate. Several of these characters are extensions of the two basic contestants in the Aristophanic agon, namely the Ironist (eiron), frequently understated and self-deprecatory but always the winner, and the Imposter (alazon), who threatens the happy ending and ends up deflated and defeated. Sometimes a buffoon (bomolochos) and a rustic or churl (agroikos) are minor accomplices.
1.5 New Comedy developed the plot of Old Comedy to a more stereotypical structure, emphasizing the vicissitudes and triumphs of love. Fabula iucundi nulla est sine amore Menandri. So Ovid: “Never did charming Menander write a play without love in it” (Segal: xv, translating Tristia 2.369). The vicissitudes give rise to the triumphs. Unless the Hero and Heroine are separated, they can hardly be reunited, and the alazon types try to separate them, possibly forever. But by the aid of the eiron types, often a Tricky Slave, the fate worse than death intended by the alazon is averted, frequently at the last minute, and New Comedy usually ends with a marriage.
1.6 Granted differences, the two types of classical comedy have typical characters in common, and both have the same U-shaped plot, in which disaster threatens the people we cheer for but is overcome by the “brainy opportunism” (Langer: 331) of the eiron. In Old Comedy, the eiron’s triumph and the alazon’s defeat may be temporary, as in The Acharnians, where Lamachos, the alazon, hobbles off to have his wounds cared for while Dikaiopolis whoops it up with wine, women, and the song of Archilochus. But it is apparently permanent in The Frogs, when Euripides is left in Hades as Dionysos takes Aeschylus back to earth, and The Knights, where the Paphlagonian (Aristophanes’ vicious satire on Cleon) is degraded to the status of sausage-seller, called a pharmakos, and hounded off stage. The pharmakos carries the evils of the city as a “scapegoat,” and the term implies ultimate death for the Paphlagonian. If anything more interesting is The Birds, in which Zeus himself is the implicit alazon. Pesthetairos, having cut off sacrificial communication between humans and Mt. Olympus by his bird-kingdom, Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, starves the Olympian gods into submission and negotiates them into bestowing the goddess Basileia on him as consort. He is installed as a new god in Zeus’ place, holding Zeus’ thunderbolt in his hand: “Sovereignty from Zeus is taken, and the future shall be ours” (Aristophanes, 1978: 213). By contrast, the sophists in The Clouds have nearly persuaded Strepsiades that Zeus has been dethroned by Dinos (the “Whirl”), but at the end of the play the usurper is removed, and Zeus is restored to his throne.
1.7 The happy ending in festivity and marriage portrays a new society, or a newly constituted and rejuvenated old one, a return to a Golden Age. In the New Comedy pattern, the marriage (or marriages: in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, everybody gets married and goes off to Fairyland) is the triumph of the young lovers and their rebellious helpers over the elderly fusspots who, trying to maintain an outworn structure, have kept the hero and heroine apart. And exactly a structure is usually at the heart of the constricting society. The block to the comic rebellion is often an absurd or vicious law or decree: the law of compulsory marriage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the law permitting Shylock’s contract for a pound of flesh in A Merchant of Venice, the law that no fairy may marry a mortal in Iolanthe, the entire legal system run by the men of Athens in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, which the women take over in a kind of parody of the ideas in Plato’s Republic. Overcoming the absurd legal structure is necessary to liberate the society to its new form. Thus the comic resolution of a new society may be a resolution over time, in which the absurdities of the old are overcome and replaced, or a resolution in space, in which the new society is separated from the old, as in Iolanthe. On the other hand, when The Tempest begins, the new society is already in place in a world different from the old. The threat posed by the old world’s incursion into the new one is removed at the end, and Prospero heads back to Italy to transplant his new society to the scene of the old one, his lost dukedom.
1.8 Since any revolution threatens those against whom it is directed, one can see why comedy is so often full of violence. It may be the pretend violence of the Three Stooges or the amazingly ineffectual violence of the Roadrunner. It may be the beatings administered to Dionysos and Xanthias in The Frogs, Popeye’s heartfelt combat against the miles gloriosus or Punch’s against everyone in sight, the indignities visited on Joe Benjamin in Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite, or the ritualized violence against Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.It may be threatened violence that never comes off, like Shylock’s contract for a pound of flesh; burning at the stake in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning; boiling oil, decapitation, and being buried alive in The Mikado. Such episodes as the fiery furnace and Daniel in the lions’ den are by no means alien to comedy.
1.9 In European comedy on the whole, once the violence is overcome by the comic resolution, its perpetrators are chastened and received into the new society. There are exceptions. The melancholy Jaques does not turn up at the feast in As You Like It, not because he may not but because he is an unreconstructed “humor” to the end,and Ben Jonson’s Volpone “ends with a great bustle of sentences to penal servitude and the galleys” (Frye, 1957: 165). But the absurd Malvolio is taken back in Twelfth Night, as are the unpleasant Katisha in The Mikado and the unsavory Dick Deadeye in H. M. S. Pinafore. And Job’s imposterish friends are restored by sacrifice and intercession (see Whedbee:30). The new society embodies openness and freedom, where even the ridiculous and the sinner may be tolerated. And that openness, symbolized by the new beginning of marriage or of the rejuvenated social order, contrasts the end of comedy to the beginning, where the old order was closed, constricted, absurdly up-tight.
1.10 Such a differentiation is surely also that of Dante’s Commedia. Will is the controlling factor in the placement of souls in the divine economy. Those in Hell are there because their wills constricted them to self-love alone. The souls on the way to and in Paradise are opened out to the divine love that rules unconditionally in an order with which love’s freedom is not incompatible. There is nothing tragic about the souls in Hell, for their exclusion from light and love is their denial in self-will and self-love of the always youthful divine love in the realms of salvation.
1.11 Dante’s comedy transcends tragedy by overcoming self-will in the open-ended society of the last level of Paradise, where the divine love that rules in freedom is at once the focal point at the center of the Rose and the light arising from everywhere around the Rose, where center and circumference are one. The contrast between that expansive freedom and the narrowing funnel of Hell is complete. Reversing direction from descent to ascent at the lowest point in Hell, while continuing in the same direction, Dante and Virgil depart from the realm of fate and emerge in the realm of love. Down becomes up, and up continues up into infinity.
1.12 Perhaps Aristotle led us astray by separating comedy analytically from tragedy. Comedy presupposes tragedy by overcoming its blocking constraint, and comedy completes tragedy (cf. Sypher: 220). Perhaps it is not accidental that in Athens comedy was played after tragedy, the struggle and death of the tragic fate succeeded by resurrection in the cosmic resolution. Both Frye (1957: 181) and Sypher (220) rightly see the Biblical pattern as comic, the former in terms of the entire Christian Bible (see now Frye, 1982), the latter in terms of Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
1.13 With that cycle back to ritual foundations, and the reference to the Bible, we can now focus on Daniel as comedy.
2. Daniel: The Stories
2.1 It is commonplace to distinguish the stories from the visions in Daniel. At the same time, there are correspondences between Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in ch. 2 and the vision of the four beasts in ch. 7, and the Aramaic section overlaps the line between stories and visions. Still, from a literary point of view chs. 1–6 are narratives about Daniel, set rather loosely into a narrative frame. Given that differentiation of genres within the book, I will maintain the distinction.
2.21 The stories as a whole show an analogy to the structure of Old Comedy. I pointed out that structure above:
Prologue or Expository Scene
Agon or Contest between Eiron and Alazon
Parabasis (address of chorus to audience)
Feast or Sacrifice
Episodes of Interruption of Feast and Sacrifice
Processional Exit (exodos)
2.22 Dan 1 is an expository scene introducing the young Jews, who are placed in a controversial relation with the ruling powers and who win their point about the food. The tale of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (ch. 2) is a contest between the Chaldean incompetents and Daniel, who has access to the divine wisdom. The next tale, the Fiery Furnace, is also a contest between Nebuchadnezzar’s forces, who want the Jewish boys out of the way, and God’s forces, who keep them alive. Chs. 2–3, therefore, are a kind of double agon.
2.23 In the Aristophanic scheme it is time for the parabasis. And sure enough, though ch. 4 has a story about Daniel, it takes the form of a letter from Nebuchadnezzar to the entire world, relating his experience, pronouncing blessings on God, and confessing his own smallness. We then move to two scenes of interrupted feasts, Belshazzar’s demonic feast and its drastic interruption by the message from God (ch. 5) and Daniel in the lions’ den, a potential feast for the lions that is interrupted by divine power until Daniel’s accusers are provided for the meal (ch. 6).
2.24 There is no procession or marriage at the end of Dan 6, but I will argue later that a series or promotions for Daniel and his friends and of acknowledgements of God is analogous. In this all-male cast (the only women in the book are wives and concubines in chs. 5 and 6 and the queen in 5:10–12), the comic ending is not marriage but promotion to higher position.
2.3 It seems to me unlikely that this analogy of structure is evidence of cultural interchange or influence. The latter is not impossible, given the presence of Greek terms for musical instruments in 3:5, 7, 10, 15 (קיתרוס = kitharis; פסנתרין = psalterios; סומפניה = symphonia; and perhaps סבכא = sambuke, but most authorities think that sambuke was neither Greek nor Semitic in origin). The similarity between the metals of the statue in ch. 2 and the successive metal ages in Hesiod’s Works and Days is doubtful as a case of direct influence. We do not know whether comedies were performed or read at the Seleucid court, but even if they were, it is impossible to conceive that Jews of the ideological stripe of those responsible for Daniel would have seen performances or read copies. The structural analogy is no more than that, and I have no explanation for it. Perhaps the comic mind the world over simply runs in certain kinds of channels.
2.4 In the general structure of these stories, the members comparable to the agon and the interrupted feast are doubled. There is one expository scene and one parabasis. Interestingly, the Greek additions to Daniel fill those gaps. In the Theodotionic version of Daniel, the Susanna story precedes Dan 1 (in LXX it follows ch. 12). Susanna is another expository scene, presenting Daniel as the pious, wise young Jew within his own community before he is thrust into the Babylonian court. Likewise the second addition to ch. 3, the “Song of the Three Young Men,” is a long psalmodic exhortation to “Bless the Lord,” perhaps on the model of Pss 136 and 148. As it just precedes ch. 4, the “Song” could be seen as another parabasis, though its structural placement lacks elegance for this purpose.
2.5 If the whole of Dan 1–6 presents a comic pattern, the single tales are comedies in little. With one exception (ch. 4), each portrays a situation brought on by a decree or a law, each has its situation of danger or potential danger to the hero (in ch. 5 the danger is only implicit) and its blocking characters, and in each the conclusion is the removal of the dangerous situation, the restoration or promotion of the hero, and the elimination or discomfiture of the blocking characters.
2.61 The scene in ch. 1 does not propose danger to the heroes as much as it demonstrates a conflict between Jewish fidelity and an alien society. The inner group must stand true to its own law. It is being incorporated into the machinery of the pagan society (1:3–5), and its integrity is threatened by the court’s non-kosher food (v. 5a).
2.62 The selection process sounds like something Plato would have approved for his Republic. There seem to be three classes: Israelites, royal family, and nobility.All are “good of appearance (מובי מראה), skilled (משׂכילים) in all wisdom (חכמה), knowers of knowledge (ידעי דעת), understanders of learning (מדע), and strong enough to stand in the king’s palace” (v. 4). We find later that the four Jews are better at all of this than are their colleagues (v. 19), and when they are installed in positions, they greatly excel over the professionals already employed (v. 20). Do they not possess, among other things, the attributes of the trees in the Garden of Eden (except taste), especially of the tree of knowledge: “desirable of appearance” (Gen 2:9), “a treat for the eyes” and “desirable to bring skill” (נחמד … להשׂכיל, 3:6)? The allusion to the fruit of the tree of knowledge describes the boys subtly as forces that will cause Babylon to fall.
2.63 These select persons are educated in the “book and language of the Kasdim,” not merely written and spoken Akkadian but the occult books and learned terminology of astrology, that lore so characteristic that the name “Chaldean” was attached to its practitioners (2:2–10; 3:8; 4:7; 5:7, 11). Daniel and his friends “out-Chaldean” the Chaldeans (v. 20).
2.64 Now comes the potential danger for our heroes. The food in Astrologers’ Hall is unacceptable to boys who keep kosher, and the bureaucracy falls into a mild flap. The proctor (שׂר הסריסים) is unwilling to risk his neck, and the boys must apply to the third level of the administration, the מלצר, whoever he may be.He is willing to try a vegetable-and-water diet for ten days. What if the test is unsuccessful? If our heroes are forced to depart their strict law (Heaven forfend!), the point of the test is lost; if they give up their posts in the government, no story is left to tell. The comic pattern prevails, and they come out with better meat on their bones than their colleagues (v. 15). The מלצר may even reap the benefits of some profiteering on the side: “And the מלצר was lifting (נשׂא) the delicacies and the wine they were supposed to drink and giving them vegetables” (v. 16).
2.65 Not the diet but God’s intervention makes the boys the best scholars in the class, and Daniel is significantly good at dream interpretation (v. 17). The training period over and the royal oral examination passed with flying colors, the newly-fledged scholars are installed in positions (would that placement were so easy now) and certified as “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters.”It is only a bit odd that Nebuchadnezzar and other kings later forget about our heroes’ superiority.
2.71 The first agon, ch. 2, pits Daniel against the whole confusion of magicians. They are the alazones, while Daniel is the eiron (note his self-deprecatory remark: “As for me, not because of wisdom I have more than other creatures has this secret been revealed to me,” v. 30). It is uncertain whether the magicians are depicted as incompetent or simply as helpless before an impossible task. It depends on whether Nebuchadnezzar’s statement, מלתא מני אזדא (vv. 5, 8), means “the word from me is certain” (so RSV), “the matter is publicly known as far as I am concerned” (so Hartman and Di Lella: 138), or “the thing has gone from me” (so KJV). The first alternative, taking אזדא as an Old Persian loan-word, means that the king has decided to give his minions a severe test. The meaning of the second I cannot figure out, unless it be virtually the same: “I have made the decree publicly known.” The third, resting on an Aramaic verb אזד, “to go” (Montgomery: 145, 147, thinks it “most dubious”), means that the king has forgotten the dream. In that case, the experts are called on for something to which they are unequal.
2.72 The tradition of the impossible task is a long-standing staple of romance, down to such a hilarious parody of it as James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks. It is not absent from comedy, I think. Where in romance the wicked king often sets the task, in comic literature it is sometimes a powerful figure sympathetic to the hero (the Queen in Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse That Roared, the psychiatrist in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, the Queen in the Wife of Bath’s Tale) or a representative of the Good Guys (the movie Yellow Submarine). In Dan 2, the impossible task is the agon itself, and the court magicians’ failure gives rise to the typical comic device of the irrational decree (v. 12). Nebuchadnezzar falls into a rage, as a senex iratus ought to, and decrees the elimination of all the “wise men,” having previously threatened them with mayhem.
2.73 Daniel has been forgotten, though we know he is “ten times better” than any of the incompetents whom the king has consulted. But the king must neglect Daniel for the sake of suspense, because he is the eiron. And so he enters just as he is about to be swept up in the dragnet and killed for something in which he had no part (v. 13). “Why is the king’s decree so harsh?” (v. 15). The question at once undermines the irrational decree and establishes Daniel’s distance from the situation. His appointment with Nebuchadnezzar to give him the interpretation, which has unnecessarily bothered some commentators (e.g. Hartman and Di Lella: 139), is essential in the impossible task, because it commits Daniel beforehand to solving the riddle.
2.74 We need not pursue all the details of the vision and its interpretation. There is a delicious irony in identifying the Golden Age with Nebuchadnezzar, the tyrant who has exiled the chosen people and has now jeopardized the whole fraternity of wise men, irrationally including Daniel. In the context, it is grossly sycophantic.Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous reaction (v. 46) responds to the flattery of his identification with the Age of Gold. His first confession of the Jewish God (there are more to come) issues in his promotion of Daniel and the three associates as the start of a series. Daniel is made ruler of the district of Babylon and, as is only right, becomes the Provost (רב סגנין) of the college of wise men. His companions, who have done nothing to deserve the favor, are at Daniel’s request elevated to posts “over the administration” of Babylon. The perquisite of naming one’s friends to high position on assuming a new job is not peculiar to the modern age. Daniel, moreover, operates “in the king’s gate,” commonly identified as at the cabinet level of the administration.
2.81 The second agon (ch. 3) has nothing to do with Daniel but involves the other three Jewish heroes. The situation is motivated by the golden image that must be worshipped on pain of the “burning fiery furnace.” In the context, the image is surely Nebuchadnezzar’s self-important reaction to his identification in 2:38 as the golden head. The rash decree demanding worship of the image is typical of many comedies (Frye, 1957: 166). Nebuchadnezzar assumes the role of Wicked King much more directly than in ch. 2, and he is assisted by a gang of Chaldean toadies (3:8), astrologers who belong to that entourage of wise men over whom Daniel has just been elevated.
2.82 It is interesting that the narrator never says whether the malicious report given about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by these parasites is true, but the accused do not deny the charge (“We have no need to answer this question,” v. 16). As in ch. 2, Nebuchadnezzar falls into a rage when his perfectly rational question, “What sort of god can deliver you from my hand?” (v. 15), is answered, “Ours, of course.” The coolness of the reply is a stark contrast to the heat of Nebuchadnezzar’s anger—and of the fiery furnace—and it foreshadows the men’s success in keeping cool in the middle of the fire.
2.83 Nebuchadnezzar, impressed by the Jewish God, makes a new decree, that nobody may hereafter make negative comments about this God (v. 29) on pain of the same penalty with which he had threatened the dream interpreters in 2:5. This decree is an advance on the private remark the king made to Daniel in 2:47, not so much in its content (2:47 admitted that Daniel’s God was a God par excellence, אלה אלהין) as in its scope, for this is now a public admonition. Paired with the decree is the proper conclusion that the survivors of the furnace are promoted (v. 30), to what we are not told, nor does it matter.
2.84 The story is comic not only in its plot and certain of its characters but also in aspects of its style. One must at least smile at the exact repetition in v. 3 of the tedious list of officials in v. 2 (and the thought will not down that the list in v. 27 would have been complete had not some weary copyist decided, “Oh, to hell with it!”). By the time we have come to the fourth roster of instruments in the king’s band in v. 15, having gone through it in vv. 5, 7, and 10, we are likely to be laughing out loud in irresistible reminder of the refrain in Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” about the “twenty-seven × colored glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was.” Frye calls it “unincremental repetition” (1957: 168–69), and it often occurs in parody.
2.91 Ch. 4 is very different from the rest of Daniel, however similar in form to ch. 2 may be the dream and its interpretation. I have already noted that this chapter is presented as an open letter from Nebuchadnezzar to the world, relating his dream, his madness, and his restoration. The tale is about Nebuchadnezzar,and Daniel figures only as a secondary character, interpreting the dream that his underlings again cannot manage. At least this time Daniel is not required to dredge up the dream itself.
2.92 The arrogant king, living the life of ease, is given a year in which he could take Daniel’s advice to mend his ways (v. 24 [EVV 27]). Boasting of his power, he is turned out to the fields with severe lycanthropy for seven years, but on recognition of his limitations vis à vis the deity, he is restored to his kingdom. The king, then, is the miles gloriosus who gets his comeuppance and returns, well chastened, to reason. There is also, surely, humor in contemplating the great king, with hair like eagles’ feathers and fingernails like birds’ claws, subsisting on grass for seven years.
2.93 This is Nebuchadnezzar’s low point, his descent from being the golden head of an image to being out in the fields like an animal. But his career also has an opposite movement. From privately acknowledging God as a revealer of mysteries (2:47) to publicly decreeing him as a licit God in the empire (3:29) to confessing to the whole world that he is in charge of everything is historically incredible but comically plausible. It is also a surprise, for not until Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges God here do we think back to the sequence. From that point of view, the strong note of acknowledgement in 3:33 (EVV 4:3) weakens the impact of the end.
2.101 It is not easy to find a full-fledged comedy in Belshazzar’s Feast, ch. 5, because of its rather self-conscious and self-righteous tone. Yet the basic structure in Daniel’s part of the story coheres with the earlier ones. Belshazzar is an alazon, “the typical profligate and frivolous monarch” (Montgomery: 249), in using the vessels from the Jerusalem Temple for his banquet. That is alazoneia rather than hybris because, though Belshazzar carries his arrogance too far, he has not the stature that makes hybris tragic. His abject fright when the mysterious message is written on the wall is not a tragic hero’s reaction. Don Giovanni is much more courageous when the Commendatore’s statue appears at his door; Belshazzar behaves like Leporello.
2.102 The same contest of interpretation as in chs. 2 and 4 takes place here. As usual, the other omen-interpreters are incompetent, and, as usual, Daniel is forgotten until their ignorance has been exposed. The queen brings Daniel to mind, reminding Belshazzar that he had been Nebuchadnezzar’s head magician—perhaps Belshazzar had brought in his own Provost. But the delay in consulting Daniel, which has occurred twice before, strikes one in this chapter as a formula, and its effect is lessened.
2.103 Belshazzar handles the problem a bit differently from Nebuchadnezzar, replacing emphasis on the threat of mayhem in ch. 2 by an unconditional promise of reward for success. Daniel’s character as eiron is shown by his curt response to the promise: “Let your gifts go to yourself, and give your rewards to somebody else” (v. 17). In the event, he accepts them (v. 29), but before interpreting the portentous message, he takes the opportunity for a quite tedious sermon (vv. 18–23), contrasting Nebuchadnezzar favorably with Belshazzar. I am not as impressed with this “example of the preacher’s diction” as is Montgomery (261). The boring discourse rehearses Nebuchadnezzar’s glories in many more words than are needed, repeats the words of ch. 4 on his madness, and those of 5:3–4 on the present feast. The longer the monotony continues, the more acute is the delay in reading and interpretation of the divine message. (Recall Nebuchadnezzar’s impatience with his wise men in 2:8: “I know for certain that you are just trying to buy time.”) Even when Daniel gets down to business, it is with further repetitious verbosity: “Then from his presence was sent the whole hand, and this writing was inscribed (וכתבא דנה רשׁים). And this is the writing that was inscribed” (ודנה כתבא די רשׁים, vv. 24–25). Is that bureaucratic style, or is it a parody of it? I would prefer the latter, but the general tone of the tale makes me uncertain of it.
2.104 For all his panic and arrogance, Belshazzar makes good on his promise, even though the message bodes him no fortune. Daniel is promoted for the last time, to the third place in the kingdom, but Belshazzar is killed that same night. Curiously, Belshazzar simply believes Daniel’s reading and interpretation of the message out of hand. Besides being arrogant and frivolous, Belshazzar is gullible.
2.111 With Daniel in the lions’ den, we come to the cap of the comedy. In an administration reorganized by Darius, Daniel has one of the highest positions and is under consideration to be prime minister (6:4 [EVV 3]). The conspiracy of his governmental colleagues makes this a political comedy. One is reminded of Haman’s jealousy of the honors given Mordecai in Esther. Failing to find any actionable cause in Daniel’s official behavior, they are forced to look for it in his private life, specifically in his religion.
2.112 They propose to Darius an absurd, irrational law, a motif that has complicated the comic plot before. The absurdity is heightened by the legalese of the conspirators in v. 8 (7) and by the plea of the custom regarding the “law of the Medes and the Persians,” which cannot be altered in the slightest. We may wish to call out to Darius, as he agrees to put into force the law forbidding religious access to anyone but himself for 30 days, “Wait, Darius! Consult that fellow you’re thinking of making prime minister first.” Once again Daniel has fallen out of memory at the crucial moment. Here, oddly enough, the device does not seem formulaic as it did in ch. 5. The narrative situation of the conspiracy makes it more plausible.
2.113 Like the toadies in ch. 3, the conspirators expose Daniel to the king, pompously reminding him of the law. Alazoneia is spread all over the text here. Darius is portrayed sympathetically as twisting this way and that, trying to figure out how to get Daniel out of this nasty fix (Montgomery: 275 sees משׁתדר as “the picture of the animal caught in the toils”). But the conspirators again maliciously remind the king of the unalterable law (v. 16 [EVV 17]). Darius piously wishes Daniel the protection of God, and our text portrays his feverish anxiety during a sleepless night, without either women or song (דחון; cf. Montgomery: 277–78) to divert him.
2.114 All the greater is the contrast when, as early in the morning as possible, Darius dashes breathlessly to the pit and cries to Daniel. Daniel remembers his courtly manners, saying “O king, live forever” before announcing his good health (only Jeffrey: 446 has noted the comic contrast between the frantic king and his cool minister). His survival demonstrates his innocence by ordeal, and, as in Esther, the accusers receive the punishment they had devised. One hundred twenty satraps and two presidents, together with their wives and children, are tossed simultaneously into a pit to be instantly dispatched by an unspecified number of lions—hardly a large number, if the pit could be covered with a single stone (v. 18 [EVV 17]). That is one gorged pride of lions! Dan 6 is an excellent instance of comedy involving deliverance from “something which, if absurd, is by no means invariably harmless,” an action as close as possible to a “catastrophic overthrow of the hero” before it turns around (Frye, 1957: 178). Wylie Sypher, referring to comedy as a “Carrying Away of Death,” says that “originally, of course, these carnival rites were red with the blood of victims” (220). Not only here but also in ch. 3 corpses litter the landscape. In apocalyptic we have not moved as far in displacement of the myth as gentler comedies later would do.
2.115 The comic resolution of the absurd law comes about in Darius’ edict reconstituting the whole society (vv. 27–28 [EVV 26–27]). Not only does that edict complete the comic tale of ch. 6, but it brings to the climax the series of kingly responses throughout the stories (2:47; 3:29; 4:31–34 [EVV 34–37]). Darius goes beyond them all to decree that the entire empire “tremble and fear” before God. That seems as close as one can come to Darius’ conversion to a new god and the demand that the whole society follow in it.
2.12 The entire story, then, is a comedy of subversion from the inside. Beginning with prisoners of war co-opted for service in the overlord’s state, the tales of Daniel move from one triumph to another until he becomes one of a triumvirate ruling for Darius and is under consideration for elevation to the second position in the empire. And God goes from being unknown to Nebuchadnezzar (except as the occasion for some nice loot from the Temple) to being proclaimed the God of Darius’ realm.
2.13 This reading of the stories seriously undermines the notion that they were composed in order to stiffen Jewish resistance to persecution. In order to make that point, Rowley notes nothing but the threats to the Jewish heroes and their fidelity to the law (1947: 47–48). He fails to take into account the series of promotions given these resistance fighters or the increasingly wide-ranging acknowledgements that the pagan rulers give to the God whose people they are allegedly persecuting. Can such tales be told for the purpose of “pillorying Antiochus” (Rowley, 1947:48)? The code breaks down when each story comes to its comic ending.
2.14 No, the theory of Maccabean background and underground resistance will not do.Tales of Jewish success in pagan bureaucracies would hardly stiffen resistance when Jews who would take positions in the Seleucid state were turncoats. The progressive conversion of Mesopotamian kings would ill fit an age in which the regnant religious fact was Antiochus’ principled opposition to Judaism. This is the fiction of a world so different from the one in the streets outside that its impact is purely on the imagination. The Daniel stories present an escape fiction, a “what if?” world that never existed. On those grounds, the stories might strengthen Jewish resolve, by giving a vision of a world in which faith has its tangible rewards, the Good Guys are moved up the ladder of success, and the Bad Guys are either eliminated or brought around by reason and circumstance to being Good Guys. Perhaps the comic improbability of success makes these stories so appealing, the success in the face of every threat of a God who is acknowledged even by Nebuchadnezzar and Darius to be in charge.
2.15 God as comic hero? Not really. God is the Director, the offstage manipulator of the comic plot.That makes the plot no less comic, though there are hints of a kind of inevitability in the successive failures of mighty kings to have their ways with underlings. Yet that is the comic premise: the reversal will come, however delayed and unlikely it may seem, and the new society will be constituted on the rubble of the absurd one. By the end of ch. 6, the previously temporary reconstitutions of successive absurd societies have given way to what looks like a permanent new age, when the pagans have irrevocably, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, as it were, committed themselves to the God they have resisted all along.
3. Daniel: The Visions
3.1 I find no clear sequence among the visions. Each seems to be self-contained, though there are cross-references in the text (e.g., 8:1 seems to refer to ch. 7, 9:21 to 8:16, and 10:12 to 9:22–23). The numbers given for the time until the end may have some progression (e.g. 7:25; 8:14; 9:27; 12:7, 11–12). And some similar images (e.g., “little horn” in both 7:8 and 8:9, references to offering and desolation in 8:13; 9:27; 12:11) suggest that an editor worked at unifying the message. A rather formulaic chronology (7:1: first year of Belshazzar; 8:1: third year of Belshazzar; 9:1: first year of Darius; 10:1: third year of Cyrus) makes the visions overlap chronologically with the tales, the first vision preceding ch. 5 in time.
3.2 The visions, making a common reference to the end of the present misery and to a chronology that points, however obscurely, to the time of the end, are nevertheless quite different from one another. Chs. 7 and 8 are dreams received by Daniel and interpreted within the dreams by angels. Ch. 9, apart from its long prayer, is a visitation by an angel to interpret a prophecy of Jeremiah, while chs. 10–12 present a visitation by Gabriel that gives the details of the future up to the end itself. Almost all that these passages have in common as to form, then, is Daniel as receiver and angels as interpreters.
3.3 In each case we see the U-shaped plot line of comedy and hints of various alazon and eiron characters. And nuggets of humor may be embedded in prose that can be pretty stultifying. But it is best not to expect too much.
3.41 The vision in ch. 7 is the most famous. I cannot accept the contention of Hartman and Di Lella that chs. 2–7 form a chiasmus of mutual references,though it might conveniently account for the shift to Aramaic in ch. 2 and back to Hebrew in ch. 8, a problem that I have assiduously avoided and do not intend to solve. (Snell’s shrewd solution does not satisfactorily account for the reversion to Hebrew.)
3.42 Let us look at the vision in itself (vv. 2–14) before examining the angelic interpretation.The third-person introduction (v. 1) says that Daniel wrote the vision. We have, then, not a mere stream-of-consciousness transcript of the dream but a reflective narrative structured chiastically:
A Four beasts rise from the sea (v. 3)
B First three beasts described (vv. 4–6)
C Fourth beast described (vv. 7–8)
D Ancient of Days and court scene (vv. 9–10)
C’ Fourth beast killed (v. 11)
B’ First three beasts prolonged (v. 12)
A’ With clouds comes a human figure (vv. 13–14)
The A and A’ sections are also chiastic with each other: v. 3: (1) וארבע חיון רברבן סלקן (2) מן־ימא13: (2′) עם־ענני שׁמיא (1′) כבר אנשׁ אתה הוה
3.43 Among a great many uncertainties about this passage, not the least is the significance of the beasts. The first three are “like” a lion, a bear, and a leopard respectively. That also means that in some respects they are unlike those animals. Lions and leopards ordinarily lack wings, four-headed leopards are rare, and reference to Assyrian monuments do not help a great deal (e.g. Jeffrey: 455; Montgomery: 287, 289). The “lion’s” loss of wings and its being “set up on two legs like a man” and receiving a human “heart” look as if the lion becomes less like a lion and more like a human being. Is it better for a “lion” to approach human characteristics, or is that degeneration for a lion (cf. Jeffrey: 454)? The “bear” with three ribs in its mouth and לשׂטר־חד הקמת is also obscure. Does “set up (or made to rise) on one side” mean that the “bear” was getting up from lying down the way a bull sometimes does, by heaving up first one side and then the other (so Montgomery: 288)? That a bear should get up as a bull does seems very doubtful. Or is it “raised up on one end,” standing on hind legs—in effect like the “lion” (Hartman and Di Lella: 205)? That is a very odd way to say it. Or might it mean that the “bear” is “set off to one side,” i.e., not quite in center stage?
3.44 We cannot tell whether these beasts are in sequence from good to bad, or whether the sequence means nothing. The “lion” loses its wings and some of its leonine characteristics. The “bear,” having three ribs in its mouth, is told to eat yet more, a commanded gluttony that might show how terrible it is or that might kill it. The “leopard” undergoes no change but is given “dominion.” Perhaps the fact that these three beasts are dealt with as one unit in v. 12 means that the sequence is unimportant. Adding the fourth beast, there is a sequence of numbers: the “lion” stands “on two feet” (על־רגלין); the “bear” has “three ribs” in its mouth; the “leopard” has “four birds’ wings and four heads”; the fourth beast has “ten horns” (×; cf. Jeffrey: 455). What that sequence of numbers means I have no idea. Reference to the “x, x + 1” formula in wisdom literature seems to provide no clue.
3.45 The fourth beast reaches the bottom of the U-shaped plot. It is so terrible that it can hardly be described, except as having iron teeth and as trampling down the “rest” (שׁארא). The “rest” of the other beasts? The word is used of them at the beginning of v. 12. A “remnant” of Israel in the prophetic sense? I doubt it, but it is possible. Our attention is drawn then to the horns, because the fourth beast has an addition and a subtraction: an eleventh horn comes up and pulls out three other horns. It is “little,” but it has eyes and a mouth babbling,by contrast to its littleness, “great things.” The little horn is a quintessential alazon.
3.46 The contrast in the vision of the heavenly court is extreme. The sublimity of the fiery throne, streaming fire, surrounded by myriads of attendants, and occupied by a brilliantly white “old man” (עתיק יומין—not as portentous in Aramaic as “Ancient of Days” in English; cf. Montgomery: 297, 300), puts the little horn in perspective. And the brief but pointed “the court sat and books were opened” means that the career of the pretender to “great things” is at an end. We are not even told that the court goes beyond the legal preliminaries, perhaps reading the charges before the fourth beast is summarily done away with and its carcass flung into the stream of fire. Presumably the other beasts are also judged, for by having their lives prolonged for a while, they are under the court’s control.
3.47 There has been no eiron in this vision, but perhaps we now see one: the כבר אנשׁ. The comparative preposition, as with the first three beasts, gives us a “humanoid,” to use the word in its strict meaning rather than its usual science-fiction connotation. (This is not a vision of extra-terrestrial robots!) In contrast with the beginning of the vision, where winds stirred up the sea of chaos, here are the clouds of the orderly sky and a human-like creature instead of bestial ones, an acceptable holder of dominion rather than unacceptable ones, a permanent rather than a temporary rule. The deference before the court, the absence of pretense, the complete contrariety of the portrait to that of the fourth beast and its eleventh horn all suggest that the כבר אנשׁ, if not an eiron, the opposite of an alazon.
3.48 The old society, spawned by chaos and controlled by bestialities,has been replaced by a divinely-given human one, a permanent kingdom in a Golden Age. One wonders why Daniel suddenly becomes anxious and alarmed (v. 15). Perhaps this is a way of motivating his request for interpretation. In the visions, the angels take over Daniel’s prior function as interpreter. The receiver of dreams seems unable to interpret them—or else the dreams of Daniel, who easily interprets other people’s dreams, are too advanced even for him.
3.49 The interpretation presents a pattern that recurs, in different form, in two of the other visions (chs. 8 and 10–12, but not ch. 9): the interpreter gives a general or partial explanation followed by a fuller and complete explanation. Here the angel briefly outlines the main details in 7:17–18, but Daniel asks about the fourth beast and is answered in vv. 23–27. Similarly, Gabriel identifies the time to which the vision refers in 8:17, and after Daniel’s swoon he gives the entire meaning (vv. 19–26). In ch. 10, Daniel has a series of fainting spells, in the middle of which Gabriel partially explains the situation (vv. 12–14). When Daniel declares himself strong enough (v. 19), the details are given in chs. 11–12. After a three-week fast (10:2–3), we can understand that he got the vapors, but the story itself shows why he needed special strength. A more tedious narrative style than ch. 11 cannot be imagined.
3.410 In ch. 7, after the angelic interpretation, Daniel is if anything more alarmed (v. 28). The obvious reason to give is that the eleventh king is nearly successful. It “makes war with the holy onesand succeeds against them” until the court stops the process (v. 21), and it “weakens the holy ones of the Most High, … and they are given into its power for a time, two times, and half a time” (v. 25). Yet even with the assurance that all will be well in the end, Daniel is so alarmed that his color changes.
3.411 Perhaps the alarm comes from something other than the events.The angel’s interpretation has its difficulties. The initial, general interpretation (vv. 17–18) explains the beasts as kings (מלכין), but the fourth beast is a kingdom (מלכו, v. 23), and the horns are kings (v. 24) who “arise out of the kingdom” (מנה מלכותה). Second, the four kings in v. 17 “rise out of the earth” (מן־ארעא), but in the visions they came from the sea (מן־ימא, v. 3). If sea =earth, then for what is “clouds of heaven” (v. 13) a cipher? From whence will come the “people of the Most High’s holy ones” (v. 27) who, corresponding to the כבר אנשׁ, are to receive the kingdom? Yet the vision had said that the “holy ones” themselves received the kingdom. Some crucial parts of the vision are interpreted in more than one way by the angel, and others are not clearly interpreted. Is this the best an angel can do in dream interpretation? No wonder Daniel is alarmed.
3.5 It is unnecessary to go in such detail into the other visions. With ch. 8, we have symbolic beasts again and more horns giving way to a little horn that grows bigger (vv. 9–11). Again the low point is reached, and the end is in sight after 2,300 evenings and mornings (v. 14). As in ch. 7, the angel’s interpretation has some inconsistencies. The ram is two kings, but it is not clear in v. 20 whether they are two individuals, one Mede and one Persian, or two dynasties. מלכי מדי ופרס could mean either. The goat is also a king, his first horn apparently the same king. The two symbols mean the same thing. The succeeding horns are also kings, and one wonders why different images are needed for the same objects. Again Daniel is more than alarmed at the end. He is positively ill, requiring sick leave (v. 27), and he is “dismayed” (cf. 4:16 [EVV 19]) and “does not understand.” Perhaps that is modesty of the sort we see again in ch. 9, but, in going further than 7:28, it may be a comment on the fact that the interpretation is as obscure as the vision itself.
3.61 Ch. 9 is unique in Daniel. Daniel wishes to know the meaning of Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years of exile. In the exile in Babylon, the question makes sense on the supposition that Daniel, thinking that Darius’ coming might mean the exile’s end, asks about the 70 years and receives an answer entirely different from the one he expected. The long penitential prayer concludes with the wish that Yahweh do something quickly (ועשׂה אל־תאחר, v. 19). Disappointing it must be, then, to be told that 70 is 490.
3.62 I do not think that the angel’s interpretation of Jeremiah is comic. The somewhat humorous disappointment implied in the multiplication of 70 by 7 is not enough. Emphasis on the decree (חתן, v. 24; חרץ, vv. 26–27) turns the story into pre-determination. Only the determinant will has any force here, and I am not satisfied that comedy can be pre-determined from outside itself, even if the ending be a happy one.
3.7 Much the same must be said of chs. 10–12. The shape of the plot in the angel’s story is basically a comic one, and the unincremental repetition might make the narrative itself funny, with its constant repetitions of “king of the north” and “king of the south,” invasions back and forth, broken alliances, and grandiose but frustrated intentions. Yet the monotony goes on for too long and in too much detail. The remark in 11:34 may be a mildly humorous reference to the Maccabean revolt: “When they fall, they shall be given a little help.” It is very slim pickings indeed.
3.8 Such comedy as there is lies, I think, in the frame narrative. Gabriel tries desperately throughout ch. 10 to get Daniel to hear the story that is so urgent that he left an important encounter with Persia’s angel (10:13–14).On first sight of Gabriel, Daniel’s strength completely leaves him, and, though hearing the sound of the angel’s speech, he falls fast asleep with his face in the dirt (v. 9). An angelic hand gets him up on hands and knees (v. 10), and when the angel tells him to stand up straight (v. 11), he manages to do so trembling. Gabriel barely gets out a partial explanation of the situation (vv. 12–14) when the seer falls apart again, face to the ground and speechless. Now an angel (presumably: כדמות בני אדם, v. 16—cf. כבר אנשׁ) touches Daniel’s mouth to allow him to speak, but he can say only that he has no strength for this visitation. Another touch does the trick, and Daniel bids Gabriel go on with the story (v. 19). It is remarkable that Gabriel, who indicates that he is in a hurry, is so patient throughout this prolonged resuscitation.
3.9 Once the story is told, patience seems to run out. The final order to seal up the book (12:4) seems to be an ending. But we are not finished. In 12:5 begins a second ending, as Daniel questions two other angels. “How long?” receives the same answer as in 7:25. To “What is the end?” the response is a curt “Go along, Daniel, the words are stopped up and sealed until the time of the end” (v. 9)—no comment, the press conference is over, stop asking questions. Then the first question is answered again in two different ways, different from the answer in v. 7. From the worst case to the end is 1,290 days (v. 11; a month and a half longer than the three and a half years of v. 7), and blessings will greet those who persist to 1,335 days (v. 12; an extra month and a half). But Daniel is assured of his place at the end.
3.10 This second conclusion, 12:5–13, is a curiously weak ending to a strong book. Its additional questions weaken any effect the tale in 11:1–12:4 may have, reneging on details that have been put forth firmly and confidently before. And the impatient tone in which Daniel is dismissed at 12:9 leaves an odd taste in the mouth about this “man greatly beloved,” wisest in all Babylon. Yet one gets the impression that the weakening process started at ch. 8, with the second vision. The first, ch. 7, has a certain sublimity, but the second is too imitative. And when in ch. 9 the note of pre-determination becomes so dominant, interest in the story flags.
3.11 Why is that so? Kermode comments on “peripeteia,” the fictional device in which expectations are deceived: “Peripeteia depends on our confidence of the end; it is a disconfirmation followed by a consonance; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach the discovery or recognition by an unexpected and instructive route” (18). In Dan 9–12, the deterministic tenor promises no further disconfirmation, whereas even chs. 7–8, for all their confidence in the details of the future, could end with dismay, alarm, and sickness. On the other hand, within the very concreteness of chs. 9–12, and especially at the end of ch. 12, disconfirmations receive no succeeding “consonance,” no adjustment of the vision, and hence have only falsification of expectation. The end is so unsatisfactory because of the kind of expectation that Daniel sets up. Whereas the ambiguity of the entire narrative in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman makes possible our accepting the double ending as intriguing to the imagination, the fiction of the divine control in Daniel is such that the double ending is merely confusing.
3.12. Perhaps that is the narrative flaw in Daniel’s reception of the truth about the second century during the sixth. It works while Daniel participates in the Mesopotamian courts, and when, during his unbidden dreams, he inquires after the meanings of the events he sees. But when, in response to his prayer and fast, the revealing angel gives him the “future” stories within the story (chs. 9–12), the apocalyptic revelation ceases to be narrative and claims to be undisplaced myth.The angel’s narration is a purely verbal event, told to but not participated in by the receptor. And we have the problem with this myth that, though it claims to be revelation, part of it turns out to be history, and the part of it that is not history, we know, is not true. So the stories of the last chapters as related by Gabriel are more like pure thought than like fiction.35
4.1 The comic mythos works partially as an approach to Daniel. Most of the book, but not all of it, makes good sense as comedy. That’s all right. The ancient authors were not writing in order to adhere to my categories. Since theirs are not entirely accessible to me, I must make do with mine.
4.2 The failure of Daniel to cohere entirely with comedy does not mean that all apocalyptic fails. The Syriac Baruch and 4 Ezra succeed, I think, as does 1 Enoch, if the stunning passage in 71:14 be read according to the Ethiopic text: “You are that Son of Man.” There hero and visionary become one, and the seer is the participant par excellence in the events. The Apocalypse of John succeeds, because it comes out to a satisfactory ending.
4.3 Perhaps another factor makes the Apocalypse more satisfying than Daniel as comedy. The comic ending entails the establishment of a new society. In the visions of Daniel, the new society is portrayed most vividly at the end of ch. 7—which is not very vivid. Rev 21–22 portrays the new world in such a way that we recognize both its familiarity and its newness. It is not merely vaguely adumbrated, as in Dan 7. Though God is in charge, John’s Apocalypse avoids the determinism into which Dan 9–12 slips.
4.4 A failure of the imagination prevents Daniel’s visions from giving us a glimpse of the new society alive and functioning. One cannot say the same of the stories. Though details are few and comic resolutions swift, Dan 1–6 has an open-ended quality that allows us to project beyond Darius’ decree of the new god images of a new society that might live in terms of it. The visions in chs. 9–12 are too much occupied with the mechanisms of control and the details of trouble to look beyond them. Perhaps one should not expect too much of the first exemplar of a genre.
4.5 Even Revelation was not the culmination of the genre. No, I am not thinking of modern science-fiction. The capstone of apocalyptic was reached, in my opinion, in Dante’s Commedia.One of the great merits of Daniel is that, for all its flaws, it is prologue to Dante.
1964 The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs. Trans. with introduction by David Barrett. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
1973 The Acharnians, The Clouds, Lysistrata. Trans. with introduction by Alan H. Sommerstein. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
1978 The Knights, Peace, The Birds, The Assemblywomen, Wealth. Trans. by David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
1952 Daniel. 2d ed. Handbuch zum Alten Testament, 19. Tübingen: Mohr.
Charles, R. H.
1913 The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.
Collins, John J.
1974 “The Son of Man and the Saints of the Most High in the Book of Daniel,” JBL 93: 50–66.
Collins, John J.
1975 “The Court-Tales in Daniel and the Development of Apocalyptic,” JBL 94: 218–34.
Collins, John J.
1977 The apocalyptic Vision of the Book of Daniel. Harvard Semitic Monographs, 16. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.
Collins, John J.
1981 “Apocalyptic Genre and Mythic Allusions in Daniel,” JSOT 21: 83–100.
Cornford, Francis Macdonald
1961 The Origin of Attic Comedy. Ed. with Foreword and Additional Notes by Theodor H. Gaster. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Corrigan, Robert W., ed.
1965 Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co.
1981 Irenic Apocalypse: Some Uses of Apocalyptic in Dante, Petrarch, and Rabelais. Stanford French and Italian Studies, 21. Saratoga: Anma Libri.
Dover, K. J.
1972 Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Driver, S. R.
1922 The Book of Daniel. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: University Press.
1962 In Praise of Comedy: A Study in its Theory and Practice. New York: Russell & Russell.
Ferch, Arthur J.
1980 “Daniel 7 and Ugarit: A Reconsideration,” JBL 99: 75–86.
Frost, Stanley B.
1952 Old Testament Apocalyptic: Its Origin and Growth. London: Epworth.
1951 “Comedy,” in Corrigan 1965: 15–17. Repr. from Vogue, January, 1951.
1957 Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1982 The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Gammie, John G.
1976 “The Classification, Stages of Growth, and Changing Intentions in the Book of Daniel,” JBL 95: 191–204.
1976 The Book of Daniel. The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible. Cambridge: University Press.
Hartman, Louis, and Alexander Di Lella
1978 The Book of Daniel: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary. Anchor Bible, 23. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
1965 New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2. Ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher. Translation ed. R. McL. Wilson. Philadelphia: Westminster.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr.
1967 Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
1955 Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
Humphreys, W. Lee
1973 “A Life-Style for Diaspora: A Study of the Tales of Esther and Daniel,” JBL 92: 211–23.
1956 “The Book of Daniel,” in The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon), 6: 341–549.
1926 “On the Psychology of Comedy,” in Lauter 1964: 424–31. Repr. from Selected Papers. Hogarth Press, 1952.
1967 The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. London: Oxford University Press.
Knights, L. C.
1933 “Notes on Comedy,” in Corrigan 1965: 181–91. Repr. from The Importance of Scrutiny. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: New York University Press, 1964.
1964 Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: Schocken.
Langer, Susanne K.
1955 Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art. New York: Scribner’s.
Lauter, Paul, ed.
1964 Theories of Comedy. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Montgomery, James A.
1927 A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Daniel. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
1957 “Die Heiligen des Höchsten,” in Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament. München: Kaiser. Pp. 274–90. Repr. from Norsk teologisk tidsskrift 56 (1955), 146–61. English trans. by D. W. Ap-Thomas in Noth, The Laws in the Pentateuch and Other Studies. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967. Pp. 215–28.
1968 The Theory of Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
1968 Theocracy and Eschatology. Trans. S. Rudman. Richmond: John Knox.
Porteous, Norman W.
1965 Daniel: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. London: SCM.
Roth, W. M. W.
1965 Numerical Sayings in the Old Testament: A Form-Critical Study. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, 13. Leiden: Brill.
Rowley, H. H.
1947 The Relevance of Apocalyptic: A Study of Jewish and Christian Apocalypses from Daniel to the Revelation. 2d ed. London: Lutterworth.
Rowley, H. H.
1959 Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires in the Book of Daniel: A Historical Study of Contemporary Theories. Cardiff: University of Wales Press Board.
Russell, D. S.
1964 The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic: 22 B.C.–A.D. 100. Philadelphia: Westminster.
Scott, Nathan A., Jr.
1961 “The Bias of Comedy and the Narrow Escape into Faith,” The Christian Scholar 45: 9–39.
Segal, Erich, tr.
1969 Plautus: Three Comedies. New York: Harper & Row.
Snell, Daniel C.
1980 “Why is There Aramaic in the Bible?” JSOT 18: 32–51.
1956 “The Meanings of Comedy,” in Comedy. Ed. W. Sypher. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. Pp. 193–258.
Whedbee, J. William
1977 “The Comedy of Job,” Semeia 7:1–39.
Tragedy and Comedy in Hosea
Martin J. Buss
The poetic forms of tragedy and comedy contribute to the prophecy of Hosea by representing the quality of actual and potential forms of existence. A tragic mood expresses sympathy with the downfall of the nation. Comic elements, in a distancing mode, make fun of the people’s foolishness and, in an integrative form, express joy in a new relation with God. An ironic tension holds together positive and negative impulses. Resolution is to come in the realization of love as the fulfillment (end) of human life and divine purposes.
1. Poetic Forms
1.1 The possibility that tragedy and comedy appear in the book of Hosea implies the question whether this prophecy is poetic. It is clear that Hosea employs some of the devices of poetry, such as rhythm and symbolism. Poetry, however, is not to be identifed with meter or other stylistic features, but with the creative representation of qualities, or forms of existence. Qualities are general, not limited to particular events, and include imaginative possibilities. Their representation embodies significant feelings and facilitates human transformation at a fundamental level.2 Poetry in this sense indeed plays a major role in Hosea’s prophecy.
1.2 One of the striking features of biblical prophecy lies in its focus on the deepest levels of human existence. Beyond aid to pragmatic decision making regarding limited problems, it is concerned with the basic movement of life and thus with the final question of whether the vicissitudes of existence have a solution (an “End”).Poetry alone cannot give an answer to this question, because its inspired insight is open-ended, but it forms an integral part of prophecy by expressing patterns of actual and potential situations.
1.3 Indeed, the poetic dimension often interacts with the nonpoetic. Although Aristotle has distinguished between poetics and rhetoric in an insightful manner, others before and after him have found that a dividing line between them cannot be sharply drawn (cf. Kennedy). Theoretically, one may say that poetry aims to represent while rhetoric seeks to persuade or that poetry is an end in itself while rhetoric is a means to an end. Yet in a particular work the two may be combined and devices appropriate to one can be employed by the other. Since complexity, within limits, is a positive value, there is no reason to prefer a pure form.
1.4 Within poetry, specifically within its dramatic form, two major genres, comedy and tragedy, have traditionally been identified. As ideally conceived (cf., e.g., Nicoll), they are characterized by a set of contrasts. Tragedy is concerned with death, suffering, and isolation; comedy with life, love, liberation, joy, and integration. Tragedy focuses on fate and plot, which often contain an element of inevitability; comedy describes character types and is full of surprises in the details of its development. Tragedy is serious, including among its repeated figures a prophet, who may also be a critic (Frye: 216, 218); comedy is playful (Berlyne: 803) and may parody the sacred.
1.5 Tragedy and comedy, while contraries, are not contradictories. They share a number of features, such as incongruity and the presence of ignorance prior to “recognition.” They can be combined either through alternation or, perhaps more profoundly, through a view in which the sweet is also bitter and hate close to love; such a conjunction reflects the joint presence of comedy and tragedy in life (Hoy: 284; Philo, Philebus, 50b). Comic and tragic perspectives heighten each other’s effects in tragicomedy and are held together in an ironic vision (Guthke: 57–58; Muecke: 18–19, 33). Most comprehensively, they find their union in religion (Kierkegaard, 1940: 399). Pure tragedy tends to arise from a demise of faith, as in Euripides, while comedy by itself implies that existence is laughable (Baden: 34–118; Kerr: 145–46, 339; Kaufmann: 165).
2. Tragedy in Hosea
2.1 In Hosea, tragic expressions appear especially in nondivine words, that is, when God is not represented as speaking in the first person. In these words, the prophet acts somewhat like an observer (or chorus) who comments upon the interaction between God and Israel. Divine speech expresses love and hate in highly personal and symbolic terms (e.g., “they speak lies against me,” 7:13, “I am as a wild lion to Ephraim,” 5:14). The prophet himself presents more specific visualizations and not infrequently sounds a lamenting or scornful tone. In identification, the prophet oscillates. Sometimes he resonates with the hurt of the people; more frequently, the divine opposition also becomes his own (cf. Williams: 65).
2.2 Tragedy involves, essentially, a sympathetic participation in terror.The sympathetic element need not always imply approval (King Lear, for instance, is hardly approved); but in the dramatic process of a tragedy, the observer identifies to some extent with the suffering hero. The dimension of terror is easily discerned in Hosea, for instance in this announcement, stylized but intentionally horrible: “Their sucklingsqiwill be dashed, their pregnant women rent open” (14:1; cf. 10:4). The degree of sympathy is less clear. Can one, however, not hear the rending of a heart in the following words: “Crushed is Ephraim, broken in judgment” (5:11); “Ephraim must bring forth his children to the slayer” (9:13)?An element of lament appears to enter the images of Israel’s worthless condition, seen as a “cake unturned” and moldy (7:8–9), a “warped bow” (7:16) and an “undesirable vessel” (8:8).
2.3 Especially notable, and typical of tragedy, is the theme of a fall: “All their kings have fallen” (7:7); “a foolish people comes to fall with a whore” (4:14); and, encouragingly, “Turn, Israel … for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (14:2). Allied to this, though apparently expressed with less pity, is the motif of a loss of desired objects (9:6; 13:15). Hosea points to the shame the people will experience—both in their own eyes (10:6) and as objects of derision (7:16). He pictures the future mourning and wailing over the calf image when it is removed (10:5) and enters imaginatively into the people’s feeling in their destruction; the anticipated debacle is so great that the survivors will ask mountains and hills to cover them (10:8). The fall is brought about in part by pride (5:5; 7:10) and ignorance (lack of knowledge of God, 4:1; 5:4), common tragic faults.
2.4 Tragedy often includes a sense of inevitability. In Hosea, this appears in declarations that the nation is caught: the people’s deeds keep them from turning (5:4); if they do turn, they cannot find God, who has withdrawn (5:6—the withdrawn God is a tragic motif, Frye: 216). More paradoxically, inevitability enters into the recurrent theme that Israelites seek their own evil: they love ignominy (4:18); they insist on worthlessness (5:11) and pursue the wind (12:2). Here the determining fate is internal and identical with character, so that the prophetic speech shades over into pure denunciation, or, if ironic, into comic scorn.
3. Distancing Comedy
3.1 Comedy has two aspects: one can “laugh at” some one or “laugh with” some one. The former is distancing, while the latter is integrative. Distancing humor exposes foolishness or expresses glee over an enemy’s fall, supporting a sense of one’s own superiority over the other. Like integrative humor it expresses joy, but one’s own advantage is at another’s expense. Frequently the two kinds are applied to different persons within one drama. It is, however, possible to direct both kinds of laughter toward the same object; if this object is oneself or one’s own group (as frequently happens in “Jewish humor”), the laughter expresses self-transcendence together with self-acceptance. In Hosea, distancing humor plays a major role in the prophet’s own words about the nation and appears occasionally in divine speech.
3.2 The foolishness derided by Hosea involves the pursuit of superficial values and limited powers in preference to a relation with the real God. A biting image employed is that of a contrast between prostitution and love—relations of quite different qualities. Comedy, similarly, has often pictured a conflict between money or pragmatic considerations and eros. The preferability of love is declared in the Song of Songs (8:7): “If a man were to give all the possessions of his house for love, he would be an object of scorn.” The conflict in the book of Hosea is not one between a false Canaanite and a true Israelite culture, for the Canaanite god El is even identified with Yahweh (11:9), but it includes an opposition between devotion to lower deities (“Baals”) and allegiance to the high god, who in the history of religion often stands beyond ritual and takes a larger view of life than the self-centered concerns of human beings.
3.3 Thus Hosea mocks ritual actions, including those of Israelite tradition, doing so in part through understatement. The people sacrifice under the terebinth “because its shade is good” (4:13)—what a superficial advantage! They “love raisin cakes” (3:1); “they sacrifice meat and eat” (8:13)—good tasting food is the object. Especially great stupidity lies in the employment of powerless means. The images are made of gold and silver by human artisans (8:4, 6; 13:2); revelation is sought from pieces of wood (4:12, Yahweh may here be speaking). Look at the people’s foolish appearance! “Humans kiss calves” (13:2); Ephraim is “a companion of idols” (4:17).
3.4 The same attitude is taken toward politics. Both Israelite and foreign kings are weak. “Where is now your king, to save you …?” (13:10, probably God speaking). Social leaders are compared to a burning oven, senselessly devouring the political system (7:4–7). Like a silly dove Israel turns to other nations (7:11), seeking healing where it cannot be found (5:13).Ephraim is a lonely wild ass which hires foreign countries as lovers—instead of, like a good prostitute, being paid by them (8:9). He does not even realize that strangers have eaten his strength (7:9). Utilizing proverbial expressions, Hosea expressly declares Israel foolish (4:11; 13:13; cf. Seow).
3.5 A favorite device of critical laughter is to parody a person’s actual or hypothetical expressions. Israel is represented as saying in a bragging, confident fashion: “I have found wealth for myself;” this cheatingly acquired gain, it is announced, will disappear (12:9). Elsewhere in the same chapter, sacred traditions concerning Jacob are parodied in a somewhat playful fashion. It seems that parts of these recitations (vss. 4–7, 10–11, 13–14) antedate Hosea as a form of Jewish humor and were adapted by him;Hosea combines these traditions with sharp criticisms and threats, employing word repetitions to this end.12
4. Ironic Tension
4.1 Contrary impulses, including comic and tragic aspects, can be joined in irony. Irony stands at a distance, but is not alienated from the phenomena observed. The contraries may lie within a statement (contrasting literal with intended meaning), in a view of reality (with a paradoxical union of opposed processes), or in a complex attitude (combining, for instance, detachment with sympathy). Irony is often funny and sad or serious at the same time. Because of its comprehending and transcending character, it has been considered by Romantics as a divine perspective. In the book of Hosea irony indeed appears primarily on the lips of Yahweh.
4.2 The extent of verbal irony in Hosea is difficult to determine, in part because of the presence of numerous linguistic and textual difficulties. It is usually possible to determine the general meaning of a passage, but the precise sense of individual statements is often uncertain. Perhaps most clearly, double meaning appears in 13:14. Here God declares: “From Sheol I will redeem them …” The context speaks against the possibility that this is a genuine promise. Thus, unless one interprets the sentence contrary to its normal sense, it needs to be regarded as being expressed with a “Ha!”—in contrast to a liturgical expectation (cf. Ps 49:16).
4.3 A paradoxical union of attitudes occurs in Hosea’s naming of Gomer’s children, at divine command. (Fortunately, the historical questions revolving around this account are largely irrelevant to its meaning.) The name Jezreel is by itself enigmatic, open to a variety of interpretations (1:4; 2:3, 23). In the case of the other two names, their content (“Not-pitied,” “Not-my-people”) stands in contrast with the naming process. The latter two children are, as “children of whoredom,” of at least doubtful paternity.Hosea, by giving them names, accepts them into his family.15Yet the names themselves say the opposite. Together with the appended interpretations, they designate an absolute rejection, although the fact that they are given at all implies a definite involvement.
4.4 In a similarly paradoxical fashion, Hosea “loves” an adulterous woman, according to Hosea 3. He acquires her, at divine direction, but does not make love to her. This action is somewhat more positive than the naming of the children, since a disciplinary intent appears to be implied. Less strange, but also showing an intimate connection between judgment and concern, is God’s controversy with his “wife” (2:4–15). The predicted punishment includes, with an ironic twist, a “rest” (שבט) from sabbath celebration (2:13).
4.5 The movement of history is viewed as being involved in an ironic interplay between the positive and the negative. “The more I called them, the more they went away from me” (11:2). When Yahweh fed the Israelites, “they became full, lifted their hearts, and therefore (!) forgot me” (13:6). Thus the divine care itself contributes to Israel’s turning away. Fortunately, the opposite can then also be expected to be true. The coming catastrophe, with a return to Egypt (8:13; 9:3, 6; 11:5) will provide the basis for a new beginning. The “therefore” of Hos 2:16 (cf. Clines: 86) expresses both threat and promise, for in the desert, into which Israel will be led, “I will speak to her heart”; it is “there” that “she will answer me” (2:17). This then becomes a happy irony which points to the fulfillment of the divine goal, in which the comic element is stronger than the tragic.
5. Integrative Comedy
5.1 Comedy frequently concludes with a victory of love. On the way toward this, it typically includes throughout a strongly erotic tone. Hosea is clearly ambivalent toward sexuality. Sexual rituals are condemned (4:14). But his representation of God as lover incorporates the erotic dimension. The vision of a new life set forth in 14:6–9 pictures a garden, with imagery close to that of the Song of Songs and exhibiting the theme of fertility. It is possible, although not certain, that the image of a love goddess enters into Yahweh’s self-description here, since the tree (vs. 9) is usually the symbol of a feminine deity.
5.2 Fully integrative comedy typically ends in marriage, harmonizing personal and social values. Similarly, for Hosea, Yahweh acts as Israel’s husband. In a moving address to Israel, God announces the new establishment of a marital relationship, offering gifts of rightness, care, and faithfulness (2:21–22). More concrete advantages are also promised in words which speak of Israel in the third person—the form symbolizing a less personal approach; they are probably to a large extent secondary, but can be regarded as complementary (2:20, 22–23; 11:10–11). The picture of a garden in 14:6–9 (with both direct and indirect address) at least hints at practical values.
5.3 A comic conclusion typically relies heavily on developments that cannot be well justified rationally. This feature applies clearly to Hosea’s promises (which employ almost entirely divine speech). Yahweh’s redemption of Israel is based on a free decision (14:5), on irrational, or nonrational, love. One can indeed find a reason in divine consistency, once the basic concern is granted; God’s purpose would be frustrated if what was created is then destroyed (11:1, 9). At the same time, Israel’s freedom and integrity are preserved. Although strong steps will be taken, “I will seduce” (not force) “her” (2:16). After all, the new order is to be one of genuine love.
6. Union in Prophetic Speech
6.1 Comic and tragic elements appear in Hosea’s prophecy intertwined with one another as aspects of a larger whole. The mood of tragedy is appropriate to the current enmity between God and Israel. Comic elements satirize deviations from what is good for human beings and present positively the continuing love of God. These two aspects still, however, do not exhaust the character of Hosea’s prophecy. Divine anger is expressed in a manner more direct and sharp than the tragic vision of the sympathetic observer. Divine love has a dedication more serious than the playfulness typical of comedy. The human turning, after judgment, is more drastic than is normal for either tragedy or comedy, although it certainly involves “recognition”.20 Hosea’s prophecy thus both includes and transcends comic and tragic attitudes.
6.2 It has been argued that tragedy and comedy are connected with ancient ritual, which contains both lament and joy.If so, these literary forms are closely associated with the cultic processes of Hosea’s surroundings. Hosea, while he was critical, was not unaccepting of notions held by others, as his use of the image of a divine marriage clearly shows. His vision of a perfection to come, in fact, is related ironically to the movement of the present situation. It is only by accepting the present with the creative and opposing work of God within it that one can be led to a new form of existence. The emotional structures presented in tragic and comic expressions can create a resonance contributing to the realization of love, the fulfillment (or “end”) of life.
Andersen, Francis I., and Freedman, David Noel
1980 Hosea. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Baden, Hans Jürgen
1948 Das Tragische. Berlin: de Gruyter.
1982 Gomer. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
Berlyne, D. E.
1969 “Laughter, Humor and Play,” in The Handbook of Social Psychology, 2d ed., III. Ed. Gardner Lindzey and Elliot Aronson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Pp. 795–852.
1978 The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Buss, Martin J.
1969 The Prophetic Word of Hosea. Berlin: Töpelmann.
Buss, Martin J.
1976 “Prophecy in ancient Israel,” IDB, Suppl., 694–697.
Buss, Martin J.
1979 “Understanding Communication,” in Encounter with the Text. Ed. M. Buss. Philadelphia: Fortress. Pp. 3–44.
Buss, Martin J.
1980a “Principles for Morphological Criticism,” in Orientation by Disorientation. Presented in honor of William A. Beardslee. Ed. Richard A. Spencer. Pittsburgh: Pickwick. Pp. 71–86.
Buss, Martin J.
1980b “The Social Psychology of Prophecy,” in Prophecy. Essays presented to Georg Fohrer. Ed. J. A. Emerton. Berlin: de Gruyter. Pp. 1–11.
Clines, David J. A.
1979 “Hosea 2: Structure and Interpretation,” in Studia Biblica 1978, I. Ed. E. A. Livingstone. Sheffield: JSOT. Pp. 83–103.
Coote, R. B.
1971 “Hosea XII,” VT 21:389–402.
Coote, R. B.
1974 “Hos 14:8: ‘They Who Are Filled with Grain Shall Live,” JBL 93:161–173.
1981 Poetry and Literature. Tr. G. Gullace. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
1977 Die Anspielungen auf die Jakob-Tradition in Hosea 12, 1–13, 3. Echter.
Emmerson, Grace I.
1974 “Fertility Goddess in Hosea IV 17–19?” VT 24:492–497.
1940 Gesammelte Werke, VI. Frankfurt: Fischer.
Friedman, Mordechai A.
1980 “Israel’s Response in Hosea 2:17b: ‘You are my Husband,” JBL 99:199–204.
1957 Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gaster, Theodor H.
1961 Thespis, 2d ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Giese, Peter Christian
1974 Das Gesellschaftlich-Komische. Stuttgart: Metzler.
Ginsberg, Harold Louis
1971 “Hosea,” Encyclopedia Judaica, VIII. Cols. 1010–1024.
1982 “Calf, Cult, and King: The Unity of Hosea 8:1–13”, BZ, n.s. 26:83–92.
1969/70 “A Textbook Case of Adultery in Ancient Mesopotamia,” HUCA 40/41:33–34.
Guthke, Karl S.
1966 Modern Tragicomedy. New York: Random House.
1964 The Hyacinth Room: An Investigation Into the Nature of Comedy, Tragedy, & Tragicomedy. New York: Knopf.
Hunter, A. Vanlier
1982 Seek the Lord! Baltimore, Md.: St. Mary’s Seminary & University.
Hvidberg, Fleming Friis
1962 Weeping and Laughter in the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill.
Janzen, J. Gerald
1982 “Metaphor and Reality in Hosea 11”, Semeia 24:7–44.
1980 “Gott und Geschichte im Alten Testament,” EvTh 40:381–396.
1981 “Ich bin wie ein Löwe für Efraim’ (Hos 5, 14),” in “Ich will euer Gott werden.” By Norbert Lohfink et al. Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk. Pp. 75–95.
1968 Tragedy and Philosophy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Kennedy, George A.
1980 Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
1967 Tragedy and Comedy. New York: Simon and Schuster.
1940 Stages on Life’s Way. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1941 Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1787 Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. London: Johnson.
Mace, David D.
1953 Hebrew Marriage. London: Epworth.
Mays, James Luther
1982 “Response to Janzen: ‘Metaphor and Reality in Hosea 11”, Semeia 24:45–51.
Muecke, D. C.
1970 Irony. [London]: Methuen.
1937 The Theory of Drama. London: Harrap.
Peirce, Charles Sanders
1931–58 Collected Papers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
1962 Jewish Wit. New York: Gamut.
1982 “Le Livret d’Osée 1–3”, Revue des sciences réligieuses 56:159–178.
1982 “Erwägungen zur Kompositions-und Redaktionsgeschichte von Hosea 1–3”, BZ, n.s. 26:208–223.
Seow, C. L.
1982 “Hosea 14:10 and the Foolish People Motif,” CBQ 44:212–224.
1930 The Nature of Comedy. Boston: Badger.
1975 “Textual Problems in Amos and Hosea,” VT 25:500–524.
Thompson, Michael E. W.
1982 Situation and Theology. Sheffield: Almond.
1980 Hosea. Prophet vor dem Ende. Freiburg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag.
Via, Dan O.
1975 Kerygma and Comedy in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Ward, James M.
1982 The Prophets. Nashville: Abingdon.
1976 Das Mahnwort. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
Williams, James G.
1977 “Irony and Lament: Clues to Prophetic Consciousness,” Semeia 8:51–74.
Tragedy and Comedy in the Latter Prophets
Norman K. Gottwald
New York Theological Seminary
The fifteen books of the Latter Prophets are structured as comedy rather than tragedy, since salvation has the last word over judgment. Analysis of plot, thematic and stylistic patterns, and role of the hero by means of comic and tragic literary categories illuminates aspects of prophecy on a broadly comic-tragic continuum, but this exercise also exposes anomalies attributable to the peculiarities of prophetic discourse. Prophetic books as a whole are not coherent narratives, but mixtures of genres written compositely over centuries of time. Consequently, prophecy is an off-centered combination of commentary and advocacy concerning how current situations relate to an implied narrative about Israel’s history and its relation to an implied God. The implied narrative behind the completed books of prophecy is that both Israelite kingdoms were destroyed but that the national identity continued both in a restoration to Palestine and in a thriving Jewish life in dispersion, and, furthermore, that this destruction and restoration is the work of Israel’s God. In order to evaluate the complex tradition-historical and redactional contributions to prophecy’s way of enfolding tragedy within comedy, the prophetic books must be read referentially in their social structural contexts.
0.1 One ventures into virgin territory in attempting to assess biblical prophecy in the light of tragic and comic literary categories. The undertaking is murky from the start if only because tragedy and comedy usually take a narrative literary form, and, while there are narratives in the prophetic books, the works as a whole are not narrative. What makes the application of tragic and comic categories to prophecy at all possible is that the prophetic writings are a kind of occasion-oriented commentary on an implied narrative. This implied narrative is the ever-moving point of juncture between Israel’s remembered past viewed as an arena of the judging and saving work of God and the specific events unfolding within the immediate milieu of any particular prophet. The prophet ventures an “interreading” between what has gone before and what is transpiring in the present in order to find the key to the meaning and requirement of current ambiguous and unfinished happenings. Throughout this assertive reading of events, the prophet has advocacy in mind, unabashedly appealing for certain attitudes and actions and decrying others.
0.2 The “inspiration” of the prophets consists in their authoritative synthesis of a tradition-drenched reading of history and a sharp-eyed reading of the sociohistoric horizon in which they stand. Since there are competing traditions and rival understandings of the present, it is not surprising that the authority of the prophetic interreading of tradition and situation is more or less convincing to the prophet’s audience and is variously received by different sectors of the audience. A major problem for the interpreter is the frequent difficulty of discerning precisely which traditions and contemporary realities are under prophetic scrutiny. This is so because prophetic writings are anthological occasional literature that only selectively (one is tempted at moments of frustration to say randomly) speaks directly of traditions and situations, while at other times simply alluding to them or presupposing them. In other words, the full narrative that prophecy comments upon and advocates participation in is not palpably present in a prophetic book in the way a narrative is given in the genres, such as drama or novel, that we customarily call tragic or comic. It is reasonably clear that we cannot hope to find a tragic or comic literary form in the prophetic writings in any very precise sense. Instead, we are testing them for the presence and interplay of tragic or comic views of life, what the literary critics tend to call “visions.”
0.3 When we apply to prophecy the three dimensions or aspects of tragic and comic visions which Exum and Whedbee highlight in their essay in the present volume, there can be little doubt that it is the comic voice that subtends the tragic, but this judgment must be nuanced with important qualifications dictated by the nature of the prophetic compositions as composite works written over generations as well as by the distinctive prophetic conceptions of God and community.
1.1 In overall shape every prophetic book follows Northrop Frye’s U-shaped plotline of comedy rather than the inverted U-shaped movement of tragedy. Of the fifteen Latter Prophets, fourteen consist of interpretive and advocatory commentary on an implied narrative in the above sense of reading a present sociohistoric context (actually a series of contexts in most cases) in the light of Israel’s traditions about its history. Without exception these books describe a declension into a present “evil” situation (in the twofold sense of bad circumstances and moral decline). It is a declension by nations and groups or individuals within nations, a “fall” so serious as to precipitate imminent judgment that will lead to political and natural catastrophes. Also without exception the prophetic books describe an ascension which will follow judgment and lead to political and natural restoration. An important proviso is that not all nations, groups, or individuals who have met judgment will experience restoration. The focus of declension is on Israel, but it often includes other nations. The ascension and restoration embraces Israel unfailingly and in some cases foreign nations as well, even the whole known world.
1.2 In several of the prophetic writings there is enough narrative recited or hinted at to be able to place the works, or parts thereof, within their settings with confident approximation, and at times with near precision. In other cases, however, the specifics of the implied narratives are either textually absent or highly ambiguous, so that whether a given work or subsection is preexilic, exilic, or postexilic may be indeterminable in the final analysis. Only one of the fifteen prophetic books is itself a narrative, namely the parabolic short story of Jonah, which exhibits the comic U-shaped plot, deriving its energy and suspense from the way that a resisting and petulant Israelite prophet finally becomes the means for a repentant Nineveh to be saved by the mercy of Israel’s God. Pervading the story is the delicious irony of a prophet who fights the saving will of God to the bittersweet end of Nineveh’s salvation. Because the plot of Jonah is a parable manipulated by parody, it points through its extremities to an abstraction from the implied narrative of Israel’s history. This abstraction, drawn from and feeding back into many specific historic situations, concerns the problematic of the judgment and grace of Israel’s God toward foreign nations who have been the bane of Israel’s existence.
1.3 Two important qualifications, if not reservations, must be made about the predominance of comic plot in Israelite prophecy. One has to do with nuancing the admixture of tragic and comic elements. The other has to do with the effect of composite prophetic writings on our appraisal of the tragic/comic balance within them.
1.3.1 If the prophetic writings are ultimately comic, they are never so in the light and witty and happily contrived way that often marks comedy. The route to the comic conclusion is long and painful and is traversed with great suffering and catastrophe. While the declension into national sin and political disaster is detailed and elaborated, the ascension and restoration is normally more sketchily given, nor is it often clear how Israel or the nations will be saved. Isaiah 40–55 is exceptional in specifying some of the historical agencies of comic salvation. Moreover, whether the tragic declension can be reversed always hangs in the balance, since it depends upon some fortuitous mixture of repentance, readiness, grace, and timely initiative in history that implies collaboration of God and people.
1.3.2 Furthermore, if each prophetic book stands complete as a comic work, the dynamics of the redaction process force us to recognize that particular contributors to the writings were much more strongly inclined toward tragedy or toward an immediate comic resolution than the final shape of the books suggests. If, by way of example, the redactional reconstructions of Amos by H. W. Wolff and R. B. Coote and of Isaiah 1–33 by H. Barth and R. E. Clements are correct in their tendencies—and there seems good reason to believe that they are—then it appears that Amos of Tekoa and Isaiah of Jerusalem were virtually unrelieved tragedians in their presentations, declaring something approaching the starkness of Greek tragic “fate.” On the other hand, the part that the cited redaction critics assign to seventh-century redactors of Amos and of Isaiah 1–33 during Josiah’s reign implies the enthrallment of some prophets with a decisive comic righting of public wrong by the reforming king.
1.4 At this point we see the difficulty of applying tragic and comic categories to biblical prophecy. Tragedy or comedy in most works of literature refers to a single situation set forth in the body of the work. Biblical prophecy overleaps single situations and extends over successive and simultaneous situations with such regularity that it is likely that the average prophetic writing contains commentary and advocacy from vantage points spread over two to three centuries. Prophetic words address whole nations and communities and what proves tragic finality for one generation may lead on, through new understandings and choices, to at least provisional comic salvation. That generations of prophetic voices speak to us within the same book shows that for Israel the tragic and comic possibilities were experienced as endlessly open. If Amos of Tekoa’s words were grimly tragic for his eighth-century upperclass hearers, those same words repeated within an updated framework might prick the sensibilities of a wide range of seventh-century readers to join the Josianic reforms and wrest a comic outcome from the warning of history prophetically interpreted.
1.5 Nonetheless, although tragedy abounds along the way, the prophetic books all end in comedy. Why should this be so? Is it merely comic wishfulness for a happy ending, a deus ex machina contrivance that does not even have the assist of a plausible plot?
1.6 The explanation for the comic frame of all prophetic books appears to be a simple one, but to grasp it we must understand the tragicomedy of prophecy to be referential. This is of course a resort that flies in the face of Frye’s non-referential archetypal view of literature, but one which even he is forced to moderate when he treats the Bible, a work which is neither straight history nor straight literature but a book of metaphors that have history in view. One can say that the implied narrative standing behind the completed books of prophecy is that both Israelite kingdoms were destroyed but that the national identity continued both in a restoration to Palestine and in a thriving Jewish life in dispersion. Moreover, the God who had brought this people into being out of bondage was seen at work in all this later narrative down to the very moment of the last additions to the prophetic writings. Prophetic books are all comic, even if the comic resolution is a tour de force as literature, because the Jewish people had in fact survived by a kind of sociohistoric tour de force, emerging with a recognizable culture and religion that stood in direct continuity with their glorious and ignominious past. One and the same people experienced both great depths and great heights and in the prophetic collection the repetition of judgment followed by salvation is a pathway of “costly comedy,” greatly chastened by tragic extremities, wherein Jews of the approximate period 500–250 BCE looked back to learn and to celebrate and looked forward to grapple with new tests and opportunities.
2. Thematic and Stylistic Patterns
2.1 The themes and stylistic features of prophecy exhibit comic characteristics to a marked degree but significant elements of the tragic leaven both theme and style.
2.2 Comic to the core is the thrust of prophecy toward a free play of the fullness of communal life that is possible under God but is systematically blocked by those with communal power who use it for private ends that can only fail. To most prophets the origins of Israel (Ezekiel is the exception) displayed this fullness of life under God, and a future return to fullness in community is anticipated (the original Amos and Micah lack this prospect, and Isaiah of Jerusalem shows the merest glimmer if recent redaction critical proposals are correct). Those who have brought Israel into jeopardy, typically sociopolitical and religious leaders, are flayed with comic sarcasm, invective, parody, and satire in rhetoric blunt and subtle by turns. Irony reigns on page after page of prophecy as the gap between what the community is and what it should be, as well as the gap between what the objects of ironic criticism think to be so and what actually is, are tirelessly exposed. The deftest irony coexists with outright frontal condemnation of social oppressions, political stupidities, and self-justifying religious maneuvers. Israelites in declension, especially their leaders who bear the main responsibility, are made to look ludicrous and ridiculous, as well as culpable and guilty.
2.3 At the same time the style of prophecy is exceedingly elevated, marked by “poetic” seconding sequences (so-called parallelism of members), terseness of expression, lavish imagery, and frequent fondness for density of metaphor and simile. There is playfulness of language but it is marshalled for serious purposes, since the weight falls not on the coming comic salvation but on the perversity of those who block it and, in some cases, on the possibilities of a given audience making an immediate difference in turning the tide toward comic wholeness by “seizing the time.” The isolation of the protagonist in tragedy is typified in prophecy by the self-hardening and increasing loss of touch with reality on the part of rulers and leading classes of landowners, merchants, military men, priests, and prophets. The “vision of extremity,” the dangerous push into forbidden territory to plunder and aggrandize, arouses the warnings and declarations of prophets. They condemn the powerful who recklessly dare to assume God-like prerogatives by disposing of the properties and lives of their weaker brothers and sisters. It is often said that the barbs of comedy sting but do not kill. Addressing the literal and figurative killers of their own people, prophetic barbs aim not only to sting but also to kill.
3. Hero or Protagonist
3.1 The above remarks on plot, theme, and style lead us to a critical question which a tragic/comic format of analysis helps us to sharpen: Who really is the protagonist of prophetic writings? The answer is not so obvious or univocal as one might at first think. In tragedy or comedy with clear literary form there is no doubt who is pictured as hero, the chief subject of action. In prophecy, with its off-centered reflective critical connection with an implied narrative, the identity of the chief subject is more diffuse, sometimes compound, and perhaps even multiple when all levels of discourse are taken into account.
3.2 At bottom Israel, either as collectivity or in one of its representative individuals or subgroups, is the hero of the prophetic plotline, as it is of the implied narrative within and behind the plot. It is the twists and turns of Israel’s implied narrative that lie at the substratum of prophecy and that appear now in this guise and now in another within the individual oracles and narratives of the prophetic books. The protagonist “Israel” is both an aggregate and a community of many persons, possessing variable powers and accountabilities, and extending over generations in spite of changes in political order and social formation. The identity of Israel as hero is more complex and diffuse than the identity of an Oedipus or a Hamlet, or indeed of any single Israelite who happens to be named in prophecy, such as a Josiah or a Zerubbabel.
3.3 It may also be argued that in some respects foreign nations are protagonists. To be sure these nations are largely addressed in their relationship to Israel, either as instruments of Israel’s judgment or salvation. Nonetheless, there are points where a disinterestedness of approach arises, points at which the nations are addressed as subjects in their own right who are related to Israel only insofar as Israel and they are under the rule of the one God. The nations-as-protagonists potentiality is never developed far enough to distract from Israel’s position at the center, but it does serve to remind that Israel deals with a cosmic as well as a comic deity.
3.4 Still more complicating is the way in which prophets themselves stand forth as protagonists in almost all of the explicit narratives included in prophetic books. Circumstances in which the prophets spoke and acted, the responses of their audiences, and the outcome of their work are the subject of descriptions, fullest in Jeremiah, less developed in Isaiah and Ezekiel, and briefly touched in Amos and Hosea. Yet it is striking that these narratives, scattered or concentrated in clusters, are chiefly interested in showing the fortunes of the prophetic word rather than in presenting the prophet’s life as a topic of information or analysis. These prophetic narratives are virtual histories of the fulfillment of the prophetic work in spite of hostile or indifferent reception among its hearers. The three largest blocks of prophetic narratives may be taken as illustrative of the way tragic and comic perspectives are joined in them, the comic having the expected last word.
3.4.1 The book of memoirs or signs in Isaiah 6–8 appears to have been composed by the prophet or a disciple as an indictment of Ahaz’s regime in Judah during an interim period when Isaiah withdrew from public activity. It is starkly tragic in the note of total destruction struck by the call audition of the prophet and by the primary tenor of the interpretations attached to the names given by the prophet to three of his sons, among whom Immanuel is to be included according to context, in spite of persisting messianic and mythological interpretations to the contrary. On the other hand, the names are shown to carry a double-edged meaning: judgment for the unbelieving Ahaz and his regime, salvation for those who believe. The believers are identified as the prophet and his family and a circle of disciples among whom the written message of chs. 6–8 is compiled and treasured. This gives the dark tones of the narrative a measure of comic relief, since we are assured that the prophet’s message will be preserved and heard again, although too late to spare Judah the humiliation of vassalage under Assyria. For the moment no one in public life is willing to take Isaiah’s “straight and narrow way” to salvation.
3.4.2 By contrast, Isaiah 36–39 (excerpted from 2 Kings 18–20) relates Isaiah’s intervention on behalf of besieged Jerusalem and sickly Hezekiah. It is clearly a late legendary misreading of the original situation on the theory that since the city was not destroyed, only resubjected to Assyrian vassalage after rebellion, Isaiah must have “called off” judgment at the last minute. This is a glaring example of that “cheap comic relief” that later redactors sometimes contrive, probably unwittingly through loss of historical memory, by retrojecting salvation into settings where judgment had been the earlier prophet’s firm word. The effect in this instance is to make nonsense of Isaiah’s announcements of God’s judgment on Jerusalem by retracting the punishment when there is no sign of repentance and no substitute punishment. At the same time, the comic sleight-of-hand is compensated for in the redactor’s mind by a concluding incident that points somberly to the later Babylonian exile and prepares the reader for Isaiah 40–66.
3.4.3 The circumstantial accounts in Jeremiah 26–45 of the rejection of Jeremiah’s warnings and admonitions by most of his contemporaries, and of his activities in the last years of Jerusalem’s independence, set forth a compelling demonstration of how the word of God triumphs in the downfall of the city, even though Jeremiah is virtually alone in publicly affirming the futility of rebellion against Babylon. (In actual fact there are indications in the narratives that Jeremiah’s message was heard and agreed with by some in the inner circles of government but their views did not prevail in councils of state [Long: 31–53; Gottwald: 107–109].) These tragic events, however, are viewed as sowing the seeds of comic salvation in that any eventual restoration of Jewish community worthy of its heritage is seen to be realizable only by passing through loss of statehood and cult and the discipline of extended exile. This “way through exile to restoration,” a very severe route from any point of view, must be sought by closely attending to the prophetic word, a point vividly underlined at the close of the narrative chain when fearful Jews flee to Egypt with Jeremiah in their custody—in flagrant violation of his admonition to stay in Palestine and cooperate with the Babylonian occupying regime. The panicky attempt to secure divine favor by the talisman of the bodily presence of a kidnapped prophet whose message has been disregarded will not be able to force the hand of God to turn tragedy to comedy in any other way than deity has chosen. Given Jeremiah’s intimations that there will be communal renewal after long exile, the judgment that unfolds in this narrative has a curiously hopeful effect on the reader: the God who can bring well-deserved tragedy so handily—even when the full state apparatus of Judah is scurrying about to avert it—this God can certainly bring comic salvation, once the course of judgment has been run, and can do so in spite of enormous historical obstacles. The tragedy of the collapsing state and cult is at the same time the laughter of God at human cunning and pretension as it is also the difficult-to-grasp prerequisite for comic restoration. “Plucking up” and “tearing down” must precede “replanting” and “rebuilding” (Jer 1:10). This accent in the book of Jeremiah on comedy potentiated by tragedy is due, it now seems, to the basic redaction of the book among faithful exilic Jews who shared the outlook of Deuteronomic reform and regarded Jeremiah as an exemplar of reform rooted in repentance.
3.4.4 In sum, Isaiah 6–8 and Jeremiah 26–45 show short-term inverted U-shaped tragic plots that resist but nevertheless inadvertently serve and reinforce the longer-range U-shaped comic plot that envelops tragedy, while Isaiah 36–39 shows a naive intrusion of comic plot into tragic plot so that the tragic is neutralized by displacement from Assyrian to Babylonian times.
3.5 Finally, it must be asked whether God is not in key respects the hero of this prophetic literature. After all, it is the word of God that the prophets speak, either directly in the first person of deity or indirectly in third person summations. Moreover, it is interpretations of the criteria and agencies of divine action that move the prophets to read the implicit narrative of tradition and current situation in the way that they do. Since the connections between tragic declension and comic ascension are so problematic and precarious, given Israel’s propensity for waywardness, it is finally only the persistent “will” or “purpose” of God that holds the plot together and assures the upswing of the U-shaped comic closure. Deity is, nevertheless, at best the implicit protagonist to an implicit narrative. We are not really given a history of this God’s doings other than as claims of Yahweh’s decisive shaping of the implicit narrative. The mythic language about God speaking and acting does not deceive us into thinking that Yahweh is present to history in the way that historical actors are. Doubtless the Israelite conception of God as unrepresentable Subject is responsible for the narrative absence of a deity who is nonetheless present as co-shaper of events, both alongside Israel and the nations in each moment and beyond Israel and the nations in the overall course of affairs.
3.6 It is likely that precisely this all-pervasive presence of an absent God, who cannot be conceived as a direct actor in history and yet who affects everything of critical importance in history, is the conceptual ground for the strangely off-centered literary genre of prophecy with its admixture of commentary and advocacy concerning an implied narrative of a whole community in relationship with an implied deity. At the same time, the complexity of such a literary form skews the “tragic” and “comic” elements within it so eccentrically as to raise questions about the application of the literary categories of tragedy and comedy to prophecy.
4. Double Plot and Social Context
4.1 While our analysis suggests that prophecy is more unlike than like the customary exemplars of tragedy and comedy, the possibilities for the illumination of prophetic form by means of general literary critical genre theory should not be abandoned. Prophecy may in fact be like some forms of tragicomedy in which there are double plots, one tragic and the other comic.
4.2 The tragic plot of prophecy may be traced in the undermining of the false security of those ruling Israelites who unheedingly build their domains of power at the expense of community, only to see them come crashing down in military and political defeat. The tragedy of these leaders is sometimes viewed as “unknowing,” but it is finally stigmatized as wilful and culpable ignorance, a choosing not to know at one level what is known at another level. The initial collection of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, to which the Prophets stands as a supplement, enshrines this tangible knowledge which Israelite leaders elected not to recognize as operative in their values and conduct: cut off from God and people, they lived in practical atheism as they inflicted their anti-social behavior upon the whole people. So sustained was this attack upon the foundations of community that anti-social self-seeking and fatalistic demoralization spread through the whole populace. Seeing few who cared, a prophet like Jeremiah was tempted no longer to risk caring. The tragic declension was nearly the last and only word.
4.3 The comic amelioration of Israel’s communal tragedy overcomes not by rejecting but by absorbing the sordid history of Israel’s declension, by a prophetic extraction of wisdom and faith through “negative learning.” Instead of despair, a pattern of redemptive possibility is wrested from the generations-long prophetic interreading of tradition and situation. God has again and again checkmated the atheistic and anti-social stratagems of Israel’s leaders while nurturing belief and social caring among other Israelites who too seldom had the power to shape the community. Though badly battered, the community retained all the necessary resources for a socioreligious healing process and a long arduous reweaving of the fabric of community. For the wilfully ignorant leaders who had the power to bring ruin on community, the inverted U-shaped plotline of tragedy prevails, while for the community as a whole, the U-shaped plotline of comedy prevails. Since the community is more than its leaders and the persistence in faith and social caring of some of its members so abiding, the will of Israel’s God for life rather than death finds ample human resources to work out the most surprising irony of all: that this comic salvation will be accomplished on the exact ground where the tragic declension occurred. Prophecy reaches for and affirms divine comedy, not in heaven but on earth, on the very terrain that tragedy contested, appeared to win, but cannot hold.
4.4 In prophecy we thus witness a sustained ironic abrasion between the tragedy Israel’s leaders are repeatedly arranging when they think they are making comedy and the comedy which God through many agencies, including other Israelites and the nations, is steadily building on the tragic shambles. The ins and outs of this irony save prophecy from its frequent melodramatic tone. The vision of the contradictory layeredness of human intentions and effects, of cross-purposes that clash and trigger unforeseen consequences, prevents prophecy from a full descent into melodrama.
4.5 Yet the melodramatic flavor of prophecy cannot be lightly passed over. So convinced are the prophets of the decisive import of issues in the public realm that they often speak stridently of an either/or choice confronting their audiences. The prophetic rhetoric of persuasion can sound exceedingly “ideological” in a pejorative sense, especially if we prefer to believe that public issues ought never to reach such a state as to be decidable by passion and moral certitude. For example, it is the simple-sounding equation of the Egyptian pharaoh with evil and of Moses and Yahweh with good which leads David Robertson to regard the comedy of Exodus 1–15 as morally inferior to the tragedy of Euripides’ The Bacchae, even though both compositions use similar literary conventions to tell how strange and little known gods (Yahweh/Dionysus) authenticate their claims to godhood by unleashing their divine power against proud and stubborn unbelievers (pharaoh/Pentheus, king of Thebes). Robertson notes that throughout Exodus 1–15 the lines between righteous Moses/Yahweh and evil pharaoh are clearly drawn so that the reader’s sympathy is entirely on the side of the former. By contrast, in The Bacchae the virtues and vices of Dionysus and Pentheus are so modulated in their interaction that the reader remains highly ambivalent toward both figures to the very end. Irony is everywhere present in The Bacchae, but sharply excluded from Exodus 1–15.
4.6 It seems to me that much of prophecy participates with the Exodus narrative in a one-sided advocacy of socioeconomic, political, and religious causes and policies. Whether one concurs with Robertson that the more ironically ambiguous literature such as The Bacchae is better “practice for living” in an adult world than the more unclouded straightforward advocacy of literature like Exodus and the Latter Prophets appears to be a function of the level or aspect of life one is practicing. There are certainly situations that call for the complex ironic appraisal, but there are others in which a point of conflict has been reached where one must decide sharply one way or the other. Perhaps most situations would profit early on from an ironic appraisal, but this does not exclude that some will develop beyond irony and simply rationality to a point where people are compelled to choose between sometimes unattractive alternatives. It is not evident that the more ambiguous decision (or non-decision) is more moral than the decision made with greater certainty and with sharper exclusions of alternative choices.
4.7 As a matter of fact, prophecy, if not Exodus 1–15, is in its sum much more subtle than melodrama because it tends to show how the increase of ironies and ambiguities sometimes leads to major society-dividing crises. The resulting unanticipated changes may completely confound those who rely on superficial appearances and conventional truisms. The “one-sidedness” of prophetic judgment does not mean that the prophets considered only one side of issues. It means rather that the sharp conclusions of prophecy were reached through an ideological filter, a way of viewing the community as a body of equals under God for whom some forms of public order were suited and others were not. By means of this larger perspective prophets were able to give intelligible grounding for their ways of locating “good” and “bad” societal structures, policies, and options.
4.8 Instead of operating with people as simple integers, either righteous or sinful, prophecy nuanced its assessments with a sense of the malleability of social, political, and religious forms. The prophets sought to build community in which righteousness would be strengthened and sinfulness discouraged to the degree that the power balances and allocation of goods and rewards were congruent with religious rhetoric. The parameters of prophecy’s traditional reading of every current situation are marked off by a mature awareness of Israel’s long history from tribal equality, through forms of monarchy, now more or less autocratic, and on into colonial statelessness and restored communalism. Prophetic passion is not mere ad hoc intuition but fierce commitment to the realization of equality and fullness of life for all Israelites.
4.9 Societal conflict lies at the core of biblical prophecy. At this level the tragedy witnessed in prophecy is the inability of statist forms of communal order to foster human equality, since the political centralization and social stratification that secure community against disruption from without ironically defeat the possibilities for full community within. This suggests that the heroes of prophetic tragedy are the leaders cast in a role that will corrupt them and set them at odds with the good of the people, while the heroes of prophetic comedy are those Israelites who look to the wider good and concretely struggle for it. At times the heroes of prophetic comedy may also include leaders who fight against hierarchic roles, even using such roles to soften the damage they might otherwise do. But the sense of leaders at war with the welfare of the community is so strong in large sectors of prophecy that we tend not to feel grief at their fall but rather grief for the terrible effects of their failure upon the whole people. In the final analysis, the litmus test of communal health is the condition of society’s weakest members to whom the comic vision promises relief from deprivation and full reintegration into a redeemed society. In order to make sense of the peculiar shape of tragic and comic literary features in prophecy it is essential to undertake a referential reading of the way that prophecy’s imaginative commentary and advocacy plays upon an implied narrative that is closely entwined with the dynamics of political economy in the ancient Near East.
Abrams, M. H.
1981 A Glossary of Literary Terms. 4th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
1977 Die Jesaja-Worte in der Josiazeit. WMANT 48. Neukirchen.
Carroll, Robert P.
1981 From Chaos to Covenant: Prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah. New York: Crossroad.
Clements, R. E.
1975 Prophecy and Tradition. Atlanta: John Knox.
Clements, R. E.
1980 Isaiah and the Deliverance of Jerusalem. Sheffield: JSOT.
Coote, Robert B.
1981 Amos Among the Prophets: Composition and Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Corrigan, Robert W., ed.
1981a Comedy: Meaning and Form. 2d ed. New York: Harper & Row.
Corrigan, Robert W., ed.
1981b Tragedy: Vision and Form. 2d ed. New York: Harper & Row.
Culley, Robert C. and Overholt, Thomas W., eds.
1982 Anthropological Perspectives on Old Testament Prophecy. Semeia 21.
1976 Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. London: Verso Editions; New York: Schocken.
1957 Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1981 The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Good, Edwin M.
1965 Irony in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster.
Gottwald, Norman K.
1982 “Problems and Promises in the Comparative Analysis of Religious Phenomena,” in Culley and Overholt: 103–12.
1973a The Tragic Vision: The Confrontation of Extremity, vol. I of Visions of Extremity in Modern Literature, reprint of 1960 ed. with new preface. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1973b The Classic Vision: The Retreat from Extremity, vol. II of Visions of Extremity in Modern Literature, reprint of 1971 ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1981 The Idea of Biblical Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press.
1980 After the New Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Long, Burke O.
1982 “Social Dimensions of Prophetic Conflict,” in Culley and Overholt: 31–53.
1983 “Jeremiah vs. Hananiah: Ideology and Truth in Old Testament Prophecy,” in The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics. 2d rev. ed. Ed. N. K. Gottwald. Maryknoll: Orbis. Pp. 235–51.
von Rad, Gerhard
1967 The Message of the Prophets. New York: Harper & Row.
1977 The Old Testament and the Literary Critic. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Said, Edward W.
1983 The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Sewall, Richard B.
1980 The Vision of Tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
1980 The Death of Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wolff, Hans Walter
1977 Joel and Amos. Tr. W. Janzen, S. D. McBride, Jr., and C. A. Muenchow. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Tragedy, Comedy, and the Bible—A Response
University of California, Davis
1.1 The crucial paragraph for understanding not only this issue of Semeia but also the present state of literary criticism of the Bible is the one numbered 3.5 in the Exum-Whedbee essay. In this paragraph the authors distinguish between two types of literary analysis of the Bible: one type investigates the literary features of stories defined essentially by non-literary means; the other, while not necessarily ignoring theological, historical, or form critical features, uses the categories of literary criticism to do the defining. In defense of the latter Exum and Whedbee include a quote from Northrop Frye insisting on the determinative character of literary “structure” and refer to Susanne Langer’s notion of “matrix.”
1.2 Exum and Whedbee practice the second type of literary criticism and they make it work. Not only do they arrive at insights unattainable by other means, but they do so with grace and ease. Not once do they strain to make a point; never do they resort to pushing, shoving, and squeezing the stories of Isaac, Samson, and Saul to make them fit comic and tragic molds. The stories seem just naturally to fit. The importance of their method and their results should not be underestimated. Here are two mature, thoroughly trained biblical scholars practicing literary criticism, properly so called, and this discipline controls the interpretation rather than being ancillary to other disciplines. The revolution sown only a few decades ago, and heralded perhaps most of all by Edwin Good’s Irony in the Old Testament, has produced not merely buds but fully opened, radiant flowers. This fruition was neither automatic nor inevitable. Many methodologies are called upon as potentially useful in biblical interpretation; few are chosen. Literary critics are fast becoming acknowledged legislators of the meaning of the Bible in our time, taking their seats in the Senate of Higher Criticism along side others with greater seniority.
1.3. I used the phrase “they make it work” in the preceding paragraph self-consciously. Literary critical categories are not indigenous to the biblical texts. They are brought to it from other cultural contexts by people living thousands of years later. Of course, the texts must be susceptible to literary analysis for it to succeed. Otherwise it will always seem to be enforcing itself on an unwilling victim. Yet it is also true that good literary criticism of the Bible, like a good marriage, is made. It results when the inventive moves of the critic are addressed to a literarily inclined text. Thus I do not agree with Exum and Whedbee that “the persuasiveness of any interpretation of biblical literature in terms of comic and tragic visions depends on the degree to which one can argue for a form of comedy or tragedy that is intrinsic to the biblical texts within their native Hebraic and Near Eastern setting” (Paragraph 1.6).
1.4 I do not believe that one can argue convincingly that the notions of comedy and tragedy as used by Exum and Whedbee are intrinsic to biblical or Near Eastern literature. Of course, intrinsic to the literature of these cultures, as to the literature of all cultures, are comic and tragic “features,” because life is intrinsically sometimes comic and sometimes tragic. If we wish to limit ourselves in interpreting the writings of a culture to what is intrinsic within it, then we will forever practice on the Bible the type of literary criticism that searches for literary “features” in an essentially non-literary medium. Exum and Whedbee say in paragraph 1.6 that they “are acutely sensitive to the risk of imposing later and perhaps alien schemas on the Bible.” I prefer saying that they have dared to impose later and assuredly alien schemas on the Bible and that they made the risk worthwhile.
2.1 With regard to the details of their readings of the stories of Isaac, Samson, and Saul I have only a little quarrel. I am willing to say straight out that their interpretations of Isaac and Samson are the most thoroughgoingly sympathetic and delightfully insightful I have read. Furthermore their prose matches their exegesis in subtlety, range, and power. To read this essay is a moving experience. Particularly praiseworthy in their reading of the Isaac narrative is the integration of the near sacrifice of Isaac into the story as a whole. By noting how often comedy incorporates near tragedy into its storyline, while at the same time pointing out that Isaac’s character in Genesis 22 is consistent with his character as manifested elsewhere (he is victim/survivor throughout) and that its little u-shaped plot mirrors the big U-shaped plot of the saga as a whole, they are able to rejoin this so persistently amputated chapter to the main body of the story. The contrast between Isaac’s tale, on the one hand, and Jephthah’s and Saul’s on the other, clinches an already persuasive argument.
2.2 To this euphony of praise I append only a note of playful discord. Occasionally Exum and Whedbee’s prose is abstract enough to leave me adrift in a sea of phrases. For example, in paragraph 2.5, after recounting the birth of Isaac together with the divine announcements of that impending event to Abraham and Sarah, they state, “In the end Isaac emerges from this complex of comical stories as a being who is a sexual joke of sorts—but a joke as profound as it is whimsical, as serious as it is playful, for it contains all the mysterious rhythms of laughter and life both human and divine.” Now I suppose I get the joke (certainly one never wants to admit in print that one has not gotten a joke, especially a sexual one), but exactly what its profundity and seriousness consist of I am not sure, and I have few clues of how it contains “all the mysterious rhythms of laughter and life both human and divine.” What a wonderfully cadenced phrase! Maybe I should just enjoy its sound without worrying about its sense. By using the word “rhythm” do the authors intend to suggest that God regularly plays this joke throughout the “measures” of history? If so, am I then to suppose that Jesus is also a sexual joke of sorts? Perhaps we could write a new chapter in biblical typology entitled, Jesus as the new Isaac, or Jesus as Priest, King, and Joke.
2.3 The benefits accruing from the type of genre criticism practiced by Exum and Whedbee are nowhere more evident than in their interpretation of the Samson saga. I find completely compelling their argument that its “matrix” is comic, despite the admixture of tragic elements. With consummate skill they back up their claim that the death of Samson does not carry its “final or central” message (Paragraph 3.4). Cutting through the doublemindedness of so many Samson interpreters, they handle the details of the story, especially the concluding episode, with directness and clarity. For grace and power their account of the death of Samson as the upturn in the U-shaped plot characteristic of comedy is unsurpassed. Also impressive is the way their approach enables them to explain the lack of development in Samson’s character and to account for an aspect of the narrative usually so upsetting to modern scholars: the absence of any moral commentary on Samson’s escapades.
2.4 Their analysis of the Saul narrative is no less cogent—once we have agreed to take it out of its literary context. As it actually occurs in 1 and 2 Samuel it has neither unity nor integrity. It is part of a larger story, and in that context Saul is no more a tragic hero than shylock is. Both are villainous blocking agents, one in a comedy of lovers who finally couple, the other in the comedy of King David. While Exum and Whedbee’s strategy of illuminating the essential comic nature of the Samson saga by placing it over against the story of Saul is brilliant, I cannot agree with them that “two plots, David’s rise and Saul’s demise, are developed at the same time, each preserving its own integrity” (Paragraph 3.6). Consequently their interpretation of Saul’s rise and fall as tragedy remains for me something of a tour de force.
2.5 I am a little troubled by the concluding section of the essay. The authors are certainly right that “we [meaning people in general] suppose the ways of the biblical God to be rational and just and thus we expect biblical stories to turn out for the best.” But they are only partly right in claiming that “the stories of Isaac and Samson fit our expectations” (Paragraph 4.2). Indeed these stories do have “happy endings,” but not because God is rational and just. The authors themselves have previously noted how amoral comedy is. Both of these narratives end “for the best” not because God is rational but because God is willing to intervene arbitrarily on behalf of Isaac and Samson. This very arbitrariness is one of the most persistent aspects of comedy. Comic heroes are finally integrated into the society to which they properly belong not because of their inherent goodness or prowess, but because of events that are unexpected, irrational, sometimes downright miraculous, and often precipitated by a deus ex machina who simply decides to act on behalf of the protagonist. As Northrop Frye puts it, whereas tragedy exemplifies the inevitable workings of LAW, comedy exhibits the arbitary actions of GRACE. Whatever else grace may be, it is neither rational nor just.
3.1 That comedy and tragedy are formulas alien to the Bible explains in large measure why biblical critics have been reluctant to use them, a hesitancy Exum and Whedbee note with dismay (Paragraph 1.2). That they are now increasingly willing to employ them has many causes, including the pluralism of western culture and the secularization of biblical instruction. Just as significant is the “structuralist” orientation of many late 20th century theories of interpretation, whether literary, historical, sociological, or anthropological. We find congenial the practice of placing, sometimes rather arbitrarily, a text within the Gestalt provided by an interpretative paradigm and seeing if it fits (instead of, let us say, seeking a framework within the text itself or within its cultural context). The questions we ask originate in the interpretative model; if the text provides suitable answers, then we conclude that the model works. What a suitable answer consists of probably depends more on the taste, education, and experience of the interpreter than anything else.
3.2 Nowhere is this practice better displayed, both to its advantage and disadvantage, than in Edwin Good’s essay on Daniel. Needless to say, only infrequently will pieces of biblical literature fall neatly into boxes designed according to ancient Greek or modern western literary blueprints. So the cleverness of the critic must find a fit where none, initially, appears to exist. Since Good is one of the most ingenious of modern literary interpreters of the Bible, we know before we begin his essay that we are in for an exciting and most likely illuminating time.
3.3 It is clear from the outset that Good is a “structuralist” critic, though he does not always follow through on the implications of his methodology as clearly as I think he might. For example, at the end of the paragraph in which he rejects direct historical influence as an explanation of the structural similarity of Daniel 1–6 and the pattern of Old Comedy, he states, “The structural analogy is no more than that, and I have no explanation for it. Perhaps the comic mind the world over simply runs in certain kinds of channels” (Paragraph 2.3). From my point of view, given his assumptions, structural analogies need no explanation, whether in terms of historical derivation or a Jungian theory of archetypes issuing from the collective mind. The point is to see the structure and then interpret the text in light of it.
3.4 Good does both. Let us take them one at a time. Is the structure that he sees in Daniel 1–6 really there? I believe that Gestalt patterns in which one design can be read in two fundamentally different ways (now the square comes out to meet you, now it recedes from you) provide a good analogy to the problem we are faced with in answering this question. Either you see the alternative pattern or you do not, and the transition between the two states is trans-rational. If you do not see it, maybe it is not there. This possibility must be taken seriously. People who claim to see it can give you hints, but they cannot see it for you. If you do see it, then no amount of argument can convince you it is not there. We are used to seeing Daniel 1–6 as a syndetic series of individual stories on the same general theme. Good argues that taken together they form a pattern and that this pattern is identical to the one found in Old Comedy. I see the pattern, so for me it exists. My guess is that some will not see it. If so, this is a fact, not a fault. I suspect there is a third group, those who see the pattern but refuse to admit it exists, because “exists” means having a plausible historical explanation. Members of this group have not seen (the validity of) the Gestalt of structuralist literary criticism.
3.5 Detecting a pattern is one thing; using it to gain fresh understanding of the text is another and often more difficult job. I believe strongly that literary critical theories are constructs of the imagination erected in the course of its effort to encompass a text. The proper test to apply to them is a heuristic one: do they or do they not enrich and deepen our comprehension of the text. Good’s theory meets the test. His insight into the structure of Daniel 1–6 does significantly transform our understanding of the book of Daniel. Like many new insights, once the point is made it seems more or less obvious. The French underground seems an unlikely provenance for stories of the loyalty and service of French citizens to the Nazi government and their subsequent promotion to positions of great responsibility within the Third Reich. It is, of course, true that the Mesopotamian and Persian rulers in Daniel are depicted as wrongheaded and mad, and they end up acknowledging the existence and power of the Jewish god. One could imagine an American underground, in the event of a Russian takeover, devising stories of the idiocy of the Kremlin boss and his conversion to American Christianity. That the Communist Party would increase in power and stability thereby and that Americans would receive handsome promotions and loyalty serve the Party are not conceivable outcomes of such stories, however. Accordingly I find myself agreeing with Good that his “reading of the stories [in Daniel 1–6] seriously undermines the notion that they were composed in order to stiffen Jewish resistance to persecution” (Paragraph 2.13). He is surely right that “the theory of Maccabean background and underground resistance will not do” (Paragraph 2.14).
3.6 This line of reasoning leads Good to his major conclusion: “the entire story, then, is a comedy of subversion from the inside” (Paragraph 2.12). His explanation of the meaning of this statement is neither as full nor as clear as I would like. I take it that he means something like the following: the aim of Daniel 1–6 as a structural unit is not the overthrow of the Mesopotamian and Persian governments (so that his use of the word “subversion” is somewhat misleading) but their renewal; the agents of renewal are a cadre of Jewish bureaucrats who form his majesty’s loyal opposition (here the use of “subversion” is appropriate, though perhaps “transformation” might be better). This aim of regeneration is exactly what one would expect given the theory of comedy assumed by Good and outlined in section one. He has come full circle. First he set forth the structure and purpose of Old Comedy. Then he argued that Daniel 1–6 has this same structure. Finally, through an analysis of the content of each chapter he claims that Daniel 1–6 has this same purpose.
3.7 It follows logically from the above exposition that the kings of Daniel 1–6 are surrogates for the Jewish god, although Good, as far as I can tell, does not explicitly draw this conclusion. God is as mad in some ways (given the exile and foreign domination of Israel in the post-exilic period) as Nebuchadnezzar, and God’s kingdom is just as drastically in need of renewal. The ultimate purpose of Daniel 1–6 is, then, nothing less than the regeneration of the Jewish state. This conclusion is consistent with the structure and content of Daniel 1–6 as construed by Good and, in fact, completes his interpretation in a fascinating, even spectacular way.
3.8 Good does ask if God is the comic hero, but answers in the negative. Instead, according to Good, God is the Director (Paragraph 2.15). This answer is acceptable as long as we take God as one character among others. From a larger, metaphoric perspective, however, I think the answer must be yes. God is the ultimate Eiron of the stories, in that God is the force supporting the subversive actions of the Jewish agents. God is also ultimately the Alazon, for whom the foreign kings are symbolic substitutes. Thus God is the agent of renewal and the one renewed, a position God occupies in the Bible as a whole. Daniel 1–6, then, performs in a local theater the same drama that the entire Bible presents on a cosmic stage.
4.1 The literary theory assumed by all the authors in this issue of Semeia received its initial expression by Aristotle in response to actual performances on the Greek stage. Thus, comedy and tragedy are, properly speaking, dramatic genres, and Aristotle’s theory, in its original form or as revised by critics like Northrop Frye, is most helpful when applied to dramatic works. Since the two most salient features of drama—character and action—are also essential ingredients in prose narrative, one can apply it to works of fiction with little modification and often with the type of gratifying results achieved by Exum, Whedbee, and Good.
4.2 The theory is not, however, infinitely expandable. Character and action are two of the least conspicuous elements of apocalyptic visions and prophetic oracles. Consequently its application to them is metaphoric, or by extension, similar to the way the word “bankrupt” applies literally to deficiency of funds and only in an extended or metaphoric sense to deficiency of morals. Thus not finding the form of comedy in Daniel 7–12, the Latter Prophets, or Hosea, Good, Gottwald, and Buss, respectively, must rest content with prospecting for isolated elements of comedy within a non-comic medium, like miners searching for nuggets of gold in a matrix of granite. In other words, they must resort to the first type of literary analysis of the Bible mentioned by Exum and Whedbee in paragraph 3.5 and cited above.
4.3 Each of the above three authors is aware of the problem. Gottwald states it bluntly: “[an attempt] to assess biblical prophecy in the light of tragic and comic literary categories … is murky from the start if only because tragedy and comedy usually take a narrative literary form, and, while there are narratives in the prophetic books, the works as a whole are not narrative … We cannot hope to find a tragic or comic literary form in the prophetic writings in any very precise sense. Instead, we are testing them for the presence and interplay of tragic or comic views of life …” (Paragraphs 0.1–0.2). This enterprise is perfec tly legitimate, of course, but I find the results in all three cases (Daniel 7–12, the Latter Prophets, and Hosea) indeed “murky.” The authors more muddied than cleared apocalyptic and prophetic waters for me. Gottwald’s reflections on the implied narrative in the prophets are very fine, as is Buss’ treatment of ironic tension in Hosea, but in my judgment placing their discussions in the context of comedy and tragedy did little or nothing to deepen and clarify our understanding of these subjects.
5.1 Exum, Whedbee, and Good apply the theories of comedy and tragedy to Isaac, Samson, Saul, and the narrative portions of Daniel with outstandingly positive results. Good, Gottwald, and Buss put the visions in Daniel and the prophetic books to the test of the same theories with, in my opinion, largely negative consequences. Scientists are fond of saying that negative findings are often as important as positive ones, for they point the researcher in a different direction. I believe we need to assay apocalyptic vision and prophetic oracle with alternative literary hypotheses, ones based on genres other than comedy and tragedy.
∪ and ∩ in the Bible
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The position of the respondent is preferable to that of those to whom he or she is called to respond; these are subject either to the rod or the mercy of the former, who also gets the last word. But rather than rejoicing at my lot, I am somewhat anxious at the magnitude of the responsibility, for while I have great respect for the genuine contributions the individual essays make to our understanding of the texts in question, I have reservations about the larger task the authors set for themselves. To be sure, the investigation of tragic and comic themes in the Bible is an interesting pursuit, and the essays in the volume address the issue from different angles with provocative and sometimes original and insightful results. My lack of receptivity to the claims for tragedy and comedy in the Bible stems rather from my very different perspective. I am a Bible scholar who, among other interests, has a special interest in the literary aspect, in the “close reading” of literary units in the Bible, and who addresses himself to questions arising from the text itself and not to those imported artificially from the outside. It might be that such an approach reveals a certain personal conservatism and that my words here reveal a strong feeling that much more needs to be done in the sphere of discovering the significance of every word, expression, sentence and literary unit. This feeling derives, no doubt, from living the language of Hebrew and being sensitive to its nuances, and from the creative tension existing as a result of both an intimacy with it on the one hand, and the distance between modern and biblical Hebrew on the other.
The significant fact that in Israel it is unusual to find literary studies of the Bible which try to keep up with the latest innovations in literary criticism requires consideration. Even structuralism, already a regular guest, if not a veteran homesteader, in the parlors of literary criticism and even in the workrooms of European and American Bible scholars, has found practically no one in Israeli biblical studies to take a serious interest in it. Possibly it is not only this conservatism, or rather appetite for analyzing a literary work with all its details, that checks any tendency or need for running after literary “isms” but also the prevailing deep, serious and spiritual attitude towards the object of study which keeps it from being transformed into a subject for intellectual exercise.
Since I have no intention of erecting a theoretical structure alternative to the formidable building raised up by the articles in this anthology, since I come only to demolish and undermine, I restrict myself to posing several questions and will not expand my comments here into a comprehensive or detailed analysis. Admittedly, building up is to be preferred to demolition, and I am thus advised to keep things in their proper proportion. In conclusion to this lengthy preface, I note that my response will probably be overshadowed by the other responses to this volume, more likely to reveal more understanding towards its character and contents. The placement allotted to my comments in this anthology is liable to determine their character: should my remarks be placed first among the respondents their effect will pass and the anthology will keep its ∪ character. If, however, they be placed at the end, they are likely to make the anthology into a sort of ∩, since things are characterized, primarily, from their end.
In spite of what I have said above about myself, I must confess that the desire to apply research tools from other fields of study to Bible study is perfectly legitimate and even indispensable. Goethe already stated concerning the Holy Scriptures:
Diese, bei der Selbständigkeit, wunderbaren Originalität, Vielseitigkeit, Totalität, ja Unermeßlichkeit ihres Inhalts, brachte keinen Maßstab mit, wonach sie gemessen werden konnte; er mußte von außen gesucht und an sie angelegt werden, und das ganze Chor derer, die sich deshalb versammelten, Juden und Christen, Heiden und Heilige, Kirchenväter und Ketzer, Konzilien und Päpste, Reformatoren und Widersacher, sämtlich, indem sie auslegen und erklären, verknüpfen oder supplieren, zurechtlegen oder anwenden wollten, taten es …
And even I, in taking the approach of “close reading” and integrating it with the methods of so-called higher criticism, am treading paths charted outside the borders of biblical research and adapted to biblical studies at different stages of their development. My sympathy, then, lies from the start with attempts at application which may enrich the discipline, even attempts which bring their wares from afar. To cite Goethe once again:
Laßt uns doch vielseitig sein! Märkische Rübchen schmecken gut, am besten gemischt mit Kastanien, und diese beiden edlen Früchte wachsen weit auseinander.
Nevertheless, there is need to restrain the appetite for such “applications”: the borders should be limited to their contribution to the flavor of the soup, to continue the gastronomic metaphor; if the application does not raise more difficulties than it solves—by all means! However, the moment we begin to twist texts in order to make them fit principles imported from outside the world of the Bible, the moment we are willing to sacrifice the Bible for the success of the experiment, then I start shouting, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.”
The terms comedy and tragedy are, of course, alien to the Bible and its sphere of origin and growth. As Exum and Whedbee write: “… the terms are Greek in origin, usually Aristotelian in their literary critical application, and hence seemingly remote from the central and characteristic genres of biblical literature” (1.1). What’s wrong with this? But while these authors employ the expression “at first glance” and “seemingly” in order to moderate their claims, and at least acknowledge the fact of dealing with something alien, I nevertheless cannot overcome my impression that the terms “comedy” and “tragedy,” borrowed from the world of Greek drama, are entirely alien to biblical literature.
Let me make myself clear: in the present collection these terms are applied to various literary types—stories, prophecy and apocalyptic visions—and these labels seem to fit each one of these types. (And why should we stop at apocalyptic and not go on to apply these concepts to the psalmic or even legal literature?) But is not this situation enough to arouse suspicion? True, the authors themselves are aware of the problems involved. Good, for example, who comments that the ancient authors did not write in order to conform to his categories, admits that Daniel 5 does not integrate so well into the category of comedy (2.101); the apocalyptic of Daniel is not “comic” because it treats insufficiently of the “new order.” In order to justify the non-conformity of chapters 9–12 of Daniel to the comic pattern, he declares that it is impossible to expect too much from the first formulation of a genre (4.4). Gottwald contends that one should not expect a literary form of comedy or tragedy, but should be content with the “presence and interplay of tragic or comic views of life” which are intermingled in classical prophecy (0.2). Prophecy is, in his view, like those tragi-comedies which include “double plots, one tragic and the other comic” (4.1). Exum and Whedbee are also aware of the dangers of application: “… we are acutely sensitive to the risk of imposing later and perhaps alien schemas on the Bible” (1.6). This awareness of the difficulty of applying clear-cut definitions of tragedy and comedy to the biblical narrative prevents the essays in the volume from becoming excessively rigid in their claims, but it is just this lack of precisely defined categories which presents problems. It is not clear to me whether all the authors are party to one particular conception of tragedy and comedy. It is enough to compare Buss’ definition (1.4 and 1.5) with that of Good (§ 1) in order to discover different outlooks and starting points. In general the issue of how a definition should be formulated is problematic: is it the material, the evidence at hand, which determines the definition, or perhaps the purely abstract definition forces the evidence and accommodates it to itself.
A serious difficulty arises with the application of the concepts of tragedy and, especially, comedy to such a wide range of literary works and types. Determining that the fifteen books of classical prophecy are basically comedy blurs their singularity and uniqueness. True, classical prophecy includes tragic elements (mainly in the formulations of future consolation). The fate of the evil leadership is tragic whereas the people’s expectation of a good future is comic. Since salvation and consolation have the last word in the books of prophecy, they are clearly constructed more as ∪ than ∩. However, beyond such a general characterization as this, what do the concepts of tragedy and comedy contribute to our understanding of prophecy as a whole and of the prophecies in particular? So also on a smaller scale—the stories of Daniel. The claim that all the stories (chapters 1–6) can be considered comedies provides a conceptual understanding for the whole at the expense of the individual stories and of their particular forms and messages, which set them apart from the others.
To label literary units as comedy and tragedy is an approach not unlike that of the form-criticism school which classified biblical literary works into various types and was content to find for each literary work its proper Gattung and suitable Sitz im Leben. Attaching labels, classification, the determination of a common denominator—all these must be accompanied by the primary goal of appreciating the particular, the extraordinary, and this requires the meticulous and in-depth investigation of each and every detail, and the integration of these details into an overall and unified picture.
In spite of problems inherent in defining a single literary work as a tragedy or comedy or characterizing it as such (according to the criteria of Exum and Whedbee: plot, thematic and stylistic patterns, characterization of heroes), such an approach may nevertheless contribute to a better understanding of the work. Of the more stimulating sections in the collection, Exum’s and Whedbee’s comparison of the story of Samson to what they call the story of Saul (on the question of the existence of this story see below) is worthy of note. The comparison of similar stories with diverging plot lines (comic versus tragic) brings into focus the differences between the stories of the two men. I wonder, however, if this sensitive sketching out of the differences could be done without the labels of comedy and tragedy. It seems to me that assigning one hero to the world of comedy (Samson) and the other to that of tragedy (Saul) can create differences even where they do not exist.
Thus, for example, the claim is made that in contrast to the development in Saul’s character there is no parallel character development in Samson, who does not learn from his mistakes (3.26). But Samson did learn from experience and accordingly he prays to his God after being overwhelmed by thirst at Lehi, “You have granted this great victory at the hand of your servant …” (Judg 15:18), a sign that he recognizes that his prior boasting, “With the jawbone of an ass … I have slain a thousand men,” (v. 16) was vain. The fact that Samson repeats his errors, is captured by the charms of a second woman and betrays his secret to her, is evidence not of his failure to learn a lesson, but only of Samson’s captivation with his own character. It is this trait which makes him, in my opinion, a tragic character. In the view of the authors, Saul is indeed guilty of his sin but is not a wicked man, and his tragedy lies in the fact that his punishment exceeds his guilt (3.28). This strikes me as a modern Western point of view which expects the biblical God to follow our concept of justice. Samson, too, is not a wicked man, even though he transgresses the divine command and reveals the secret of his Nazirite status, because he is a slave to his passions and weaknesses. The authors compare Samson’s burial by his brothers in the tomb of Manoah his father between Zorah and Eshtaol (Judg 16:31) to Saul’s shameful death. They view Samson’s death as integrative but Saul’s as isolating (3.101). In contrast, I find the deaths and burials of both heroes quite similar. Like Samson, who is buried in the place where the Spirit of the Lord first began to stir him, Saul is buried in Jabesh-gilead where he began to act, a gesture of gratitude on the part of the men of the city to the king who rescued them (1 Sam 31:11–13). True, Samson, unlike Saul, received divine assistance at the hour of his death and slew more Philistines in his death than he had in his life (Judg 16:30). But this victory was not to his glory but rather to that of God, who overcame Dagon in his own house and proved to the worshippers of the Philistine god that their joy over their god’s victory was premature. Saul, on the other hand, receives an indignant response from Samuel who is summoned up from the dead (1 Sam 28), and dies while standing at the head of his army, vanquished before the Philistines. Saul too, however, attains to a sort of redemption in the words of David, his friend-rival, who continues to view him as “the Lord’s anointed” (2 Sam 1:14), and mourns him with a stirring lament which moves the people to bewail the loss of their king-hero.
If, in spite of the illuminating comparison between Samson and Saul, I am still unconvinced of the worth of the labels of comedy and tragedy, it should come as no surprise to the reader that I am skeptical about the application of these labels to the prophecies of Hosea or the stories of Daniel.
The labels “tragedy” and “comedy” have been applied to large complexes: “the story of Isaac,” “the story of Saul.” The determination of the borders of the composition is crucial since it determines to a large extent whether we have to deal with a tragedy or a comedy. But is it possible to fix where the “story of Saul” comes to an end? Is not the story inseparably integrated into the David stories? Does the story of Saul really end with 1 Samuel 31? Perhaps it ends with 2 Samuel 1? And perhaps the story of Saul continues in the form of the histories of his offspring Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth and the like. The lack of any possibility of determining the borders of the Saul story reveals “the story of Saul” as an artificially determined one.
And what about “the story of Isaac”? Isaac’s beginning is in the stories about his father Abraham (starting with the announcement of his birth to his father, Gen 17:21, and to his mother, chapter 18) and its conclusion is in the stories about his son Jacob (up to his death in Gen 35:27–29). Is it possible, then, to define the borders of his story? It is much more difficult to apply the notions of comedy or tragedy to artificial and amorphous biblical composites than to Greek drama, which is a unified literary composition with beginning and end. Moreover, in a large part of “the story of Saul,” Saul is not the main character but is subordinate to David. A similar situation pertains in the Isaac stories. Isaac, the “poorest” of the three patriarchs, is held in the pincers of his father and his son. There is almost no story in which Isaac is the main character. He is always subordinate to his father, to his sons, and even to his father’s servant who goes to bring him a wife from Paddan-aram. Even the story called “the binding of Isaac” is rather the story of Abraham’s withstanding the trial. Can we, then, create an artificial story about a secondary character and examine to what extent it fits the notion of comedy? In like manner I could conjure up the story of Esau, the story of Goliath, the story of Jonathan, the story of Joab, etc.
Such broad compositions as “the story of Isaac” or “the story of Saul” are not of one cloth, the work of one scribe, but rather a succession of stories written by different hands within a period stretching over, most likely, hundreds of years. And what holds for these stories is all the more true for the various books of classical prophecy, each one of which is a complex composite integrating different literary types, such as stories in which the prophet is the main character (e.g., Isa 36–39, discussed by Gottwald: 3.4.2) and prophecies in which the prophet expresses the word of the Lord. Is it possible, then, to relate to these broad compositions in terms proper to well-defined and unified works?
Still further, the lack of clear boundaries enables me to relate to an entire book as a comedy. Is the book of Genesis a comedy? or the entire Pentateuch? or the entire historiographical composition from Genesis to Kings? And perhaps, as some of the authors, following the lead of Northrop Frye, have suggested, the entire Bible itself is but a comedy, the “Biblical Comedy.”
The book of Daniel is a clear example of disunity—Hebrew on the one hand and Aramaic on the other, narratives on the one hand and visions on the other (and there is no correspondence between the linguistic and the literary division), and in spite of the editorial connections between the sections it is still impossible to include chapters 1–6 within an apocalyptic composition. Moreover, the sense of the independence of the six stories is not too convenient for Good: his observation that the combination of chapters 1–6 resembles the structure of classic comedy cautiously avoids positing a connection with Greek culture. But the examination of the structure of Daniel 1–6 seems to me to go too far, as, for example, when it views chapter 6 as an “interrupted feast” (2.23)—the feast of the lions (in Greek comedy the “interrupted feasts” are always those of human beings).
Good attributes different functions to chapters 3 and 6 in the supposed larger comic scheme of the book: one is a kind of agon and the other, an interrupted feast. I find it difficult to accept the attribution of different functions to stories which Good himself recognizes as so similar to each other in content, plot, and even in the choice of words about Daniel and his friends, on martyrs and their reward. The order of chapters 1–6 in Daniel may seem to correspond to Greek comedy, but the content and associative connections between them are rather the result of the (mistaken) historical construction of the book’s editor.
It is questionable whether every biblical composition can so easily be assigned to one of the two categories: is the story of Ahaziah who dispatches an inquiry of Beelzebub the god of Ekron (2 Kings 1) a tragedy or a comedy? And from the viewpoint of which character do we raise the question? How should we categorize the story of Naboth the Jezreelite (1 Kings 21)?
The demanding terms “comic” and “tragic,” which bear such heavy literary weight, can easily be replaced by the terms “optimistic” and “pessimistic.” It is true that the Bible is for the most part optimistic (and even in a book which is mainly about destruction—the book of Kings—there is a note of modest hope at the end, the release of King Jehoiachin from his captivity and his pension at the palace of the Babylonian king). Indeed, from religious literature we expect optimism (see Exum and Whedbee: 4.2): in spite of all the crises and disasters which come as a result of humanity’s evil deeds, there is hope of a better future, of a positive retribution in store for those who observe God’s commandments. In the wake of destruction comes salvation. But are “comedy” or “tragedy” the appropriate descriptions for such literature?
In spite of all I have said up to now, I do not want to be led into excess: this kind of approach may yield more fruitful results with certain parts of biblical literature than with others. The authors of the essays in this volume, while sensitive to the problems, have pressed for the applicability of the literary-critical categories of tragedy and comedy to a wide variety of biblical literature, while I have resisted the use of these concepts which appear to me, in spite of the authors’ caveats, to be alien to the biblical world. Thus I consider that the articles make their greatest contribution at those places where they let the texts speak for themselves—where interpretation is grounded in close and careful reading and not dependent on categories drawn from outside the Bible. Here, indeed, there is something to be learned, even if the theoretical claims are somewhat overstated.
The Anatomy of Divine Comedy: On Reading the Bible as Comedy and Tragedy
David M. Gunn
Columbia Theological Seminary
“Holy Books never laugh—to whatever nation they belong.” Some remarks of an amused resident alien the other day drew forth from his companion a similar aphorism: “There is nothing so ridiculous as other people’s patriotism!” (At some time and places one could have died for that amusement!) Perspective is the beginning of meaning. A perceived disjunction of perspectives may produce laughter—or tears. The anatomy of comedy is at the same time the pathology of perspectives, points of view.
From the point of view of Christianity … tragedy is an episode in that larger scheme of redemption and resurrection to which Dante gave the name of commedia. (Frye, quoted by Exum and Whedbee, 1.1)
From the point of view of Christianity? Or is this really Frye’s own point of view? And what precisely is “that larger scheme of redemption and resurrection” to which, he asserts, Dante gave the name of commedia? Christianity? The Christian Bible? Dante’s own “vision”?
This conception of commedia [continues Frye] enters drama with the miracle-play cycles, where such tragedies as the Fall and the Crucifixion are episodes of a dramatic scheme in which the divine comedy has the last word.
As the critic draws us with him, perspectives shift and objective reference is transformed. The “point of view of Christianity” quickly becomes that of (Frye’s) authoritative Dante, so that redemption and resurrection we see to be none other than commedia; then, transported to that mediaeval play, we watch the (Christian) Bible story unfold, observing with satisfaction from our program notes that the Tragedies of Fall and Crucifixion will shortly give way to the Comedy of Resurrection; finally, the carts bearing the players disappear, we are omniscient again, and we see that “the sense of tragedy as a prelude to comedy is hardly separable from anything explicitly Christian.” Christian theology is comedy embracing tragedy; the Christian Bible is comedy embracing tragedy; indeed all things Christian are comedy embracing tragedy. Step back for a moment, however, and the picture is less clearly defined. Where has the crucial term “comedy” come from? Everything depends on one observation—that Dante wrote a great poem encompassing a vision of humanity and Christianity, and called it “The Divine Comedy.”
Exum and Whedbee find it striking that biblical scholarship has paid so little attention to the implications of Frye’s claim. That inattention has been due in part, of course, to the preoccupation of biblical scholars with critical approaches other than those of literary studies. It could also be suggested that the claim has perhaps lacked the kind of rigour which might have compelled attention.
I start my reflections on the present volume with this quotation, too, because it points, if indirectly, to several major concerns which the essays have raised for me—the question of comedy and laughter, Frye’s “U-shaped plot” and the “happy ending,” the problem of employing the generalized categories of comparative literature in the interpretation of particular biblical texts, and the question of comedy and ideology.
Comedy and Laughter
Early in their essay, Exum and Whedbee write that “the Bible revels in a profound laughter, a divine and human laughter that is endemic to the whole narrative of creation, fall and salvation, and finally a laughter that results in a wondrous, all-encompassing comic vision” (1.4). Yet at the risk of seeming unduly literal (and pressing their point beyond what they mean), I find myself not only wondering about the extent of laughter in the text, but also doubting that laughter well typifies our response to the text, whether “Bible” be Jewish or Christian.
To be sure, Exum and Whedbee carefully draw us through the Isaac narrative, pointing us to the play on the “laughter” in Isaac’s name.
After [Abraham’s] first outburst of incredulous laughter … we will hear again and again the echoes of laughter around this promised child (2.33). Sarah’s new laughter is wonderfully contagious: she extends it beyond the charmed circle of Yhwh, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, announcing that “everyone who hears will laugh over me” (2.5).
In the end Isaac emerges from this complex of comical stories as a being who is a sexual joke of sorts—but a joke as profound as it is whimsical, as serious as it is playful, for it contains all the mysterious rhythms of laughter and life both human and divine (2.5).
Yet Abraham’s and Sarah’s perspectives are not ours. The announcement of fertility that produces laughter in them may produce a rather different response in the reader, including (for example) wonder, puzzlement, incredulity, or even (for the reader-who-is-a-believer) trepidation at what might seem a blasphemy. For the reader’s perspective is larger than that of the patriarch and matriarch and the reader knows that Abraham and Sarah are laughing at God. For me, Sarah’s contagious laughter transmits itself beyond the page as wonder and joy, not as humour, not as a joke. The joke she enjoys stays somehow shared between her and her neighbours who had thought she was “past it!”—a joke dependent on relationships and sexual banter lying outside the affective range of our text. A story may be about laughter, but not itself essentially humorous, let alone laughter-evoking. Disjunctions of perspective (Abraham’s, God’s, the reader’s) do not automatically create humour—they may also be, for example, the stuff of tragedy. And is there a difference, I wonder, between the reader who reads for the first time (or “as if” for the first time) and the reader who already knows the “ending”?
It is not that I feel confident that I understand the anatomy of laughter, but that the disparity between the “full-throated, vibrant and infectious” laughter which Exum and Whedbee locate and make central to their analysis and what I “hear” in the text and how I respond to it raises the question acutely for me. So similarly for the reading of the Isaac story as a whole. Isaac, the “being who is a sexual joke of sorts,” is “one of the most comical of Israel’s ancestors” (2.2). If “laughter,” “joke,” and “comical” belong to the same stable of terms, then I really (still) do not see this. Exum and Whedbee’s account of the “acted-upon” Isaac is observant; but their attempt to characterize him as a “classic half-pathetic, half-humorous dupe” jumps beyond the text and, indeed, beyond their own discussion. Despite the wife-sister episode, and perhaps, too, the birth-right scene, we see little of a character, rounded or flat. He is almost what is sometimes called an “agent.” He remains a shadow for the most part. To compare him to Chaplin’s tramp makes my point—the tramp has vivacity, activity, (extravagantly) expressed emotion, and pronounced physicality. Isaac has none of these. The comic model seems to be pressing the reading here.
In fact, the notion of “laughter” creates an interesting tension in the present book. The first study, as we have just observed, invites us to see the “mysterious rhythms of laughter” of the Isaac story, and the “laughter that is endemic to the whole [biblical] narrative.” With the discussion of the prophets, however, the terms “laughter” and even “humour” noticeably give place to the ubiquitous “comedy” or “comic” (with Gottwald’s “comic relief” [3.4.1] bursting the bounds of English usage), while Good is obliged to distance laughter and comedy (0.1–0.3) and in doing so brings us back to Dante: “There is not much humor in Dante’s Commedia, but no one within my ken has proposed that Dante mistitled his great work” (0.2). On the other hand it is disingenuous of him to leave the matter there. Whedbee and Exum assert that “though comedy cannot be reduced to a simplistic equation with the humorous and laughable, comedy nevertheless seeks habitually to elicit laughter” (1.81). The critic who seeks to hijack the term “comedy” and carry it to a land where no laughter is must overfly Greece and Rome, and the hilarity of Aristophanes, Menander and Plautus, as well as numerous western isles, all with their theatres of mirth. Comedy as we have habitually known it sounds more like what is billed at Whedbee and Exum’s theatre than Good’s, despite Dante. Perhaps Good’s problem—the merely modest evocation of mirth in his text—epitomizes Frye’s vis-à-vis the whole Christian Bible. And may I venture the observation of a certain irony in the fact that it is precisely Aristophanes’ drama, so funny, from which Good draws the structural conventions by which he attempts to anchor the not-nearly-so-funny Book of Daniel as comedy.
In short, though to say so is probably naive, I am unwilling to let the audience’s (reader’s) laughter slip from any prominence in discussion of comedy.
Although the volume as a whole is unable to delineate an audience or readership habitually responding by laughter, it does focus upon a good many “humorous moments” (cf. Good, 0.3). Buss, especially, isolates discrete elements of humour and suggests with some precision how they contribute to our reading of Hosea. But the fact that such moments and effects turn up in a work “is not by itself,” as Good remarks (0.3), and all the contributors well understand, “enough to establish the claim of comedy.” But what is “comedy”? In practice, in the present studies, it is variously “moments” of comedy (= humorous moments), a genre description (“a comedy,” “comedies”), or the cipher for a “vision,” an understanding of the underlying meaning (or direction?) of life. (Something similar could be said of the term “tragedy.”) It would be surprising if there were not some tendency to slip at times from one meaning to another, and this happens; but it seems to me that it is the last of the above usages that predominates—”comic” or “comedy” pertains to an ideology, “the comic vision.” How do we recognize it? Of the various suggestions offered by the contributors, one stands out. Fundamentally the “comic vision” is embodied in the “U-shaped plot” (or, if we are to speak of tragedy, the “inverted U”).
The “U-Shaped Plot” And the “Happy Ending”
The problem with this designation “U-shaped” (as with its “tragic” counterpart) is that it is hard to think of a single piece of serious literature that it could be said to describe with any precision, unless we are prepared to ignore both the proportions of the letter “U” and the specific contours of numerous plots. Let me develop the point a little.
First [argue Whedbee and Exum, following Frye], the plot lines of comedy and tragedy follow similar trajectories, but then conventionally break apart at the decisive endpoint. Thus both comedy and tragedy usually begin with a view of a harmonious, integrated society, a situation that is challenged or tested in some way as the action unfolds; but comedy typically swings upward at the end and shows the hero happily reintegrated within her or his rightful society, whereas tragedy typically ends with a fallen hero and a vision of disintegration, alienation, and death. To use N. Frye’s apt image, comedy follows a U-shaped plot line, whereas tragedy has an inverted U-shaped movement … In a word, tragedy ends in catastrophe, whereas comedy ends in carnival (1.7, cf. 1.92, 2.42, 2.72, 3.8, etc.).
The focus here is upon the beginning, the harmonious society, and, noticeably, the end. Letter “U” notwithstanding, the crucial plot divergence is located at the end. Above all, it is the perspective of the end, catastrophe or carnival, that enables our final discrimination. The description is attractively simple, and we easily find ourselves according it a good measure of assent. The difficulties arise, however, when we apply it, for example, to some of the texts mentioned in the present studies.
Oedipus Rex begins not with a “harmonious integrated society” but with despair and disintegration. While Oedipus the “hero” is brought low, order is restored in the society (at least in terms of this play, and even, eventually in the trilogy). There is no mid-point (or end-point) “high” (the “inverted U”) whether for Oedipus or Thebes, nor any “swing” downwards for the king at the end—his journey down the path to blindness and knowledge is inexorable. Macbeth begins with war and ends with intimations of peace and a restored society, with king, noble and people in their “rightful place.” We can only describe Macbeth’s career as an “inverted U” by taking his elevation to kingship as genuine elevation and ignoring the texture of both plot and poetry which tells us that “elevation” is in reality a slide to ruin.
Whedbee and Exum themselves recognize the lack of fit with Frye’s scheme, by speaking with Steiner of “tempered tragedy” and pointing to the “restorative” endings of both Macbeth and Hamlet (3.1). They do not recognize therein the demise of the model “U.” Add the complex and wonderfully ambiguous ending of King Lear, where death and life vie with one another in the figure of Lear himself, and we have surely seen enough to realize that neither “U-shape” or “inverted U,” nor definition in terms of beginning and end, will easily suffice.
In practice, it is not the “U-shaped plot” as such that we meet with in the present volume so much as the “happy ending” which seems often to be taken to be expressive of it. This is what Exum and Whedbee appear to have in mind in drawing our attention to Gunkel’s comment on Genesis 27, viz. that “the substance of the story is and remains that a deception finally has a happy ending” (2.133); it is what Exum and Whedbee single out as characteristically “comic” in Genesis 22: “its plot line … follows the U-shaped pattern intrinsic to comedy. Though it indeed has its moments of near tragedy and pathos, each time we find the decisive upturn to a happy ending” (2.15). It seems to be why Gottwald depicts the Book of Jonah as a comedy, for it “exhibits the comic U-shaped plot, deriving its energy and suspense from the way that a resisting and petulant Israelite prophet finally becomes the means for a repentant Nineveh to be saved by the mercy of Israel’s God” (1.2).
The understanding of the “U-shaped plot” as “happy ending,” however, offers little advance on the “reintegration” criterion, since it, too, raises problems about point of view; and with much biblical narrative, it involves suppressing the very complexity, ambiguity, or irony that is its life-blood. From whose point of view is the ending of the story of Jacob’s deception of Isaac a “happy ending”? Nothing in the text of Genesis 27 (or 28) suggests a happy Isaac; Esau hates his brother; Rebekah is afraid that the one son will kill the other, and engineers (her final deception) Jacob’s departure. Although eventually there is reconciliation (Genesis 33), the scene leading to it is impregnated with fear, and the coda with unease—and there ensues rapid separation which might be seen at the same time as social disintegration.
The Book of Jonah ends not with the repentance of Nineveh—that is simply the beginning of the Second Act—but with an exasperated Jonah (“It is good for me to be angry, angry enough to die!”) sitting under a withered plant, waiting to see what will happen in the great city, and listening to the reproof of God. The Lord had appointed a plant that it might “deliver Jonah from his evil”—and had then destroyed it. Jonah had delivered Nineveh from its evil. And what worm would cause him (had already caused him?) to wither? What, too, of Nineveh and God’s pity? We, like Jonah, can hardly believe that the rapid and convulsive “repentance”—so farcically presented (Ackerman; cf. Holbert and Miles), because so farcical—will not be as rapidly reversed. So when will God repent of repentance and destroy that great and wicked city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who did not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? For we, the readers, know what Jonah knows in his bones, that Nineveh will be destroyed. Nineveh was destroyed (as, too, Jonah’s precious temple [2:4, 7]). The ending of the book is bitter-sweet.
The Samson story is illustrative, also. Exum’s work on this text is notable, and we stand much in her debt. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the present preoccupation with the category of comedy and the “U-shaped plot” has not led Exum and Whedbee to press comedy out of literature that cannot satisfactorily be labelled as either comedy or tragedy (which is what Crenshaw [in Samson], even if he does not succeed in integrating his reading, has appreciated). The beginning of the story, in its final form, is oppression by the Philistines, and noticeably a breaking of a pattern: this time there is no cry to Yahweh for deliverance. This, then, is no harmonious, integrated society, not at least from the perspective of the narrator, even if the scene that ensues is one of apparently undisturbed domesticity! Nor is it—from this perspective—the Philistines who are the “blocking characters who inhibit movement.” Rather it is Israel who blocks itself.
The ending is even more ambivalent. Samson dies knowing communion (harmony) with God. We know that somehow, despite massive disregard of the nazirite vow (which, unlike Exum and Whedbee, I see as central to the story), he is indeed nazir, separated, dedicated to God, dedicated by God to serve him with strength—in death. In death, as Exum and Whedbee observe, he begins to deliver Israel from the Philistines—unasked! Yet it is not so much his physical blow against them (that he had done before) but his theological blow that is sigificant! It is not Dagon, as the Philistines reiterate, but precisely Yahweh who had given him, like Israel before him, into the hands of the Philistines and Yahweh who thus brings low Dagon in his temple. The alternative is an irony difficult for the dying Philistines to contemplate—that Dagon had brought nemesis upon his own. In the final exercise of his God-given strength Samson demonstrates that Yahweh alone “delivers,” Yahweh alone is sovereign. Recognition of this theological datum is a sine qua non of deliverance, as Samson knows in seeking deliverance by death.
The ending, however, is not just harmony. While we who read know that Samson has been the recipient of Yahweh’s spirit, that “it was he who had judged Israel twenty years,” there is no sign of recognition by Israel. Indeed, far from recognizing the judge in their midst, the people of Judah had handed him over to their overlords! And while Samson, in crying for help against his Philistine oppressors, does what “Israel” had so noticeably failed to do at the outset of the story (and in this way, too, he “begins” to deliver Israel), he does so alone, and in terms merely of his own predicament. The subsequent episodes of the Book of Judges, the stories of Micah and the Danites, the Levite and his concubine, and the Benjaminite war, only compound the picture of an unknowing people: the apparently ordered and harmonious society is divided against itself and unmindful of the nature of its God. Moreover Samson’s life, as Vickery I think rightly sees it, has been marked by “separation.” Yahweh has not allowed him the domesticity of his parents, a wife, a loved one. (Even his brief visit to seek comfort in the arms of the prostitute, in the vacuum days of his life, must be cut short!) He dies knowing God, but apart from his own people, betrayed by the one he had loved. He is truly and ironically nazir!
Again, therefore, I would suggest that this is a conclusion which defies categorization in terms of “U-shape,” however that be envisaged, and resists assimilation to the categories of comedy or tragedy.
Exum and Whedbee are conscious of the difficulties inherent in appeal to a “happy ending.” The designation “comic,” they say, “does not necessarily mean that we like the way the story ends” (3.5); and they quote Frye by way of clarification: “Does anything [asks Frye] that exhibits the structure of a comedy have to be taken as a comedy, regardless of its content or of our attitude to that content? The answer is clearly yes. A comedy is not a play which ends happily: it is a play in which a certain structure is present …” The question is, however, What is that structure? The best our theoretician can come up with here is to add lamely: “… and works through to its own logical [festive] end.” The bracketed “festive,” with its connotation of “joyous,” is significant. “Festive” is required in order to avoid defining “tragedy” by mistake! A comedy, then, is a play with a certain structure which is marked by its movement towards a happy ending. We are back, of course, where we started, with the “U-shaped plot” and the “happy ending.”
Comparative Categories and Biblical Interpretation
One other “structure” is explored in the volume, and that is Good’s ingenious delineation of the Book of Daniel in terms of the conventions of Aristophanic comedy. Ingenious it is, indeed, but so vestigial (arbitrary?) are some of the components located in Daniel (some are extremely vestigial in Aristophanes, for that matter) that while intrigued by the possibilities explored, I, for one, was not finally convinced, despite the pleasure I had in meeting again some old friends (agon, parabasis and the others) after so many years. If Daniel in the lion’s den (chapter 6) be designated “potential feast,” might not the same label be used of chapter 1? Why the switch from chorus to protagonist (deuteragonist?) in the “parabasis” of chapter 4, or the use of narrative style rather than polemic? And whatever the historical (cultic?) roots of these conventions in Aristophanes (a moot point), they seem to bear only tangentially, if at all, on the particular texture of any given play. Likewise Good’s structural argument seems in the main to lie alongside—incidental to, rather than integrated with—his critical analysis of the Daniel story, except when he deploys models, eiron and alazon, in aid of his understanding of character and roles.
Good’s analysis of the book as a whole exhibits a characteristically deft touch. Both individual stories (episodes) and their cumulative effect are refreshingly treated. His observation of plot development (e.g. the expanding knowledge of God on the part of the Babylonian king—so reminiscent of Pharaoh in Exodus 1–15) is an important feature which will find support in other holistic readings (so, for example, Sibley Towner’s splendid new commentary). His argument against interpreting the text simply in terms of “resistance to persecution” also carries weight (and again Towner develops this point), though there are other possible ways of dealing with the picture of an apparently successful (“comic”) accommodation of Jew and pagan within the pagan society than by abandoning altogether a Maccabean setting (cf., e.g., Philip Davies). For present purposes, however, the question that remains with me is how far the main lines of his reading have been shaped by use of the category “comedy” and whether it is the decision to read chapters 1–6 as “a comedy” that have made it so difficult for him to integrate into his reading the apparent determinism of the succeeding chapters.
None of this is to deny the value of comparative studies in general, or the deployment of the categories of comedy or tragedy in particular. For myself, wrestling with the Saul story (The Fate of King Saul), I found that recourse to models of tragedy could be heuristically valuable (it helped me to distinguish some of the threads of critical discussion of Saul’s “flaw” and “fatedness”); and in the same way Good uses the eiron/alazon model creatively. Nevertheless, I do sense a need for reserve, when it comes to applying such broad genre labels as comedy and tragedy to individual biblical texts let alone to the whole Bible, Jewish or Christian. Thus, as I have already indicated, I am inclined to see the preoccupation with comedy as a genre (in the shape, largely, of the U-shaped plot and the “happy” or at least “restorative” ending) as standing in the way of Exum and Whedbee’s appreciating more readily the strength of Vickery’s rather sombre reading of the Samson story.
It is also, I suspect, an underlying model of “tragic flaw” that leads Good (in Irony in the Old Testament—and if the interpretation is much savoured, it is perhaps only sipped, by Exum and Whedbee) to develop his reading of the Saul story around the depiction of insecurity, an inferiority complex, in a person “not fitted for a job that should not have been opened” (cf. Exum and Whedbee, 3.23), and to miss the textual evidence for understanding Saul’s perspective as one of good faith (in 1 Samuel 13 and 15), the irony of Good’s own (authoritarian) evaluation of the “weakness” of a king who “listened to the people,” and the powerful dimension of determinism in this story where reconciliation and integration is so decisively destroyed by the spirit of Yahweh.
Exum and Whedbee argue, with regard to tragedy in general, that “the issue of the hero’s so-called flaw is subordinate to the inexorable movement toward catastrophe and the increasing isolation of the hero in a cosmos that appears inhospitable and capricious” (1.82) (which sounds just a little like the story of Samson?—pace Exum and Whedbee!). With such a model of tragedy we might well anticipate in their reading—and we are not disappointed—a greater responsiveness to that transcendent determinism in the story. And if, in that, they draw closer to my own understanding of this narrative, that is fine!—but not my point. Rather I would urge that we resist allowing any particular literary model or genre theory too much leeway in shaping our perspective on the text, especially where, as in the case of biblical texts, it has yet to be demonstrated that the conventions of (say) classical or Elizabethan drama are closely paralleled in the conventions of “biblical” literary composition. Comedy and tragedy, comedies and tragedies, comic and tragic “elements”—these may be heuristic tools, but where we are tempted to see them as “keys” to our reading, we risk losing sight of vital idiosyncrasy, of both the text and ourselves.
Comedy and Ideology
There is a further dimension to this reserve about deploying comparative models. Let me expand a little on what I mean by taking one more example.
Comedy … celebrates the rhythm of life … [and] bring[s] down the boastful who block the free movement of life. Comedy takes up its arms against the forces that stifle life and laughter (Exum and Whedbee, 1.81; cf. Good).
With that definition and encomium in mind, to designate a text as comedy is to bring to it a large ideological baggage-train. Comedy is good. It enhances life. It takes up arms in support of freedom. It is, in short, the weapon of whichever cause, whichever ideology is claiming “freedom” for its own. Good touches on the problem in his uneasy paragraph (0.4) on the social significance of comedy, where he recognizes that comedy can become the agent of propaganda—and goes on to observe that comedy is always in some way subversive. For my part, I would be inclined to turn that around and argue that comedy is always an agent of propaganda, and only sometimes is it subversive. It can, indeed, mock and undermine a social order, or some part of it. More often—and we see this constantly on the television (American “family” comedies are a case in point)—it works by simply trading off one set of imposed values or conventions against another, and so, while tinkering with peripherals, reinforces the status quo. Indeed, comedy can as readily work for the establishment of a closed, repressive society as an open one. Socially liberating comedy is rare. The ending is important: perhaps just because they seek “restoration” or a “happy ending” comedies tend to rely on the very social structure that they are “criticizing” for the basis of the plot resolution, to secure the hero’s “reintegration” into his or her “rightful society”—that is, the same old society, even if the characters along the way may be shown to have learnt a lesson or two about how to operate therein. At the end the sociey may seem a nicer place, but generally this is an illusion, a stock-in-trade of a genre which is habitually used to reinforce the social or economic system, the value system, which spawns it.
When, therefore, we bring the model “comedy” to bear upon a biblical text, again we would do well to retain a certain agnosticism concerning the ideological contours of that model, thus remaining open to varying political/ideological positions which may inform our biblical texts, and be receptive, too, to the critique which awareness of them may open up in our own standpoint. “Freedom” is an ambiguous quantity which cuts many ways in the Bible.
Gottwald, too, raises the issue of propaganda, and interestingly does so in the context of a discussion of prophetic literature which plainly cannot be contained within the categories of comedy and tragedy. Both he and Whedbee/Exum take up David Robertson’s comparative treatment of Exodus 1–15 (as comedy) and Euripides’ The Bacchae (tragedy) to emphasize the value of plot-line analysis for setting up a stimulating comparative study, in Gottwald’s case in order to develop an argument about biblical prophecy (comedy) and propaganda. If Whedbee and Exum had pursued the relevance of Robertson’s reading a little further, they would have noticed that his characterization of Exodus, the “comedy,” as simple-minded propaganda, the literature of direction, did not accord well with their depiction of the life-enhancing, free movement of comedy. For his part, Gottwald is not content to let Robertson have the last word on what is the best “practice for living” and in pursuing the “practical” advantages of moral direction over the morality of ambiguity is led to assert that prophecy “is in its sum much more subtle than melodrama because it tends to show how the increase of ironies and ambiguities sometimes leads to major society-dividing crises” (4.6–7). He could go further, to speak of other ironies which prophetic texts set up. The reader perceives irony in the fact that should the implied function of prophecy work—to bring “repentance”—then the truth of the prophecy (and the validity of the prophet) is called into question—one of the many ironies taken up and developed by the irony-conscious author of Jonah. There is irony, too, in the proclamation of righteous judgement, which specifies injustice against the widow and orphan, the innocent, but generalizes in condemnation of all (prophet included!), so that the children’s ears tingle at what their parents hear. Though Gottwald attempts to shift some of that irony of “rough justice” from person to society or institution, it is hard to remove from the text those kernels of personal reference which focus this disjunction of perspective between prophet and reader. As for Exodus 1–15, I would take issue with Robertson and suggest another reading of a narrative that is shot through with ironies, which summons to freedom, yet without illusion (cf. Gunn, 1982). As commentators have long observed, it is a paradigm tale of deliverance from servitude to service—or servitude!
Conclusion and Prospect
Somewhere the reviewer must quit. This volume has been to me a powerful stimulus to confront major matters of theory, a challenge to re-examine many biblical texts. My musings above are but some threads of thought, tangled perhaps, which have been prompted by it. There are many points, particularly in connection with the interpretation of specific texts (especially on Samson and Daniel), that remain to be taken up at another time. Nor has space permitted any detailed appreciation of some highly engaging and persuasive criticism—and I note in this connection above all my neglect of Exum and Whedbee’s fine reading of the Saul story. I came to the volume wary of taking theory and theoretical categories as a starting point for criticism and perhaps that bias will account for some rather negative response on aspects of the present enterprise. I would not, however, wish that tone to dominate this review. For there can be no question but that these essays have raised an important issue and in doing so rendered biblical criticism a service. The subject demands attention. This volume will focus lines of inquiry into the nature of biblical literature which might profitably have been pursued, as Whedbee and Exum assert, long ago. It will stimulate insight in the future. Let me mention four particular areas which might be part of the ongoing discussion.
(1). I think that the broad focus on “comedy” as a biblical genre might usefully give way to more detailed attention to some of its elements, and in particular to the subject of humour: the varieties of humour, especially Jewish; the nature of literary humour and how we read it, e.g. humour and reader-response theory.
(2). Discussion of “plot” in this volume has made doubly clear the significance of making decisions about where we begin and end our reading, a question that has been crucial for diachronic studies but is even more so for synchronic readings, as the rise of “final form” interpretation has made clear. As critics we need to become both more conscious of our decisions in this regard and develop ways of coping responsibly with the practical need to locate readable units within larger contexts—units which may not necessarily correspond to the units of the source- or form-critics. In one of its larger dimensions, this question pertains to the varying definitions of “Bible.” In the present volume we see sometimes the meaning of the term shift from one tradition to another without always a clear signal of the shift, and always when this happens it is, of course, conducive neither to critical clarity nor to the fostering of a pluralist scholarly enterprise. The definition of “Bible” is part of the subject matter of boundary definition, context, and perspective, a vital part of the process of interpretation.
(3). Another matter concerns the definition of “hero.” Clearly one of the problems that emerged for me in connection with the “U-shaped plot” or the “happy ending” was the definition of perspective—and the isolation of a “hero” is plainly tied up with the question of perspective, especially in biblical texts which enjoy some peculiarities. Gottwald touches on the problem when he searches for the “hero” (protagonist?) of prophetic literature (4.9) and toys for a moment with the “leaders” of the people. Within the Pentateuch or the Deuteronomistic History we may single out for consideration patriarchs, matriarchs, judges, prophets or kings, depending on which (component) story we are reading. But then there is also Yahweh, both within each story and as a character in the larger story, and finally, of course, the only other character of longevity in the Hebrew Bible, “the people.” As so often in discussion of biblical literature, context (boundaries) turns out to be of crucial importance, as we have just observed. By this time we might also find ourselves asking whether “hero” is itself an appropriate category for the analysis of biblical literature (of whatever Bible).
(4). I close by noting a major theological theme which obtrudes through the discussion, namely the question of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Most obviously, the delineation of “tragedy” as “fate” and/or “flaw” finds analogy in the sovereignty/freedom tension. Good’s reading of Daniel is thought-provoking in connection with this theme. He finds a determinism capturing the second part of the book, reducing Daniel to cardboard and extinguishing our engagement with the story. Things are different in chapters 1–6; although “Director, the off-stage manipulator of the comic plot” (Good, 2.15), God does not thereby oppress the narrative with that manipulation, perhaps just because God is off-stage (the analogy is helpful). This suggests that the theological paradox, that divine sovereignty and human freedom can coexist, is successfully expressed in narrative theology only by the author maintaining a delicate “literary” balance in the manipulation of plot and disposition of characters. Of course the theme of sovereignty/freedom emerges in other ways, too—as in the reversal which finds a human sovereign humbling himself before the divinity. But the observation of the literary effect of the final determinism is particularly interesting for what it implies for the theological impact of the book as a whole. It is a challenge taken up by Towner in his new commentary and it is one that must confront any future final-form interpretation. A few thoughts I bring to the discussion: when Good wonders at the “impatient tone” in which Daniel is dismissed at 12:9, I wonder in response (and this would require some exegetical demonstration—elsewhere!) whether this is not the end of a process of very delicate undercutting. Whence have come Daniel’s strengths, his ability to know dreams, his “wisdom,” but from God. All have been carefully placed at God’s disposal—by God. There can only be one sovereign in this story, one hero, and that figure must be one and the same. I would point, also, to another development feeding the theme of divine sovereignty. If the book makes clear that Daniel is but God’s agent (instrument?) in the conversion and subordination of the human sovereign, it also makes clear that to choose Yahweh, to “fear” Yahweh, to respond to Yahweh in faith, comes only by divine decree or out of human freedom. It cannot come by human decree. No one can secure God (it is a familiar theme!). The book is punctuated by decrees. The injunction to “worship the image” in chapter 3 gives place to “fear before the God of Daniel” of chapter 6. Against the irony of the king decreeing the worship of Yahweh (Daniel’s god!) is set the irony of his unawareness that such is not his to decree. In humility he still plays God. Here is but the obverse of the tyrant who decrees worship of other gods. Both decrees are ultimately absurd. The irony, therefore, touches all who think to enforce religion—it is a message to Constantine, as it is to Antiochus.
(Only works not cited in the main essays are included here)
Ackerman, James S.
1981 “Satire and Symbolism in the Song of Jonah,” in Traditions in Transformation. Ed. Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. Pp. 213–46.
Davies, Philip R.
1980 “Eschatology in the Book of Daniel,” JSOT 17: 33–53.
Gunn, David M.
1982 “The ‘Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart’: Plot, Character and Theology in Exodus 1–14,” in Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature. Ed. David J. A. Clines, David M. Gunn and Alan J. Hauser. JSOT Supplement Series, 19. Sheffield: JSOT. Pp. 72–96.
Holbert, John C.
1981 “Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!’ Satire in the Book of Jonah,” JSOT 21: 59–81.
Miles, John A.
1974–5 “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody,” Jewish Quarterly Review 65: 168–81.
Towner, W. Sibley
1984 Daniel. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox.
Are We in the Place of Averroes? Response to the Articles of Exum and Whedbee, Buss, Gottwald, and Good
University of Alberta
Admirable tragedies and comedies abound in the pages of the Koran. J. L. Borges: “Averroes’s Search”
0.1 What is the meaning of comedy and tragedy in the Bible? Are we speaking of a specific kind of vision? Or of a literary genre?
0.11 Exum and Whedbee see it in terms of vision, expressed through distinctive kinds of style, plot, and characterization i.e. generic qualities.
0.2 To say that there is a comic or tragic vision (or shall we say interpretation) in the Bible does not make it comedy or tragedy. The Comedy of Isaac. The Tragedy of Saul. These seem to me to be useless categories that obscure the Bible’s resistance to classification.
0.21 One would cease to see each story as part of a narrative continuum, without a clear beginning or end, in which the narrator’s stance of objectivity, as “historian,” refuses to permit clear conclusions. For the U’s and inverted U’s of comedy and tragedy the narrator substitutes a series of squiggles.
0.22 An evident example of this, to anticipate, is the story of Samson. I do not think that the denouement, in which he dies in the midst of his enemies, can be regarded as comic, nor is it simply tragic. Its ambiguity, and that of Samson, is crucial. Likewise, while Saul and his sons are dying on Mt. Gilboa, our pity and grief is tempered by our confidence in the continuing narrative, that it will pick up elsewhere, probably in Ziklag.
0.3 That comedy and tragedy refer primarily to species of dramatic literature is, I think, a fatal objection. Tragedy, comedy and their offspring are confined to the stage, and speak to us of ourselves through the masks of illusion, and with the aid of Dionysus. The Bible claims to be a universal literature, to signify ultimate reality. It thus reduces it to pin it down to this or that generic label.
1.0 Given this qualification, and the suspicion that we are in the place of Averroes, it seems to me that the subject is definitely worth discussion, and very interesting. On the other hand, I think that some of the participants have not sufficiently considered the modes and means of the subject, what makes it interesting, what and how it communicates. Too much of the discussion consists of a desperate search for comic and tragic attributes.
1.1 One further reservation that I have is that all the participants agree that the vision of the Bible is fundamentally comic, with a tendency towards ultimate integration. I think this is over simplistic. I would say that the vision of the Bible is much of the time acutely tragic. It is fully and honestly aware of the horror of our lives. Its only virtue is this honesty.
1.11 There are not just Saul and Jephthah to provide tragic relief from the positive thinking of the Bible. There is the classic working out of nemesis on David and his house. There is Solomon, to whom the Lord grants wisdom, and who ends up womanising and worse, and whose magnificence, as an expression of hubris, sows disintegration. Samuel cries to the Lord all night for Saul, and rends his cloak in mourning; I think he grieves over Saul, whom he has made, and who is ultimately identified with him; his last posthumous appearance seems to me profoundly sorrowful. Gideon’s family is wiped out; the house of David falls; its ideal king, Josiah, is the victim of an Egyptian arrow. This applies also to the most central characters. Moses dies outside the Promised Land, as a consequence too of a tragic flaw. Jacob says to Pharaoh, “Few and evil have been the days of my life” (Gen 47:9), a statement whose melancholy we cannot simply dismiss as self-pity. On his deathbed, he is still grieving for Rachel (Gen 48:7), and still harbours rancour against Reuben, Simeon and Levi (Gen 49:3–7). His wounds do not heal.
1.111 There are also characters who are not tragic. Principal among these is Abraham, with the marvellous sexual liberation of his old age. Others who come to mind are Deborah, Joshua, possibly Elijah and Elisha. Joseph, with his dying injunction to take his bones back to Canaan, his consciousness of exile and estrangement from his brothers, seems to me slightly ambiguous.
1.12 Exum and Whedbee, following Frye, see Job as the epitome of the Bible (2.1). Whedbee, in his 1977 article, argues that Job is comedy. I think this is very contentious. I hope to return to this later.
1.2 Not only the lives of individuals, but also the history of the world, has its tragic aspect. We are expelled from Eden at the beginning of the book, and attempt ever more unavailingly to get back there. The Hebrew Bible, at any rate, ends more or less with the destruction of the Temple, for which Cyrus’ decree and the pitiful return of the Exiles does not provide adequate compensation.
1.21 What saves the Bible from being purely tragic is of course that it is not closed. However many and discouraging are the false starts, history and the promise continue. For this reason the Prophets can invest all their hopes in a blissful future. We can only read it, however, with a sense of irony, based on the knowledge of its unfulfillment.
1.3 Finally, on this score, the Bible is polyphonous, accommodating many voices. To encompass it in an overall vision may distort it.
1.4 Let’s go back to Job, because it is a good test case, and will take us to the heart of the issue.
1.41 I would agree that the vision at the end of Job is essentially comic, a celebration of the universe as a glorious chaos, amoral, absurd, like the ostrich, and beautiful.
1.42 Moreover, Job himself undergoes a comic therapeutic process, from the wish for death and the experience of the world as entirely evil to a desire for light, nostalgia for former felicity; and restoration to outward prosperity and inner well-being.
1.421 The tragedy of Job is not thereby contradicted. Job still speaks for suffering humanity, who in reality are not graced with redemptive visions, whom God does not answer, as the friends never tire of pointing out, once in a thousand, and with the irony of wish-fulfilment in the fairy-tale ending.
1.43 What is more important is the nature of the comic vision in Job. For it is not one of a happy, stable and integrated universe. It is a cruel and haphazard place. The essence of the vision is the ability to accept the cruelty and absurdity, to say “hey, ho,” despite the wind and the rain, fortune’s knocks, being dressed in motley.
1.44 Divine laughter is difficult to interpret. Is God laughing at God’s creation because it is funny?
1.441 Laughter is an extremely subversive idiom, inexplicable, contagious, related to every other explosion of the body. Often we laugh without knowing why. According to Freud, because we do not wish to know why.
1.442 Laughter is hence a Dionysiac experience, opposed to rationality and order. It both releases repressed energy, as in catharsis, and is profoundly destructive.
1.45 The laughter at the end of Job is life-affirming, but also detached and dismissive. “Yes, I did it, I made it, it’s quite ridiculous, but nevertheless fun. A poor thing, but my own.”
1.46 Laughter expresses an anarchic delight in nonsense. Hence its subversion of language through puns, or of action through slapstick. One of the messages of laughter is that behind the sense of the world is nonsense; one of its motivations is a resistance to the effort of making it cohere.
1.47 Regression may be a retreat from an acceptable adult reality: so God takes Job metaphorically by the hand and shows him the universe; a comforting infantile world is substituted, by make-believe, for inhospitable actuality. Or it may be a resource from which to construct a new reality, integrating the whole of experience, the structured and the inarticulate.
1.471 This laughter may mark the unexpected insight, the thought that comes apparently out of nowhere. The comic vision has as its object a new order, in which the repressed is released and accommodated. Job claims such understanding; it is not clear that he achieves it.
1.48 Both the comic and tragic vision may be characterised by a free movement of love despite the absurdity and folly of the world, towards Shakespeare’s sillier characters, for example, or towards Lear, although he is “a foolish, fond, old man.”
1.5 The “profound divine and human laughter” that Exum and Whedbee correctly perceive (1.4) in the Bible does not, as they claim, encompass its tragedy; at least I see no rational grounds why, if death is “unredeemed” (ibid.) and disaster “unmitigated” (ibid.) it should, unless to make the task of Biblical critics more bearable. The tragedy is not, as I have tried to suggest, “episodic,” nor “ephemeral in its ultimate effects”—though when talking of ultimate effects anything may be ephemeral. Instead the laughter may be a reaction to the tragedy, a most uncomfortable one, or it may be the tragedy itself. “As files to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport.” In any event, it must be interpreted. Is it the terrifying laughter of chaos or the polite laughter of an affirmed society? Is the tragedy an incomprehensible destructiveness or the working out of a moral order? Exum and Whedbee seem to suggest that neither comedy nor tragedy can be fully appreciated apart from each other, that they need each other for contrast (try Aeschylus). I wonder if their relationship is not more insidious, that they do not share a hidden identity, whether they might not be easily confused, interchangeable.
1.51 “All art is ‘tragic’ in its content; it depicts suffering. Even comedy thrives on this sympathy for the ever present poverty and deficiency of existence. Art is tragic in content, just as it, and all art, is comic in form. It simply depicts—even the most monstrous—with a certain romantic-ironic levity” (Rosenzweig: 376).
1.52 A joke of Nachman of Bratslav: I thank God every day for telling me that this world is this world, otherwise I would have thought it was hell.
2.0 I propose to begin with Exum and Whedbee, since theirs is the most ambitious and comprehensive essay in this volume, and since it deals with biblical narrative, the dramatic richness of which must make it the centre of discussion. Buss and Gottwald venture on an uncertain path into the Prophets. Finally, Good’s altogether excellent essay illustrates the problems through the remoteness of his subject from the main biblical tradition.
2.1 Exum and Whedbee are very perceptive in their analysis of Isaac. There are occasional crudities of style and insight, but in general they are very attentive to the detail of the text, and subtle in their awareness of its complexity. Where the analysis fails, it does so because of its insistence on a comic interpretation.
2.11 I agree, for example, with their evocation of the laughter surrounding Isaac’s birth (2.12), that he carries that ambiguous laughter in his blood (2.32), that he is a passive victim and survivor (2.10 etc.), and that the sense of comedy is carried by this capacity to survive, despite the tricks that are tirelessly played on him.
2.12 Moreover, the narrative does consist of a series of comic U’s—the rescue of Lot, the failure to lose Sarah, the birth of Isaac, the promise to Ishmael, the Akedah, the betrothal to Rebekah etc.
2.13 It is also true that “the brightest, happiest moment in Isaac’s whole life” was that of his birth (2.12). It was also the most significant. The rest of his life is an anticlimax.
2.14 I like the way, also, that Exum and Whedbee are sensitive to the limitations of their argument, e.g. the bitter-sweetness of the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Gen 21 (2.62). Theirs is a careful discussion that cannot be easily dismissed.
2.15 Nevertheless, I do not think that, despite comic elements, the story of Isaac is fundamentally comic. To characterise it as such is to diminish it, to deprive it of its seriousness, to turn him simply into a “dupe” or a “bumbler,” to use two of Exum and Whedbee’s epithets (2.11, 2.12). There is a sort of deconstructionist delight in mocking the sacred ancestor that is not there in the narrative. The critic may wish to be independent of the tradition that the ancestor is sacred. But the critic is not independent, but needs openness, whatever personal beliefs one possesses, to its pretensions and its presuppositions.
2.16 Exum and Whedbee conclude (2.15) that Isaac is “laughable and lovable,” a Biblical Noddy. This is a comfortable and sentimental glossing over of that which is unlovable and unlaughable in Isaac, such as the silent terror of the child who is about to be sacrificed, and the father who is unlovable because he is unloving.
2.2 I would like to turn to more specific reservations.
2.21 Exum and Whedbee rightly say (2.1, 2.2) that Genesis has an optimistic tendency, with its blessing communicated from generation to generation, like the seed. Nevertheless, one should not minimise the “backdrop of the exile from Eden and the wandering of the children of Adam and Eve” (ibid). The comedy takes place in the framework of tragedy. Further, they suggest that Genesis could be “more appropriatly called ‘the epitome of the narrative of the Bible’ than … Job.” Which narrative? Kings? Samuel? Judges? Joshua? The rebellions in the wilderness? I am profoundly suspicious of this search for a biblical epitome. Genesis is surely quite dissimilar to any other book of the Bible, and precisely in its optimism. Narrative motifs are reworked and used as reference points, as Miscall has shown, but in a quite different literary context.
2.211 The resolutions in Genesis are always only partial, always leave loose ends, as I have already said. From this perspective, the only true comedies in the Bible are Ruth and Esther.
2.212 Because the stories are open-ended (2.61), they are ambiguous. Isaac’s legacy is the unresolvable enmity of Esau and Jacob, coded in the genes and reinforced by lack of love. Abraham goes forth to bring blessing to all the families of the earth and in the end his own family is murderously divided.
2.22 The discussion of the scenes leading up to Isaac’s birth are all good. I don’t see why the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is “rather dreary” (2.41), but let that pass. I would only add that the “wife-sister” story in ch. 20 (2.42), in which the sterility of Abimelech’s household is transformed into wonderful fertility, foreshadows the birth of Isaac at the beginning of ch. 21. It is not thereby a complication or delaying tactic.
2.23 It is beautiful that Isaac should be a perpetual reminder of the scepticism in the hearts of Abraham and Sarah as well as of the wonder of his birth (and of any birth). Thereby God validates this laughter, which is dissembled in Abraham’s case as much as in Sarah’s (cf. Gen 17:17). The name could almost be a command, “One should laugh,” sceptically, disbelievingly. Then it is curious that Isaac so belies his name. Except that I think the text shows us not that Isaac is blindly trusting and uninquisitive, as he is usually presented, but that he is over-suspicious. For example, it is not that he is easily taken in by Jacob, but that he lacks confidence in his suspicion. He fears that the men of Gerar will take his wife, and they do nothing of the sort. He cedes the wells he digs to the Philistines, though they claim that he is stronger than themselves (Gen 26:16), presumably lacking that assurance. He asks, “Where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?”
2.231 Sarah says, “All who hear will laugh over me”—it is Sarah who is the bearer of the joke, not Isaac. Isaac is the one who transmits the story, just as all children bear witness to their parents’ laughter, but one does not necessarily, intrinsically, laugh at him, or them.
2.232 Ishmael’s play, however it be interpreted, is an evident reversal in significance. My contribution, for what it is worth: it could have associations with Isaac’s “play” מצחק in ch. 26. Then either Ishmael would be engaging in some sexual play with Isaac, or sexual play per se. This would give point to Sarah’s fears. If Ishmael is laughing innocently with Sarah for the existence of her child, or is playing amicably with Isaac, or indeed is simply playing (2.61), the story has intensified tragic significance. At any rate, that which has communicated the delight and surprise of being a laughing stock now becomes the instrument of intolerable anxiety. In part, this is because Ishmael’s laughter, no matter how innocuous, stands for the last laugh, that is still his; in part, because Sarah’s moment of triumph liberates her bitterness. Joy generates vindictiveness; she must banish the object that symbolises her shame. The danger of laughter is very clear in this morbid tale.
2.2321 The story itself has a comic resonance, as Exum and Whedbee say (2.62). But it is incomplete: the family remains irreparably split. Hagar finds Ishmael a wife from Egypt (Gen 21:21); while he himself lives in the wilderness, a piece of unassimilated wildness, defended and sustained by his arrows (Gen 21:20) that protect him, isolate him, and create a destructive bond with his victims. Only after Sarah’s death does he return home, to bury Abraham (Gen 25:9).
2.233 The treatment of the Akedah (“The Sacrifice of Isaac”) is generally satisfactory, especially the comparison with Job and Jephthah. I have a number of small reservations and additional points.
2.2331 It seems to me that we are prepared for the comic resolution, the “happy ending,” primarily by a) the fact that we, Isaac’s descendants, are still alive; b) the way the text identifies itself as an experiment through its opening words, “And God tested Abraham.” In other words, it tells us that God does not wish in earnest that Abraham sacrifice his son, and suggests that, if Abraham pass the test, God may intervene as in fact happens. If he fails, there will of course be no consequences at all for Isaac.
2.2332 I do not see that it is the centre of the Isaac story (2.8), nor that it characterises him as a type. After all, he is a little boy. The centre of the story, I would say, is ch. 26, in which he is the chief protagonist.
2.2333 The silence of Abraham and Isaac does not mitigate the horror (2.9). Abraham cannot say what is on his mind, and must maintain a desperate emotional control. Isaac’s silence, in the ultimate trauma, whether paralysed with fear, uncomprehending, perhaps disbelieving, is not less terrible. If he does not protest, we protest. A gothic sequence of cries, struggles and wriggles would only diffuse the narrative tension. The few words spoken, moreover, intensify the silence, because of what they cannot say.
2.2334 The joyous upswing of which Exum and Whedbee speak (2.9) seems rather muted to me. Abraham calls the name of the place “YHWH sees,” and they go home together, just as they came together.
2.2335 Finally, Isaac’s question, “Behold, the fire, and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” is not one of a comic buffoon, except insofar as children are funny. But the funniness of children is different from that of clowns. It has a gravity and dignity about it, and the naivety of new life. It is more pathetic because the laughter that Isaac brought with him, simply as a child, is about to be quenched.
2.24 The discussion of the wife-sister story in Gen 26 (2.11) is likewise convincing. The ludicrousness of Isaac’s behaviour is compounded by his sleeping with Rebekah under Abimelech’s window, literally under his nose. It is as if he has forgotten what he has just said!
2.241 But this is part of a general pattern: Isaac’s life is under the shadow of Abraham. Abraham has two wife-sister stories, so Isaac has one—but one in which all the narrative expectations are not fulfilled. Abraham negotiates with the Philistines over wells, and so does Isaac—but is characteristically less dignified and less successful. History repeats itself as farce. Isaac’s life is a continuation of Abraham’s, but testifies to its thematic exhaustion.
2.25 Why then is Isaac not a comic figure, unlike, say, Laban? First, because he is not laughed at or over in the text, pace Exum and Whedbee (2.12). Abimelech is angry with him (Gen 26:9–10), and then alternately fears and exploits him. Secondly, because the liminal moments of his life are not funny, or at least have a gravity about them: his question on the way to the mountain, his being comforted for his mother with Rebekah (Gen 24:67), his intercession with God for Rebekah (Gen 25:21), his grief over Esau’s marriages (Gen 26:35). Thirdly, because a passive victim is not usually comic. What is comic in Chaplin (a peculiarly inapposite comparison) is the heroic ingenuity and skill with which he attempts to master adversity.
2.26 The examination of Isaac’s blessing (Gen 27) illustrates these problems. By concentrating on the comic aspects of the scene, and reducing Isaac to a “classic half-pathetic, half-humorous dupe” (2.12), Exum and Whedbee, like Gunkel whom they cite, manage to misread it and minimise its seriousness. Half-hearted references to “pathos” (2.132) are not enough to account for Esau’s anguish, Isaac’s violent trembling, and our possible sympathetic reaction to it. To take a few points: Isaac is not senile, judging from his poetic talent; he is extremely canny; his blessings programme the history of his children for all eternity, and hence are profoundly serious; and it is not true that there is no moral judgement (2.132). On the contrary, as Fokkelman, Alter and others have pointed out, Jacob spends his life working out the karma of his deed, first when he goes into exile, secondly when Laban cheats him of the younger sister just as he had cheated his elder brother, and finally when his sons play a cruel joke on him just as he played one on his father, using a slaughtered goat as a mock human being.
2.27 To conclude: Isaac is an ironic character, he does survive (2.14) and this is his principal achievement, his life has comic aspects, but he himself is not a comic figure. His life does not end with a U-turn, for although both his sons come to bury him, they are not truly reconciled; nor is there any point in classifying him as either comic or tragic. Such classification reduces the person to a type.
2.3 The comparison of Samson and Saul is not simple, for several reasons. First, although they are thematically related, as Exum and Whedbee say (3.2), in the history of Saul the functions of Samson are divided between several characters: it is Jonathan, for example, who eats the fatal honey associated with linguistic absurdity, while David kills vast numbers of Philistines. Secondly, although Exum and Whedbee claim that in the story of Samson there are both comic and tragic elements (3.5), their interrelationship is not adequately accounted for, beyond the assertion that the tragic moments are subsumed in a comic vision. How exactly does Samson’s symbolic emasculation, blindness, and death relate to his triumph? Are they simply redeemed by it? Thirdly, the generic difference, whereby one story presents itself as part of an ongoing history, while the other is distanced through its folkloric resonance, including the repetitions that Exum and Whedbee describe rather well, and its temporal and spatial isolation, needs discussion. Samson is in a sense a much more parabolic figure than Saul.
2.31 All the fun of the Samson escapades, this joyous celebration of misrule, is enclosed in a tragic perspective. Reality reasserts itself, the Philistine oppressors are once more masters of the land, Samson’s mission is a geopolitical failure. His total isolation is exemplified by his betrayal by the Judahites. Personally, he has no heirs, which is perhaps just as well given his marriages. The national calamity is mirrored by the failure to propagate. Further—and this is the real point of contact with Saul—his misadventures have been predetermined by God. He falls for the Timnite woman because God is using him as an occasion against the Philistines (Judg 14:4). “By chance” a lion encounters him (14:5), he dispatches it, finds honey in its corpse, makes up a riddle, and so the whole disastrous sequence unfolds. So the God who is his only ally (Judg 15:18; 16:28) is also his enemy.
2.32 Samson is a “marginal” person, caught and moving ceaselessly between two worlds, and belonging to neither. He is symbolically marked as a marginal person by his extraordinary strength, by his Nazirite status, that makes him into a wild, Dionysiac figure, a personification of intoxication who cannot drink wine, and by the social vacuum that surrounds him. But he is also that which communicates between the two worlds, Israelite and Philistine, and is destroyed in the process.
2.33 The discussion of Saul is, I think, altogether very good. Saul is a tragic figure, a scapegoat for the sacrilege of the people’s desire for kingship, an office he does not want, set up by YHWH only to be destroyed. I would perhaps have rounded it off with a more intensive exploration of his personal relations: all those whom Saul most loves and on whom he most depends, Samuel, Jonathan and David, unwillingly become the instruments of his destruction.
2.331 I liked greatly the careful study of Saul’s death and the destruction of his house (3.101 et. seq.). Saul’s death is not, I think, evidence of a “failure of nerve” (so Good, quoted in 3.101), but of dignity. In a sense, like Samson’s, his death does come from YHWH, pace Exum and Whedbee, and has been long foreseeable (cf. 1 Sam 26:10), but he meets it facing the enemies of Israel and refusing to be humiliated by them (1 Sam 31:4). The freedom to take his own life is the only resource left to him. Comparably, Ahithophel’s suicide (2 Sam 17:23), after arranging his house, has an almost methodical, wise dignity about it (cf. Fokkelman, 1980:230–31). In death, then, Saul comes to himself and as such confronts his destiny. The nobility of the moment is reinforced by small details such as the loyalty and reverence of the armour-bearer. But it contrasts with the disintegration and madness we have seen earlier. If Saul is doomed, he is also in a sense cured.
2.332 At least in part this is the work of the witch of Endor (1 Sam 28), a scene which Exum and Whedbee likewise analyse very well. Through her maternal solicitude (1 Sam 28:24) she enables him to go his way in the full knowledge (which he had anyway) of his fate. Ironically, that which he attempted to uproot, the feminine tellurian cult, in the name of the destructive daemon of YHWH, is that which saves him.
2.3321 I would also have commented on two other passages: 1) the alternative version of Saul’s death in 2 Sam 1, which, whatever its truth-value in the text as it stands, clearly contributes a polyphonic, ambiguous quality to Saul’s demise; ii) David’s lament, also in 2 Sam 1, for another perspective on Saul, as a final choral comment.
2.333 “Cure,” catharsis, is an essential part of the tragic vision, the hope that something more precious to the human being than life survives or is discovered through every adversity. We find this, for example, with Lear, or the Oresteia.
2.34 The story of Saul is utterly dark, bleak, and mysterious; in Exum and Whedbee’s terms, it is indeed tragic. It is told with an economy and causal inevitability that is both aesthetically perfect and inexplicable, since we know that behind the appearance of moral judgement against Saul (3.15) there is a moral chaos, that Saul in no way deserves what he suffers. The problem of evil in God, which we find throughout the Bible, is here peculiarly pressing. Moreover, the working out of the tragedy, while perfect, is not unique; in the next book we find the equally classic fate, the consequence of a single tragic flaw, that befalls the house of David.
2.35 Samson, I think, exhibits equally strongly-marked comic and tragic characteristics. As a tragic figure, he is driven by a destiny he does not understand to commit ever greater acts of folly and thereby to destroy himself; he is a pharmakos, a scapegoat sent to the Philistines to effect communication between them and Israel. His life is fruitless; one of the many false starts in Judges. Exum and Whedbee are over-sanguine when they claim that he is “an instrument of the divine plan in which we implicitly trust” (3.21). At least, their view should be modified by that of Polzin, that by Judges any notion of a Deuteronomist’s programme has fallen to pieces. Like Saul, moreover, he faces his death with tragic dignity, affirming the value of a human being in extremity. It is true that in Saul’s case that finality of his end is augmented by his knowledge of divine abandonment, whereas Samson dies in communication with YHWH; the granting of his prayer, that God’s troublesome agent, having served his purpose, should kill himself, is a little too easy. Shades of Le Carré. Conversely, the divine solitude of Saul’s death is counteracted by human solidarity: he dies in the midst of his army, with loyalty of his armour-bearer, after his encounter with the tellurian mother-witch who feeds him, and to David’s grief in the name of Israel and the narrative.
2.36 There is also of course comedy in Samson: Samson is an Israelite Hercules, who for a brief space makes nonsense of human limitations. Even if the sober message, according to Exum and Whedbee, is that “the strong man cannot save himself; Samson depends on YHWH for life and death” (3.12), we experience in him a bizarre and primitive wish-fulfilment (would it be better to say a Biblical Asterix?), and a pleasure in sanctioned destructiveness that relates to the ambivalence of comedy and its cathartic function, as a harmless release of potentially dangerous desire (cf. Barber).
2.361 It is unnecessary to substantiate Samson’s conformity to the comic type; Exum and Whedbee do this very well. My point is simply that in the story comic and tragic determinants are equally powerful. In a sense, as I suggested, the comedy is enclosed in a tragic context (though Exum and Whedbee argue the opposite); from another point of view, all that matters is the fun of the moment, the anarchic liberation, the laughter that does not care for the consequences. And we can hold both perspectives: the immediate gratification and the future premonition, the orgy and the hangover.
2.362 This brings us to the moral question (3.15). Our reaction to Samson is not moral, as Exum and Whedbee truthfully assert, but pragmatic: You fool! Not another foreign woman! etc. What he represents is premoral; to put it another way, he scarcely becomes a moral person because he is driven by his daemon. Tragedy only results if the person is blamed for the daemon, or, as in Saul’s case, by the daemon for the daemon. Nevertheless, there is I think quite a strong and subtle moral sense throughout the cycle, not for things like wooing Philistine women—or rather the normative ethic is articulated by Samson’s parents (Judg 14:3) and suspended by the narrator—but against the Judahites for their treachery, the Philistines for being bad losers, and so on. Samson himself, moreover, is a moral zero: he is nice to his parents (Judg 14:9), and acutely sensitive to wrongs.
2.37 Finally, there is the difference of knowledge. Saul must know, and knows almost from the very beginning that he is fated, and that YHWH is his enemy; he is driven mad by his knowledge, which is thus self-fulfilling, but which is also his profoundest need: he is forever tapping oracles, and finally goes to the witch of Endor. Knowledge, as in the garden of Eden, is ultimately knowledge of death, nakedness, and shame. Samson never knows, or cares; he more or less never thinks. He assumes his familiar spirit is on his side; the real ambiguity of God is hidden from him. Yet, in a sense, unconsciously, he does know, since he pronounces his own doom: for the real victim of his riddle is himself, the strong man overcome by sweetness. But he never becomes aware of this irony.
2.38 Isaac, I have argued, is neither comic nor tragic, despite the presence in him of comic and tragic elements. He has too much personal gravity to be truly a tragic figure, at least not without distortion and reduction; and his life, without being perfectly satisfactory, is in no sense tragic. He is thus an eiron, an ordinary person, subordinated to a destiny greater than himself. In this he is like most of the people in the Bible, and most of us. Few of us are walking comedies and tragedies, no matter how many scrapes we get into, how many disasters befall us.
2.4 To conclude. The category of tragedy is certainly useful, in that it helps us to understand stories such as that of Saul. Even moments like the recognition scenes between Saul and David (1 Sam 24 and 26) add to the pathos in terms of classical tragedy, because reconciliation is so nearly achieved and so impossible.
2.41 Comedy is more difficult. Certainly there are comic figures; to Lot and Laban one could add Ehud and Eglon, Haman, many of the characters in Proverbs, and Job’s friends. All these could be better understood with the aid of the theory of comedy. They are nevertheless few and peripheral. It is true, furthermore, that Isaac transmits laughter, the sceptical, vicious and wondering laughter we find throughout the Bible, and also the promise that survives all disappointment. But the laughter accompanies people in their ordinariness. Likewise the promise, while unfulfilled, is everpresent.
3.0 Martin Buss writes wonderfully and profoundly as always, and is also insightful in his comments on Hosea. His essay is correspondingly disappointing, since he has tried to fit his subject into categories that are fundamentally unsuited to it. Moreover, he avoids or does not perceive the real question: is the prophetic mission and vision itself tragic or comic?
3.1 I like the definition of poetry (1.1), as the creative representation of qualities, significant feelings, that “facilitate human transformation at a fundamental level,” concerned with the basic movement of life, whether human vicissitudes have a solution (1.2). Then the prophetic word is self-fulfilling; the “end” is ideally experienced in the telling, that effects the transformation. Prophecy is tragic or comic, depending on whether it succeeds. Poetry, moreover, cannot but use rhetoric, the art of persuasion; this is the vast realm of poetic devices. In not perceiving their indissolubility, Buss is already retreating from his definition.
3.2 The discussion of comedy and tragedy seemed to me to be hopelessly schematised. These are not the two major genres of poetry, in any tradition: what about epic, lyric, pastoral, romance, not to speak of the novel (creative representation of qualities), history, biblical criticism etc.? Moreover, the neatly demarcated opposition of attributes (1.4) is simply false. For example, it is not true that tragedy is concerned with death, and comedy with love. Death in tragedy is only moving if it is associated with love (e.g. the love of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra for Iphigenia, of Lear and Cordelia), and the two are equally important. Comedy has its melancholy. Likewise, it is not true that tragedy “focuses on fate and plot,” comedy on character. The tragic hero is often more important (transcends) than his or her fate; the comic plot, the play, is wittier than its participants.
3.21 Tragedy does not, I think, “tend to arise from a demise of faith” (1.5), but to be the demise of faith, whether on the part of the poet or the hero. If, however, comedy “implies that existence is laughable” (1.5), it is in no better case. In reality, both can and do affirm human value.
3.3 In his discussion of Hosea, Buss does no more than isolate some of the ingredients of the comic and tragic visions, e.g. sympathetic identification with terror, irony, distanciation, and find them exemplified in the book. The list is notably different, and much less concrete, than that in the introduction. Where, for example, is the place of fate, plot and character? The specific citations suffer from being taken out of context and thus lack interpretative richness. Only towards the end of the essay, in his discussion of Hosea’s paradoxical children and marriage, did I feel that Buss was returning to form (4.3, 4.4).
3.4 The question really is whether, if Hosea were to rewrite the history of the world as a play, he would do so as comedy or tragedy.
3.5 God is an actor. It is inappropriate to say “Divine anger is expressed in a manner more direct and sharp than the tragic vision of the sympathetic observer” (6.1), since God is not a sympathetic observer.
3.6 The paradoxical conclusion is problematic. Whether it is integrally related to the book raises the whole issue of whether one can dispense with fate, plot, character, stage convention, and still speak of comedy and tragedy. I do not think there is any justification in speaking of Hosea’s endless puzzlement over the mystery of life in these terms, just as there would be none in the case of Plato’s dialogues.
3.7 Ben Jonson might have made a bourgeois comedy out of Israel’s affairs with her lovers. That Hosea does not is indicative.
4.0 Norman Gottwald’s essay I find altogether excellent, closely argued, sensitive, and distinguished by its sanity and its awareness of the limitations of its subject. There is no compulsion, as with the other two essays I have discussed, to prove its point. I am more or less persuaded by its arguments and conclusion. Given the length of this response already there is no necessity to conduct what could be no more than a paraphrase. I will confine myself to a few comments.
4.1 An important qualification of Gottwald’s characterisation of the implied narrative of Prophecy as comedy is that the comedy is unfulfilled, and would require an ever more improbable deus ex machina in an increasingly tragic world history. That the Prophets speak for continuing human hope despite endless disappointment makes their message ambivalent. It is a subject inadequately treated by Robert Carroll’s theory of “cognitive dissonance” in the Prophets, since it is not a question of the deferment of immediate expectations, but the impossibility of their fulfilment, given the irreconcilability of the Torah’s demands for the ideal community with the realities of politics and power that Gottwald so well discusses in his last section.
4.2 An extremely minor point is that one could oppose to the hypothetical exclusion of “comic” elements from the original Amos and early Isaiah (1.3.2) Kaufmann’s theory that Isaiah was uniquely characterised by his universalist vision. More important, and I think Gottwald would agree, one does not need redactional development to explain the multiplicity of reference. There is no single; clear plot, apart from the history of the world. Each individual situation and crisis evokes a paradigmatic chain, has an exemplary function, in a “book of metaphors,” as Gottwald rightly calls the Bible (1.6).
4.3 Gottwald says, perfectly correctly, that “prophetic barbs aim not only to sting but also to kill” (2.3). Theirs is then an awesome and tragic responsibility, since they must condemn what they love (Israel, sometimes the nations). God tells Jeremiah, for example, that he has set him over the nations to uproot and to destroy (Jer 1:10). But their word is performative in another sense, as Gottwald points out (1.6), in that it has stayed with us, in the Jewish community whose survival he calls a sociohistorical tour-de-force. Moreover, for this survival, at least religiously, the prophets are largely responsible. So they predict, ironically and desperately, a comic resolution, and are themselves the instrument of that resolution. Further, insofar as we have a future, it depends on the prophetic mission—the dream of social equality and spiritual fulfilment that is transmitted through us. Gottwald may see this, for example, in Marxism.
4.4 I don’t see, looking at 3.3, that Gottwald shows anywhere that God is a comic deity—the buffoon, like Socrates, in the clouds.
4.41 The discussions of the protagonists in the prophetic books is altogether very good. It is unconvincing, however, to find any crumb of comfort in Jeremiah’s life. I cannot see how the short term tragic plots of the lives of the prophets “serve and reinforce the longer-range U-shaped comic plot,” as Gottwald claims (3.4.4). The appalling misery that God imposes on Jeremiah for being a faithful messenger raises not only the question of theodicy, and hence God’s ethical ontology, and hence the linkage of political fortune with moral condition that Jeremiah preached, and thus puts the whole prophecy into doubt, but it cannot be contained in it. It is simply a contradiction, as in Ivan Karamazov’s famous parable.
4.42 I am not too sure that Isa 36–39 is as naive a piece of retrospective hagiolatry as Gottwald asserts (3.4.2). It has a parabolic air about it, and such stark and contradictory passages as Hezekiah’s prayer.
4.43 I like also the discussion of the role of God as implicit, ever-present, yet absent protagonist, and agree that this all-pervasive yet intangible participation is the reason for the strangeness and “off-centredness” of the genre of prophecy.
4.5 I agree also that prophecy is frequently subtle in its awareness of social and spiritual complexity (4.7); it is not simply denunciatory. An example is the Prophets’ painfully ambivalent anti-aestheticism.
4.6 The discussion of the relationship of prophecy to current social and political developments is both interesting and thorough.
5.0 Good’s is a delightful essay, warm, sensitive, and learned, with a refreshingly original relationship of theory and text, that takes us respectfully and lightly on a magical-mystery tour through Daniel.
5.1 Good’s “fragments of a non-theory” (I) are heuristically valuable, though I am not convinced of the postulate of its ritual origin in a Frazerian dethronement of an aged king. It helps also to clarify my doubts concerning the applicability of the categories “comedy” and “tragedy” to figures such as Isaac and Samson. For they do not fit easily into Good’s archetypal comic plot. Throughout the Bible comic expectations are raised, to lose themselves in the complications of the narrative or in tragic reversals.
5.2 I have no comment to make on Good’s exemplary analysis of the narrative section of Daniel. I am glad that he interprets the stories not as a naive propagandist response to persecution (2.13), but as wishfulfilment, thus incorporating it into a much wider and freer realm of discourse.
5.3 I was also very interested in his discussion of the visions, first because of his awareness of the limitations of regarding them from a comic point of view, and secondly because of the elements of comedy he discerns therein.
5.31 It is vertiginous that the author/dreamer in this, the last book of the Hebrew Bible, himself becomes the comic hero of his dreams, and that the comedy is that he, the archetypal interpreter, can no longer interpret. Nor can the angels, the messengers of God, who communicate the dreams. But this is also the root of “tragic” anxiety.
5.32 And so it is of the Bible as a whole, an interpretation of existence through narrative, prophecy, and dream, that cannot but confess its failure to interpret itself. And so to the multiplicity of Midrash.
1981 The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books.
Barber, C. L.
1963 Shakespeare’ ys Festive Comedy. New York: Meridian.
1979 When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament. New York: Seabury.
1975 Narrative Art in Genesis. Assen: Van Gorcum.
1981 Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. 1 King David. Assen: Van Gorcum.
1972 The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Tr. and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. New York: Schocken.
1983 The Workings of Old Testament Narrative. Philadelphia: Fortress.
1980 Moses and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History. New York: Seabury.
1971 The Star of Redemption. Tr. W. Hallo. London: RKP.
Published: December 17, 2014, 15:18 | Comments Off on TRAGEDY AND COMEDY IN THE BIBLE by ArchBishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz
Category: ROSARY 4 z Bishop