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The Carnival at the Heart of Kings




So, when we read the story of Elijah, there is Elisha the Fool right behind him, coarsely aping him; mimicking his deeds, but introducing flaws in their performance. Whereas Elijah often is noble and high-minded, Elisha can be ignoble and crass. But, in fact, his mirroring function is sophisticated and subtle; its effect is not to elevate one man of God at the expense of another. Neither Elisha nor Elijah is unambiguous; neither is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; both are flawed. Elisha functions within the text as an internal commentary on his predecessor. He is like the stand-up comedian who parrots the words of the politician with just enough subversion that we find ourselves laughing, not at the comedian, but with him at the straight man.



See Also: Reduced Laughter: Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kings (Leiden: Brill, 2016).



By Helen Paynter
Associate Minister
Victoria Park Baptist Church
Bristol, UK
December 2016


Micaiah: the lying prophet of God. Elisha: the grumpy old man who couldn’t take a joke. Jezebel: the queen who puts on her make-up only to be thrown from a window and eaten by dogs. The book of Kings has its fair share of surprises. What are they doing in this text? And what is the reader supposed to learn from them? This essay presents evidence that there are many humorous elements in the book of Kings,[1] and offers some suggestions about what they are doing there.

Arguably one of the most fruitful ways of reading biblical texts is to pay attention to the final form of the text; in other words, to credit the final editor with intelligence, subtlety and artistry, and to consider in what ways he has shaped the text to tell the story in the way that he intends. Such research is termed literary, or narrative criticism. This is the approach taken in this endeavour.

First we will make some preliminary remarks about Kings, and note some unsolved questions which it raises.

Introduction to the book of Kings

The final shaping of Kings (for it is almost certainly a compilation from multiple sources) probably dates from the time of the Babylonian exile.[2] It is largely preoccupied with providing explanations for the exile; it is generally perceived as being far more critical of Israel (who disappeared into exile about 150 years earlier) than it is of Judah.

Once Solomon’s rule has been recounted, the remainder of the book is largely comprised of a series of ‘regnal accounts’, where a king’s reign is introduced with a standard formula, his deeds summarised with variable brevity, and then his death and succession is described in standard terms. For example:

Now in the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijam began to reign over Judah. He reigned for three years in Jerusalem… The rest of the deeds of Abijam and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?... And Abijam slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city of David. And Asa his son reigned in his place (1 Kings 15:1, 7a, 8).[3]

However, in the central part of the book, this pattern is disrupted by the appearance of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, performing an extraordinary array of miracles; and with a focus on the northern nation of Israel and her neighbour Aram (Syria). This rather surprising interjection leads us to a number of unexplained ‘problems’ which Kings raises for us.

‘Problems’ posed by the book of Kings.

1.    Were the prophets righteous?

Elijah and Elisha have been held up as heroes of faith for generations; that their actions are righteous is implicitly believed by many devout believers. But a more dispassionate consideration of some of their actions may make the reader uncomfortable.[4] So, for example, in 2 Kings 1, Elijah calls down fire to consume 102 men, apparently on a whim; in 2 Kings 8, Elisha appears to send a false prophecy to Ben-Hadad and to incite Hazael to his murder; and perhaps most strikingly of all, in 2 Kings 2, Elisha summons two bears to ‘rip to pieces’ 42 youths who have mocked him. These instances and others might lead us to ask the question of whether we are intended to approve of everything that a prophet of God does.

2.    Why is Elijah commanded to anoint Elisha, Hazael and Jehu?

After Elijah’s triumph on Mount Carmel, and his subsequent dejected flight to Horeb, God appears to him and charges him with a threefold task: to anoint two kings and a new prophet. Accompanying this task is a prophecy: that these three individuals will conduct a purge against the worshippers of Baal.

You shall anoint Hazael to be king over Aram. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death (1 Kings 19:15-17).

These verses name individuals who will not appear for years, in chronological terms; or chapters, in literary terms. Why are they named at this point in the story? This leads us to three further questions.

First, why would Elijah, prophet of the LORD in Israel, be charged with appointing a king of Aram? As far as I can determine such interference at such a high level is unprecedented in the Hebrew Bible. Secondly, why would a pagan king, Hazael, be given the task of eliminating Baal worship? Thirdly, why is there apparently no evidence within the text that this anti-Baal collaboration between Elisha, Hazael and Jehu actually took place?

3.    The prominence of Israel and Aram

As we have seen, the main theological priorities of the book of Kings concern Judah: the reason for her exile and her future hope through the Davidic covenant. But the Elijah/Elisha narratives are mainly set within Israel, and many of them contain no reference to Judah at all. Likewise, the stories of Aram largely interact with Israel rather than Judah. This is puzzling; if the text receives its final editing during or after the exile, long after Israel has ceased to be an entity, why her prominence in this portion of the book?

We should be even more surprised by the prominence of Aram, and the ambivalence with which the pagan nation is viewed. So, for example, Aram is characterised as an enemy, pagan state, but its king requests—and obtains—favours for a senior army officer (2 Kgs 5). The king of Israel throws a banquet for an Aramean raiding party (2 Kgs 6). The prophet of the LORD (Elisha) appears to enjoy a privileged status in the court of Aram, culminating in the unofficial appointing of their new dynastic line (2 Kgs 8).

It is my argument that light is shed on these unanswered questions if we read the Central Section of Kings with attention to the possibility of humour in the text. In particular, I will demonstrate the use of two literary devices: literary carnivalisation and mirroring.

Carnivalisation

In medieval times, carnivals were held regularly in many societies, functioning to allow the periodic ‘letting off’ of steam. During a carnival, all normal rules and prohibitions were temporarily suspended. Normal social hierarchies were inverted (for example, the lord of the manor would serve his servants), behaviour was rowdy, drunken and bawdy, and the language of the market place prevailed.

This phenomenon was not confined to society, however. Following the work of Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin,[5] it has been repeatedly shown that these same elements may invade literature, and produce a form of writing which is bawdy, norm-breaking and satirical. Typical elements of such carnivalised literature include the following:[6]

  1. Unusual use of language: foreign-sounding speech, cursing, vulgarity, abusive speech
  2. Inversion of hierarchies: the making and unmaking of temporary ‘kings’ and ‘queens’
  3. Foolery: the seeming simpleton who speaks truth to power
  4. Feasting: unusual, unexpected feasts
  5. Unusual expression of things that are vulgar, grotesque or offensive
  6. Bizarre, unexpected breaches of normal cause and consequence

Examining Kings for features of carnivalisation reveals that while most of it contains the odd example of one or two such features, in the central section between 1 Kings 13 and 2 Kings 10 there is an enormous number of them. These chapters contain the Elijah/ Elisha stories and the Aram/ Israel narratives.

  1. Unusual use of language. There are many instances of non-standard Hebrew in the central section.[7] In particular, Elisha is characterised as having a strong northern accent. There are many insults and mockeries: some vulgar (e.g. 1 Kings 18:27; 1 Kings 21:20-24; 2 Kings 9:22), some formulaic (e.g. 1 Kings 20:10-11). There are lies (e.g. 2 Kings 8:10-14), people speak in quaint-sounding proverbs (1 Kings 20:10-11), and there are odd speech patterns ( 1 Kings 18:9-14).
  2. Inversion of hierarchies. Unexpected people take prominence. For example: the ‘little girl’ of 2 Kings 5, whose wisdom exceeds that of the ‘great man’ Naaman; the lepers of 2 Kings 6:24-7:20 who break a siege. Kings and queens are dramatically dethroned (1 Kings 22; 2 Kings 9:30-33).
  3. Foolery. Likely ‘Fools’, who deliberately or incidentally speak truth to power through simplicity, naïveté or other creative means, include Micaiah (1 Kings 22), the four lepers (2 Kings 6), and the disguised prophet (1 Kings 20:35-43).
  4. Feasting. There are a number of unusual ‘feasts’ in this text. Consider the king of Aram, who drinks so heavily that he loses the capacity to speak clearly (1 Kings 20:12-18); the feast of poisoned stew (2 Kings 4:38-41); the unexpected banquet celebrated between enemies (2 Kings 6:22-23); the cannibalism of two mothers (2 Kings 6:28-29); and the grotesque feasting of Jehu inside the palace while dogs are eating Jezebel outside (2 Kings 9). Each of these feasts is in some way unexpected. They should not have been taking place at all, because it is an inappropriate (or surprising) time, an inappropriate menu, or inappropriate company.
  5. Unusual expression of things that are vulgar, grotesque or offensive. There are many instances of this phenomenon, as indicated by the enormous body count in this part of Kings. But these are not simply battle deaths. They are described in florid and graphic ways. We have burnings, beheadings, cannibalism, human sacrifice, animal mauling, crushings, mutilations and a stoning. Jezebel’s body turns to dung on the plot at Jezreel (9:37;[8] her blood spatters the walls like urine (9:33, c.f. v.8); there are seventy heads in baskets (10:7); the befouling of the temple of Baal becomes a latrine (10:27).
  6. Bizarre, unexpected breaches of normal cause and consequence. In contrast to the sobriety of much of the remainder of Kings, the central section abounds with extraordinary events. In particular, the Elijah-Elisha narratives are a compendium of florid miracle stories. Two involve animals acting in unexpected ways: ravens feed Elijah; bears respond to Elisha’s curse by mauling 42 lads. Others are bizarre in other ways: a floating axe-head, oil and bread which mysteriously multiply, a fiery army that is sometimes visible and sometimes not, a mass auditory hallucination that causes an entire army to flee.

This clustering of features in the central part of Kings comprises literary carnivalisation. But what is the purpose of such a literary feature? In order to understand this, we need to consider another literary device, the literary mirror.[9]

Literary Mirroring

In William Shakespeare’s drama Hamlet, the royal court hosts a play by travelling players. The story of this play is a brief retelling of Hamlet’s own story; of betrayal and regicide. This is a literary mirror. By reflecting the large story within a small sub-section of the work, it draws the audience’s attention to, and comments on, the main narrative.

In fact, literary mirrors can work in a number of ways.[10] They can, like Hamlet’s play, form a discrete unit within the larger work. Or they can function in a more fragmented way, with multiple little glimpses of reflection scattered throughout the main narrative. In this latter case, the function of the mirror is to provide a sort of side-by-side commentary on the story. We can identify literary mirroring when we detect repeated portions of text, similarity of names, or repetition of circumstances.

There are a number of instances of literary mirroring within Kings, and these relate to the prophets, and to the nations of Aram, Israel and Judah. We will consider one at a time, and at the same time reconsider the ‘unsolved problems in Kings’ which we identified at the beginning of this essay.

Mirroring of Elijah and Elisha and its effect

It is very clear to even the casual reader that the lives and ministries of Elijah and Elisha are very similar. Both raise from the dead an only child; both mysteriously multiply food; both part the river Jordan. However, there are a number of telling ways in which the two prophets are represented differently. In brief: whereas Elijah goes everywhere at the command of the LORD, Elisha is described as travelling entirely under his own volition; whereas Elijah always attributes his miracles to the power of the LORD, Elisha often makes no reference to the LORD at all when he performs his miracles; in comparison with Elijah, Elisha appears very concerned with his own reputation (compare 1 Kings 18:36 with 2 Kings 5:8). So the characterisation of Elisha is far from being unequivocally positive.

Coupled with this, we have already noted the ways in which carnivalisation has made its way into this text. This functions to cast doubt on authority, to subvert the powerful, to satirise the pompous, and to find ambiguity in the indubitable.

So, when we read the story of Elijah, there is Elisha the Fool right behind him, coarsely aping him; mimicking his deeds, but introducing flaws in their performance. Whereas Elijah often is noble and high-minded, Elisha can be ignoble and crass. But, in fact, his mirroring function is sophisticated and subtle; its effect is not to elevate one man of God at the expense of another. Neither Elisha nor Elijah is unambiguous; neither is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; both are flawed. Elisha functions within the text as an internal commentary on his predecessor. He is like the stand-up comedian who parrots the words of the politician with just enough subversion that we find ourselves laughing, not at the comedian, but with him at the straight man.

This brings us back to the – at times – dubious ethical conduct of the prophets. If the actions of the prophets sometimes cause us embarrassment or moral discomfort, the discovery of carnivalisation encourages us to trust this instinct. If Elisha seems bad-tempered when he summons the bears to maul the boys, this is because he is bad-tempered. No-one is above criticism in the narrative, not even the men of God.

Mirroring of Aram, Israel and Judah and its effect

Earlier, I drew attention to an unexpected little section within the narrative of Elijah at Horeb, where Elijah is instructed to anoint three ‘new brooms’ who will sweep the Baalists from Israel: Hazael, king of Aram; Jehu, king of Israel; and Elisha, prophet of Israel. At the time the words are apparently spoken, Elisha is a nobody ploughing an obscure field; and both Ben-Hadad and Ahab are secure upon their thrones. There is no other hint within the text that either king is about to be supplanted. These verses then, function like a ‘spoiler’ within the plot. Interestingly, all three characters ‘die’ at approximately the same point in the story (2 Kings 13).[11] So it appears that this odd little verse in 1 Kings 19 serves to open a frame, and by paralleling the ministries of Hazael of Aram and Jehu of Israel, to draw our attention to mirroring between the two nations within the frame. Note how similar are the ways in which Hazael and Jehu come to their thrones: Elisha precipitates both their accessions; both men are trusted officers of their kings; both ousted kings are ill at the time of their assassination; both new kings express initial reticence about their appointment, but then act with murderous alacrity to bring it to effect.

There are two particular stories where this mirroring between Aram and Israel is particularly prominent. One is in 1 Kings 20, where the narrative uses multiple devices to draw our attention to the similarities between Aram and Israel. There are two kings, two armies, two nations, and two sets of counsellors. We are party to the war cabinet conversations of both kings; we watch them both mustering their troops for battle. The two armies are camped opposite one another. The kings exchange ritualised, paired insults. In this story, the shape of the plot is very telling. On first inspection it appears as if Ben-Hadad, king of Aram is achieving his comeuppance:[12]

But in the closing verses of the story (vv.35-43), the plot takes another turn. Our estimation of Ahab begins to fall. His character is being withdrawn.

A further cluster of mirroring clues in these concluding verses extend the parallels which we have already noted, and hint at a blurring of the distinction between the two kings, and the two nations.[13] The author has carefully set up the nation of Aram, within this story, to act as a foil to Israel. The careful pairing of speeches, characters and narrative scenes invites us to see Aram as the unwise, ungodly counterpart to Israel. However, once the author has tricked us into believing that this a simple comparison of good Israel with bad Aram, and to passing judgment on the evil nation, he suddenly, like the prophet, whisks the mask off and declares, like Nathan to David, ‘you [Israel] are that nation!

Similar plot twists occur in 2 Kings 6:8-7:20.[14] The first half tells us a bizarre story of blinded Aramean soldiers following a stranger into danger; it makes the Aramean nation look ridiculous – until the king of Israel shows himself utterly un-leaderlike (6:21). The second half of the story again invites our laughter at the cost of the foolish Arameans who flee at the imagined sound of an army. But once again, the last laugh is on the king of Israel, who is too timid to leave his besieged city and take advantage of the victory that has been handed to him on a plate.

Far from being distinct from her pagan neighbour in both ethics and wisdom, Israel is shown to share, and sometimes to exceed, Aram’s follies. Carnivalised elements are the building blocks of the satire, mirroring is its architecture.

These findings have largely accounted for the second and third puzzling element from Kings identified above: the peculiar prominence of the nation of Aram, and the purpose of the anointing instruction given to Elijah. Finally – and this explains the prominence on Israel – we need to notice that this mirroring, and hence critique, extends to the nation of Judah, too.

In brief:

  1. Ahab’s bloodline is terminated in the northern kingdom by the purge of Jehu. However, Ahab’s daughter Athaliah becomes queen of Judah, and thenceforth, all the kings of Judah have their blood ‘tainted’ with the blood of Ahab’s house.[15] This means that the judgment on Ahab, pertaining to all his descendants (1 Kings 21:21-22), becomes applied to the house of Judah.
  2. Athaliah, queen of Judah, closely parallels Jezebel, queen of Israel:[16] they are foreign queens; Baal worshippers; both are women of violence struck down by their own subjects, their deaths preceded by strident words of defiance; both are violently slain outside their palaces, trampled by horses; and both deaths are followed by a purge of Baalism in the land.
  3. The kings of Judah are positively or negatively compared with David, and the universally idolatrous kings of Israel are likened to Jeroboam.[17] This pattern is broken in only two places, where – surprisingly – Ahab is used as a comparator for the kings of Judah. First, Jehoram of Judah is likened to Ahab (2 Kings 8:18). Secondly, Manasseh, the king who led Judah into worse idolatry than the nations around them, and whose sin directly resulted in the Bablyonian exile is likened to Ahab (2 Kings 21:3, 13).
  4. While travelling in Aram, Ahaz, king of Judah, notices an altar which takes his fancy. He sends a copy of its design back to Jerusalem with instructions that it be copied and used in the temple (2 Kings 16). So we see the king of Judah being seduced by the pagan religion of Aram.

Thus there is a complex web of symmetries, pairs, mirrors and parallels between the nations of Aram, Israel and Judah. The text repeatedly directs the reader’s scorn and mirth towards Aram, but on each occasion the narrative turns, and our disdain is diverted towards Israel. But multiple hints within the text invite us to draw parallels between Israel and Judah, and it is not, in the end, possible to deride the Northern Kingdom from the Southern with a sense of moral superiority.

In conclusion: the world of Kings is a world of grand temples, ivory palaces and sweeping political manoeuvres. This is a world where the rich rule and the poor serve them, where the ‘goodies’ are good and the ‘baddies’ are bad. Into this world comes the carnival, led by Elijah and Elisha. Not for them the role of dignified elder statesman, the role of leader of the opposition. Into the orderly, right-way-up world of Israel and Judah, they introduce a chaotic, turbulent element, a rumbustious, playful chaos, where nothing is as it seems, nothing is as you expect it to be. In this upside-down world, brave men are found to be cowardly, men of God are revealed as egotists, enemies can become friends, and friends may stab you in the back. Here, bizarre things happen: ravens may bring you food, bears may attack unexpectedly, lions may seek you out and kill you. Here, axes float, and fires break out all over the place. Here, violent death is common and may take any number of forms. You might be sacrificed by your father, beheaded with your brothers, eaten by your mother, stoned on the orders of a queen, suffocated by your servant, or eaten by dogs. You can be sure there will be a great deal of blood. This upside-down world is not a world of marble floors and ivory thrones, it is a world filled with the common stuff of everyday life, of cooking pots and oil and flour and wild herbs, of stews and bread, of lamps and beds and chairs. Here, kings may be foolish or cowardly, and prophets may fail to hear the word of God. Not in this world the grandiose speeches of the statesman or professional prayer-smith. Here, people moan and grumble, exaggerate and whine, curse and take oaths. Here, anything might happen—and it probably will. In this world, little is certain, few can be trusted, and no-one—peasant, king or prophet—is without fault or folly.

Paynter, H (2016). Reduced Laughter: Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kings. Leiden: Brill.



Notes

[1] Although the book in our Bibles is divided into 1 Kings and 2 Kings, this was simply for the convenience of those writing and handling heavy scrolls. It should be regarded as a continuous document.

[2] Noth, M. (1943) The Deuteronomic History (translated by J. Doull et al, Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981 English edn); Ackroyd, P. (1968) Exile and Restoration (London: SCM Press).

[3] All biblical translations are the author’s own.

[4] See, for example: Bergen, W. (1999) Elisha and the End of Prophetism (Sheffield Academic Press: Sheffield); Amit, Y. (2003) ‘A Prophet Tested: Elisha, the great woman of Shunem, and the story's double message’, Biblical Interpretation 11: 279-294; Carroll, R. (1990) ‘Is Humour also among the Prophets?’ in Y. Radday and A. Brenner (eds) On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Almond Tree Press) 169-190.

[5] Bakhtin, M. (1984) Rabelais and His World (translated by H. Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

[6] In addition to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, see also Kirk, E. (1980) Menippean Satire: An Annotated Catalogue of Texts and Criticism (New York: Garland Publishing); Stallybrass, P. (1985) ‘“Drunk with the cup of liberty”: Robin Hood, the carnivalesque, and the rhetoric of violence in early modern England’ Semiotica 54: 113-145.

[7] Rendsburg, G. (1995) ‘Linguistic Variation and the “Foreign Factor” in the Hebrew Bible’, Israel Oriental Studies 15: 177-190.

[8] Carnivalisation in 2 Kings 9 and 10 was previously identifies by Francesco García-Treto, (1990) ‘The Fall of the House: A Carnivalesque Reading of 2 Kings 9 and 10’, JSOT 46: 47-65.

[9] Also known as the mise-en-abyme.

[10] Dällenbach, L. (1977) Le Récit Spéculaire (Paris: Éditions du Seuil).

[11] Jehu’s death occurs in 2 Kings 10, but the second half of his regnal narrative is suspended until 2 Kings 13.

[12] Robker, J. (2011) ‘Satire and the King of Aram’, VT 61: 646-656.

[13] Walsh, J. (1996) 1 Kings. Berit Olam Commentary (Collegeville: Liturgical Press); p 301.

[14] Parallelism in this passage has been noted by Robert La Barbera (1984) ‘The Man of War and the Man of God: Social Satire in 2 Kings 6:8-7:20’, CBQ 46(4): 637-51.

[15] Sweeney, M. (2007) I & II Kings: A Commentary (London: Westminster John Knox Press), p.12.

[16] Branch, R. (2004) ‘Athaliah, a treacherous queen: A careful analysis of her story in 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 22:10-23:21’, die Skriflig 38(4): 537-559.

[17] García-Treto, (1990).





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