Friday, August 3, 2007

The "Uh-oh" principle, part 2: Poetic justice in the prophets

I've decided to write two more posts on the David and Bathsheba story.

First, in this post, I want to explore a concept that Walter Brueggemann flags as a core element of rhetorical criticism. Brueggemann maintains that there is a very close relation between what gets said (the message of the text) and how it gets said (the literary or rhetorical techniques utilized by the author).

But let's quote Brueggeman himself on the subject. Here he is, contrasting historical criticism with rhetorical criticism:
Historical criticism, as it has come to be practiced, has been notorious for its lack of interest in the actual expression of the text itself. Indeed, the primary references for historical criticism characteristically are outside the text or, as is often said now, "behind the text" in the historical process. …

The commentaries are characteristically occupied with sorting out what is "genuine" in the text and with identifying parallels in other cultures. Such treatment of the text does not at all attend to the statements of the text itself, but is in effect a sustained raid on the text, looking for clues that support historical reconstruction. …

Rhetorical criticism is a method that insists that how what is said is crucial and definitive for what is said, so that the theology of the Old Testament does not trade in a set of normative ideas that may be said in many ways, but in a particular utterance that is spoken and/or written in a certain way.

It is now agreed that the primary impetus for rhetorical criticism as an intentional Old Testament enterprise stems from the address of James Muilenburg, "Form Criticism and Beyond," presented in 1968 and published in 1969. …

Muilenburg almost single-handedly made credible the practice of close reading, whereby one notices the detail of the text, such as word patterns and arrangements, the use of key words in repetition, the careful placement of prepositions and conjunctions, and the reiteration of sounds of certain consonants. … He held that such detail in the text is characteristically intentional, and that the force of the text cannot be understood apart from noticing such detail.

(Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Fortress Press, 1997, pp. 53-55.)
I am attracted to rhetorical criticism, in part because it puts evangelicals and liberals on common ground, at least to a significant extent.

To be clear, Brueggemann does not suppose that everything in the text is historical, or that the various Old Testament texts agree with one another. On the contrary, he maintains that scripture speaks with many voices:  there are diverse agendas at work in the texts as they have been handed down to us.

But insofar as rhetorical criticism begins with the text as it appears in the Bible, seeking meaning in (not behind) the text, evangelicals will find the method amenable.

Personally, I am at a disadvantage because I do not know Hebrew. Many of the details of importance to Muilenburg do not carry over into an English translation. But some of them do, so we will work with such details as are present to us.

With this method in mind, let's take another look at 2 Samuel 12. I'm using a different format this time, highlighting certain keywords:
(past experience of God's grace)
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, "I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.

(present moral failure)
Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.

(impending consequences)
Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife."

Thus says the Lord, "Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun."

(2 Samuel 12:7b-12)1
The reader should note the pattern that emerges when the text is colour-coded in this way. The word "wife" recurs in all three sections of the text (past experience of God's grace, present moral failure, and impending consequences). The word "sword" appears in the latter two sections.

Rhetorical criticism tells us to be alert to the repetition of keywords. The literary technique is a clue to the meaning of the text. In this case, it tells us something interesting about the worldview of the author:  what I have called "poetic justice" in the title of this post.
  • David sins with Uriah's wife (present moral failure), even though YHWH has already provided him with wives2 (past experience of God's grace); poetic justice deems that his own wives will be taken by another man (impending consequences).

  • David uses the sword to rid himself of a problem (present moral failure); poetic justice deems that David's kingdom will never be free of the sword (impending consequences). (That is, Israel will never be at peace with its neighbours while David is king.)
The idea of poetic justice is found not only here, in Nathan's oracle to David, but elsewhere in the prophets as well. It seems to be an important element of the prophetic worldview.

Klaus Koch describes this phenomenon in an evocative way. He is commenting on Jeremiah 1:13-16 —
The word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, "What do you see?" And I said, "I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north." Then the Lord said to me, "Out of the north disaster [literally, evil] shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the Lord, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands.
This text is not laid out in the same neat pattern as the one in 2 Samuel 12. There is no mention of God's prior grace to Israel. Moreover, the "present moral failure" is the last element mentioned. Israel's moral failure consists of forsaking YHWH to worship idols:  "… all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands."

Even though the pattern is not as tidy, we see a similar repetition of a keyword:  evil. Israel has committed evil, and evil (calamity) will be turned back upon Israel. Here's what Koch says:
In the prophetic genres, key words generally form the pivot in the logical progression from the 'now' to the 'impending'. … The word ra'a [evil] is used ninety times in [Jeremiah] and becomes the common denominator, both for human transgression that has already taken place and for a catastrophe that is going to break in from outside. …

For the prophet, ra'a is not an abstract power. It is an aura, with effects on the world, an aura encircling the particular agent, who brings about his own destiny.

(Klaus Koch, The Prophets II: The Babylonian and Persian periods, Fortress Press, 1982, p. 20.)
This is an evocative picture:  an aura of evil surrounding Israel which then attracts evil upon Israel. In the same way, David's aura of adultery or his aura of "the use of the sword" attracted precisely those consequences upon him in punishment. It is poetic justice.

I'm not convinced that we should take Koch's description at face value. It might better be understood as a metaphor rather than a literal, Magical Mystery principle of the cosmos.

Regardless, our rhetorical analysis of these two texts leads to an enriched understanding of the "Uh-oh" principle. When people do evil, "Uh-oh!" — that same evil will be turned back on their heads.

(Next up: a consideration of Bathsheba's voicelessness in the 2 Samuel 11-12 narrative. Whereas the first two posts have been evangelical in their treatment of the text, the third post will explicitly adopt a critical perspective.)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2YHWH's assertion, "I gave you … your master's wives into your arms" is odd:  we're not told any such thing in the narrative where David assumes the throne. However: (1) it was customary in that era for a new king to take the former king's wives, perhaps as a symbol of his succession to the former king's place; (2) David and Saul both had a wife named Ahinoam, although we can't be certain that it is the same woman in both references.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

I thought I'd visited your blog in the last week, but apparently not, so I didn't see this post until just now.

This is an evocative picture: an aura of evil surrounding Israel which then attracts evil upon Israel.

Ooh, now that is a very interesting concept, and I like the phrasing.

I also like the idea of noticing the repetition of key words. I guess that's a pretty simple concept, but I don't think much of it when I'm reading.