Thursday, March 20, 2008

How Norway Was Founded

I've asserted before that all states -- without exception -- are founded on either conquest or rebellion. What is very peculiar is that traditional political theory is both more aware of this fact than democrat-republican theory, and also more insistent on the ethical obligation to obey the successful conquerors/rebels.

But is it really true that sovereign kingdoms are found on rebellion or conquest? What about, for example, Sweden or Denmark or Norway? They never conquered anyone, and they've never had a revolution. Surely they must be governments that are legitimate and violence-free, not just in their operations, but also in their founding. Well, leaving aside Vikings, and the break up of the Union of Kallmar and so on, Snorri Sturluson in his Egil's Saga gives us a very interesting picture of how the Kingdom of Norway was first established:

By this time Halfdan the Black's son, Harald, had come into his inheritance to the east in Oslofjord, and had sworn a solemn oath never to cut or comb his hair until he'd made himself sole ruler of Norway. That was why people called him Harald the Shaggy [Harald Finehair in other translations].

First of all he fought and put down the kings nearest to him, and there are long stories about that campaign. After that he conquered the Uplands and traveled north from there to Trondheim, though he had to fight many a battle before he was able to get control of all Trondheim Province. . . . . (p. 23)

There follows a description of his conquests of the kings in Namdalen, More, Romsdalen and elsewhere, partly by overawing them, and partly by military force. Solvi Splitter, son of the defeated king Hunthjof rallies a neighboring King Arnvid this way:

'We may be in trouble now,' said Solvi, 'but it won't be long before the same happens to you. Take my word for it, Harald will be turning up here at any moment, just as soon as he's got all the people of North More and Romsdale where he wants them and made slaves of them. You're going to have the same choice on your hands as we had. Either you'll have to defend your freedom and your goods with every man you can muster -- and I'll help you fight this tyranny and injustice with all the forces I have -- or else you can choose to place yourselves under Harald's yoke and become slaves, like the men of Namdalen. My father preferred to die with honor like the King he was, not to spend his old age as another King's hired man, and I think you'll be minded to do the same as anyone who still has some pride and ambition' (pp. 23-24).

King Harald's exactions didn't stop once he'd unified the realm:

Once he'd gained full control of the provinces that had just come into his hands, Harald kept a sharp eye on the landed men and rich farmers, and anyone else he might expect trouble from. He gave them a choice of three things. They could swear loyalty or they could leave the country, but if they chose the third, they could resign themselves to the most savage terms, perhaps even death. There were cases where Harald had people's arms and legs hacked off. In every province, Harald took over both farming land and estates, whether they were inhabited or not, even the sea and the lakes. Every farmer and every forester had to become his tenant, every salt-maker and every hunter on land or sea had to pay taxes to him. Many a man went on the run from this tyranny and many a wilderness became inhabited, both east in Jamtaland and Halsingland [in modern-day Sweden] and west, in the Hebrides, as well as in parts around Dublin in Ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in Scotland, Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes. And that's when Iceland was discovered (p. 26).

What always struck me as so unrealistic about Daniel Larison-style paleo-conservatism is its pretension that somehow the idea of conquest and bigger units and centralization and state power was invented by crazy New Englanders sometime around 1820. Or maybe by evil Henry VIII. (Depending on whether the paleo-con in question is Southern or Catholic.) Before then, you get the impression from that that local rule was a universally respected principle and all traditional peoples abhorred the idea of just waking up one day and deciding "I'm the king of a single fjord in Norway, but I'd like to be king of the whole thing. I think I'll conquer all the rest and make this a reality." Well, obviously this is pretty much how Snorri Sturluson, an Icelander and descendant of those who fled Harald's rule, pictured it: long before nominalism, or the Reformation (Harald the Shaggy was a pagan), or the Yankees with their -isms.

More interesting is the comparison of this with the Deuteronomistic History. Snorri Sturluson also wrote the Heimskringla, which is a history of the Yngling kings of Norway (including Harald Shaggy/Finehair and his ancestors and descendants). We often talk about Biblical genre; of course genre is simply a concise way of specifying the other books against which one intends to read and compare the one you are reading with. Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla is not a bad work to read the Deuteronomistic History against, with one big caveat: Jeremiah's history ends with a exile, while the ending of Snorri Sturluson's history is less clear-cut. But both have this (to modern ears) strange juxtaposition of a very unenchanted view of the origin of monarchy with an acceptance of the prerogatives of the monarch and his position.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Where the Division of 2 Samuel and 1 Kings Ought to Have Been Made

From the very beginning of 1 Samuel, the theme of the Deuteronomistic History is replacement; replacement of one priest by another, of one king by another. And more specifically that God replaces those who disappoint Him, and enthrones those with whom He is pleased to place in power. (I was about to say "seek to please Him" but that's definitely a wrong reading of the text, as I will show later). At some point, this replacement has to end, correct? After all, Jerusalem will get a Davidic line and a permanent temple, so one would say that under David this replacement is no longer the main theme.

But that is not correct; in fact the theme of replacement ends with a bang, but only in 1 Kings, chapter 2, where the true permanent king is installed. Not David, but his son. The chapter ends: "And the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon." But if there is ever a demonstration that openness to irony (that is, any disjunction between what is stated and what is meant), is necessary equipment for reading the Deuteronomistic History, it is this passage. Contrary to the naive reading, the narrative voice is not God's voice. Rather God's voice is heard by listening to the man of God, who is the author of the book, as he weaves the narrator's voice as only one among the many voices here.

1 Kings 1 and 2 recap almost too perfectly the themes set out in 1 Samuel 1 and 3. Or rather I should say, recap it in a way that sounds too good to be true; because it certainly is.

1 Samuel 2 prophesied the deposition of the house of Eli from the priesthood and their replacement. Well, Eli's sons were killed at the end of 1 Samuel 4, when the ark was captured. But just as the ark reappears, so Eli's family reappears under Saul in 1 Samuel 14:3, and again under David in 1 Samuel 21 (the key genealogical link is in 1 Sam. 22:9-12). But in 1 Kings 2, the final displacement of Abiathar, the last of the Elid priests takes place and the prophecy is (or so the narrator tells us) consummated (v. 27). What was his crime? He backed the wrong horse in the succession struggle, supporting Adonijah, not Solomon. Here, if we believe the narrator's voice, is the fulfillment of the song of Hannah. No more injustice, Israel has a king, and there will be no more replacement, and no more loss of the ark. The sons of Eli will beg bread from the new priests, the sons of Zadok, for ever.

Shortly thereafter, in chapter 2, Solomon succeeds in fulfilling David's death-bed mandate to make a clean sweep of all those who had backed Abijah, killing Adonijah, Joab, and Shimei. As if to emphasize the end of the replacement theme, these lines are not just displaced, but killed off -- no descendants to come back and possibly replace the new order.

So in chapter 3, we have a new world, new themes, new phrases: the author introduces in this chapter all the themes that will dominate the history until the end of 2 Kings. We have the house of God and the high places (the first place in the whole history that this is introduced as a problem) and the house of the king and the Pharoah's daughter, introducing the whole theme of alliance with the powers. And in 3:16-28 we have the famous story about how the real mother of a baby is known: she would give him up rather than see him chopped in two. A story of Solomon's wisdom? Yes, but more importantly a prefiguring that Hannah's prayer has not finished its work.

Hannah was a mother who gave her child up; now we have another true mother, a prostitute, who does the same. But we have seen that Hannah as mother is Israel and her son the king. And we will see later kings like Jeroboam and Rehoboam splitting Israel and Judah rather than giving way. So what is the conclusion? That Israel and Judah fall well below the standard of the prostitutes in the story; they would each rather see the kingship and the nation divided rather than give up dominance. So the story of the judgment of Solomon is as much to say, Israel and Judah are not true mothers but lying whores (named Oholah and Oholibah, no doubt).

But there is the dream, right?, in which Solomon asks only for wisdom? and all the fantastic things happening under Solomon as a result? Donald Redford calls these stories, in contrast to the gritty realistic details of David's kingship childish fantasies. Actually, he's not far off. Where I would disagree is his assumption, common enough among exegetes both pro- and anti-, that the historian himself was unaware of the difference. Solomon's reign is indeed a fantasy, a dream, a fantastic dream. And the historian knew it to be such.

What is striking is how account of Solomon's reign explicitly tops the Torah and reverses its rules. In Exodus 38, the Torah carefully lists the gold, silver, and bronze used. But in 1 Kings 7:47, the amount of bronze used by Solomon is explicitly said to be too great to be numbered. And in Numbers 7, the dedicatory sacrifices of the 12 tribes are listed, but under Solomon, the number here, too, is countless (1 Kings 8:5; later a fantastic -- pun intended -- number is given, v. 63). Top that, Moses -- if you can!

Solomon is certainly trying very hard to please God -- This is rather unlike his father David, who is never said to be going out and seeking God, but instead is just "a man after His own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14). It is characteristic of David, that he is approved of as one who passively endures God's choice (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7), not that he is "passionate for God" or any other such thing. In fact what David's heart seems to desire is the pleasures of kingship -- and God has no problem with that as long as he stays within the law (2 Sam. 3:21, cf. 12:8). But Solomon is always striving for God, seeking him

And of course Solomon explicitly reverses the rules about multiplying horses and wives: compare Deut. 17:16 to 1 Kings 10:28 and 17:17 with 1 Kings 11:13. Well, since Sunday school we all know, Solomon started off great, but then married strange women, and so in the end of his life went a little crooked. Early Solomon good, late Solomon bad. Isn't it curious how this resembles the excuses ordinary people offer after the guy they enthusiastically supported turned out to be a disaster. He started off good and we only found out how bad he was after he fell.

But what if this was just a dream? A fantasy? from the very beginning? It is strange, for example, that Solomon only turns bad when he was old (11:4), but that the Lord stirred up an enemy against him for "all the days of Solomon" (1 Kings 11:25; cf. 4:25). And did Solomon put the people of Israel to forced labor or not? 1 Kings 9:20-21 paints a reassuring picture: Solomon only put the Canaanites to forced labor; the Israelites are the captains and armed men. Indeed v.22 is a nice negation of the bad predictions Samuel had made about the kingship in 1 Sam. 8:11. See? this passage says, kingship's not so bad. But 1 Kings 5: 13-14 says "king Solomon raised a levy out of all Israel; and the levy was thirty thousand men. And he sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month by courses: a month they were in Lebanon, and two months at home: and Adoniram was over the levy." That sounds not so fun for Israel. Especially when we see the Israelites stoned Adoniram to death as soon as they thought they could get away with it.

And if indeed Israelites were never put to levy, where did this come from? "And Jeroboam and all the congregation of Israel came, and spake unto Rehoboam [Solomon's son], saying, 'Thy father made our yoke grievous: now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father, and his heavy yoke which he put upon us, lighter, and we will serve thee.'" (1 Kings 12: 3-4). Huh? I thought the Israelites were eating, drinking, and being merry "all the days of Solomon"? (4:25). There's something screwy here, and it's not the result of our historian suddenly going senile.

When the congregation of Israel addresses this demand to Solomon's successor, the old men counsel him: "If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever." But the young men say, "Thus shalt thou speak unto this people that spake unto thee, saying, 'Thy father made our yoke heavy, but make thou it lighter unto us; thus shalt thou say unto them, My little finger shall be thicker than my father's loins. And now whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.' " Rehoboam followed the young men's advice and the rest was history: Adoniram, the chief of forced labor, was stoned and the chopping in half of the baby -- something only threatened by Solomon, but done by Israel -- became a reality in the kingdom.

As anyone reading the Bible in a Presbyterian church knows, this is the point: old men are always wise, and calm, and right. Young men are impetuous and wrong. But what is less noticed is what the old men are actually saying. Stripped of the gloss, their advice is: "Lie to them this day like your father did, promise them the moon, and you will fool them into serving you for the rest of your life." The young men's advice was a problem, only because it was too honest: "Tell them the truth: Solomon was worse than David, and I'll be worse than Solomon."

Truthfulness is the issue here: the truthfulness of history. In Solomon's reign, Jeremiah for the first time appeals to the famous unimpeachable sources that ritually conclude the account of each reign: "And the rest of the acts of Solomon, and all that he did, and his wisdom, are they not written in the book of the acts of Solomon?" and the book of the kings of Israel? and the book of the kings of Judah? Usually this is read as a naive appeal to royal documents. "See? I'm not making this up!" But it is curious that the content of the book thus summarized, even when the king is painted by Jeremiah in the most savagely negative terms, is always positive: "all his wisdom . . . and his might . . . and his wars . . . and his buildings" and so on. Again, I emphasize: this disjunction is not the result of a senile, aphasic author who can't remember what he wrote.

What's the problem? That people lie. And especially lie about what the word of God is. Like in 1 Kings 13, a man of God comes to denounce Jeroboam for making golden calves (Solomon took them back to Egypt for horses, Jeroboam for idols). He was told to go straight home without eating or drinking. But an old prophet (one of those old men again), came to the man of God* and cleverly said that God had changed his mind. The young man was fooled by the old man's worldly cleverness: "'I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the LORD, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water.' But he lied unto him." He LIED -- and the man of God died.

This is the whole point of the reference to the annals of Solomon: they LIE. "You want to know why I wrote all about this stuff about carefree happiness under Solomon, when the people were groaning under the forced levy (and it's the same word used of Pharoah's levy)? Because I read it in the king's own propaganda, THAT's why." These annals tell a lie, a fantasy, a dream about the carefree life under Solomon. Just as they tell lies about the wonderful kings and their might and their wars and their monuments, all the way to Zedekiah and exile. A lie that a king could break every law of the king in the Torah and God would approve. And they write that lie into their histories. Jeremiah was well aware of the lying pen of the scribes: "How can you say, 'We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us'? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie." (Jer. 8:8).

And why do these annals suddenly get mentioned under Solomon and not under David? Especially when the annals of Solomon are all fantastic boasting compared to the true story under David? Crucial to interpreting this question is the fact that the very author of the Deuteronomistic History, either Jeremiah or his scribe Baruch, was a priest of Anathoth, the home town of the descendants of Abiathar, last of the Elid priests (cf. 1 Kings 2:26 and Jer. 1:1) . Under David, the family of Eli was there to tell the truth, and the result is the extraordinary narrative of 1 Samuel 1-1 Kings 2. With their exile in Anathoth, the way is free for the lying pen of the scribes, and the result is pure fantasy. When Jeremiah refers to the annals of the kings of Israel and Judah, his aim isn't to back up his own history; his aim is to contrast his Torah-true history with the propaganda of the kings and the Zadokite priests. And that's why the theme of replacement is suddenly replaced: because no one as honest and humble as Jeremiah's ancestor Eli is there to hear the Lord's Word prophesying it.

And yet --, and yet --, there it is in 1 Kings: Solomon's extraordinary prayer of 1 Kings 9. And the presence of the Lord in the temple, just as it was in tabernacle (cf. 1 Kings 8:10-11 to Ex. 40:34). And Solomon's recognition of the possibility of exile, and the need for a mediating place between man and God. Solomon's striving and searching creates this thing. Just when you think Jeremiah is a straight forward partisan paleo-conservative, railing against Lincoln and Roosevelt in the name of preserving the old constitution that kept a sharp distinction between armed Israelites and Canaanites doing forced labor, he makes it impossible for you to read him that way. He who gives us Samuel's speech against kingship also sums up the age of Judges by saying, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit." I can't sum up Jeremiah's "point," his "application," his "take home message" -- apart from saying that all these things happened to Israel, and things often aren't what they seem, and the histories often lie.

*In the Deuteronomistic History, a "man of God" is always good, but a "prophet" is frequently very bad.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

I think I want to buy this (HT: Boar's Head Tavern).



Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A while ago, Michael Spencer posted his impressions of attending (as a Southern Baptist, it was his first time) a mainline pastoral conference, where one-third of the pastors were women. Overall his impression was favorable. He offered a surprisingly "complementarian" argument that male-only environments generate one-ups-manship and competitiveness that the presence of women blocks:

Can I get away with saying that turning the “ministry” into a boys’ club–no matter what you believe about ordination–produces an atmosphere that I don’t really like? I don’t think I’m alone in that, and I assure you I’m not a mama’s boy. I’m just suspecting a lot of the grunting and chest hair in recent discussions of the “ministry” isn’t really necessary. God calls and gifts women. Even if you don’t ordain them, you believe that.

I also noticed that there was far more mature reflection on the experience and identity of the pastor in this group than in the other gatherings of ministers I’ve been a part of. Instead of being a driven kind of atmosphere, there was generosity, encouragement and thoughtful insight. I was really surprised that out of the whole group, over three days of discussion, I never spotted an ass……..well….a jerk. Or whatever term works. Not even one. In a room full of ministers listening to one another for three days, that seemed almost eerie to me. I’m used to gatherings of ministers being overt competitions of alpha males bragging, jousting for attention, bullying one another, playing games. My experience this week was absent all of that, and it had something to do with the fact that the role and person of the minister was taken more seriously than in my other experiences.

There was also an obvious gentleness in the leadership. No one seemed to have the need to vent their spleen and call it “leadership” or preaching. In the times of preaching, egos were set aside. Lots of scripture read, simple liturgies followed by 25-minute homilies. Where was the 1 hour 15 minute exposition telling us all what to do? Where was the parading of “names” to imitate? Not there…and I liked it.

Well, since Michael Spencer has given a "complementarian" perspective, let me too play against type and give an egalitarian perspective. Basically I don't think that the non-competitive, non-egoistic, gentle spirit he saw has anything to do with one-third of the ministers there being women. Rather I would say it has more to do with the different placement of mainline and sectarian pastors vis a vis their flocks.

Let me start off with a question: how many high-powered law firms ban women? None of course. And then: how many high-powered law firms are characterized by "overt competitions of alpha males bragging, jousting for attention, bullying one another, playing games"? All of them, of course. It's the same for business and politics, even poor old academia: women today are full players (at least at the "one-third" level Michael Spencer observed), and yet the "alpha male" behavior goes on.

So what accounts for the similarity between the "alpha male" ethos of a conference of Southern Baptist pastors and that of a high-powered law firm?

I would say, both are outlets for the ambitious of their community. This is, frankly, the weirdest part of being an adult convert to the evangelical community: realizing that all over the land, many driven, competitive, ambitious kids grow thinking the way to respect and power is to become . . . . a Baptist (or other evangelical) pastor. (But understanding this is useful for understanding, for example, the position of lamas in traditional Tibet, or mullas in the Islamic world.)

For those in the mainline world, the idea that religion would be an outlet for ambition, competition, and drive is just bizarre. In the mainline world, those who are driven, ambitious, and competitive go into law, business, or politics. In that world, religion as a career is, almost by definition, the province of the shy, the self-doubters, the bookish, and nerdy. And that is true whether the career cleric is male or female.

In the evangelical church, the pastor is preaching down at his sheep, for whom he is the leader of their social universe. The pastor's role is as a leader, a commander. And the ambitious boys in that world want to be the pastor, because that is leadership. This is the homeland of the link which Veblen noted between competitive sports and religion: in their own communities both are the outlets for ambition.

In the mainline church, the minister is preaching across, or even up, at parishioners for whom he or she is at best only one voice among many. The minister is an adviser, or a therapist, or counselor, offering words of counsel to the leaders and led of society. And the office attracts those who don't want to be leaders, but instead stand apart from leadership. The jocks go on to earn big money and make big decisions; the shy and bookish go into the ministry to warn them every Sunday of the dangers of ambition.

(OK, this is a broad generalization and there are many exception, and so on and so forth.)

Personally, I much prefer the style Michael Spencer found at the mainline convention. (But then again, I'm in academia, the other refuge for those who can't or won't do "alpha male" chest pounding). It might even be more genuinely Christian. The problem is, this ethos depends crucially on being a church whose pastor's word is not taken as a message from God by its flock. And that's a problem for me too.

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