Helen Paynter writes: Micaiah: the lying prophet of God. Elisha: the grumpy old man who couldn’t take a joke. The book of Kings has its fair share of surprises. What are they doing in this text? What is the reader supposed to learn from them? And should we always stand up and applaud the prophets wildly, whatever they get up to?
There are many humorous elements in Kings, best revealed by paying attention to the final form of the text; in other words, crediting the final editor with intelligence, subtlety and artistry, and considering in what ways he has shaped the text to tell the story in the way that he intends.
Once Solomon’s rule has been recounted, the majority of the combined book of Kings is 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. However, in the central part of the book, this pattern is disrupted by the appearance of Elijah and Elisha, performing an extraordinary array of miracles—and doing some rather unexpected and uncomfortable actions. This rather surprising interjection leads us to a number of unexplained ‘problems’ which Kings raises for us. For our purpose, the chief one is this: 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. 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.
Light is shed on these questions if we read the central section of Kings with attention to the possibility of humour in the text. In particular, there are two unusual literary devices: carnivalisation and mirroring.
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, 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:
- Unusual use of language: foreign-sounding speech, cursing, vulgarity, abusive speech
- Inversion of hierarchies: the making and unmaking of temporary ‘kings’ and ‘queens’
- Foolery: the seeming simpleton who speaks truth to power
- Feasting: unusual, unexpected feasts
- Unusual expression of things that are vulgar, grotesque or offensive
- Bizarre, unexpected breaches of normal cause and consequence
Examining Kings for features of carnivalisation reveals that the central section (1 Kings 13 to 2 Kings 10) there is an enormous number of them:
These chapters contain the Elijah/ Elisha stories and the Aram/ Israel narratives.
- Unusual use of language. There are many instances of non-standard Hebrew in the central section []. 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- Unusual expression of things that are vulgar, grotesque or offensive. There are many instances of this phenomenon, as indicated by the enormous bodycount 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) []; 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).
- 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.
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.
Literary mirrors can also function in a more fragmented way, with multiple little glimpses of reflection scattered throughout the main narrative. The purpose 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 such literary mirroring within Kings.
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.
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.
We must take care to note the places where the text is using humour to criticise the actions of even prophets. If we read with subtlety we are more likely to avoid the danger of attempting to defend the indefensible.
For more information, see Paynter, H (2016). Reduced Laughter: Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kings. Leiden: Brill.
Helen Paynter is Director of the Centre of the Study of the Bible and Violence, and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College.
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