Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kings

I've been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading Kings since I first heard about it in the fall. Its premise--a retelling of the Biblical story of the first two Israelite kings, Saul and David, set in a modern-yet-monarchic alternate reality--is completely off the wall, especially for network television, and though I had to believe that anyone crazy enough to dream up such a story would also have a very specific vision of how to realize it and what they wanted to do with it, there's often a gap between what writers want to create and what their skill allows them to. The pilot episode, "Goliath," leaves me very intrigued, and absolutely planning to keep following the series. It's extremely well-made, with a strong cast, wonderful production values, and good direction (the scene in which David defeats Goliath--in this version, an enemy tank--in order to rescue some prisoners of war is especially impressive, a tense and engrossing sequence). At the same time, I can't escape the impression that strong acting and visuals are doing a lot, but not nearly enough, to obscure the fact that the script was several drafts short of done.

To get the really bad stuff out of the way first: I am profoundly aggravated by the fact that in a retelling of a Jewish story, about Jewish people, describing one of the pivotal moments in the development of the Jewish nation, the only overt religious signifier is Christian. Religion and God are mentioned quite often in "Goliath"--King Silas of Gilboa (Ian McShane, on his own about 50% of the reasons the pilot so appealed to me) had a vision from God which inspired him to unite his people under his rule and lead them to greatness, and he is closely advised by the religious figure Samuels, who anointed him as God's chosen instrument. Beyond the fact that it exists, "Goliath" gives us no details about Gilboa's religion, with one exception--Samuels is addressed by the specifically Christian title of 'reverend.' So not only is the Jewish story of Saul and David Christianized, by positing a 'generic' religion and making its one identifying characteristic Christian, Kings falls into the trap of assuming that Christianity is the default religion and all other faiths a special case. As part of the still-ongoing 2009 iteration of the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of Doom, there were several posts by Jews discussing their discomfort with the way that a Christian culture appropriates and tries to swallow up their distinct religion and history. Having lived my whole life as part of Jewish majority, I was fascinated by these accounts but couldn't sympathize with them, but Kings is a brief glimpse into what these writers experience regularly.

Even more problematic is the show's treatment of Jonathan, here called Jack. The relationship between David and Jonathan is the most fascinating aspect of the tangled family drama that underlies the story of Saul's downfall and David's rise to power. After David kills Goliath and comes to Saul's attention, he and Jonathan become fast friends, and Jonathan eventually sides with David when Saul turns on him--betraying his father and his tribe, and relinquishing his claim to the throne--out of love, and the belief that David has been chosen by God. The Kings writers have instead chosen to make Jack and David enemies, with Jack resenting David's place in the people's and the king's affections. This is a boringly familiar approach, but it becomes something different and quite disturbing when you add the show's decision to play up the none-too-subtle homosexual subtext of David and Jonathan's friendship by making Jack gay. In the episode's standout scene, Silas angrily tells Jonathan that until he can totally suppress his homosexuality he won't be worthy of the throne, which sends Jonathan straight to his uncle William, who is plotting to undermine Silas's reign. So not only is the only gay character in the show a villain, he is a villain precisely because he's gay and unwilling to deny his nature in order to get what he wants, and thus stands in stark opposition to the self-controlled, straight David.

Less objectionable, but probably more problematic in the long run, is the show's worldbuilding. Like Battlestar Galactica, Kings posits a fantastic setting in which one huge thing is different from our world, but everything else is the same. Though there are some amusing and inventive juxtapositions of the modern and the archaic, such as the scribe who records Silas's deeds in archaic language on his PDA, for the most part Gilboa is a thoroughly modern Western nation. People drive cars, watch TV, call each other on cellphones, surf the net. The Gilboa military's gear and uniforms are familiar from dozens of contemporary war films and documentaries, and the civilian clothes are just what you'd find on Grey's Anatomy or CSI. As I've often said in my discussions of Galactica, this approach can result in a flimsy, unconvincing secondary world, but this is an even bigger problem for Kings, whose deviation from our norm is so much greater than the existence of spaceships and killer robots--a modern world in which the commonly accepted system of government is absolute monarchy.

There is no indication that the Kings writers have given any thought to how different our lives would be if we had no power over those stationed above us, no law to bind their hands, no courts to turn to, no elections with which to replace rulers who displease us. Such systems--we see this in historical monarchies as well as recent and current dictatorships--inevitably breed a rigid class structure, nested spheres of influence and patronage which are an individual's only method of social advancement. There's no sign of this in Kings. Silas doesn't have an aristocracy or a royal court. His advisors are politicians and greedy corporate fat cats. There's no indication that the people, or even just a small portion of them, are displeased with the order of things, or want anything more than for Silas to rule them well.

This is particularly unfortunate because the Biblical story of Saul's rise and fall (Samuel I, ch. 8 - Samuel II, ch. 1) might as well be subtitled 'Kings! What Are They Good For?' Before Saul, the Israelites are ruled by priests and prophets, with military leaders, called judges, called forth when the nation is threatened. In the time of the high priest Samuel these judges are Samuel's sons, who are described as venal and corrupt. The people turn to Samuel and demand that he choose for them a king like all the other nations, to which Samuel angrily responds (Samuel I, 8:11-18):
And he said: 'This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive-yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and all of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king whom ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not answer you in that day.'
Of course, the people insist and Saul is chosen, but he loses God's favor soon after when he declines to wait for Samuel's presence before starting the sacrifices before a battle, and later when he refuses to obey the edict to completely destroy Amalek, and claims some of their people and belongings as spoils of war. Both of these transgressions are indications that Saul has stopped thinking of himself as God's emissary and started to believe that he has an absolute right to rule, and while it's probably going way too far to argue that the Biblical author is a republican, they do seem to come to the conclusion, with David as well as Saul, that when a person is handed absolute power a natural consequence is that they start thinking they have a right to it, and are above any law, either God's or man's. "Goliath" comes close to discussing the corrupting influence of power, but it veers off course when it concludes that the problem is that the wrong person has been handed that power and identifying his replacement.

Of course, one possible reason for Kings's apparent disinterest in discussing the questions and issues inherent to a monarchic system is that despite its premise and even its title, it isn't trying to tell a story about kings. The politics of the show's invented universe are deliberately trying to recall ours. Silas locks horns with bleeding heart liberals and wicked bankers. Health care reform is a hot issue. At the beginning of a speech, the king laments that "it's not popular to talk about God." The show's vibe is less Rome, more The West Wing (even the sets and directing style seem to be trying to recall Aaron Sorkin's series) but a side effect of this choice is to give the impression that the writers think there's no difference between a king and a president, between the politics of a monarchy and the politics of a republic. This is a debatable opinion--though I find it cynical and ill-informed--but it's not something that can simply be dropped into the show's makeup and left unacknowledged, which is what "Goliath" does.

It's likely that upcoming episodes will deal with at least some of the issues I've raised here, but it seems to me that a pilot should be a statement of intent about the questions that interest a show's writers and the direction they intend to take with them, and in that sense "Goliath" is frustratingly vague on the question of monarchy, as well as other questions aroused by the show's worldbuilding, such as whether the depiction of Gilboa as potentially not only homophobic but also racist (the main cast is entirely white except for the black priest, the queen's black assistant, and the king's Indian mistress) and sexist (though the king's daughter Michelle is active in politics, she's not considered a potential heir to the throne, and seems to have no desire or expectation of inheriting it) is an intentional statement, a thoughtless oversight, or a result of the writers assuming that that's just the way it works in monarchies? So I'm not sure yet whether the series plans to engage with these issues, and consequently whether I should look forward to or dread its upcoming episodes. You might be wondering why, despite all these reservations, I'm still planning to stick with this show and recommending it to others, but any series that gets me arguing so vociferously with it, and spilling nearly 2,000 words to do so, a mere two hours into its run is worth sticking with. Despite its wacky premise, there's still a good chance that Kings will turn out as unimaginative and hidebound as most mainstream forays into genre, but I'm sufficiently excited by what I've seen so far to give it the chance to surprise me.

20 comments:

Len said...

I read various things differently than you did.

I agree with you it's a shame the explicit Jewishness has been taken out of the cultural identity. On the other hand, David and his life are also part of Christian (and to some degree Muslim) religious heritage as well. I was also struck (and relieved), that while there were many references to God in the first two hours, there was never a reference to Jesus.

On race and POC in the cast: The..Secretary of Defense or whatever his title is in this AU is Wes Studi, a Native American actor. And one of the 2 palace guards is Jason Antoon...to be honest I don't know his precise ethnic background but he's not a white guy.

So we've got a story with a tremendous amount of war and religion, and the head war guy and the head religion guy are both COC. We've got a King torn between power and love and his love is a COC, (along with a son he apparently acknowledges as his, if not as a legitimate heir to the throne). I dunno, it seemed like a decent enough mix to me, given that a certain percentage of the core cast is one family. I guess one could argue that family could have been non-white or mixed race.

I don't see Jonathan as a villain at all, at least not yet. He's a victim of his father's hypocrisy and whatever homophobia exists in his culture, but the script goes out of it's way to indicate the military cock-up was not his fault, that he was respected by his troops, and that he was as God made him, which I thought was quite the flag for the writers to plant in the ground. I also am, perhaps incorrectly, dismissing any David/Jonathan rivalry as just the scaffolding of the show's core soap opera-ishness, and they'll be tearfully embracing frenemies powering tons of slashfic in a few episodes.

The people at the party and in the gallery during the policy sessions are the court, Silas says as much at one point. And his summary dismissal of the healthcare reform thing and his completely direct ability to have people and their families assassinated seemed pretty different from what we understand as the shape of governance from elected leaders (at least in contemporary first world, Western contexts).

There are multiple scenes and conversations demonstrating favors and relationships and position are more important than money or fame, which again seemed like a shift away from a typical contemporary American construction, and I loved the formal, titular way McShane said "Free Press" every time it was entirely clear the press was whatever he needed it to be. Ultimately Silas doesn't feel like a President to me, his power feels more absolute, more personal, more capricious than that, like, well, that of a King.

Abigail's Mom said...

I'm thrown and disappointed anew every time serious writers take well-known stories and twist them out of all recognition for their own "artistic purposes." It's hard to escape the impression that the writers of Kings simply didn't bother to read the books of Samuel before creating their screenplay.

In the bible
-- Jonathan is married, a father, and very much a straight-arrow
-- David is a trouble maker, conniver, and womanizer
-- Samuel criticizes Saul not for breaking the peace but for not being more warlike
-- Shilo is a religious center, not Saul's capital
-- and, as best as I can tell, the loving relationship between Jonathan and David was open and accepted

The original story is exciting enough. Retelling it in a modern setting is a clever twist. Why totally change the personalities of the main characters to fit some TV stereotype?

I'm always reminded of Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hallow." The movie was so far removed from Washington Irving's original story that it was an embarrassment. Surely Burton couldn't be that illiterate.

And, as far as the lack of cultural diversity in the cast . . . if the story were true to the original, everyone would be dark skinned except David whom the Bible says is a redhead!

Foxessa said...

A Hollywood writer -- House currently -- weighs in on the Kings pilot script that she read, here.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

Going by various press releases and interviews and trailers and the website for Kings, it seems that the Biblical David and Goliath are not the only source materials that may have been utilized for inspiration.

As an example of what I'm trying to express, there seem echos of the popular genre of Jacobean revenge tragedies such as Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy. There have been some quite splendid 'punk' film and television use of these plays in England. But here in the U.S. a television audience by-and-large is likely to have never heard of revenge tragedies or Middleton, Tourneur, Webster, Kydd, so David and Goliath, more familiar to the audience, is emphasized as source. This seems all the more likely since this series stars McShane, fresh from his rolling Shakespearean sonarties of Deadwood.

This isn't to say that this viewer, for instance, does not agree with your objections to messing with perfectly good source material. (Can I state once more just how much I hate and loathe what Jackson did with Faramir and the relationship of Frodo and Sam? And I how I hate it all the more any time I re-watch those scenes?)

Not thinking these things out carefully beforehand, means there's no basic track rhythm on which to pace effectively the beat-by-beat pacing -- and that's where television in particular, series such as BS-G specifically, fail and fail and fail.

Love, c.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Len:

David and his life are also part of Christian (and to some degree Muslim) religious heritage as well

Do you mean in a sense beyond the fact that Christianity and Judaism have a common history? I wasn't aware that David was a particularly important figure in the Christian or Muslim traditions.

Re: POC, I'm inclined to view the fact that the chief religious figure in the story is black as a point against the show, because the pious black man is such a cliché. The two non-white women we see are in subservient positions (the non-white lover of a married white man also being a rather common and not very positive trope). So really, so far it's just the general who is a PoC in a position of power and authority.

I'm not sure that the show expects us to sympathize with Jack as much as you believe. Pity him, yes, but there's a long and proud tradition of depicting victims of injustice being rendered twisted and unwholesome by their suffering, which is the vibe I get from Jack. The fact that he's siding with a war profiteer who has thus far been depicted as pure evil is surely not a point in his favor.

Clearly there is a court around Silas, but it doesn't feel very monarchic to me - merely the power-brokers, lackeys, upstarts and hangers on that you'd find in any political arena, and the terms being used to describe that arena in Kings are explicitly non-monarchic. Your example of the use of the phrase 'free press' is a case in point. How is the press free? What guarantees their freedom, and for that matter why would anyone even think to call them that when Silas has the power to silence them on any subject and, as we see, uses that power liberally? Why would a king who rules as imperiously as Silas does even permit the semblance of a free press in the first place, while at the same time editing his official history to his own liking?

Foxessa:

I'm not sure I see the parallels to the revenge tragedy parallels yet, though my familiarity with them is extremely superficial. That said, aren't those works rooted in classic stories such as the story of Saul and David?

At any rate, what I'm seeing thus far is a lot of attention to the details of the Biblical story (with aggravating deviations such as the character of Jonathan) - the aforementioned general, for example, is called Abner, which is the name of Saul's general. Of course, it could be that I'm seeing parallels to the story I know and missing the ones to the story I'm not familiar with.

Kit said...

It's sort of "The biblical story of David, as reenacted by WASPs and a Magical Negro," isn't it? I'm intrigued and yet at the same time I'm cringing.

The naming in this show strikes me as a microcosm of their overall appropriation problems.

'Reverend' as you point out, is a good example- the correct term is priest, and moreover the religion-NEUTRAL term is priest; Catholic clergy are priests too. So it's not just that they're cutting out the Judaism in their attempt to keep the religion ambiguous- they've actively declared themselves for the Protestants. I'd like to be offended but I don't think they REALIZE they've done this, which is even worse.

The characters have similar problems. I can see why they didn't want to cast "Saul Benjamin" as the villain, and Michelle is a reasonable Anglicization of Michal, but what's going on with Jack? Is Jonathan too Jewish a name for American television now? Jonathan??? If they wanted to use a nickname they could call him Jon, which ought to sound WASPy enough for anyone. And they could have translated Ahinoam and come up with Joy or something, instead of pulling Rose out of thin air.

I don't mind people borrowing my mythology, but if they're going to do it I'd rather see either a full rewrite like West Side Story or Clueless, or a modern retelling in which the characters are religiously Jewish with Jewish names, even if none of them look Jewish. This is more along the lines of that bible the Nazi clergy were writing that cut out all the mentions of Jewishness, and it's creeping me out.

It also seems to detract from the potential of the thing- doesn't American TV have enough dramas about WASPs? I think people, even (perhaps especially) religious Christians, might be interested by a series in which everyone was nominally Jewish, especially since there wouldn't be any bagels or Yiddish or other indicators of modern American Jewishness that might make them feel they were excluded from some kind of cultural club. The choice to excise all the Judaism is just... odd.

Also I have this deep terror that either a) gay Jack will stay evil, b) gay Jack will be redeemed by his love for David and then immediately killed off, perhaps by Silas, c1) gay Jack will come around to the light side and magically become straight or c2) gay Jack will come around to the light side BECAUSE some woman cures him of his homosexuality.

I hope they know better than this, but I'm not counting on it.

Also that scene where David monologues at the tanks was profoundly stupid, and gives me very little faith in their capacity for logical or realistic plotting.

Andrew Stevens said...

while it's probably going way too far to argue that the Biblical author is a republican

Indeed it is. Since their obvious alternative to monarchy was not republicanism, but theocracy. The questions wasn't whether the people should rule themselves, but should they be ruled by kings or by priests?

David is an important figure in Christianity, obviously not as important as in Judaism since Jesus tends to crowd out all other figures. But any child raised Christian would know the story of David and Goliath. Many adults will know David and Bathsheba and at least some will know David and Jonathan. Jesus was supposedly born in Bethlehem, "the city of David" and is also supposedly a descendant of David's. Historically, Charlemagne saw himself as a "new David" which was a common metaphor in his age, though it went out of style.

It's interesting that you were struck by how few characters of color there were, when I was struck by how many. It's weird to me that they're trying to set a Biblical story in, essentially, the modern United States. The original story doesn't really lend itself to pluralism on that scale. Saul and David were kings of a particular people, not a modern republic with a couple centuries of more or less continuous immigration. I'm not saying I object to the decision, but it does make it hard for me to get a handle on who exactly the Gilboans are. Most countries are united by a particular culture (which, invariably for historical reasons, means a particular race). The United States is united by a particular set of political principles (which, while common today, were very much uncommon at its founding), but it's hard to imagine that Gilboa is united by either of these things, given what we've seen so far. Or by a particular religion for that matter given that "God is not popular." You'd think this would have been addressed in the pilot when they talked about "unifying" and the like, but I'm utterly at a loss.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, it would have been a very bold decision, and a laudable one, had they made the Gilboans a single culture, but a non-white one, as Abigail's Mom almost suggested. Most shows with an all non-white cast (Cosby Show aside) don't get good ratings because of the usual prejudices. Kings is high-concept enough that it might have been able to attract a big audience anyway.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kit:

I pretty much resemble all your remarks, but I really have to state my support for this

Also that scene where David monologues at the tanks was profoundly stupid, and gives me very little faith in their capacity for logical or realistic plotting

That was the point where I revised my opinion from 'interesting pilot with flaws and potential pitfalls' to 'interesting pilot in desperate need of a script doctor.'

Andrew:

As you say, the Biblical author takes the position that people ought to be ruled by God, not kings, but I still find that to be a less than entirely theocratic position since a) the Biblical author assumes and explicitly states that priests such as Samuel are in direct contact with God and b) Judaism is a more legalistic religion than Christianity, and in the story of Saul in particular there are several points in which Samuel warns both Saul and the Jewish people against violating God's law, implying that he believes that setting up a temporal power is a danger to the observance of that law. So I think it's possible to read the Bible's position as being that people should be ruled by the law rather than any particular man, while still recognizing that in the real world the source of that law is rather fuzzy and that the end result of such a system would indeed be a theocracy.

You're probably right that in actual Biblical times you'd find ethnic homogeneity rather than diversity, but given the liberties the show takes with its premise in other respects when it ports the story to the modern era, this is hardly a defense of its overwhelming whiteness. Like you, I would have been interested in a predominantly non-white cast, though that approach also has its pitfalls.

Foxessa said...

Christian theology and faith holds that it is from the House of David that Jesus is descended. In certain important ways though, this has far greater place in various Prostestant forms of Christianity than in every day Catholicism. The form of Protestantism that I was born into the cycle of the House of David is taught from earliest years to the kids in Sunday School and various sermons are delivered about this. The Samuel-Saul-David-Solomon cycles are as important in that church as are the cycles of Joseph and Moses.

You can see it even more strongly in the American Black Church(es).

Now that recent scholarship has taken the position that there never was a Jewish Captivity in Egypt, or Joseph -- one wonders how or if this will affect anything.

Love, C.

Andrew Stevens said...

Depends on the Biblical times. I do believe that in the time of King David, the people of Judah and Israel were almost certainly ethnically homogeneous (in a way that the modern descendants of those people certainly aren't). They even referred to themselves as Tribes, the members of which all supposedly had a common descent. I don't think this claim would have come about had there been much ethnic diversity. After the Assyrian conquest and their policy of exile of the conquered and importation of different peoples, this was probably much less the case. After that point, I have no objection to the view that there was considerable ethnic diversity in Israel and Judah and I'm sure this became even more pronounced after subsequent invasions. And, of course, Judaism isn't ethnically bound at all in the Hellenistic era.

I do agree with your take on what the Biblical author(s) intended and I do not take the term "theocracy" to be automatically pejorative, as the normal modern person does. Indeed, in many ways, theocracy seems superior to monarchy to me. Because I am an atheist, I believe that ultimately theocracy simply equals rule by priests (even if they might be constrained by the decisions of previous priests), but this is not necessarily a bad thing and the priests are likely selected by a somewhat more satisfactory process than primogeniture. (Not a much better process in that time and place since priesthood itself was hereditary, but marginally better. The priesthood system could rule out people who were clearly unfit to rule in a way monarchy historically had difficulty with.) I take your point on the legalism of Judaism, but it's not necessarily a point in favor of theocracy over monarchy. Monarchies also had the benefit of laws laid down by previous monarchs to draw on and it's much easier to repeal a bad law laid down by a previous monarch than it is to repeal a bad law which comes directly from God. It is not clear to me that having more laws is necessarily a virtue. On the other hand, in a theocracy, in theory at least even the high priests are bound by their own laws in a way that monarchs aren't necessarily.

A well-ordered theocracy would probably have all the pros and cons of the Mandarin system in China. You would likely get competent and not terribly corrupt administration, but also a hidebound and reflexively conservative form of government, rarely making major blunders, but also slow to adapt to changing times. We tend to think of China in the 1300 years of Mandarin administration as entirely static. This isn't entirely true, of course, but it's also not entirely false. (There were, of course, massive upheavals in China both before the Mandarins and afterwards.)

By the way, as you may be aware, the term theocracy was invented by Josephus to describe the characteristic government of the Jews.

Andrew Stevens said...

In certain important ways though, this has far greater place in various Prostestant forms of Christianity than in every day Catholicism.

I agree that it's emphasized more in certain Protestant denominations, but many Catholic churches have beautiful and elaborate stained glass windows depicting the "Tree of Jesse," showing Jesus's descent from Jesse, father of David.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Foxessa:

Actually, in Israel the hot-button issue in Biblical scholarship/archeology is whether Saul, David, and Solomon existed, even in the sense that there were leaders by their names but that the stories told about them are heavily or completely fictionalized. Opinions and the evidence supporting them vary quite wildly, as you might imagine.

Andrew:

I take your point on the legalism of Judaism, but it's not necessarily a point in favor of theocracy over monarchy.

It is, I think, in the story of Saul and David (and presumably the story that Kings is trying to tell), because the major point that Samuel and the Biblical author make against kings is that they are above the law, and that being able to do anything they want corrupts them completely - both David and Saul start out innocent and godly and end up corrupt and depraved. If you buy that the form of theocracy advocated by Samuel is subservience to God's law - which clearly I have some problems with - than he is offering a better alternative to absolute rule.

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, I mentioned that in the last sentence of my second paragraph, but I believe that's outweighed since the cold dead hand of the past is a bigger problem in a theocracy. It's hard to overturn a law handed down by God which doesn't make sense any more. I know that the Mormons are able to do it, but they do so only at some expense to their credibility.

Abigail's Mom said...

many Catholic churches have beautiful and elaborate stained glass windows depicting the "Tree of Jesse," showing Jesus's descent from Jesse, father of David.

Of course, Jewish tradition says the the Messiah will come from the House of Jesse. I hadn't realized that Christian tradition follows through on that.

What's equally important in Jewish tradition is Jesse's tree -- I wonder if Christianity follows this as well:

Jesse is the grandson of Ruth and Boaz (Book of Ruth 4:18-22). That means that Jesse is descendent from one of the most important female figures in the Hebrew Bible: the Moabite Ruth, a convert and a symbol of loyalty and courage.
and
Boaz himself is descendent (back six generations) from Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar. [Genesis 38] Tamar is another important non-Jewish woman in the bible who stands for the importance of the law and the strength/determination to uphold it.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ruth does have some significance in Christianity. It is certainly accepted that she is an ancestor of Jesus. The genealogy in the Book of Matthew is a direct male line lineage from Abraham to Jesus, but four women are mentioned - Ruth, Tamar, Rahab, and Mary. (Bathsheba is mentioned obliquely as the mother of Solomon and Uriah's wife.) Ruth is also quoted in many Christian marriage ceremonies. "For wherever you go, I will go. . ." Obviously, as Jesus tends to crowd out other male figures, so Mary crowds out most other female figures, particularly in Catholicism.

However, I'm detecting a subtext here - that Christianity is patriarchal in a way that Judaism was not? I certainly grant the former charge. Christianity, descended from three patriarchal cultures is undoubtedly a patriarchal religion, but those three patriarchal cultures are Greek, Roman, and Jewish. One could easily exaggerate the importance of various female Christian saints and martyrs (there are literally dozens of them) and argue from this that Christianity isn't patriarchal. Similarly, concentrating on Ruth and Tamar and ignoring that virtually all significant figures in the Hebrew Bible were men seems obviously revisionist to me. Were the Jews as patriarchal as the Athenians or the Romans? Not quite. But they were much more patriarchal than the Egyptians or the Spartans. In that regard, I have to deny the charge that Christianity took an egalitarian religion and twisted it toward patriarchy. Perhaps some branches of Judaism have done a better job of adjusting to modern egalitarianism than mainstream Christianity has; that I might freely grant.

I yield to no one, despite my atheism, in my admiration for all three cultures, but none of them were particularly enlightened, in a modern way, when it came to gender and it is perhaps asking too much to expect them to have been.

Abigail's Mom said...

However, I'm detecting a subtext here - that Christianity is patriarchal in a way that Judaism was not?

Andrew, normative Judaism is certainly not "egalitarian" or "enlightened" in any modern sense, and there is no question that biblical Israel was a strongly patriarchal society.
But
modern scholarship is raising some very interesting questions about what "patriarchal" meant durning the 1,500 years of biblical history. This is a subject very dear to my heart -- I tend to go on and on -- I'll try to keep myself within reasonable bounds of a blog comment:

1. let's remember that our modern reading of biblical literature has been horribly colored by the biased, chauvinistic "scholarship" of the Dark and Middle Ages. The best example on the Jewish side are many anti-feminist precepts so loved by today's ultra-orthodox which were invented by 3rd-5th century CE rabbis who didn't understand Hebrew and misread the bible! The best example on the Christian side comes from the same period and for the same reason: Dark Age monks invented the Virgin Birth because they misread Isaiah.

2. We know for certain that at the height of the Roman period [1st century BCE - 1st century CE], women enjoyed a level of independence and respect that they never had before or since (until modern times). Wether this applied only to Roman citizens and only to those with money is not entirely clear. We have evidence like the ruling of a 1st Century CE rabbi that on Passover all women should be treated as "upper-class" women. The rabbi goes on to explain that on Passover, all women should sit as equals at the table with the men and that the men should serve them!

3. It's clear that the bible treats women as property. But they also have rights
-- right of inheritance: the daughters of Zlafhad [Numbers 27]. In Rabbinic times, the rabbis used this story as a basis for a long series of rulings on women's rights.
-- rights of the female captive [Deuteronomy 21], she is a person and not a thing
-- even the laws of rape favor the woman: if a woman cries rape, the man can't claim she enticed him.

4. There are a large number of very positive female figures in the Hebrew bible -- again, "scholars" basing themselves on readings from the Middle Ages taught us to ignore those women; modern feminists are reversing that trend.
-- we've already mentioned Ruth and Tamar
-- Deborah the Judgess
-- Hagar, Sarah's non-Jewish maid, who speaks with angles
-- Miriam, Moses's sister who is considered a prophetess in her own right
-- Hannah, the mother of Samuel who teaches us how to pray
-- Esther, the heroine of the Book of Esther
-- and, of course, Abigail. I named my daughter Abigail because the bible says that David's Abigail was both beautiful and intelligent.

5. One respected rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 1:27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. is that the original "man" was actually a hermaphrodite: a combined male-female creature. This creature became lonely, so God split it in half so that man shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.
In any case, the concept of Original Sin has no place in Jewish tradition. Both Adam and Eve are punished equally for eating from the Tree of Knowledge: Adam will suffer as he works the land and Eve as she gives birth.

Getting back to the subject of this post, you have only to read of the troubles that both David and Saul had with their women to know that in 1,000 BCE a women couldn't merely be tossed into the harem and forgotten!

Andrew Stevens said...

Most of what you wrote I don't disagree with at all, although I could do a similar defense of the Middle Ages. Women always made up half the population and men, no matter how much they might have dominated society, have loved their daughters and often loved their wives and mothers. So things were never quite as bad for women (well, except maybe the Athenians who had some rather shocking beliefs about women) as some people would have us believe. The historical oppression of women has never quite been as simple as the oppression of a subject people to its conquerors and I believe the modern tendency to analogize them is simply wrong. It is arguable that the Catholic hierarchy was less enlightened than most due to its celibate priesthood, I grant.

The best example on the Christian side comes from the same period and for the same reason: Dark Age monks invented the Virgin Birth because they misread Isaiah.

This is certainly false. If you read the Gospel of Luke, there is absolutely no question that Mary was a virgin. It may be the case, if you believe that Christianity is made up (and I do, though I think the same of the supernatural elements of the Hebrew Bible), that this is because the Gospel authors misread Isaiah and, in their zeal to have Jesus meet all the criteria for the Messiah, made up a legend based on a misunderstanding and wrote it into the Gospels, but it certainly wasn't made up by Dark Age monks. Any anti-feminism present in Christianity which, arguably, was not present in Judaism can probably be laid at the feet of Saint Paul.

Even Saint Paul is often misinterpreted, whether more by the sexists or the feminists I'll let you decide. In Corinthians he likens marriage to Jesus's relationship with the Church (which is why the Catholics consider it a sacrament). He says, "The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband." But keep reading. "In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer." (It is a woman's duty to have sex with her husband so that he won't be tempted to sin, but it is also a man's duty to have sex with his wife, if she wants to and he doesn't, for the same reason.)

So also in Ephesians when he says, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything." But again, keep reading. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see to it that she respect her husband."

For Saint Paul, the ideal marriage was that marriage which was most like a crucifixion (of the man who represents Christ). While he definitely believed that it was a woman's duty to submit to her husband, he also believed it was the husband's duty to give himself up for his wife and die for her and love her even if she disobeys. I don't see how anybody can use these passages to, for example, justify wife-beating. I think it's unquestionable that Christianity offers men a crown in marriage. It is questionable, though, whether this is simply a crown of thorns.

It is certainly true that women had a surprising amount of freedom in Roman society in the centuries you mentioned. I'm not sure I'd say they had more than in earlier Egypt or Sparta, but Roman law at the time was surprisingly enlightened given their whole culture of "paterfamilias."

The only other major argument I have is with your interpretation of Original Sin. No Christian theologian believes that Original Sin applies only to women. There were a few Church Fathers who believed that women bore more responsibility, such as Tertullian, but there were others who believed that men bore most of the responsibility or at least that women didn't bear any special responsibility such as St. Irenaeus and St. Ignatius. (St. Irenaeus blamed the Devil, but gave Adam more responsibility than Eve. St. Ignatius believed that the Fall came through a woman, Eve, but Redemption came through another, Mary, so it all evened out.)

I did enjoy the hermaphroditic interpretation of Genesis, though it sounds exactly like Aristophanes' comic creation myth in Plato's Symposium. I'm forced to wonder if the author was familiar with it.

Abigail's Mom said...

OK, Andrew, what you're telling me is that I have a lot to learn about Christian beliefs and that I shouldn't rely on [biased] Common Wisdom.

That being said, the main point I was trying to make was that over the 1,500 years of biblical history, the role of women in Jewish society varied from being almost as property to being nearly emancipated.

After the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, in the period when Christian belief systems were solidifying, the position of women worsen sharply. Chauvinistic/paternalistic attitudes found their way into both Jewish and Christian cultures.

We have to strive to read the Hebrew Bible as a reflection of the time in which it was written and not as it was interpreted in later years.

Andrew Stevens said...

I certainly don't want to put it that harshly. We are all of us prone to believe false things because we read them in sources we thought were reliable.

I agree with this:

We have to strive to read the Hebrew Bible as a reflection of the time in which it was written and not as it was interpreted in later years.

I also believe that we should do the Gospels and the Epistles of the Greek Bible the same courtesy.

That there were evil men who twisted Christianity to their own purposes is undeniable. That some of them used it to endorse chauvinism (even though its most venerated completely human figure was a woman) and others used it to endorse anti-Semitism (even though Christianity began as a Jewish religion) and others used it to justify slavery (even though Christianity began as a religion of slaves) - all of this is true, but it's not the whole truth. E.g., there is no occasion recorded in the Gospels in which Jesus belittled, demeaned, stereotyped, or otherwise mistreated a woman. Many Christians over the centuries have noticed this and women were a hugely important part of the early Christian church.

I agree with you that the position of women eventually got worse. However, the decline you're speaking of did not persist. The high point for women was almost certainly under the Christian Emperor Justinian who wrote extreme punishments for rape regardless of whether the victim was a virgin, married woman, or widow, free or slave, repealed the death penalty for women caught in adultery (though their lovers might still be executed), gave men the right to pardon their wives who had committed adultery (previously denied), enacted equal penalties for both male and female adulterers, and gave women much greater property rights. Throughout the fourth through sixth centuries, the status of women had improved and this was greatly accelerated under Justinian. Part of this, almost certainly, was due to the influence of women as benefactors of the Christian church.

Of course, on the other hand, Justinian, for all his progressiveness on women's issues (almost certainly due to his wife, Theodora, who had been a courtesan and prostitute prior to her marriage to Justinian and knew first-hand the trials and tribulations low-status women were subjected to) was quite the opposite with regard to Jews, who he regarded as heretics, and he could be considered one of the fathers of Christian anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, history is never simple and very few people (or nations or religions) wear exclusively white hats or black hats.

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