Reduced Laughter: A Review

Reduced Laughter by Revd Dr Helen Paynter.

A Review by Richard Matcham



Chapter 1 – Introduction

My title:  In Defense of the Comedic

Using Private Eye as a great introductory example, one thing is sure – humanity loves humour, and we love humour that subverts the way things are, the high-and-mighty, etc.  The Bible hasn’t had good fare in recent millennia regarding all things funny.  The Bible is a serious book, and is found to be read (when it is read at all), to be read by serious people.


Our Western rationalism in general, and 19th century German scholarship (p.5) in particular, riding on the back of Plato’s suspicion that humour is malicious; and Aristotle’s warning that while humour is necessary, it should be ‘kept in check’, is missing the point that humour can be ‘a route to truth’ (p.3).


On the contrary, humour is not the opposite of sadness or seriousness, a useful observation of what de Sousa calls a ‘category error’ (p.4).  Thank God!  I have come to realise that my own use of humour is directly related to my serious side.  They are two sides of the same coin.


All this is carried over into our Bible reading.  Our culture may ‘Think Bike – Think Safety’ but we certainly do not train ourselves or our churches to ‘Think Bible – Think Humour,’ and I for one would love to try.   Admittedly, this is not easy – the Bible is a very serious book(s), with lots of weighty, eternal, salvific images, multi-genre & theological categories, stories and truth claims.  Thus, as a default setting, we ‘are more likely to under diagnose humour than over-diagnose it’ (p.6), and this means we will likely miss it altogether.


A taster-example is offered via the Naboth narrative (1 Kings 21), and how the Hebrew word describing the sulky and vexed Ahab is related to the Deuteronomic stubborn and rebellious son (21:18-19).  Here, the son is the one killed, whilst in Kings, it is Ahab who kills.  ‘This subtle, darkly humorous, allusion will only be apparent to the attentive reader or listener’ (p.8).  I wish I’d been more attentive in my reading!

Helen then offers some ‘ground rules’ for textual interpretation.  The text itself assumes a ‘literary or aural competence’ (p.8), and this requires competent hard work.  Highlighting wordplays and ‘hidden polemics’, the careful reader is able to see the ‘subversive, and deliberate partial concealment’ (p.10) of the narrative, using the ‘useful guidelines’ for the ‘methodological criteria’ outlined by Yairah Amit on page 9.


Finally, Helen’s hermeneutical approach leans heavily on the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, someone who refers to seriocomic literature as ‘playful, irreverent, multi-voiced, subversive and outrageous’ (p.11).  I have already guessed in my own reading that the Bible is all of these things, but what I hadn’t reckoned with, is that it is more deliberately so, and far deeper than I gave credit.


Chapter 2 – Some Unanswered Questions in the Book of Kings

My Title:  Hermeneutical Blind-spots in Focus

Chapter two surveys how a history of interpretation on certain and central passages of Kings have, whilst being thorough in many ways, have not always been satisfactory (in the sense of completeness).

Discontent with what we read in Kings (final-form text) is shown among ‘both naïve and learned, faithful and skeptical. . . .Commentators through the years have grappled with this text without reaching consensus on the matter’ (p.18).  For ‘we note that there are several places where the ethics of YHWH or his prophet is called into question by the text, and that this poses a problem which has not been fully explained by the traditional commentators’ (p.22).  It must be said, that this book is not the pompous search for novelty within a given biblical text, but rather the on-going enquiry of a collection of texts in final-form narrative that have rarely if ever, sat well with anyone who has a problem with, say, grumpy prophets using bears to kill young boys…cue hilarity!


The text in question is II Kings 2:23-25, where we read that Elisha curses the children who tease him, and call forth a bear who malls them all to death.  As loved as this and others stories like it are, ‘being well known does not equate with being well-understood’ (p.13), so much so that Sunday School children may love them, but ‘much academic ink has not fully succeeded in answering’ (p.17).


The ‘florid eruption’ (p.17) of the narratives of Elijah, Elisha and the Aram cycle invites the reader into a respite from the formulaic structure of the Israelian and Judaean ‘regnal accounts’.  But it is not a respite that proves restful, but extensive and ambiguous.


Helen then surveys very briefly some selective commentators, and their methodological approach to the text, starting with the Church Fathers, citing Caesarius of Arles (460-542 CE) as an interesting typological example of the text (p.18).  My own thought here is that this example is quite late, and unless he was typical of all prior Church Fathers, why use him and why start in the 5th century?


Aquinas in the Middle Ages develops the typological to explore its theological meaning, even though he encourages his readers to ‘avenge the wrong,’ it seems even he can miss the point (p.18)!


Citing the Talmudic Jewish Tradition, and various 17th-19th century commentators, the tendency was still to err on the side of trying to ‘exonerate the prophets from any suspicion of misdemeanor’ (p.19).  Thus proving a central feature of Reduced Laughter, that ‘pre-modern scholars do not identify with irony or satire within the larger text’ (p.19).  It is easy for us moderns, myself and others to scoff at this over-sight.  I guess without the foresight of history, and the scholarly work of these giants on whose shoulders we stand to gain a panoramic view of Scripture, we would not see as we do now, in the same way that future generations will likewise be perplexed at the biases and blind-spots of our day!


Following the advent of Higher Criticism, Helen references several notable scholars, concluding with astonishment that ‘even Walter Breuggemann . . . .does not express unease at Elisha’s actions here’ (p.20)!  Yet discomfort with Elisha’s behavior is growing among more recent scholars, those who are considering ‘the possibility that the readers discomfort is intended by the text’ (p.21), something conventional hermeneutical techniques have been unable to unify.


The chapter concludes with a helpful survey of the significance of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, her prophets Elijah and Elisha, and ‘the peculiar privilege of Aram’ (p.22ff).  Helen shows how the text can state one thing, then show no record of it being done, citing as example the ‘Command-Prophecy’ of 1 Kings 19-15-17.  From defending the dubious prophet to calling the accounts ‘pious fiction’ (p.26), does not, as Helen states, ‘solve any of the afore mentioned problems’ (p.26).  Here, a clue is given by Helen:  where source-critical scholars have found the verses disjunctive, she is ‘inclined to consider them significant from a literary point of view’ (p.26), because ‘the text must be assumed to have a purpose in its existing form, in its existing place’ (p.27).
And the purpose is stated, that this ‘Command-Prophecy’ formula serves to open up an ‘inclusio’ which closes in 2 Kings 8 and 9, paving the way for Aram (Damascus/Syria) to play her full part in the Kings narrative (p.28).  Meanwhile the ethical questions abound in the lives of the two prophets and the cruciality of Aram, but already the door to a hermeneutical method that explicates this is thus opened and now we must pass through.


Chapter 3 – Seriocomic Readings and the Mise-en-abyme: Useful Heuristics for Biblical Criticism

This is a demanding chapter, and virgin territory as far as I am concerned.  I learned a lot and didn’t understand a lot!  My response to Helen’s warning ‘will depend upon [my] receptivity to the insights of diachronic analysis, [my] sensitivity to polyphony (the presence of multiple voices which dialogue within text, none having privilege over the others’ (p.31) , and ‘[my] respect for the craft of the author’ (p.46).


Helen argues for the legitimacy of seriocomic features in the biblical text, predating Bakhtin’s starting point of Classical Greece, and she maintains logical consistency since ‘if carnivalesque literature is a universal human expression, that is, a recurrent genre which emerges spontaneously in all (or most) cultures, then we would be surprised to not find it in the Hebrew Bible’ (p.51).  It is a real shame Bakhtin wasn’t that interested in the Bible (p.44).  Nevertheless, this becomes the primary motivation for Helen’s point, that ‘the use of carnival in society and seriocomic literature are probably universal human expressions in the face of power structures unassailable by conventional means (p.42) and thus, will certainly be embedded within the biblical text, and missed by most scholars alive or dead!  Helen brilliantly surmises, ‘If Bakhtin is right, the danger is not that we will read too much seriocomedy into these ancient texts, but that we will discover too little’ (p.52).


This chapter surveys the life and work of Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), who argued that “language is not the static medium of the hegemony, but contains different strata within it” (p.31).  Helen shows how Bakhtinian readings of texts, the interpretation of the medieval carnival as subversive actions and mocking dissent against the powers that be.  It is a role reversal, where what is normal in society is turned upside down, inside out and parodied to the extreme.  Thus, during carnival-time, all hierarchy is suspended, all are considered equal, whereby if normal society was a “consecration of inequality (p.36), the carnival was a consecration of equality, even if ‘the beggar becomes a king, and the king a beggar” (p.37).  So what’s the point?  ‘Thus the essence of carnival is not mere reversal (high is replaced by low, official by unofficial) but is a joyful freedom; a creative open-endedness’ (p.37).


It is this joy, freedom and creativity that makes the way clear for a text to be read beyond the ‘static medium of the hegemony’ but rather, seeing the “different strata within it” (p.31).  In helping the reader to see this “strata” or a “multiplicity of ideologies within a text” (p.34), and guarding against the postmodern charge of relativism or overly starchy dogmatism (“laughter purifies from dogmatism” p.38), he has shown that ‘in a polyphonic text, meaning is not found where it is usually sought, that is, within the text’s locutions.  Rather, in Bakhtinian polyphony, meaning is located at the boundaries of these locutions, where the voices clash’ (p.34).  To my mind, this is about the voiceless finding their voice, even if it be buried behind and below the surface, and more astonishing, even if it is discovered centuries later or more tragically comic, never discovered all – rest assured reader:  The dissenting-mocking voice of the marginalized, poor and lowly is there whether we have found it in our texts and carnivals or not!


Helen then surveys Menippean satire, after highlighting three characteristics of seriocomic writing identified by Bakhtin, and two distinct form of it, one of which is Menippean satire (p.40), within which are fourteen identifiable features (p.41).


This moves on into a biblical discussion.  Helen briefly but deftly surveys some of the very few biblical scholars who adapt various approaches, highlighting strengths and weaknesses in them (52-57).


This clears the ground for Helen to bring her contribution to the discussion:  Towards a Diagnostic Heuristic (p.57), in which she raises her questions and then states her proposal thus:  “Are there seriocomic features within this text [of Kings], the identification of which will enlighten our understanding of it?  If so, what function do they serve? . . . . The central section of the Book of Kings contains many elements of the seriocomic genre, which function in an artful way to serve an important literary and ideological purpose within the text” (p.58), so that “the proposed interpretation should be able to account for previously puzzling features in the text” (p.59).  Helen then outlines her four-point methodology (p.59-60).


Finally, Helen explains the concept of Mise-en-abyme, as a technique used by literary theorists to represent a variety of devices.  “Within the literary field, the Mis-en-abyme is a device whereby the whole of the narrative is reflected within one distinct portion of it . . . . thus acts as an internal mirror, which functions to interpret the whole” (p.62), and derives from the “heraldic device of a shield which contains a miniature representation of itself” (p.62).  Helen will show how this device can be used to understand the central portion of Kings.


Chapter Four – An Investigation into the Seriocomic Elements at the Heart of Kings

This chapter is Helen’s hermeneutical proposal being ‘put to the test’ (p.63); it is a massive chapter numbering 59 pages, and ramps up the demand of the previous chapter!  Taking the ‘substantial investigation into seriocomic literature by Francisco Garcia-Treto’ (p.64), Helen now examines the Elijah-Elisha narratives and the Aram cycle.


Beginning with the crowning and decrowning of Jehu, Garcia-Treto shows that mirroring can be seen in the narrative of 2 Kings 9:14-37 and then in 2 Kings 10:1-28, highlighting five (and therefore presumably established) scenes within the text that concur as features of carnival (p.65).  They are found in the commissioning of Jehu, his chariot race, the downfall of Jezebel, the extermination of Ahab’s family and the annihilation of the Baal cult.  All this serving as ‘an example of the Bakhtinian concept of pregnant death, whereby death brings about rebirth, and the lower bodily strata serve as fertiliser for the new life’, thus ‘new possibilities emerge’ (p.67).


Whilst Helen admits to not being in full agreement with Garcia-Treto on the decrowning of Jehu, because his ‘reign terminates in the standard regnal account’ (p.67) we see in Kings, there are, nevertheless, strong carnivalisation characteristics.   To my mind, Jehu’s decrowning is made explicit in the opening verses of the Minor Prophet Hosea 1:1-4 (a text in fact I discovered later Helen had mentioned – verse 4 at least – on page 106), but this is clearly outside the final form text of the Kings narrative.


Violation of linguistic forms is a fascinating section.  Drawing on Heteroglossia (‘the presence within a text of internal variations within a language’ (p.67); and Ferguson’s proposal, of ‘Diglossia’ (‘where two or more varieties of the same language are used by speakers under different condition’ (p.67-8).  This is the combination of ‘high’ and ‘low’ speech in a final form text.  High is the language of poetry, politics and sermons(!); whilst Low is the language of the street, among family and friends.  Helen then examines the features around this scholarly discussion, in which we find two main camps: the Maximalist (seeing many anomalies in the text as northernisms, i.e. deriving from the Northern Kingdom), and the Minimalist, those who do not see it quite so.


Helen then compares the leading Maximalist Gary Rendsburg and his ‘four criteria (p.69), with leading minimalists.  Helen makes her point clear:  Whatever the reason for these linguistic variants, ‘an arguably more significant question for the present investigation concerns the aetiology and purpose of their presence within the text’ (p.69).  This takes us to Rendsburg’s ‘foreign factor in the Hebrew Bible’ (p.69), and here, even the leading Minimalist, Ian Young, agrees that linguistic variants are inserted deliberately to ‘foreignise the speech of characters within the narrative’ (p.70).


Why is this important?  ‘If Bakhtin is correct, deviant language within a text might be a device intended to highlight the struggle between centralising and marginal forces in society, between authorized speech and market-place gossip, folklore or dissenting malcontents’ (p.71).  Thus Helen is now set to examine evidence for linguistic transgression in Kings.


Helen provides instances in Kings of mocking, insulting name-calling, physical violence, sarcasm, flyting, sexual innuendo and sheer indolence, with further references to unclean dogs, defilement of corpses, sexual promiscuity, urination, castration and defaecation (p.75-80), even though, sadly, the LXX has ‘smoothed out problematic portions’ showing that the translators have likely missed the  point, and hence also millennia of readers (p.76)!  Helen’s point being that the Hebrew text is ‘sufficiently insulting to add credibility to our search for linguistic transgression’ (p.80-81), conveying, as they seem to do, ‘eccentricities of speech’ through the ‘deliberate foreignisation’ of the narrative (p.74).  These texts invite the reader to reflect on the power relationships between prophet and king; prophet and Baal priest; king and YHWH, etc., and so ‘in this way the text may itself be functioning as an instrument of subversion’ (p.81).


I wonder what kind of subversion is going on in biblical translation work; what kind of ‘linguistic transgression’ takes place when readers miss the subversion and transgression that the original authors and or redactors actually intended?  Is this the translatorial-triumph of euphemism over the market-place forces of polite suburban readers of the bible who do not wish to have their mid-morning tea ruined by such filthy slang commonly used by the common people?  I suppose that even well-to-do people would hope against hope that ‘dove’s dung’ (2 Kings 6:25) were in fact a lovely chick-pea meal (p.85) if they were faced with Ben-hadad besieging their castle and the donkey heads had sold out!


Pages 81-89 offer a series of examples from Kings of ‘inversion of hierarchy and reversals, ‘one of the most important test criteria for the hypothesis’ (p.81).  The status of a character being reversed reminded me of Robin Hood, or as Helen says, ‘the generous bandit.’


The story of Namaan being healed (1 Kings 20) is a wonderful exercise in close observation of the biblical text, as he is compared and contrasted with the nameless ‘little girl’ who had been kidnapped by Syrian forces.  Other texts are carefully considered.


LaBarbera’s work is considered, as Helen surmises, ‘the text resembles a peasant narrative, folkloric in style, rich in irony, puns and humour, which permits expression of the common disgust towards the ruling class and vents it in the form of ridicule. . . .this is satire directed by peasants towards the dominant military elite which governed their lives’ (p.86).   Similarly, Helen cites Brueggemann as he describes these stories as ‘forming an embarrassing interjection of hurt and amazement which interrupts the ‘certitude’ of the ‘sober, predictable’ regnal pronouncements’….these are the ‘subversive voices’ that disrupt and malign the relentless inventory’ of the rest of the book [of Kings] (p.81).  This becomes the reason why scholar Hugh Pyper argues that carnivalesque writing must not be rigidly analysed by strict notions of genre ‘but by its effect; whether it serves to subvert or support the framework of society’ (p.88).  To my mind though, and without having read Pyper’s work on this matter, such a statement doesn’t prove anything one way or the other, since every writing will either support or subvert, whether fairy tales or historical reconstructions, every piece of writing is doing something.  


The significantly portioned remainder of the chapter furnishes the reader with an impressive list of biblical examples that seek to evidence the seriocomic features:  Crowning and de-crowning with Jehu and Jezebel and Ahab, ‘One by one the symbols of his authority are stripped away until finally the dog licks up his blood’ (p.91).  Helen offers three instances of crowning and decrowning (but then cites four – is this a seriocomic literary device of her own?)!  Next, Helen twice highlights what ‘we the audience’ can see, namely, ‘right through the charade of cavorting prophets and sycophantic attendants. . . .he may have been crowned but there is nothing noble about him’ and we, the audience are seeing and knowing this (p.91).  I am seeing clearer thanks to this book!


Masking and foolery is an interesting concept too (and a well known literary trope).  It reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ which seemed to my mind to fit all the necessary criteria for The Fool, notably even though Mishkin is a Prince, he still relates consistently to all around him (mostly the ruling classes but not exclusively), as one able to ‘tell the truth because he exists outside the structures of power which he is critiquing’ (p.63).  Always perceived as ‘a naïve simpleton’ but still turning the tables on the king who is the one ‘unmasked as a sucker’ (p.94).


The four lepers (2 Kings 7:3-20) show us a classic example of hierarchical inversion, unmasking the supposed powers around them by their actions.


Commenting on anonymity within the text, Helen reminds the reader ‘it is instructive to consider why the final redactor did not provide an editorial gloss earlier unless he wished the anonymity to function as an artful literary device’ (p.96), namely, as Helen tells us she will go on to argue, that this literary device ‘amount[s] to a robust insult to the king of Israel’ (p.97), that by using the generic title ‘king of Israel’, ‘the author is able to smear the character of all the kings of the northern kingdom at once’ (p.97).


Under deception, Helen highlights fourteen separate instances of deceit, lying and dishonesty, which not only include the various evil kings of Israel and Judah, but prophets, named and unnamed, and perhaps more troubling to many readers of the bible, YHWH himself (p.98-99).  It is my forming view that in the light of Helen’s thesis, the notion of God lying and/or deceiving need not be the cause for alarm it often is; there is something of the mise-en-abyme about all this, in that, ‘for it to be understood it must therefore be read within the entire narrative’ (p.62).  This is closely related to ‘Disguise’ and as Helen suggests, ‘disguise may be used to reveal what is hidden’ (p.100).  One thing we can be sure regarding the bible, is that, quoting Coggins, ‘there may be a deeper level of significance than that which appears on the surface’.


Other devices include:  Visual and auditory tricks, lying about Ben-Hadad’s recovery from illness (and competing hermeneutical solutions), tricking the prophets of Baal to their doom.


There are some grizzly examples under the sub-heading of Feasting (p.106-7), or rather, ‘strange feasts’ with ‘grotesque elements’.  Sadly, but rather comically (reduced laughter indeed!), the king of Aram is drunk and the bible records his forgetfully repetitive inebriated speech (only biblical record of such – 1 Kings 20).  Chapter 7 will deal with this in more detail….in more detail, hic!


Elisha’s cure of poisonous stew (‘Death in the Pot’) bolsters his own reputation and provides a feast where there should be no feast (p.108).


The Cannibals and the Lepers of 2 Kings 6:24-7:20 during a Samarian siege again reveal the wrong sort of feasting.  This and other feasts like it should not be happening, because, as Helen writes, ‘it is an inappropriate (or surprising) time, an inappropriate menu, or inappropriate company’ (p.109).  These feasts are clearly and ‘frankly grotesque’, defined by Bakhtin as ‘the grandiosity of what is carnal; the lowering of all that is elevated and elevation of all that is debased’ (p.110).  Which leads seamlessly to a list of violent deaths with ‘blood by the bathload’ that Helen humorously says reads like ‘a murderer’s source book. . . .fantastical in scope and intensity’ (p.111) – if you can’t laugh at grotesque murder, you never will!


Profanation of the sacred, Jehu’s slaughter and defilement of the Baal priests and temple (2 Kings 10:24-27) is related to other aspects of the seriocomic, and as Helen points out, there is ‘significant overlap’ and the categories ‘are necessarily blurred’ (p.112).  And last, but certainly not least, is the category of fantasticality, what Bakhtin claims as the most important characteristic of seriocomic writing is ‘its bold and unrestrained use of the fantastic’, with complete freedom of plot and invention’ a feature not ‘greatly explored’ by scholars looking at these seriocomic features (p.113).  Nevertheless, the central section of Kings ‘abounds with extraordinary events’ so much so that, as Helen writes, ‘This explosion of supernatural activity has been a source of scholarly speculation’, that to my mind when read through a Bakhtinian lens, provides us with a more constructive hermeneutic than much of what is offered in scholarly or lay circles on these texts (I’m no scholar, nor the son of a scholar, but several times Helen has mentioned that certain scholars, who should be commenting on the text, have either skimmed difficult verses or ignored them altogether, and in my own study and commentary work, sometimes I have found this frustratingly true – and this is very unsatisfactory and definitely laughter reducing)!


Before listing a textual comparison of the central passages in question with the wider passages in Kings and making a comment on Chronicles regarding the textual differences due to authorial priorities (p.121), Helen restates the uniqueness of the middle section, a uniqueness that splits opinion as to their literary function (p.114), and confidently designates them ‘fantastical’ in light of evidence presented when read Bakhtinianly, even though there is nothing to explain the ‘purpose for their presence’ (p.123).


Chapter Five – Anti-prophetic Rhetoric

Helen has already alluded to the very well established mode of reading of the pious.  We think the prophets are great, because we assume they are, and like some commentators, we don’t dwell too long on the awkward stories.  Chapter Five is a fantastic critique of the office of prophet, as presented in scripture, not just the baddies of Baal or the false ones of YHWH, but Elijah and Elisha themselves!


In short, we see how the seriocomic features challenge their often idealized roles.  Helen argues that the ‘prophets play a far more ambiguous role in the text’ introducing a ‘playful riot’ and ‘rumbustious revelry to the narrative (p.125).

First, the prophets of Baal.  Helen notes, that ‘before Elijah utterly routs [them], the text, through direct speech and narration, utterly humiliates them’ (p.127).


Second, the false prophets of YHWH.  Called the ‘Micaiah narrative’ of 1 Kings 22:1-40, Helen surveys the 400 prophets in the court of Ahab, who cannot even achieve the status of Carnival Fools because they ‘fail to speak truth to power; they fail to decline partiality; and so they become their own parody’, what Bakhtin calls satire against the puppets of the state (p.128).


Third, Elijah.  His well-known clothing description, if read through the Bakhtinian lens, ‘might alert us to the possibility that he will take a seriocomic role within the narrative’ (p.128).   We see this in dialogue with the prophet Obadiah, with contrasts and comparisons abounding.  Not least Elijah’s ‘sheer self pity’, so when ‘Obadiah is revealed as weak, timid and unstable, and in so seeming, he holds the mirror to Elijah to point out his weakness, timidity and instability’ (p.131).  By way of another polite reminder about the nature of such ‘subversive interpretation’, Helen restates, ‘As we would expect, the destabilising reading does not lie at the surface of the text, but is concealed from the casual reader’ (p.132).


Reduced Laughter is a very powerful argument for under-the-surface-hermeneutics, but in less capable hands, such statements can become a hermeneutical turkey-shoot for anyone to come up with anything with every text.  The ‘casual reader(s)’ are the very ones in synagogues and churches, having their devotional times with Elijah and Elisha, reading ‘on the surface’ is what keeps specific interpretations in circulation for generations.  But, the genius of scripture, is surely submarinic – it can stay on the surface if it wants, but it is designed to go under, deeper and does so out of sight, until it pops up in an entirely new location.


Fourth, Elisha.  Elisha comes under some very fierce critique, and this is helpful to me because I have long struggled with the point of this man in the bible.  He doesn’t invoke YHWH in six out of thirteen miracles (p.133); he is arrogant and self-appointing, and he tolerates the Baal cult and fails to defend the covenant (p.137)!  It is Elisha’s word not YHWH’s that dominate (p.135), and that in stark contrast to Elijah, thus, ‘is Elisha arrogating the authority of YHWH to himself?’ (p.135).  Helen confirmed my suspicions, which was a relief, as it’s just not easy to say one doesn’t like a prophet in the bible among people who do, ‘she writes, ‘There is much in these texts to lessen our appreciation for Elisha’ (p.136).  Phew!


Some of Elisha’s “miracles” do in fact seem like magic, he self-references and rarely prays, one does wonder with Bergen, ‘what exactly is he there for?’ (p.144).  Thus similarly, Helen asks of the ‘fantastical’ miracles (or ‘mimetic magic’), ‘what is their role within the narrative?’ because, ‘they do not all have a clear purpose’ (p.136).


Helen then survey’s critical areas of Elijah, starting with his reputation then his ministry.  Here we see the ‘irony of the bears’ as ‘one of four pieces of anti-prophetic satire in the Hebrew Bible’, that Helen sees as ‘clearly consonant with the seriocomic genre’ (p.140).  This is a disturbing scene, and most commentators, as Helen suggests, are uncomfortable with it, yet somehow use it as true sign of Elisha’s ministry.  But as Helen states, ‘If this is so, it is surely an ironic one.  Elisha is being damned with faint praise:  ‘and this is how great he was!’’ (p.140).


Elisha’s sexual ethics is called into explicit question with the Shunammite woman.  His arrogance is seen in how he relates to her, being ‘a classic status differentiation tactic’ (p.141).  Helen believes the text is not making ‘a sly allegation of fact’ but rather is ‘raising the possibility as a deliberate innuendo’ (p.141).  By the time we get to the story of Namaan (2 Kings 5), we see (with ‘second sight’ perhaps), yet more evidence of subversion ‘below the surface of the text’ (p.141).  Elisha may appear one thing on the surface, a ‘calm wielder of the healing power of YHWH, divinely imbued with second sight and authority’, but underneath ‘are subtle indicators that the text is not wholly approving of the man of God.  These subtle indicators may amount to a further veiled critique of the prophet’ (p.143).


This chapter ends with a brilliant flourish of prophetic comparison.  Recalling The Fool and asking ‘Is this an intra-diagetic mis-en-abyme?’ (p.146), Helen writes, ‘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; almost sharing the same skin, yet subverting his message.  If Elijah is the (virtually) superhuman face of prophecy, Elisha shows its flawed underbelly.  If Elijah is the golden boy of YHWH, Elisha is his rogue twin.  If Elijah is noble and high-minded, Elisha is ignoble and crass’ (p.146-7).


If it is true that the texts are indeed undermining ‘our respect for the pompous absolutism of the prophet’, showing him to be ‘fallible, flawed and sometimes downright ludicrous’, then it should be no surprise that the deep-water functions of the seriocomic should in fact see that our surface-level understanding, ‘our respect for Elijah wither a little[] more’ (p.147).  Of course, if Helen is right, it is no big deal if our “respect” for a bible character withers, if it is the very text that is doing the withering.  Elijah may have some seriocomically odd clothing, but Elisha is shown to be the Emperor with no clothes.


Chapter Six – The Command-Prophecy Formula

This chapter explains the logic behind the few verses of 1 Kings 19:15-17 designated as per the title.  This is about the inclusio of crowning and decrowning, ‘an unusual device which alerts the reader to the possibility of something important’ (p.151); but more than ‘unusual’, a ‘significant textual device’.

Although I like the phrase ‘new brooms’ (used twice, p.149 & 151), I don’t know where it comes from or why it is significant.  Anyway, Elijah is to anoint them: Hazael (Aram); Jehu (Israel) and Elisha (northerner?).  Helen highlights this for reasons of ‘narrative significance’ because the ‘formula’ is revealed, then nothing happens for ages, then all three ‘brooms’ interweave in chapter after chapter.  Helen writes, ‘the Command-Prophecy appears to herald the ‘arrival’ of Aram into the narrative.  This foregrounding of Aram should altert the reader that the nation has an important textual role to play’ (p.150).


The two kings should never have been kings, and even the prophet-to-be expresses ‘rather less than whole-hearted enthusiasm’ (p.154) – one would have thought that ploughing fields with ’12 teams of oxen’ slightly less exciting than being anointed a prophet, unless Elisha knew what a Fool he already was! Thus ‘the Command-Prophecy selects three somewhat reluctant and partially unsuitable men, which is consistent with what we might expect from a crowning event’ (p.154), despite the unpredictability of seriocomic texts ‘nothing is absolute, settled or stable’ (p.155), hence, in the context of multiple boundary possibilities for the central section of Kings under investigation, ‘the boundaries are permeable, and the genre erupts from time to time in unexpected places’ (p.156).


It does seem thus far that Helen has provided ample evidence that her ‘proposal’ does indeed ‘satisfy these criteria’ (p.154).


Chapter Seven – Satire against Kings and Nations

Any chapter, indeed any book that mentions Tiglath-Pileser gets my vote!  This chapter leads us to Helen’s significant contribution in the seriocomic analysis of the biblical text, in its ‘final form’ (p.180).  To get there, Helen begins with and develops the relationships between Aram, Israel and Judah, ‘It is the argument of this chapter that within the book of Kings the subversive and critical representation of Aram functions as a mise-en-abyme to comment upon the nation of Israel, and thence, by subtle and unexpected extension, to subvert our opinion of Judah herself’ (p.158).


The various exchanges between Ahab and Ben-Hadad reveal the rise or decline of fortunes, followed by the decline or rise again as the narrative unfolds (p.163, 164 & 169).  While at first Ahab is the vassal-junior in the relationship, Ben-Hadad first appears strong and arrogant in his speech, Ahab ‘meek and cowed’ (p.162), the changing fortunes reveal a redrawing of character, so that as Ahab grows stronger, there’s a twist and suddenly his ‘fortunes appear to be taking a turn for the worse’ (164), so that,  ‘whereas he has been depicted as wise, god-fearing and merciful (v. 31), at the end he is denounced for failing to obey YHWH; and, one might infer, for allowing sentiment to cloud his judgment’ (p.164-5).


Thus ‘the narrator has carefully set up the nation of Aram, within the text, to act as a foil to Israel’ (p.166).  The ‘artful use of narrative techniques’ and the ‘device of mirroring’ reveal that ‘If we laugh at the one, we must laugh at both’ (p.167), such that as the reader is drawn in, we are invited to ‘laugh at Aram’ before we are suddenly forced to ‘shift[] the object of our mockery to Israel herself. . . . Aram seems initially to be bettered, but the last laugh is against Israel’ (p.169); and to reinforce the point, ‘the last laugh is always on Israel’ (italics mine), so that the overall effect ‘is to subvert our approval of Israel (p.170 author’s italics).  This emphasis on ‘last laugh’ and ‘best laugh’, with reference to the chapter’s opening quotation ‘Laugh on laugh on my friend, Hee laugheth best that laugheth to the end’ reminded me of something P. T. Forsyth said in The Church, the Gospel and Society, ‘The gospel is precisely the story of the transformation of the human tragedy into God’s great commedia’.  


This subversive critique of Israel through her neighbour(s) is now extended to Judah.  The Command-Prophecy formula shows how the relationships of the nations, and royal families are bound ever tighter.  So much so, that when Jehu, by divine command, ‘exterminates all traces of Ahab’s family in Israel, ‘Ahab’s daughter or sister, is opportunistically taking control of the Judean royal family (II Kings 11)’ (p.173).  No wonder Helen calls this ‘deeply ironical’, because ‘from this time onwards, every king of Judah is descended from the house of Ahab’ (p.173), and with it, according to Sweeny, they inherit his judgment too (p.174)!


Athaliah and Jezebel are compared (p.174); David and Ahab (p.175); David and Jeroboam, the two kings by which a repeated formula is used in Kings to assess the reigns and lives of other kings (in all but two instances (II. 8:18 and II. 21:13).


Tiglath-Pileser comes into play now, when, after destroying Damascus, Ahaz rushes up to meet him to establish an alliance against Aram (now no longer a threat), and of course, the old enemy, Israel.  But the altar takes his fancy and so he gets an exact copy made for the Jerusalem temple.  Helen is right to critique Cogan and Tadmor’s view (p.179) that Ahaz’s actions were not syncretistic or idolatrous, it was, and the ironic parallel with the Damascus cult and the Jerusalem cult is thus made:  that he was ‘seduced into the sin of the very nations which are threatening him, and whose sin will shortly lead them both to the very fate which Judah is herself inescapably approaching’ (p.180).


Figure 10 on page 181 illustrates how Helen has identified the ‘sophisticated layering of the text’ that ‘has not been previously identified’, and that ‘reading [the text] as a whole rather than as a collection of fragments sensitises the reader to the rich, mature strata within it’, and that, while various other aspects have been identified, Helen concludes with a statement of her own contribution to this area of research:  ‘the aggregate effect of this mirroring has not been previously identified’ (p.180).

Well it has now!


Chapter Eight – Conclusion

Helen now summarises and defends her proposal, writing, ‘The central section of Kings contains many elements of the seriocomic genre, which function in an artful way to serve an important literary and ideological purpose within the text’ (p.183).


In explaining her hermeneutic, Helen suggests that her reading she proposes here ‘allows us to understand these narratives, not only as humorous or intriguing in the own right, but also as key threads in a nuanced, complex fabric of texts, woven together by a master story-teller whose subtlety perhaps exceeds that of the scholars who consider him naïve’ (p.188).


Even so, Helen later argues that ‘it is possible, ontologically (as opposed to epistemologically), for a text to have a meaning which is more than the author intended’ (p.198).  So he may have been a master story-teller, but still, may not have known he was that good.  I think Helen finds her solution in two places.  First, that ‘an author may unconsciously mean something. . . .of which he is unaware of’ (p.198); and second, the multi-authored and final form redaction, whereby one writer makes his contribution but that, even if he did know what he was doing, would be hidden from other authors and editors.  Hence, ‘the rich compositional history of our narrative has contributed to the emergence of a sophisticated, polyphonic text, whose divergent voices should not be sundered’ (p.199).


The ‘Concluding Remarks’ were just wonderful.  ‘Into this world comes the carnival, led by Elijah and Elisha’ and ‘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’ (p.202), and the whole time, YHWH, whether, seemingly silent or inactive, is the only one who ‘is trustworthy to those who genuinely seek truth’ (p.196).  And so, ‘rather than being a ‘voice from the sky’, making monologising edicts, YHWH enters into the fray as a participant, withdraws from the fray in articulate silence, and functions as a combatant, a voice of dissent and an agent of subversion against kings and armies, even (perhaps, especially) his own’ (p.197).


Helen shows us, in this book, with complex clarity and not a little humour how this is so.

I highly commend this book to all students of Scripture and especially teachers of Kings.



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