Contemporary, Fiction, Literature, Madeline Miller, Mythology

Circe by Madeline Miller

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling completely stunned? It happens to me rarely, but when it does, I have this thing where I can’t do anything with my thoughts afterward. I can write about a good book, even a great one. I can write about a bad book, even a terrible one. But sometimes, a book completely knocks me out, and I can sit on it for days, weeks, even years without ever being able to articulate a damn thing about it. That’s what happened to me with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. You won’t find a review for it here, because I simply could not do it.

So, it was with excitement and strange terror that I returned to Miller once again for her highly anticipated and well-received follow-up, Circe. This one, like Song of Achilles, explores the life of one mythological character in great detail, imagining her life “behind the scenes” of the sparse details we get from classical storytelling. What Miller did so brilliantly in her first novel, exploring the more interesting elements of a well-known hero, Achilles and his lover, she does again here with Circe, who is treated to centuries’ worth of imagined biography.

I will say that I did not respond to Circe in the way that I responded to Song of Achilles. I’ve been wondering how much of this is simply biased, considering I am and was more interested in and more familiar with Achilles’s story in the first place. His story, and particularly told in the way Miller chose to tell it, through the eyes of his lover, is something I’ve always wanted to read. I wasn’t as familiar with the mythology of Circe, nor did her story draw me in as deeply or passionately. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because I felt intimately connected to Song of Achilles, and not necessarily because the book was “better.” In fact, Miller here writes one of my favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read: “[T]here are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

Objectively speaking, though, I do think Achilles is a masterpiece, and that Circe is wonderfully well-done. The prose is not quite as interesting, this time, and the story does not move at the same pace. Indeed, because so much seems to happen in such a long period of historical time, but so shortly in narrative time, it sometimes feels oddly wind-swept and slightly disjointed, though never out of control. Miller knows what she is doing, and the story is powerful, interesting, and even joyful in its terrible sadness. The choice of Circe as protagonist is brilliant, too, because she is able to think and feel and interact with mortals in a way that Greek mythology does not allow of its gods, who are always (and to an extent must be) completely unconcerned with human needs, desires, pains, et cetera. (Rick Riordan has been playing with this, too, in his latest series re-imagining the god Apollo as a mortal teenager living in the contemporary era.)

To be fair, I find I’m still left spoiled by–wrecked by–Achilles. This might always be the case and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that my experience with it must have, on some level, colored my reading of Circe. That said, Circe is a compelling novel whose reception is well-deserved and easy to understand. It’s also a particularly powerful statement in our time, as we confront head-on issues of gender and power. Miller crafts a flawed and sometimes ignorant hero whom I knew little about and for whom I struggled, at first, to champion; in the end, she convinces me.

Notable Quotes

“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”

“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”

Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Mythology, Old Testament

2 Samuel 16-1 Kings 9 #2018BibleRBR

“Judgment of Solomon” by Gustave More

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Fifteen: 2 Samuel 16 – 1 Kings 9

The end of Second Samuel and the beginning of the Books of Kings is essentially the concluding of the story of David and the introduction of his successor, Solomon. Historically, the section is interesting because it illustrates how David’s reign was important to establishing stability in the kingdom of Israel and yet how it was still precarious (even his own son rose against him in the end). Similarly, it highlights the difference between the two reigns, in that Solomon’s reign was more peaceful; more time could be spent on diplomacy, infrastructure, etc.

The Death of David: The last part of II Samuel describes how one of David’s sons, Absalom, rises against him in an effort to take the kingdom. This demonstrates that, despite David’s great skill as a military and political leader, as well as his many virtues as a man, the kingdom was nevertheless precarious and still in flux. It establishes a striking difference between the end of the “shaky” area of Israeli establishment and the rise of a secure and prosperous nation under Solomon. It should also be noted that earlier prophecies, such as Nathan’s vision that David’s own son would eventually have sex with his father’s wife (or wives, as it turns out) in public are proved true.  I think it is important to connect David’s vices and virtues with the strengths and weaknesses of Israel at this time. From the time of Saul, the kingdom has continued to grow both in political power and in its embracing of monotheistic religion (Yahvism). Like David, though, mistakes are still being made. David is in many ways the personification of his rule, just as Saul (not a bad king, per se, but one with many fatal flaws) was the personification of his own. This trend continues with Solomon.  

The Wisdom of Solomon: Solomon is anointed king while David still lives, which is the first step to securely and strongly establishing him as the undisputed ruler. He also acts quickly, upon ascension, to eliminate any possible objections: he kills his brother Adonijah and his father’s general, Joab, both of whom had been preparing to claim the throne for Adonijah (indeed, at the moment Solomon is anointed king, Adonijah is throwing a party in preparation for his own ascension!). He also banishes (then kills) Shimei, who is the last powerful representative from the kingdom of Saul. This quick action plus the support of David himself brought the kingdom rapidly into Solomon’s favor. Things only get better from there, however, as the new king soon proves his worth to god. When god comes to the king in a dream and asks what Solomon would have, his response is refreshingly noble: wisdom – a good head and heart for fair judgement over his people. The moral development of kings from Saul to David to Solomon continues to grow. Solomon’s wisdom is shown in his ability to build relationships between multiple border nations, to establish a temple for Israel’s religion and encourage their full conversion, thus further solidifying the tribes into a single nation of shared cultural customs, and of course, in the anecdote of the two women who appear before him with a baby, asking him to determine who is the baby’s true mother (1 Kings 3:16-28). Solomon’s reign, written about 400-years after it ends, is seen by those later priests as the climax of early Israeli history, and there is a clear sense of awe and euphoric nostalgia in the writing of it.   

Solomon’s Politics: The wisdom of Solomon is meant to go undisputed. He asks god for this ability, and not only does he get it, but he is also rewarded (for his humility) with riches, power, health, etc. Certainly, Solomon is a brilliant leader and judge. He allies himself with the Egyptians and the Lebanese, in the first case through marriage and in the second through commerce. An unfortunate fact about Solomon’s reign is that he stretched the kingdom’s budget too far. When he could not pay for all the supplies he needed to build the temple and the king’s house, he resorted to using forced labor; or, in other words: slaves. (1 Kings 9:15; 1 Kings 9:20-21). This seems to be often overlooked in discussions of Solomon’s reign which, otherwise, is peaceful and admirable.


Suicide: In this part of the bible, we find one of the five (or six, if you count Samson) instances of suicide described in the bible. It’s interesting that in none of these cases is the suicide treated as sinful or evil; so, where does the idea of suicide-as-mortal-sin come from? Some argue that the commandment “thou shalt not kill” applies to killing one’s self. This might be true, but there doesn’t seem to be clear indication of such and the five (or six) biblical accounts of suicide do not really lend themselves to that interpretation, either.

David’s Continued Love: In II Samuel 21, David delivers Saul’s descendants to the Gibeonites to be killed, with the exception of Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son, whom he continues to protect and to keep in his favor. This demonstrates again David’s continued love for Jonathan, as well as the respect he keeps for the covenant they shared. Even later, when it is argued that Mephibosheth was biding his time (while Absalom and David were arguing) to return to the throne, David’s return to power sees Mephibosheth back in favor again, without question.

Rizpah: One story that I think is often overlooked in II Samuel is that of Rizpah, whose seven brothers are killed and hung up in public. Like Sophocles’ Antigone, Rizpah cannot bear to see the bodies desecrated and be left to rot without ritual. The custom of burial rites for the dead in this region is so close between the Greek myth and this Christian tale, it is striking. It also says much about David that he is moved by Rizpah’s actions and eventually orders that the bodies be buried, along with the bodies of their ancestors (Saul and Jonathan) in a proper ceremony and in a proper setting.

David’s Census: David institutes a census, which is for some reason frowned upon by god (Why? There seems to be no prior outlaw to this). The punishment for this census is one of three things: 7 years of famine; 3 months fleeing enemies; or 3 days of pestilence. David (wisely?) chooses the pestilence, which results in the death of 70,000 people. It is likely that the actions here are reversed. There was, perhaps, a serious pestilence at the time, which happened to take place after an unpopular census was taken (census being typically administered for the purposes of either a: raising taxes or b: organizing a military draft). So, post hoc ergo propter hoc – a later writer, no fan of censuses, might happily argue that the one was caused by the other.

2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, History, Mythology, Old Testament

1 Samuel 21-2 Samuel 15 #2018BibleRBR

“Saul and the Witch of En-Dor” by Gustave Dore

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Fourteen: 1 Samuel 21 – 2 Samuel 15

The second half of 1 Samuel and the first part of 2 Samuel recounts the decline of Saul’s reign and the establishment of David’s. Much of 1 Samuel is devoted to describing Saul chasing David and his few hundred followers throughout the kingdom, coming close to capturing him a few times but never quite succeeding. Each time, in fact, David is able to turn the tables and nearly kill Saul instead, much to that king’s chagrin. This section is most interesting in that it illustrates how two anointed kings, one of Israel and the other of Judah, take different approaches to dealing with a competing power who has been chosen by god (Saul disregarding god’s will, as usual, and David following it quite strictly). In addition, after the death of Saul and Jonathan, we are shown David’s goodness and his political savvy, as well as his fatal flaw.

The Witch of En-Dor: Even though the story of the Witch of En-Dor is rather brief, I’ll be honest and admit that I always remember it because her homeland shares a name with Endor of Star Wars, Episode VI (“Return of the Jedi”). It is a fascinating and important moment in Saul’s history, though. As king, Saul outlawed all witches, seers, etc., because they were aligned with the old, polytheistic gods and not the Abrahamic monotheistic god coming to prominence. In his desperation, though, after suffering serious losses to the Philistines and threats from those loyal to David, he tells his generals to find a seer who can consult a “familiar” and tell him his future. The witch brings Samuel from the dead, and the news is about as bad as can be. Not only is Saul doomed, but his sons are going to die, too. I find it rather odd that, at this point in the bible, when historically Saul is moving away from the old gods and in factthe later writers had already moved on definitively to monotheism, they would insert such a pagan anecdote.

Saul or Ahab?: The last part of 1 Samuel makes for great reading, especially for those familiar with the story ofMoby-Dick. Just as Ahab is consumed with a desire to get revenge on the white whale that maimed and humiliated the captain, so is Saul consumed with a desire to destroy David, his biggest threat. There’s a common theme of self-conscious leadership in these two stories that is beyond compelling and, in both cases, the results are rather tragic. In Ahab’s case, the tragedy is that he gives up his own life seeking vengeance upon a creature that committed an unconscious crime—it acted as an animal should; and in Saul’s case, his lust for power and neurotic self-doubt caused him to turn on perhaps his most loyal attendant. In the pursuit of David, Saul twice exposes himself to danger and is offered freedom by David, who could have killed him both times but chooses not to. When Saul learns his lesson and has finally decided to leave David alone, he falls to the Philistines, as do his sons.  

Absalom, Absalom!: For the most part, David is one of the godliest men of the Old Testament, especially for such a successful leader. He refuses to kill Saul, for example, even after being anointed by god, because Saul had also been anointed and to assassinate him would be to blaspheme against god’s wishes. Even the best of us are doomed to fall, though, and David’s weakness comes in the form of a beautiful woman named Bathsheba. One day, David catches Bathsheba bathing nude and decides he is going to have sex with her, even though she is married to Uriah, one of David’s loyal generals. Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David panics. First, he twice tries to get Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife so that they can pretend it is his child. But Uriah is a committed soldier and refuses to go home and seek pleasure while his comrades are at war. So, in desperation, David orders Joab to send Uriah to the front lines and fight to the death. In this way, David breaks four of the ten commandments: he covets his neighbor’s wife, he lusts, he commits adultery, and he commits murder. God is nothappy with this situation and promises to punish David’s line. Ultimately, a few things happen: first, David and Bathsheba’s son dies. Then, David’s own son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister Tamar; then, David’s other son, Absalom, kills the half-brother for that crime. Finally, after years in self-exile, Absalom returns to his father’s good graces, via Joab, only to begin plotting to usurp the kingdom of Israel from David. What a mess!


Dear Jonathan: When David hears that Saul and Jonathan have died, he cries, “how are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19). He also remembers Jonathan by exclaiming, “thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:25-27). How romantic, and tragic. Later, when David learns that Jonathan’s crippled son still lives, he takes him in and offers him permanent protection, in honor of his father’s friendship.  

Israel: After David comes to power over all Israel, he decides to make the city of Jerusalem capital for the kingdom. This is clever from both a military and a political perspective. David, of Judah (in the south), needed to ensure that he could not be accused of favoritism by the northern Israelites, nor could he look like he was abandoning the southerners; so he chose a city right on the border between the two, which had been controlled by the Canaanites. The city was also heavily fortified, especially the high-walled area known as Zion, so taking it ensured a more secure strategic position. From Jerusalem, David would rule a kingdom of about 30,000 square miles, or approximately the size of the state of Maine. This was a golden age for the Israelites but, in fact, the kingdom was rather small and feeble comparatively. The Egyptian and Hittite empires that preceded it, for example, were much larger, as would be the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires to come later. Ultimately, the rise of an Israeli Empire was only possible by accident, because it just so happened that no secure Asian power existed at this time.

Common Kings: The selection of the first two kings of Israel is interesting. Saul was chosen from the most minor of the tribes at the time, an oddity; and David was the youngest son in his family, another strange choice. What are we to make of the fact that these two, specifically anointed by god, come from such common backgrounds? It is also interesting to remember that the rise of David is foretold earlier in the Old Testament: “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab” (Numbers 24:17). David certainly does shine, and his reign is much longer than Saul’s. He is told by god, through Joab, that the sword would always be upon his family, and he does indeed crush the Moabites (despite the fact that his ancestor, Ruth, was one).

2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Classics, History, Mythology, Old Testament

Ruth 1 – 1 Samuel 20 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Thirteen: Ruth 1 – 1 Samuel 20

Reading Ruth and 1 Samuel together is interesting because, in the first case, we have a book that is almost assuredly made-up some 700-years after the fact by post-exilic writers who were attempting to inject some sanity into the Israelites’ methods of rebuilding their culture and society; and in the second case, a return to an increasingly reliable history, at least in terms of the establishment of monarchy, the lineage of kings, and the tension between the priestly Yahvist sects (anti-monarchs) and the tribal order of kings. To be sure, certain elements of 1 Samuel are likely fiction, or strongly embellished histories, but the dichotomy between the pastoral idyll of Ruth and the history of Samuel is a fun trip to take.

Ruth: In the Hebrew bible, the Book of Ruth is found in a division called “The Writings,” which are treated as literature rather than history. In the Christian bible, however, Ruth is ordered with its chronology. The events take place during the time of Judges, so Ruth is placed right after the Book of Judges. It is likely kept apart from the preceding book because it acts as an important segue to the next four books of kings, and because it is meant to stick out to Christian readers. We learn that Ruth is the great-grandmother of the future King David, which means, of course, that she is also an ancestor to Jesus. It would be extremely important for this information to be highlighted by the early Christian priests, for their early Christian readers; so, even though the book is short, it earns its place as a segmented section. The story of Ruth is also probably made up. At the time it was written, about 700 years after the events and not too long after the return from exile, the Israelites were re-establishing their cultural and societal expectations. One of these was strict exclusion of intermarriage. Whoever wrote this book clearly objected to that policy and intended to demonstrate that not only was conversion to the faith possible, but potentially vital. Ruth, a Moabite woman, being written as the ancestor of David and Jesus, would be a powerful testament to the possibilities in conversion and inter-marriage, especially given how earlier parts of the bible treated Moabite women (as rather salacious seducers of Israelite men).

Samuel and Saul: God raises up Samuel as high priest and judge (a kind of king or ruler, as we learned in the last book) of the Israelites. He is born to Hannah, who had been barren until she promised god that if he would give her a son, she would devote him to god. Over the course of the early chapters of 1 Samuel, we learn that the Israelites and Philistines are still engaged in war, and that the Philistines far outmatched the Israelites in numbers and technology. They eventually manage to rout the Israelites and steal the Ark of the Covenant, in large part because the Israelites had again returned to polytheism and sinful living (adultery, lust, idolatry, etc.). This part of the bible also suggests that it is Samuel who manages to eventually defeat the Philistines permanently, but that cannot be accurate because, later, Saul and even David would still be at war with the Philistines (and they were the ones who would end Philistine rule forever); so, the priestly bias that has appeared in earlier books likely comes into play here, too, in the tension between the power of Samuel (priest and prophet) and Saul (the peoples’ king). Saul, indeed, is anointed king by Samuel, first, but is crowned a second time by the tribes. This dual crowning is likely another priestly invention that attempts to put two histories (one favoring priestly selection/anointing of rulers and the other favoring Benjaminite tribal tradition of selecting a king from among the people) into alignment.

Jonathan and David: I have always loved the story of Jonathan and David. Their “friendship,” as some call it, is rather unique in the bible, and in the old testament in particular. They are really soul mates, as is reiterated on multiple occasions in 1 Samuel: “And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18). This love is spoken of again and again, and in their later parting, they weep and kiss each other. Some readers of certain persuasions have taken this to hint at a romantic relationship. A more accurate reading is probably a political one, where Saul’s heir-apparent to the throne, Jonathan, has allied himself with the handsome, accomplished, and charismatic general, David, with a view to the future. And perhaps it is both. It’s probably impossible to say for certain, either way, what the nature of their relationship was, but we can admit that it is rather special to them in biblical context.


Judah: At this point in time, Judah is a border territory under control of the Philistines. And yet, it suddenly makes a strong appearance in these two books, where it had been largely ignored to this point. Why? It’s interesting to compare it to Macedon, a border town in Greece that was largely under control of the Persians. At a certain point, Macedon was not only able to overthrow the Persians, but they took brief control over all of Greece. Judah, too, will do the same by overthrowing the Philistines and taking control of Israel. This is perhaps why writers began to insert certain levels of importance to this tribe, which had been, until then, rather plagued with misfortune (Bethlehem-judah has been mentioned a few times to this point, but always in rather dire circumstances).

Ark of the Covenant: The Israelites take the Ark of the Covenant into war, thinking it will save them because it is the physical embodiment of god’s power. But instead, they lose the battle and the Ark is stolen. This seems to suggest that god’s power is not meant to be wielded by the arms (or whims) of man. It’s also important to note that the Ephraimites, who had been carrying the Ark, never see it again. It will be tribe Judah that recovers it – no coincidence, given their other recent rises in fortune?

Which David Story?: There are two competing origin stories for David which are laid out basically side-by-side and without comment on the tension. The first is that David is selected by god (through Samuel) to be the next King of Israel. Samuel somehow manages to get David into King Saul’s favor, likely through an amenable/pro-Samuel courtier. David then becomes Saul’s harpist and arms-bearer. The other story is that David comes to Saul’s attention after slaying Goliath. David, the youngest in his family, was running supplies for his three elder brothers, who were in the army. When he sees Goliath stomping around, threatening everyone, and yet no one is willing to fight him, he takes the task upon himself. When he wins, Saul tries to find out who he is, which family he comes from, etc., and then he takes him into his court. Again, we seem to have one anti-monarch/pro-Yahvist perspective (Samuel, the prophet, selects the new king) and one pro-monarch perspective (Saul, the king, sees his own successor). 1 Chronicles 20:5 and 2 Samuel 21:19 both seem to suggest that what is really known about Goliath is that he was slain by some unnamed Bethlehemite. So, perhaps a later writer, wanting to elevate David even further and add an element of emotional romance to the story, conveniently reshapes the history into a useful fiction.  

2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, History, Mythology, Old Testament

Judges 3-Judges 21 #2018BibleRBR

“Samson Slays a Lion” by Gustave Doré

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Twelve: Judges 3-21

This week, we read through to the end of the Book of Judges (3-21), which means we leave off just before the Book of Ruth begins. Judges is where things get juicy again, thank goodness, as the last few books are frankly downright dull. All that changes, though, with the appearance of Samson. What a guy! Long hair, rippling muscles, and blessed by god him/herself to be the champion of Israel. Of course, it is not all easy wins, or fun and games. There are many “judges” (or leaders) that rise and fall throughout the time period represented in this book, and after Samson dies, Israel enters a period without leadership or kings at all. The Israelites also revert back to their old habits of embracing god when it is convenient and then reverting to paganism when they think they’ve worshipped mono-theistically long enough (memories are short, aren’t they?) Of course, god is always watching, and when the Israelites abandon him, he sends in another people to crush them.

Rise and Fall: The book of Judges tells the tales, sometimes very briefly and sometimes in great detail, of the twelve judges, or military leaders, of this period in Israel’s history. Much of the “rise and fall” of Israelite tribes over this period is connected (by the priestly writers who are here, many years later, editing and revising multiple historical tales into some kind of sensible timeline) to the Israelite’s turning away from, and re-acceptance of, the Abrahamic monotheistic god. It was not uncommon for the Israelite tribes, who were settling into their lands, to adopt some of the customs of the locals. There were also many minor and major skirmishes over these years. Later priests, who were both anti-pagan and anti-monarchy, took the opportunity to retell this period of their history from this perspective, essentially warning off their contemporaries from both polytheism and from adopting kingships and hereditary monarchies (which often came with polygamy, too).

Samson: The reason Judges is one of the most “fun” books in the Old Testament is because of the mighty Samson. It is likely that the story of Samson is adapted from mythological sun worship (solar myths) and, only later, in the priestly writings, is Samson given the title of “first Nazarite.” The Hebrew word for Samson is “Shimshon,” which is very close to “shemesh,” or “sun.” And Samson was born in Zorah, just two miles from “Beth-shemesh,” which means “house of the sun” and which was probably the center of sun worship in this region. His life and powers, too, follow the patterns of solar myths. He gets his power from his hair (sun rays) which, when removed (snuffed out) causes him to become weak. His nemesis, Delilah, also fits in, as “lilah” is the Hebrew word for “night.” In other words, following the cycle of the sun, night comes to extinguish the sun. When Samson is blinded, we might think of the stars being darkened in the sky. And when Samson’s hair begins to grow (the sun’s rays rising again), Samson’s power begins to return. It’s a really rather fascinating tale, even without the many other miraculous accomplishments, such as his slaying the lion, his killing a thousand men with an ass’s skull, or his escaping prison by pulling up and carrying the walls of a city over his shoulders. It’s also no coincidence that Samson is listed as the 12th and final judge – in the solar calendar, the 12th month is the last.  

The Women: We learn about three interesting and important women in this part of the bible: Deborah, Jael, and Delilah. The first, Deborah, was a rarity indeed. She was the leader, or “judge” of Tribe Ephraim, one of the most powerful Israelite tribes of that age. Indeed, Ephraim of this era is similar to what Sparta was for much of ancient Greek times, an unofficial military leader that is called on to head any unified campaign against common enemies. It is Deborah, with help from Barak, who leads a unified six tribes to war and defeats the Canaanites (King Jabin, specifically). Not long after, Jael, a woman, kills Sisera, another enemy king. In the first two cases, then, we see two women delivering Israel from danger. In the third, however, we get the opposite. The hero Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman named Delilah. Despite all of Samson’s many conquests and heroic feats, it is Delilah who eventually brings him down by seducing him, learning his weakness (after much pestering), and sharing that information with her people.   


Gideon: In addition to Samson, this part of the bible introduces us to Gideon, one of the most famous names in biblical history. Today, most Americans, certainly, are familiar with the Gideon Bible. In his time, Gideon was probably a king (though the writers indicated he rejected the title; that’s probably not really the case, however, and it is more likely that the priests, who were strictly anti-monarchy, re-wrote this bit of history to suit their contemporary politics). He was the smallest member of his family, which was the weakest clan in the tribe, and yet he was chosen by god to rise up and lead the people of Israel. He does so successfully and leaves a legacy of children, from many wives, behind. His story in many ways reflects that of King David’s, and in both cases the priests would have been troubled by their polygamy and their monarchies. Abimelech later kills all of Gideon’s descendants, except for Jotham, who went into hiding, likely alluding to the peoples’ distaste for the messy process of monarchical lineage.

Anarchy: Judges ends by describing, or summarizing, the rather lawless period recounted in this book: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (21:25). In an ironic way, the priests who were compiling this book and who were so vehemently anti-monarchy are here indicating that, well, being entirely without rulers might also be kind of an issue. That said, when “god’s leadership” is required, the people are still encouraged to trust the word of the high priests, who continued to divine god’s will by referring to the Urim and Thummim, or the game of “yes/no” stones described earlier in the bible.  

So long, Reuben: It’s probably important to note that Judges 5 is the last mention of the tribe of Reuben. Historically, it seems, the tribe is now dead or has been entirely integrated into one of the larger tribes.

Christian Bible, Christianity, History, Mythology, Reading Event, Religion

Joshua 5-Judges 2 #2018BibleRBR

“The Angel Appearing to Joshua” (Gustave Dore, Joshua 5:15)

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Eleven: Joshua 5 – Judges 2

The book of Joshua unfolds as a sequence of battles, one after the other, which demonstrates Joshua’s prowess as a military leader and ultimately result in the total settlement of Israel. The most prominent anecdotes include the sacking of Jericho and of Ai, as well as the alliance with the Gibeons and, finally, Joshua’s death. Judges, which is much less unified in its telling, will make it clear, however, that the Israelites were not as clearly successful and progressively advancing as the book of Joshua would suggest. Rather than a regular string of successes, the battles for Canaan were much longer, messier, and humbling than earlier described. The reason for this is probably that Joshua’s legacy is at stake in the first book: a legend is being crafted and perpetuated, and so, with rare exceptions, his total domination and superior command must be depicted without question. It seems Judges, however, is compiled from a great deal of ancient historical documents, without much effort to tell any single storyline, and thus might suggest more factual accounts of this period than the lore of Joshua does.  

Winning: Joshua 5-12 is essentially the recounting of a number of battles fought and won. Some of the most important and memorable battles come early, such as the sacking of Jericho. Over the course of 6 days, the Israelites circle the city of Jericho once and blow their trumpets. On the seventh day, they circle 7 times (the city must have been rather small) and blow their trumpets each time. After the last cycle, Joshua commands that the people shout with all their might along with the seventh trumpet-sounding. This “causes” the walls to fall down. Of course, what is more likely is that Joshua had some men chipping away at a part of the wall the entire time, while distracting the inhabitants of Jericho with the marching and trumpeting, even masking the sound. After Jericho comes the battle of Ai, which is significant because their first attack on it fails. This is blamed on Achan’s stealing gold, silver, and robes from Jericho, something explicitly forbidden. After stoning Achan and his family to death, they attack Ai once more (through some military trickery) and succeed, burning it to the ground and killing 12,000 people in the process. The next big event comes with the alliance to the Gibeons and Joshua’s slaughter of the 5 most powerful regional kings. During this period, Joshua causes the sun to stand still (10:12-14), an event for which there is still no explanation. The next couple of books recount more military successes.

Maps: After the many military successes, over the course of decades, Joshua reaches the ripe old age of 110. He knows he is going to die, so he spends his final days reminding the Israelites of their inheritances, which is to say the lands they shall settle based on tribe (with the Levites inheriting no land because they have been called to be priests). Essentially, we get a summary of Moses’s final words, right down to the reminders not to transgress against god or to revert to the old religions, nor to tolerate others’ gods/idols. Like Moses, he “gifts” the people their lands, tells them to be good, reminds them of their rich history from Abraham to Isaac and Jacob, down to Esau, Moses, and Aaron, and then dies.  The second half of this book, then, is essentially a combination of area map with tribal history; in other words, a synthesis of the old and the new.

Judges: Although we are not far into the Book of Judges, we can already see a difference between it and the previous books, especially its closest relative, Joshua. In this case, Judges is essentially a history of Israel immediately following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelites. Instead of being told as a linear story, however, it is a miscellaneous collection of historical documents, most that pre-date the writing of the book by many generations, and the documents are not always related. Therefore, what is compiles is not a unified tale; it also raises questions about Joshua’s unfaltering military leadership (Judges 1 recounts the struggles of many disorganized tribes, fighting solitary to survive; there is no single leader and few alliances). Some historical facts to keep in mind: the Israelites are rising to power in Canaan in-between the Bronze Age (c 2500+) and the Iron Age (c 1400 BC). Their rise takes place just between the decline of the Egyptian empire and the rise of the Assyrians, which is why they had some time to establish themselves in Canaan. It’s also important to note that the Israelites, historically Egyptian, rely on earlier bronze weaponry rather than the more advanced iron, which they would encounter in battles with some tribes, such as the Ai. This is a likely reason why they struggled to win against many the Canaanite tribes, those who may have been in contact with other advanced cultures.


The Judges: The so-called judges referred to in the title of this book were essentially minor rules of the various tribes. They were tasked with keeping the peace and pursuing justice. In the bible, of course, there is a direct connection between tribal and godly “judgment.” Each time the people defy god, they are delivered into the hands of their enemy. When they repent, god sends a “judge” (a new leader) to save them. Eventually, the period of judges develops into what will become a formal Kingdom of Israel. 

Jericho: Much like many other sacked cities in the bible, Joshua commands that no one shall ever rebuilt Jericho lest they suffer the consequences (and in 1 Kings 16:34, a king who defies this edict does indeed suffer. As promised, both his eldest and his youngest son are killed). The problem is, Jericho is in an ideal area. Ultimately, the city of Jericho was re-built about 300-years after it fell to the Israelites and lasted into New Testament times. It was then destroyed again by the Persians and the Arabs in the 7th Century (AD). It was rebuilt again by Crusaders about 400 years later and remains there to this day, in Palestine.  

The Bible and Science: The story of Joshua making the sun stand still had such an influence in early history that 2500 years later, opponents of Copernicus’s revelation that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the reverse, used it to “refute” him. What really happened? Some have suggested that the sun simply wasn’t shining as brightly that day, which gave the Israelites an advantage (and was remembered, instead, as a day of perpetual sunshine). Others suggest a random refraction of sunlight, similar to what happens for half of the year in very northern parts of the globe, such as Alaska; but how/why that would have happened is unknown. Apparently, no one has solved this particular mystery just yet.