Why the Epic is Awesome

This isn't epic...

Foster Bible Pictures 0010-1

...this is epic

One way of thinking about what makes epic storytelling distinct is its ability to ignore contradictions within its story and paint a picture from various angles and perspectives. I’ll give an example. In the book of Samuel, David is introduced twice, in apparently contradictory ways. In 1 Samuel 16, the king Saul, after having disobeyed God’s command through his prophet Samuel,  is abandoned by God. This drives Saul to insanity, and he seeks consolation through music. His servants, surprisingly, identify a shepherd boy, David as the perfect musician:

יח וַיַּעַן אֶחָד מֵהַנְּעָרִים וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה רָאִיתִי בֵּן לְיִשַׁי בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי, יֹדֵעַ נַגֵּן וְגִבּוֹר חַיִל וְאִישׁ מִלְחָמָה וּנְבוֹן דָּבָר, וְאִישׁ תֹּאַר; וַיהוָה, עִמּוֹ.

18 Then answered one of the young men [to Saul], and said: ‘Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Beth-lehemite, that is skilful in playing, and a mighty man of valour, and a man of war, and prudent in affairs, and a comely person, and the LORD is with him.’

Compare this with David’s introduction one chapter later. The Philistines have gathered to fight Israel, and their champion, Goliath, is striding between the lines mocking Saul for failing to find anyone who can match up to him. David, meanwhile, is introduced as some shepherd from Judah, whose brothers are in the army. As the youngest son he runs back and forth, bringing food to his brothers. When he sees Goliath, however, and hears that the king’s daughter is on offer to whoever slays this Philistine, he is bursting to jump into the fray. But he’s hardly the well-known warrior of the last chapter; instead, his brother (17:28) is annoyed at him for coming to the front lines, accusing him of coming to watch the fun. And after David asks Saul’s permission to confront Goliath, Saul replies incredulously:

לג וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל-דָּוִד, לֹא תוּכַל לָלֶכֶת אֶל-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי הַזֶּה, לְהִלָּחֵם, עִמּוֹ:  כִּי-נַעַר אַתָּה, וְהוּא אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה מִנְּעֻרָיו.

33 And Saul said to David: ‘Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.’

Where is the “mighty man of valor, and a man of war” of the last chapter? And why does Saul not know the identity of this boy (“[Saul] said unto Abner… ‘Abner, whose son is this youth?'”), who apparently has been in his employ as a musician? And if it’s just Saul’s insanity acting out, why does Abner not know him either? These apparent contradictions can be explained, and many brilliant commentators over the years have dealt with Biblical problems much thornier than this. But the real question is, why didn’t the author of Samuel do a better job at reconciling these stories, or writing them in such a way that there weren’t any contradictions? I would suggest that the author doesn’t really care about these contradictions; absolute consistency is not the point. This is why two reasons are given to explain the saying, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (in 1 Samuel 10 and 19); it’s why Hanna’s song, in chapter 2, does not appear to match perfectly with her circumstances (for example, she sings praise to the king, before the monarchy was founded). To the authors of much of the Tanach (Hebrew scriptures) absolute historical accuracy doesn’t seem to be vital. Instead, they’re trying to get at the truth of the characters and the situations; these texts aim at the heart of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. This doesn’t mean history is irrelevant — on the contrary, this relationship takes place in the dense historical context of the Near East, with its furious wars, clashing empires and of course God’s occasional miraculous intervention. But the Tanach is, on the whole, adamantly disinterested in the particulars of battles and the lives of those out of the divine spotlight. For example, after the binding of Isaac, most of Abraham’s last decades are passed over without comment.

These two introductions, then, pointedly demonstrate different aspects of both Saul and David. David emerges both as the divinely ordered court attendent (for how else would Saul’s servants have known about this obscure Judean shepherd?) and as a folk hero, triumphant before the masses of the people. One serves to show David’s divine favor, one his pragmatic initiative. Meanwhile, Saul is shown in both, as Robert Alter has pointed out, as constantly seeking knowledge from a place of ignorance. He unwittingly hires his successor as his musician, and opens the door to David’s military dominance.

This type of storytelling is odd and uncomfortable to moderns, who expect chronological tidiness and unity of facts.  But I think that taking many, even somewhat contradictory looks at a subject is very useful. That’s why I think rational choice theory and behavioral economics have merit. It’s why we should see what Keynesianism has to say, as well as the Austrian school. Often, proponents of their model insist that everything has to be read through that lens, and that lens alone. Mill puts it well in his autobiography. After rejecting his completely utilitarian outlook, he concludes, “If I am asked, what system of political philosophy I substituted for that which… I had abandoned, I answer, No system: only a conviction that true system was something much more complex and many-sided than I had previously any idea of…” The epics should remind us that truth, while it may ultimately be one, is so much more nuanced than we can grasp that we must throw at it model after model, like ever shrinking rectangles about a curve, to get at anything approaching reality.

(thanks to Doron for explaining the idea of inconsistency in epics to me)

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2 Responses to Why the Epic is Awesome

  1. Pingback: Two Responses | Morton and George

  2. Pingback: Are You Horizontal or Vertical? | YOU DECIDE

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