Studying Ezra and Nehemiah

I have been looking again at the joint books in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Ezra-Nehemiah.  Scholars disagree about the chronology and order of the passages.  Some even accuse the compiler/chronicler of creating a jumble.  The text presents a challenge.

The books cover the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and the new order created – the laying down of the Law, and the rebuilding of the Temple and the city walls (6th and 5th centuries BCE).

Much emphasis is put upon the banning of mixed (Jewish-non-Jewish marriages).  The fear of dilution of the Jewish family and its belief system is expressed, firmly and repeatedly.  This tension is a common theme of the nations throughout the ages: it applies to Israel today, but not uniquely.  Is there more benefit in multi-culturalism than in isolation?  Myself, I try to embrace essential aspects of my native Wales and Britain with together with Europeanism and world citizenship.

By contrast, other books contained in the “Writings” – Ruth and Esther – convey a different view: Esther is married to the Persian emperor; Ruth (from Moab) marries Boaz.  Mixed marriages, here, are tolerated or promoted.

According to the Bible text that has come down to us, the scribe/expert on the Law Ezra first arrived before the governor/organiser Nehemiah; but their periods of service overlapped.

An alternative view, based on a critical study of the text, is that Nehemiah preceded Ezra.  Then, they may or not have overlapped.

The fun starts when one considers how to re-order the text to make sense – in chronological/historical terms and/or theological terms.  Scholars disagree over how to do the re-ordering.  A quick check on the World Wide Web re Ezra-Nehemiah will confirm this.

There is common agreement, though, that Ezra Chapter 4, verses 6-23 are misplaced, chronologically, and that verse 24 follows neatly on from verse 5. The surrounding text describes the rebuilding of the Temple, whereas the short section mentions the Jews’ attempt to rebuild the city walls (regarded as taking place at a later date).

In his own study (1982), the respected scholar F C Fensham wonders where Nehemiah Chapters 8-10 best fit – after Ezra 10? Or after Ezra 8? Or after Nehemiah 13?  Should Nehemiah 9 be placed after Ezra 10?   This provides a good example of the re-ordering challenge.

I have come to a tentative conclusion that it is best to take Ezra-Nehemiah as it stands, while reading the above-mentioned short passage at the end of Ezra.  Nehemiah (the book) then commences with the concern of Nehemiah (the governor) about the dilapidated state of the city walls and his determination to go to the city and repair them.

Reading the Bible requires a critical attitude – critical, in the best sense of the word.

Advertisements

The ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Ulysses’

 

Reading challenges

Having re-read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I thought I’d take another look at James Joyce’s (in)famous Ulysses (read and re-read years ago).  Homer is readable in translation – Joyce is barely readable, and lots of explanatory notes are required, even for a re-reading.  (I now draw upon the “1922 text” version, put out by OUP and edited by Dr Jeri Jones [1998].)  At least one can pick one chapter at random and concentrate on that.

 

Take for example Chapter 9, called ‘Scylla and Charybdis’.  This  consists of a philosophical discussion (set in a library) and centres largely on Stephen’s putting forward his hypotheses concerning Shakespeare (based on his works rather than recorded facts about his life) to a few friends.  The underlying (barely perceptible) conflict has been said (by commentators) to be between dogma and mysticism, through which a latter-day Odysseus (the reader?) should steer.

 

By contrast, the roughly corresponding passage in Book 12 of the Odyssey describes vividly and concisely Scylla, the man-eating, cave-dwelling monster, and Charybdis, the powerful, sucking whirlpool, which use every opportunity to kill sailors trying to steer the narrow course between them.  (In the event, six of Odysseus’s men are taken and eaten).  Nothing as clear and exciting as this appears in Ulysses.

 

Comparisons

Both the Odyssey and Ulysses are about the return of a hero or heroes (a protagonist or protagonists) to their home.  Homer’s Odysseus has been away from home at the legendary Trojan War and needs to return to his family in Ithaca; and his family want him back.  His fellow soldier Menelaus suffered his own delays on his way home (see Book 4).

James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is inspired by the city of Dublin, his love for his wife, and by his admiration for Odysseus, also known as Ulysses.  His protagonists (Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom) are all searching for an improved home life.

The Odyssey is dynamic and action-packed –with the constant thrust of the hero’s return home and his drive for revenge upon his wife’s gluttonous, proud suitors.  By contrast, Ulysses is static.  Nothing much happens.  Stephen may stay in touch with Leopold.  The state of the Blooms’ marriage may improve.

 

In the Odyssey, actors reveal their character through their stories.  (Some of Oysseus’s are lies!)  Notable are Books 9-12, where Odyssey tells the story of his adventures (the Cyclops etc) to his hosts.  In Ulysses, actors reveal their character through their internal monologues – the extreme case being Molly’s long monologue, in the final chapter, about her life, her courtship and her marriage.

 

Marriages

Leopold is an ordinary 20th century man, very loosely based on the mythical warrior and hero, Odysseus; and his unfaithful Molly = Odysseus’s faithful Penelope (rather ironically, perhaps).  (Stephen Dedalus = Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope.)

In the Odyssey, there are three relationships – not only Odysseus and Penelope but also two others.  Menelaus has accepted back Helen as his consort, after the end of the Trojan War, as Telemachus discovers (see Book 4) – number 2.  In Book 11, the ghost of Agamemnon informs Odysseus how his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered him on his return home from Troy – number 3.  Perhaps Leopold and Molly Bloom can also be compared with   Menelaus and Helen, insofar as they are contemplating a reconciliation.

Endings

 

The climax of the Odyssey (albeit before the very end) may be said to come in Chapter 23 when Odysseus reveals his true identity to Penelope and they exchange their stories (their trials and tribulations).

 

Ulysses ends, aptly, with Molly’s fond recollection of Leopold’s marriage proposal, years before:

 

and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Homer

My re-reading of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad have prompted some reflections on my part.  They are tremendous epics, full of variety of incident but also pathos.  They have influenced numerous subsequent works by great poets, eg Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, directly and indirectly; but incidents and characters are changed.  There are many translations: I have mainly relied upon the old Penguin ones by E V Rieu (but see below for an even older take).

1 The fighting at Troy is savage and brutal.  It is characterised by hand-to-hand combat with spears and swords, backed up by charioteers and bowmen.  Prisoners are not taken – no mercy is shown to the defeated.  Mercy is replaced by revenge.  Men of flesh and blood are reduced to inanimate objects – in great numbers. The warriors can be accused of what we call the sins of wrath and pride.  Achilles abuses the corpse of Hector.  Similarly, Odysseus wreaks merciless revenge upon all the suitors of his faithful wife, Penelope, at the end of the Odyssey.

2 Who is the real hero of the Iliad?  Achilles or Hector?  Or is there little to choose between them?

3 The first book is in itself a great story – psychologically acute, worth reading even on its own.  Agamemnon, as commander-in-chief of a disparate army, has to try to keep them together.  Achilles (who quarrels with him) has a right to his point of view.  This strain – between the need for unity to accomplish a task and (on the other hand) the rights of individuals and minorities to express a dissenting view – applies to movements and political parties, to this day.

4 The warriors are subject to their destiny and cannot avoid it – or at least, unless a god intervenes to save them.  (There are some examples of this in the Iliad; and Odysseus, too, is rescued on numerous occasions in the Odyssey.)  But Zeus (chief of the gods) is himself subject to destiny at times: he is unable to rescue his son Sarpedon from Patroclus (Book XVI), nor Hector from Achilles (Book XXII).  Their deaths are pre-ordained.

5 So many great men are killed in the episode of the Trojan War covered by the Iliad that it would be tedious to name them all.  But, notably: the Trojan Hector kills Patroclus (the close friend of Achilles), while the latter is “sulking in his tent”; Achilles kills Hector in his rage.  Even this bald summary points to the cycle of revenge that reduces a series of men to inanimate objects.

6 The Trojan War episode that Homer recounts in the Iliad does not extend to the death of Achilles (still young), nor to the eventual fall of Troy.  (Virgil picks up Troy’s fall in his Aeneid.)  But Achilles’ death is frequently foretold – even by Achilles himself, and by Thetis, his mother.

7 Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles, in Book XI of the Odyssey.  The dead hero has nothing good to say about the glory (if any) that survives death in battle.

Odysseus says:

But sure the eye of Time beholds no name
So bless’d as thine in all the rolls of fame;
Alive we hail’d thee with our guardian gods,
And dead thou rulest a king in these abodes.

Achilles replies, bluntly:

Talk not of ruling in this dolorous gloom,
Nor think vain words (he cried) can ease my doom.
Rather I’d choose laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,
Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead.

[Translated by Alexander Pope]

8 Finally, I should add that women are marginalised in these epics, as it is a patriarchal and martial society that is portrayed.  But I’ll name a few (other than goddesses) that stand out:

  • Briseis (Iliad): she is the slave who Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over in Book I. (She has no say in the argument.)  However, when she is returned to Achilles (in Book XIX) she expresses pleasure at the outcome
  • Helen (Marlowe’s “face that launched a thousand ships”): her abduction by Paris to Troy is the proximate cause of the Trojan War; she expresses self-reproach and regret about her role in the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans.* Once she is back with her first husband, Menelaus, in Sparta, she appears to be content with the outcome (see Book IV of the Odyssey)
  • Andromache, wife and widow of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Hecabe, mother of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinous, who aids Odysseus when he is cast upon the shore of Phaeacia, after his ship has been wrecked (in the Odyssey, Book VI)
  • Penelope, who outwits her suitors and remains faithful to her missing husband, while living with the hope that he will one day return (in the Odyssey).

The lamentations of Andromache, Hecabe and Helen over the corpse of hector, in the final book of the Iliad, movingly convey pathos.

Finally, a strong case can be made out for the view that Homer is not praising war or the wreaking of vengeance, nor the pride, anger and irrationality that lead up to it.  Read and learn.

 

*Appendix re Helen

Here is part of Helen’s speech to her now brother-in-law Hector (in Book VI):

Oh, generous brother! (if the guilty dame
That caused these woes deserve a sister’s name!)
Would heaven, ere all these dreadful deeds were done,
The day that show’d me to the golden sun
Had seen my death! why did not whirlwinds bear
The fatal infant to the fowls of air?
Why sunk I not beneath the whelming tide,
And midst the roarings of the waters died?
Heaven fill’d up all my ills, and I accursed
Bore all, and Paris of those ills the worst.
Helen at least a braver spouse might claim,
Warm’d with some virtue, some regard of fame!

[Alexander Pope’s version]