Hebrew Narrative: Character and Characterization

Thoughts on from 1 Kings20-22:

For one my my final graduate classes I am taking a Heremeneutics of Hebrew Narrative @ LCU. So far it has been really interesting. What follows is a paper I wrote recently about characters and characterization in Hebrew narrative. I will be examining 1 Kings 20-22. Before I get there, know that the Hebrew narrative is good literature, and inspiring as well.

Hope this blesses someone!

1) Explain in your own words the theoretical concepts under consideration

In our reading this week we read about Characters and Characterization, or how the author tells his story through the people that appear in the narrative. The characters in the story world are characters and do not have to represent historically accurately the deeds or real words of the characters in question. In Hebrew narrative then, what we encounter is a story world with a theological purpose to relate the Lord’s working in history, to carry out his plan of redemption through the artistry of characterization and character descriptions that draw the reader in and invites meditation and comparison and contrasting with characters in the same narrative as well as what is going in the real word of the reader. Characters in Biblical narrative can be round characters, developed characters who are the main characters in a scene. A round character will be developed more fully than a type or a mere agent in the story. A type character may be from a different class than the round character, can be quite developed and will often serve to demonstrate an important contrast between two or more characters as well as demonstrating the ideal of a certain character, for instance in the David narrative, Abigal the wife of Nabal is a type character, well developed and yet is portrayed as a the ideal wife, where as Bathsheba when she first appears in 2 Samuel 11-12 is just an agent in the story. The story calls for adultery, and she serves as the one with whom the King commits his adultery with. It is interesting that in the narrative, the guilt is solely upon David. A mere functionary in the story would not be guilty!

In order to demonstrate the different types of characters and demonstrating the artistry in Biblical narrative the narrator will use three basic literary conventions to portray characters, through telling, direct showing, or indirect showing. Walsh, Berlin, Altar, and Fokkleman all note that in Biblical narrative there is little physical description, and when we as readers encounter description it is important to take note, for these descriptions very well help to characterize the characters. Direct showing is revealed in the actions, and words of characters. Indirect showing, comes through a dialogue about another character. All three techniques can be employed in a number of ways in a story. Characterization helps the readers to learn about the characters they encounter as well as to infer things that are not directly told. I think one of the beauties of the artistry in Hebrew narrative is that readers draw meaning from what they are told or not told, and really help to make meaning by how and what they take away from the narratives they encounter.

2) How are these ideas utilized in the selected narrative?

Through a number of literary conventions the author/narrator utilizes various aspects of character formation and characterization. Through dialogue, direct telling, indirect showing, through allusions back to previous Biblical narratives all the while demonstrating great artistry and theological significance.

3) Summarize your analysis in a proposed reading of the selected narrative

I think in 1 Kings 20-22 this story is ultimately about God, and the narrator gives his or readers clues to this by starting off this reading noting that Israel is at war with Syria, and this larger army by all accounts of military strength should be able to have their way with Israel. Ben-hadad is first mentioned in relationship to his vassal state Israel, as one who can take whatever he wants and is taken a back by Ahab’s refusal to bend to his will. With what we know of Ahab coming from 1 Kings 16:30-33, “30And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him. 31And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32He erected an altar for Baal in he house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him,” it is surprising that the Lord would deliver Ben-hadad into Ahab’s hands especially in light of the Lord’s earlier instance in Deuteronomy 7:3, where intermarrying with foreign women was forbidden. So, a reader coming to 1 Kings 20-22 knowing up front that Ahab has done evil and has not been obedient to the Lord would be surprised that the Lord is now fighting for him. The conquest stories of Joshua seem to frame the narrative. After clearly defeating the Syrians, and hearkening readers to the falling ways of Jericho in Joshua 7, with the walls of Aphek falling on the seventh day. This is important statement for a reader to know that the Lord is sovereign and fighting the battles for Israel. And yet, there is the scene in 1 Kings 20:31-34 where Ben-hadad, a foreign and enemy king comes to Ahab seeking mercy (once again it is as if the narrator, or author had Deuteronomy 7:1-3 as he is writing this account of Ahab.) Setting up the Lord’s judgment of Ahab’s clear violation of Deut. 7:1-3, we read short episode of an unfortunate prophet who would not heed the word of the Lord coming through another prophet (20:35-43), resulting in the death of the unfortunate prophet by a Lion. I will say then, that this unfortunate prophet who is just a functionary in the story, is a metaphor for the impending judgment upon Ahab for violating the Lord’s decree for how to conduct a Holy War. I know for readers it is tragic and seems unfair that this fellow prophet who is reluctant to strike a colleague but it serves the larger narrative purpose. This scene also harkens back to the scene in 1 Kings 13:11-34, where a man of God has just delivered an oracle to Jeroboam, king of Israel that the altar would be destroyed and that a son, Josiah, would be born in the future to judge the wicknedness of Jeroboam. The man of God refused the invitation to eat with Jerboam, and in then in 1 Kings 13:11-34 an old prophet impedes this man of God’s journey and invites him home to eat, duplicity and this man of God goes home with the older prophet, and then because he disobeyed the Word of the Lord, he too is attacked and killed by a lion. This echo seems to portend that Jeroboam the wicked king did not listen to the Word of the Lord, and neither does Ahab the wicked king a couple of chapters later. I think what is going on here is that the Lord is seeking his ambassadors as kings to be obedient and follow his ways in all things. Both Jeroboam and Ahab are not obedient to Yahweh, however in 1 Kings 21:27-29, Ahab shows a marked contrast with Jeroboam, and repents delaying the disaster that is to come upon him.

The scene of Naboth’s vineyard:

I would identify the main character in 1 Kings 21:1-16 as Jezebel, Ahab’s wife. I think the narrative signals that would lead me to this reading are the number of times Jezebel is reported to have spoken in the narrative. For instance there are three characters, Ahab, Naboth, Jezebel, the elders and leaders who lived with Naboth in his city (they don’t actually speak), and the two worthless men who speak on behalf of the elders and the people of residence with Naboth. In 21:1-16 Ahab only speaks twice (21:2, 21:6). Naboth speaks in 21:3, Ahab echoes it in 21:4. Jezebel speaks in 21:5, 7, then through a letter she sends the elders and the leaders who lived with Naboth in his city in 21:9-10, and then she speaks again in 21:15. Primarily this story seems to be about how Ahab came into the possession of Naboth’s vineyard, which sets up the word of the Lord coming through Elijah the Tishbite in 21:17-29 that is about the punishment to come upon Ahab. Ahab is portrayed as weak, and ineffective, powerless to get what he wants. Whereas Jezebel is a woman of action, of power, she is portrayed as coming to see Ahab, asking questions, writing a letter to the leaders and elders of Naboth’s city, and dictating how Naboth’s vineyard would come into possession of Ahab. Whereas after Ahab is told “no,” in response to his request for the vineyard, he goes home and thrice in the narrative the reader is told that he is “vexed and sullen,” 20:43, 21:4 and 21:5 (just the word “vexed” is used here). Ahab is weak without power, whereas Jezebel is the strong one who can affect change and can write policy and dictate the murder of an innocent man. I would say then in this scene, Ahab is a round character, as is Jezebel, Naboth appears to be just an agent, a needed part of the plot, and of course the leader and elders and the two worthless men are all agents in the story. Something further to consider are the actions of Jezebel in the following scene dealing with Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21:5-15, whereas the king was weak, and impotent Jezebel is shown to be the one who wears the pants in this relationship as well as the true power behind the throne in Israel. For example, Jezebel questions her husband’s authority (21:7), and promises to get him what he desired (21:7), and then she sets out to do just that by writing letters in Ahab’s name and sending them to the leaders and elders of the city of Naboth (21:8) and in this letter she outlines a plan to remove Naboth from her and Ahab’s way by having false accusations brought against him, and then stoned to death for cursing God (21:9-14), a charge which seems to be purely fabricated by the two worthless men.

Following the Naboth vineyard’s ordeal the Lord sends Elijah the Tishbite to Ahab with a clear message, “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ (1 Kings 21:18-19). Elijah goes and changes his message from what the Lord had told him to a total condemnation of Ahab and his house, ““I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. 21 He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free. 22 I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’ 23 “And also concerning Jezebel the LORD says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of[b] Jezreel.’24 “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country” (1 Kings 21:20-24). The reader is not told why the change in the word to Elijah although a couple of things are important to note: First, the fulfillment of the dogs licking up Ahab’s blood does not come until 2 Kings 9:1-26 where the Lord’s Word is fulfilled in the days of Ahab’s son. So, it appears a couple of things are going on. Elijah is portrayed as rogue prophet taking the condemnation of the House of Ahab further than the Lord’s own Word. However, to set the stage for the Lord working through the total condemnation of Ahab, the narrator tells us in 1 Kings 21:25-26 something significant about Ahab’s character, “25 (There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. 26 He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.)” I could not but help notice in the episode of the taking of Naboth’s vineyard if the reader is not supposed to see the vineyard as a metaphor for Israel, and the king as a steward of the vineyard, or Israel here? If this is the case, then the words of Naboth to Ahab in 1 Kings 21:3 helps tune the reader to what is about to take place in the condemnation of Ahab by Elijah and Yahweh, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” Notice how Ahab is characterized after being rejected, 1 Kings 21:4, “ And Ahab went into his house vexed and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him, for he s aid, ‘I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.’ And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food.” Interestingly for the reader, notice the reaction after Elijah’s strong words of condemnation in 1 Kings 21:27, “And when Ahab head those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly.” The Lord notices the repentance of the one wicked Ahab and delays the judgment on Ahab’s house until the days of his son (cf. 2 Kings 9:1-26).

Ahab and the False Prophets

Chapter twenty-two opens with mention that there was a relative lull in the fighting between Israel and Syria and introduces a new character on the scene, Jehoshaphat the king of Judah. It is interesting to note that as chapter twenty-two opens that the narrator refers to Ahab as “the king of Israel in 22:3,4, 5,6, 8, 9, 10,18, 26, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, or called simply, “king,” in 22:8, 12, 15 (3x), 16, 27, 35, 37(2x),. It is not until 22:20 that Ahab’s name is used and again in 22:39, 40, 41, 51. Naming is an important characteristic of characterization. I am wondering if this instance on naming Ahab as the “king of Israel,” or simply “the king,” is related to his repentance in the previous chapter? Or maybe the narrator does not want to refer to Ahab’s name because of the wickedness of his reign? Or maybe a reader is supposed to see it either way?

What we learn of Jehoshaphat in chapter 22 is that as the battle to take Ramoth-gilead is fought that he is aligned with the king of Israel (Ahab), and is willing to go to battle in his robes. I think its important to note that Jehoshaphat does not hide when he goes into battle. The Ahab narrative in chapter 20 opens with a confrontation with Syria, and ends with confrontation of Syria. In the earlier accounts Israel is victorious, the Lord appears to be fighting for Ahab, now in chapter 22 things have changed. Jehoshaphat was spared in battle, whereas Ahab is killed by an arrow (cf. 1 Samuel 31) where Saul is also shot with an arrow. Jehoshaphat is a marked contrast from Ahab who does evil serving and worshipping Baal and provoked the Lord to anger (1 Kings 20:53, 16:30-33). Jehoshaphat is portrayed as walking in the ways of the Lord (22:43), and attempted a successful reform of the worship in Judea (22:46), but did not remove the high places throughout Judea, which apparently sacrifices were still being made on (22:44). What I find interesting here is that right after the narrator says that Jehoshaphat did not take away the high places, he notes in 22:43 that he made peace with the king of Israel. Readers are not directly if this is a good thing or bad thing, I think a reader can imply either that this foreshadowing of renewed kingdom where both north and south would be reunited, or subtly the narrator is indicating that the relationship between Jehoshaphat and Ahab, or Judah and Israel proved to be snare for Judah? My guess is the reader is supposed to see both.

Micaiah’s words contribute to the development of the story line in a couple of ways. I think first, Micaiah offers a contrast between prophets of the king of Israel who seem all to eager to say whatever the king wanted. There is a subtle contrast in 22:5, 7 between Jehoshaphat and Ahab in that Jehoshaphat asks specifically for a “prophet of the Lord.” We learn that Micaiah is prophet of the Lord, who has been troublesome to the king of Israel for sometime 22:8. Micaiah himself says that he will only speak what the Lord tells him too (22:14). Why then does he appear to lie to the king of Israel in 22:15? Maybe the narrator wants us to see the conflictual relationship between the prophet and the king. Apparently Micaiah was not happy to be brought in the service of the king, and by offering a lie at first that would at first seem to go along with the king’s desired outcome we see a prophet who wants to avoid sharing the bad news from the Lord? But we also learn that Ahab will experience disaster through the prophecy from Micaiah. We are also taken back to remember Deuteronomy 18 and Moses words about recognizing a true prophet Deuteronomy 18:22. Micaiah then appears as a function of the narrative plot for the Lord to judge Ahab.

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About Jason Retherford

The random musings of a youth minister.
This entry was posted in Heremeneutics, Old Testament, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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