Thursday, October 19, 2017

Homer and the Bible

Image result for death of hector


 Damien F. Mackey



“Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’

‘By what means?’ the Lord asked.

‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.

‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’

So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours.

The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

I Kings 22:21-23


As has often been noted, this unusual incident of the ‘lying spirit’ finds its Greek correspondence - though I would prefer appropriation (a constant theme in this series) - in Homer’s The Iliad. An excellent account of this is provided by Bruce Louden, “Agamemnon and the Hebrew Bible”, though the author will adopt the standard view that the Bible was indebted to the pagan (Greek) version:



“Agamemnon and Ahab

Perhaps even more intriguing are correspondences between Agamemnon and Ahab. The latter, though a figure more supported by the historical record than David, not involved with the Philistines, not attended by an Achilles figure, nonetheless, his interactions with prophets, his deportment on the battlefield, and his highly aggressive wife, all find virtually exact parallels in Agamemnon. Ahab’s interactions with the prophets Elijah and Micaiah are even closer to Agamemnon’s than are Saul’s with Samuel, including verbal equivalents. I thus argue that the scribal tradition had, in Agamemnon, an established character type they knew to be a vehicle suited to how they wished to depict Ahab.

In Ahab’s disputes with his prophets Elijah and Micaiah, we revisit an earlier theme, but here the parallels are even closer with Agamemnon.

Ahab’s animosity toward Elijah is more pronounced, has undergone a longer period of gestation than Saul’s for Samuel, and resembles Agamemnon’s toward Calchas in Iliad 1. Ahab’s first words to Elijah are contemptuous (18:17), “As soon as Ahab saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’” We cannot imagine Saul addressing Samuel this way, but this is precisely Agamemnon’s tone to his prophet Calchas, and to Chryses.

The most exact, most sustained, correspondences occur in 1 Kings 22, when Micaiah recounts his vision of the Enticing Spirit that will fool Ahab into thinking he can now capture Ramoth-gilead. Let us first set the stage by reviewing Agamemnon’s parallel circumstances in book 2 of the Iliad. The night after Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles begins, after a divine council, Zeus, who now supports Achilles over Agamemnon, sends a Deceptive Dream (2:6: οὖλος ὄνειρος) to Agamemnon. Zeus’ purpose in sending the Dream, is to fool Agamemnon into thinking he can sack Troy the next day. The Dream fulfills Zeus’ purpose, leaving Agamemnon,

“believing in his heart things that are not going to be accomplished” (2.36).

Extensive deliberations and discussion follow over how to proceed on the basis of the Dream. Agamemnon orders the Greeks into assembly, but first convenes his executive council. Nestor, asserting no one would believe the dream if dreamt by anyone else, says it must be true since Agamemnon himself dreamt it (2.79–83). In his heated exchange with his prophet Calchas on the previous day, when Calchas had declared Agamemnon’s abusive treatment of Apollo’s priest had brought the god’s wrath upon them, Agamemnon replied (1.106–107),


Seer of evil: never yet have you told me a good thing. Always the evil things are dear to your heart to prophesy (μάντι κακῶν … αἰεί τοι τὰ κάκ' ἐστὶ φίλα φρεσὶ μαντεύεσθαι).


Agamemnon fails to take Troy on that day, and suffers a major embarrassment before his troops, most of whom now contemplate going home to Greece.

We return to Ahab’s confrontation with Micaiah, with Agamemnon’s Dream in mind, as Ahab and his forces, and King Jehoshaphat, contemplate attacking the city Ramoth-gilead. Agreeing to join battle, Jehoshaphat suggests Ahab first consult with Yahweh. All of Ahab’s prophets prophesy that God will give him victory. When Jehoshaphat asks if there is another prophet to verify their prophecy, Ahab responds in words that closely agree with Agamemnon’s rebuke of Calchas (22:8), “‘There is one more … but I hate the man, because he never prophesies good for me, never anything but evil. His name is Micaiah son of Imlah.’” Later in the confrontation Ahab repeats (22:18), “‘Did I not tell you that he never prophesies good for me, never anything but evil?’” Micaiah then recounts a vision (22:19–22):


I saw the Lord seated on his throne with all the host of heaven in attendance on his right and on his left. The Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to go up and attack Ramoth-gilead?’ One said one thing and one said another, until a spirit came forward and, standing before the Lord, said, ‘I shall entice him.’ ‘How?’ said the Lord. ‘I shall go out’, he answered, ‘and be a lying spirit75 in the mouths of all his prophets.’ You see, then, how the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours, because he has decreed disaster for you.


Let us review the correspondences:


1. Each king contemplates trying to take a city. Each king leads a coalition of forces against another coalition.

2. Detailed deliberations and discussion precede his going into battle. Jehoshaphat serves a similar function as Agamemnon’s Nestor.

3. Each king receives a report of divine will ensuring a positive outcome of the battle.

4. Each main god converses with a lesser divine being. Zeus instructs the Dream, but the Spirit volunteers for Yahweh, in corresponding terms: to fool the respective kings into thinking they will sack their respective cities that day.

5. The audience, however, knows the reports to be spurious. In the Iliad, typical of epic conventions, the audience is itself present at Zeus’ deliberations, observing without any doubt that Agamemnon is being deceived. 1 Kings 22 maintains the Hebrew Bible’s usual conception of having the prophet as somehow present at the divine council (cf. Isaiah 6), a monotheistic variation on the more traditional polytheistic divine council. Micaiah relays the corresponding information that Homeric epic gives through the principal narrator.

6. Each king proceeds, and fails, on the basis of the false report of divine support.


In a key difference, Ahab’s Enticing Spirit account repeats the motif from Elijah’s earlier confrontation with Ahab of the one true prophet defeating the many false ones. Thus, as Cogan notes, “the issues of conflicting prophetic viewpoints and the royal response to the word of YHWH dominate,” … whereas for Agamemnon conflicting prophetic viewpoints is a non-issue. That the 1 Kings version derives from another [sic] is suggested by its being a secondary narrative, told in a tongue-in-cheek manner, and in how it retains polytheistic touches. Several of the motifs are more at home in the Iliad than in 1 Kings. Zeus or Athena sending a Dream is common in Homeric epic, for instance, whereas Yahweh’s use of the Deceiving Spirit is less so. So also, as Cogan points out, is, “The consultation with prophets rather than priests in preparation for the attack on Ramoth-gilead comes as a surprise.” … The triumph of the one true prophet over the many false subsumes the narrative under a Yahwist agenda, not relevant to the

Iliad. Cogan, on the basis of similarities between Micaiah’s fortunes and the later Jeremiah, argues the episode “was written toward the end of the period of classical prophecy.” … So far after the Iliad [sic], easily allows for some form of diffusion or adaptation. Ahab’s encounter with Micaiah suggests a careful synthesis of Agamemnon’s missteps at the opening of the Iliad.

Agamemnon and Ahab both, in prominent scenes, are wounded, while fighting from their chariots, and driven from battle. Agamemnon’s death, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthos on his return from Troy, is alluded to several times in the Odyssey. We recall that his aristeia ends abruptly when, wounded by a spear in Iliad 11.251–255, 265–281, he retreats from battle in his chariot. Likened in simile to a woman suffering birth pangs, the unusual comparison may look ahead to his being slain in the bath, in a sense, “unmanned,” by his wife.

Though lacking anything comparable to an aristeia, Ahab’s exit from battle is suggestive of Agamemnon’s, and may also allude to two other prominent deaths in the Iliad. As he and Jehoshaphat march on Ramoth-gilead, Ahab is in disguise. In the Iliad, Patroclus, whose aristeia follows Agamemnon’s, goes into battle in disguise, and is slain, the only Greek to die during his aristeia. Ahab dies in disguise, and receives his mortal wound from an arrow shot at random (1 Kgs 22:34), both compounding his un-heroic circumstances, “One man … drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel where the breastplate joins the plates of the armour.”

The detail may reference the most climactic wound in all of the Iliad, when Achilles slays Hector by aiming his spear at the space between his armor and helmet (22.324–327). Ahab remains in battle for a while, propped up in his chariot, blood flowing from his wound, until he dies”.


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