Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Kings of Westeros and The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Yesterday on Live Journal someone put up this interesting poll, which will be meaningless to those who haven't been reading George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Towards the end of the first book King Robert Baratheon is killed and contenders for the throne break out all over Westeros and the lands beyond. The poll lists six contenders, but I would include a seventh (Mance), since the Wildlings are trying to invade Westeros bent on conquest:
• King Joffrey Baratheon
• King Robb Stark
• King Stannis Baratheon
• King Balon Greyjoy
• King Renly Baratheon
• Queen Daenerys Targaryen
• "King" Mance Rayder
The poll results show that most favor Robb (for ethical character), Daenerys (for the restoration of an exotic dynasty), or Stannis (for the most legitimate claim, since Joffrey is really a Lannister born of incest). Balon is competent but primitive, while Renly is all flash and chivalry. Joffrey, not surprisingly, has no votes so far.

What if we compare these kings (and queen) to the messianic king portrayed in Jesus' parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-34)? Readers may recall my analysis of this story, following William Herzog's suggestive title, "What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?". Matthew uses the king as an allegory for God (even though it contradicts rather than illustrates the point of 18:21-22), but Jesus originally told of an actual king, a messianic liberator who in the end is as bad as any other king.

Things start out great: the messiah abolishes all debt, inaugurating a new age. But the moment is short-lived. His retainers start backstabbing each other, and he retaliates in like fashion, prescribing imprisonment and torture. Not something you'd expect in the messianic era. This king turns out to be a petty tyrant (like Joffrey), cruel (like Balon), hyper-just (like Stannis), and unable to avoid committing acts which appall him (like Robb). (Robb beheaded one of his most valued lords for having murdered two prisoners of war.) Every king is a captive of kingship, even the best of them like Robb Stark.

But what about Mance, the "king" of the Wildlings in the arctic regions beyond the Wall? He's really an anti-king, a figurehead and military leader more than anything else. There's no government beyond the Wall, where the Wildlings do as they damn well please and woe to a "king" who starts lording judgment over them. Martin offers a glimpse into what life might be like in an anarchistic society, far from utopian, certainly with its own problems, but in many ways a refreshing alternative to the norm.

If I lived in a feudal world like Westeros I could settle for a king like Robb Stark if I had to. (Not Daenerys Targaryen despite her popularity among readers and sincere passion for social justice: there's too much insanity in the Targaryen genepool, and you have to be wary of charismatics like Dany, per Herbert's Dune). But the King-Beyond-the-Wall is really the one who gets my vote.

UPDATE (POLL RESULTS): Robb won (56 votes), though Daenerys was a close second (51). Stannis got 14, Renly 12, Balon 3, and Joffrey 0. I wonder how Mance would have done had he been on the ballot.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Who Will Avenge the Vineyard Tenants?

Thanks to Stephen Carlson for mentioning Richard Rohrbaugh's RBL review of Kloppenborg's The Tenants in the Vineyard. I almost included this story (Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65) in my parable series from a couple years ago.

Like Kloppenborg I think the standard allegorical reading of the parable is too problematic. The original story (I don't understand his distinction between "originating structures" and "original versions"; sounds like needless terminology play) was probably about the futility of peasant revolt, and it ended at Mk 12:9/Mt 21:41/Lk 20:16a. So says William Herzog:
"Peasant revolts followed a typical pattern. They erupted unexpectedly, perhaps spontaneously, in response to a provocation that threatened even the subsistence of peasants. Because they were unpredictable and because they were supported by the peasantry as a whole, the rebels may have survived for a time, winning a few victories. But eventually and inevitably, the sanctioned power of the state would crush them. The codification of peasant revolt ends on a similar note: "What then will the owner of the vineyard do?"... In its closing question, the parable codifies the futility of violence under these circumstances." (Parables as Subversive Speech, p 113)
Richard Horsley, on the other hand, is happy to read the parable allegorically and accept the vineyard as a metaphor for Israel. But he salvages a peasant reading by associating the "wicked tenants" with priestly aristocrats (Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 305-306). The synoptic writers put a Christological spin on the allegory, but Jesus was simply pronouncing doom on the rich as the prophets always had:
"You elders and princes who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?" (Isa 3:14)
The rich (tenants) were destroying the vineyard of Israel as always.

If we're looking for an original version of the parable, either of the above will do. Herzog's is non-allegorical and forces listeners to come to terms with the futility of revolt by underscoring the inevitable. The tenants are misguided good guys with whom peasants would have identified, and the landowner is a tyrant. The parable ends by asking, "What will the owner of the vineyard do?" (Mk 12:9a) The answer is obvious -- "He'll kick your ass and just get some new tenants!" (Mk 12:9b) -- but like many obvious answers, it needs spelling out to those who go on heedless.

Horsley's reading is allegorical, promising judgment on the Judean elite. The tenants are the bad guys, and the landowner is God. But ironically, the message is still the same: only God can crush the evils and injustices of the present age.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Top 10 Badass Ancient Weapons

What a great list: Top 10 Badass Ancient Weapons. (HT: Matt Bertrand) Culverins, caltrops, burning oil, arbalests, hunga mungas, morning stars, human corpses, catapults, flame-throwers, and -- most badass of them all -- scythed chariots. There are nice illustrations to go with these.

I think it's interesting that #s 2, 3, 4, and 5 were all used on the Pelennor Fields in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. By the armies of Mordor, of course. Aside from a few catapults, the Gondorians had to contend mostly with swords, bows & arrows, and a lone wizard's ninja-staff. That would have been nice to work into my politically-correct satire of the film.

Monday, February 04, 2008

New Blog

If you enjoy the game of no-limit Texas hold 'em, come visit me over at Flush Draw. Sharks and fish are equally welcome.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival XXVI

The twenty-sixth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Kevin Edgecomb's Biblicalia.