Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Tragic Hero: The King of Israel (2 Kings 6:24-31)

A Tragic Hero: the King of Israel
by CWK

          Tragic heroes always begin high up. Tragedy cannot befall the man who is already down; tragedy happens when a man is knocked down. Tragedy, therefore, happens to kings, to the rich, and to the happy. So, it’s tragic that two happy lovers are star-crossed (Romeo and Juliet); it’s tragic that King Lear goes mad, and alienates everyone around him; it’s tragic that a great man (David) would fall from holiness into adultery and murder. Tragedy involves a fall from a higher place, to a lower: from prosperity to poverty: from righteousness to sin. This is why Chaucer said, "Tragedy is to say a dite (literary composition) of a prosperity for a time that endeth in wretchedness."
            Thus, it is of special import that the king of Israel begins our narrative, “on a wall.” The fact that he is, “passing by on a wall” is mentioned twice (6.26, 30). Hebrew narrative is sparse in these kinds of details. So, why the double mention that the king is on a wall? First, this sets him up for the fall. Being, “on a wall,” at the beginning of a story is a bad sign of things to come, “Humpty-Dumpy sat on a wall…”
            The picture of him standing up on the wall, belabored by the narrator, sets him up above our vision. We are looking up to him when the narrative begins; we are looking down at him when it ends. The other bad thing about being “on a wall” is exposure.  It leaves one in full view. So, when the king dons his sackcloth, he does so in full view of his people (v. 30). This is a public spectacle. His humiliation is deepened because it is so public. He has his fall right in front of everyone, “now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body (v. 30).” The people’s response to this is mentioned. “Behold” is even added to heighten the surprise of this scene. It is a ridiculous image, and it evokes a smile in the same way a proud man slipping on a banana might.
            Now, lest we think that it is cruel to see a king knocked down, we should remember that his fall is evidence of his dignity: proof, in reverse, of his dignity:

Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.[1]

[1] From Spiritualism by G.K. Chesteron, in ebook format:

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