David and Achilles: Openings … Collected

Well, I didn’t get any entries this week for essays on “The Openings” of the “Story of David” (1st and 2nd Samuel) and the Iliad. However, I did get a number of interesting comments, a topic request, and a very interesting essay + blog post on David’s Story from Tom Graffagnino. His post is …. “See Saul Teeter-Totter”.

Next Thursday I will be posting an essay on “The Duel”. I will collect essays until 7pm Sunday night (Central time or -6 GMT). My idea for duels to investigate would be David vs Goliath and Paris and Menelaus. For Jim (and his class?) who are currently reading the Odyssey, another good possibility for comparison might be Odysseus versus Polyphemus, which while not a classic duel perhaps shares enough elements with a duel to be considered comparison to David’s encounter with his giant.

Update:

Sean McMyrth posted a late entry in a comment. Here it is reposted in full: (below the “fold”)

Piety Rewarded
By Sean Felix McMyrth

Have you ever wondered why bad things happen to good people? It seems that those among us who follow the word of the Lord and worship regularly run into problems even more than those who seem to live a life of depravity and turpitude. As a matter of fact those amongst us who hurt others seem to live the best lives of all. However, the Bible and other Classical texts like the Iliad teach us that though this paradox may seem the supreme law of this mortal life, a good life will eventually benefit us. You see, at first glance, those who are against God in the Bible, or against the gods in the polytheistic Iliad, seem to be rewarded for their transgressions, and the one’s who are with God, or the gods, seem to be punished; however, these stories and many others in the compendium of world literature show us that the characters who stay with God, or the gods, eventually reap their reward.

At the beginning of Samuel I, Hannah, who seems to be very pious, appears to have been forsaken by God, while her enemy taunts Hannah even with her superior bounty. Even though her husband, Elkanah, loves Hannah, “the Lord had shut up her womb” (Sam I, 5). For all we know Hannah is a very good person, but this unhappy situation has befallen her: she cannot bare children and is childless as the story opens. The story gives us no explanation why the Lord made her barren, just that he did. As in modern life, we have no idea why unpleasant situations happen to good people. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, who has several children, receives bountiful portions from her husband for her and her children, but she “provokes her [Hannah] sore, for to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb” (Sam I, 6). Peninah probably knows that Elkanah loves Hannah more than her, or at least her jealousy makes her think so. Even though Peninah has it better than Hannah due to her several children, she still sees fit to taunt Hannah in her want, simply to see her suffer. This seems to be human nature especially in people who do not walk in the path of the Lord, but even in some who claim to walk the walk. Peninah is not pious in her actions toward Hannah. We relate to this story, because even in a faith-filled life, we sometimes wonder what we have to do to benefit from our faith. At this point in the story, Hannah has been forsaken by the God that she proves later to love, and her enemy, Peninah, is lovin’ every minute of it. This motif occurs frequently throughout the Bible but also in literature as far back as Homer’s Iliad.

In Book I of the Iliad, Agamemnon appears to receive all that he wants even at the displeasure of the gods and men, but he cares not; on the other hand, the physically superior Achilles appeases the gods but loses his prized spoil of war. The strong-greaved Achaians feel the wrath of the god Apollo when Agamemnon ignores the requests of Apollo’s priest, Chryses. Pride causes Agamemnon to keep the daughter of Chryses, Chrysies, even as the plague brought upon them by the vengeful god ravages the Greek army. Achilles, knowing that Agamemnon’s slight to Chryses and Apollo have brought the god’s anger upon them, asks Agamemnon to “come, let us ask some holy man, some prophet…who can tell why Phoibus Apollo is so angry” (Iliad I, 62-64). Since Agamemnon did not believe a Trojan priest, Achilles offers a Greek priest or seer of Agamemnon’s choosing. I, like Achilles, would like our leaders to consult a higher power when making decisions that effect us all, but like Agamemnon, our leaders are not always ready to face the truth. Agamemnon does relent for selfish reasons, and he only agrees to let Chrysies go back to her father if Achilles agrees to give up the beautiful Briseis, his slave girl. As Achilles starts to unsheathe his sword to atone for this insult, Athene appears to him and says, “Some day three times over such shining gifts shall be given you by reason of his [Agamemnon’s] outrage. Hold your hand and obey us [the gods]” (Iliad I, 213-14). The act of killing Agamemnon would have been sweet for Achilles, but he must have faith that Athene is telling him the truth (Athene is notorious for lying, if it suits her), and it is his faith that turns the tide of the war and shapes the story of the Iliad. As humans we often desire bad things on the persons who hurt us, and our rage boils within; but as the stories of faith throughout literature show us, our reward will be far greater if we leave it up to a higher power to sort out all of the details of our perceived wrongs.

Hannah sees her piety rewarded very quickly in Samuel I; whereas, Achilles has to suffer through the denial of his booty and the death of his closest friend and companion before his faithfulness is rewarded. Having given up hope and become despondent due to the taunts of her enemy, Hannah prays to God to open up her womb and offers, for the granting of this prayer, the gift of the service of her child to the Lord for the child’s whole life. As the story goes, “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the Lord remembered her” (Sam I, 19). God opened up her womb because of her devotion to Him, and this is where the titular character comes into the story. Hannah very wisely turns to God to take care of her enemy instead of striking out herself. It certainly would be nice if all of our prayers were answered as quickly as Hannah’s, but the lesson to learn, and the one taught very well in the Iliad, is to remain faithful and your higher power will answer all the prayers that he or she wills. Achilles did not fare as well as Hannah. Briseis is taken from Achilles in Book I, Patroklos, Achilles best friend and companion, dies in Book 16, and not until Book 19 does Agamemnon return Briseis reportedly unmolested. We can understand from this story that rewards come slower for polytheists; or Homer just needed to fill six nights with his poetry, so he needed some filler. Either way the faith of these two characters strongly influenced Western culture, and the stories demonstrate that good does come to those who wait and have faith.

P.S. I used the Richmond Lattimore translation of the Iliad and the King James Version of the Bible. S.F.M.

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  1. […] This is the third in an ongoing weekly series of essays (+ roundup) comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories. The first week’s essays were on the openings. My essay was here. The roundup is here. The second weeks essay is here (there were no contributed essays, alas). And the third week’s essay is here, again no contributions. […]