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The different feet of women

Prophecy is history / 10 - Balance is not always virtue and blessings are also found in the details

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 04/08/2019

« The voice of the Lord causes labor pains to hinds and hastens the delivery of goats. In his temple everyone says: "Glory!" »

Psalm 29

The difficult and unbalanced questions that biblical writers asked history continue to generate a reading capable of resurrecting that same history. As in the details that redeems the sad story of a dying child.

Balance is often a virtue, but, like all virtues, if it is absolutized even balance becomes a vice. During ethical and spiritual crises, only unbalanced choices can save us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not balanced when in February 1938 he chose to join Admiral Canaris' anti-Nazi conspiracy group. His more balanced theologian colleagues found a thousand reasons for prudence to passively assist to the horror, and so ended up becoming accomplices. That unbalanced behavior generated, in prison, perhaps the most prophetic theology of the twentieth century. And it was another imprudent and unbalanced behavior that generated Golgotha and the empty tomb.

The Bible was not written by a group of impartial and balanced intellectuals. The community of scribes who told the story of Israel was part of the story it told, and it was biased. They wrote to resurrect the past in a wounded and exiled present. Hence, it was partial, partisan and exaggerated, up to the point of intervening upon the sources with acts that we in the modern world would consider incorrect. The merit of those scribes who composed the great history of Israel, from Genesis to the Book of Kings, was to propose a strong and therefore partial reading of their misfortune. When we have to understand and tell ourselves why our love story is over, we can read the documents from the lawyers and the sentence from the judge, but to really understand it we need a spiritual exercise of memory, which knows how to identify a few moments, words and gestures, because in important stories not all words and days are the same. If we really want to understand what happened to our discouraged and withered community, we can and must read the minutes of the councils, the statistics and the official records. However, in order to really understand it, we should also learn to read other reports as well and interpret the weak signals that have escaped us, re-read wrong words spoken at odd moments, forgiveness that was never asked for and sins of pride and power. And once an interpretation has been identified, try to act on that to change and rise again, while being aware that that interpretation is partial, exaggerated and unbalanced.

The ideal communities formed around a promise, during and after exile, must learn to ask radical questions to their history and if they don't, exile becomes infinite. These questions are essential, even when the answers are inadequate and insufficient (as are sometimes those of the editors of historical books). How did we end up here? How did we get reduced to this condition? Where did we go wrong? When and why did the covenant break? If the Bible stayed living through time until reaching us, if from a mere "remnant" Jesus of Nazareth was born several centuries later, this happened because a true part of the soul of that people knew how to make, and ask God, difficult and unbalanced questions. We save ourselves above all, and perhaps exclusively, if while in a crisis we learn to ask radical questions, because they are the ones that will accompany us and nourish us when time passes, pain increases and the answers do not arrive.

The major theme that occupies chapters 12-16 of the first Book of Kings are the reasons for the schism of the northern kingdom and the vicissitudes of the first kings of the two kingdoms. Some useful historical data. The archeological discoveries made in the lands of the Bible and in the neighboring areas, show a different history, at times very different, from that told by these chapters. They tell us that after the liberation of Egypt by Moses and after the military occupation of the promised land of Joshua, the twelve tribes of Jacob-Israel experienced a progressive development, until the establishment of the monarchy of Saul, David and finally Solomon, when the kingdom reached its maximum well-being and geographical extension from North to South. This "golden age" ends with the schism of Jeroboam, which triggers a decadence that will reach its climax with the Babylonian occupation and exile. The rupture of national unity was the consequence of the punishment of YHWH for the idolatry and corruption of the northern kingdom (Israel). Extra-biblical data (on which the text by Mario Liverani Beyond the Bible is an excellent reading) and the inscriptions found in some stems tell us a different story. First, it is now almost certain that some of the tribes were indigenous to the Palestinian region centuries before the time of Joshua and the monarchy. The growth of the kingdom of Israel was a unification / conquest of clans that were annexed to a relatively small Israelite nucleus (note that the territory of the twelve tribes as a whole was about the size of the Marche). This perhaps corresponded only to the tribes of Ephraim and Benjamin, in other words the North, while the South (Judah) would have had a more origin. A key figure in the process of enlarging the kingdom would have been that of Omri (IX century), the founder of Samaria, to whom the Bible devotes only a few lines (1 Kings 16, 22-28). Omri was so important that for a long time after the destruction of his dynasty people continued to talk about the "House of Omri" to indicate the people of Israel.

Recent data thus undermines the biblical story of a single kingdom subsequently divided into two, claiming that the united kingdom of David-Solomon was a mythical but not historical golden age - and that perhaps some of the acts attributed by the Bible to David were actually carried out by Omri. Furthermore, the whole narrative of the Book of Kings is told from the perspective of the Southern kingdom, from which a very negative reading of the kings of the North emerges, accusing them of idolatry. In reality, it is very probable that the kings of the North were no more prone to idolatry than those of the South. But, as often happens, the Bible also preserves some traces of other "Nordic" traditions (we saw it in the case of the story of Saul), from which other reasons for the schism emerge (conflict, which incidentally is rather natural in countries that develop vertically).

It is within this partial explanation based on the unfaithfulness of the Northern Kingdom that the great and beautiful account of the visit of the king's wife to the prophet Achia should also be read: «At that time Abia, son of Jeroboam, fell ill. Jeroboam said to his wife: "Get up, change clothes so as not to know that you are Jeroboam's wife and go to Shiloh. There is the prophet Achia ... Take with you ten loaves of bread, buns and a honey pot. He will reveal to you what will happen to the boy". Jeroboam's wife did so. She got up, went to Shiloh, and entered the house of Achia, who could not see, because his eyes were darkened with old age» (1 Kings 14, 1-4). Jeroboam knows the prophet, and knows that he has learned of his idolatry, and therefore has his wife disguised, but the blind prophet recognizes her from her walk: «So when Ahijah heard the sound of her footsteps at the door, he said, "Come in, wife of Jeroboam. Why this pretense? I have been sent to you with bad news"» (1 Kings 14, 6). The news is a tremendous oracle of curse: «I will send misfortune on the house of Jeroboam ... Dogs will devour how many of the house of Jeroboam will die in the city; the birds of the air will devour them in the country» (1 Kings 14,10-11). And then he adds the most terrible phrase of all: «Get up, go to your house; when your feet reach the city, the child will die» (1 Kings 14,12). The woman left, and «just as she crossed the threshold of the house, the child died» (1 Kings 14,17). Abia the child died. From time to time the Bible uses the death of children to deliver a strong message to parents and to us. It is its way of communicating. But we cannot just pass by without lingering if only for a moment under the crosses of these innocents, both in the Bible and in life.

A woman disguised by order of her husband, to cover up his shame. Here it is not the king who disguises himself, as was the case with Saul who went to the necromancer of Endor (1 Sam 28), in another wonderful episode. The king stays at home, asks his wife to disguise herself and sends her instead. The text does not say anything about any faults with this wife of Jeroboam, but she is the one who carries out the hardest part in this tragedy. She dresses up to hide her husband's shame - how many times do we not see this in our families, or in our businesses, a wife who "disguises herself" for a shame not of her own and goes to talk to lawyers, bankers and judges, in the hope of receiving some good news.

This woman, this queen, does not say a word in this story written by males for males, where the death of a son is communicated with a considerable lack of compassion - how, and with what words, would a prophetess have given this same announcement? Let us ask the Bible these questions, it will grow with us. A masked mother sent to a prophet, used as a messenger, who is not given the right to speak or to express her emotions. The text is not interested in how that woman reacted to her son's death sentence. It does not tell us if she implored the prophet to ask his God to change his mind – most probably she did, because women have been doing so every day for millennia. The prophet, instead, merely says: "tell Jeroboam", as if that sacrificed life was a matter only between men, without recognizing her being a mother to the "bad news" he was giving her. Yes, the Bible also contains this ruthlessness. We must not forget it.

However, in this terrible story the Bible enables us to "see" one detail of this woman: her feet. Not only the devil is hidden in the details. As in the origin of this quotation, where God and not the great divider is found in the details, sometimes blessings are found in the details of the Bible as well, and at times even contribute to redeem a curse. The prophet heard the "sound of her feet"; when "your feet will reach the city, the child ..." while "crossing" the threshold of the house, the child ... The decisive moments of this story are marked and timed by the movement of the woman's feet.

The Bible and the Gospels are populated by women who walk and move, and almost always "in a hurry". Mary "went quickly" to Elizabeth; Mary of Bethany goes "in a hurry" to meet Jesus to tell him about the death of Lazarus; and "hurriedly abandoned the tomb with fear and great joy, the women ran to give the announcement to his disciples". They walk and run; they love with their hands and feet, which they know because they care for them: "Mary was the one who sprinkled the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair". This kind of agape is called Maria.

Faith and piety continue their journey in this world because men and women continue to run along the road. And in this common race, women's feet run both differently and more.

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