Thursday, December 01, 2005

Oedipus Rex, Micah, and Garcia Marquez

Oedipus is one of the most tormented men alive, similar to the other long-suffering hero, Odysseus. Oedipus and Odysseus are both ruled by Fate and the gods, no matter how they (or, as it may be, others) strive to go against it. However, the more interesting idea in Oedipus is the way in which biblical themes and sources once again connect. There are some biblical stories and connections that are so similar and important that it would be difficult to read Oedipus’s sad tale without thinking of them.

Before I begin to draw connections, let me first explain one of my sources. You may have heard of the Talmud, which is a “compendium of discussions on the Mishnah (the earliest codification of Jewish religious law, largely complete by 200 AD), by generations of scholars and jurists in many academies over a period of several centuries. The Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud mainly contains the discussion of the Palestinian sages. The Babylonian Talmud incorporates the parallel discussions in the Babylonian academies.”[1] The Talmud contains the Oral Law, which is the second part of the Torah. The Torah contains the Written Law, which is, as it would sound, that which is written and codified in the first five books of Moses (but also including the Prophets and Writings), and the Oral Law, which was passed down through the sages and scholars, from the time of Moses and onwards. This Oral Law was only transcribed for fear of its being forgotten, for the time of prophets was over and the Jews were considered laymen, not as learned as they once had been.

Anyway, in the Talmud, specifically in the part known as the Gemara, there are various discussions and debates between Rabbis. Footnotes and commentaries are added on to these discussions. Hence, there is a statement that reads:

A Tanna taught: Nebat, Micah, and Sheba the son of Bichri are one and the same.14 [He was called] Nebat, because 'he beheld but did not see'; Micah, because 'he was crushed15 in the building';16 and what was his real name? — Sheba the son of Bichri.

The footnote on this statement serves to explain where Micah acquired his name. A commentator named Rashi determines that this refers back to the time of Egypt.
Micah is called Micah because his name derives from the Hebrew word nismaech meaning crushed or squashed. The reason for this is because in the time of Egypt, when the Jews were slaves for Pharoah, Micah (as a baby) was placed in a wall in the spot where bricks should have been placed. Indeed, Moses calls out and states that God has made things worse for the Jews, for now, if they have no bricks, people will have to use the sons of the Jews to build (the walls.) God replies that the children/ infants being placed in the walls are like “thorns” and that it is revealed to Him that they will live to grow up to be completely wicked people. However, if Moses desires, he is allowed to test God and take one out from between the bricks. Moses did this, and the child was called Micah [2]

Micah does indeed grow up to be a wicked person (at least, in terms of Judaism.) The next reference we have to Micah is in the commentary on Exodus, Chapter 32, verse 4. The verse reads:

4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: 'This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'
However, the commentary Rashi expounds upon this verse once again, stating that Micah was actually present at this creation of the Golden Calf (the first and most important instance of idolatry in the history of the Jewish people.) Micah is said to have had the golden tablet which Moses had used to call to Joseph’s bones/ casket (sunk deep in the Nile, for under Joseph’s reign Egypt had prospered) and cause them to rise. The tablet was engraved with the words ‘Rise up, Ox’ as the symbol for the tribe of Ephraim, who descends from Joseph, is the ox/ bull. Micah threw this tablet (with this inscription) into the fire, and through use of this and various forms of magic, a Golden Calf emerged. Hence Micah plays a pivotal part in starting an idolatrous movement amongst the Jewish people (which fulfills the expectations that he will grow up to be a wicked person.)

The third time Micah is mentioned is in Judges, Chapters 17 and 18. There is a difference of opinion as to whether this is the same Micah, but some commentaries believe it is. This example is obviously very striking- Micah makes himself a silver idol, creates his own temple, hires a priest to serve his idol, and has methods of communicating with the dead (the legendary terafim). Thus, Micah has fulfilled God’s decree- he has indeed grown up to be a “thorn” as God said he would be, and according to the Jewish law, he is considered a wicked person for denying God and appointing idols in His place.

I think the resemblance between the biblical Micah and the mythical Oedipus is striking. True, Micah does not grow up to sleep with his mother and murder his father. However, they are similar in that both of these children have their fates decreed upon them at a very young age, and both of them grow up to fulfill these fates- even though others have decided to take it upon themselves to save them. More importantly, each person saves the child out of the kindness of his heart. Moses saves Micah because he cannot believe in the justice of seeing the baby boy squashed beneath bricks, serving as yet another piece in the construction of a building. The kindly shepherd “pitied” the baby whose ankles are pierced, and his pity leads to a most heinous crime, even as Moses’ pity/ mercy leads to the ultimate crime against God- idolatry.

However, Micah is not the only biblical figure to bear a unique resemblance to Oedipus. Another character who is reminiscent of Oedipus is the biblical Jacob. Indeed, the idea that Oedipus was tied together by his ankles and was given the name he bears due to this fact points very much towards Jacob. Jacob’s name actually comes from the word “ekev” which means ankle. Anyway, the way in which Jacob is similar to Oedipus is through the terrible vow he makes in Chapter 31, verse 32, (and really the rest of that entire section) when Laban asks why Jacob has stolen his idols from him.

With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen ascertain for yourself what is with me and take it back. (Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.)

Indeed, we see that later on Rachel dies in childbirth, and never reaches the land of Canaan. Obviously Jacob would never have uttered such a curse if he had thought the idols had been stolen by the woman he loved. In a similar vein, Oedipus declares:

As for the criminal, I pray to God-
Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number-
I pray that that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness.
And as for me, this curse applies no less
If it should turn out that the culprit is my guest here,
Sharing my hearth. (14)

This is, once again, similar- if Oedipus had known he was cursing himself, would he have made such a dire vow? Most probably not. But he did not know, and in that lack of knowledge he dooms himself.

The last biblical counterpart is actually that of the wicked King Ahab. Oedipus resembles this king when he orders for Teiresias to be sent to prophecy before him. In Kings I, Chapter 22, King Jehosophat comes to visit King Ahab. Once there, Ahab asks whether Jehosophat would join him to do battle for Ramot-gilead, and Jehosophat asks that they inquire of a man of God. First the King sends for his false prophets, who tell him to do battle. Then, at Jehosophat’s urging, he sends for a true man of God, but one he hates, for “he never prophesies good of me- only bad…” The prophet’s name is Micaiahu son of Imlah (this is a different Micah than the afore-mentioned one.)

Then comes an intriguing conversation between Micah and the kings. Micah first echoes all of the false prophets (almost sarcastically.) Then, in verses 16-17, we read:
The king then said to him, “I adjure you many times over that you speak to me nothing but the truth, in the name of God!”

[Micaiahu] then said, “I have seen all of Israel scattering to the mountains like sheep that have no sheperd; and god saying, “These have no masters; let each man go to his house in peace!”
This is strangely reminiscent of what we read in Oedipus. On page 17, Oedipus cries, “In God’s name, we all beg you—“ and later, on page 48, Iocaste strangely echoes the imagery of the sheep with no shepherd when she states, “Our hearts are heavy with fear when we see our leader distracted, as helpless sailors are terrified by the confusion of their helmsman.”
Oedipus bristles and becomes angry at both the blind seer and Creon as soon as he hears the truth- that he is the murderer, in the same way that King Ahab states in verse 26 that Micaiahu is to be put in prison and fed on minimum bread and water rations until he returns safely from war. Ahab tries to escape his fate by donning the clothes of a regular soldier/ horseman, while King Jehosophat wears regal garments. However he cannot escape. Indeed, in verse 34, “A man [of Aram] drew his bow aimlessly, yet hit the king of Israel between the joints of his armor.” Later on, King Ahab dies, and the prophecy is fulfilled, just as Teiresias’ prophecy is to be fulfilled.

There are two problems with Oedipus as a character- his pride, and his penchant for riddle-solving. (One actually leads into the other. Because he rescued the entire city from the sphinx, he feels pride, which can be deadly.) References to riddle-solving can be seen:

1. “You saved us from the Sphinx, that flinty singer…It was some god breathed in you to set us free.” (Page 5)

2. “Then once more I must bring what is dark to light.” (Page 9)

3. “When that hellcat the Sphinx was performing here, what help were you to these people? Her magic was not for the first man who came along; it demanded a real exorcist….Oedipus, the simple man, who knows nothing- I thought it out for myself, no birds helped me!” (Page 21-22)

4. Teresias: You were a great man once at solving riddles.
Oedipus: Mock me with that if you like; you will find it true.
Teiresias: It was true enough. It brought about your ruin. (Page 24)

“How can you say that, when the clues to my true birth are in my hands?” (56)

“And I of dreadful hearing. Yet I must hear.” (63)

“Think no longer that you are in command here, but rather think how, when you were, you served your own destruction.” (80)

“This is the king who solved the famous riddle…yet in the end ruin swept over him.” (81)

Oedipus engages in his own self-destruction. True, he does not know his fate and cannot be held accountable for his actions (although he does proclaim himself guilty.) However, his everlasting lust to figure out riddles, to know the truth, is what undoes him. The prophet does not wish to speak, yet he forces him to do so. The shepherd and the messenger do not wish to speak, but he forces them as well. He wishes to find out the secret of his birth and thinks his wife wishes to prevent him from knowing for fear that he is a commoner. Yet it is his pride that brings him to this pass. Indeed, there is a passage that describes him very accurately, stating:

The tyrant is a child of Pride
Who drinks from his great sickening cup
Recklessness and vanity,
Until from his high crest headlong
He plummets to the dust of hope.
That strong man is not strong….

Oedipus is the child of Pride- he is proud of his ability to outwit the Sphinx, and feels that the city is his to command because of that. However, because of this pride he is blind, as the seer points out- more blind than he who is truly blind (this is, of course, an Ursula reference to One Hundred Years of Solitude. As I never tire of pointing out, pride is a major theme in Garcia Marquez’s work as well, whether it be Colonel Aureliano’s or Ursula’s or anybody else’. When pride finally collapses, only the ruins are left. Melquiades knew the entire history of Macondo in advance, but he could not have told it to the Buendias- they would have to live it, experience it, go through the various webs and nets of incest and so forth, all having been prophesied by him. In the end of time it is too late- and they, too, have been unable to escape their fate, just as Oedipus cannot escape his. The first of the line is tied to the tree and the last is eaten by the ants…

[1] From

[2] This entire section and summation can be found on page 101b on the following website. Click on footnote 16 to read what I have recorded:

1 comment:

Pragmatician said...

Hi this is my first visit to your blog, I see you chose a picture from Calvin and Hobbes! I love those comics.