Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Deadly Tea-Party

What do GRRM's Red Wedding, the Arabian Nights and Job all have in common?

Why, they have the motif of the Deadly Tea-Party, that is, a party where someone dies, is sentenced to death, or some terrible misfortune occurs. And what do you suppose? This is a tremendous motif throughout the Bible. It is beautiful to see how it is has persisted throughout the ages so that we encounter it once again in contemporary epic fantasy.

Let us begin with the literary example, and then I will demonstrate where we see this motif throughout the Torah.

    Aladdin comforted her, and left her for a while. He changed clothes with the first person he met in the town, and having bought a certain powder returned to the princess, who let him in by a little side door.

    "Put on your most beautiful dress," he said to her, "and receive the magician with smiles, leading him to believe that you have forgotten me. Invite him to sup with you, and say you wish to taste the wine of his country. He will go for some, and while he is gone I will tell you what to do."

    She listened carefully to Aladdin, and when he left her arrayed herself gaily for the first time since she left China. She put on a girdle and head-dress of diamonds, and seeing in a glass that she looked more beautiful than ever, received the magician, saying to his great amazement: "I have made up my mind that Aladdin is dead, and that all my tears will not bring him back to me, so I am resolved to mourn no more, and have therefore invited you to sup with me; but I am tired of the wines of China, and would fain taste those of Africa."

    The magician flew to his cellar, and the princess put the powder Aladdin had given her in her cup. When he returned she asked him to drink her health in the wine of Africa, handing him her cup in exchange for his as a sign she was reconciled to him.

    Before drinking the magician made her a speech in praise of her beauty, but the princess cut him short saying:

    "Let me drink first, and you shall say what you will afterwards." She set her cup to her lips and kept it there, while the magician drained his to the dregs and fell back lifeless.

    "Aladdin" from The Arabian Nights

(I have a much more beautiful rendering in the Arabian Nights I have at home; it is far more descriptive and the language is much lovelier. In effect, just in case the above version was unclear, the princess puts the poison in her own goblet, and the evil magician, lovestruck, begins to praise her beauty. In a seductive gesture she kisses the rim of her goblet and begs the magician to drink from her cup to show him how much he means to her-and to take the kiss she has lavished on its rim. He gladly acquiesces, they exchange cups; he dies, having imbibed the poison she placed in her cup, and she lives.)

Where do we have deadly tea-parties in the Torah?

1. Avraham's Weaning Feast for Isaac

    And it came to pass after these words, that God did tempt Abraham.14 What is meant by 'after'? — R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Jose b. Zimra: After 'the words of Satan, as it is written, And the child grew, and was weaned: [and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned].15 Thereupon Satan said to the Almighty; 'Sovereign of the Universe! To this old man Thou didst graciously vouchsafe the fruit of the womb at the age of a hundred, yet of all that banquet which he prepared, he did not have one turtle-dove or pigeon to sacrifice before thee! Hath he done aught but in honour of his son!' Replied He, 'Yet were I to say to him, "Sacrifice thy son before Me", he would do so without hesitation.' Straightway, God did tempt Abraham … And he said, Take, I pray thee [na]16 thy son.17

    Sanhedrin 89b

Because Avraham made the terrible mistake of neglecting to offer sacrifices to God upon Isaac's weaning, the feast became the cause of the future necessity for the sacrifice of Isaac/ Abraham's being tested in this regard. (By the way, anyone notice the similarity to the idea of "Sleeping Beauty?" Because the parents neglect to invite the fairy to the feast, and they serve her on plates of china rather than plates of gold with her name engraved upon them, she grows angry and casts a terrible curse upon Aurora. Rather like the Satan, who is able to cause Avraham grief because of Avraham's neglect to "invite God" as it were, to the feast.)

While it is true that Isaac was saved, he was supposed to die, which is why I include this in my Deathly Tea-Party motif.

2. Absalom's Sheep-Shearing Celebration

    23 And it came to pass after two full years, that Absalom had sheep-shearers in Baal-hazor, which is beside Ephraim; and Absalom invited all the king's sons. 24 And Absalom came to the king, and said: 'Behold now, thy servant hath sheep-shearers; let the king, I pray thee, and his servants go with thy servant.' 25 And the king said to Absalom: 'Nay, my son, let us not all go, lest we be burdensome unto thee.' And he pressed him; howbeit he would not go, but blessed him. 26 Then said Absalom: 'If not, I pray thee, let my brother Amnon go with us.' And the king said unto him: 'Why should he go with thee?' 27 But Absalom pressed him, and he let Amnon and all the king's sons go with him. {S} 28 And Absalom commanded his servants, saying: 'Mark ye now, when Amnon's heart is merry with wine; and when I say unto you: Smite Amnon, then kill him, fear not; have not I commanded you? be courageous, and be valiant.' 29 And the servants of Absalom did unto Amnon as Absalom had commanded. Then all the king's sons arose, and every man got him up upon his mule, and fled. 30 And it came to pass, while they were in the way, that the tidings came to David, saying: 'Absalom hath slain all the king's sons, and there is not one of them left.' {P}

    31 Then the king arose, and rent his garments, and lay on the earth; and all his servants stood by with their clothes rent. {S} 32 And Jonadab, the son of Shimeah David's brother, answered and said: 'Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king's sons; for Amnon only is dead; for by the appointment of Absalom this hath been determined from the day that he forced his sister Tamar. 33 Now therefore let not my lord the king take the thing to his heart, to think that all the king's sons are dead; for Amnon only is dead.' {P}

    Samuel II 13

Absalom invites Amnon to the sheep-shearing feast; Amnon attends in good faith, and Absalom kills him for raping his sister Tamar.

3. Job's Feasts

First we see:

    4 And his sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one upon his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and to drink with them.

and then

    18 While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said: 'Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house; 19 And, behold, there came a great wind from across the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.'

    Job 1

His sons and daughters are rejoicing, merry and happy, when a terrible wind comes upon them and they are buried underneath their destroyed house.

4. Esther

Esther is just as wily as Aladdin's princess.

It's the entire Chapter 7 in Esther.

In essence,

    So the king and Haman came to banquet with Esther the queen. 2 And the king said again unto Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine: 'Whatever thy petition, queen Esther, it shall be granted thee; and whatever thy request, even to the half of the kingdom, it shall be performed.' 3 Then Esther the queen answered and said: 'If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request

In effect, she asks him to kill Haman.

5. Belshazzar's Drinking Party

It's the entire Daniel 5.

In essence, Belshazzar makes a party using the sacred vessels of the destroyed Temple, at which point a ghostly hand writes upon the wall the dire words, 'MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN,' which frightens the king and mandates that Daniel must be called upon to explain (similar to Pharoah's calling upon Joseph to interpret his dreams.)

I am unable to remember the original source, but "Punishment followed hard upon the heels of the atrocity. Cyrus and Darius served as door-keepers of the royal palace on the evening of the banquet. They had received orders from Belshazzar to admit none, though he should say he was the king himself. Belshazzar was forced to leave his apartments for a short time, and he went out unnoticed by the two door-keepers. On his return, when he asked to be admitted, they felled him dead, even while he was asseverating that he was the king." (4) (Source) As I recall, Belshazzar left the castle to use the privy.

And so, as the verse says,

    30 In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. {P}

You may argue, if you like, for the inclusion of Samson's killing the Philistines during their sacrifice to Dagon/ feast/ party, but I think that's slightly different as, though it is ironic, it does not derive merely from the party motif, but from the fact that Samson was gifted with exceptional strength through God- it is more of an active measure as opposed to the plotting and/ or circumstances of the others.

There are probably more examples of deadly parties in the Torah; these are the ones I recall- if you have any others, do mention them.

I've never been able to think about Esther without relating her to Aladdin's princess, and the Red Wedding reminds me quite a lot of Shimon and Levi's betrayal of Shechem. Intriguingly, I only noticed the party of doom/ death motif after I'd read the stories and fairytales, not vice versa. This is one of the many reasons children should read (or be read) fairytales. A child's understanding of fairytales directly reflects on his understanding of Midrash, Aggadah, the Torah and the like. Please don't underestimate the power of magic- it is vital for the development of the imagination, the mind, and all creative faculties.


Anonymous said...

The New Testament also copies upon the motif--the Last Supper is another deadly party.

Lab Rab said...

Bamidbar Chapter 11 - "The meat was still between their teeth etc."

Isaiah Chapter 22 - "Behold there is joy and revelry, killing cattle and slaughtering sheep, eating meat and drinking wine, 'Eat and drink, for tomorrow we will die.'" (The hedonistic response to impending tragedy.)