Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Tanakh Companion to Game of Thrones, Season 7

As many of you know, "Game of Thrones" is a hit HBO TV show that has many people fascinated. Well, I loved the series A Song of Ice and Fire way before it became popular (for example, see this post where I was using evidence from the books as a way to prove that Snape was good) and have enjoyed seeing the series brought to life on the small screen. As a Tanakh teacher, I find many connections between the books, show and Tanakh, and I thought it would be useful to elaborate upon some of them here.

First, for those interested, here is a link to a crowdsourced Google Doc where I (and other interested parties) add connections between Game of Thrones and Tanakh. Feel free to check back for updates. Let me note that I do not plan to go through every Season 7 connection in this blogpost- only the ones that I feel are most important.

One of the reasons I loved A Song of Ice and Fire was because George R.R. Martin departed from many other fantasy authors in having protagonists who were deeply flawed. The moment Ned Stark got himself killed because of his noble idealism, I knew I was in for a treat. I like people who are complicated (because in real life, these are the people I know) and complicated means that people can be blind or selfish or cruel or kind - and rarely are they simply one thing. Tolkien gave us incredible works, but Sauron was wholly evil whereas Gandalf was meant to be wholly good, and this archetypal rendering needed to be shaken up a bit. Enter GRRM- and a world where heroes don't survive just because we like them, some characters end up redeemed and some characters really don't. You can understand the motivations of every character, because as GRRM likes to say, most people don't see themselves as the villain of their story; in fact, it's the opposite, where they see themselves as the hero of their narrative.

Now, let's talk about the overall Tanakh connections. One of the problems I commonly encounter when people are reading Tanakh is that they bring their own viewpoints, culture, beliefs and understanding of ethics and impose it upon the book. (It's a bit of the reader response method as opposed to trying to determine authorial intent.) What they fail to understand is that one needs to look at the mores and behaviors of people during that time period in order to comprehend what is happening. If one then wants to make arguments about how exactly the law should be applied today in keeping with current views, that's a different matter. But it is highly problematic to impose, for example, a Western viewpoint on a text that was written in the ancient near east because it means that one is unlikely to understand anything that is happening in that text.

Perhaps one of the most significant places where this comes up has to do with the idea of individuals as opposed to the community. In Tanakh, and indeed in the ancient near east as a whole, the entire system was based upon communal norms, the good of the community, ensuring the best outcomes for the community, and so forth. Thus, for example, the laws regarding rape. The woman was not looked at as an individual with individual rights; she was looked at as property and the crime that was committed against her was a crime that diminished her worth within the community. It harmed her value and her father, and thus her rapist was fined and ordered to marry her. A typical American gets up in arms about this, and perhaps that reaction is warranted when one reads the text with a 21st century perspective, but my point is that one must first read the text in keeping with the viewpoint of that time period. When one does this, one will find that much of what occurs within the Tanakh is not only sensible but actually radical in comparison to what the rest of the ancient near east was doing. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about this extensively.)

Atonement/ Communal Accountability vs. Repentance/ Individual Redemption 
In this season of Game of Thrones, there was an excellent scene between Jon Snow and Sansa Stark that brought home just this point. This scene dramatically highlights the tension between the system of atonement and communal accountability within Torah as opposed to the switch to repentance and individual redemption in Prophets. (See more about that switch in this class taught by The Adept at Revel.)

Read Tanakh and you will find countless scenes where the community is held accountable for the sins of the few. There are plagues that affect the whole nation when only certain members are sinning, and notably there is the lost battle of Ai because of Achan's actions. God remembers the sins of the fathers upon the children for generations. But suddenly there is a shift in the time of the Prophets, and God declares in Jeremiah 31:28-29:

כח  בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם--לֹא-יֹאמְרוּ עוֹד, אָבוֹת אָכְלוּ בֹסֶר; וְשִׁנֵּי בָנִים, תִּקְהֶינָה.28 In those days they shall say no more: 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.'
כט  כִּי אִם-אִישׁ בַּעֲו‍ֹנוֹ, יָמוּת:  כָּל-הָאָדָם הָאֹכֵל הַבֹּסֶר, תִּקְהֶינָה שִׁנָּיו.  {ס}29 But every one shall die for his own iniquity; every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

God has realized communal punishment and accountability no longer works with His nation. Instead, He needs to switch over to an individual model of relating to Him, where each individual has the ability to seek Him out, sin and repent.

But what was going on? Why did God ever think that communal punishment was the way to go? That's what this debate between Sansa and Jon so beautifully illustrates. Here's the scene:

Bannerman: The Umbers and the Karstarks betrayed the North! Their castles should be torn down and no stone left standing.
Sansa: The castles committed no crimes. And we need every fortress we have for the war to come. We should give the last hearth and karhold to new families. Loyal families who supported us against Ramsay.
Everyone: Aye.
Jon: The Umbers and the Karstarks have fought beside the Starks for centuries. They've kept faith for generation after generation.
Sansa: And then they broke faith.
Jon: I'm not going to strip these families of their ancestral homes because of the crimes of a few reckless sons.
Sansa: So there's no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty.
[Silence in the room]
Jon: The punishment for treason is death. Smalljon Umber died on the field of battle. Harold Karstark died on the field of battle.
Sansa: They died fighting for Ramsay. Give the castles to the families of the men who died fighting for you.
[Murmurs throughout the room]
Jon: When I was Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, I executed men who betrayed me. I executed men who refused to follow orders. My father always said: "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" and I have tried to live by those words. But I will not punish a son for his father's sins. And I will not take a family home away from a family it has belonged to for centuries. That is my decision and my decision is final.
Sansa: [sighs]

What I think is so vivid in this scene is the role that loyalty plays in all of this. To give one's word, swear fealty and give one's oath is to make a binding promise incumbent not only upon oneself but upon all of one's future progeny. In such a case, if faith is broken, the entire family deserves punishment. That is what it means to make a binding oath. Jon is against this, feeling keenly what it is like to be the bastard son, the individual who doesn't fit. But in the Torah, the system that was originally set up was a system based on Brit. Rabbi Dr. Josh Berman of Bar Ilan has a fascinating perspective on Brit where he compares the system to vassal treaties with Hittite kings. The Hittite king would make the treaty with his vassal and it would all be inscribed on tablets (does this sound familiar?) Should the vassal die, the treaty would need to be renewed (much like oaths of fealty would need to be renewed) but this was little more of a gesture; the assumption was that the king would continue to keep faith.

Thus, going back to God, the original system as devised in the Torah was one of Brit. The covenant was binding not only upon those who originally swore it but upon their children. For those children to break faith was an extreme sin, and one for which they could and should be punished. Eventually, however, God realized that the people simply could not operate in the communal fashion He had once envisioned. Instead, each person had to accept Brit on their own- not only as a community but as individuals. And each person had to be judged and given punishment or reward based on their own merits, not only as part of a nation with an ancestral heritage. In short, God changes over from Sansa's way of thinking to Jon's and that's the major switch in Navi vs. Torah.

The Shame of Enemy Capture 
One of the scenes that is at times difficult for students to understand occurs when Saul commits suicide. Saul is one of my favorite characters in the entire Tanakh specifically because he goes through so much inner turmoil and pain. Haunted by a ruach ra'ah (what I think many of us might correlate with mental illness nowadays), he at turns is capable of great nobility and self-sacrifice and at the same time, an inability to do what is required of him. At the last, he is abandoned by God and finds cold solace in the words of his mentor Samuel, who informs him that the next day he and his sons will join the prophet in his eternal rest.

One of the fears that Saul has which leads him to commit suicide has to do with the desire not to be degraded by his enemy (the Philistines) once captured. (We know that they do this as we've seen evidence of it with Samson, whose eyes were gouged out and who was made to stand about at large parties as a way of showing Philistine might and conquest.) In Saul's words in I Samuel 31:4

ד  וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל לְנֹשֵׂא כֵלָיו שְׁלֹף חַרְבְּךָ וְדָקְרֵנִי בָהּ, פֶּן-יָבוֹאוּ הָעֲרֵלִים הָאֵלֶּה וּדְקָרֻנִי וְהִתְעַלְּלוּ-בִי, וְלֹא אָבָה נֹשֵׂא כֵלָיו, כִּי יָרֵא מְאֹד; וַיִּקַּח שָׁאוּל אֶת-הַחֶרֶב, וַיִּפֹּל עָלֶיהָ.4 Then said Saul to his armour-bearer: 'Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and make a mock of me.' But his armour-bearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took his sword, and fell upon it.

Indeed, Saul does not escape this fate. The Philistines do desecrate and defile his body- but consider how much worse it could have been had he fallen into their hands while still alive.

ט  וַיִּכְרְתוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁוֹ, וַיַּפְשִׁטוּ, אֶת-כֵּלָיו; וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ בְאֶרֶץ-פְּלִשְׁתִּים סָבִיב, לְבַשֵּׂר בֵּית עֲצַבֵּיהֶם--וְאֶת-הָעָם.9 And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to carry the tidings unto the house of their idols, and to the people.
י  וַיָּשִׂימוּ, אֶת-כֵּלָיו, בֵּית, עַשְׁתָּרוֹת; וְאֶת-גְּוִיָּתוֹ, תָּקְעוּ, בְּחוֹמַת, בֵּית שָׁן.10 And they put his armour in the house of the Ashtaroth; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.

The scene in Season 7 where Euron Greyjoy leads Yara Greyjoy and the Sand Snakes through the city to Cersei is an excellent example of what happens when one is captured by the enemy, and the mockery/ defilement one experiences in such a case.

Betrothal Through the Blood of One's Enemies 

Euron Greyjoy wants to sit the iron throne. In order to do it, he has to wed Cersei Lannister. She won't have him, arguing that he has been disloyal in the past. He tells her ""In my experience, the surest way to a woman's heart is with a gift. A priceless gift. I won't return to King's Landing until I have that for you." And indeed, when he returns he brings her the enemy that slew her daughter Myrcella.

This sheds light on David's bloody betrothal to Michal, princess of Israel, as referenced in I Samuel 18:27-

כז  וַיָּקָם דָּוִד וַיֵּלֶךְ הוּא וַאֲנָשָׁיו, וַיַּךְ בַּפְּלִשְׁתִּים מָאתַיִם אִישׁ, וַיָּבֵא דָוִד אֶת-עָרְלֹתֵיהֶם, וַיְמַלְאוּם לַמֶּלֶךְ לְהִתְחַתֵּן בַּמֶּלֶךְ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ שָׁאוּל אֶת-מִיכַל בִּתּוֹ, לְאִשָּׁה.  {ס}27 and David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full number to the king, that he might be the king's son-in-law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.

(Granted, Saul was trying to cause David's death at the times, but it still explains why this made David a suitable son-in-law. Vanquishing enemies could be an impressive bride price.)

Trying to Prevent Mass Destruction (When No One Believes You) 
Jon Snow finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to prevent mass destruction and slaughter of humanity. He is aware of The Night King and the White Walkers, armies of the dead that are intent upon laying waste to the world and killing everyone in their wake. In the meantime, everyone in Westeros is squabbling over who will sit the Iron Throne. He has a poignant conversation with Tyrion Lannister in which he asks, "How do I convince people who don't know me that an enemy they don't believe in is coming to kill them all?"

This is exactly the dilemma that Jeremiah (and many other prophets) were faced with. They were graced with nightmare visions of an apocalyptic future, aware that God planned to kill and exile them in horrible, brutal ways. Jeremiah did his best to persuade the people of this, and their response was to laugh at him, mock him or try to kill him. In the scene with Tyrion, Tyrion does a good job of explaining why this was.

Jon: You probably don't believe me.
Tyrion: I do actually.
Jon: You didn't before. Grumkins and snarks, you called them. Do you remember? You said it was all nonsense.
Tyrion: It was nonsense. Everybody knew it. But then Mormont saw them and you saw them and I trust the eyes of an honest man more than I trust what everybody knows.
Jon: How do I convince people who don't know me that an enemy they don't believe in is coming to kill them all?
Tyrion: Good question.
Jon: I know it's a good question. I'm looking for an answer.
Jon: People's minds aren't made for problems that large. White Walkers. The Night King. Army of the Dead. It's almost a relief to confront a comfortable, familiar monster like my sister.

And that's the thing- not only do people not want to change their comfortable lives and the status quo, but what Jeremiah (and Jon) are telling them is totally unbelievable. It's too much to fathom- destruction, exile, death and mayhem at the hands of an enemy they don't perceive as the real threat- which is why most prefer to ignore it.

A Woman Can Make a Man Evil 
There's an idea in the Gemara that a woman can make or break a man. There's an example where Korach's wife is said to have pushed him into his rebellion, while On ben Pelet's wife saved him from the consequences of his folly. The same idea takes root when it comes to Achav and Izevel. While Ahab was in many ways a terrible king, there is an idea that Izevel made him much worse than he otherwise would have been. In part this has to do with Izevel's casual disregard for the law (for example, her willingness to subject Navot to a sham trial to achieve her husband's ends, much like Cersei does to Tyrion simply because she hates him.) This exact relationship is typified between Cersei and Jaime, as Lady Olenna points out.

Lady Olenna: She's a monster, you do know that?
Jaime: To you, I'm sure. To others as well. But after we've won and there's no one left to oppose us, when people are living peacefully in the world she built, do you really think they'll wring their hands over the way she built it?
Lady Olenna: You love her. You really do love her. You poor fool. She'll be the end of you.
Jaime: Possibly. Not much to be gained from discussing it with you, though, is there?
Lady Olenna: What better person to discuss it with? What better guarantee could you have that the things you say will never leave this room? But perhaps you're right. If she's driven you this far, it's gone beyond your control.
Jaime: Yes. It has.
Lady Olenna: She's a disease. I regret my role in spreading it. You will, too.

Stay tuned for more Tanakh connections and comparisons.