Uriah, and Other Biblical Figures

President Obama:

THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Today I accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I did so with considerable regret, but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country. …

I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult. Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully. I’ve got great admiration for him and for his long record of service in uniform. …

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

General McChrystal was fired for the disrespect he displayed toward the commander in chief (and other high-level administration officials) in Michael Hastings’s notorious Rolling Stones profile of him:

Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his [expletive] war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

In Biblical times, even much milder disrespect displayed by a soldier toward his sovereign would have cost him his life, not merely his job. Gemara:

והא דתני האומר לשלוחו צא הרוג את הנפש הוא חייב ושולחיו פטור שמאי הזקן אומר משום חגי הנביא שולחיו חייב שנא’ אותו הרגת בחרב בני עמון

מאי טעמיה דשמאי הזקן …

ואיבעית אימא שאני התם דגלי רחמנא אותו הרגת בחרב בני עמון

ואידך הרי לך כחרב בני עמון מה חרב בני עמון אין אתה נענש עליו אף אוריה החתי אי אתה נענש עליו מאי טעמא מורד במלכות הוה דקאמר ליה ואדוני יואב וכל עבדי אדוני על פני השדה חונים1

Rashi:

ואדוני יואב. זהו מרד שקראו אדון בפני המלך:2

Tosafos:

מורד במלכות הוה דקאמר ליה ואדוני יואב כו’. פי’ בקונטרס דמורד היה מהא דקאמר אדוני יואב בפני המלך דוד ולא נהירא שהרי יואב לא היה מורד במלכות ואומר רבינו מאיר אביו של ר”ת מה שאמר לו דוד שילך לביתו לאכול ולשתות והוא מיאן בדבר כדכתיב כל עבדי אדוני על פני השדה חונים ואני אבא אל ביתי לאכול וגו’ בתמיה ולא היה לו לסרב וי”מ דהמרד היה שהקדים לומר אדוני יואב קודם המלך דוד:3

Here’s Rudyard Kipling’s characteristically simple, yet (or perhaps therefore) brilliant and powerful – and deadly earnest – The Story of Uriah:

The Story of Uriah

“Now there were two men in one city;
the one rich, and the other poor.”

Jack Barrett went to Quetta
Because they told him to.
He left his wife at Simla
On three-fourths his monthly screw.
Jack Barrett died at Quetta
Ere the next month’s pay he drew.

Jack Barrett went to Quetta.
He didn’t understand
The reason of his transfer
From the pleasant mountain-land.
The season was September,
And it killed him out of hand.

Jack Barrett went to Quetta
And there gave up the ghost,
Attempting two men’s duty
In that very healthy post;
And Mrs. Barrett mourned for him
Five lively months at most.

Jack Barrett’s bones at Quetta
Enjoy profound repose;
But I shouldn’t be astonished
If now his spirit knows
The reason of his transfer
From the Himalayan snows.

And, when the Last Great Bugle Call
Adown the Hurnai throbs,
And the last grim joke is entered
In the big black Book of Jobs.
And Quetta graveyards give again
Their victims to the air,
I shouldn’t like to be the man
Who sent Jack Barrett there.

Publication details and some notes, including this:

According to Kay Robinson, the poem was a thinly disguised version of a topical scandal and ‘those who had known the real “Jack Barrett”, good fellow that he was, and the vile superior and faithless wife who sent him “on duty” to his death, felt the heat of the spirit which inspired Kipling’s verse in a way that gave those few lines an imperishable force’.

I think that this misses the point; Kipling’s genius makes even those who have not known the figures who inspired the poem feel the “imperishable force” of his moral outrage!

Some of Kipling’s most powerful poetry draws on Biblical narrative and language for its force; see our discussion of his devastating Gehazi, and see also his Delilah (notes), with its Biblical allusion that most will probably easily recognize, his Rimmon (notes), with its somewhat less immediately obvious one, and his En-Dor, which he helpfully prefaces with the relevant citation.

One of my favorite Kipling poems, heavily laden with majestic Biblical imagery, is his haunting and moving, deeply religious caution agains hubris, Recessional:

Recessional

GOD of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

See these notes for many of the Biblical references (regarding Nineveh, see here); one that is not mentioned in the notes is the allusion in the last stanza to Psalms:

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לִשְׁלֹמֹה:
אִם-יְקוָק, לֹא-יִבְנֶה בַיִת– שָׁוְא עָמְלוּ בוֹנָיו בּוֹ;
אִם-יְקוָק לֹא-יִשְׁמָר-עִיר, שָׁוְא שָׁקַד שׁוֹמֵר.4

As George Orwell puts it, with his inimitable style:

Much of Kipling’s phraseology is taken from the Bible, and no doubt in the second stanza he had in mind the text from Psalm CXXVII: ‘Except the lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ It is not a text that makes much impression on the post-Hitler mind. No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘Law’, there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in. Kipling’s outlook is prefascist. He still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish hubris. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and the secret police, or their psychological results.

The essay from which the above is taken defends Kipling from the charge of fascism, although Orwell does insist that “Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.”:

It was a pity that Mr. Eliot should be so much on the defensive in the long essay with which he prefaces this selection of Kipling’s poetry, but it was not to be avoided, because before one can even speak about Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his works. Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a byword for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there. Mr. Eliot never satisfactorily explains this fact, because in answering the shallow and familiar charge that Kipling is a ‘Fascist’, he falls into the opposite error of defending him where he is not defensible. It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a ‘nigger’ with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling’s work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct — on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

And yet the ‘Fascist’ charge has to be answered, because the first clue to any understanding of Kipling, morally or politically, is the fact that he was not a Fascist. He was further from being one than the most humane or the most ‘progressive’ person is able to be nowadays. An interesting instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the line from ‘Recessional’, ‘Lesser breeds without the Law’. This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the ‘lesser breeds’ are ‘natives’, and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase ‘lesser breeds’ refers almost certainly to the Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are ‘without the Law’ in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German. Two stanzas are worth quoting (I am quoting this as politics, not as poetry): [He then cites part of the poem, and follows with the paragraph earlier quoted.]

Another surpassingly beautiful instance of Kipling in his stirring, majestic, Biblical mode is another favorite of mine, Hymn Before Action:

THE EARTH is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions—
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!

High lust and froward bearing,
Proud heart, rebellious brow—
Deaf ear and soul uncaring,
We seek Thy mercy now!
The sinner that forswore Thee,
The fool that passed Thee by,
Our times are known before Thee—
Lord, grant us strength to die!

For those who kneel beside us
At altars not Thine own,
Who lack the lights that guide us,
Lord, let their faith atone.
If wrong we did to call them,
By honour bound they came;
Let not Thy Wrath befall them,
But deal to us the blame.

From panic, pride, and terror,
Revenge that knows no rein,
Light haste and lawless error,
Protect us yet again.
Cloak Thou our undeserving,
Make firm the shuddering breath,
In silence and unswerving
To taste Thy lesser death!

Ah, Mary pierced with sorrow,
Remember, reach and save
The soul that comes to-morrow
Before the God that gave!
Since each was born of woman,
For each at utter need—
True comrade and true foeman—
Madonna, intercede!

E’en now their vanguard gathers,
E’en now we face the fray—
As Thou didst help our fathers,
Help Thou our host to-day!
Fulfilled of signs and wonders,
In life, in death made clear—
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, hear!

We close with one of Kipling’s less-known poems, the stunningly powerful, profoundly grim, and brilliantly haunting A Death-Bed. This is what he thought of Fascism:

“THIS is the State above the Law.
The State exists for the State alone.”
[This is a gland at the back of the jaw,
And an answering lump by the collar-bone.]

Some die shouting in gas or fire;
Some die silent, by shell and shot.
Some die desperate, caught on the wire;
Some die suddenly. This will not.

“Regis suprema voluntas Lex”
[It will follow the regular course of—throats.]
Some die pinned by the broken decks,
Some die sobbing between the boats.

Some die eloquent, pressed to death
By the sliding trench as their friends can hear.
Some die wholly in half a breath.
Some—give trouble for half a year.

“There is neither Evil nor Good in life
Except as the needs of the State ordain.”
[Since it is rather too late for the knife,
All we can do is to mask the pain.]

Some die saintly in faith and hope—
One died thus in a prison-yard—
Some die broken by rape or the rope;
Some die easily. This dies hard.

“I will dash to pieces who bar my way.
Woe to the traitor! Woe to the weak!”
[Let him write what he wishes to say.
It tires him out if he tries to speak.]

Some die quietly. Some abound
In loud self-pity. Others spread
Bad morale through the cots around . . .
This is a type that is better dead.

“The war was forced on me by my foes.
All that I sought was the right to live.”
[Don’t be afraid of a triple dose;
The pain will neutralize half we give.

Here are the needles. See that he dies
While the effects of the drug endure. . . .
What is the question he asks with his eyes?—
Yes, All-Highest, to God, be sure.]

  1. קידושין מג. – קשר []
  2. רש”י שם ד”ה ואדוני יואב []
  3. תוספות שם ד”ה מורד במלכות הוא []
  4. תהלים קכז:א – קשר []
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2 Responses to Uriah, and Other Biblical Figures

  1. Shalom Rosenfeld says:

    Good observation on “Boss.” By the way, what’s the difference in Tosfos between the kuntrus and the yesh meforshim?

  2. Yitzhak says:

    I understand the קונטרוס to mean that referring to anyone as “Master” in the presence of the King is מרד, to which Tosfos object that insofar as Yoav was a loyal subject, there’s nothing wrong in referring to him as “Master”, even in his Sovereign’s presence. The יש מפרשים, however, propose that the offense was the sequence; mention of the King must precede that of his subjects.

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