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Tuesday
Jul052011

Biblical Names in SONG OF SOLOMON

Many characters in Morrison's novel are given Biblical names. You'll need to decide whether the names describe or damn them--or whether some or all of the characters escape their names. Here's a run-down:

Pilate. Milkman's aunt is named for the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, the man who crucified Jesus. According to the New Testatment accounts, Pilate seems to have favored negotiation, rather than confrontation. He was also open to weighty matters without being shocked by them. When he asked if Jesus was "the king of the Jews," Jesus replied that indeed he was. Pilate could have understood the answer as either a political declaration or a spiritual one. Both are incendiary at the time; but no matter which, Pilate seemed unconcerned by the answer. Rather than release Jesus, Pilate offered the crowd a choice: Barabbas or Jesus. The crowd chose Barabbas; Jesus went off to his death with a sign Pilate himself painted for him, "King of the Jews." In the Gospel of John, Pilate and Jesus have a more lengthy conversation. Here, Jesus told Pilate, "All who are on the side of truth listen to [my] voice." To which Pilate famously replied, "What is truth?" Not all in Christian tradition malign Pilate. Some see him as the hand of God, pressing Jesus to his death--and thus the salvation of the world. Dante is so ambivalent that he doesn't put Pilate in hell, nor even in limbo, but in the outer vestibule of the inferno, before Dante and Virgil start their way down. For Dante, Pilate is neither saved nor damned but in the gray, murky world between. (Also, in Morrison's novel, you might want to think about 1) the fact that Pilate is a man's name, and 2) the way "Pilate" sounds like "pilot.")

Reba/Rebecca. Pilate's daughter is named after the wife of the patriarch Isaac, the daughter-in-law of Abraham and Sarah, the mother of the Jacob and Esau. Her story is told in Genesis, the first book of Torah. Although Rebecca is clearly chosen by God to be the patriarch's wife--he meets her at a well under mystical circumstances--Isaac himself tries to pass her off as his sister and get her to sleep with a neighboring king in return for some favors. In the story, God blocks this move. Rebecca also works behind the scenes to assure that her favorite son, the hand-around-mom's-tent Jacob, the second born, gets his father's blessing and birthright. She tricks her blind husband into blessing Jacob by dressing the boy up in goat skins so he'll seem hairy like his brother Esau and by his plying his father with a tasty goat stew. In the end, Jacob is the chosen one, although second born--and so Rebecca is both a pawn and a manipulator for a fate larger than herself.

Hagar. Reba's daughter is named for the Egyptian slave with whom Abraham fathered Ishmael, according to Torah the progenitor of all the Arabic peoples. Abraham and Sarah had been told to wait for an heir; but they were very old, in their nineties (!), so Sarah took matters in her own hands, convincing her husband to sleep with her slave. Hagar became pregnant, bore the son, became the subject of unmitigated jealousy from Sarah, and was eventually driven out into the desert after Sarah had Isaac "the right way." Hagar is a troubling figure for theologians, a melange of good and bad, often seen to represent the sins of the flesh while at the same time distinctly a blessed character. After her abandonment, God meets her and the boy out in the desert, provides them a well, and promises many kingdoms to their progeny.

Ruth. Milkman's mother is named for the character in Torah known for her undying loyalty. Ruth is not an Israelite, but a Moabite. When her husband dies, his mother begins a journey back to Israel. Ruth accompanies her and gives the famous pledge: "whither thou goest, I will go" (now spoken at marriages but intriguingly originally said to someone's mother-in-law). Ruth is a foreigner, despised in Israel, who nonetheless ends up marrying another Israelite who is able to redeem her property. She is an ambiguous figure because Mosaic law specifically forbids the marrying of foreigners yet Ruth eventually bears more children, one of whom is the grandfather of King David, the ultimate warrior-hero of Israel.

Magdalena called Lena. Ruth's oldest daughter is named for Mary Magdalene, sometimes considered the "first female apostle," certainly considered by everyone a member of Jesus' inner circle. Mary Magdalene became one of his strongest supporters, making it all the way to the cross (something none of the male apostles could manage). In the New Testament, she is the first to find out about the resurrection. Some traditions view her as a repetenant prostitute, but other theologians claims this reading was developed in the 6th century CE to forestall her rising importance among saintly figures. In noncanonical, gnostic gospels, her role is even larger, sometimes the central role among the apostles. After the resurrection, Roman Catholic tradition claims she set sail across the Mediterranean and landed in Provence (nice venue choice) where she worked as a missionary until her death.

First Corinthians. Ruth and Macon Dead's second daughter is named after one of Paul's longest works in the New Testament. The book of Romans is considered his fullest statement of theology; First Corinthians, of church politics, with long passages devoted to questions of church order. His first letter to the church at Corinth is well known for some of his most transcedent passages--the famous "love" chapter, 13: "If I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not love, I am as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal"--as well as some of his most misogynistic passages--"Women should remain silent in all the congregations of the saints." Like most things Pauline, it's a muddle. He engages in some of his close theological reasoning but gets himself knotted up by his own logic. Watch this passage toward the end of First Corinthians: "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection; for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive." If you follow the logic there, Paul is arguing for universalism, that all are saved--if all die in Adam (all humans do die), then all are alive in Christ. Surely this is not what Paul intends. Once again, a muddle.

Note that in Morrison's novel, the women are named after Biblical characters (or mythical characters like Circe). The men have more "physical" names: Milkman, Guitar, and Macon Dead. Indeed, Henry Porter takes First Corinthians' mystical name and makes it more mundane: Corrie.

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