Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More Biblical Homoeroticism: The Prophet Elisha and his Resurrection of a boy/youth

The Story of David and Jonathan from the Bible is fascinating and inspiring, especially as it mirrors my own notion of the valor and heroism of gay relationships - two warrior heroes, who fall in love with each other.

But it's interesting to note that often times we look at history - especially hidden history - as a way to buttress up our current concepts of what is "right" and "good." Much of the Bitchin' Queer Quotes and Poems I've selected for this blog so far I chose because they're fascinating and they make me feel that being gay is NOT such an anomaly in our world - that there IS precedent and that there is, in fact, a long, proud tradition of same-sex love that we inherit upon learning about it.

The flip side of uncovering hidden history is that there are going to be things that are historical that don't exactly feel "good" to us today.

Ancient Greece had a history of cross-generational eroticism and relationships between men and boys (youths) that might seem to be fodder for today's religious right's accusations of equating homosexuality with pederasty.

But to ignore the uncomfortable historical facts makes our view of history's spectrum of sexuality as limited as the heterosexist historians who eliminated positive same-sex references in the first place.

Having said this, check out this fascinating bit from "Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel" by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. It's about the prophet Elisha and how he brought back from the dead a child/boy/youth:

Before we come to the actual resuscitation, Elisha sends his servant Gehazi to the boy with his staff, which is to be laid upon the boy. Despite the haste with which Gehazi complies with the strange orders of the prophet, the use of the staff as a substitute for the body (?) of the prophet does not meet with success. But Elisha is already on his way in person at the insistence of the Shunammite woman:

When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and closed the door on the two of them [Gehazi and the mother], and prayed to the LORD. Then he got up...and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm. He got down, walked once to and fro in the room, then got up again and bent over him; the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. (4:32-35)

...This later story fairly bristles with a barely suppressed eroticism. There is the staff as a possible phallic signifier, whose ineffectiveness seems to call out for the "real thing." The intimacy of lying on the boy (mouth to mouth, eye to eye, hand to hand) is underlined with the addition of the sexually charged verb, "bent over him." We notice the warming of the boy's flesh and, oddly, that the boy "sneezed" and did so seven times. What is going on here? We may take these elements in turn.

To what extent should we read the "staff" as a phallic substitute? If this is a phallic substitute, then the report that it does not work even when laid on the face (or front) of the child suggests that this resuscitation may only be done in person with the real body of the prophet. This would be the body with a real as opposed to a virtual phallic member attached.

The English translation seeks to soften the action by inserting "on the bed" when Elisha gets up on the boy and lies on him and bends over him. The triple underlining of the action of Elisha only makes more emphatic the quasi-sexual nature of this lying upon the boy that had been expressed in the earlier account (concerning Elijah) as "stretching" upon him. The triple verb is accompanied by the triple designation of body parts in proximity: mouth to mouth, eye to eye, hand to hand.

In this narrative the erotic character of Elisha's action is answered by the response of the lad. After the first intimate action in Elisha's bed, we are told that the lad's flesh becomes warm. At first this may seem an innocent if puzzling detail - until we recall an episode from another story, this time from the last days of David. The king's diminishing potency has alarmed his advisors, and they select and send a beautiful young Shunammite girl, Abishag, to lie in the king's "bosom" in order to warm him (1Kgs 1:1-4). And we recall that in the story of Elisha, we are in the home of a Shunammite woman. But now it is a boy in bed, and it is his body that is being made warm by the man who lies upon him. In each case the warming of the body by bodily proximity seems to aim at sexual arousal as the sign of bodily vitality. Unfortunately for David, Abishag is not as successful as Elijah. [or Elisha.]

But Elisha is not yet finished with the boy. He gets up and walks to and fro. Thus refreshed, he rises up upon the boy in bed again. And this time the boy not only responds with the warming of his flesh but also "sneezes" and does so not once but an astonishing seven times. Why is sneezing here the sign of new life? And why are we told that he does so seven times? The commentators regularly assert that this sneezing is a sign that the boy is breathing. But there would scarcely be any need to make use of a word that does not otherwise occur in Hebrew to signify breathing.*

*The word occurs in biblical Hebrew only in this passage. One wonders how the translators decided on "sneezing" as its translation.

There are other ways to say this; for example, the way it is said in the story in which Elijah has restored the boy. Sneezing is after all not associated with life but with a sort of convulsion more like death. But sneezing is like another act - the act of ejaculation. That is why we get the otherwise inexplicable "seven times." Sneezing seven times is not a good sign of vitality. But ejaculating seven times is a sign of rather extraordinary vitality.

On this reading, what has happened here? Elisha's act of getting upon the boy, lying on him, and bending over him is an action of sexual arousal, whose success is represented not only by erection (getting warm or even "hot") but also by multiple ejaculation. The boy near death or already dead has become a sexually potent young male through being sexually awakened by Elisha.

WOW. Now THAT's fascinating - and with Easter coming up, it adds a lot of texture and interest to the notion of resurrection - or perhaps I should use Theodore's pun: (res) Erection!



The quotes above are from pages 102-104

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