The Elijah-Elisha cycle of stories: a ring composition
Bellamy, Michelle L.
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Ring composition is a literary form found throughout the ancient world. In it, a series of elements advances, one after the other, until it reaches a center point, whereupon the sequence is reversed and returns to its beginning in inverted order. Hence, the first element is paired with the last, the second with the second to the last, and so on, with the second half of the ring a mirror image of the first half. Although ring compositions occur throughout the ancient world, the practice of writing in rings fell out of literary fashion and faded from collective memory. Later readers, unfamiliar with its conventions, found ring compositions difficult to recognize, leading to misinterpretations of numerous ancient texts. Such confusion is evident with the Elijah-Elisha cycle of stories in 1 Kgs 16:23--2 Kgs 13:25. Biblical scholars have routinely maligned these stories as a nonsensical jumble of prophetic tales. This dissertation demonstrates that the stories are not disorganized. Rather, they have been redacted in the formal structure of a ring composition with six rungs. The dissertation follows the lead of the late Mary Douglas, who brought new insights to bear on the problems inherent in identifying and interpreting ancient ring compositions--most critically, in helping to establish what constitutes a parallel correspondence. When we recognize the chiastic structure of the Elijah-Elisha cycle of stories, we discover a carefully crafted work of propaganda that promotes the religious, political, and social reforms of King Josiah of Judah (7th century BCE). These tales had their origins in the traditions of northern Israel, but they were later appropriated and recontextualized by a Judean redactor. Retold, transformed, and arranged in the form of a ring composition, the stories of Elijah and Elisha were employed to build northern support for a neo-Davidic kingdom ruled from Jerusalem. Championing the rallying cry of holy war, Josiah and his party sought to reunite the divided kingdom by capitalizing on the misfortunes of the Assyrian Empire. Under the leadership of Josiah, the chariots and horses of fire--the heavenly army of YHWH--would once again battle for Israel.