Thursday, June 2, 2011

O father, my father


This tombstone from a colonial cemetery in Boston has interested me more than all others. The barely legible inscription reads:


I think it unlikely I shall discover the identity of W.P., but since Boston was founded in 1630, he must have been in the first or second generation of English settlers in Massachusetts. (It's difficult for many folks to understand there were things that went on in America between 1492 and 1776, but poking around Boston gives you a certain cognitive edge.)

The inscription puzzled me for years -- obviously a verse from the Old Testament, but from where, and what was the context? Not until Google was invented in the late 90's was I able to find the correct citation in 2 Kings 13:14:

Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness whereof  he died. And Joash the king of Israel came down unto him and wept over his face, and said, O my father, my father, the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof (KJV).

What was this all about? Several Bible commentaries I looked at are hardly in agreement, but the idea seems to be that when Joash the king of Israel learned that the prophet Elisha was dying, he appeared and had some kind of  future vision, or perhaps past memory, of Israel's military victories.

A bit later the chronicle continues:

20 Elisha died, and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites would invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet (New American Standard Bible).

OK so now maybe we have a Jewish, pre-Christian resurrection parable on our hands? Is this why these words, more than 2000 years old, are inscribed on a colonial gravestone in Boston? Or is it rather that W.P. enjoyed a successful career as a belligerent or a military hero of some sort?

What an appropriate mystery for 17th century Boston, cloaked in patriarchal imagery and advertising itself as the city set upon the hill* to be approved by all, like Gilgamesh looking out from the walls of Ur.

The motto on the seal of the City of Boston is from 1 Kings 8:57 and is no less patriarchal: Sicut patribus sit Deus nobis -- "The LORD our God be with us, as he was with our fathers."

* John Winthrop, 1630, "...for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us." See also my paper Political Themes in the Reformation of John Calvin.


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