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Sophocles–Oedipus Rex

sophoclesYesterday, as I taught Oedipus Rex (or Oedipus the King) in my World Literature class at a decidedly religious school, I encountered a number of students who expressed roughly the same opinion to me. “Why are we reading this sick story?” I asked these students why they considered the story of Oedipus, freed from the nonsense that Freud attempted to burden it with, to be sick. They pointed to the very twisted behavior–unintentional though most of it was–shown by the characters.

After agreeing with the class that Oedipus has a rather dysfunctional family, I enumerated some of their failings.

  • Laius attempted the abandonment/murder of his son.
  • Oedipus killed his father, although not intentionally.
  • Oedipus married his mother, although unknowingly.
  • That’s about it for this play.

I then turned to the class and asked, “Have you not read Genesis?” We created a bit of a list there.

  • Abraham disavows his marriage to Sarah who is being pursued by Pharoah.
  • Isaac does the same thing with Rebecca.
  • Abraham impregnates Hagar, a servant, with Sarah’s apparent blessing.
  • Abraham disowns the son of that union.
  • Lot and his daughters . . . we don’t even need to discuss that!

Obviously, without getting much beyond Abraham, we can find some pretty questionable and intentional actions. That doesn’t even get us into Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Judah and Tamar, and other stories from the patriarchs. So what makes Genesis acceptable and Oedipus “sick”?

Frankly, I don’t accept that this play is sick. It reflects humanity, and humanity is sick. It’s not as if Sophocles’ characters revel in their immorality. They are either unaware of their immorality–as in the case of the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta–or they believe themselves to be justified–as in Oedipus’ killing Laius in self defense. Not only do they not revel in evil, but they are not rewarded for evil. Bad things happen to people who do evil in Sophocles’ world. Ignorance of the law (or even the offense) is no excuse.

What strikes me most about this play and separates it in quality from Genesis is the absence of hope. When Fate has turned against a character in Sophocles’ hand, that character can hope for no redemption, no grace.

Returning to Abraham for a moment, despite the great man’s failings, God continues to bless him. God continues to work through this flawed person. Despite the lack of faith–both in God and in their marital relations– displayed in the first three items above, God continued to develop the promise of redemption through the descendants of Abraham.

As troubling as we find the Lot’s daughters’ story to be–and you know you’ll never teach that one in a children’s Sunday School class–God even prospered the offspring of those acts and built up nations from them. In short, the Holy God of Genesis is mighty enough to turn unholiness into some measure of blessing.

I find the story of Oedipus to be powerful and Sophocles’ treatment of it to be spell-binding. Sick? Perhaps, but I believe that it is when we confront our sickness that we best appreciate the potential healing of the Great Physician.

Posted in Classical Literature.

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