Symbolism and rhetoric

February 4th, 2008 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

Many people pointed last week to Obama’s victory speech in South Carolina, calling it inspiring and uplifting. At first glance I saw it as well executed, but perhaps lacking in substance in areas I would like to have addressed, but as I listened closer, particularly to the latter sections, I became more enamoured with it.There was one part, however, that caught my attention in an unusual way:

I think of that elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day, a money order for three dollars and one cent, along with a verse of scripture tucked inside the envelope. So don’t tell me change isn’t possible. That woman knows that change is possible. 

Rachel Sklar calls it “an inspiring image” – which is undoubtedly true – and recognizes that it is a clever, well constructed, piece of oratory, drawing on so many sympathetic themes.When I heard it – and again when I heard it a second, and then a third, time – I thought “what book of the Bible has a relevant Chapter 3, Verse 1”? Mentioning that a verse was tucked in with the money order was the kicker, but $3.01 is unusual enough that I suspect symbolism in the very amount. Two questions arise – was Obama aware of the symbolism (and did he intend to telegraph it ‘to those who have ears to hear’); and what exactly is the symbolism.So today I went through an online Bible, looking for verses that might fit. And wow, were there verses. The problem is that so much of the rhetoric could be made to fit, even if in cases it would strain. There are a few verses, however, that stand out: 

  •  Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good (Titus)
  • Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. (1 Timothy)
  • Woe to the city of blood,full of lies,full of plunder,never without victims! (Nahum)
  • Woe to the city of oppressors,rebellious and defiled! (Zephaniah)
  • There is a time for everything,and a season for every activity under heaven: (Ecclesiastes)
  • My son, do not forget my teaching,but keep my commands in your heart, (Proverbs)

And this, of course, is but a small selection – I’ve omitted the ends of days references, or oblique references to marriage and offerings. Any of these could well be the verse included – the first two as commendations on the decision to run, the middle two as comments on changes needed in DC, and the last as an admonition to follow a righteous path. If I had to choose, I’d guess it’s probably Ecclesiastes (quoting from ‘to everything there is a season’ asa  complement to Obama’s call for ‘change’ and claim that ‘Yes We Can’) or Timothy (commending Obama for seeking leadership). Of course, if it’s Timothy, one would expect other candidates to get similar donations as, in seeking office, each are doing the same as Obama, and it would be easy to puncture Obama’s rhetoric by showing that to be the case.Thus, I’m going to guess it’s the verse from Ecclesiastes. Just guesswork, of course, and I welcome alternative theories. Also – has anyone seen any other commentary on the bible verse? It is, of course, a minor aspect of the speech, and but a footnote in the race, but I was surprised not to see any commentary myself that even nodded in the direction of the $3.01 being a coded reference.  

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