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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Esther, Judith, and Tobit

Before constructing a detailed time line of events and personalities that lead up to the decisive events associated with Antiochus IV and Judah Maccabee, we turn again to the question of written sources and in particular to three biblical books generally understood to originate in and reflect conditions of the Hellenistic period. These three books, listed in order of their familiarity among the general public rather than in chronological order of composition (which is extremely difficult to determine), are Esther, Judith, and Tobit. For modern Protestants and Jews, the designation of at least the last two of these works as biblical may seem puzzling, since they are not among the canonical literature for those communities. But just as all three of these works are authoritative in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities today, they were also highly regarded in many, if not most, Jewish communities during the period under discussion.

Prior to a brief examination of each of these works as individual entities, we should discuss their genre. At least in their finished form, these books are Jewish novels, much like the book of Daniel, to be discussed below. As such, their authors or compilers were not intent on relating actual events of the past, nor did they expect their audience to understand these works as historical. On the one hand, this characterization has a negative result: we do not make use of novels to fill in details of historical narrative or flesh out the meager evidence of historical documents from the ancient world. There was no Queen Esther, the heroine Judith did not live, the exciting adventures associated with Tobit and his family did not occur. On the other hand, we may ask different but equally valid and valuable questions: Who composed these works? What were their purposes and how well did they achieve them? Who was the audience for these works, and how do they (audience and work alike) compare to similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman world? Answering these questions gives us enormous insight into the lives of real people, especially in the Diaspora, even if their names and the particularities of their lives remain beyond our grasp.

By and large, these works address the question of how a Jew (understood here primarily in terms of his or her adherence to the monotheistic faith of Israel) should live, especially when faced with a seemingly endless array of attractions offered by society at large. In the case of Esther, a Jewish queen in the Persian empire, she must put aside concerns for personal safety to safeguard the continued communal existence of her people. Judith must likewise place complete trust in God and risk her very life to overcome the danger posed by an enemy general. Tobit must continue to do what he knows is correct, including burying the dead and maintaining other ritual requirements, even though his only rewards for his good deeds are anguish and animosity. Although these works are fictional, we ought not thereby to regard them as addressing issues of no importance for their audience. Jews of this period would have identified with these stories' heroes and heroines and would have identified within their own context individuals as villainous as, say, Haman or Holofernes (from Esther and Judith, respectively). And it would not have taken the threat of extinction by decree or military engagement for Jews to recognize that their own circumstances were dramatically mirrored in these novels.

The dramatic nature of these literary works is one of the keys to their genre. They are filled with clever reversals of fortune on a personal and grand scale; they delve deeply into personal motivation and character development (something largely absent in other biblical material; adding such developments is a major goal of several of the Greek additions to the earlier Hebrew story of Esther), and they are filled with delightful irony of the sort we often seek, but seldom find, in real life. In short, they are literary masterpieces, aimed at a wide audience. Some of the special appeal for this audience can be detected in the elevated and central role played by women. The books of Esther and Judith take their names from heroic females, but even in the book of Tobit women play decisive and independent parts in the narrative flow. Readers are given an opportunity, unparalleled in other biblical literature, to enter into the often anguished minds of the protagonists, from whom they learn that all Jews, being underdogs (for it was not just Jewish females who labored in disadvantaged circumstances), needed to take a stand and that each instance of danger needed to be faced decisively. Ultimate success would come in no other way.

Another characteristic shared by these novels (and the book of Daniel as well) relates specifically to their historicity. They contain what appear to be historical notices that contradict the historical record preserved elsewhere. So, for example, we know of no Jewish queen in Persia, the forces said to have massed against Judith's hometown come from different periods, and Daniel is replete both with otherwise unknown—and impossible—personages and with a collapsed or convoluted chronological framework. Although some fundamentalists have sought to expand or correct the generally accepted historical record on the basis of their interpretation of these “historical” details, such efforts must be judged misguided when we realize that their authors were not writing history. They were aware that these things never happened and that these individuals never lived, and their audience had the same knowledge. The overall effect was one of irony, and it added both to their readers' enjoyment and to their enlightenment in terms of moral and theological instruction.

This is not to say that the authors of these works lacked any knowledge of the societies or cultures they were describing. Quite the contrary, they are masterful in their ability to evoke a general sense of court life or travel-adventure or military preparations. But their primary goal in such descriptions was to lay the scene for the novels' actions, not to prepare a backdrop for a historical account. The genre thus entails limitations as well as possibilities.

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