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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Messages

Jewish novellas are not pure entertainment. They regularly deliver religious or moral messages. Judith and Daniel exemplify piety and trust in the Lord, who elevates them above their peers and grants them success against foes. Job's devoutness in the Testament of Job eclipses the doubts and defiance that characterize the canonical Job. Tobit maintains faith in adversity and adheres to the teachings of his fathers. Aseneth's sincere and intense turn to the god of Joseph converts her from an arrogant and aloof idolator to a devoted wife and warm-hearted figure. But these features can also be tempered by developments that compromise the principles and modify the virtues of the principals. Judith gains her ends by guile and wiles as well as by divine aid. Tobit's piety amounts to pompous sanctimoniousness. Abraham in the Testament of Abraham engages in craft and cunning to side-step God and cheat death. In other texts, the divine aspect is subordinate or missing, and the moral element is suspect. The Tobiads depend on shrewdness and calculation to gain the favour of Hellenistic monarchs and entrench their own power. Susanna's promenades in the garden roused (perhaps not innocently) the passions of the lechers. God makes no appearance in the book of Esther. And the rescue of Jews by Esther and Mordecai results in a massacre of Gentiles at Jewish hands. The messages are mixed.

The novellas are notable for the placement of women as central figures in a number of the narratives. They outstrip men in courage, virtue, or accomplishment. They drive the plot, or it pivots about them. In a society where women's privileges were circumscribed and their status subordinated to that of husbands or fathers, there was little opportunity to exercise leadership or achieve positions of authority. Yet women like Judith, Esther, Aseneth, and Susanna hold centre stage in the tales in which they appear. Does the depiction of memorable heroines represent a critique of gender hierarchy, a subversive treatment of societal norms (cf. La Cocque 1990: 71–2; Pervo 1991)?

The narratives themselves are, in fact, more subtle and nuanced. The dynamic Judith serves as a vehicle to denounce the inadequacies of community leaders rather than as a representative of female emancipation (for feminist readings of the text, see Milne 1993; Otzen 2002: 114–18). Judith's exploits, far from overturning the traditional structure, restore to it a stability, order, and relationship to the divine that its timid elders had allowed to collapse. Judith herself then retires to her estate, maintains her widowhood, and chooses to be buried, many decades later, in the tomb of her husband. In effect, she reverted voluntarily, in the last two-thirds of her life, to the position of marginality that she had occupied before.

The figure of Esther upsets certain stereotypes, but reinforces others. She entered the corridors of power, as queen to the Persian ruler, played a principal role in causing the downfall of the villain Haman, reversing the royal decree of genocide for the Jews, and gaining authorization for the slaying of their own enemies. But Esther does not stray far beyond the conventional boundaries. For much of the novella she takes instructions from her male cousin, Mordecai, who directs her behaviour and actions. And, even after she acts in her own right, she resorts to tears and pleas, conventional womanly tactics, to win the favour of Ahasuerus for her people. In the end it is Mordecai who acquires the property of Haman and the signet ring of the king, thus to be his right-hand man, clad in royal purple and a golden crown, while Esther disappears from the scene (to return to the harem?). Here again the traditional order is reinforced. Esther never usurps the role occupied by ascendant males (Wyler 1995; Laniak 1998: 164–5; but see White 1989; Fox 1991: 196–211).

Aseneth is a still more complex character (cf. Humphrey 2000: 64–79). Her arrogance, disdain, disobedience of her parents, and virginal superiority represent all that male Jews found threatening and repugnant in women. With the arrival of Joseph, however, Aseneth's hard exterior, cockiness, and contemptuousness vanish. She becomes subservient and self-abasing. She humbly welcomes her marriage, accepting her role as handmaiden to her bridegroom. Aseneth's former assertiveness could be undone only by degradation. Joseph and Aseneth reaffirms the suitable demeanour of women: deference to parents and submissiveness to husbands.

Susanna is virtue itself from the outset of her tale: a prim, modest, faithful matron, properly brought up by her parents in the law of Moses. Her very innocence, however, renders her vulnerable to the wicked elders, who present her with a fateful choice. Susanna chooses the lesser evil: an unfair trial rather than the loss of her virtue. The decision only underscores her helplessness. She suffers further humiliation at the trial, even stripped naked in public mortification. The rescue comes, to be sure, as do the reversal of judgement and vindication of the matron. But not through any action of her own. The heroine of the tale is hardly heroic. Susanna lacks the weight to resist the mighty, and lets her fate be decided by others. At the conclusion, she returns meekly to the household of her husband (Glancy 1995; Levine 1995; Sered and Cooper 1996). Women figured prominently in these fictional compositions. But the inventive constructs of fertile writers largely reasserted the values of their society and the place of women within it.

A number of the novellas depict Jews abroad, the setting of the Diaspora. The location is not accidental. For many scholars these works constitute ‘diaspora novels’, composed to comfort, reconcile, encourage, or entertain Jews dwelling in alien circumstances and under Gentile governance (Humphreys 1973; Fox 1991: 145–8; Beal 1997: 119–22; Berlin 2001: pp. xxxiv–xxxvi).

The ‘court tales’ would seem to fit this description (Wills 1990). The vignettes (hardly even novellas) in Daniel 1–6 portray the Israelite wise man at the court of successive Near Eastern monarchs, gaining the confidence of the Gentile king, acquiring a position of authority, and overcoming the machinations of enemies in the royal entourage (Wills 1995: 40–52; Johnson 2004: 20–5). The devout interpreter of dreams demonstrates again and again the power and foresight of his God, whose supremacy is ultimately acknowledged by the rulers themselves. The tales portray conflict within the inner circles, but accept the authority of alien rule, stressing collaboration between the Israelite courtiers and Gentile kings. The sympathetic portrayal even of Nebuchadnezzar underscores the point. Comparable messages issue from the book of Esther (cf. White 1989; Klein 1995; Levenson 1997: 14–17; Johnson 2004: 16–20). The Jewish queen and Mordecai thwart the wicked schemes of the Grand Vizier through access to the Persian ruler, manipulating the monarch, establishing their own authority, and winning royal favour for their people. Similarly, the Tales of the Tobiads represent Jewish leaders who ingratiated themselves with the Ptolemaic dynasty, rose to positions of high prominence in the realm, and emphasized collaboration between the crown and its Jewish subjects. The Tobiads gained their ends through their wits and resourcefulness, earning ascendancy by manoeuvring the pliant king and outsmarting his advisors. The motifs can be traced to the biblical version of Joseph in Egypt (Gera 1990; Johnson 2004: 76–93). Jews presented themselves as loyal subjects of the Gentile ruler, and thus prosperous and successful in the Diaspora.

Even the narrative of 3 Maccabees, though it portrays a madcap monarch who nearly annihilates the Jews of Alexandria by loosing drugged elephants upon them, produces a parallel conclusion. Ptolemy's plans are blocked by the angels of the Lord, the elephants trample his own troops, and the newly enlightened king turns on his courtiers and proclaims the power of YHWH. The text underlines throughout the consistent allegiance of the Jews to Hellenistic authority and, in return, the obeisance of the king to the majesty of God, thus recognizing the special place of Jewish worship within the kingdom. Similar implications may be found in Joseph and Aseneth. The initial confrontation of the two principals suggests a rigorous separation of Hebrews and Egyptians, a stark dichotomy between the faithful and the idolators. But the plot softens and overcomes the conflict. The wedding of Joseph and Aseneth takes place under the auspices of Pharaoh (who does not need to convert). The enemies of the faithful were forgiven, harmony and reconciliation followed. All the narratives place their stress on concord rather than antagonism.

Tobit and Susanna also set their narratives in the Diaspora. Tobit dwells in Nineveh, in the heartland of the Assyrian empire, where Israelites have been deported, and Susanna finds herself in Babylon, evidently as part of the Jewish community in the ‘Babylonian exile’. Tobit suffered external misfortunes and domestic discord, and Susanna faced the prospect of unjust disgrace and death. Yet, in so far as the tales have a bearing on Jewish life in the Diaspora, they certainly do not paint an unrelievedly dismal picture. Tobit experiences some rough times, but even in the darkest days he has money stashed away, relatives galore, and friends and family who can move without hindrance through the Assyrian empire. The text celebrates the maintenance of Jewish identity in a Diaspora context, but Tobit's final prayer also offers a broader vision that encompasses Jew and Gentile alike. The Babylonian Jews in the tale of Susanna constitute a self-sustained community. They seem unencumbered by exile status or anxiety about external oppression. Indeed, no Gentiles enter the story. The Jews have their own leadership and populace, their own officialdom, their own élite, and their own institutions. The household of Susanna, moreover, enjoys particular esteem within that community. The flaws and lapses belong to the Jews alone, not a consequence of oppression by Gentile overlords. In short, if the novellas reflect conditions of the Diaspora, they temper any notion of anxiety or hazard with a sense of accomplishment and self-assurance.

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