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Citation for Entertainment

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Gruen, Erich S. . " Novella." In The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Nov 29, 2021. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780199254255/obso-9780199254255-div1-118>.


Gruen, Erich S. . " Novella." In The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780199254255/obso-9780199254255-div1-118 (accessed Nov 29, 2021).


Another feature of these texts leaves a corresponding impression: the frequent recourse to wit, humour, and mockery, even self-mockery. The novellas, whatever overt or subliminal messages they may contain, aimed to entertain their readers.

The book of Esther stands out in this regard, its comedic aspects unmistakable (Greenstein 1987; Radday 1990; Whedbee 1998: 171–90; Berlin 2001: pp. xv–xxii). The witless Persian king Ahasuerus prompts ridicule from the start. The pronouncement he issued throughout his realm directing that wives should respect the authority of their husbands and that men be masters in their own homes only gave empire-wide publicity to his personal embarrassment for having failed to control his own wife. The compliant and absent-minded Ahasuerus is subsequently manipulated by his vizier, Haman, forgetful both about those who had benefited him and about his own decisions, leaving matters in the hands of others, taking action on the basis of gross misconceptions, and too dense to realize that he rejoiced in the slaughter of his own loyal Persians. The text is filled with hyperbole and comic exaggeration, like a 180-day banquet for every civil and military official in the land, 127 satrapies, a gallows set 50 cubits in the air, and a full year's cosmetic treatment for contestants who seek the king's hand. Diaspora existence is a source less of humility than of hilarity (Gruen 2002: 137–48).

The misadventures recorded in the book of Tobit create their own share of amusement (Wills 1995: 68–92; McCracken 1995). Tobit's self-righteousness and pomposity engender a bizarre retribution: bird droppings seal his eyes when he takes a nap. And the cure for his blindness carries an analogous whimsicality: the wrestling of a fish to submission, in order to procure its gall, to be smeared on Tobit's eyelids so that they could be peeled off. The parallel tale in this text, that of the luckless Sarah who has lost seven successive bridegrooms through the intervention of a demon prior to the wedding night, communicates an equally comic situation. When the eighth suitor arrives, Sarah's father prepares a grave site in advance to bury the victim before his neighbours notice, only to have this young man survive, thus causing the father to scramble madly and fill in the ditch to avoid even greater humiliation. The author's travesty has Jews themselves as targets (Gruen 2002: 148–58).

The ostensibly terrifying tale in 3 Maccabees, where the Jews of Egypt faced annihilation under thundering herds of elephants, is actually more comedy than tragedy. The buffoonish king Ptolemy reverses his plan to crush Jews three times, either falling into a stupor or suffering from sudden amnesia. And the scheme was once frustrated when scribes, who had been instructed (for no obvious reason) to inscribe the names of all victims, ran out of pen and papyrus. The very idea of inebriated pachyderms as executioners, of course, adds a touch of the absurd. Entertainment of the readership seems a prime ingredient (Gruen 1998: 234–6).

Comic elements exist also in the story of Susanna. The spectacle of the two lechers parting company in the garden and then ignominiously bumping into each other when each had hoped to sneak back unperceived borders on slapstick. So does the scene in which they and Susanna shout at each other at the top of their lungs and one of the elders races frantically to open the garden gate in order to make his fraudulent allegation of a fleeing lover stand up. Events in the courtroom have their own jocular quality, as the bumbling defendants contradict one another's testimony, displaying an ineptitude that mocks their own lofty public status. The outcome of the trial serves less to point a moral than to provide amusement (Gruen 2002: 170–4).

The fragments of Artapanus indicate that his re-creation of the exodus story indulged in some humour as well. He assigns to Moses the authorship of a host of Egyptian institutions, including division of the state into nomes, the use of hieroglyphics, hydraulic and building devices, even the apportioning of divinities, and, most strikingly, animal worship itself. He exploits Hellenic, Near Eastern, and Egyptian legends to link Moses to Hermes, Mousaios, Sesostris, or Thot. And he has Moses teach circumcision to the Ethiopians, prompt the consecration of Apis, escape prison when the doors flew open, and cause Pharaoh to keel over in a dead faint. Artapanus's capricious transformation of familiar traditions must have brought pleasure to his readers (Tiede 1972: 146–77; Gruen 1998: 155–60; 2002: 201–11).

The Testament of Abraham is comedy throughout. Abraham emerges as master manipulator, exploiting his advantages with the divine, and prolonging his mortal existence again and again through a range of delaying tactics. The author pokes fun at the feckless archangel Michael, who shoots back and forth between heaven and earth unable to sway Abraham and repeatedly seeking new instructions, while confused about his own blend of human and angelic traits. And he indulges in further sport by having the figure of Death engage Abraham in a topsy-turvy game of dialogue, disguise, and reversal. The wit eclipses any weighty messages that might be found in the text (Wills 1995: 249–56; Gruen 2002: 183–93; Ludlow 2002: 28–47).

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