The Ancient Jewish Short Story
Course: Introduction to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible
Syllabus Section / Lecture: Writings/The Ancient Jewish Short Story
This lesson plan examines a group of texts that can be collectively referred to as "ancient Jewish short stories," in particular, Ruth, Susanna, Esther, Judith, and Tobit. Found in the Hebrew Bible or Apocrypha, these texts have often been hard to classify according to typical biblical categories, which has made them difficult to incorporate into a traditional Introduction to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible course. When compared to each other, however, they exhibit certain shared tendencies, such as their lack of historical precision, their heightened focus on otherwise marginal figures in society (such as women and slaves), and most importantly their function as entertaining narratives. This suggests that these texts form a fairly distinct unit of material that, when added to a course on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, can provide students an additional lens by which to examine the more standard books of the Bible and suggest an alternative function that other biblical texts themselves might have had, namely, as an ancient form of entertainment.
After completing this lesson plan, students will be able to:
- 1. discuss the problems in classifying texts as "ancient Jewish short stories."
- 2. identify the typical features of an ancient Jewish short story and the texts that exhibit them.
- 3. speculate about how the features of these narratives (esp. their portrayal of women) illuminate the concerns of the groups who composed and read these texts.
I. How to use this lesson plan
The lesson plan presented here is designed for a lecture-based, introductory undergraduate course on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. In preparation for class, the students should read the "background readings" listed below, all of which are included on the OBSO website. These readings are of two sorts. The first five are by Erich Gruen and come from the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Focusing on the genre of the "novella," they effectively introduce students to nature of ancient Jewish short stories, their function(s) in the ancient world, and their presumed audience. The last two readings provide two examples of ancient Jewish short stories, the book of Ruth and the story of Susanna. Both provide brief, illustrative examples of the ancient Jewish short story that make them ideal for class discussion.
Following the list of "background readings" is a sample PowerPoint presentation designed to aid the instructor as he or she prepares the lecture. The instructor is encouraged to modify it to fit the needs and context of his or her specific class. Several of the slides include links to additional OBSO resources. The instructor is encouraged to incorporate these links into the class lecture as time permits (see the individual slides below for suggestions on how to do so). Each slide is also accompanied by a brief description of the slide's topic, and many include a short list of supplementary OBSO resources. These supplementary resources have been selected to provide further background or information of interest for the instructor. The instructor is encouraged to assign any of these supplementary essays to the students that he or she feels would be of benefit. Each slide also includes an "Interactive Activity," a set of questions or an activity that can be used to spark classroom discussion and encourage active learning. Instructors are encouraged to choose the combination of these that best fits the context, needs, and time constraints of his or her class. Instructors may also use the "Essay Prompts" listed at the end of the lesson plan to encourage further learning.
This lesson plan can be modified in a variety of ways, depending upon the level of the students and the goals of the course. The following are a few suggestions:
Option A (an advanced high school "Introduction to the Old Testament" or "Bible as Literature" course)
Break the class into four groups. Assign each group a different biblical or apocryphal text(s): Ruth & Susanna, Esther, Judith, or Tobit. In preparation for class, ask students to read the "background readings" included below and their assigned biblical or apocryphal text(s). Prior to coming to class, ask students to prepare a short written report on their assigned text. In this report, they should be able to briefly summarize the main plot of the narrative, key characters, and major themes. In class, students should use their preparation to discuss what the major features of an ancient short story are, how ancient short stories differ from modern ones, and what function they served in antiquity.
Option B (an on-line undergraduate "Introduction to Old Testament/Hebrew Bible" course)
In an on-line course, instructors should post the list of "background readings" and the PowerPoint presentation, with the accompanying descriptions and supplementary OBSO essays [Before posting, be sure to delete the "Interactive Activities" and "Instructor Notes" that are included throughout the lesson plan]. The PowerPoint and "background readings" can serve as the primary reading for the course. The students should be encouraged to follow the hyperlinks in the descriptions and the supplementary essays for additional background information. For an on-line course that includes a writing component, instructors might select one or two of the "Interactive Activities" for students to reflect upon or choose one of the "Essay Prompts" listed at the end of the lesson plan.
Option C (a traditional, semester long seminary "Introduction to the Old Testament" course)
Instructors may wish to follow the lesson plan detailed here, but require students to read additional selections from the primary texts (e.g., Esther or Judith) and some of the supplementary essays listed in the lesson plan. In particular, instructors may wish to assign the article on Esther, Judith, and Tobit from the Oxford History of the Biblical World for preparation.
Option D (an undergraduate seminar on the book of Acts)
The book of Acts has often been considered an example of an early Christian novel and shares many features with ancient Jewish short stories. For a semester-long course on Acts, the instructor may wish to assign the "background readings" and the PowerPoint presentation itself, with its accompanying descriptions, as background reading for a unit on the possible genre(s) of Acts (see the Lesson Plan: "The Life and Times of the Apostles" by Timothy P. Gannon for additional suggestions on teaching the book of Acts).
II. Background Readings
- 1. Novella: Definitions (Erich Gruen, The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies)
- 2. Novella: Varieties (Erich Gruen, The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies)
- 3. Novella: Messages (Erich Gruen, The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies)
- 4. Novella: Entertainment (Erich Gruen, The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies)
- 5. Novella: Audience (Erich Gruen, The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies)
- 6. Primary Reading: The Book of Ruth (chapters 1–4)
- 7. Primary Reading: Susanna
III. PowerPoint Presentation
The ancient Israelites and early Jews were fond of telling stories. In Genesis, for instance, we find many stories of men and women who struggled to find their way in the world, follow God, and provide for their families. Story-telling, in fact, became an art form, such that by the beginning of the Hellenistic period, many texts had been composed whose primary function was to tell an entertaining story. This lecture examines several of these texts—Ruth, Susanna, Esther, Judith, and Tobit. Although the themes, dating, and messages of these texts vary, they exhibit such similar tendencies that they can collectively be called "ancient Jewish short stories."
- 1. Choose a modern short story that the class will be familiar with. You may need to assign it as required preparation. Before introducing the lecture, ask students to describe the main features of the modern short story. Ask: What makes the modern short story a "short story"? List the main features on the board. As you proceed through the lecture, compare this list of features to the features of the ancient short story. How is the ancient short story similar to the modern short story? How are they different?
As with many of the books of the Bible, it is difficult to classify these texts according to any one genre. As Gruen notes, the ancients did not have a single term that adequately expressed the diversity that these texts reflect. For this reason, modern scholars have proposed a range of genres for each individual text—some of them ancient, some modern. Ruth, due to its current placement within the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, could be considered a history, but it is also an entertaining narrative. Judith has been classified a historical fiction or a romance, while the narratives of Daniel 1–6 have been called folktales, court tales, or diaspora stories.
As a group, these texts have acquired an additional classification, being labeled alternatively short stories, novellas, or novels. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they each classify these texts according to the length of the narrative. Short stories are short; novels extend beyond a single episode; and novellas fall somewhere in between. Thus, Ruth is technically a short story; Esther is either a novella or a novel, and the story of Susanna could be a short story, a novella, or an episode in a novel.
Ultimately, each of these terms has a fatal flaw; they are all modern categories. The ancient Israelites and Jews did not have a term equivalent to short story, novella, or novel and, as Gruen notes, probably did not consciously compose their texts to fit any one of these characterizations. While we can choose a term that best fits our heuristic needs, we must remember that any term we choose will ultimately be anachronistic.
That said, in order to discuss these texts, it is useful to have a basic definition in mind. There are several viable possibilities:
Short story (Lawrence Wills): Wills defines a shorty story as a piece of "narrative fiction that investigates . . . a carefully circumscribed dramatic universe" (The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World, 7). Although Wills dismisses this as a "modern experiment" restricted to a few pages and prefers the term "novel" (see below), the definition for "short story" that he provides aptly describes many of the texts under discussion here.
Novella (Gruen): If a modern novella is an appropriate comparison, then we might follow Gruen by defining these texts as a "prose fiction narrating the experience of individuals or groups, composed for entertainment but also communicating values, ideas, or guidance" ("Novella: Definitions," Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies).
Novel (Lawrence Wills): Based on a comparison with ancient Greek romances, Wills defines these texts as "written popular narrative fiction, expanded significantly beyond a single episode, which focuses on character and virtue" (Ancient Jewish Novels: An Anthology, 5).
Since these definitions each focus on length, none will be truly satisfactory as a way to describe all of the texts under discussion today. However, since the texts we will be discussing here are drawn primarily from the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, all of which are relatively short and fit fairly well Wills' description of the short story, we shall refer to these texts here as ancient Jewish short stories and define them as "a piece of self-contained narrative fiction that investigates a carefully circumscribed dramatic universe" (Note the modification from Will's definition to include the adjective "self-contained," which distinguishes these stories from narratives found in, for example, 1–2 Kings, which are part of a larger historical cycle). However, as Wills notes, over time, this material tended to become longer and exhibit more "novelistic" tendencies. The Susanna narrative, for instance, probably originated as an independent short story. It was later incorporated, however, with the Daniel traditions, and the book in its Greek form could be considered an ancient novel. It is thus important to keep all of these categories in mind as we continue and constantly question whether the terms we chose adequately describe this material.
Instructor Note: As the instructor, you may wish to choose a different definition or provide your own definition for students to memorize. If so, replace the definition provided in the PowerPoint with the one you have chosen for your students.
- 1. Instead of giving students a pre-made definition on the PowerPoint, break students up into pairs or small groups and ask them to come up with their own definition of the "ancient short story." After each group has developed a definition, come back together as a whole class and discuss the merits of each definition. Then, as a class, choose one definition that the class will be used for the duration of the course.
3 Maccabees, Language and Genre, The Plot, and Purpose (The Oxford Bible Commentary)
Joseph and Aseneth: Introduction (The Apocryphal Old Testament)
The Testament of Abraham: Introduction (The Apocryphal Old Testament)
The Testament of Job: Introduction (The Apocryphal Old Testament)
Jonah and Genre: Form Criticism (How to Read the Bible)
Depending upon the definition one uses for this literature, the list of examples may be fairly broad or extremely narrow. Gruen's definition of the novella only includes those texts from the second century BCE to first century CE, which excludes Ruth but includes the "religious fables" of Daniel, the story of Susanna, 3 Maccabees, and Joseph and Aseneth. Wills' choice of novel limits his discussion to Greek Esther, Greek Daniel, Tobit, Judith, and Joseph and Aseneth, although he also discusses those texts that exhibit "novelistic tendencies" (e.g., Testament of Joseph, Testament of Job). If we use the "short story" definition above, we could develop a fairly broad list of texts and also include such texts as the Joseph novella of Genesis and the book of Jonah, each of which could also be read as short stories.
Of course, it is not important to identify every possible representative example of these texts or memorize a list of what counts as an ancient Jewish short story. However, having a basic list in mind can help us identify some of the key features of these texts.
- 1. Prior to discussion, ask students: Based upon your readings and the definitions we have just discussed, which of these texts constitute an ancient Jewish short story? Why? What features do they have in common? How do they differ? How does the definition we choose influence which texts we include and exclude from our list? Are there other texts that we have discussed in this course that could be included on this list?
As Gruen states, ancient Jewish short stories "come in assorted packages, following no single model and dependent on no blueprint" ("Novella: Varieties," Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies). However, there are certain features that appear again and again amongst these texts.
Adventure narrative: Often, the plots of these narratives take the form of an adventure. In Tobit, for instance, Tobias leaves his hometown and journeys to Media; he is accompanied by a divine companion, experiences strange events on his travels (e.g., a fish tries to eat his leg, 6.1–4), and ends up "getting the girl" (8.1–21).
Flexible approach to historicity: Many ancient Jewish short stories contain a fairly loose presentation of history. Although the plots of these stories occur in specific historical settings, they contain numerous blatant historical inaccuracies that an ancient audience would have easily caught. For instance, the book of Esther portrays its feminine protagonist as the queen of Persia, an unlikely event given Esther's Jewish heritage and the fact that the historical Persian queen at the time the book's events are said to occur (who was named Amestris, not Vashti) was never deposed. The book of Judith is set in the reign of "Nebuchadnezzer, king of the Assyrians" (1.7) despite the fact that Nebuchadnezzer was king of the Babylonians. As Wills points out, these kings were famous. It is "unlikely that accidental errors crept in" (Ancient Jewish Novels, 9). This suggests that the authors of these texts purposefully created a fictitious setting for their story and their audience were content to view them as such. Whether this makes these texts "fiction" is open debate, but it at least demonstrates a lack of concern for historical accuracy.
Prominent female characters: These texts have a tendency to center around characters that would normally be considered marginal figures, namely, foreigners, slaves, and women. Female figures, especially, figure prominently. For instance, the book of Ruth centers on the adventures of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. Judith, Esther, and Susanna similarly focus on their namesakes, and the story of Joseph and Aseneth is primary a story about Aseneth's transformation.
Setting in the diaspora: Many of these stories are set in the diaspora, leading some scholars to call them "diaspora novels." Esther's and Daniel's activities in the Persian and Babylonian courts exemplify this. As such, they may have been intended "to comfort, reconcile, encourage, or entertain Jews dwelling in alien circumstances and under Gentile governance" (Gruen, "Novella: Messages," The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies).
Entertainment: If nothing else, these texts are entertaining. Thus, Wills labels this literature as "popular," meaning that its primary function was to entertain readers outside of any official context. This does not mean, however, that this literature lacks sophistication. The lack of widespread literacy in the ancient world suggests that the literature was written to indulge an elite, educated class during their "more relaxed moments" (Wills, Ancient Jewish Novels, 6). The straightforward style of many of these texts and their inclusion of irony, humor, and other such literary features would seem to support this reading. This should not, however, belittle the value of this literature. As Gruen notes, these stories are "not pure entertainment. They regularly deliver religious or moral messages," such as the importance of trusting in God (e.g., Judith, Daniel), following the traditions of the community (e.g. Tobit), and being virtuous (e.g., Susanna). Whatever their original function, we should not forget that most of these texts came to be included within the sacred literature of ancient communities. Ruth, for instance, is now included in all major modern versions of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and is used in modern liturgy. Judith, Tobit, and the Greek additions to Esther and Daniel may not be included in the Jewish or Protestant canons, but they were included in the Septuagint, the ancient canon of Alexandria, and are still part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canons.
- 1. Ask students to describe the roles of women in these narratives based on their readings of Ruth and Susanna. After doing so, discuss other women and their roles in the stories. For instance, the widowed Judith single-handedly saves her village from an invading army, and the beautiful Esther becomes queen in a foreign court. Ask the students: Based on what you have learned in the course this far, do you think this is an accurate portrayal of women? [If students answer no,] why would the texts portray women this way? What effect does this have on the overall reading of the narrative? As Gruen asks, "does the depiction of memorable heroines represent a critique of gender hierarchy?" ("Novella: Messages," Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies)
If one were to ask which ancient Jewish short story is not like the others, the answer would probably be Ruth. Not only is Ruth the one of the shortest, self-contained ancient Jewish short stories, it is also possibly the oldest, perhaps dating to pre-exilic Israel. Therefore, many scholars who prefer to categorize these texts as "novellas" (Gruen) or "novels" (Wills) and focus on post-exilic examples exclude Ruth from their list. However, Ruth exhibits many of the same features of the short story that we have been discussing. It is short, entertaining, and focuses prominently on the journeys and struggles of marginal female figures. With the exception of the final genealogy, the story is fairly ahistorical and folkloric, and it is uncertain if it accurately reflects the period it describes. It thus rightly belongs in a discussion of the ancient Jewish short story and is possibly one of its best exemplars.
A mere four chapters long, the book tells the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman recently left widowed after the death of her Israelite husband. When her mother-in-law Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, Ruth joins her. Once there, Ruth joins the workers in the field of Boaz, Naomi's kinsman, and gathers enough food to sustain herself and her mother-in-law. Encouraged by Naomi, Ruth visits Boaz upon the threshing floor and secures a promise of marriage from him. The story ends with Ruth a happily married mother.
The genealogy included at the end of the book hints at the book's importance in Jewish tradition. Ruth the Moabite is none other than the great-grandmother of King David, the ideal king of the united monarchy. Because of this, Jewish tradition portrays her as the model convert, who leaves the idolatries of her homeland to cling to the God of Israel. In modern Jewish tradition, the book of Ruth is liturgically read during the festival of Shavuot (the "Feast of Weeks"), a festival that celebrates the ancient wheat harvest.
It is uncertain when the book of Ruth was composed. The story itself is set in the period of the Judges (ca. 1200–1025), but it is unlikely that the text was written any earlier than the early monarchal period. Indeed, many scholars propose a post-exilic date (ca. 5th century BCE), in which case the positive portrayal of the foreign Ruth may have been intended to soften the harsh decrees against foreign marriage presented in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (see Ezra 10.1–5; Neh 13.1–3).
- 1. After summarizing the plot of Ruth, discuss as a class the main features of the narrative: If Ruth is an example of an ancient short story, what are its main features? What audience does it presume? What might its function have been in the ancient world?
- 2. As a class, examine chapter 2 in more depth. How does it exemplify the features of an ancient Jewish short story? (This exercise could complement the questions from the first suggested activity for Ruth.)
- 3. Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, is described as a Moabite. How might this have posed difficulties for ancient interpreters? Despite her foreign origin, Ruth is portrayed positively. What might that suggest about the dating and function of this text?
The story of Susanna provides a good example of how ancient short stories could become incorporated into larger works. The story of Susanna probably originated as an independent folktale. Although the specifics of this folktale probably varied from one telling to the next, the basic contours of the narrative remained the same: an unnamed heroine was accused of adultery and was saved by an unnamed man (perhaps a divine intercessor). At some point, this folktale was recast as a Jewish narrative, with the heroine being named Susanna and the savior being named Daniel. The narrative was then incorporated into the Daniel tradition sometime in the Hellenistic period and came to reflect the concerns of the Jewish people living in the Hellenistic world.
The story of Susanna, as it is preserved in the Septuagint, relates the tale of a righteous Jewish woman. One day, while walking in her garden, two lustful elders saw her and attempted to seduce her. Susanna refused their advances, crying out loudly that it was better to die than accept their advances (vv. 22–24; cf. Deut 22.24). The elders go to the assembly of people and accuse Susanna of adultery. The people are willing to condemn Susanna to death, until the young Daniel appears and stops them. Following Israelite legal practice (see Deut 19.15–20), Daniel examines each elder's story and proves that they are lying. The people, in turn, condemn the elders to death, and Susanna is saved. The story exemplifies, therefore, how a person who adheres righteously to the law and trusts in God can survive false accusation.
The current canonical status of Susanna is complicated. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible does not contain the story, and thus Jewish translations based upon it (e.g., the Tanakh) do not include it. Because they are based on the Hebrew Bible, Protestant translations (e.g., NRSV) do not include the story within the main text of Daniel, although they place it amongst the Apocryphal texts. The Septuagint includes the story of Susanna, and thus Catholic and Orthodox translations (e.g. NAB), which are based on it, include the story within their version of Daniel (as chapter 13).
- 1. After explaining the compositional history and canonical status of Susanna, discuss as a class the main features of the narrative: If Susanna is an example of an ancient short story, what are its main features? What audience does it presume? What might its function have been in the ancient world?
- 2. Explore the following key passages of Susanna as a class (also listed on the slide): vv. 1–4, 19–24, 42–43, 63–64. What does each demonstrate about Susanna's character? What might this suggest about the role of women in Hellenistic short stories? In Hellenistic Jewish societies?
Although longer, Esther, Judith, and Tobit are also good examples of ancient Jewish short stories. Each contains numerous historical inaccuracies (e.g., there is no evidence that a Jew ever became queen of Persia, especially in the time period the book of Esther is set), prominently feature women (Judith; Esther; Sarah, the daughter of Raguel) or otherwise minor figures (Tobit), and are entertaining (with irony, reverses of fortune, etc.). Esther is preserved in the Hebrew Bible, although there are Greek additions that revise the work with additional material. Judith and Tobit are preserved only in Greek, though they were probably originally written in Hebrew. They are not included in the MT or Jewish translations based on it; they are, however, included in the Catholic and Orthodox canons and among Protestant Apocryphal texts.
Esther tells the story of a beautiful Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia. Her elevated status places her in the position to save her people when Haman, a member of the Persian court, threatens to massacre them. Through her wit, beauty, and piety, she convinces her husband, Ahasuerus (Xerxes) king of Persia, to reverse the edict to kill the Jews such that it is Haman and his forces who are destroyed instead.
Judith is the story of a beautiful widow who not only saves her people from an invading Assyrian army but does so through a mixture of feminine and masculine attributes. She leaves her city adorned in her finest garments, bewitches the general Holofernes with her appearance, and then proceeds to cut off his head while he is sleeping.
Tobit tells the stories of Tobit, an ordinary Israelite and a righteous man who becomes blind after burying an executed Israelite, and Sarah, daughter of Raguel, whose seven husbands had each been murdered by the demon Asmodeus on their wedding nights. The lives of Tobit and Sarah intersect when Tobias, Tobit's son, journeys to Media on an errand for his father. By divine guidance and some ingredients taken from a fish, Tobias saves Sarah, marries her, and heals his father.
- 1. Time permitting, ask the class to explore some of these ancient short stories in more depth. You may wish to do this as a large class discussion and focus on one text or break the class into smaller groups and have them each focus on different texts. After giving students a summary of the plot of each text, ask them to read selected passages from their assigned text and discuss some of the key features present within them. Students should be able to identify the prominence of marginal characters (esp. female), those features that make it entertaining, and how each addresses the concerns of Hellenistic Jews. Suggestions for passages include (also listed on the slide):
- Esther: 2.5–18; 5.1–8; Greek addition: 15.1–11; 7.1–10
- Judith: 8.1–8, 10.1–5, 13.3–10, 16.21–25
- Tobit: 1.3–4, 2.7–10, 3.7–9, 6.1b–9, 8.1–3, 11.7–8
IV. Essay Prompts (5-7 pages)
- 1. Compare and contrast the books of Esther and Ruth as ancient Jewish short stories. What features do each text exhibit? What might their function have been in antiquity? What concerns of their communities do they each reflect?
- 2. Is the Joseph cycle of Genesis 37–50 an early example of ancient Jewish short story? Why or why not? In answering this question, be sure to compare the cycle to other ancient Jewish short stories and to take into account the difficulties in describing these texts as a single, coherent genre.
- 3. Evaluate the following claim: "Although included among the prophetic books, the book of Jonah should instead be considered an example of an ancient Jewish short story." In writing this essay, be sure to consider the ways in which Jonah is/is not like other prophetic books and is/is not like other ancient Jewish short stories. [Instructor note: this essay presumes that the course has already discussed prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible. If not, the instructor may wish to assign the following essay: "The Genre and Intent of Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible," from How to Read the Bible.]
- 4. Imagine that you are a Jew, living in the early Hellenistic period. You want to write a story about Abraham, his wife Sarah, and his son Isaac. Using Genesis 11.27–25.11 as your source material, compose a short story (in English) that fits the model of the ancient Jewish short stories. Your story should focus on a single episode in Abraham's life, but provide enough information about the patriarch that your reader can understand the story. You should not assume that your reader has heard of Abraham (that is, the story should be self-contained. See, for example, Ruth or the book of Tobit for a model). As you write, keep in mind the features of ancient Jewish short stories as well as the concerns a Hellenistic Jew may wish to convey in his or her narrative.
- Collins, "The Hebrew Short Story: Ruth, Jonah, Esther, Tobit, and Judith." In Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, pp. 529–551. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
- Hägg, T. The Novel in Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
- Wills, L. M. Ancient Jewish Novels: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Wills, L. M. The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.