What Daniel, Esther, Judith and Joseph have in common

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1614 – 1616, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Even a cursory reading of the biblical books of Daniel, Esther and Judith will tell you that they are ripping yarns. (Judith isn’t found in all Bibles – it is part of what is called Apocrypha, or Deutero-Canonical books. See my post here. The Apocrypha also includes other stories of a similar style, including Tobit and Susannah – an addition to the book of Daniel – and I may deal with them at another time.)

In fact, two of these books – Esther and Judith – stand out as biblical novellas. While story-telling is a common feature of many biblical books (who doesn’t love a good story?), these short novels are complete in themselves and aren’t part of a wider historical narrative like many other short stories. Daniel is different. The first half (chapters 1-6) is a collection of short stories set in the Babylonian court (e.g. Daniel in the lions’ den, Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace, Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, Belshazzar and the writing on the wall, etc). The second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) is written in a totally different style – what we call “apocalyptic” – and consists of a series of visions which include strange multi-headed animals and angelic beings. It is so different to the first half it looks like the collection of stories may have existed independently at some time and were then incorporated into the larger work when the “apocalyptic” section was written.

The stories of Esther, Judith and Susannah (an addition to Daniel) are obviously all about women or have a woman as their central character, which is refreshingly different to much of the male-centric narrative in the rest of the Bible. But that’s not all these books have in common. There are good scholarly reasons for thinking that all these books may have been written around the same time. Although Daniel is set in the Babylonian period during the exile there is good internal evidence within the book itself that it was written between 167 BCE and 164 BCE, in what we call the Hasmonean (or Maccabean) period. Similarly, while Esther is set in the court of the king of Persia, it was probably written in the Hellenistic period – after Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian empire – or even later in the time of the Maccabees when the Jews living in Judea threw off the shackles of their Greek overlords. It’s possible it was written around the same time as Daniel. Likewise, while Judith is set in Judah during the time of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire (although it is called the Assyrian empire in the book itself), it was almost certainly written late in the Hasmonean period, after both Daniel and Esther were written. One interesting thing about this is that while all three books were set in Babylonian or Persian contexts, the stories were almost certainly written in Judea during the Hasmonean or “Second Temple” period. With that in mind we can see hints in all the stories that the writers were responding to events and religious and political circumstances of their own time. The fact that they set their stories in earlier times is typical of satire. Rather than directly name or identify the ‘target’ of their stories – possibly for fear of repercussions from influential or powerful leaders – the writers hid their direct targets behind the facades of foreign rulers in more ancient times. This has always been a feature of satire, and in this respect biblical satire is no different.

Perhaps surprisingly, the books of Daniel and Esther also have a great deal in common with the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Like Joseph, who rose to a position of prominence in Egypt as second in command after Pharaoh, Daniel rises to a similar position in Babylon, and Mordecai (in the book of Esther) rises to the same position in the Persian empire. All three stories have ironic twists as these men rise from positions of obscurity or imprisonment, to become second in command in the nation or empire. But the stories have much more in common than similarities in plot. They even share specific phraseology or terminology. For example, the Joseph story contains a scene where Joseph predicts an Egyptian courtier will be “hanged on a tree” (Genesis 40:19, 22). Apart from a law in Deuteronomy 21:22-23  which prohibits hanging an executed person on a treee overnight [1] the only other place this expression (תָּלָה + עַל־עֵץ) occurs in the Hebrew Bible is in the book of Esther where it is used to refer to bodies being impaled on a stake following their execution. Is it just a coincidence that Joseph and Esther are the only stories to share this phraseology? I think it’s interesting that both stories also share other terminology. For example, Joseph is described in Genesis 39:6 as “handsome and good-looking” (יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה מַרְאֶֽה) and Esther is described in similar terms (2:7) as “fair [same Hebrew expression translated as “handsome” in Genesis] and beautiful” (יְפַת־תֹּ֙אַר֙ וְטוֹבַ֣ת ). Both stories use the term סָרִיס “eunuchs” to describe officials. Both feature banquets as the locus for where identity is revealed. The Esther story says “the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace [חֶסֶד] and favour [חֵן] more than all the virgins” (Est. 2.17) and the Joseph story says “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love [חֶסֶד same word tanslated as “grace” in Esther]; he gave him favour [חֵן] in the sight of the chief jailer” (Gen. 39.21).  Both stories refer to the king removing his signet ring [טַבַּעְתּ֗וֹ] and giving it to the person he was honouring (Joseph in one, Mordecai in the other) together with royal garments or insignia (Genesis 41:42; Esther 8:2, 15). Is it simply coincidence that these terms occur in both stories but rarely elsewhere in the Bible?

The similarities between these stories – Joseph and Esther – suggest that the writer of one was probably familiar with the other. We could list similarities between Joseph and Daniel as well. Perhaps the writers of Daniel and Esther were familiar with the Joseph story and ‘modelled’ their own works on the earlier one. The Joseph story takes up a considerable part of Genesis (chapters 37-50). If we compare its length to the treatment given to other characters in Genesis (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc) it appears that a disproportionate emphasis is given to Joseph, possibly making him the main character of the book. Why? Some scholars suggest that the Joseph story may originally have stood alone as an independent work – a novella like Esther or Judith – and simply attached to the end of Genesis at some point in its editing history. It would be logical to do so as that is where the story fits historically or chronologically. But this raises the possibility that the Joseph story may actually have been written closer to the time when Daniel and Esther were written, and for similar reasons. Some scholars suggest that the purpose of all three works – Joseph, Daniel and Esther – was to guide Jews in exile as to how to live in their new situation in foreign lands, and deal with questions such as whether or not they should assimilate at the risk of losing their identity.

That’s possible of course, although I’ve already mentioned that there is good evidence for placing Daniel and Esther later, when many Jews (although not all) had returned from exile. Perhaps these stories, originally crafted for Jews in the diaspora in foreign lands, were reworked in the Hasmonean period and given new relevance. Not only are these stories in a similar style, one which was possibly becoming popular around this time, the new politico-historic situation created the need for such stories to be reworked as satires targeting influential/powerful people or groups. This isn’t unusual, and to this day old stories (such as plays by Shakespeare) are frequently adapted to new social or political situations.

In a future post I will explore further the world of the Hasmoneans and why some biblical literature was written to deal with it.

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[1] “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

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