What Judith can tell us about Esther: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (6)

Judith_Beheading_Holofernes-Caravaggio_(c.1598-9)

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio (c.1598-9). In the public domain.

Some readers of the Bible may ask “I know who Esther is, but who is Judith?” That’s because the Book of Judith isn’t in most Protestant Bibles. It is accepted as canonical (“inspired Scripture”) by the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and as Apocryphal by others (including the Anglican and Lutheran churches), but is excluded from Jewish and Protestant Bibles. If you haven’t read it I’d recommend it as a great piece of Jewish literature and story-telling from the Maccabean period (probably around 135-104 BCE). It’s relevance here is that it has been said of the book of Judith that “No biblical book is so quintessentially ironic as Judith” [1]. Moore describes the writer as “an ironist extraordinaire” who often means the opposite of what he says. The books of Judith, Tobit (also deuterocanonical, or Apocryphal) and Esther are very similar in style and in the literary techniques used by the writers. They are early forms of the “novel”. By understanding some of these techniques in Judith we can gain some insights into the intentions of the writer of Esther.

The first thing which strikes us when reading Judith is that it has all the trappings of historical narrative, but a reader who is familiar with biblical history will quickly note several historical and geographical inaccuracies, so many, in fact, that it becomes fairly certain that the writer’s carelessness with the facts was deliberate. While the story has a believable plot, someone even casually acquainted with Jewish history will recognise several discrepancies. For example, the story begins “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh” (Judith 1:1). Most readers of the Bible will know that Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylonia, not Assyria, and some will know that Nineveh had been destroyed several years before his reign began. The twelth year of Nebuchadnezzar would have been the fourth year of Zedekiah (cf. Jeremiah 32:1), the last king of Judah before the exile. Yet the story is set in the post-exilic period and Nebuchadnezzar’s general, Holofernes, is said to come against Judah after they had returned from exile and rebuilt and re-consecrated the temple in Jerusalem:

When the Israelites living in Judea heard of everything that Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Assyrians, had done to the nations, and how he had plundered and destroyed all their temples, 2 they were therefore greatly terrified at his approach; they were alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God. 3 For they had only recently returned from exile, and all the people of Judea had just now gathered together, and the sacred vessels and the altar and the temple had been consecrated after their profanation. (Judith 4:1-3. See also 5:18-19).

This is so obviously a distortion of history that any contemporary reader or listener would recognise that it wasn’t a telling of history but was rather a fictitious story using the names of well-known historical characters. Moore makes the point that it would be like telling a story which begins “Once upon a time, when Napoleon Bonaparte was king of England …” No reader/listener would think the writer had simply made a mistake – the errors are so huge (and there are so many of them) that it would be obvious that they were intentional and designed to mimic the style of historical narrative while serving an entirely different purpose. Almost everything about the book of Judith is ironic: it’s major and minor characters, several episodes and the overall plot are all ironic. A  number of scholars, including Edward Good in his classic work “Irony in the Old Testament” (1965), and Carolyn Sharp in her “Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible” (2009), have identified several forms of irony in the Hebrew Bible, all of which abound in Judith.

The relevance of this to our consideration of Esther is that both books have features in common:

    1. Both are in the ‘style’ of historical narratives, yet contain historical inaccuracies. For example, no king of Persia had the name “Ahasuerus/Ahashverosh” and the fact that scholars over the centuries have been unable to agree on which king it could be (Xerxes I, Xerxes II, Artaxerxes?) simply highlights that it’s probably a made-up name for a non-existent king. We also know the names of the Persian Queens, and no king had a wife named Esther, or even Vashti, and we know that the wives of Persian kings all came from certain families, so it’s impossible that any Queen was Jewish. Interestingly, that other fictional biblical “novel” – the Book of Tobit (14:15) – mentions a king Ασυηρος  Asoueros, or Ahasuerus, as king of Media (not Persia). [2]
    2. Both books feature irony and ironic characters. The most obvious ironies in Esther are that Haman plotted to have Mordecai killed, but was himself executed on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai, and that the honours which Haman wanted for himself were actually bestowed on Mordecai. The writer of Esther draws  attention to the irony near the end of the story, by saying that “on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred” (9:1). Such twists and reversals are the tools of an ironist. Interestingly, the Book of Tobit also abounds in ironic characters and has an ironic plot, and it too contains historical inaccuracies.

Similarities in style between Judith, Tobit and Esther suggest that the ironic “novel” may have been a known and accepted literary genre in the post-exilic period. All three books have post-exilic settings – Tobit is set in Nineveh following the Assyrian invasion, Judith is set in the Land at the time of an Assyrian/Babylonian invasion but also following the Babylonian exile, and Esther is set in Susa after the Babylonian exile (but being in the Persian period is after the decree of Cyrus and the return of many Jews to the Land). We can’t be certain about the date of composition for Tobit, but we can be confident that Judith was probably written between 135 and 107 BCE in the “Hellenistic” period, that is, the period after the Empire of Alexander of Greek was divided into four and Judea became part of the Syrian Seleucid Empire, and during the rule of the Hasmonean/Maccabean High Priest John Hyrcanus I. There are unmistakeable Hellenistic signs in the books and several clues that Judith’s defeat of Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes may have been modelled on the defeat of Nicanor, a general of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (described in 1 Maccabees 7:43-50). If so, the writer of Judith may have been “targetting” the Seleucids but using the names Nebuchadnezzar, Assyria and Nineveh as “codenames” for Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire. This certainly wouldn’t be unusual for biblical or Jewish literature of the time. The apocryphal book of 4 Ezra and the pseudepigraphical book of 2 Baruch are both set during the Babylonian seige of Jerusalem but describe the events of the Roman seige of Jerusalem. It was probably considered “safer” to avoid referring to one’s overlords directly and therefore using “Babylonians” as a code for “Romans”. The New Testament book of Revelation does something similar by using “Babylon” as code for “Rome”. So too the writer of Judith probably used “Assyrian” as code for “Syrian/Seleucid”.

This brings us to Esther. If this book is doing something similar then “Ahashverosh” and “Persia” may be codes for someone/something else.

… to be continued

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[1] Carey A. Moore “Judith, Book of” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. III, 1117-1125.

[2] Although Aramaic and Hebrew fragments of Tobit have been found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls this verse (Tobit 14:15) has not been preserved so I cannot check to see if it is the same Hebrew spelling as Esther’s Ahashverosh.

The two (or three) versions of Esther

Queen Esther

Queen Esther. Painting by Edwin Long, 1878. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

The book of Esther is found in two different versions in our Bibles. Jewish and Protestant Bibles follow the Hebrew version known as the Masoretic Text, while Catholic and Orthodox Bibles follow the Greek version known as the Septuagint. This Greek version has just over 100 additional verses in 6 blocks, in addition to some other relatively minor differences. The additional material appears to have been mostly translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original [1], and includes a colophon (Esther 11:1) which names the translator:

“In the fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, Dositheus, who said that he was a priest and a Levite, and his son Ptolemy brought to Egypt the preceding Letter about Purim, which they said was authentic and had been translated by Lysimachus son of Ptolemy, one of the residents of Jerusalem.”

From the date in the colophon we can set the latest possible date for the translation as either 142 BCE or 78/77 BCE, both dates being in the Maccabean or Hasmonean era. The longer (Septuagint) version of Esther has some noteworthy differences from the Hebrew:

  1. The Hebrew version does not mention God at all, not even once, while the Septuagint version uses “God” or “Lord” about 50 times, mostly in the additional verses but also including a handful of places where the Hebrew parallel does not mention God.
  2. There is nothing “religious” about the Hebrew version. However, the Septuagint version includes prayers by Esther and Mordecai, refers to laws of Moses including circumcision and dietary regulations, and speaks of Israel as God’s “inheritance.” It also includes the “Deuteronomistic” claim that Israel went into exile because of disobedience to God’s laws (14:6-7), and refers to the Temple in Jerusalem as God’s house (14:9). 
  3. The Hebrew version tells the story of how Esther came to be Queen, married to a Persian king, but only the Septuagint version tells us that she found it abhorent that she was compelled by necessity to be married to a Gentile (14:15-18).

There is a scholarly consensus that while the longer Septuagint version was translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original, some of these additions were probably made to the Hebrew version before it was translated, and not added by the translator. The additions were not all necessarily made by the same person or at the same time. Scholars are mostly agreed, however, that these are additions, and were added some time after the shorter Hebrew version which has come down to us as the Masoretic Text was written, but before being translated into Greek. In other words, the shorter version is earlier than the longer version – verses were added to the long version rather than deleted by the short version. (For an alternative view, David Clines has argued convincingly that the religious elements in a Pre-Masoretic story were edited out by the author of a Proto-Masoretic version  [2].)

Interestingly, the longer (Septuagint) version is more “biblical” than the shorter Hebrew version in that it frequently mentions God and his relationship with Israel, refers to biblical commandments and morality, contains prayers, and mirrors theological ideas which we find elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. This has led many scholars to speculate that the reason the additions were made was to give the book a more religious character, to make it a religious rather than a secular story, to make up for the “religious deficiencies” of the shorter version, and to explictly state God’s involvement which is at best only implicit in the Hebrew version. All the additions emphasise God’s providential care for Israel. The additions also add drama and detail to the shorter version, and may have had the intention of improving its trustworthiness.

In fact, we actually have two ancient Greek versions of Esther: the Septuagint is sometimes known as the β-text (or BT) but there is also another ancient version known as the α-text (or AT).  The α-text also has the additions which are in the β-text (which it appears to have copied from the β-text) but for the remainder it appears to be a translation of a Hebrew original which was different to both the Masoretic Text and the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint (β-text) was translated. So at one stage there may have been three different Hebrew versions of Esther in existence.

The fact that we have these three versions of Esther demonstrates that from a very early time, quite likely soon after the story was first written down, alternative or expanded versions (“redactions” if you like) started to appear. In Esther’s case we still have three of those versions, and in the case of other books of the Bible we can be confident that alternative, revised or expanded versions were also made. Sometimes we can detect evidence of redaction in the texts which we have, although we don’t have a complete record of the editorial process and we don’t know what the “original” form looked like. At best we can speak of the “final forms” – the versions which have been preserved in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek Septuagint, and other ancient versions – but we should never refer to any of these texts as “the original” version. I have to laugh (or cry) when I hear people speak of “the original Hebrew [or Greek]” of the Bible as though we still have those “orginal” manuscripts. The fact is, we have well and truly lost “the original” and it would be quite wrong to refer to the Masoretic Text, or any text, as the original. We have copies which have been edited, revised, expanded, and redacted, we have “final forms” of this editorial process, and our oldest manuscripts are preserved in multiple versions, but alas, no “originals.”

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[1] It is, however, generally accepted by almost all scholars that the two “edicts” in 13:1-7 and 16:1-24 were composed in Greek and are later additions.

[2] Clines, David J. A., The Esther Scroll: The Story of the Story. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement series 30. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984.

The Bible in Conversation with itself (2): Why two accounts of the history of Israel?

ChroniclesMy previous posts on The Bible in Conversation with itself and How the Bible was (re)written were on a similar theme, building on some ideas which I’ve blogged about in the past. This post (and possibly others to follow) continues on the same theme.

In my early Bible-reading days I was puzzled about why the Bible contained two very similar histories of Israel, often with almost identical wording, but also with stories that were unique to each account. It’s a similar question to why the New Testament has four accounts (‘Gospels’) of Jesus’ life. Wouldn’t it be simpler and more straight-forward to have just one? The question presupposes some intentionality and design in how the Bible was written. Personally, if was writing the Bible I’d go for simplicity and avoid unnecessary duplication and I’d produce a kind of ‘Readers Digest version’ of the Bible. But then, the question also presupposes that someone, or some group of Bible, at some point in time, set out to write the Bible. We know that’s not how it happened. The Bible came together as a collection of writings, or a collection of collections, and as I’ve mentioned previously there is some very good internal evidence that the work of collecting these texts took place over a long period and some editing work was done along the way.

It may come as a surprise to some people that not all Bibles are the same, or contain the same ‘books.’ There is a well-known difference between Catholic and Orthodox Bibles and Protestant ones in that Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain a number of books known as ‘Apocrypha’ (or Deutero-canonical books). Lesser known is the fact that Catholic and Orthodox Bibles differ as to the number of books accepted as Apocrypha or Deutero-canonical. Then the Ethiopian Coptic Bible includes some additional books (1 Enoch and Jubilees). Historically we know that early Christians debated for a long time about which books should be included in the Canon, and the matter was never fully settled to the agreement of all churches. The New Testament itself quotes (or alludes to) books which the writers regarded as ‘Scripture’ which are known to us but which didn’t make the final cut (e.g. Jude quotes from 1 Enoch, which is a good case for why the Ethiopian church might have got it right by including it). So, if there are several different versions of the Bible to this day it shouldn’t be surprising that there were also different versions in early times, even during the period when the books of the Bible were still being written.

In this post I want to speculate about why we have two versions of Israel’s history in the Hebrew Bible: the books of Kings and Chronicles (incidentally, although Christian Bibles have 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, in the Hebrew Bible these are just one book each. The Greek Septuagint regards 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as one ‘book’ but divides them up as 1, 2, 3 and 4 Kingdoms. The Hebrew Bible knows these four books, together with Joshua and Judges, as ‘The Former Prophets’. Many modern Biblical scholars refer to the Former Prophets collection as the Deuteronomistic History.)

At this point I should explain two terms frequently found in scholarly literature: synchronic and diachronic. In a nutshell, to read a book synchronically is to read it as a whole, as a single unit, without any special consideration of how the book may have ‘evolved’ over time. A diachronic reading, on the other hand, tries to identify the various ‘layers’ as the book was edited, redacted and modified by several hands over time; it attempts to identify the various sources and concerns of each editor in the process. Even those who read books in this way – diachronically – will acknowledge that what we have now is the ‘final form’ of what may have been a long process of editing and redaction, and this final form should be read as a single unit (i.e. synchronically), the last revision by the final editor. Having noted previously that there is evidence within Kings of editing, and that the various manuscripts and the ancient versions testify to the existence of a number of ‘versions’ of the Bible, even during the time when the Bible was still being written, the final forms of Kings and Chronicles indicate that they have quite different fundamental concerns and interests.

When we read Kings and Chronicles we note several similarities and differences:

  1. There are several portions of Chronicles which are nearly identical to sections in Kings, which suggests that the writer of Chronicles may have been familiar with Kings, or one of the sources of Kings, and was intentionally writing a new version.
  2. While Kings records the histories of the kings of both Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom), Chronicles is interested primarily in the kings of Judah.
  3. In Chronicles both David and Solomon are regarded as model kings. It contains details about both kings which are not in Kings, and this additional information always extols their kingships. Negative information about David and Solomon contained in the book of Kings (such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba and Solomon’s idolatry) are not found in Chronicles. It is as though the records have been ‘white-washed’  to make these kings seem better than they actually were.
  4. In a similar way, the formulaic condemnation of the kings – “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – is found repetitively through Kings but nowhere near as often in Chronicles.   Some of the stories in Chronicles have been ‘cleaned up’ to present a better image of them than the one in Kings (such as Manasseh’s sins and his repentance which I mentioned in part 1.)
  5. The writer(s) of Chronicles seems to approve of the Davidic Dynasty and makes an effort to present a positive picture of many of the kings descended from David.
  6. The writer(s) of Kings, on the other hand, condemns even exemplary kings, detailing the failings of David and Solomon and painting all the kings as deeply flawed characters.
  7. Chronicles omits many of the stories found in Kings about prophets, including the long accounts about Samuel, Elijah and Elisha. It also refers to the work of the Levites in the Temple (including musicians) as ‘prophecy,’ changing the image of what/who is a prophet. Chronicles has many more details about priests and Temple institutions than does Kings.

Why do these two books paint such different pictures of Israel’s history? Scholars have various theories about this, although there is also a fair degree of consensus. What follows is my current thinking on the matter.

After the Babylonian exile, when the Persians allowed the exiles to return to their homeland in Israel/Judah (then known as the Persian province of Yehud), there must have been a great deal of discussion amongst the returning exiles, as well as with the people who had remained in the Land and not gone into exile, about what kind of nation they would rebuild. Some matters which needed to be resolved were issues about what kind of government they would have, and whether they would return to a monarchy with a king in the line of David. Whether they had a monarchy or not, various voices would want to be heard in government and the competing interests of priests, Levites and prophets would need to be negotiated. Related to this would be the centrality of Jerusalem, and the importance of the Temple and its institutions.

It seems to me that on one hand Chronicles reflects the interests of priests and Levites who believed they could work together with a king in the Davidic dynasty, and who regarded the Temple in Jerusalem and its institutions to be central to both their faith and to culture and society in a rebuilt nation. The book of Kings, on the other hand, reflects another side in the debate. Its writers saw the monarchy as a deeply-flawed institution and blamed the kings for Israel’s predicament in going into exile. They wanted no place for a monarch in the new nation. They did, however, value the role of prophets, a class of individuals who were not necessarily linked to the priests, and wanted their influence to be a dominant one.

Read this way, it makes perfect sense why two different accounts of Israel’s history would be written or needed. Subsequent history demonstrates that there may have been a sort of compromise between the two groups, or they at least fought out their differences. The history of the rivalries between various groups in the era of the Maccabees makes interesting reading in this connection. Ultimately there was no revival of the monarchy, although the priests did exercise a huge amount of influence and authority. The role of ‘prophet’ seems to have morphed into that of a scholar, or scribe, and eventually into the sages and Rabbis. The differing accounts of Kings and Chronicles give us important information about the competing voices at this stage in Israel’s history and in the development of Judaism, which we would not have if there was only one homogenised historical record. Those who were responsible for the Canon of the Hebrew Bible obviously understood that it is important to preserve differing voices. The Bible does not have to present a single, consistent message, but contains a record of the development of ideas in an ongoing conversation.

Hanukkah’s Christian connections

Today is the fifth day of the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה‬ “dedication”) – a festival which commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the revolt against the Seleucid empire by the Maccabees (Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, and their supporters). The Maccabees were revolting against occupation by the Seleucid Empire in general, but more particularly against the desecration of the Temple (which begain in 167 BCE when Antiochus IV ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected in the Temple, banned circumcision, and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple). The revolt began soon after and the Temple was liberated in 165 BCE.  Judah Maccabee ordered the Temple to be cleansed and a new altar to be built. The Temple was re-dedicated and this re-dedication has been commemorated ever since in the festival of Dedication (Hanukkah). The custom of lighting candles every night during the eight days and nights of the festival originated in a story told in the Talmud that for the re-dedication it was necessary to find undefiled pure olive oil for the candelabrum, or menorah, in the Temple. The story goes that only one flask was found and with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it miraculously burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle. Since then Hanukkah is commemorated by lighting one candle on the first day, two on the second, etc, until eight candles are lit on the eighth and final night of the festival.

The story of the revolt, the liberation of the Temple, and its re-dedication is told in the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees. The first book of Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, but this Hebrew original has been lost and it has been preserved in a Greek translation in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible which was popular with early Greek-speaking Jews and Christians. The second book of Maccabees was written in koine Greek, the “street Greek” which was also the language of the New Testament. (The books known as 3 & 4 Maccabees which are found in some Orthodox Christian Bibles have nothing to do with the story of the Maccabees and deal with entirely different events).

Interestingly, the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees which tell the story of Hanukkah are not included in the canonical Hebrew Bible as these books are in Greek, not Hebrew. They are, however, included in many Christian Bibles including the canons of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and those Protestant churches which include the Apocrypha in their Bible. It’s interesting that these books which tell the story of the origins of this important Jewish festival are found in many Christian Bibles, but not in the Jewish canon, although Christians have never commemorated Hanukkah as a Christian festival (although some other Jewish festivals are celebrated by Christians under different names, such as Passover=Easter and the Festival of Weeks  [Shavuot]=Pentecost/Whitsunday).

There is also one more Christian connection to Hanukkah which I find interesting. The Hebrew Bible never mentions Hanukkah (as the Hebrew canon was probably completed by the time 1 & 2 Maccabees were written), but the New Testament does mention it. In the Gospel of John a casual reference is made to Jesus being in the Temple in winter during “the festival of the Dedication” (John 10:22) which is a clear reference to Hanukkah.

To all my Jewish friends חַג חֲנֻכָּה‬ שָׂמֵחַ – Happy Hanukkah!

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Canon of Scripture

In today’s Bible History Daily from the Biblical Archaeological Society there is an interesting review of a lecture by Sidnie White Crawford about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The article refers to the roughly 515 manuscripts found at Qumran and Masada and says: “Only one quarter of the religious texts found at Qumran are included in the current Hebrew Bible. Ancient Jews did not see the Bible as a single book; they viewed it as a collection, and the choice to preserve a wider range of religious literature suggests that the Qumran community considered a larger number of books to be sacred.”

The writers of the New Testament also cite or allude to several other books which are not included in our Bible, including: Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (or Wisdom of Ben Sira), 1 Enoch, 1 – 4 Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Tobit, Susanna, Judith, and Bel and the Dragon. Lee McDonald (The Biblical Canon, Peabody, Mass., Henrickson, 2007) has a 13 page appendix of “New Testament Citations of and Allusions to Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings” which lists approximately 550 citations/allusions to this literature. McDonald has sourced and adapted his list from two places which he acknowledged: Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.; ed. B. Aland, K. Aland, J. Karavidopoulos, C.M. Martini, and B.M. Metzger; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 800-806; and C.A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies, Appendix Two, 342-409, (Peabody, Mass, Hendrickson: 2005).

4 Ezra 14:44-48 refers to 94 sacred books. “So during the forty days, ninety-four books were written. And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, ‘Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.’ And I did so.”

The 24 books refers to the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, which has only 24 (not 27) books when 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles are counted as three books, not six, as they are in the Jewish canon. That means that in the first century (when 4 Ezra was written) there were another 70 books which the writer(s) regarded as even more valuable.