History 015A: Literary and Historical Study of the Old Testament
Profs. Buck and Luotto
Copyright © 1993 B. A. Collie Collier
In the time of the Diaspora, the Jews must have suffered a great crisis of faith. In fairly rapid succession, they got to see their lands overrun by foreign barbarians, their property confiscated, their families enslaved or sent into exile, and, worst of all, their holy of holies, the Temple, desecrated and razed. It must have seemed to them that their god was not watching over them as closely as they might have liked.
It is probable that there were those who believed devoutly that they were being tested. They maintained their faith and their ethnicity tenaciously. Such conviction is to be commended. However, this does not mean that there probably were not times when it was very hard to maintain this faith, especially when it seemed that god would never look favorably upon them again.
It is in this time of both faith and despair that the Books of Judith, Ruth, Esther, and Daniel and Susanna were created, and possibly written down. It is significant that all four of these books are about women. To the peoples of the time, women were weaker, smaller, less able to take care of themselves, always the property of a man. They are metaphors for the Jewish condition, and the stories seem a sort of spiritual pick-me-up for the times.
In each of these books, there is some terrible problem besetting the women. In Esther, there is the imminent murder of both herself and all her people. The same situation exists for Judith. Susanna faces death, but is also slandered. And both Ruth and Naomi, who do not find themselves in such dire straits, still find themselves facing the prospect of life in poverty, without a family to care for them in their old age.
The comparison can easily be made between these women and the Jewish nation-in-exile. Property has been confiscated or stolen, family has been killed or died. Their very attempts to maintain their cultural heritage must have made them seem frighteningly different to their neighbors. They ate differently, they dressed strangely, they spoke a foreign language, and worst of all, they took pride in their difference. There were probably problems with people using the Jews as highly visible scapegoats. The Jewish nation was, metaphorically and literally, weak and defenseless as a woman.
Yet in all the stories, these weak people, these women, maintain their religious convictions, and continue to live as both Jews and good women. Thus they also never lose the love and attention of god. They are ultimately both vindicated, and tenderly cared for by him. Esther manages to not only thwart the vindictive and murderous plans of the king's 'second', Haman, and save both the lives of herself and her people, but also to have justice prevail -- Haman gets the fate he intended for the Jews. Judith is the instigator of the death of Holofernes, as well as the defeat of the Assyrians. Susanna's good name is restored to her, and her malefactors receive the fate they had planned for her. And finally, and somewhat less dramatically, Ruth finds a husband.
It is also significant that in three of these books, justice prevails. Slanderers, intended conquerors, and vengeful xenophobes all receive exactly what they had planned for their apparent victims--god's justice prevails. Good works and keeping the religious covenant receive rewards, and evil deeds and pagan practices are crushed. So must the Jews have constantly prayed for justice, or vengeance, upon their oppressors.
It is also important that the 'bad guys' represent real, present-day enemies of the Jews. To hear about someone you dislike getting their comeuppance is a good feeling, especially if you'd like to see this happen to them in real life. Thus the heavies in the stories are the heavies of real life for these people. In the Book of Esther, Haman is a Bugaean, or Agagite. Judith's villains are the Assyrians and their allies. Even Ruth and Susanna face real life heavies, of a sort. Ruth's 'bad guys' are poverty, and a lack of family. These are not inconsiderable foes. And Susanna faces judges who have not kept their faith with either god or their community. People such as these judges could possibly signify the loss of cultural distinction, for if they cause god to abandon his people, then the people are truly lost.
It is important that all of these women represent 'good' women -- they are all morally upright. They are examples of the Deuteronomic beliefs. Even though Esther is married to a non-Jew, she had no choice in the matter. Thus one can believe she would have married within the family if she could. Also, she keeps her faith and her dietary convictions. Judith is so morally upright she squeaks. Although it would be acceptable for her to marry again, she dresses as a widow always, and fasts and attends religious services more than is strictly required for the times. Probably the only thing that could have been said against her was that she had the misfortune of being rich, beautiful, available, not interested, and always right. Ruth is also a moral, upright woman, and like Judith, she goes beyond what is required of her by the dictates of the time. She refuses to leave her mother-in-law, even though it would be acceptable culturally for her to do so. And finally Susanna is portrayed as a modest woman, a good wife, and above reproach. Just as an example, at her trial, a time when her beauty might have been used to sway the crowd, she appears heavily veiled.
So must the Diasporic Jews have clung to both their faith, and in particular, the teachings of Deuteronomy. If all is futile, of what use to follow god's way? This is neither inspiring, unifying, or helpful to people who are already down in the dumps. Better by far to believe that they are being punished, but that if they keep the faith they will ultimately be both rewarded and vindicated. And so these stories were created, to verbally show that the good receive their just rewards and that evil is always punished.
Last Updated: Mon Aug 30 1999