Heroes in Foreign Lands: Postexilic Literature and Diasporic Identity Ruth, Jonah, Esther, and Daniel

This chapter places the Bible’s historical romances in the context of successive periods of imperial control.  These books use the Joseph story in Genesis as their model and they appear to have been written both to entertain and to instruct Jews on how to remain faithful to their traditions and to each other under foreign rule. It is possible that these narratives of resistance and fidelity were deliberately set in earlier periods to avoid the dangers of criticizing the ruling powers directly.

Historical Romances

As we have seen in the previous chapters, after 586 BCE Jews were living under foreign rule, resulting in major changes in Jewish culture and religion. This influence is most clearly demonstrated by the literature of the period, which often incorporates foreign themes, language, and philosophies. In addition, we have seen that foreign dominance led to the creation of new genres of literature including apocalyptic literature. This chapter discusses another type of literature that was created during this period, “historical romance.” These works are set in various historical periods, and they feature Jewish heroes who are loyal both to their people and to the traditional religious practices of Israel. While these romances are set in the past, they often are not historically accurate and were apparently meant to both instruct and entertain.

Ruth

Although Jewish tradition characterizes the book of Ruth as one of the Writings, Christian tradition places it among the historical books because of its setting in the age of the judges. Ruth is a work of historical fiction that features women as the main characters. The dating of the book is highly disputed, and there is no consensus except that the text was composed sometime after the events depicted took place. The purpose of the book of Ruth is also unclear, although it has been suggested that it was written as an explanation of David’s mixed ancestry (Ruth, a Moabite, is David’s great-grandmother).

            The book is a unique work within the biblical canon since it consists mainly of dialogue between the characters. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the text is dialogue, a higher proportion than any other book of the Bible. Also, it is remarkable because it is a text that focuses mainly on two women, Ruth and Naomi. Overall, the book of Ruth provides a valuable description of life in rural Israel and the way that women participated in it.

Jonah

The book of Jonah is named after an obscure eighth-century BCE prophet who was connected to the reign of Jeroboam II in the Deuteronomistic History. The text itself was probably written between the sixth and fourth centuries, and it uses comedy and irony to convey its messages. Each of the four chapters of the book presents a different scene, beginning with Jonah’s call. Jonah’s mission is to pronounce God’s judgment directly to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, which causes the prophet to hesitate at his calling and eventually to flee by boarding a boat headed away from Nineveh. After a series of events including being swallowed by a fish, Jonah fulfills his mission and relates his message in Assyria. At the end of the text, Jonah is waiting for the divine command to be fulfilled, and he is frustrated with God’s mercy toward Nineveh. It is difficult to determine what the overall purpose of the text is. Is it a rejection of the nationalism that would support such attacks on a foreign power? Perhaps the text may be understood as a demonstration of God’s mercy when sinners repent. Whatever the case, the text appears to be a way of putting foreign rule into context and explaining God’s purpose for Israel and the entire world.

Esther

The book of Esther is one of the Five Scrolls included among the books of the Writings. It is a secular book that does not refer to God or religious observance as a mark of Jewish identity. Although the text is set in the fifth century under Persian rule, the work was probably written a century later. Moreover, the text contains chronological errors, and there is no evidence that the characters of Esther, Mordecai, Haman, or Vashti ever existed. Therefore, scholars have suggested that the book of Esther is an etiology explaining how the festival of Purim came into being.

            Esther, who was of Jewish descent, became queen of Persia, although her ancestry was not known publicly. The story is one of palace intrigue featuring murder plots and the possible execution of all the Jews living in the kingdom. In the end, Esther’s cousin Mordecai is given royal authority for saving the king’s life, and all of the Jews are saved. The day following the scheduled execution day was marked by a lengthy celebration that is identified with Purim.

            As mentioned earlier, the book of Esther is a completely secular text. Membership in the Jewish community is not based on religious practice but on ethnicity. God is not mentioned at all, nor is any of the ancestors of Israel or the law discussed. Even Esther herself has been fully assimilated into Gentile life since she is married to a non-Jew and presumably does not follow dietary laws.

Daniel

The book of Daniel was written in the second century BCE and comprises two distinct genres. Although many early Christian writers understood the book as a prophecy, Daniel does not identify himself as a prophet, as is common in works such as Amos and Isaiah. Rather, chapters 1–6 of Daniel are a work of historical fiction relating the heroic exploits of Daniel and his associates. The second half of the work is apocalyptic literature that includes vague predictions of the future. Like the book of Ezra, the book of Daniel is mostly written in Hebrew, but it contains sections in Aramaic, suggesting that the text may be a composite.

            The first six chapters of the text narrate the heroic exploits of Daniel. Daniel was an observant Jew living in the Diaspora who served as a model for all Jews living under foreign rule. Daniel and his colleagues are in training at the court of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and they are all given Babylonian names. Daniel and his friends are better than the other court magicians, and Daniel himself is elevated for his ability to interpret dreams. What follows is a collection of connected narratives that are set during the reigns of three different kings. These stories are among some of the most well known in the Bible and include the “writing on the wall” and the scene in which Daniel is thrown to the lions. These narratives are relatively independent from each other and are meant not only to demonstrate how the piety of Daniel and his friends protected them against their enemies but also how Jews can remain observant and how they should react to foreign rule.

            Chapters 7–12 of Daniel are very different from the first half of Daniel. Unlike the first six chapters where the narrative is in the third person, chapters 7–12 are written in the first person. The character of Daniel himself is also different, since he no longer is the interpreter of dreams but is the one who receives them and can only decipher their meaning with the help of the angel Gabriel. These chapters are the most well-developed example of apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament. They draw from other biblical materials and are highly mythological. The visions describe the succession of powers in the ancient Near East from the fall of Babylon to the division of Alexander’s empire, all of which are presented as future events. As each successive ruler is discussed, the detail becomes more and more vivid. Therefore, Antiochus IV is the most detailed of all of these rulers. The reader is told that his reign will come to an end, but apparently this has not happened yet. It is for this reason that scholars place the date of Daniel in the second century BCE.

Implications for Our Study

The books of Jonah, Esther, and Daniel are all texts produced from the perspective of Jews living in Diaspora. These texts provide models and instructions for life under foreign rule and in countries outside the Promised Land.  All of these writings exhibit not just the creativity but also the diversity that characterize the books of the Hebrew Bible. This diversity creates a tension that is not negative, but rather productive; each generation in effect rethinks the fundamentals of tradition for itself, or, to put it somewhat differently, the process of interpreting scriptural texts begins in those texts themselves and continues beyond them.