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The Bible stories of Esther, Tobit and Judith are fictional, but they contain lessons about the triumph of virtue and God's care for us.

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Once Upon a Time in the Bible: Tobit, Judith and Esther

by Virginia Smith

Once upon a time....If ever there were four magic words practically guaranteed to prick up ears and rivet attention, these are they. Between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, instant rapport is established. Oh boy, a story! Youngest to oldest, we're pulled right in, settling ourselves contentedly, waiting for the tale to unfold.

God, who knows us infinitely better than anyone else, is well aware of the allure of imaginative, spellbinding narratives and supplies them in abundance within that little library we call the Bible. Many are factual (non-fiction), but others are not (fiction). No matter. God speaks to his people in a variety of styles and literary genres. In this issue of Scripture From Scratch, we'll spend some time with three short selections from the fiction shelf, the books of Tobit, Judith and Esther. If you have yet to meet these rather obscure biblical characters or have only a nodding acquaintance with them, you're in for a treat, so curl up and relax as God unfolds three wonderful adventures. Once upon a time...

There Was a Devoted Israelite Named Tobit

The human author of the Book of Tobit is unknown, as is the locale from which it sprang. What we can say is that it was written relatively late, perhaps in the early second century b.c.e., but it speaks of a time six centuries earlier after most of the people in the northern kingdom of Israel were deported and scattered across the vast Assyrian empire. Tobit and his family found themselves resettled in the Assyrian capital, Nineveh. Life there was not easy for Israelite expatriates, particularly those as devout as Tobit. Persecuted by some and ridiculed by others over his pious practice of burying the abandoned dead, Tobit persists in serving his God. "The neighbors mocked me, saying to one another, 'Will this man never learn? Once before he was hunted down for execution because of this very thing; yet now that he has escaped, here he is again burying the dead'" (Tb 2:8).

To the poverty and harassment of Tobit's exile is added the loss of his eyesight, the last straw for even this courageous man. He prays, "Lord, command me to be delivered from such anguish; let me go to the everlasting abode. Lord, refuse me not. For it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery in life and to hear these insults" (Tb 3:6).

Sarah, Another Anguished Soul. Far away in Media (modern Iran), a young woman named Sarah is making a similar plea. Unluckier in love than perhaps any other biblical character, Sarah has lost seven husbands on her wedding night. She, too, is faith-filled and, raising her eyes to God, prays, "Bid me to depart from the earth, never again to hear such insults" (Tb 3:13).

A White Hat on the Horizon. Riding (well, maybe walking) to the rescue of both of these godly, if beleaguered, people is Tobit's son, Tobiah. Convinced he is about to die, Tobit sends Tobiah on a journey to recover the family wealth left on deposit with one trusted Gabael of Media. En route, a traveling companion, who turns out to be none other than the archangel Raphael in disguise, falls in with Tobiah.

Now you just know how all this will turn out. Tobiah meets Sarah in Media. They fall in love and marry. Tobiah survives his wedding night, recovers his father's riches, returns home with not only a bride, but also a cure for blindness provided by, guess who? Raphael. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Great story, but what do we learn? Why is it in the Bible? Historical inaccuracies and the blending of two ancient Israelite folk tales attest to the fictional nature of this book. The New Jerome Bible Handbook sums it up this way: "Suffering is not a punishment but a test. God does, in the long run, reward the just and punish the wicked. The believer is called upon to trust God and to mirror in daily life the justice, mercy, and freedom of God."

Upon turning the next biblical page, we find that once upon a time...

There Was a God-fearing Widow
Named Judith

Like Tobit, the Book of Judith is one of the apocryphal or deutero-canonical writings not found in some canons of the Hebrew Scriptures. Like Tobit, Judith came into being late—second or even first century b.c.e.—but speaks of a time some seven centuries earlier. And like Tobit, historical and geographical gaffes give Judith away as a work of fiction. For instance, the opening sentence reads, "It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians..." (Jdt 1:1a). Oh dear, no. Nebuchadnezzar was a famous king of Babylon. For Americans, that would be tantamount to encountering a reference to General Grant leading the Confederate forces. So once again we know it's story time.

The saga begins with the general Holofernes leading an Assyrian campaign against the rather insignificant Judean state. The reader must realize that Assyria in the eighth century b.c.e. was the superpower of its day. Very little stood in its way for long, certainly not puny little villages like Bethulia, Judith's hometown. The encampment of Holofernes's forces around the town all but guaranteed disagreeable days ahead. It would also have been clear to devout Jews that the Assyrian march would ultimately lead it to Jerusalem, where the temple itself would be threatened and, in all probability, destroyed. What to do? What to do?

An Unlikely, But Effective Champion. As is the case in all three of the books we're considering in this issue, a most unlikely hero figure rises to the occasion, the pious widow Judith who was, we are told, "beautifully formed and lovely to behold" (Jdt 8:7a). "No one had a bad word to say about her, for she was a very God-fearing woman" (Jdt 8:8).

All well and good, we might say, but there's no mention of her martial arts training or military tactical skills. Ah, but we underestimate our heroine.

Having spent much time in fervent prayer to God for guidance, Judith formulates a plan that will prove both devious and effective. She insinuates herself into the Assyrian camp by allowing herself to be captured. Once there, her striking beauty captivates Holofernes who hosts a great dinner after which he has a little romance in mind. Unknown to him, the seemingly demure Jewish widow possesses a spine of structural steel and a will to match. As a result, before the evening is out, Holofernes will take the concept of losing his head over a woman to new heights. Judith beheads the weakened general and totes his head home in a bag. That does it for the Assyrians who flee in a great rout. Judah is saved. There is great rejoicing. Judith, needless to say, is the woman of the moment and of many moments to follow. Fittingly, this godly woman closes the episode with a prayer thanking and praising God.

Great story, but what do we learn? Why is it in the Bible? Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., encapsulates the relevant themes in The Bible Companion: A Handbook for Beginners: "The main point of the story, of course, is that oppression requires both reliance upon God and human cunning to defeat it. The existence of inspiring heroines like Judith in the male-dominated Jewish tradition is of great importance. It provided role models for anyone in oppressive circumstances, and it testified to God's ability to raise up the least likely heroes in times of difficulty. In some ways, we might say Judith's story is a feminine version of David and Goliath. The underdog can indeed vanquish enemies by faith and wisdom."

Leaving the noble, if gory, saga of Judith, we find next in the biblical line-up that once upon a time...

There Was a Beautiful Queen Named Esther

The final book is in some ways closely related to the first two and in other respects entirely different. The Book of Esther, too, is largely fictional, but scholars believe there may have been at least a hazy historical link for the story. One of the problems in categorizing this book lies in the fact that it comes in two versions. The earlier canon of the Hebrew Scriptures contains one form of the story while the later Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used in Catholic biblical translations) includes additional passages which, like the Books of Tobit and Judith, are classified elsewhere as apocrypha. The rationale behind these additions may have something to do with the fact that in the original story, there is no mention of God whatever. The addenda provide a more religious flavor.

Like Tobit and Judith, the Book of Esther is post-exilic in origin, stemming in one form or another from the fifth to second centuries b.c.e. Like Tobit, the plot revolves around the difficulty of living as a faithful Jew in an alien environment—in Esther's case, Persia. Like Judith, Esther will initially seem an unlikely savior figure for her beleaguered people.

Of Villains and Vanquishers. As the plot unfolds, on the whim of the powerful Persian king, Esther unexpectedly finds herself queen. Mordecai, both uncle and a kind of father figure to the young Esther, is a man of influence in the expatriated Jewish community. He runs afoul of the Persian prime minister, Haman, a gentleman of substantial ego who takes exception to Mordecai's refusal to bow down to him. As reprisal, Haman proposes that the king massacre all the Jews in Persia. Mordecai sends word to the newly crowned queen that she must intervene to save her people. Esther may be inexperienced, but she's not obtuse. Her own life is on the line, and well she knows it. "All the servants of the king and the people of his provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king in the inner court without being summoned, suffers the automatic penalty of death unless the king extends to him the golden scepter, thus sparing his life. Now as for me, I have not been summoned to the king for thirty days" (Est 4:11).

Mordecai responds: "Do not imagine that because you are in the king's palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape. Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source, but you and your father's house will perish. Who knows but that it was for a time like this that you obtained the royal dignity?" (Est 4:13-14).

Long story short: Esther makes herself beautiful, warily approaches the king, and pleads for the lives of the Jews. Her supplication is effective, and in wonderful irony, the evil Haman swings from the very scaffold he had erected for Mordecai. Royal decrees could not be rescinded, so the king orders the Jews to be provided with weapons with which to defend themselves and, in the ensuing battle, they are, of course, victorious. Queen Esther has saved the day.

High Melodrama. Each year, the story of Queen Esther plays out again on the Jewish calendar with the celebration of Purim (March on the modern calendar). Something of a carnival atmosphere prevails. There are parties and plays where children in masks and costumes assume the roles of biblical characters. When the Book of Esther is read in the synagogue, the children wave groggers (noisemakers) and stamp their feet at every mention of Haman's name in the manner of a 19th-century American melodrama.

There are, of course, serious elements to the observance as well. Christians might do well to join their Jewish friends in voicing a Purim prayer, "Blessed is the Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in the days of old at this season."

Great story! But what do we learn? Why is it in the Bible? Valor in the face of imminent danger is a virtue both Jews and Christians have needed all too often during their respective histories. The difficulty of living godly lives in foreign, often hostile, environments is all too evident. Human cunning can cut both ways. Haman used it to create tribulation; Mordecai and Esther used it to extricate their people from that very tribulation. God is not an overt presence in this book, leading us to believe that sometimes it's up to us to pull up our collective socks and do what needs to be done.

As we close these three tales from God's repertoire of stories, we do so comforted in the knowledge that virtue ultimately triumphs, God cares for his people, and impossible situations may be salvaged by implausible rescuers. Similar circumstances still exist, leaving us the reassurance that once upon a time in the Bible is today.

Virginia Smith, co-creator of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent contributor, is the author of God for Grownups and Life Is Changed, Not Ended (Thomas More).

Next: Passion for God, Passion for the Earth (by Elizabeth Johnson C.S.J.)


Living the Scripture

God can and often does act through the most implausible people. Even the most threatening situations may be saved by ordinary folks such as ourselves. We all possess God-given gifts that are to be put at the service of others when they are needed. What are your gifts? How have you used them in the past? In what ways could they assist the wider community in the future?



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