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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Once Upon a Time in the Bible: Tobit, Judith and Esther
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
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).
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"
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.
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."
turning the next biblical page, we find that once upon a time...
There Was a God-fearing Widow
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
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
Next: Passion for God, Passion
for the Earth (by Elizabeth Johnson C.S.J.)