As I mentioned early in this series, I am including the deuterocanonical books / apocrypha in their traditional Greek and Latin Bible order. (The main post discussing this distinction is here.) Today’s post considers a cluster of short stories grouped towards the end of the historical books.
No readings occur in the Sunday Lectionary from the two deuterocanonical books of Tobit and Judith, and only one from the undisputedly canonical book of Esther. It is worth mentioning them together, as they illustrate the kind of short story, told with a historical framework, which show popular stories in their literary versions getting into the Bible. A basic familiarity with them can help us understand the culture in which Jesus and his first followers grew up.
Tobit is a humorous family story, used only in weekday readings, telling of the young man Tobias and his adventures. Tobit, his blind father, sends him to get some money he had left while in exile, in the land of Media. Tobit is joined on his journey by Raphael (an angel sent from God) who acts as his guide, and accompanied by a pet dog. While there he marries a woman who is cursed by a demon, Asmodeus, who keeps killing every man she marries. Raphael, however, contrives to give Tobias the means both of driving off the demon for good, and being able to cure his father’s blindness. Tobias returns with angel, money, wife, and dog, and heals his father to great rejoicing. The story ends with a psalm of praise when Raphael reveals his true identity.
Judith shows a grand disregard for actual history by making Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon at the time of the Exile, into an Assyrian king presented as a type of overbearing and over-powerful monarch. Judith is a pious woman, whose great faith and fidelity to God sets an example to the rather feeble men of Israel. Having got herself into the enemy’s camp, and general’s tent, by appearing as a harmless but delectable woman, she beheads the general and bestirs the Israelites to defeat his army and despoil his camp. Her beheading of Holofernes is marked in a number of paintings, including ones by Caravaggio (above), and Goya.
Then there is Esther. This (another story of a woman saving the day) exists in two editions. The undisputed version in the Hebrew Bible is notorious as the only biblical book not to mention God’s name. It is a bloodthirsty story of how Jews in Persia experience what looks remarkably like straightforward antisemitism. Esther, who enters the king’s harem as a competitor in the stakes to become the next queen, wins the king’s favour, and the crown with it.
An evil courtier, Haman, plots to wipe out the Jews. This is couched firmly in racial rather than religious terms. Esther, however, reveals the plot to the king, by asking him to spare his new queen’s life. The king is enraged, has Haman hanged, and at Esther’s request allows letters to be written giving the Jews the right to self-defence – a right that also allows them to kill those who might attack them. The Jews use this to slaughter the anti-Semitic plotters, and have Haman’s sons hanged like their father. The book ends with the institution of the Jewish feast of Purim to commemorate the people’s bloody reversal of the plot to destroy them.
Esther also exists in a longer Greek version, which introduces a much more explicit role for God in the story, with long prayers from both Esther and her adoptive father Mordecai coming at the crucial turning point of the plot. These additions form part of the apocrypha in Anglican and (where they are used at all) Protestant Bibles, but are included in the main text in the Roman Catholic Church.
The common Sunday lectionary includes no readings from any of these three books, but there is a single reading from Esther, the turning point of the book when Haman is hanged. This occurs only in the ecumenical continuous set of readings, as part of Year B, Proper 21.1 Readings from all three books occur on weekdays.
- I have no idea what makes a single reading from a book part of its “continuous” reading, or why this one bloodthirsty revenge story is singled out.