June 29, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Old Testament’s four books of fiction

John F. Fink(Eleventh in a series of columns)

There are four books of fiction in the Old Testament.

The Book of Tobit is a fascinating religious novel set after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 721 B.C.

The characters are Tobit; his son, Tobias; Sarah, who has had seven husbands, each of whom died on their wedding night; and the archangel Raphael.

The story concerns Tobias’s travels from Ninevah to Media to get money that Tobit left there. Tobias marries Sarah, they survive their wedding night and eventually make it back to Ninevah.

The book contains numerous maxims and teachings, such as fidelity to the law, the intercessory function of angels, piety toward parents, the purity of marriage, reverence for the dead, and the value of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. I encourage you to read it. It’s only about 15 pages.

The Book of Judith also has an historical background, but there are numerous errors. For example, the author describes Nebuchadnezzar as the king of the Assyrians when he was king of Babylon.

It’s the story of how Judith overcomes the cowardice of her own people to defeat and kill an arrogant general, Holofernes. The purpose of the book was to show how the invisible hand of God rescued Israel through Judith. Naturally, the book is a favorite among women.

Classical painters have represented Judith frequently, and the sculptors of the cathedral at Chartres in France depicted her story in stone. Both Mozart and Beethoven made Judith the subject of oratorios.

The Book of Esther reads as if it were an historical book, and the Jews established the feast of Purim to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews when they were threatened with extermination. The setting this time is Persia. Esther is an orphaned Jewish girl who is encouraged by her uncle, Mordecai, to enter a beauty contest to become the wife of the king. She wins.

Then the evil Haman, the king’s main adviser, tries to have all the Jews in the empire killed because of his dislike for Mordecai, who refuses to bow down to him. Esther saves the Jews by telling the king about the plot, and Haman is hung on the gibbet he had built for Mordecai. The book ends with the Jews killing all their enemies in vindication for what was going to happen to them. Love of enemies was not part of Judaism.

The Book of Jonah is classified as a fable because of the role of the fish that swallows Jonah. It’s a short story that goes against our expectations because Jonah is in many ways an anti-prophet whose behavior is the opposite of what we might expect. He tries to escape his role as a prophet.

The book is also deliberately humorous as Jonah tries to get away from going to Ninevah to preach repentance by sailing to a remote place. Of course, when he finally does go to Ninevah, he, and we, are surprised when the people, beginning with the king, actually do repent.†

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