Jews & Greeks
Four Strange Books of the Bible: Jonah, Daniel, Koheleth, Esther.
by Elias Bickerman.
Schocken. 240 pp. $7.50.
“As a classical scholar,” writes Dr. Bickerman in his Preface, “the author is interested in the books of the Bible which were written in the age of Greek intellectual dominance. In the present work he tries to understand Jonah, Daniel, Koheleth [Ecclesiastes], and Esther as witnesses to the mentality of men of that period in the ancient Near East.” To refer the books of the Bible to the conditions of their origin is a more complicated and in a sense a more dangerous task than to do the same thing for, say, Homer, because the biblical books have for over two thousand years been the subject of deeply committed interpretation by Jewish and Christian religious thinkers of varying views. It is one of the merits of Dr. Bickerman's book that he pays attention to these later interpretations, not only to dismiss them or to be witty at their expense (though he sometimes does both these things), but also to illuminate changes of viewpoint and to show how different historical circumstances produce different ways of reading.
The four books which Dr. Bickerman discusses are indeed “strange,” but each is strange in its own way and in spite of roughly parallel dates of composition (or at least of final recension) and of some common social references, they have little if anything in common thematically. We all know about Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lions' den, the Preacher's “Vanity of Vanities,” and how Queen Esther, under Mordecai's tutelage, saved her people from the wicked Haman. But what do we think these books mean? If, as modern scholars generally agree, three of these four books have an earlier history before they are cast in the form in which we find them in the Bible, the question of meaning is at least threefold. What did they originally mean, what did they mean to those who cast them into their biblical form, and what have they meant to later readers (and this last meaning, covering varieties of both Jewish and Christian interpretation, is of course multiple)? “A humanist interpretation of the story of Jonah, judging it according to man's needs and mind, is fallacious.” “When we read the revelations of Daniel now, we must realize that to their first hearers during the years of persecution the whole apparatus of the visions, beasts, angels, and Daniel's swoons was of secondary importance. What they asked was: ‘Watchman, what of the night?’ . . . To the generations that followed, who no longer cared about the horrors of Epiphanes's persecution, Daniel was the prophet who made sense of history.” “The rabbis misunderstood Ecclesiastes, and its Greek translator did not understand it either.” “The commentators misunderstood Mordecai's behavior.” Dr. Bickerman continually emphasizes how generations are forced by historical circumstances to read these books differently. But his main purpose is to explain how they arose and what they meant to their producers and first readers.
What is the Book of Jonah about? Here is the summary of its plot as presented by S. R. Driver in his Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, that classic of late 19th-century biblical scholarship:
Jonah, commissioned to preach at Nineveh God's judgment against the great city, seeks to avoid the necessity of obeying the command, fearing that God might in the end be moved to have mercy on the Ninevites, so that his predictions of judgment would be frustrated. Accordingly he takes ship at Joppa, with the view of escaping to Tartessus in Spain. A violent storm overtakes the ship; the sailors, deeming that one of the those on board is the cause of it, cast lots to discover who it is; the lot falls upon Jonah, who consents to be cast into the sea. Thereupon the sea becomes calm. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, which, after three days, casts him forth, uninjured, upon the land. Again the prophet receives the commission to preach at Nineveh. This time he proceeds thither; but at his preaching the Ninevites repent, and God rescinds the decree which he had passed against them. Displeased at the seeming failure of his mission, Jonah sits down outside the city, and asks to be allowed to die; but a gourd quickly springing up and sheltering him from the sun, and as quickly dying and leaving him exposed to its rays, by exciting his sympathy, is made the means of justifying in his eyes God's merciful change of purpose with respect to Nineveh.
Quoting this summary in his Bible for Home Reading (1899), the great Anglo-Jewish biblical scholar C. G. Montefiore went on to agree with Driver that the main object of the book was “to teach, in opposition to the narrow, exclusive view, which was too apt to be popular with the Jews, that God's purposes of grace are not limited to Israel alone, but that they are open to the heathen as well, if only they abandon their sinful courses, and turn to him in true penitence.” Montefiore, the founder of Liberal Judaism in England, claimed Jonah as a prime document in his theory of “progressive revelation”: bit by bit Judaism, in this view, got more purely ethical and more universal. “Sooner or later,” wrote Montefiore, “the idea of a single and equal humanity (though with branches differently endowed and called to different missions) was bound to follow from the idea of the one good God. There might be difficulties in the way; human prejudices and adverse circumstances might hinder it for many ages; persecution and violence might cut off its early shoots and cause a recrudescence of narrow inconsistencies; but sooner or later this doctrine of the brotherhood of man, as rooted in the idea of God, was bound to become, as it is now in fact, an integral dogma of our faith.” It is for this reason, Montefiore concludes, “that I call the Book of Jonah the triumph of Judaism, for this necessary complement to the doctrine of the one good God was more difficult for the Jews to preach and to realize than the very doctrine on which it depends.”
“Biased exegetes,” observes Dr. Bickerman, “however learned, are likely to misunderstand the book they seek to explain.” Montefiore's view is curiously like those 19th-century German views, quoted by Bickerman, which see Jonah as representing Jewish exclusiveness. For these German critics, with their anti-Semitic predilections, “Jonah exemplified the Jewish fanaticism which begrudged God's mercy to the Gentiles.” But the real puzzle of the book is Jonah's initial refusal to obey God's command to prophesy to the people of Nineveh. “The fate of the Ninevites exemplified for the rabbis the conditional nature of decrees of doom,” Bickerman observes. The evil decree can always be averted (as the Yom Kippur service tells us) by penitence, prayer, and charity. Why, then, asks Tanchum ben Joseph of Jerusalem, did Jonah flee and why was he made so angry by the penitence of the Ninevites and God's consequent remission of their punishment? “The answer (which a Jew of the 13th century could not conceive) is that Jonah refused to accept the perspective of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in which the prophet is no longer God's herald, but a watchman who blows a horn to warn his people of coming danger.” But the view that repentance can remove all punishment from the evildoer has its dangers. “Origen taught that repentance brings full pardon. For the function of sin is to teach humility. . . . In his commentary on Jonah, Jerome attacks this teaching of Origen which, if accepted, would destroy the fear of God. . . . And Jerome asks indignantly whether, in the end, there would be no difference between the Virgin Mary and a streetwalker, between Gabriel and the Devil, between martyrs and their torturers?” The Book of Jonah, therefore, Bickerman argues, has nothing to do with the relation between Israel and the Gentiles. “The morality play of Jonah has a cast of three characters: God, the prophet, and the Ninevites. . . . The opposition between Israel and the Gentiles is introduced by commentators who find more than is really there.”
What is there, then? “Without trying to read between the lines, we may understand the prophet Jonah's protest against an idea that was popular in post-exilic Jerusalem that penitence reinstates the sinner in divine favor.” So the Book of Jonah is about repentance, not about universality versus exclusiveness. But after all, is not this also the traditional Jewish view? Why else is Jonah read on Yom Kippur? Yet Bickerman concludes by warning us against humanistic rationalization of the story. “The story of Jonah teaches us that God is merciful, but He is merciful because He is Creator. As Kimchi, quoting Isaiah (43:7), puts it, God created men for His glory and He forgives them for the sake of His glory.” He might have added that Kimchi in making this point was trying to explain how God came to interpret Jonah's anger at the destruction of the gourd (which deprived him of shade) as pity for the gourd. “Thou hast pity on the gourd . . . and should not I have pity on Nineveh . . .?” Kimchi said that just as Jonah had pity on the gourd because of his own distress, so God had pity on Nineveh because of His own glory, for His creatures are His glory. This may seem a bit scholastic to us, but it does not seem to me incompatible with the “humanistic interpretation” that as all men (not only Israel) are part of God's glory, so God welcomes the repentance and good behavior of all alike.
The Book of Daniel is in two parts. The first is a collection of narratives about Daniel showing the hero as “both righteous man and wizard.” The name of Daniel as a traditional soothsayer attracted other stories of forewarning, and gradually the Daniel stories as we have them took shape. Chapter 4, for example, “has preserved a Babylonian propaganda tale against Nabonidus, composed sometime before 549 or, perhaps, in 521.” Each of the stories in Daniel is exemplary, and served a contemporary need. Babylonian themes are taken over by a Jewish writer and not always fully understood. But they are used for clearly defined purposes. “Daniel 6 is essentially a variation on a common theme of oriental folk tales: a virtuous minister is falsely accused and his innocence is proved. . . . Writing for Jewish readers, the author of Daniel 6 wanted to introduce something touching them directly in the Oriental court story. In the same manner modern novels about the first Christians cannot avoid picturing the hero as the martyr of his faith.” Some of the themes depend directly on the historical circumstances under which the stories were written. “The conflict between the monotheistic Jew and the alien worshipper could arise only when a Jew became an officer of a foreign ruler”—as there were Jewish officers of Persian and Macedonian kings. The evidence seems to show that the biblical collection of Daniel stories was made in the second half of the 3rd or in the beginning of the 2nd century B.C.E. “The success of this book renewed the fame of the ancient seer. Its popularity induced the first author (or authors) of Daniel's revelations to choose this pseudonym when he (or they) endeavored to revivify the hopes of God-fearing Jews under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes.” So the dreams and visions of the second part of the Book of Daniel, which have caused so much excited and misguided comment in many centuries of interpretation, are not prophecies of the remote future but tracts for the times. And the times can be dated quite specifically—166 B.C.E., when the Jews of Judea and Jerusalem persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes were in dire need of comfort and encouragement. This was given them by veiled prophecies which began with events in the past (for Daniel was supposed to have lived much earlier and to have been prophesying many things that were known to have occurred) and gained credence for the comforting prophecies of the future by the accuracy of the past predictions. Personally, I find the visions of Daniel desperately boring; the stories of the first half, however, have the universal appeal of moral folk tales.
The relation of Koheleth to its social and economic background involves Wisdom literature as a whole, but in fact Dr. Bickerman keeps his perspective fairly limited, which enables him to be very specific in identifying Koheleth as “a sage who in an age of investment teaches not dissipation, but the enjoyment of wealth.” This is an upper-class literature, with the tired sophistication of “the man who has everything,” and its curious and impressive mixture of hedonism and nihilism, self-indulgence and despair, so demonstrably related to its time and place, has both attracted and puzzled the critics. It “has no known antecedents or spiritual posterity in Jewish thought.” The rabbis are divided in their interpretations. For Dr. Bickerman, “Ecclesiastes could have been written only by a devout Jew who had discovered that there was no Providence, and that he was alone in a world foreign to him.” “Koheleth is a Job who failed the test.” Koheleth was speaking to “the arrogant grandees and adventurous capitalists” of his day. The seat of one of them, twelve miles east of the Jordan, has been partly preserved. “This seignoral residence reminds us of Koheleth. . . . Koheleth also built houses for himself, made gardens and orchards and pools of water.” He is a kind of Sage of Sunset Boulevard.
The Book of Esther is in many ways the most fascinating of the four. Palpably unhistorical, it is yet, as Dr. Bickerman demonstrates, packed full with details of Persian court life that give a curious Arabian Nights atmosphere to the story. There are in fact two stories, a Mordecai story and an Esther story. The former “is taken from Oriental court life and from the Oriental novel. It is the struggle between the vizir who is established in royal favor and a new dashing courtier, a man from nowhere who by his cleverness and by chance outwits the vizir and in turn becomes the favorite of the king.” The theme can be traced back at least to the 7th century B.C.E. Mordecai's supplanting of Haman is thus “a typical tale of palace intrigue that could as well find a place in the Persian histories of Herodotus and Ctesias, or in the Arabian Nights. The only Jewish element of the tale is that, according to the author, Mordecai is a Jew.” But the name is Babylonian (Mar-duk-a, “worshipper of Marduk”).
The second element, the story of Esther, is more interesting. It, too, is a common theme in Oriental stories—the story of the queen who brings about the downfall of the vizir. It is complicated by the story of Vashti, which brings some remarkably vivid touches into the narrative. The king, drinking with his nobles at the feast, asks for his wife Vashti to be brought to him, so that he can show her off. As the rabbis knew, his idea was (for he was in his cups) to demonstrate her beauty by exhibiting her naked (as Candaules exhibited his wife to Gyges in the story told by Herodotus). Vashti very understandably refused the king's summons, and so the way was open for Esther to supplant her. “Having heard two parallel tales about a Jewish courtier and a Jewish queen who struggled with and overthrew the evil minister of their sovereign, the author of the Book of Esther thought that the stories represented two complementary versions of the same events and accordingly combined them.” Dr. Bickerman's disentangling of the different elements of the Book of Esther and his “placing” of incidents and characters in the light of the traditions that were employed by the writer are fascinating. The relations between Haman and Mordecai, for example, followed the law of vendetta. Haman was a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites, the man whom Saul spared and who was eventually slain on Samuel's insistence. It is an old conflict, between the Israelite and the Amalekite. But it is fought out according to Persian practice of the 2nd century B.C.E. “A Jew from Susa, writing probably in the 2nd century B.C.E. combined the two popular stories and used them to explain the feast of Susa and its countryside.” More than any of the four books discussed, Esther requires to be seen in its historical context if it is not to be misunderstood. Montefiore saw the book as full of “a spirit of cruelty and of revenge” and went so far as to recommend the discontinuance of the observance of Purim “in lands of liberty.” This was the 19th-century German view, a view which, as Bickerman says, was taken over by later British and American scholars. But this book, combining two stories set in the Persian Empire and retold in the Hellenistic Age, is not a tale of revenge, but a tale of court intrigue, divine deliverance (even though God is not mentioned in it), and the frustration of evil. It is also a romance, with a beautiful heroine and her royal lover, “just like Greek love novels, and like them containing no unseemly word.” Perhaps this is the best way to read it.
Dr. Bickerman's style is pithy and even staccato. He does not elaborate his points or linger over his conclusions. There is a wealth of scholarship distilled in his dry observations. To get the most out of these learned observations one should reread each of the books dealt with before reading the chapter on them. The illumination will then be quite remarkable.