Summary and Analysis
Jonah, Ruth, and Esther
Although often classified with the prophets, the Book of Jonah is not a prophetic book. The story, about a prophet named Jonah, was written to criticize and rebuke the narrow spirit of nationalism that Jonah observed among so many of the Jewish people. To accomplish this purpose, he constructed a story that would illustrate the spirit he wished to counteract. In the story, Jonah acts in a manner that is similar to the way the Jewish people behaved in their attitude toward foreign nations. Anyone reading the story cannot help but see how foolish Jonah's actions are. The author hoped that the Jewish nationalists would see themselves in the role that Jonah played.
Jonah is told to go to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and deliver a message that Yahweh entrusts to him. Refusing to go to Nineveh, Jonah instead flees to Joppa, where he boards a boat that is bound for Tarshish. The ship on which he is riding encounters a storm, and the sailors in charge, in order to save themselves, throw Jonah overboard. Jonah is swallowed by a whale. However, he not only lives inside the whale but is carried to shore and thrown out onto the land.
When the call to go to Nineveh comes to Jonah a second time, he very reluctantly obeys. The only message that he proclaims is one of destruction that will be visited on the Ninevites because of their sins. When the people of Nineveh hear what Jonah has to say, they repent of their sins, expressing their remorse by sitting in sackcloth and ashes. Their repentance makes the threatened punishment unnecessary, which greatly disappoints Jonah, for it means that he has not judged them correctly. He starts to feel sorry for himself and complains to Yahweh of his bitter lot. At this point, Yahweh rebukes him in no uncertain terms, explaining that the fate of one hundred and twenty thousand people is a matter of more importance than the comfort and vanity of a single individual.
Like the Book of Jonah, the Book of Ruth, a masterpiece of storytelling, has a moral lesson, but this lesson may not be the chief reason why the book was written. It is a story about a Hebrew woman named Naomi who lives during the period of the judges, prior to the establishment of the monarchy. After the death of her husband, Naomi accompanies her two sons to a land occupied by the Moabites. Here the two sons marry Moabite women. Later, after both of her sons have died, Naomi decides to return to the land of the Hebrews so that she might dwell among her own people. She urges her two daughters-in-law to stay with the Moabites. One of the daughters-in-law, Orpah, yields to Naomi's request and bids farewell to her mother-in-law. The other one, Ruth, refuses to let her mother-in-law return home alone. Her affection and loyalty are expressed in the words "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God."
As Naomi and Ruth journey back to the land of the Hebrews, they come near Bethlehem at the time of a grain harvest. Naomi's kinsman, a wealthy Hebrew named Boaz, owns a large field of grain. Ruth asks that she be allowed to work with the gleaners, who gather the grain that the reapers have missed. Boaz grants Ruth's request, giving instructions to his servants to see to it that plenty of grain is left for Ruth and her mother-in-law. Because Naomi is a relative of Boaz, she and Ruth are treated generously. In time, Ruth becomes Boaz' wife; their son Obed will be the grandfather of King David.
The story of Esther is unique in several respects. It does not set forth any important moral or religious ideals. No mention is made of Yahweh, nor is anything said about rewards for righteous living or punishment for evil deeds. In the story, a Jewish maiden named Esther is made queen in the court of the Persian king Xerxes; she is instrumental in defeating a plot intended to bring about the complete slaughter of the Jewish people. In the end, the people who plotted against the Jews suffer defeat, while at the same time the Jews achieve a remarkable victory over their enemies. In many respects, the story resembles the typical historical novel, for while there may be some basis in history for the events that are related, the details of the account cannot be regarded as historical fact. The author has constructed the kind of story suited to the purpose he had in mind.
The setting of Esther's story is in the court of a Persian king. The narrative opens with an account of a royal feast that lasts for seven days. On the last day of the feast, the king asks his queen, Vashti, to display her royal beauty before the guests. She refuses, and the king becomes so angry that he issues a decree that a new queen shall reign in her place. To this end, he orders that beautiful maidens shall be brought to his court from various parts of his realm; from these women, one shall be selected as the new queen. A Jew named Mordecai has a beautiful niece named Esther, whom he presents before the king, taking special care not to reveal that she is a Jew. After Esther is made queen, her uncle, who is now employed as one of the king's gatekeepers, learns of a plot made against the king's life. He reports it to Esther, who makes it known to the king, and the plotters are put to death.
Meanwhile, a man named Haman has been promoted to a very high place in the government, and orders have been given that whenever he passes by, people must bow to him. Mordecai, because of his Jewish scruples, refuses to do so, which makes Haman angry and determined to destroy him. Haman persuades the king to pass a decree that on a certain day all Jews are to be slaughtered. Realizing the terrible plight in which his people have been placed by this decree, Mordecai pleads with Esther to go before the king and intercede on the Jews' behalf. Although such a mission is dangerous for Esther to undertake because she is a Jew, she willingly risks her life in order to carry it out. Haman is delighted that the king has issued this decree, and in anticipation of the slaughter being carried out, he constructs a gallows, on which Mordecai is to be hanged.
One night, the king, unable to sleep, gives orders to his servants to read to him from the official records. They read the account of the plot against the king's life that was revealed by Mordecai, thus saving the life of the king. When the king realizes that nothing has been done to reward the man who saved him, he begins to wonder what would constitute an appropriate reward for one who has rendered such a great service. Seeing Haman outside, the king calls him into his chambers and asks what should be done for one whom the king "delights to honor." Haman, supposing that he is the one to be honored, suggests many elaborate things. When Haman has finished, the king orders that all these shall be done to honor Mordecai. Ultimately, Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he prepared for Mordecai, and on the day originally appointed for the slaughter of the Jews, the decree is reversed and the Jews are permitted and encouraged to slaughter their enemies.
Although the prophetic period in Israel's history came to a close and it was no longer possible to make a direct declaration concerning the word of Yahweh, the ideals that were proclaimed by the earlier prophets still persisted. However, finding new literary forms for their expression was necessary. These new forms included the short story, in which an author's message could be concretely illustrated. Many advantages were gained from this type of writing. Because it was not necessary to report accurate historical events in every detail of the story, the author was free to construct the characters and events in a way that would illustrate precisely the lesson he wanted to teach. For example, in the Book of Jonah, the author selected a person who reportedly lived during the times of the prophet Amos. The story concerning this man was designed to show the attitude that the Jewish people had taken toward foreign nations. Jonah behaves so badly in the story that the average reader becomes quite disgusted with him. By making it obvious that Jonah's behavior toward the Ninevites typifies the Jewish nation as a whole, the writer hoped that his story would counteract the narrow nationalism of the Israelite people.
Jonah's call to go to the people of Nineveh was analogous to what the author believed Yahweh wanted the people of Israel to do. Like Deutero-Isaiah, he held that it was Israel's function to proclaim religion throughout the world. But Israel tried to run away from its responsibility. In the end, it was swallowed by Babylon, but just as Jonah survives his experience in the whale, so the Israelites returned to their own land. Still, Israel felt reluctant to carry out its mission to the other nations. When it did come into contact with foreign nations, its only message was a warning of coming destruction. The author of the Jonah story did not believe that the foreign nations were inferior to the Hebrews or that Yahweh was prejudiced against them. If they were given the opportunity to learn of Yahweh's ways, they would respond as well as the Hebrews had done. It was absurd to think that Hebrew pride was more important than the welfare of vast numbers of people.
The Book of Ruth is another short story written in the interests of internationalism. The main purpose of the story is to protest the enforcement of the law forbidding intermarriages between Hebrews and foreigners. This law was being used under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to help restore loyalty on the part of those who had grown careless with reference to the observance of Hebrew rites and ceremonies. Ezra and Nehemiah went so far as to demand that a person who had married a foreigner must either get a divorce or leave the community. In many instances, such actions involved real hardships on account of the breaking up of family relationships. The story of Ruth attempted to show that in ancient times, Yahweh did not disapprove of foreign marriages. Although the setting of the story is placed during the period of the judges, the story itself is of post-exilic origin, clearly indicated by the fact that one of the customs referred to was observed in ancient times. Throughout the story, no indication is given of any divine displeasure over foreign marriages. The two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, are described as persons of excellent character. They are loyal and devoted to their husbands and in every respect are the equal of wives chosen from among the Hebrews. The marriage of Ruth and Boaz is blessed with children, one of whom will be the grandfather of King David. Because it was from the line of David that the Messiah was to be born, that Yahweh would forbid foreign marriages is inconceivable.
The story of Esther, unlike the stories of Jonah and Ruth, illustrates the spirit of Jewish nationalism. Because it is a patriotic rather than a religious story, some people question its inclusion with the other books in the Old Testament. Its admission to the canon of the sacred Scriptures is due primarily to the fact that it contains an account of the origin of the Feast of Purim, which celebrates Esther's saving the Persian Jews. The story is set during the days of the Persian king Xerxes, and the author evidently drew upon his imagination for the details of the story since no evidence exists among Persian records of a Jewish maiden becoming a queen in a Persian court. However, historical accuracy was not the purpose of the story, which illustrates the antagonism between foreign nations and the Jews. This antagonism is exemplified in the stories concerning Mordecai and Haman, and especially in the plot that Haman forms in order to have the Jews massacred. Esther's decision to risk her own life to save her people is the noblest point of the story.