InterviewBook of Esther 'presents peoplehood in its purest form'

How the Bible – and the Purim story – helped form a nation from an exiled people

In his bestseller ‘Why the Bible Began,’ theology Prof. Jacob L. Wright challenges conventional thought on the holy book’s history, positing that it was not all about religion

Reporter at The Times of Israel

An illustrative picture of Israelites reading from a scroll. (iStock photos)
An illustrative picture of Israelites reading from a scroll. (iStock photos)

As Jews around the world hear the Book of Esther read aloud this Purim, they might not know that they’re listening to the most biblical of all Jewish texts — or so claims Prof. Jacob L. Wright in the final chapter of his thought-provoking new book, “Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins.”

Wright, who is Jewish, teaches the Hebrew Bible at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He is the only non-Christian faculty member in the theology school, located in Atlanta, Georgia.

Based on 15 years of research and writing, his book makes numerous ambitious claims, challenging the conventional school of thought that the Hebrew Bible aimed to use religion to keep Jews united once the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE.

But Wright believes it was national rather than religious ideology that motivated anonymous scribes to write the Bible over various periods spanning the fall of the previous Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, the decline of Judah, and the centuries after the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem. The Bible’s ultimate purpose, he states, was to create an unprecedented sense of peoplehood for the Jews, especially after the end of Judah.

Although the Jews were now stateless, “peoplehood” — as conveyed by the Bible — would help them maintain cohesiveness. The Book of Esther fits Wright’s premise perfectly.

“It presents peoplehood in its purest form,” Wright told The Times of Israel.

Prof. Jacob L. Wright, author of ‘Why the Bible Began.’ (Dylan York)

As he explained, the Megillah, as the Book of Esther is colloquially known in Hebrew, contains no overt mentions of God, the covenant, the commandments or prayer. It is solely about the Jews who presumably lived in all 127 provinces of the Persian Empire and knew they were not returning to their ancestral homes in the former Kingdom of Judea.

“It’s about survival in diaspora,” Wright said. “It’s about coming together, using writing, focusing on what holds them together. We’re not really told what defines them — it leaves that to the reader. It tries to show, in a world in which miracles do not happen and God does not intervene, Jews can still survive. They survive in solidarity, they survive by solidarity, thanks to solidarity.”

He also seeks to answer what he sees as a less-considered question about why the groundbreaking work that is the Bible emerged from such an unexpected location on the map, one that was overshadowed by powerful Nineveh and Babylon. He posits that such powers took their survival for granted and made no provision for how to preserve themselves as a people after military defeat. Yet, he notes, no similar work to the Bible emerged from any other client state of the period.

“That Israel and Judah produced a Bible is not because an early form of monotheism or unique intuitions permeated these societies,” Wright writes. “The reason is rather that generations of anonymous, countercultural thinkers pushed against the status quo and sought real, pragmatic truth that could sustain their communities in a world governed by foreign powers.

“In grappling with the consequences of defeat,” he adds, “these thinkers resorted to something no army could conquer: language and the power of the written word. Their efforts in collecting, editing, and expanding texts resulted in an especially rich corpus of literature, which attracted communities of readers and formed them into one people.”

‘The biblical authors were creating the first nation’

Wright’s book has landed on the “best-of” lists of both the New Yorker and Publishers Weekly. The author said readers and critics are taking his argument seriously and appreciatively.

‘Why the Bible Began,’ by Prof. Jacob. L. Wright. (Courtesy)

“I poured my heart and soul into this,” Wright said. “I tried to make it accessible even as I wrote for my colleagues and students. But I never could have imagined the wide and enthusiastic reception.”

In the book, he writes of his dissatisfaction with what he calls a prevailing scholarly tendency to view the Bible as the Jews’ attempt to replace their fallen kingdom with a religion. He dates this stance to the prominent 19th- and 20th-century German scholar Julius Wellhausen and his view that religion was why the Kingdom of Israel, though conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians, survived as a people.

“Rather than stripping Israel of its political character and reducing it to a religious sect,” Wright writes, “the biblical authors were creating the first nation. They responded to military defeat by demonstrating that their vanquished communities could, even without a king, still be a diverse and dispersed, yet unified, people.”

There are several key terms to keep track of here. The author distinguishes between a nation and a state, writing that the former is “a political community held together by shared memories and a will to act in solidarity,” while the latter is “a polity with institutions of government and a territory that can be conquered and destroyed.” He also distinguishes between “national” and “ethnic,” stating that the ancient Israelites consisted of multiple ethnicities, including among the Transjordanian and Negev communities.

But, you might ask, what about religion? What about monotheism, Yahweh or the Ten Commandments? For the author, they are very much part of the narrative – only in a perhaps unfamiliar way. The incorporation of a shared monotheistic religion was one way that biblical scribes preserved a Jewish sense of peoplehood, editing out past references to polytheism as they did so.

Rembrandt’s Moses with the Ten Commandments,1659, Germaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin (Google Art Project / Wikipedia Commons)

With respect to Israel’s national deity, Wright argues that at the beginning, there were many deities bearing the name Yahweh: “Maybe, at some level, they referred to the same god. But they represented rival cities and regions. At some point, and especially after the fall of the Northern kingdom in 722 BCE, many were looking for a new point of unity. Without a palace or a dynasty, the biblical scribes affirmed that Yahweh is the nation’s God, and that there is only Yahweh. ‘Hear O Israel, Yhwh is our God, Yhwh is one!’”

As for the Ten Commandments, he said, “Thus, the Ten Commandments seem to be drawn in part from parts of the book of Jeremiah. Scribes took them… and created a larger preface to Jeremiah and other prophetic works. Thanks to this work, the Torah lays out the rules that the nation collectively embraced at the beginning of its history. The message is now: ‘We agreed to these ground rules at Sinai. But now we’ve broken faith with our God, and the destruction we face now is a consequence of this breach.’ In this way, the nation’s trauma and suffering are now transformed into evidence for the power of the nation’s deity and the validity of the covenant.”

Women as an allegory for survival by the powerless

The author complements his exploration of the Hebrew Bible with scrutiny of archaeological evidence from ancient Israel’s neighbors, including Babylon and Egypt. Why, he asks, does the biblical creation story contain similarities with the Babylonian Enuma Elish? He suggests that it was influenced by contact between Jewish exiles and polytheistic locals in Babylon, and that it arose as a counter-narrative on how the world began.

“There’s a lot of really wonderful extra-biblical sources in the archaeological record from ancient Canaan, Mesopotamia and Egypt, and these sources provide a fresh framework for appreciating the way biblical scribes shaped their narrative,” Wright said.

The author also looks at the individuals who populate this narrative and what their inclusion means. Consider Queen Esther. For Wright, she possesses the skill of diplomacy that the Jews need to survive once their state has fallen. He contrasts Esther’s diplomacy with the hardheadedness of her uncle Mordechai, who refuses to bow down before King Ahasuerus’s adviser Haman and consequently places the entire Jewish population of Persia at risk when Haman accuses them of collective guilt.

Detail of an illustration of Mordechai’s triumph in the Book of Esther, from ‘The Bible in Pictures,’ 1897, by Gustav Dore. (iStock photos)

“The core of peoplehood is the ability to compromise,” Wright said. “Esther is the new figure for the Jewish people.”

In Esther, he also sees a continuation of the prominence of women in biblical narratives, from Sarah the first matriarch to Deborah the judge to Ruth the convert.

Asked why women are so central to the biblical corpus, Wright responded: “I think the reason is that the biblical scribes wanted their readers to learn from women’s ways of surviving in [the] world when they have no power. And the chief survival strategy is moving beyond egoism and competition to collaboration and networking.”

He noted that Mordechai lacked such survival skills when he declined to bow to Haman: “It’s because he was stubborn — he is a male. He refused to compromise.”

The book notes that the togetherness of peoplehood sometimes meant exclusion of others, whether it was the Canaanites, Amalekites or Edomites. Yet Wright argues that this exclusiveness was sometimes metaphorical, the Canaanites having long exited the picture by the time the Bible was compiled; and that while “the other” does figure prominently within the Bible, the overall text is not one of national borders but rather of a common ancestry and allegiance to God.

In the end, Wright said, what the biblical authors created was what the German-Jewish thinker Heinrich Heine called a “portable homeland.” Their message was about the day after, he added.

“The kingdom came, the kingdom went, but we’re still here,” said Wright. “We still have our God, still have our Torah, still have our mandate to be a blessing to the world. We’re going to be a new form of community, one with a body of texts as its center of gravity. And [it’s] this new text-based identity that has preserved the Jewish people and that has spawned and shaped new communities around the globe.”

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