N is for Novellas

The term novella is clearly a modern genre of literature, and yet this term is used by some scholars to refer to the books of Ruth, Jonah and Esther. The Joseph narrative (Genesis 37‒50), the narrative elements of the Book of Job (Job 1‒2 and 42:7‒17) and Daniel 1‒6 are also seen as being part of the same genre. Other writings which belong to the Apocrypha, such as Judith, Tobit and Susanna are also similar, see [1]. Lawrence Mills [1] helpfully points out that these stories are united to some extent by ‘the theme of innocents abroad’. In this sense whether the term novella is appropriate or not, there is evidence in terms of content to suggest that they belong to the same category.

There is, however, more that unites these stories than just the lone ‘Jewish’ protagonist facing the problem of how to cope with diverse challenges posed by Gentiles. There is often a sense of parody to these stories. This is sometimes seen in the use of these stories, for example, the book of Esther is used during the Jewish feast of Purim in a manner that is closer to a pantomime performance than a period drama. More often than not, religious readings of these books tend to suppress what is very likely deliberate humour and exaggeration. In this post we don’t have time to explore this fully. Instead we will briefly consider the book of Jonah as an example. Various oddities in the story will be highlighted and in conclusion the significance of these strange narrative elements will be outlined.

If possible pause here and read the four short chapters of the Book of Jonah and jot down all the things that stand out as odd.

Here is a list of some of the strange things mentioned in Jonah:

  • Jonah’s response at the start of the story seems nothing less than theatrical (Jonah 1:3).
  • All the Gentiles seem very godly compared to Jonah. This includes the god-fearing sailors (Jonah 1:14) and the entire 120,000 population of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5).
  • There is no getting away from the fact that someone being swallowed by a fish and surviving for three days and three nights is highly implausible (Jonah 1:17).
  • The story indirectly implies that the fish coughs Jonah up near Nineveh, but this city is several hundred miles from the sea (Jonah 2:10‒3:2).
  • Nineveh is said to be so large that it takes three days to walk across it (Jonah 3:3).
  • Even the livestock wear sackcloth in the story (Jonah 3:5).
  • The plant that shades Jonah grows with fairy-tale speed (Jonah 4:6) only to be matched by its rapid demise because of a very hungry caterpillar (Jonah 4:7).

There is every reason to think that this story is a literary fiction, based on these exaggerations and oddities. Rather than its fictional nature being a problem there is a clear intent at instruction and a challenge for self-reflection. For example, there seems to be a deliberate contrast between God-fearing Gentiles and a prophet who knows his Scriptures—Jonah’s prayer is a complex restatement of many verses from The Psalms—but he has no care for the Gentiles. There is also a theological tension between the mercy dealt out by God and the punishment desired by the Prophet. A final puzzle is that the audience of the book of Jonah would have known that Nineveh was destroyed utterly by the Babylonians centuries earlier.

The fact that this book might be a fiction or a satire of a real prophet (see 2 Kings 14:25) does not prevent it having religious value. On the contrary, it means that it functions much like a parable. The reader is challenged to think about the character of God and about their own character. Interestingly the broad teaching of the book of Jonah is broadly the same whether we see at a parable or as a serious historical account.

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314-330, in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

H is for Hebrew Bible

The term Hebrew Bible denotes a collection of texts. These are the same texts that comprise the Old Testament recognised by Protestants as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible is however meaningfully distinct from the Old Testament in two ways. Firstly, the title Hebrew Bible is necessary because the designation Old Testament is unhelpfully loaded for Jews. How can a Jew be expected to use the term Old Testament which necessarily implies that there is more scripture and, even more problematically, intimates that the ‘Old’ has been superseded in some sense. The delineation of Hebrew Bible from Old Testament is however important for a second reason—an comparison will reveal the same texts but arranged in a different order. I hope to have time in a later post to explore how the ordering of such texts makes a real difference. In this post there is only space to explore the structure of the Hebrew Bible.

The differences between The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are summarised in the Table below. The Hebrew Bible organises the various books into three categories. The first is torah, sometimes termed the books of Moses or Pentateuch (the five). These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy. In the Old Testament these five are also found at the outset grouped and categorised in the same order fashion and are often termed the Law. A later post will explore that equating the Hebrew word torah with law is unhelpful at a number of levels.

HB table

After the torah comes the second division known as the nevi’im or prophets. These prophets are further subdivided into Former and Latter prophets. The first four of these become the first six of the Christian historical books—both Samuel and Kings being split in half so as to create 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings. The Latter Prophets are what Christians designate the prophetic books, although in the Old Testament Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve are joined by some other books which the Hebrew Bible categorise as Writings or khetuvim. This third division can seem rather hotchpotch to those used to the fourfold Protestant classification. It is however helpful to see these books in a different light to the other two divisions. The torah and nevi’im tell a continuous narrative, whereas the khetuvim are analogous to the commentaries and extras on a DVD. This has important consequences for interpretation. It leads to genres such as Rewritten History (e.g. Chronicles) [1] and Novellas (e.g. Jonah) [2]. Two later posts will explore how recognition of such genres can have important implications for interpreting and understanding these books.

In the Christian Bible the Writings are placed in very different places. Some of them join the historical books, and five become a new group sometimes termed the Wisdom books or literature. The remaining two, Lamentations and Daniel, join the prophetic books.

Whilst the above is a concise but complete account of the differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament, there are further complications when a comparison is made with the Orthodox and Catholic Bibles. Both have additional books as well as a small number of additions to the books mentioned above. In short these additions originate with Greek texts that the Jews of the Diaspora added to their religious corpus. These additions were important to the first Greek Speaking Christians as they used a collection of texts known as the Septuagint (sometimes designated LXX for seventy). The Orthodox and Catholic churches do not entirely agree on either the scope or the nature of these additions. All I am doing here is flagging up this complexity; there is insufficient space to unpack it further, the interested reader will have to look elsewhere [3].

 

References

  1. See, for example, Ehud Ben Zvi, ‘Late historical books and rewritten history’, pp.292–313 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  2. See, for example, Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314–330 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  3. See, for example, John Barton, ‘The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament’, pp.2‒23 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016 and Stephen B. Chapman, ‘Collections, canons, and communities’, pp.28‒54 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.