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Five Scrolls: Stories of the People

1 Introduction

2 Song of Songs

3 Ruth

4 Lamentations

5 Ecclesiastes

6 Esther

7 The Five Scrolls as a Collection

8 Apocryphal Additions

Study Guide


Acrostic, Ahasuerus, Allegory, Bethlehem, Boaz, Esther, Five Scrolls, Haman, Megillot, Mordecai, Naomi, Purim, Qohelet, Ruth

Love and Death

Love is stronger than death, asserts the Song of Songs. This sculpture on an Etruscan funeral monument has lovers in an eternal embrace.

Source: Drawing by Barry Bandstra based on A. Boëthius et al., eds., Etruscan Culture, Land, and People (New York: Columbia University, 1963), Figure 476.

Here are some comments on what some have called “The Greatest Song.”

Said Rabbi Akiba: Heaven forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs is holy. For the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.

MISHNAH YADAYIM 3:5 (Second Century CE)

. . . the holy love that is the subject of the entire Song cannot be expressed by words or language, but only in deed and truth. Here love speaks everywhere! If anyone desires to grasp these writings, let him

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love! For anyone who does not love, it is vain to listen to this song of love—or to read it, for a cold heart cannot catch fire from its eloquence.

The language of love will be meaningless jangle, like sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, to anyone who does not love.

BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX (1090–1153), Sermon 79.1

[The Song is] not allegorical but sacramental. Human passion . . . gives us a hint of God’s passion for us. We are most like God’s love for us when we are aroused in the presence of our beloved. And we best experience a hint of God’s love when our beloved pursues us.

ANDREW M. GREELEY, Love Song (1989)


We find some of Israel’s most mature thinking on the deeper issues of life in the Five Scrolls. Love, loyalty, freedom, destiny, death. Some of these books are delightful, some utterly depressing. Together they reveal a tradition that framed worthy responses to the human condition. In some respects, these five books make for strange bedfellows. They have little form or content in common. The Song of Songs is a collection of throbbing love poetry, Ruth is a romance, Lamentations is a collection of mournful dirges, Ecclesiastes is a philosophical treatise, and Esther is an historical novella. But there are good reasons why they were gathered together into one collection called the Five Scrolls, as we will see in the concluding section.

1.1 Reading Guide

Note that these books can be a bit difficult to locate if you are reading a Christian Bible rather than a Tanak. They are rather short and scattered around—not grouped together in one place as they are in the Ketuvim. In an Old Testament, look for Ruth after Judges, Esther after Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (perhaps titled Song of Solomon) after Proverbs, and Lamentations after Jeremiah. Here is a suggested schedule of readings:


1. Song of Songs: It is a collection of loosely connected poems, so if you read Chapters 1 and 7–8, you will not miss any plot but will catch the richness of the poetry and the depth of feeling.

2. Ruth: Read the entire book because it tells a continuous story and is only four chapters long. And, it is very touching.

3. Lamentations: The book is five laments, one each chapter, over the destruction of Jerusalem; read the first one, Chapter 1.

4. Ecclesiastes: Read Chapters 1–3, which include the thematic introduction, the autobiographical sketches, and the “turn, turn, turn” poem made famous by the Byrds. Also read Chapter 12, which ends with an important Torah epilogue.

5. Esther: Like Ruth, this book follows a continuous plot; at ten chapters, it is a bit longer than Ruth but should be read completely.

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Now for something completely different, in fact unlike any other literature in the Hebrew Bible. The Song of Songs, sometimes called the Song of Solomon, is the stuff of love, rather intimate love. Readers disagree whether or not the book has a plot. It is certainly not a story on the order of Ruth or Esther. Exactly what it is—a drama, a collection of wedding songs, or something else—remains under discussion. Whatever its genre, all agree it makes for titillating reading.

Three voices are distinguishable in the Song: a male lover, a female lover, and an independent group of observers called the daughters of Jerusalem. Some interpreters prefer to call the two main speakers the lover (the male) and the beloved (the female), but this implies one is active and the other passive, and the female is certainly not passive in these poems. Although less poetic, the terms male lover and female lover are more authentic.

The female lover is the first to speak:

May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
   for your love is better than wine.
Your anointing oils are fragrant,
   your name is sweet smelling oil.
So the maidens love you. (1:2–3)

The male lover has just as rich an appreciation of his companion:

You are beautiful, my lover,
   you are beautiful,
   your eyes are doves.
You are beautiful, my lover,
   really beautiful.
Our couch is rich,
   the beams of our house are cedar,
   the rafters cypress. (1:15–17)

The daughters of Jerusalem, to whom the female lover addresses herself at times, seem to be her companions, sometimes encouraging her to rush into the relationship. The female lover more than once urges them to stop pushing her:

I implore you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
   by the gazelles and wild does,
   not to stir up or rouse love until it is ready! (2:7; also 3:5 and 8:4)

The male lover unceasingly praises her physical attributes but appears to get a little impatient for love. Throughout the poems, he calls her by the endearing term sister:

A locked garden is my sister, my bride,
   a locked garden, a sealed spring. (4:12)

The imagery of the garden seems to give shape to their shared experience.

Female Lover

Awake north wind,
   come on south wind,

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   blow on my garden
   so its fragrance wafts away.
Let my lover come to his garden
   and eat its luscious fruit. (4:16)

Male Lover

I’ve come to my garden,
   my sister, my bride.
I’ve gathered my myrrh mixed with spices,
   I’ve eaten my honeycomb with honey,
   I’ve drunk my mixed wine and milk. (5:1a)


Eat, lovers, and drink.
Be drunk with love. (5:1b)

The book ends with a stirring affirmation of the ultimacy of love:

Set me as a seal on your heart,
   a seal on your arm.
For love is strong as death,
   passion fierce as Sheol.
Its flashes are fire flashes,
   a blazing fire.
Mighty waters cannot quench love,
   nor floods sweep it away.
If anyone would offer all his wealth for love,
   he would be laughed to scorn. (8:6–7)

Sheol refers to the underworld, which is the residence of the dead. Nothing can compare in power to love, and love transcends even death. Indeed, the Song itself is notable for its frank, and at times frankly erotic, love language. Many of the metaphors are at best thinly veiled allusions to human sexuality. Physical love and sensuality are the source of deep satisfaction in the Song.

The book abounds with interpretive issues. For one, is the book to be read as a drama, or are the poems unconnected sketches? If simply poems, were they intended to be used in wedding ceremonies or other celebrations? Another issue: Is the male lover the same as the king referred to in the book (1:4, 12), with king just being love language, or is the king in competition with a country-boy lover? However one finally decides in regard to the dramatis personae of the book and its dramatic movement (if any), the unmistakable message of the book is the power and playfulness of human love.

Although it is one of the Five Scrolls, the Song of Songs has connections with the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible by virtue of its connection to Solomon. English versions tend to call this book the Song of Solomon although in Hebrew it is entitled the Song of Songs. The phrase “song of songs” is the Hebrew way of stating the superlative; in other words, this is the greatest song, or as one translator puts it, “the sublime song” (Pope, 1977). Similar biblical constructions are “lord of lords” and “king of kings.”

The book received the title Song of Solomon because the first verse appends the words li-shlomo to the phrase “song of songs.” Depending on one’s interpretation,

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this phrase can either be “by Solomon” or “for Solomon.” The same ambiguity exists in many psalm superscriptions where psalms li-david are either by or for David (see RTOT Chapter 13). Perhaps the Solomonic connection was made because Solomon is mentioned in Chapters 3 and 8 (though not as author) and because 1 Kings 4:32 says that he composed 1005 songs.

Various theories of the origin of the poems have been suggested. Some of the songs may go back to the early monarchic period though this cannot be proven. The songs have their closest affinity in the ancient period with Egyptian love songs (see White, 1978; Fox, 1985).

An Egyptian Love Song

The love of my sister is on yonder side
   Of the stream in the midst of the fish.
A crocodile stands on the sandbank
   Yet I go down into the water.
I venture across the current;
   My courage is high upon the waters.
It is thy love which gives me strength;
   For thou makest a water-spell for me.
When I see my sister coming,
   Then my heart rejoices.
My arms are open wide to embrace her;
   My heart is glad in its place. (Thomas, 1961)

This Egyptian love song comes from the 1200s BCE and contains the same interest in animal imagery as the love poems in the Song of Songs. In both compositions, the female lover is referred to as “my sister.” Nowhere outside Israel, except for Egypt, is anything like love poetry in this form found. The next closest parallels might be with certain Syrian wedding songs written in Arabic, but these are much later. Other authorities have suggested such love poetry may be related to ancient Mesopotamian and Canaanite ceremonies uniting divinities in marriage or were used in connection with funeral feasts (see Pope, 1977).

Interesting from a canonical perspective is how the biblical community of faith wrestled with the book. The transparent nature of the love talk in the Song of Songs scandalized many early readers. This was so much the case that the book had some difficulty finding its way into the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The problem was heightened because, like the book of Esther, the Song of Songs never makes reference to God. The book was accepted into the canon only after rabbis viewed it as an allegory of the relationship between Yhwh and the people of Israel.

An allegory is a story in which people, places, and things have a meaning quite different from and unrelated to their surface meaning. Later, Christian interpreters applied a similar allegorical reading, interpreting it as the love relationship between Christ and the church. This was the reigning interpretation of the Song during the Middle Ages (see Matter, 1990). Smith (1993) notes that in the Middle Ages there were more sermons based on the Song of Songs than on any other biblical book.

The inclusion of the Song of Songs within the canon is at some level an affirmation of the essential created goodness of sex. Certainly through the history of the formation of the canon, this posed problems. Perhaps the rabbinic and early Christian

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allegorizing of the book was really just a rationalization for including this love poetry in the canon. All along they appreciated the appropriateness of human love and realized the importance of canonically affirming it. After all, the first commandment in all of Scripture is to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.


This book tells the story of Ruth, a heroine of faith. The book of Ruth is one of the best-loved works of biblical literature and is notable for its simplicity and directness. The story of Ruth unfolds in four scenes, each corresponding to a chapter.

3.1 Scene 1

The Israelite family of Elimelech and Naomi was forced to move to Moab because of a famine (see Figure 15.1). An irony of the story is that this family from Bethlehem (its Hebrew name means “house of bread”) left the supposed land of plenty to live in

Moab in Israel's History

FIGURE 15.1 Moab in Israel’s History

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Moab (see Daviau and Dion, 2002). In this foreign land, their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, married Ruth and Orpah, two Moabite women. After a time in Moab, Elimelech and his two sons died. Only Naomi and her two daughters-in-law survived. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem and urged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab and find security with their families there. Orpah chose to remain, but Ruth refused to part from her mother-in-law, demonstrating dogged loyalty:

Ruth said,
“Do not urge me to leave you
   or quit following you!
Where you go, I will go.
   where you live, I will live.
Your people will become my people,
   and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die;
   that is where I will be buried.
May Yhwh do thus and so to me, and even more,
   if even death separates me from you!” (1:16–17)

Ruth insisted on staying with Naomi. Verse 17 contains an oath formula (“May Yhwh do thus and so to me . . . if”) invoking divine sanction for her pledge. Together Naomi and Ruth entered Bethlehem, with Naomi bemoaning her plight to the women of the city who came out to meet them. The first scene ends with the narrator’s comment that they had come to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Once again, there is food in Bethlehem, no doubt hinting that Naomi and Ruth might find fullness back in Naomi’s homeland, perhaps in more ways than one.

3.2 Scene 2

Ruth went to glean in the field of Boaz, who was a relative of Elimelech, Ruth’s deceased father-in-law. Gleaning is the practice of scavenging a field for stalks left behind by the hired workers (see Leviticus 19:9–10). Boaz took an interest in her, noting especially her loyalty to Naomi in her time of loss. At mealtime he shared his food with her and arranged for the workers to leave extra stalks behind just for her. On returning home, Naomi noted Boaz’s kindness, which continued through the harvest season.

3.3 Scene 3

Naomi urged Ruth to capitalize on Boaz’s interest. During the harvest celebration, an overnight party held on the threshing floor near the new grain (see Figure 15.2). Ruth discretely snuggled up to Boaz. She asked him to spread his cloak over her: metaphorically to give her protection, but perhaps also offering to spend the night with him. Boaz was overwhelmed by her initiative and interpreted it as an additional sign of her loyalty to Naomi and her deceased husband. Boaz promised to secure legal rights to claim her in marriage the next day and act as her dead husband’s “next-of-kin.” The Hebrew term used here is go’el, which can also be translated “redeemer.”

3.4 Scene 4

Boaz went to the city gate in the morning. This is where all public business was conducted. Boaz brought the issue to a conclusion in this way. He announced that

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Threshing Floor

FIGURE 15.2 Threshing Floor

A threshing floor is a stone patio set on a hill. Here, grain is beaten out to separate the head from the husk. Ruth rendezvoused with Boaz at such a place. This one is located near Bethlehem.

Photo by Barry Bandstra, May 1996

Naomi was seeking to sell the property of Elimelech. Another man stood closer in family relationship to Elimelech than Boaz, and this unnamed man initially expressed interest in purchasing the property. Then Boaz added that the one buying the property was required to marry Ruth and raise up sons to her dead husband. This was evidently a component of the levirate marriage practice. According to the Israelite law of levirate marriage (from Latin levir, “a husband’s brother”), the brother of a childless dead man’s is required to raise children to his dead brother’s name by marrying the widow (see Deuteronomy 25:5–10). This other man promptly withdrew his interest, and Boaz claimed the right to redeem.

The transaction was made official with a sandal-passing ceremony that transferred ownership from one party to another, and Boaz took Ruth as his wife. In time Ruth had a son, and Naomi was the first to rejoice. He was given the name Obed, and he became the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. Thus, Ruth, a Moabite foreigner, and Boaz became the great-grandparents of the greatest monarch of Israel.

This is a heartwarming story, as remarkable for its simplicity as for the richness of its values. The story of Ruth is one of those rare Hebrew stories that on its most basic level was intended to be paradigmatic. That is, the characters are portrayed as models of virtue and goodness who should be emulated. Naomi is notable for the way she was concerned about the welfare of her daughter-in-law. Boaz, whose name means “strength” (not coincidentally it was also the name of one of the pillars of the Jerusalem temple, 1 Kings 7:21), went out of his way to show kindness to Ruth and provide for her protection.

Above all, Ruth displayed absolute loyalty to her mother-in-law and her adopted family, especially her dead husband. She was not motivated out of self-interest but faithfully sought to preserve the estate and future of Elimelech. The book demonstrates that ordinary people will find peace and security when they behave selflessly.

An additional moral lesson may have been intended. The main character of the story is Ruth, a female. She stands as yet another example of strong and influential

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women who influenced the course of Israelite history. Just as significantly, she was a foreigner, and a Moabite at that. The Moabites were hated by the Israelites through most of their history but especially in the exilic and postexilic periods. Yet this story demonstrates how a Moabite could possess the qualities of loyalty and piety and indeed could become part of the royal line of David.

The story of Ruth was set in the time of the judges, making her premonarchic. Because the book was set “in the days when the judges judged” (1:1) and provides background to the family of David, the early Greek version placed the book of Ruth between the books of Judges and Samuel, a practice followed by Christian versions of the Old Testament.

The actual time of the book’s final composition is disputed, with some advocating a date of composition in the early monarchy period (see Hals, 1969; Campbell, 1975). Most authorities today maintain a postexilic date. If this is the case, the book may have been intended as a countervoice to that of Ezra, who administered Jerusalem in the 400s BCE. The Jewish community under Ezra aggressively took on a very ethnically defined identity. Immigrants, called sojourners in biblical literature, became unwelcome, and Ezra made Jewish men divorce their Moabite wives (see Ezra 10:1–5, Nehemiah 13:23–27, and RTOT Chapter 17).

The book of Ruth shows appreciation for Moabites, and perhaps sojourners in general, and demonstrates that they can be loyal to Yhwh too. Viewed in this way, the book of Ruth may be a protest against excluding all non-Jewish ethnicities from Judaism. This acceptance is also glimpsed occasionally in prophetic literature as, for example, in the Rahab story in Joshua, in the inclusiveness of the gentile nations found in Second and Third Isaiah, and in the book of Jonah—but nowhere more clearly than in the book of Ruth. The point is that foreigners can and sometimes do display faith in Israel’s God Yhwh and can demonstrate loyalty to the people of Israel and even become them.

The tale of Ruth is self-contained and has a remarkable wholeness to it. But the book in its final form gives evidence of canonical transformation. The tale of Ruth was taken and given another purpose beyond that of modeling ideal people of God. The original story of Ruth was repurposed and was used to say something about David, even though David’s line does not play any role in the body of the story.

The story in its bare form was probably not about ancestors of David. It could stand alone without the concluding Davidic notes. But the addition of 4:17b and the genealogy of 4:18–22 give the book an expanded meaning within the national epic. With these additions, the book says that God was at work in the life of Naomi’s family to provide for Israel’s kingship needs. The genealogical additions do not add anything to the story line but instead give the story an added context of significance as background to the royal family. Composed in the postexilic period from a preexisting Ruth tale and given a Davidic context of interpretation, the book of Ruth is probably evidence for an intense interest in the royal messianic line in the late biblical period.


The book of Lamentations consists of five separate poems, each its own chapter. Each of the first four psalms is an alphabetic acrostic of one scheme or another. An acrostic uses the letters of the alphabet to develop a scheme. In the case of

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Chapters 1–2, the first letter of each three-line stanza begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (twenty-two letters in all) so that the first triplet begins with a (aleph in Hebrew), the second with b (beth), and so forth. Chapter 4 consists of couplets rather than triplets in the same scheme. Chapter 3 consists of twenty-two triplets where each line of the triplet begins with the same letter of the alphabet in acrostic progression. Chapter 5 consists of twenty-two single lines without any observable alphabetic progression. Whatever the reason for these elaborate acrostic schemes, they do give evidence of the writer’s poetic craftsmanship. To say the least, the poems were not artlessly constructed.

Each of the five poems is a complaint psalm; this is the dominant psalm type in the Psalter (see RTOT Chapter 13). Virtually all the lines of the first four lamentations were composed in the 3 + 2 qinah meter that typifies the lament style (see Garr, 1983). The specific genre of city lament is also found in Babylonian literature. Compare the lamentation over the destruction of Ur (ANET, 455–463) and the lamentation over the destruction of Sumer and Ur (ANET, 611–619).

Both individual and group complaint forms are found in Lamentations, with the voice changing unexpectedly from singular to plural throughout the poems. When singular voice moves into plural, the singular appears to stand collectively for the group. The focus of attention is on the desolation of Jerusalem:

How deserted sits the city,
   once full of people!
She has become like a widow,
   once great among the nations!
Once a princess among principalities,
   she has become a peasant. (1:1)

The complaints were composed to lament the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE by the Babylonians. The destruction of the temple was the most devastating loss of all, for it meant the loss of their central religious institution and the departure of Yhwh from their land. It appears from Jeremiah 41:5 that soon after the destruction of 587, people still came to the temple mount in Jerusalem to worship. Zechariah 7:1–7 and 8:19 suggest that fasts were held, perhaps as many as four a year, marking the destruction. The Lamentations were probably used on these occasions to mark the disaster. This traumatic moment in Israel’s history is still observed today within the Jewish community as Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, falling somewhere between the end of July and the beginning of August.

Jeremiah has traditionally been identified as the author of Lamentations because of similarities to his personal complaints. For this reason, the Christian canon has placed the book of Lamentations after the book of Jeremiah. In the Hebrew Bible, it is included with the Writings. Jeremiah composed a lament upon the occasion of the death of Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:25), but there is no evidence he did the same thing for Jerusalem or that he composed the book of Lamentations.


Ecclesiastes is usually included in the category of wisdom literature along with Proverbs and Job. It also has some similarity to the Dialogue of Pessimism of the Babylonian wisdom tradition, also called the Babylonian Ecclesiastes or the Babylonian

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Theodicy (see ANET, 438–440, 600–601, and Lambert 1960). Yet the style of its language, its vocabulary, and the themes it holds in common with Greek philosophy suggest that it dates to the 100s BCE, making it one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible to have been written.

The theological conversation of Proverbs and Job concerning the relationship of human behavior and divine purpose continues in the book of Ecclesiastes. Like Job, it presents a challenge to traditional theology. The book of Ecclesiastes questions the very purpose of human existence. It asks, What gives lasting meaning to life? If everyone only dies in the end, what is the meaningful difference between righteousness and wickedness? The seriousness with which the book probes this basic human issue makes it one of the most accessible, almost even “modern,” compositions of biblical literature.

Like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes approaches the world of experience looking for order and moral law. Using his powers of observation and reason, the writer attempts to put it all together in a meaningful way. But unlike the wisdom of Proverbs, the writer of Ecclesiastes fails to see an overall coherence or direction. Sure, some things are predictable and regular:

For everything there is a season,
   and a time for every matter under heaven:
      a time to be born, and a time to die;
      a time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted. (3:1–2)

But ultimately, life seems to have no discernible meaning:

Everything is emptiness
   and a chasing after wind.
There is nothing to be gained under the sun. (2:11)

The cynical wisdom of Ecclesiastes appears to challenge the neat and tidy world of traditional proverbial wisdom. If there is no ultimate purpose to life, then why should you care whether you are wise or foolish, righteous or wicked?

The book of Ecclesiastes projects itself as the work of Solomon. Solomon is the “patron saint” of wisdom and naturally gets the credit. The reputation of Solomon as Israel’s richest and wisest king (whether true or not matters little for literary purposes) equips the supposed author to pursue the search for ultimate wisdom, unencumbered with limitations. If anyone had the means, time, talent, and opportunity to search for wisdom and find it, that person would have to be Solomon.

Neither the introduction nor any other verse in Ecclesiastes makes the specific claim of Solomonic authorship. The speaker is simply referred to as Qohelet in the editorial introduction, “The words of Qohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1: 1). Qohelet is not a name but a title. Translators are not sure exactly what is intended or why the speaker of the book was called this. The word is related to the verb “to assemble,” accounting for its title Ecclesiastes in the Septuagint, meaning the “churchman” (related to the Greek word ekklesia meaning “assembly” or “church”). The gender of the term qohelet is feminine, as is the gender of the Hebrew word for “wisdom”—perhaps not a coincidence.

The book is a royal autobiography and takes the form of personal reflections and reminiscences. It has been compared to the genre of royal journals found elsewhere in ancient Middle Eastern literature (see Longman, 1991). Qohelet’s personal story

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is prefaced with a poem that clearly expresses the theme of the book as a whole and sets the mood:

Emptiness, Qohelet says, everything is emptiness. What do people gain from all the work they do under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, yet the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and rushes back again to the place from which it rises. The wind blows south, then returns to the north, round and round goes the wind, on its rounds it circulates. All streams flow to the sea, yet the sea does not fill up. All matters are tiring, more than anyone can express. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What is is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it can be said, “See this is new!”—It has already been, in eras before us. The people of ages past are no longer remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them. (1:2–11)

The central thought of Ecclesiastes is contained in that first line “Emptiness, everything is emptiness.” The Hebrew term for “emptiness,” or “vanity” in older translations, is hevel, which means “mist” or “vapor.” The assertion that all is empty is literally the beginning and the end of the book, found here in 1:2 and also in 12:8. The circularity of the system perceived by Qohelet, especially the lack of directionality and goal, is reflected in the very structure of the book, which ends where it began.

Qohelet observes the circularity of nature, the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. He sees regularity and predictability. But in seeing circularity, he does not sense the beauty of a self-renewing system. Rather, he senses futility and purposelessness. The wisdom enterprise up until now had prided itself in discovering and articulating the order of nature, but that has turned into something quite different, a reason for despair.

In Chapters 1 and 2, Qohelet tells us how and why he arrived at this conclusion. With various experiments and investigations, he sought to find the location of meaning. First, he tried raw intellect. Applying his mind to know wisdom and folly, he only found that the attempt was an experiment in frustration.

Then he tried the opposite approach. He gave his life over to the pursuit of physical pleasure and personal satisfaction. He drank strong drink, built a magnificent home with palatial grounds, accumulated precious metals, possessions, and a large staff of servants. Although he found fulfillment in none of these, he still recognized there might be provisional satisfaction in these pursuits. He concluded that “there is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their work” (2:24). The cause of Qohelet’s frustration is the limited vantage point available to humanity.

The phrase “under the sun” occurs twenty-nine times in the book, usually in statements such as “I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong” (9:11). This may just be another way of saying “on earth,” or it may serve to reinforce the limited scope of human reason and its incapacity to see the whole:

God made everything appropriate to its time. He has also done this—a sense of eternity he put into the heart of humankind, but without the ability to find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (3:11)

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The writer suspects that there is more to life than he or anyone else can figure out. God has planted in the human mind the notion of eternity, a reality that transcends human finiteness, yet he has not equipped humans to grasp it. Because we cannot transcend our limits, Qohelet counsels us to enjoy the good things that God’s creation has to offer.

The book of Ecclesiastes frankly faces the limited capacity of the human spirit to create ultimate meaning. The narrator does not deny that ultimate meaning might exist, but he doubts that we can expect to find it. Yet all the while, he does not come to the conclusion that there is no order. He affirms the reality and goodness of God (Elohim, never Yhwh in this book). And he affirms the continuing need to fear God.

Chapters 4–11 mostly contain rather traditional wisdom observations, generally on the order of what can be found in the book of Proverbs. He gives advice for coping in a world where meaningful activity is hard to find. Granted, all may be ultimately meaningless, yet even Qohelet understands that life must be lived and might even be enjoyed for what it does have to offer. Yet many of his observations tend to highlight the unfortunate or even tragic side of human experience. Note how Qohelet appends a cynical commentary to an otherwise commonplace proverbial statement:

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money;
   nor the lover of wealth with gain.
This too is emptiness. (4:10)

Was Qohelet a heretic? Or was he just frank and honest? For obvious reasons, the book of Ecclesiastes proved somewhat difficult to handle within the Jewish community of faith. It just does not contain the kind of upbeat, positive message that the faithful wanted to hear. Yet the book was not just dismissed out of hand as the depressed (and depressing) ruminations of a tired old philosopher. There was truth in what Qohelet said, at least at some level. It probably rang true especially to Jews who were looking to survive in a world dominated by Greek rule where they felt at the mercy of despotic political powers. They could not see God’s larger purpose and felt unable to affect it significantly.

The Jewish community struggled to canonize Ecclesiastes. Because of its somewhat troubling observations, the people perceived the need to retrieve the book from heresy and give it an orthodox patina. The editorial history of the book gives evidence of their efforts. Although there has been considerable discussion concerning the structure and editorial shape of the book, there is a general consensus that the core of the book of Ecclesiastes is 1:2 through 12:8. To this was added the introduction that “Solomon-ized” the book and a series of two, perhaps three, conclusions.

Verses 9–11 of Chapter 12 break with the style of the rest of the book, which is aphoristic and autobiographical, and were probably written by a devoted disciple of Qohelet. These verses affirm the wisdom of Qohelet and his effectiveness as a thinker and teacher:

In addition to being wise, Qohelet taught the people knowledge, and how to judge, study and arrange many proverbs. Qohelet looked for pleasing words and wrote truthful words plainly. The sayings of the wise are like prods; like nails well set are the collected sayings of the one shepherd. (12:9–11)

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Verses 13–14, on the other hand, were written by a moralist who was more conventional than Qohelet:

The end of the matter is this, all has been heard: Fear God, and keep his commandments. That is the whole duty of humankind. For God will bring into judgment every deed, even every secret one, whether it is good or evil. (12:13–14)

The editor got the final say (see Sheppard, 1980) It appears as if an orthodox scribe or priest was worried that Qohelet’s investigation would lead to nihilism or denial of God. “Lest you be tempted to abandon the faith,” he says, “Fear God! Don’t give up the faith; don’t give up the demands of covenant! God still judges human actions. Lack of understanding is no excuse for immorality.”

This concluding editorial is really quite remarkable. It attests the vitality of the faith of the postexilic community. It obviously accepted, even perhaps encouraged, the creative kinds of thinking that took Torah to the edge. Applying Torah to their present circumstances took great effort and was a challenge. Qohelet demonstrates that the integration and synthesis were not complete—yet room was made for theological thinking that stood on the verge of being unorthodox.


The book of Esther does not get the same unqualified reception by Jews and Christians as the book of Ruth, the other heroine tale. Not only does the book of Esther lack the standard religious features one comes to expect in Hebrew literature—reference to the God of Israel, the covenant, Torah, and Jerusalem—it appears to condone certain baser human impulses such as violence and vengeance. Yet the book is part of the Hebrew canon. We need to discover why, and we need to deal with it.

The story of Esther is set in the Persian period, referred to by historians as the Achaemenid Empire (see Figure 15.3). The Persian monarch of the story is called Ahasuerus, known to historians as Xerxes I, who ruled from 486 to 465 BCE. The story is set in Susa, the royal winter palace though Persepolis was the main capital of the empire.

The story begins with a description of a great feast. When Queen Vashti refused to be the main entertainment for the male guests, she was summarily deposed. Ahasuerus organized a “Miss Persia” contest to replace her, and Esther won.

Esther was a Jewish orphan who had been cared for by her uncle Mordecai. Esther effectively concealed her Jewish identity from everyone at court. Mordecai, meanwhile, uncovered an assassination plot against Ahasuerus, and Esther told the king. Meanwhile, the villainous Prime Minister Haman grew angry with Mordecai because Mordecai refused to show him deference. A faithful Jew, Mordecai was loyal to the commandment not to bow down to anyone or anything except the God of Israel.

Haman hatched a plot to kill Mordecai as well as all the Jews. An unwitting Ahasuerus went along with the plan. When Mordecai heard about Haman’s plan, he asked Esther to do something about it. After all, she had access to the king and was in his good graces. At first, Esther was reluctant to intervene, citing the

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Esther Map

FIGURE 15.3 The Book of Esther and the Persian Empire

danger of approaching the king uninvited. Mordecai prevailed upon Esther with this argument:

Do you think just because you live in the king’s palace you will escape the fate of all the other Jews? If you keep silent at such a time as this, help and deliverance will come for the Jews from somewhere else, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Maybe you have come to royal position for just such a time as this. (4:13–14)

This is the closest the book comes to expressing any kind of theological sentiment—in this case, a general suggestion of divine providence and protection. Esther approached the king and was granted an audience. She invited the king and Haman to a banquet. When Haman heard about the invitation, he was delighted but shortly thereafter became despondent after Mordecai again refused to bow down. In response he decided to have Mordecai hanged.

That same night, Ahasuerus the king was reviewing records of the royal court and came across the entry on Mordecai’s report of the assassination attempt, which ultimately saved the king. After some inquiry, he found out that Mordecai had never been honored for his services. Haman just happened to be near at the time, so the king called him in and asked what kinds of things should be done to honor a faithful citizen. Thinking that the king had him in mind, Haman devised

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a wonderful ceremonial procession giving public acclaim to such a man. The king told him to make it so. Imagine his shock when he found out that Mordecai was the one to be honored.

Afterward, at the banquet, Esther pleaded for the lives of the Jewish people. Amazingly, the king revealed little awareness of the edict he himself had authorized:

King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he—the one who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “An antagonist and an enemy, this wicked Haman!” (7:5)

Stunned (and a bit dim-witted too, it seems), the king left the room to contemplate the matter. Haman rushed over to Esther’s couch and threw himself upon her, pleading for his life. When the king came back and saw Haman on top of Esther, he thought Haman was making advances on his queen. Ahasuerus was even more outraged than before and had Haman hanged on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai then convinced the king to issue an edict reversing the intended result of Haman’s plan. Official letters were drafted and sent throughout the empire authorizing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed hundreds of their enemies in Susa and thousands elsewhere. A new respect for the Jews of the Diaspora developed, and many people became converts to Judaism.

Although the Diaspora, or Dispersion, of the Jews throughout the world began with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, two Persian period archives of ancient documents provide important background information on the early Jewish Diaspora. The Elephantine papyri from Aswan, Egypt, date to the late 400s BCE. They provide evidence of a large group of Jews who lived in Egypt and may have moved there after 587 as Jeremiah and Baruch were forced to do (Jeremiah 43:7). The papyri intriguingly suggest that the Jews of Elephantine worshipped the Canaanite goddess Anath alongside Yahweh. The Murashu archive, also from the late 400s, is 730 clay tablets that were discovered at Nippur in southern Mesopotamia. The texts are business documents from the banking family of Murashu that contain many Jewish names and give evidence that Jews owned land and houses.

The book of Esther explains the origin of the Jewish celebration of Purim. This holiday came late in Jewish history and is not authorized by the Torah, so separate justification was needed. It was called Purim following the name of the divination device, the pur or lot (see 3:7), that Haman used to determine the best day for the slaughter of the Jews.

Still celebrated by Jewish communities in February or March, Purim is a festival of freedom, remembering the time when Jews scattered around the world were given respect and recognition and the power to defend their own way of life. When it is observed today, it can be a raucous affair. Adolescents are allowed to do things on Purim they could never get away with on any other day. In celebration, the book of Esther is read in the synagogue, and whenever the name Haman is voiced, children shout, stamp their feet, and sound noisemakers. Special cookies called Haman’s ears are eaten in disdain of the villain. Adults are supposed to drink so much wine that they can no longer tell the difference between “Blessed Mordecai” and “Accursed Haman.”

There are additional meanings to the story of Esther. The book strongly cautions the Jews to not forget their identity or think that they can somehow find safety by

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blending in. Mordecai pointed out to Esther that assimilating was not an option and her position at court would not ultimately protect her. There is also the implication that the Jews must stick together, for only therein would they survive.

With Esther, we cannot fail to notice once again the importance of faithful women for the history of Israel. This story affirms the importance of a single courageous female character for the Jewish community. Indeed, its survival depended on her. The function of storytelling to present exemplary role models is evident here, for certainly Esther is presented as a paragon of courage and conviction for women of the faith.

The Hebrew Bible locates the book of Esther in the Writings as one of the Five Scrolls. The canonical tradition of the Christian Old Testament places it after Nehemiah, which makes it the last book in the collection of historical materials. This placement functions to assign a history-telling role to the book as opposed to its storytelling role in the Hebrew Bible.

The book of Esther is a late book, obviously having been written after the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes I). The consensus is that it was written in the fourth or third century BCE. It had some trouble finding acceptance into the canon because of its lack of explicit “God-talk.” It has the distinction of being the only book of the Hebrew Bible not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in at least one fragment. The old Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, seems to have found it somewhat inadequate. It lengthened the book considerably by introducing prayers and petitions of Esther and Mordecai that refer explicitly to God (see below).

Some scholars have suggested that the book has a pagan prehistory. For example, the name Mordecai could be derived from Marduk, the Babylonian high god, and Esther is linguistically related to Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess of love and war. In this speculation, the story was originally related to the Babylonian New Year festival, and the plot was transformed along with the names to make a Jewish tale. Although rather unlikely, such a mythological prehistory may at some far distant point underlie motifs in the book. But as it stands now, the book bears a recognizable historical and biblical setting.

The genealogical notes identifying Mordecai and Haman place the story within a larger biblical context. Mordecai is identified as a descendant of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. This would make him a descendant of Saul. Haman is identified as a member of the Agag family and an Amalekite. The Amalekites were the prototypical enemies of the Israelites insofar as they were the first to attack the Hebrews after they left Egypt in the Exodus (see RTOT Chapter 3). They also harassed the Israelites during the early monarchy. Saul’s failure to eliminate Agag and the Amalekites was one cause of his demise. The book of Esther implies that Mordecai finally got the job done by eliminating Haman.

The book of Esther comes off as somewhat tribal in character. It has a definite “us” against “them” feel to it as it deals with Haman’s planned pogrom to eliminate Jews. Esther and Mordecai proved themselves clever enough to overcome this threat to the Jews. Jewish national and religious salvation involved the execution of Haman and community self-defense. In some ways, this is a violent book. What, then, is the effect of having it in the Hebrew Bible? How can such bloodshed be justified?

Perhaps the book itself shows evidence of wrestling with this issue and softening its effects. The letters of Mordecai and Esther contained in 9:20–32 appear to be additions. They change the tone of Purim considerably. They turn it from a time

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of slaughtering Jewish enemies to a time of celebration, gift giving, and well wishing. Through this canonical reinterpretation, the original event became the occasion to celebrate Jewish identity and God’s preservation of the Jews as a people (see Childs, 1979). Nonetheless, the book exposes the serious threats that God’s people face when living in an alien and hostile culture. The book of Esther reveals that God directs affairs providentially to protect and deliver his people.


We treated these five short books together because they were grouped together within the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible. The group is called the Five Scrolls (in Hebrew, the Five Megillot). Why five? This collection of five books may imitate the “fiveness” of the five books of the Torah and the five books of the Psalter. The clustering together of the Five Scrolls is attested in the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible that current editions are based on. However, the earliest evidence for the order of biblical books is in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b). It intersperses the Five Scrolls among other books as follows: Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. This sequence reflects their presumed chronological order.

Despite their lack of common style or subject, there is an appropriateness to the collection. Each of the books was used by the Jewish community in connection with a yearly commemoration, and the order of individual books within the Five Scrolls correlates with their sequence within the yearly Jewish calendar, from spring to winter (see Table 15.1).

The five books in this collection differ in many ways including literary type and subject matter. They were grouped together primarily because they all relate to Jewish commemorative events. But we should ask if there is any further benefit, a thematic and theological bonus perhaps, in seeing them together as a collection.

TABLE 15.1 The Five Scrolls and the Jewish Calendar





Historical Connection
Song of Songs Passover Pesach Spring; marked the beginning of the barley harvest Exodus from Egypt
Ruth Feast of weeks/Pentecost Shavuot Early summer, seven weeks after Passover; marked the end of the barley harvest Law giving at Mount Sinai
Lamentations Ninth of Av Tishah b’av Late summer Destruction of the first Jerusalem temple in 587 BCE; also commemorates the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE
Ecclesiastes Feast of booths or tabernacles Sukkot Fall, six months after Passover; marked the grape harvest Forty years of wilderness sojourn
Esther Feast of Purim Purim Late winter Deliverance of the Jews during the Persian period

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If consensus reconstructions are accurate, all five of these books were compiled relatively late, in the exilic period of the 500s BCE or thereafter. These books should then be interpreted in light of the theological and sociological issues of that age, specifically the reconstruction of a Jewish community and the emergence of religious Judaism.

The book of Ruth may be viewed as a protest against an ethnically defined nationalism, implicitly arguing for a more inclusive community. The criterion for inclusion into the community should not be tribal affiliation but acceptance of the God of Israel.

The book of Esther also addresses the issue of community but from the opposite angle—that is, where Jews are the ones being excluded. It exposes the problems of religious intolerance and xenophobia from the perspective of the outsider. Esther portrays the ugliness of a society where Jews are systematically ostracized and abused. The book, at the same time, is empowering. The Diaspora Jews of the book of Esther are not helpless or ineffectual but are capable of defending themselves politically and militarily. The story authorizes the postexilic Jewish community to affirm its identity in the face of racially and religiously based prejudice and discrimination.

The books of Ruth and Esther do not reflect the same community. They display different community attitudes especially to the non-Israelite population. They represent different challenges to pluralism. But both responses, by virtue of being included in the canon, represent acceptable responses.

The Song of Songs seems to issue a different kind of social challenge. It stands, perhaps, as a protest against a world where the free expression of love was discouraged. Remember the abuse that the lovers suffered in the book. It is critical of a society that does not value genuine love and would force true lovers to affirm their commitment in secret. It is also critical of a dominating patriarchal society that attempts to manipulate female love and use it in a self-gratifying way. The Song is startlingly progressive in the mutuality of the male–female relationship.

Ecclesiastes along with Job constitutes late wisdom’s challenge to retribution theology. Ecclesiastes presses the issue of divine governance by probing for the essential meaning of existence. Although it does not deny the providence of God, it does seem to give up in frustration over its inability to penetrate to the purpose of God. If the book speaks not only on the personal level but also on the communal level, it expresses Israel’s frustration at not knowing what God had in store for them historically. Only a backwater province within monstrous empires, they had lost a sense of national purpose.

Lamentations continues in the vein of challenge, if not protest. The very mode of complaint that is the genre of the book could be interpreted as a dispute with God. It demands to know why God treated his people so harshly and wants to know when he would restore them. Again, the community wrestles with God.

Perhaps it is no accident that these voices gave expression through poetry and story instead of through prophetic genres. As poetry and story, they might not so quickly give offense. Metaphoric poetry and heartwarming story can sometimes soften otherwise prickly lessons. In any case, they kept alive the theological discussion over the nature of the covenant community, especially the value of all members, indigenous Israelite and non-Israelite alike, female and male alike. In all, these books represent alternate voices from the margins, critical analysis, and challenging

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explorations that seem to contest the historically dominant theologies of the Jews. Taken together, they highlight the need for foundational biblical and human values: loyalty, faithfulness, acceptance, security, freedom, and love.


Various materials of the Apocrypha mirror the Five Scrolls in some way and arguably could be seen as extensions of them. Some are complete short stories that are similar in character to Ruth and Esther. Others are additions and later elaborations to one of the existing scrolls.

8.1 Tobit

The book of Tobit runs in the same vein as Daniel and Esther. It is what some call an historical romance novel. The story of this book focuses on two characters, Tobit and his future daughter-in-law, Sarah. Though written probably in the early 100s BCE, the story is set within the Assyrian Empire of the late 700s and early 600s BCE after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. Tobit was a faithful Israelite who continued to keep the Torah of Moses and to revere Jerusalem and its temple.

Tobit demonstrated his piety by burying dead Israelites who otherwise would not have received a proper burial. After one such good deed, he slept outside, and after bird dung dropped into his eyes, he went blind. This inevitably raised the question why such misfortune had fallen upon him, a caring, even courageous, God-fearing man.

In need of resources, Tobit sent his son, Tobias, to distant Media to recover some funds that he had on deposit there. In Media we are told of the misfortunes of one Sarah. She had lost seven husbands, each in turn killed on their wedding night by Asmodeus, a demon. Sarah wished only for death herself. Meanwhile in Media, Tobias was attacked by a large fish one day as he was bathing. The angel Raphael, in disguise, instructed Tobias to gut the fish and save its viscera because, the angel said, they are useful for medicine.

Tobias and Sarah met and pursued marriage. Tobias used the fish’s heart and liver to drive the evil demon away. Then Tobias returned to his father with his wife and the foreign funds, and with the fish’s gall, he healed his father’s blindness. Tobit lived a long life and enjoyed his many grandchildren. The book is transparently a Diaspora tale. It intends, much like the hero tales of Daniel, to support and encourage faithful living among the Jews who were scattered throughout the empires. It is shaped especially by the retribution theology of the book of Deuteronomy and upholds its doctrine that righteous behavior ultimately merits prosperity and long life:

Bless the righteous Lord,
   and exalt the King of ages.
In the land where I am exiled I praise him.
   and display his power and glory to a sinful nation:
Repent, Sinners. Do the right thing before him.
   Perhaps he will favor you and show mercy. (13:6)

8.2 Judith

Another legendary tale, the book of Judith unfortunately gets most of its facts wrong. But it is still a fascinating tale of a beautiful woman who delivers God’s

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people through her courage and cleverness. The action of the book takes place during “the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh” (1:1). Of course, Nebuchadrezzar was king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire with its capital at Babylon. The story centers on Holofernes, the commander of the Assyrian army, who has come to conquer Jerusalem. However, the Samarian town of Bethulia stands in his way, so the army besieges it.

After holding out for many days, the city is ready to surrender. Judith, a Jewish widow and resident of the city, appears at this point in the story with a plan for Israel’s deliverance. She adorned herself, left Bethulia, and entered the Assyrian camp. Holofernes received her because she was so beautiful and because she came with word on how he could conquer the city. After three days in the camp, Holofernes invited Judith to a banquet after which he planned to ravish her. A very drunk Holofernes took her to his bedroom. After a prayer for God’s support, she took his sword and “with all her power she struck his neck twice and cut off his head” (13:8). The army panicked and the Jews routed them. Thereafter, Judith’s courage was marveled and praised.

8.3 Additions to Esther

The book of Esther actually comes in different flavors. The Hebrew version (the one described above, found in the Hebrew Bible) is the shortest. This one is found with various elaborations and expansions and is the one found in the Septuagint, the old Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. It is well known that the book of Esther was problematic from early on. It never mentions God explicitly and never makes reference to the distinctive practices of Judaism: the Torah of Moses, circumcision, kashrut, and Sabbath observance. These deficiencies are remedied by the additions of the Greek version.

When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he removed the Greek additions to the Hebrew version and placed them at the end of the story. This resulted in the six additional text segments being labeled A through F, which is how they will be found in certain editions of the Bible. The NRSV Apocrypha follows the practice of translating the entire longer Greek version as a continuous story and identifying which parts are the additions. This enables a coherent and much easier reading of the story.

If you can recall the basic story line of the Hebrew book of Esther, the following summaries should make some sense. Addition A contains an account of a dream that Mordecai had that previewed his coming conflict with Haman. It also describes how he learned of the plot on Ahasuerus’s life. Addition B is a record of the official policy document that Haman initiated authorizing the destruction of the Jews. Addition C contains pious prayers of Mordecai and Esther to the Hebrew God in which they pleaded for deliverance. Addition D describes in detail how Esther appeared uninvited before the king. Addition E is a record of the royal edict that reversed the prior one and authorized the Jews to defend themselves. Addition F returns to Mordecai’s dream and interprets its fulfillment.

8.4 Baruch

Baruch is mentioned numerous times in the book of Jeremiah as Jeremiah’s friend and secretary. Both were taken to Egypt in 582 BCE after the destruction of Jerusalem. The book of Baruch places him in Babylon early in the exile. It appears to have been written in the middle to late 100s BCE because portions of it depend on Daniel 9 and the book of Daniel was completed around 160.

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The book consists essentially of two parts. The first section is a response to the destruction of Jerusalem, as was Lamentations, also traditionally connected to Jeremiah. It is a confession of sins and an admission of guilt for having brought about the destruction of Jerusalem by their sins, along with a prayer to the Lord for mercy. This prayer was read to Jehoiachin and the others in exile and then was forwarded to Jerusalem along with money for offerings.

The second section is introduced with a wisdom-style poem in praise of the Torah and another acknowledgment of guilt. The book ends on a hopeful note, expecting and anticipating a return from exile. Thus, the book echoes the general prophetic message of judgment and repentance and affirms the Torah as the path of obedience. Given its context of composition, it appears to have been written as a word of encouragement to Diaspora Jews to move from exile back to Palestine.

8.5 Letter of Jeremiah

This composition is of uncertain date, perhaps in the 200s BCE. In some early versions, it is connected to Baruch as its sixth chapter. It presents itself as a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to those who are facing deportation to Babylon. The letter explains that they must not fall into idol worship once they arrive in Babylon. They must remain steadfast in their devotion to the Lord.

This short composition illustrates how some late writings were inspired by material in the Hebrew biblical tradition and became creative elaborations of them. This particular letter is analogous to Jeremiah’s famous letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29. The sermon against idolatry and foreign gods seems to build upon the diatribe against idols found in Jeremiah 10 and is similar to those present in 2 Isaiah (see 40:18–20, 41:6–7, and 44:9–20). Again, we see how the canonical biblical tradition was a rich resource for later generations in addressing the needs and challenges that they faced within the evil empires of their day.



1. Song of Songs. What are the main ways in which the Song of Songs can be interpreted?

2. Ruth. Why is the fact that Ruth is a Moabite crucial to the story? How is this fact tied to the meaning and application of the story?

3. Lamentations. What is the literary type of the poems in this book, and what historical event do they commemorate?

4. Ecclesiastes. As speculative wisdom, what theological issue does this book wrestle with, and what are its conclusions?

5. Esther. How did Mordecai convince Esther to intervene to save the Jews, and what was the outcome of her intervention?

6. Apocryphal additions. Which of the original five scrolls have apocryphal additions, and why did the apocryphal writers think these additions were useful or necessary?


1. Sex in the Bible. As poetry in praise of human love and frank sexuality, is there a tension between the Song of Songs and the morality of the rest of biblical literature?

2. Diversity and gender. How are the books of Ruth and Esther alike? How do they differ? How does each face the issues of community identity and

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how to deal with foreigners? Are these still relevant issues in the world of today?

3. Meaning of life. How does Ecclesiastes address the question of the meaning of life? How does his thinking compare to the spirit of the modern age? How did the editors of Ecclesiastes try to handle the potentially disturbing effect of the book? What adjectives would you use to describe the book and your reaction to it?

4. Scrolls issues today. For each of the Five Scrolls, identify a contemporary work of literature, art, music, or film that wrestles with the same issue that lies at the heart of the biblical book.


The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation, by Marcia Falk, (1990), and The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch (1995), are translations of the Song of Songs. Ruth: A New Translation with a Philological Commentary and a Formalist-Folklorist Interpretation, by Jack M. Sasson (1989), is a detailed treatment of Ruth. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, by Michael V. Fox (1991), is a valuable commentary on Esther. The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story, by Frank A. Spina (2005), has chapters on Esau, Tamar and Judah, Rahab and Achan, Naaman and Gehazi, Jonah, and Ruth. For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker (2007), is a brilliant feminist rereading of the Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Jonah.