Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith, by Rabbi Israel Drazin, is part of a larger series that explores questions that have puzzled readers of the Bible for centuries. Rabbi Drazin does this with an eye toward understanding why Ruth and Esther were included in the Jewish Bible while the Book of Judith, which has a more openly religious character than either Ruth or Esther, was excluded from the biblical canon and appears only in the Jewish apocrypha.
Drazin’s book is divided into three units, one on each of the three books the author investigates. Each unit is further divided into chapters and excursuses that provide an overview of each book and explore key themes in greater detail. For example, the excursus titled “Did Ruth Convert” considers textual evidence that suggests that Ruth did not convert to Judaism, despite Rabbinic interpretation which identifies her as an early convert. “The book of Ruth not only does not indicate that Ruth converted, it states seven times that she remained a Moabite — including twice in the final chapter, where Boaz calls her a Moabite when he speaks about marrying her,” states Drazin.
In his analysis of the Book of Esther, the author notes that it “contains no mention of God and no indication that the Judeans observed any biblical command.” Rabbi Drazin then identifies several inconsistencies in the story and reveals its pagan origins. For example, the primary practices of Purim — feasting, drinking, and sending gifts — mimic the practices of King Ahasuerus. Furthermore, the author notes that Esther is at best a reticent heroine, that Mordechai’s valor is praised at the story’s conclusion, and that the requirement to read the Book of Esther is not mentioned in the book.
The final third of Unusual Bible Interpretations considers the Book of Judith. Drazin notes that Judith is included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bible, but is only included in the Protestant and Jewish apocrypha “even though virtually every one of Judith’s sixteen chapters has references to God and prayer observances, while Ruth and Esther, which they did include in their Bible, contain little or nothing about God or religion.” Drazin opens this section with a review of the book’s plot and concludes by highlighting the heroism of Judith in defeating Holofernes and liberating the Judeans from foreign rule.
Why Judith was not included in the Jewish bible is the focus of the remainder of the book. Drazin presents several reasons that have been suggested in the past, many of which focus on Rabbinic Judaism’s discomfort with a strong female protagonist. However, the author rejects these ideas, suggesting instead that Judith’s exclusion stems from Rabbinic Judaism’s dislike of a proactive theology that denied a reliance on God.
Unusual Bible Interpretations offers fresh insight and a comparative analysis of three books with a female protagonist. At the same time, the author asks readers to reconsider time-honored interpretations of Ruth and Esther and introduces Judith to Jewish audiences. Unusual Bible Interpretations is a worthwhile read to explore these stories in greater depth.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.