Unusu­al Bible Inter­pre­ta­tions: Ruth, Esther, and Judith

Israel Drazin
  • Review
By – May 18, 2017

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. 

Relat­ed Reads:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions