Morality Novellas

Morality Novellas

Story telling is an ancient and honored art. It was very much part of the Near East culture and is present today. The earliest records we have in the fertile crescent were the myths of the “beginnings” handed down from Mesopotamia by story tellers who later adapted them to Hebrew theology (Genesis 01-11).

Before the printed page appeared story tellers provided cultural continuity, preserving the past as a guide to the future. They told tales of heroes and heroines to provide positive examples, the legends that held the tribes together giving its identity.

With this as a background we look at the novellas of Ruth, Tobit, Judith, and Esther. They were “once upon a time” stories. The central figures were fictional in historical settings extremely valuable because they reveal the culture, the piety and the religious observances of those times. They represent the best in story telling. They are entertaining, the plot is captivating, and they have a happy ending.

Ruth, a Moabite Finds Yahweh

The unknown author may have composed the book for two reasons:
1) That a non-Israelite could become a faithful follower of Yahweh; and 
2) it honors the levirate marriage by tracing King David’s lineage back to two levirate marriages.

It appears in the Jewish bible in the last section among the writings (Massoretic text). However, in the LXX (Septuagint Greek text) it is placed after the Book of Judges because of its opening line, “Once in the time of the Judges.” It is possible that it is an old story circulated long before its final editing and additions after the exile.

It is the story of Elimelech, his wife Naomi and two sons, Mahlon and Chillion, who move from Judah to the plateau of Moab. There the two sons marry Moabite wives, Orpha and Ruth. All the men died leaving three widows. Naomi decides to return home. She encourages her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab among their people. Orpha agrees. However Ruth, in beautiful words of devotion says, “wherever you go I will go; wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God” (01:16-17).

Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem. Naomi has a very rich landed relative who is unmarried. Under the levirate law he would be required to fulfill that law by marrying Ruth. Naomi arranged for them to meet and nature took its course. They were married and lived happily ever after. Ruth is listed as the great-grandmother of King David.

Tobit, a Jew Faithful to the Law

Written sometime between 200-180 BCE, this book reflects the conditions during the Maccabean period. Tithing a post-exilic custom is an accepted practice and it also lists the prophets as canonical.

This book is not found in the Hebrew canon so therefore is not included in the Protestant bibles. However Augustine and Ambrose supported its canonicity, the Council of Hippo (393 AD) as well as the Council of Trent. A Hebrew romance with some historical inaccuracies lays out a complicated and fascinating plot ending with the satisfying result, “they lived happily ever after.” It is especially regarded as a morality teaching vehicle.

Its setting is in the eighth century Ninevah where the exiles lived after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. Tobit has been blinded as a consequence of his efforts to bury Jews who were killed by the Assyrian king. Sarah is beset by a demon who has killed her seven grooms on her wedding night. Both prayed to God for death, but God sends Rafael, an angel, in disguise who accompanies Tobias, the son of Tobit, to Rages in Media to get his inheritance. On the way they lodge with Sarah’s family and Tobias marries her. Does he die like the seven previous grooms?  Read the intriguing story and find out!

Two passages from Tobit are given as a choice for the first reading at weddings because they stress the importance of prayer in marriage (Tobit 07:09c-10, 11c-17; 08:04-09).

Judith, a Woman’s Role Model

This Greek dramatic fictional book is found only in the LXX (Septuagint) and therefore is part of the Catholic bible by authority of the Council of Trent in 1546. The historical inaccuracies may be intentional and a method used by the unknown author to indicate that it is fiction.

It was written during the Maccabean Wars to encourage an oppressed people to have faith. It is deliberately feministic to show that God uses a woman to prove his strength.

The story is composed of two parts.
1. (Chapters 1-7) Holofrernes leads the Assyrian army against the western vassal states of which Israel was one of them.  The army besieges Bethulia, cutting the city off from their water supply and awaits their surrender. “Their cisterns ran dry...their children fainted and the women and youths were collapsing…” (07:21-22).
2. (Chapters 8-16) Judith (name means “the Jewess”) a beautiful and pious widow, goes to the Assyrian camp, entices and beheads Holofernes. She returns to the town carrying the general’s head in a food bag. The next day the Israelites attack and defeat the Assyrian army.

Judith’s fame spreads. Many men wish to marry her, but she refuses all. She lived 105 years.

Esther, a Persian Beauty Queen

It is fiction written during the late Persian era, dealing with the problem of a faithful Jew living in a pagan nation and recalling what may have been a threatening pogrom.  The shorter Hebrew version of the book of Esther is found in the Jewish and Protestant bibles, and lacks any mention of God. The Catholic version has that plus six Greek additions interspersed (Chapters 10-16 labeled Chapters A-F in modern Catholic translations) emphasizing that God was behind the miraculous salvation of the Jews.

It is a skillfully developed story of the plot of Hamon, a jealous and powerful vizier of King Xerxes of Persia (485-464 BCE) to destroy all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. A Jewish servant named Mordecai for religious reasons refused to bow down to him. Esther, a niece of Mordecai, is chosen in a beauty contest as Queen by King Xerxes. She uses her influence to avert the planned massacre and has the royal decree reversed to fall against Hamon and the enemies of the Jews. Mordecai replaces Hamon as vizier and together with Esther works for the welfare of their people.

Leading Catholic scholars do not believe that this book was originally written as a basis for the celebration of Purim, but was a later adaptation to give this feast a Jewish overtone.

The morality novella was intended as encouragement to Israel that God’s providence watches over them, never abandoning them when they serve him faithfully or turn to him in repentance.

"Morality Novellas" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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