The heroine in exile, the hero in a foreign land—both distanced from the familiar. Foreign tongues, ideas, ritual, customs…life is relearning, relearning the profane while cognizant of the holy.
A recurrent theme in Israel’s scriptures is that of the hero/heroine in exile. The heroic protagonist finds herself in the midst of circumstantial promotion. Joseph becomes the authority over Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. Daniel is exalted in the palaces of kings. Esther and Judith receive honor in the royal courts of Persia and Susa. The heroes gain prominence through dream interpretation—recognized as an indicator of God’s spirit. The heroines aspire through their beauty and cunning. All bring success to their people in the midst of settings that threaten identity cohesion.
The similarities between the exilic-exaltation epics are evident. Why, though, does this theme repeat in Israel’s scriptures? What explicative exigencies can be proposed for the exilic-exaltation epics?
The recurrence of the exilic-exaltation theme is suggestive of the settings in which they were composed. It is likely that the communities which benefited the most from these stories were those either already in exile or under foreign dominion. While in exile and under foreign dominion, Israel lacked centripetal identity cohesion in the aftermath of the 586 BCE destruction of the Temple. Where the tide promoted identity diffusion, the zealous maintained identity through community identity markers—observable rituals or behaviors that reinforce identity cohesion.
Identity markers such as Sabbath observance (אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם), dietary restrictions (e.g., Daniel’s recourse to pulse), and circumcision assumed added import. The importance of these three observances cannot be overstated as they became the sin quo non identity markers of 2nd Temple Jewry. Critical scholarship posits that priestly works such as Leviticus (especially the Holiness Code of chapters 17ff) and Ezekiel (the Temple vision) are evidence of settings that jeopardized the integrity of Israel’s identity. In the face of threat to identity, a greater emphasis was placed on ritual and legal minutia.
The epic of Joseph, the story of Daniel, the exaltation of Esther, and the justification of Judith together speak succor to the exiled and oppressed. The Joseph narrative and the book of Esther were most likely penned while Israel was in Babylon and Persia. The stories of Daniel and Judith, though, herald to post-Exilic times when Israel was under harsh foreign dominion.