Court Tales by Lawrence M. Wills

Why does the Hebrew Bible contain so many stories about Jews in the high courts of foreign kings?
The Joseph story in Gen 37-50, Esther, and Dan 1-6 all depict dramatic events set in the highest courts of the ancient Near Eastern empires. The court of the great kings—Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian—was an irresistible setting for entertaining tales of wise heroes who negotiated its treacherous halls. Ezra and Nehemiah show intimate familiarity with the Persian court, but whether the authors of these entertaining tales had any direct knowledge of the highest courts is unknown. Were the stories historical, or did they serve as entertaining lessons for maintaining loyalty to God in a land ruled by others?

The Joseph story, Esther, and Dan 1-6 may have been only the tip of the iceberg of court narratives. In the Apocrypha (books included in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Old Testaments but not in the Jewish and Protestant Bibles), the court tale of Bel and the Dragon is added to Daniel, and Susanna is a court tale set in the local court of the Jewish community in Babylon. The book of Tobit begins as a court narrative as well, although it quickly moves to a family novella. In addition, among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran were found the Prayer of Nabonidus and Tales of the Persian Court. The former, concerning an unnamed Jewish exorcist, is similar to Dan 1-6, and the latter, about a Jewish courtier Bagosro, is similar to Esther.

Jews were not the only people interested in this narrative format, and indeed, the court narrative appears to be one of the most prolific ancient genres. There were Egyptian examples, and the international story of the famous Aramean sage Ahikar was found in a Jewish military colony in Egypt. The Greek historians Herodotus, Xenophon, and Ctesias collected Persian stories of wise courtiers, their rise, and their fall, and later Persian court narratives about Zoroaster and others are found in the Persian Shahnameh, or Epic of the Kings. Even the Magi in Matt 2 were famous as courtiers in the East.

What, then, was the message of the court tales?
Although the court tales are generally very enjoyable, even humorous or satirical (one may read Esther, Dan 3, or Bel and the Dragon in this way), they also communicate very important theological beliefs about maintaining loyalty to God while living under foreign kings. Yet they still have a realistic tone that allows the audience to explore the challenges and dangers of living in a land ruled by others. The narratives often begin with a sudden edict or threat to the vulnerable Jews. The story then details the response, including prayers, of the protagonists (prayers are added to Esther in the Apocryphal version), and concludes with a “happy ending”: the Jews are saved and the edict is reversed. Other than Esther, the court tales also emphasize important titles for God: Most High God and Living God.

In addition, since the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires ruled as “world empires,” with a strong message of universalism, the Jewish court narratives emphasized the need to maintain a distinctive identity in a universalizing culture. And finally, the tales conclude with a positive view of the reigning monarchs: Jews can successfully work within the larger empires.

Lawrence M. Wills, "Court Tales", n.p. [cited 18 Aug 2022]. Online:



Lawrence M. Wills
Visiting Professor in Judaic Studies and Religious Studies, Brown University

Lawrence Wills is Visiting Professor in Judaic Studies and Religious Studies at Brown University. In addition to The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World (Cornell University Press, 1995), he has also written Not God’s People: Insiders and Outsiders in the Biblical World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

A territory controlled by a different nation, generally in separate geographic regions.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

an official command

Religious practitioner(s) trained to cast out demons.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, ruled from 555–539 B.C.E. Nabonidus promoted worship of the moon god Sin over the national god of Babylon, Marduk. Nabonidus spent much of his reign at the oasis of Tayma in the Arabian desert, leaving his son Belshazzar in charge of the empire. Nabonidus was defeated by the Persians under Cyrus in 539 B.C.E.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

a work of fiction longer than a short story but shorter than a novel

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

the founder of the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism

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