Search the Site


Diaspora Literature

Diaspora literature reflects the trials and opportunities of living outside the land of Israel.

Illuminated Esther Scroll from Italy
Illuminated Esther Scroll from Italy

“Diaspora” (from the Greek word for “scattering”) refers to the dispersion of a people from their homeland. A simple definition of diaspora literature, then, would be works that are written by authors who live outside their native land. The term identifies a work’s distinctive geographic origins.

But diaspora literature may also be defined by its contents, regardless of where it was written. For example, the story of Joseph (Gen 37-50) is often called a “diaspora story” because although its final form was written within the land of Israel, it describes how Joseph learns to survive outside his homeland. The book of Job, too, may be an example of diaspora literature because it was likely written in the wake of the Babylonian destruction, which gave rise to the question, Why would God punish Israel, the chosen people, with such mass suffering?

The term diaspora comes to us from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Deut 28:25. This translation was called the Septuagint and was the project of Greek-speaking Jews living in the Egyptian diaspora. In the broadest possible terms, the entire Septuagint could be described as diaspora literature, because it is the work of Jews living outside their homeland—and their translation reflects that orientation. But specific books within it, such as the books of Tobit and Judith, which feature Jewish protagonists living outside the land or under foreign domination and which reflect on how the Jews might conduct themselves in this situation, could be described as especially diasporic because of their contents and concerns.

We could also draw a distinction between exile and diaspora to further define what diaspora literature is. The difference between exile and diaspora may lie in a book’s attitude toward the homeland and toward the migration. Exile emphasizes the forced nature of the migration and the freshness of the experience of leaving the homeland; exile is not neutral and exiled peoples usually possess a single-minded desire to return to their homeland. Time is also a factor: exilic literature may be written during the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E., when the experience and memory of it was still vivid.

In contrast, living “in diaspora” may assume a certain accommodation to living away from the homeland—and a sense that it is possible to survive and even thrive in the adopted country. Diaspora implies a more neutral or even a more positive view than exile does. Diasporic literature may be mindful of the ancestral native land, but the nostalgia for it has lessened, if not disappeared. And diasporic literature is, moreover, engaged by the possibilities of the new location. Finally, it may be written well after the Babylonian exile by Jews who chose not to return. Diasporic living stops short of assimilation because the community still maintains its distinctive identity and its status as a minority people.

The diasporic book of Daniel, for example, celebrates Daniel’s refusal to assimilate to the pressures of the gentile court—such as his refusal to eat the nonkosher food at the king’s table. The book of Esther could also be described as diaspora literature, regardless of where it was written, because it reflects on what it means to be a Jew living outside the land—with all the accompanying dangers and opportunities. These books’ subtle reflections of the instabilities of diasporic existence have given them lasting appeal; their meditations on leadership and self-sacrifice for the good of the community resonates with those who wrestle with the vicissitudes of their own diasporic existences.

  • Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

    Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.