At this year’s Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting I will be presenting two papers. The first of these, entitled “Beggar at the Banquet,” will be given in a joint session sponsored by the Meals in the Greco-Roman World Section and the Meals in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Consultation (S23-330). The topic of the session is “Meals and Justice.”
In this paper, I explore rabbinic discussions, primarily stories, that involve giving food to the poor against both the reality of poverty in the ancient world and the most famous of such stories, Odysseus’s appearance in the disguise of a beggar at the banquet of suitors for his wife Penelope in books 17-18 of the Odyssey. The rabbinic stories fall into three broad categories that I chart on a spectrum from least to most “intense”: incidental encounters with beggars seeking alms (for or in the form of food); beggars who come to a householder’s field or door; and finally the few rabbinic stories that depict beggars at a banquet. Unlike the story in the Odyssey, these latter narratives in particular recognize the importance of giving alms to the truly poor, not just to those of the same social class who are seen as temporarily down on their luck. Like the Odyssey, though, these stories hardly recognize the humanity of the poor and treat them instead instrumentally, as presenting opportunities or tests to the wealthy.