Sunday, May 14, 2017

Bible in a Year: Esther

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’m studying Esther. Remember, a few posts ago, when I said that Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther form an important secondary history within the Bible, carrying the biblical story from Creation into the early post-exilic era when the Jews were allowed to return to the land and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple during the Persian era. These books are not by the same presumed authors, just as the primary history (Genesis through Kings) was written and edited by multiple people. While the primary history ends on a note of uncertain hope, the secondary history, coming from the post-exilic time and written for Jews struggling with a new era, is more hopeful. In Chronicles, “[t]he history of the monarchy… seems to be primarily a history of the establishment and maintenance of the worship of God,” a concern that carries over into Ezra and Nehemiah as the people rebuild the temple and Jerusalem (Harper's Bible Commentary, p. 79). Although Esther is set in Persia rather than the land, that book affirms the providential continuation of the Jewish people even in foreign lands (p. 79).

Of course, it became crucially important for Judaism to be a faith observed in lands other than the Promised Land. When I studied Deuteronomy in that earlier post, I learned how the long pause with which the Torah ends---the speech of Moses as the people are poised to enter the Land---had the literary effect of delaying entry into the land---and ensuring that God's covenant and commandments were not confined to one geographical region (Jewish Study Bible, p. 359). The Book of Esther illustrates the wonderful fact that the Jewish people will endure no matter where they live, even amid Gentile hostility and violence.

This source discusses that Esther gives confidence to diaspora Jews to be able to survive and even thrive in foreign lands, and thus she is similar to Tobit, Daniel, and Nehemiah. The fact that she is a woman makes her heroism especially noteworthy. Haweis writes, "[Esther] contains a narrative of a horrid plot, to cut off at a stroke, all the Jews who were dispersed through the provinces of Babylon; but God disappointed the wicked design, and turned it to the destruction of the contriver.... the finger of God is evidently seen, extricating the Jews from their difficulties, and encouraging by their example, the faith and hope of his people in their deepest distresses; showing how attentive he is to their prayers, and that, as he exalteth the lowly, those who walk in pride he is able to abase" (Rev. Thomas Haweis, The Evangelical Expositor; or, a Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 1 (Glasgow, Blackie & Son, 1834), 814)

My wife Beth and I enjoyed studying Esther a few years ago with our Sunday school class in Akron, OH. As the book opens, King Ahasuerus of Persia (aka Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE) held a big feast, and while he was drunk, he commanded that his queen Vashti come and show the guests her great beauty. Although the text doesn’t say, he may have expected her to visit the feast nude. Vashti refused his order, and so Ahusuerus, on the advice his wise men, ordered Vashti deposed, setting in motion a kind of contest for a new beautiful queen. After so viewing many young women, the king selected Esther, whom unbeknownst to him was a Benjaminite Jew living in exile. An orphan, she lived with her older cousin Mordecai, who looked after her. Soon she became the new queen.

After a while, Mordecai learned of a plot to assassinate the king—information he relayed to the king through Esther. It resulted in the execution of the conspirators. Not knowing the background of his own queen, the king became influenced by his vizier, Haman the Agagite, that Jews were a threat and should all be killed. Mordecai had accidentally set in motion that threat: Haman had demanded that Mordecai prostrate himself before Haman in respect, but Mordecai had refused. Agagites, after all, were descendants of the Amalakites, long time enemies of the Jews (as we’ve seen in other writings).

While Mordecai urged other Jews to fast, he also planned with Esther to deal with the situation. At an opportune time, Esther approached the king with a request, that he and Haman attend a banquet she was planning.

That night, the king couldn’t sleep and called for the nation’s chronicles to be read aloud. He remembered than that Mordecai had not yet been rewarded for his service in exposing the assassination plot, so he asked Haman about a proper reward for one loyal to the king, and Haman suggested the royal insignia and apparel. Haman thought he himself was going to be the honoree.

At the banquet, the king was quite smitten with his queen—he had already allowed her to come uninvited into his presence, a potentially fatal move on her part—and during this banquet, she courageous revealed that she was a Jew and that Haman was plotting to kill at the Jews. Her and Mortecai’s risky plan worked: the king promptly ordered that Haman be hanged (on the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai), the Jews were saved, and Mordecai became prime minister.

Rabbi Telushkin makes an interesting connection of Mordecai to Joseph: Hebrews who gained a powerful position in a non-Jewish government, and who accomplished the betterment of his people (Biblical Literacy, p. 378.

Interestingly, God is never referred to or named in the book of Esther, although the practice of fasting presumes a religious orientation. The absence of God doesn’t mean an ontological absence of God; the Bible doesn’t always spell out God’s ways. The apocryphal/deuterocanonical “Additions to Esther” do add more explicitly religious elements to the book.

On the other hand, Rabbi Telushkin notes that Esther’s name is a variation of the Near Eastern goddess Astar (her Hebrew name was Hadassah), and she married a non-Jew (the king), indicating that she may have been an assimilated Jew. But she certainly took the side of her people when the time came (Biblical Literacy, 375-376).

Esther is one of “the Five Scrolls” (“Five Megillot”). Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther are grouped together among the final, Writings (Ketuvim) section of the Jewish Bible. Each book is read during certain Jewish holidays: Song of Songs on the Sabbath of Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Lamentations on the Ninth of Av, Ecclesiastes on the Sabbath of Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.

The minor festival of Purim is one of the great legacies of the book. The word “purim” means “lots,” which is what Haman threw in order to select a date for the death of the Jews—so the festival’s very name scoffs the antisemite’s failed attempt. One of my favorite sites, Judaism 101,, has this:

“The primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther. …It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle gragers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to ‘blot out the name of Haman.’

“We are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai,’ though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. A person certainly should not become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or get seriously ill. In addition, recovering alcoholics or others who might suffer serious harm from alcohol are exempt from this obligation.

“In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as shalach manos (lit. sending out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews, a common treat at this time of year is hamentaschen (lit. Haman's pockets). These triangular fruit-filled cookies are supposed to represent Haman's three-cornered hat. …”

That site also calls attention to interesting, thought-provoking connections of Purim with the Nuremberg War Crime trials and also the death of Stalin—who, if he hadn’t had died (near Purim) in 1953, would have carried out a plan to deport Jews.

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