Monday, 22 July 2013

Esther

Esther is one of those books with one foot in the Old Testament and the other in the Apocrypha - others include Daniel and Ezra.  This is because the book exists in two different forms; the Hebrew version included in the Masoretic Text and a Greek version in the Septuagint that includes an extra 107 verses, plus some subtle but significant variations. 



When Jerome translated it into Latin at the end of the 4th Century CE, he used the Hebrew version as his primary source, but included the extra Greek verses at the end as a kind of appendix.  When the Reformers separated out the apocryphal books from the Old Testament, the extra verses of Esther went with them.  I'm very grateful to the translators of the NRSV for putting the two parts of the Greek edition back together and providing a translation of the whole Greek text. 

Chronologically, this book belongs with Tobit and Judith as a story about the period after the exile.  Its likely date of composition is similar to theirs, in the second of first centuries BCE.  Like these books it could also be considered a work of historical fiction, although the argument for at least some element of historical fact is stronger here than for the other two.  After all, the festival of Purim which it purports to explain must have originated somehow, and other explanations are not especially convincing.  Still, at least three Persian kings have been identified with the character named Ahasuerus in the Hebrew and Artaxerxes in Greek, and Esther and Mordecai are difficult to find in the Greek and Persian accounts of any of them. 

The other interesting thing about the Hebrew text is that it doesn't contain a single mention of God, and it contains no miracles or supernatural events.  For this and other reasons neither Luther nor Calvin believed it should be regarded as canonical.

On the other hand its simple, dramatic storytelling make it a favourite among Christians and Jews alike.  The drama centres around four key characters - the Persian King Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes in the Greek version), his most trusted advisor Haman, his wife Esther and Esther's foster father Mordecai.  It opens with  a six-month long banquet which is capped off by a seven-day drinking party at which Ahasuerus encourages his guests to drink as much as they please.  At the end of this feast, he commands his Queen, Vashti, to come from the harem and display her beauty for his officials and the people.  She refuses, earning herself summary dismissal as queen and lasting status as feminist heroine. 

In this incident we learn two things about Ahasuerus which are confirmed as the story unfolds.  The first is that he is dissolute and self-centred, and the second is that he has no ideas of his own.  He follows the advice of whoever happens to be nearby.

Following Vashti's dismissal as queen, the king's courtiers devise a novel and nauseating plan to find her successor.  Beautiful young women are gathered from all parts of the empire and after careful preparation are ushered in to spend a night with the king.  The one who pleases him the most gets to be queen, while the others are ushered back to the royal harem to await possible recall or alternately to live out the rest of their lives in idle isolation.  By dint of her beauty and her willingness to take the advice of the chief eunuch, the Jewish girl Esther (her ethnic origins kept secret by order of her foster father) wins this dubious contest and is invested with the crown and royal honours.

Meanwhile two other things happen - Mordecai exposes a plot to assassinate the king, and Haman is promoted to first place among the king's advisors.  These two powerful men come into direct conflict.  Contrary to the king's command, Mordecai persistently refuses to bow before Haman.  Haman is not content to simply punish Mordecai and bribes the king into ordering the extermination of the whole Jewish race.  In this extremity, Mordecai asks Esther to intercede for her people.  She is initially reluctant, since she risks execution by coming uninvited into the king's presence, but Mordecai warns her, "Esther, do not say to yourself that you alone among all the Jews will escape alive.  For if you keep quiet at such a time as this, help and protection will come to the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish.  Yet, who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you were made queen?"  Esther spends three days fasting, asking Mordecai and the Jews of the city to do likewise, and then fearfully approaches the king. 

Haman first experiences a symbolic defeat, than an actual and final one.  Unable to wait for the big extermination day to get rid of Mordecai, he comes to the palace one morning intent on asking the king to authorise his execution then and there.  He is so confident he even builds a huge gallows in preparation.  However, the king suffers a sleepless night and has his servants read to him from the chronicles of his reign, in which he is reminded of Mordecai's role in foiling the plot on his life and learns that Mordecai has not yet been rewarded.  Unable as usual to come up with his own ideas, he summons Haman and asks him, "What shall I do for the person whom I wish to honour?"  Assuming the king is referring to him, Haman outlines a plan to parade the person in the kings robes and on the king's horse, accompanied by a senior court official proclaiming the reason for this honour.  The king likes the idea, and sends Haman off to robe and accompany Mordecai accordingly.

The second is, of course, that Esther's carefully planned appeal is successful and the king changes his mind on the plan of extermination.  Haman is hung from his own gallows, Mordecai takes his place in the king's confidence and the tables are turned with the Jews permitted to defend themselves against any attack.

Although the Hebrew version of the book doesn't mention God I was always taught (and this explanation makes a lot of sense) that God's presence and protection of the Jews is clearly implied.  Most obviously, when Esther and her Jewish contemporaries fast and put on sackcloth they are of course praying for deliverance.  When Mordecai asks Esther, "who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you were made queen?", he is implying that God placed her there for a purpose, and the king's sleeplessness and his change of heart are also brought about by God.  Not only that, but Mordecai's persecution should be understood as religious.  He refuses to bow before Haman because of his fidelity to God, in the same way that Daniel refuses to bow to the image of Nebuchadnezzar.  Haman generalises this refusal in his justification to the king: "their laws are different from those of every other nation, and they do not keep the laws of the king."  The persecution is a test of their faithfulness, and the rescue a vindication of it.

What the Hebrew text implies, the Greek makes explicit.  For a start, the name of God is quietly inserted into some key places in the Greek version.  When Mordecai instructs Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity, in the Greek version he adds that "she was to fear God and keep his laws".  Of the king's sleepless night, the Hebrew simply says, "that night the king could not sleep", but the Greek says "the Lord took sleep from the king". 

Yet these subtle amendments are drowned out by the additional sections inserted by the Greek editors.  The Greek version opens with Mordecai receiving a prophetic dream which foreshadows the story to come, and closes with his declaration that "these things come from God, for I remember the dream that I had...".  Esther's request that the Jews fast with her is followed by lengthy prayers put in the mouths of Mordecai and Esther.  After the king relents, the Greek version includes the purported text of his decree (written of course by Mordecai on his behalf) which says that the Jews "are not evildoers, but are governed by most righteous laws and are children of the living God, most high, most mighty...."

What are we to make of all this?  Well, the core message of the book is common to both versions.  The Jews take a genuine risk in remaining faithful to God in the midst of empire, but God will protect them.  However, here he protects them in a very different way to that shown in Judith.  They are to integrate themselves into the empire in the most intimate way possible.  Esther becomes the king's consort.  Mordecai spends his days in his court, and protects him from assassins rather than joining them.  This faithful service to the empire, as much as their faithfulness to God, ensures their survival and that of their people. 

But why the differences?  Was it necessary in the earlier version, for reasons of policy or safety, to downplay their religious distinctions while playing up their service to the empire?  Or was it simply that the later Hellenised Jews lost their ancestors' taste for reading between the lines and needed to have the message spelt out?  Was the first version written for subtle, educated insiders and the second for a wider, less sophisticated audience? 

Either way, the story continues to fascinate and provides grist of the mill on the wider subject common to most of the Old Testament Apocrypha: how do you survive the empire?

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