Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Brief Introduction to the Book of Esther

This is a story of feasts or banquets (Esther 1:3, 5, 9; 2:18; 5:2-5; 5:8; 8:17; 9:17-19) and thus “the major purpose of the book of Esther is to provide the historical grounds for the celebration of the feast of Purim” (599).  This festival was to be “binding” (the Piel of the Heb. qûm Esther 9:21, 27, 29, 31-32) for every following generation.  In relation to this festival re-enactment, the book is filled with “intrigue, brutality, nationalism, and secularity” (Childs 604).  Purim may perhaps be regarded as “a carnival performance of misrepresentation” which finds its characterizations in the account of Esther (Brueggemann 347).  “All Israel shares in the joy of rest and relief….It is a time to remember by hearing again the story of Purim.  The effect of the reshaping of the festival is not to make a secular festival into a religious one, but to interpret the meaning of Purim in all its secularity in the context of Israel’s existence, which is religious” (Childs 605).  We should say that Esther gives emphasis to the particularity of Jewishness and through the annual celebration of Purim this Jewishness is again renewed and the Jewish question must always again be raised, just as Paul has done so in Rom.9-11 (cf. Brueggemann 344, 347-8). 
As a part of this festival intention for the book, the implicit intent seems to be to show the preservation God’s people through the actions (and at times despite the actions) of His people.  God is at work even when God is not explicitly ever mentioned as being at work.  At least this is the manner in which the text is presented in the Hebrew version.  The Greek LXX versions record a spiritualized text that includes many elements not found in the Hebrew account.  The LXX versions include 105 additional verses beyond the Hebrew version.  When Jerome was translating Esther into the Latin in the fourth century AD, he removed the additional verses to the end of the book because he felt they did not belong to the original text and so in the Latin Vulgate they are numbered 10:4-16:24 even though these various additions make little sense removed from their particular contexts.  The additions are as follows: Addition A—Mordecai’s dream (inserted before Esther 1:1); Addition B & C—The edict of Artaxerxes (the name of according to the LXX) against the Jews & Prayers of Mordecai and Esther (inserted after Esther 3:13); Addition D—Esther appears before the king (inserted after Esther 4:17); Addition E—The decree of Artaxerxes on behalf of the Jews (inserted after Esther 8:12); Addition F—Interpretation of Mordecai’s dream (inserted after Esther 10:3).  The LXX text represents a very “free and paraphrastic” translation of its Hebrew original.  Josephus also includes some additional material as well and there are more Targums (Aramaic texts expounding on a Biblical book) on Esther than any other besides the Torah.  This demonstrates “that surrounding the Esther story there was, from early times, a body of interpretive lore that found its way into the Greek versions and Josephus, and…into rabbinic exegesis” (Berlin lii).
The author is unknown, though the first century Jewish historian Josephus thought that Mordecai was the author (Ant.11.6.1).  Ibn Ezra, later Jewish rabbi, also believed Mordecai wrote Esther and he further explained that the reason the names for God are omitted from the text were because there would have been a copy made for the Persian court and thus Mordecai feared that the Persians would have replaced the name of the LORD with the name of one of their own Gods (Young 345).  This, however, is all conjecture, but it certainly demonstrates an early tradition.  Whoever the author was, they wrote as if they were familiar with the Persian names and customs and thus it seems most likely they were writing in the Persian period and not later (Archer 403-4; Bush 295-7).
Most probably it was not written before 465BC, which is the generally accepted date for the death of Xerxes though it seems even more likely to have been written some time later, perhaps even into the fourth century (Harrison 1088).  The feast is mentioned (though there called Mordecai’s) in 2 Macc.15:36 which records events occurring about the year 161BC.  The events that are recorded in Esther cover approximately the years 483BC (Esther 1:3) to early 478BC (Esther 2:16) and over this time period Xerxes was known to have waged an unsuccessful campaign against the Greeks.  Upon returning from this campaign he apparently chose Esther, even though normally the Persian king would have been expected to choose a queen from among the seven noble families (Herodotus 3.8).  However, it was not unheard of for a Persian king to just take any woman he wanted for a queen (Plutarch’s Lives: Artaxerxes 23.3).  It is actually recorded that the king took for himself 400 women when he took Esther (Jos.Ant.11.200) and that he also had 500 young men annually castrated and made into eunuchs to serve him (Herodotus 3.92).  The Greek historian Herodotus records that at the end of his life Xerxes was actually assassinated in his own bedroom because of his sexual overindulgences that led to liaisons with several of his officers wives (9.109-113).  In other words, Xerxes had lived a lascivious self-serving life that used people for self-pleasure and in the end this cost him his life.  This would not be unlike the self-seeking of Haman whose end would be brought about by his own plans for self-gratification.
The genre of Esther has been variously described.  Several commentators view it as a sort of satirical “comedy” not in the modern sense of the word, but in the classical sense.  It is considered “comedic” in the way in which the story develops and is resolved (Berlin xvi-xxii; Birch, et.al. 444).  Mervin Breneman argues that the genre of Esther should be regarded as “historical narrative” because (in his words) it is composed of the three elements of ideology, historiography, and aesthetic appeal (287).  Certainly the author’s introduction to the book (Esther 1:1 “This is what happened”; cf. the similar formula in Joshua, Judges and Samuel) “suggests he intends for his readers to understand the ensuing story as events that actually happened,” despite how one might judge the historicity of such events (Jobes 57).  Concerning the numerous objections to the historicity of Esther note the fairly convincing (though dated) arguments presented by Archer (404-6), Harrison (1090-8) and Young (346-8).  Perhaps we might best consider Esther to be a satirical historical narrative and thus should allow the story to speak for itself (on such satirical issues see the commentary proper).

Bibliography
Archer, Gleason.  “Esther,” A Survey of Old Testament Introduction.  Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994.  pp.401-406. Berlin, Edele.  Esther.  The JPS Bible Commentary. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2001.  Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, Terence Fretheim, and David L. Peterson.  A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999.  Breneman, Mervin.  Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther.  The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Vol. 10. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 1993.  Brueggemann, Walter.  An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. pp. 343-349.  Bush, Frederic.  Ruth/Esther.  Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 9.  Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1996.  Childs, Brevard S.  “Esther,” An Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia, PA: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1979.  pp. 598-607.  Harrison, Ronald K.  “The Book of Esther,” Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969. pp. 1085-1102.  Jobes, Karen H.  Esther.  The NIV Application Commentary.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.  Young, Edward J.  “Esther,” An Introduction to the Old Testament.  London: The Tyndale Press, 1956.  pp. 345-350.

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