Saturday, June 23, 2018

Bible Commentary - Job Introduction

Having just completed the book of Esther, we now move on to the book of Job.

This is a big change.  The previous 12 books (from Joshua through Esther) were all written in a historical narrative style, and all represent a fairly continuous linear history of Israel from their first entrance to the promised land through the Babylonian exile and a brief period after their return from the exile to Jerusalem.  This historical narrative section is sometimes called “the historical books” or in other places “the former prophets”.  On the other hand, Job is assigned to what is usually called “the wisdom literature” or by the Jews it is called “the writings” (Hebrew: Ketuvim).  My point here is not to get into all the details of how these categories are segmented or defined but rather to emphasize that Esther and Job fall into different categories, and this is manifestly evident in the writing style and topic of the two respective books.

Some of my readers may be wondering why this is relevant.  One of the most important principles for proper bible reading and interpretation is to understand the intent of the author, and I believe the literary style is an inseparable reflection of the author’s intent.  In fact, I would go further and say that one of the most common misinterpretations of the bible is to take a poetic book and interpret it literally.  For instance, you could take nearly any popular song and it will have some lyric like “I can’t live without you.”  If interpreted literally, this actually has grave consequences for the songwriter who might die after their next breakup. Most people will realize this is an absurd deduction and that “I can’t live without you” is just a figure of speech.

And yet people make these kinds of interpretation errors with the bible all the time, for instance taking obscure verses from the Psalms as evidence for flat earth theology.  I wish I could say I’m joking but I really have seen people write essays about the theological contradictions in Psalms or like bad scientific claims in the Psalms because they are taking what are literally song lyrics and interpreting them as scientific claims.  To the surprise of everyone, poetry often contains non-scientific claims.

Let me say it again: Job is part of the wisdom literature.  It is not a historical narrative, and it is not intended to be a historical narrative.  It is part of the same category as Psalms and Proverbs, not Kings or Judges.  Once must exercise caution when attempting to derive a theological framework from Job because the book is arguably much more of an allegory than a literal history.

I think for most of my readers, a sensible and intuitive understanding will flow naturally so I don’t expect this to be a big problem, but I also think it’s important for my readers to be looking for the right things as we go through this book.

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about what Job is not, so now I would like to talk about what Job is.  At its heart, Job is grappling with the central question of what causes human suffering, and how should we respond to suffering.  It is a book of philosophy, and not stories.  The book has four main actors: Job and his three friends.  There is also a variety of minor actors such as a fourth friend who shows up later, Job’s wife, God and the devil.  Job is the subject of his book and the various actors do not as much represent distinct people as they represent different opinions about that central question of suffering.  As a brief aside, this is very close to the rabbinical tradition that developed later in Jewish history as represented in the Talmud.  Both the Mishnah and the Gamarah (the two main books of the Talmud) are structured as dialogues or debates between various rabbis.  Without going into all the details, using possibly-fictional characters to represent different perspectives in a philosophical debate is part of the Jewish literary tradition.

What do we know about the origin and authorship of the book?  Some people regard Job as the oldest book in the OT, both because of language features as well as the literary structure and relatively undeveloped theology.  There are many things that are striking in their absence from this book: the temple, the priesthood, the nation of Israel or even the land of Israel, the covenant, and nearly any aspect of the redemptive arc of sin and God’s forgiveness.  Many critics regard these omissions to indicate an early and possibly non-Jewish origin for the story of Job.  That said, it was almost certainly written down by a Jew, but we don’t know who and we also don’t know when.  It does not make reference to any verifiable historical events, so attempts to date Job typically depend on linguistic analysis, which is not precise and sometimes also unreliable.

The book of Job is structured as follows: it has a two chapter introduction, roughly one chapter conclusion, and 39 chapters in the middle of people talking.  There is so much talking it’s like Deuteronomy on steroids.  In my experience, it’s a very difficult book to read, especially the first time, because the dialogue can be boring and difficult to follow.  I personally found it very boring the first time I read it and more interesting every time I went through it again.

The story opens with Job suffering a catastrophe.  His children all die in accidents, his property is destroyed and all his livestock are stolen by bandits, amongst other things, and his three friends go to comfort him.  The comfort doesn’t last long as they eventually get into a disagreement regarding why Job is suffering (but all of them implicitly assume it is God’s punishment).  Towards the end, God appears and rebukes all four of them for their mistaken opinions.  God resolves the question of suffering by asserting his supremacy over human understanding and that some things are too mysterious and complex for us to fully grasp in this time.  Job admits that God is great and that understanding the true reasons and wisdom of God is beyond his capabilities.

In the conclusion, Job’s family and wealth are restored and he lives happily ever after.  Life turns out well for Job, but there have been many times in my life when I’ve questioned whether God’s response is satisfactory.  Frankly, it feels evasive to me; in a sense God is answering the question, but in another very literal sense he is refusing to answer the question on the grounds that he is beyond human reasoning.  I think it’s a very challenging answer.  To me it seems like another way of saying, “trust me”.  God is saying that his answer is beyond our understanding and we have to simply trust him and trust that human suffering is somehow part of his redemptive plan.  We must be satisfied to know that a reason exists, even if we do not know it.  I don’t know if I’ve attained that kind of satisfaction, but I believe it is God’s challenge to us.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Bible Commentary - Esther 10

In this chapter, we learn the final fate of King Xerxes and Mordecai.

Have you ever seen one of those movies that has a based-on-a-true-story ending title cards of “what happened” to the main characters in the movie but like, after the movie was over?  Like if there is some kind of drama flick and it’s all like, “Bobby Jones was later convicted and is now serving seven consecutive life sentences” or whatever?  That is basically what I think about this chapter.  It is the ending title cards for the book of Esther, where the narrator tells us “what happened” to Xerxes and Mordecai, but interestingly does not tell us “what happened” to Esther.

For Xerxes, it tells us that he had many accomplishments because of his strength and authority, so it was a good ending for him.

For Mordecai, the king advanced him into greatness, he was second only to the king and widely honored by the Jews.  What did he use his position for?  To advance “the good of his people” and “the welfare of his whole nation”.  In other words, he didn’t use his position to advance his own personal interests or his immediate family, but rather used it to advance the interests of the entire Jewish people.  This presents Mordecai as an example for the rest of the Jewish community to emulate during the period under foreign empires (whether during the exile or post-exile).  The model for good Jewish behavior under Gentile rule is to cooperate, seek a position of power and then use that power to benefit the Hebrew nation.  It is important enough that this is the very last sentence of the book.  I already discussed this general point in my Introduction to Esther, however, so I won’t repeat that here.

This concludes the book of Esther; I hope my readers enjoyed it as much as I have, and next we will be moving on to the book of Job!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Bible Commentary - Esther 9

In this chapter, the Jews execute the king’s decree, wipe out their enemies, and inaugurate the festival of Purim.

We are now drawing near to the conclusion of Esther; while there is one chapter left after this one, it is a very short chapter of only three verses, so for all intents and purposes we can treat chapter 9 as the conclusion of Esther.

Verse 1 opens the chapter by referring once again to a “reversal of fortunes”, which I have been writing about so often.  I personally interpret this verse as the author’s summary of Esther almost in its entirety.

In verses 3-4 we see Mordecai’s continued ascendancy into power.  In the previous chapter we saw Mordecai honored by the king with the signet ring and purple robes (purple being a royal color).  In this chapter, we see the bureaucrats and courtesans of the empire fearfully assisting the Jews, anxious to avoid Mordecai’s wrath.  One can imagine they saw the destruction wreaked upon Haman’s household and did not want to share his fate.  As we see in verses 7-10, Haman did not die alone: the Jews also killed all of his sons, partly as an act of vengeance against Haman and partly to prevent Haman’s family from retaliating in the future.  Perhaps to make an example, as well.

In verse 12, the king asks Esther for a third time what she wants, which is a bit strange because in this case the book doesn’t report Esther approaching the king or petitioning him in advance.  Perhaps it is implied because in verse 13 she does make a request of the king, asking permission to continue the massacre into the following day.

In the end, it tells us the number of people who died was around 76,000, which is a lot but comparable or perhaps less than the number of Jews who would have died if the decree hadn’t been reversed.  Then in verses 18-19 it uses the nuance of the “second day” in Susa to explain why rural Jews and urban Jews celebrated the festival on different days.

Verse 22 explains once again the reversal of fortune theme in Esther, with sorrow turning into gladness and mourning turned into a holiday.  Verse 25 continues the theme with Haman’s “wicked scheme… returning on his own head”.

Verses 24-26 offers an etymology for the name of the festival, Purim, and explains that it is because of the “pur” or lot that Haman had cast to choose the date on which they would be destroyed.  The remainder of the chapter is just repeated confirmation that Purim should continue to be celebrated as a perpetual memorial to their deliverance.

Taking all these things together, there are two obvious themes to this chapter.  The first is that the author wants to repeatedly demonstrate the “reversal of fortune” theme, that everything meant for evil turned to good, sorrow turned to joy, etc., etc.  I’ve identified at least three examples of that (v. 1, 22, 25).  The second obvious theme is the establishment of the Purim festival as a memorial and celebration of this specific deliverance.  The writer of Esther goes at length to explain on what day the festival is celebrated, why it’s different between the city and the countryside, why it is called Purim, and to affirm that the festival was duly instituted by the authority of Esther and Mordecai themselves.

From my point of view, I think it’s clear that the author of Esther is writing from some later time period, possibly from a later generation, when the Purim festival was celebrated but the people of his time might not know how Purim came about or why it was celebrated.  The way that this chapter closes with so much detail about the festival and its assocation with the Esther story is a fairly transparent attempt to tie the Esther story in with the Purim festival.

The way I imagine it going is like this: Purim is celebrated every year by the Jews, and every holiday is a memorial to something, so children would naturally ask what event Purim was supposed to commemorate.  The father in the household (and it would almost always be the father) would then recite the story of Esther and conclude, “therefore, this is why we celebrate Purim, why it’s called Purim and why it’s on these particular days”.  That is, I imagine the author of Esther as someone who was almost working from Purim backwards to Esther, because Purim was the occasion when the story of Esther would have been recited.  To put it another way, we can imagine the entire book of Esther is an answer to the question, “why do we celebrate Purim?”  After the whole story is finished, the author concludes, “therefore this is why we celebrate Purim” and that is an answer to “the question” that prompted the book, as well as a few Frequently Asked Questions like “why is it called Purim”, and so forth.  I think this also helps to explain the formal style of Esther and heavy use of chiasmus, because it was written after the fact as a poetic recapitulation of the story and not e.g. a historical record like Kings or Chronicles (which tend to have a much more prosaic style).

Meanwhile, “reversal of fortune” is something like the payload or the moral of the story, because it reminds the Jews that if they are ever suffering hardships or sorrow of any kind, that God can reverse their problem and turn it into a blessing through some kind of miracle.

In any case, we have one last short chapter in Esther and then we move on to the book of Job.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Bible Commentary - Esther 8

In this chapter, all of Haman’s possessions are passed over to Mordecai, and Haman’s decree is reversed.

This chapter continues the general theme of “reversal of fortunes”.  As a similar point, we also see Mordecai completely take over Haman’s role and fortune in society.

Throughout the book of Esther, we see numerous parallels between Haman and Mordecai.  They are similar in the sense that both Haman and Mordecai are older figures, and they are both advisors to the king; Haman was second in the kingdom, and Mordecai was a man who sat in the gates (generally a position of respect).  In fact, I would suggest that their similarity is one of the reasons why Haman takes a particular interest in destroying Mordecai, because Haman may have seen a competitor in Mordecai.

Based on their personalities, Haman and Mordecai are opposites.  Haman is a proud and insecure man who is enraged multiple times when he sees that Mordecai doesn’t honor him, but Mordecai is a humble and confident man who is not intimidated by Haman, in spite of Haman’s superior political position.  Mordecai trusts that God will protect him against the more powerful man, and Haman is obviously godless.  Mordecai has a principle interest in protecting and helping his people, and Haman is almost entirely consumed by the pursuit of his own glory and greatness.  Mordecai is basically what you would get if you took Haman and made him a good person.  This contrast between Mordecai and Haman is a teaching device, to show us a godly example, which we should emulate, and a godless example, which we should avoid.

In this chapter, we see Mordecai take control of Haman’s house, wealth and the signet ring of authority which the king “had taken away from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai” (v. 2).  Given the parallels and contrasts between these two figures, the message is clear: this is another reversal of fortunes, as the wicked Haman is reduced from glory to death, and the humble yet confident Mordecai is raised up into honor and glory.

More generally, these is another, even more important reversal of fortune in this chapter.  In verses 11-12, Mordecai writes a letter that takes the exact same day that had been planned for the Jews’ destruction and turns it into a day when the Jews are permitted to destroy their enemies (this day is the 13rd day of the 12th month, see Esther 3:13 and 8:12).  This is perhaps the most important reversal in the book of Esther because it takes the day of destruction and turns it into a day of joy and gladness for the Jews.  For their enemies, it changes the day from joy and gladness to death and destruction.

As I previously mentioned, Esther follows a large chiastic structure where nearly every aspect of the story has a “before” and “after” component.  The chiastic structure places a particular emphasis on the events in “the middle” of the chiasm, which is approximately the moment when Esther fasts and goes in to petition the king for her peoples’ lives.  In addition, the parallelism between “before” and “after” parts of the story also emphasize the reversal aspects of the story.

For this particular chapter, there are many parallels with chapter 3.  To give a few examples, in verse 2 the king gives his signet ring to Mordecai; in Esther 3:10, the king gave his ring to Haman.  In verse 9, the scribes of the king are summoned to write in all the various languages of the 127 provinces.  In Esther 3:12, the same thing happened for Haman’s decree to be written to every province and people in their own language.  In verse 13, a copy of the edict was issued as law and published to all the peoples, so that the Jews would be ready to defend themselves.  In Esther 3:14, a copy of the edict was issued as law and published so that all the people should be ready to carry it out.  Finally, in verse 15 the city of Susa rejoices and shouts with gladness, at the salvation of the Jews, while in Esther 3:15, the city of Susa was in confusion over the edict condemning the Jews to death.

The reversals demonstrated are: the exaltation of Mordecai and the downfall of Haman, changing the edict of destruction for the Jews to an edict for their defense and the destruction of their enemies, and the change in Susa from a state of confusion and distress to a state of rejoicing and gladness.

If reversal of fortunes is the central theme of Esther, then I think one of the most instructive perspective we can take is to view reversal of fortunes, particularly as it relates to Haman and Mordecai, as “the answer”.  Then once we consider reversal of fortunes as the answer, it is natural to ask, what is the question?  While I think it can be studied in several different ways, I want to focus on the following question: “Why do the wicked prosper”?

Taking a step back for a moment, let’s once again consider the political environment that existed during the timeframe of this story.  Judah was living as slaves in exile, subjected to the authority and laws of an idolatrous nation.  They had been taken out of their homes, away from their inheritance; they had lost everything of value.  While there may have been poverty in other parts of the Persian empire, the capital Susa would have undoubtedly been home to the wealthiest men and women in the empire.  We can easily imagine that there are many poor, enslaved, yet pious Jews, who could relate to Mordecai.  We can also easily imagine that many of these Jews would have known wealthy but arrogant Persians.  It’s a bit speculative, but I would suggest that many Jews in the exile would find themselves asking, “why is that arrogant Persian so far from God, and yet successful in life, while I am in poverty in spite of my piety and devotion to God?”  Or in short, “why do the wicked prosper”.

This is a topic that is addressed frequently throughout the bible (though many of these references are later that Esther; for instance, Psalm 73, Jeremiah 12, and literally the entire book of Job).  The prophetic literature frequently pronounces dooms upon the wicked, stating that while they may prosper for a time, their prosperity would be short-lived.  We can also possibly look at Deuteronomy as a mental framework for how many Jews viewed good versus evil.  Although Deuteronomy is not directly concerned with non-Israelites, I think the general framework that is established in the law should still give us some sense of what the Jews in Esther’s time would expect.  The basic idea is that if the Israelite are faithful to obey God, they will be blessed, and if they turn away from him they will be cursed.  In conflict with their enemies, God promises them victory if they are faithful to him (Deut 28:7), otherwise they will be chased away in defeat (Deut 28:25).  It is a fairly natural extension for Jews to think, “because these foreign nations do not obey the LORD, they will also be cursed and will fall before us.”

The Jews of Esther’s time observe foreign nations ruling over them, which was also promised in Deuteronomy 28 if they lived in sin and disobedience to God.  However, as the pious and devoted Jews rededicate themselves to the LORD (those who would relate to Mordecai), they would expect for God to raise them back up and they would no longer be subjected to their foreign oppressors.  Particularly with reference to Haman and Mordecai, I would view it as almost like an inversion of the “natural order”.  The “natural order” is that Mordecai should be blessed and Haman should be in disgrace or death.  Instead, we see Haman blessed and Mordecai threatened with death.

This results in a natural tension, which Esther seeks to answer.  What is the answer?  “Reversal of fortunes.”  The book of Esther seeks to address the tension between what the Jewish people expect should happen in the world and what they actually observe, and the book’s answer is that God will cause a reversal of fortunes, the wicked will perish and the righteous will prosper.  Even though the book begins with everything the opposite of what it should be, by the end of the book everything has been restored to what it “ought” to be, and that’s really the whole point of what reversal of fortunes is all about.

One last point I would like to discuss is the Greek Esther (GE) copy of this chapter.  Greek Esther ostensibly contains a copy of the decree issued by Mordecai to all the nations.  This decree is heavily biased in favor of the Jews, using language that it’s unlikely a Persian would have written.  For instance, it calls the Jews  the “chosen people” of God (GE 16:21), and also says that the Jews are “children of the living God” (GE 16:16).  Verse 9 specifically says that Mordecai is the one who wrote the decree on behalf of the king, so I wouldn’t say that the pro-Jewish bias is entirely inconsistent, but the decree in Greek Esther also claims that Haman is a Macedonian who was attempting to deceive the king and thereby steal the kingdom for himself.  GE 16:13-14 suggests that Haman’s true intent was to destroy Mordecai “our savior and perpetual benefactor” and Esther, “the blameless partner of our kingdom”, so that Haman “would catch us undefended and would transfer the kingdom of the Persians to the Macedonians”.

This reframes Haman’s threat from an attack on the Jews to a subversive attack on the Persian empire itself.  I don’t think that is strictly implausible, I don’t see any evidence in the rest of Esther to support that idea.  From the rest of the book, it really does seem like Haman is primarily focused on destroying the Jews and I don’t see any evidence that Haman is interested in overthrowing the king.  It is possible that this shift in emphasis reflects a later date of composition for the additions to Greek Esther compared to the Hebrew version of the story, since the Macedonians only became a major military force in the later periods of the Persian empire.

In the next chapter, the Jews finally execute vengeance upon their enemies, as per the king’s decree.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Bible Commentary - Esther 7

In this chapter, Esther finally makes her petition to the king, resulting in Haman’s death.

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for; Esther finally works up the courage to ask for her people’s lives, and things instantly get bad for Haman when Esther accuses him of constructing the order to kill her people (which is true).  The king is so mad that he can’t even deal with it and he runs off to the garden to… swear at the trees or something like that.

One thing that’s kind of funny about the king’s anger is that the king approved the edict.  Although it was Haman’s idea, one could reasonably say that the king had more responsibility for it because he was the authority who issued the command.  But Esther blames Haman, and the king also blames Haman.  Obviously Esther can’t blame the king because the king is the person she is petitioning for help.  Still, I would include this as another piece of evidence that the king is easily malleable and controlled by others, because not a single person in this scene thinks that the king is responsible for the edict that he issued against the Jews, because it’s so obviously Haman’s fault that the king couldn’t possibly be responsible here.

Haman sees that he has only one chance left to save his life, and that’s to convince the queen to convince the king to not kill him.  Haman “falls on Esther’s couch” (v. 8), which we can imagine him grabbing her leg or arm or something as he pleads for his life.  The king is obviously not impressed because touching the queen would be a violation of standard decorum.

Conveniently, at that very moment one of the eunuchs (Harbonah) helpfully points out that Haman had constructed gallows at his house for the purpose of killing Mordecai, “who spoke good on behalf of the king”.  I think it’s unlikely that this is the very moment the eunuch learned about the gallows, but Harbonah chooses this moment to point out that a method of execution has already been prepared, you know, just in case the king should decide that some person may need to die.

This moment is the culmination of both Haman’s plots against the Jews: first, his decree to wipe out all the Jews, and second, the gallows he built to murder Mordecai in particular.  I personally think it’s clear that Haman was finished from the moment in Esther 5:2 when the king received Esther favorably and more or less promised to give her whatever she asked for.

Even more generally, Haman was in a very dangerous position when he sought to kill the Jews because Esther was secretly a Jew, and Esther could reasonably convince the king that Haman’s actions against her constituted some kind of treason.  Haman taking action against Mordecai (who was honored by the king earlier in that same day) helped to assure the outcome, but the situation was clearly working against him.

This is the fifth feast, and it marks the end of nearly all the conflict in the book.  The remainder of the book is wrapping up loose ends and the conclusion.

In the next chapter, Mordecai is given permission by the king to revoke the earlier decree and issue a new decree on behalf of the Jews.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Bible Commentary - Esther 6

In this chapter, the king orders that Haman honor Mordecai.

If my readers remember the introduction to Esther I wrote earlier, I said that the central theme of Esther is reversal of fortunes.  Basically the way reversal of fortunes is demonstrated in this story is through two parts: the establishment of a particular intent or pattern, and then the reversal of that pattern.  In broad terms, the “establishment” is concentrated in the first 4-5 chapters, which lays out the general background and framework of the story.  Once we pass through the climax of the story in chapters 4 or 5, the remainder of the book consists of the reversal of fortunes previously established.

To show one example, Esther 3:5 and 5:9 establish a pattern of Mordecai refusing to honor Haman, and Haman being enraged at it.  Haman gets his revenge by ordering the destruction of the entire Jewish race, and at the very end of chapter 5 he decides to petition for Mordecai’s death.  Verse 1 of this chapter has the closest thing to a deus ex machina that we will find in Esther, because if the king had not suffered insomnia on this one particular night, asking to read the royal chronicles on this one particular night, it is very possible that Haman would have asked for (and received) the death of Mordecai.

But because it does happen, we see (at least) two reversals in the same moment.  The first is that Haman went to the king planning to ask for Mordecai’s death, and instead is ordered to honor Mordecai.  The second is that Mordecai refused to obey the king’s command to honor Haman, but Haman is forced to honor Mordecai.  One could also add that Haman instructed the king with the expectation that he would be honored himself, but instead the honor was given to his enemy.  There are many layers of irony in this part of the story.

Going back to verse 1, this is one of the clearest instances of the book of Esther nearly touching the subject of divine intervention.  There are other cases where people hint at the possibility of divine intervention (such as the “deliverance arising from another place” of Esther 4:14), but this is the one really clear instance where we see it happen.  It is instructive to note the Greek Esther translation of verse 1: “That night the Lord took sleep from the king…”.  So while Hebrew Esther leaves the point ambiguous, Greek Esther makes it clear that they viewed this as an instance of divine intervention. I want to touch on a couple points here.

The bible has a lot of crazy stories about food coming from heaven, or people being raised from the dead or leprosy being healed and stuff like that.  But for how many miracles are recorded in the bible, most people see very few miracles like that in their day to day lives.  This creates a tension, as many people seek to explain the difference between biblical miracles and what they see in their personal lives.  The tension is resolved in different ways by different people: some people resolve that God simply doesn’t perform those kinds of miracles anymore, and “no miracles” is the new standard.  Other people view this difference as arising from their own deficits or lack of knowledge or training.  Perhaps if I was a holier person, or wiser, or more gifted, I could perform miracles of many kinds, but because I am not, I cannot.

I don’t intend to pick sides here, but I do want to point out that Esther presents an alternative view of what divine intervention can look like, that is quite different from the miracles of Exodus or Kings.  Instead, what we see in Esther is a relatively subtle intervention.  God is tipping the scales in favor of his servants, but what plays a much bigger role in the story is the faithfulness and persistence of humble men and women like Esther and Mordecai.  From the structure of the story, I think we have very good reason to believe that Esther indeed came to her position as queen “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).  How did Esther get her position?  It is clear that she received favor from the king’s eunuchs, and ultimately the king himself, but Esther also played a role with her quiet diligence, faithfulness and obedience; in some measure to the king, but also to God.

In this context, Mordecai and Esther were already positioned to bring deliverance to the Jews, in large part because of their own efforts.  However, so often we find our own efforts are not enough to make it the whole way, and that is true here too.  God breaks in by calling attention to Mordecai’s previous service to the king, and that’s basically all it takes to get things turning around.

On the other hand, if Esther and Mordecai are receiving favor because of their faithfulness and hard work, Haman’s prideful attitude has set him up for a tremendous “fall” (v. 13).  There are few things that demonstrate Haman’s character more directly than verse 6; Haman simply doesn’t believe that there is anybody better than himself, and that there is nobody more deserving of honor and praise than himself.  Of course, this attitude is why Haman himself declares the many honors that should be bestowed on Mordecai, his enemy, because Haman couldn’t imagine a world where the king would seek to honor Mordecai.

Lastly, this chapter contains a second instance of Haman rushing home to meet his wife and friends.  He did this just a little while ago in chapter 5, when he returned home to brag about his personal success in life.  This time around, he rushes home in shame and grief, devastated that he was compelled to honor his enemy with the same honors that he desired for himself.  Coming from a man who was “enraged” that Mordecai refused to bow before him, I can’t imagine how Haman must have felt when he was compelled to honor Mordecai above himself.  This is also another reversal of fortune; previously, Mordecai was grieving and fasting (Esther 4:1-3) and Haman was honored and rejoicing.  Now Mordecai is honored, and Haman is grieving.

I would also like to point out that Haman has awful friends.  Can you imagine going home in grief and shame, and the advice your friends give you is, “Because Mordecai is Jewish, you will certainly fall before him.”  Thank you so much for the help and advice, wife and friends.  But why should Haman be concerned that Mordecai is of Jewish origin?  Why would that result in Haman’s downfall?  The inference our (predominantly Jewish) audience would take from this verse is that Haman is doomed to fall because God is with the Jewish people.  Greek Esther makes this point explicitly, modifying the verse to say “If Mordecai is of the Jewish people… you will not be able to defend yourself, because the living God is with him.”  It’s another place where the Hebrew text strongly infers the point and the Greek text makes the point explicitly.

In the next chapter, things go from bad to worse for Haman and he is put to death on his own gallows.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Bible Commentary - Esther 5

In this chapter, Esther, Haman and the king eat a meal together and Haman plots the downfall of Mordecai.

This chapter has one of my favorite parts of the story, at the very beginning in verses 1 and 2.  This moment when Esther appears before the king, and she is clothed in her finest royal robes, knowing that she is placing her life in the king’s hands.  In this moment, the king may choose if Esther will live or die.  From the previous chapter, we can clearly sense Esther’s anxiety and tension about appearing before the king, highlighted in verse 3 when the king asks what is “troubling” Esther.  At the same time, in my imagination I picture the king as friendly and relaxed.  The language is very muted and neutral so it doesn’t really speak to the king’s emotional state, but his reception of Esther is polite, generous and kind.

After this very first moment though, it seems clear to me that the crisis is over; the king receives Esther favorably and in my mind, it’s all but certain that Esther’s request will be granted.  That said, I think Esther handles the situation beautifully.  First of all, we see Esther dress in her finest apparel.  This is a subtle point, but I think it’s important; we know for a fact that the king loves extravagent displays and he loves the fine things of life.  I think Esther is clearly playing to his personality because these kinds of formal affairs are exactly what the king enjoys.  Second, Esther invites the king to a banquet.  Not only does Esther invite the king to a banquet, but at the conclusion of this banquet she petitions the king to attend a second banquet, the following day.  From the very beginning of the book, we know that the king loves feasts and banquets and this is what Esther is using her.  I wouldn’t want to call it manipulation exactly, but I think Esther is using her knowledge of the king’s personality to make her request more appealing to him, and I think that she is being very clever and effective at it.

One question that generally comes up in this chapter is why Esther asked the king to go with her to a second banquet.  Why not ask for deliverance at the first banquet?  I think it’s possible anxiety may have been a factor; she was probably uncomfortable making her request to the king and wanted to put it off.  However, we could just as well question why Esther invited the king to the first banquet; why not make her request in the king’s throne room?  I think the most likely answer is what I mentioned above: the king loves banquets; the king loves pomp and circumstance.  Inviting him to a banquet is likely to make him receive Esther more favorably, and if one banquet is good then certainly two banquets is better.  From a story point of view, the two banquets also creates more dramatic tension and we will see in the next chapter or two that it plays out in a very particular way.  But I think the best explanation is that Esther is simply accommodating what she knows about the king’s personality.

To go back to the personality studies that we started earlier, we see three actors in this chapter: the king, Esther and Haman.  I already mentioned how Esther is working to manipulate the king into saving her people, but what do we see from the king and Haman?  In short, both of them are generally consistent with what we saw previously.

The king goes along with Esther’s plots without any objection or apprehension.  It looks like he’s simply enjoying himself and agrees to whatever Esther asks for.  Haman is much more interesting.  In this chapter, we see Haman’s pride shine through above everything else.  After attending the banquet (the fourth feast in the book), Haman is “glad and pleased of heart” (v. 9), but when he sees Mordecai refuse to rise or tremble before him, he is enraged.  This is the second time that Mordecai has “refused” Haman, though the first time around it was Mordecai refusing to bow; now he is refusing to stand.  This symmetry (between chapter 3 and chapter 5) serves to highlight the section between them, particularly chapter 4 and the beginning of 5 when Mordecai asks Esther to approach the king, and her favorable reception.  This kind of repetition is a framing technique very similar to chiasm, which emphasizes the part of the text in the middle.

Verse 11 is even more striking, because when Haman gets home the first thing he does is start bragging about how much money he has, how many sons he has, and how many times the king has honored him.  Verse 12 is an ironic conclusion because he mentions the feast with queen Esther as one of his “glories”, when in fact Esther is going to use that feast to undermine his position and accuse him before the king.  It’s a subtle jab, but Haman’s destruction is already in progress, and yet he thinks it is to his glory.  In verse 13, we see Haman’s fundamental insecurity emerge once again, because no matter how much money and glory Haman might possess, he cannot abide even a single man refusing to bow to him.

Finally, in verse 14 Haman builds a gallows to kill Mordecai, showing that even if Esther can reverse the king’s command, the danger is perhaps not yet over; Haman may still succeed in killing Mordecai even if Esther attains mercy for her people.

The last comment I would like to make here is to reference again the additions of Greek Esther (GE).  There is a long section at the beginning of chapter 5 that is included in Greek Esther and not the Hebrew version.  I highly recommend that everyone read it because it’s a really fantastic text.  Anyway, it is Greek Esther chapters 13-15 and it includes a prayer of Mordecai, a prayer of Esther and an expanded scene describing Esther’s first appearance before the king (Esther 5:1-2 in the Hebrew text).  I don’t have anything to say about the prayers, but the description of Esther’s appearance before the king is truly astonishing.  It describes Esther as being “terrified” before the king, who was “seated on his royal throne, clothed in the full array of his majesty, all covered with gold and precious stones” (GE 15:6).  Not only that, it says that the king “looked at her in fierce anger”, at which point the queen “faltered… and collapsed… Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms.” (GE 15:7-8).  Later she faints a second time after describing the king as “wonderful, my lord, and your countenance is full of grace.” (GE 15:14-15).

It’s honestly kind of ridiculous stuff, a fairly blatant dramatization and while the story is consistent with the Hebrew text, the general tone and writing style is extremely different and distinct.  Greek Esther basically turns this part of the story into a romantic drama, which is generally inconsistent with the rest of the biblical text (in terms of tone and literary style).  Nevertheless, I think it’s wonderfully entertaining stuff.

As this chapter concludes, the story remains in motion.  Haman has declared he will go and ask for Mordecai’s death, and Esther has petitioned the king and Haman to attend a second banquet.  In the next chapter, Haman’s request for Mordecai’s death is interrupted in a most surprising fashion.