The Limits of Limited Editions – Modern Masters in Print

 

Limited Edition

I like to think that I’m getting a bargain and this also applies when I’m shopping for art. At Christmas I bought myself a limited edition print of a canvas and rather than angling for a discount I asked the artist if he could limit the number of prints of this picture to ten instead of his usual 25.

The original canvas is in private hands and I’ve got the only print, so does it make any difference whatsoever to the value (financial or artistic) what the theoretical maximum print run of this picture is?

 Le Cirque, 1945 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I was thinking about limited editions and reprints this weekend when I visited the “Modern Masters in Print” exhibition at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. This exhibition is ‘on tour’ from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and includes over 50 works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. It seems that I’m not the only one to be confused about the relationship between prints and originals. Gill Saunders, Senior Curator (Prints) at the V&A reports that in some venues the feedback she’s received is that the exhibition should have included more of the ‘good stuff’. What people mean is that they want to see original paintings rather than prints.

With four exceptions, however, these works are not copies of paintings but works of art in their own right. All of the artists in the show were using different methods of printing as a means of experimentation and original expression.

The prints in the exhibition were original works conceived by the artist for the particular print method they had chosen. They didn’t see them as a commercially more productive technique, but as a way to develop their artistry.

Matisse described preparing plates for printing as “drawing with new tools” and Picasso also found that the printmaking was feeding his creative process in other media.

Andy Warhol, when asked in 1971 about the difference between his paintings and his prints, famous answered “the difference is that paintings are on canvas”. The acid-test of authenticity in print seems to be whether the work was conceived for the medium you’re looking at or if it is a copy of a work in another.

 The Frugal Repast, 1904 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Picasso’s powerful study in poverty and alcoholism ‘The Frugal Repast’ was only his second foray into print. It was made during his blue period in 1904 and used a zinc etching plate which had previously been used for a landscape print by his friend Joan Gonzales. In fact, the faint remainder of Gonzales’ image can be seen in the first impressions to come off the press.

The original print run of The Frugal Repast was very short due to the fragility of the zinc plate. In 1913, however, the plate was steel-faced by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard and the resulting run of 250 prints were widely distributed and helped to build Picasso’s reputation as a print maker. While we don’t expect Vollard to have had truly altruistic motives, this is a good example of the use of technology to broaden the impact of a work of art, rather than restricting it to preserve the value of the limited edition.

Print and reproduction technology has moved on considerably from the early 20th Century and our digital age has introduced questions about limited editions which are not confined to the two-dimensional paper printing which Matisse, Picasso, Dalí and Warhol perfected.

Earlier in the year I listened to the BCC 2013 Reith lectures given by Tuner Prize wining artist Grason Perry. Grayson’s current exhibition is a series of six tapestries, each four meters long, which echo William Hogarth’s 1730s morality tale A Rake’s Progress and pay visual homage to several classical paintings in the process. It’s called The Vanity of Small Differences. Each of the tapestries in the exhibition was woven in Belgium using a computer-controlled digital loom which produced the six works on display and two artist’s proofs.

Digital-Loom-and-PerryArtist Grayson Perry watches a digital loom weaving one of his tapestries. Image from the Channel 4 series ‘All In the best possible taste – with Grayson Perry’

Although the works in The Vanity of Small Differences are unique originals, it would be possible (although costly) to produce an identical second set at the click of a mouse. These are unique only due to the decision of the artist, something which Gill Saunders calls “The artificiality of the limited edition”.

Thomas Cronenberg, a member of the European Tapestry Forum Standing Committee takes this criticism of the tapestries as original art works even further. Writing in trade magazine Textile Forum (issue 2/2103) he says that these works have “very little to do with crafts and much more in common with commercial art or, said in an extreme way, colour photocopying.” Because the production of the tapestry is a step removed, he does not see the hand of the artist in the finished work.

A short stroll around the V&A reveals that this question of authorship, design and reproduction has been around far longer than mechanical looms. The largest works in the V&A are a series of paper drawings known as the Raphael Cartoons. These paper paintings are full scale designs for tapestries which were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515. The finished products were hung in the Sistine Chapel and show scenes from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

The Raphael Cartoons are housed in Room 48 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.

In Renaissance Art, the term cartoon refers to the design for an artwork in another medium, usually full size and usually on paper rather than canvas. Closer inspection of these cartons show that they have been cut into vertical strips which were the width of the looms used by the weavers who would copy the design. The cartoon was a mirror image of the finished tapestry as the weavers would work the fabric from behind.

Despite being among ‘the greatest treasures of the high renaissance’, the cartoons on show in the V&A are the 16th Century equivalent of the digital files generated by Grayson Perry. With a pleasing symmetry both artists sent their designs off to Belgium to be rendered in thread, albeit with The Vanity of Small Differences enjoying a more exclusive print run than the Raphaels.

conversionoftheprocunsul

Detail from ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ – Raphael Cartoons © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One detail of the Rahpael Cartoons did raise a question in my mind about the acid-test of authenticity. Did Raphael intend the cartoons to be works of art in their own right, rather than simply designs for the tapestries? The detail in question is the Latin inscription shown below the throne of Sergius Paulus in ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ (above). If this was purely a template for the weaver then the text would be expected to be a mirror image, but the text in the cartoon has been written to be read from the front. This does seem to add fuel to the fire of those who would say the designs are are more genuine and unique expression of the artist’s work than the finished product.

But even here we run into problems about authorship and authenticity. Matisse began his experimentation in print using woodblock printing, but producing the plates was so time consuming that once he had drawn the image he gave the task of carving the hard wooden block to his wife. His signature might have been on the final print, but is it any better than a photocopy of his drawing?

Woodblock used to print Matisse’s ‘Nude in profile on a chaise longue’ Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Laying aside the cost and projected value of the work, there are three questions which will help you decide whether to buy a print, a limited edition or hold out for an ‘original’.

  • Are you looking at a copy of an original, or a work of art conceived in the medium you are buying?
  • How accurately does the print reflect the original? (Is it a good copy?)
  • In your enjoyment of art more about what you can see or about the uniqueness of the piece you own?

I’m looking at my limited edition print as I write. To be honest, it isn’t the number at the bottom which grabs my attention.


Modern Masters in Print is on display at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery until 23rd August. Entry to the museum and exhibition is free – don’t miss it. (The four exceptions mentioned above were a series of striking railway destination posters for SNCF designed by Dalí and commercially printed.)

 

Art for Under 5s – Turner and the Sea

fishermen upon a lee-shore in squally weather

Impression of ‘Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner. 2014. 

A couple of months ago I took the Boy to the “Turner and the Sea” exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum as a dry-run for gallery visits during my sabbatical. The experience was a good one and so, in the first art-related post of my sabbatical, I’m going to share my five tips for visiting exhibitions with under 5s.

1) Keep it simple, but don’t patronise.

Small children tend to be taken to art galleries for one of two reasons. Either a parent wants to go and can’t find a babysitter, or they see it as important to their child’s education that they have a good grounding in art history before they go to school. In the case of the Boy, it’s a bit of both and our trips tend to be a mixture of keeping him engaged and keeping him amused.

Now, I’ll admit that my expectations are probably higher than they should be for the level of engagement a three year old can have with an Old Master, but we’ve always tried to encourage the Boy to have opinions about things, especially art and music. And the questions we should all be asking ourselves about art and culture are fairly easy for children to answer. Do you like it? How does it make you feel? What’s happening? What does it remind you of?

Philip James de Loutherbourg - The Shipwreck 1793 - detail Painting

The Boy picked out this detail as his favourite part of the exhibition. The wreckers in Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘The Shipwreck’ look like pirates. Apparently.

What I’m not such a great fan of are activities for children which have nothing to do with the art, like trails to find stuffed toys hidden around stately homes. These do seem to suggest that visits are more about keeping children amused while you look around than helping them engage with what you’re looking at.

When faced with a 2 meter wide canvas there is a limit to how much discussion you can have about technique or the historical importance of the work. But you can talk about the action and the colour. How do the different parts of the painting elicit different responses? The Turner and the Sea exhibition included works by other artists so we tried to guess whether each one was a similar style to the rest of the exhibition or if it looked different.

Of course, it was a particular high-point of the visit when the Boy correctly identified which painting was a Turner and which wasn’t ‘because of the sea’. I’m not sure it was a repeatable exercise, so I didn’t ruin the illusion by trying it again.

A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale

‘A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale’ by George Philip Reinagle. Not a Turner!

2) Find non-marking ways of sketching.

Making sketches of what you’re looking at is arguably the best way to appreciate what is in front of you. Add this to children’s natural love of drawing and you have a great way to encourage their inner artist while being able to look yourself. Having said this, gallery staff tend to look very worried if a small child is wandering around priceless works of art with a crayon, so I’ve loaded up my iPad mini with a drawing pad app which cost about £2.50 but has saved hundreds of pounds of babysitting fees over the past two years. It also makes the whole process of moving around a gallery much easier if you don’t have to worry about collecting up all the pencils.

Be prepared for adoring comments though. If you have a small child sitting sketching in front of a early Turner then expect comments about “a young Turner”. Not all comments are straightforward though. One lady looked at the Boy’s screen and asked “Are you drawing a sunflower?” “No” came the reply, “I’m copying this Turner”. And this was his interpretation of “Wreck of a Transport Ship”. You can see her confusion, but then he’s always preferred more abstract art than me.

Wreck of a Transport Ship

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810

3) See the good stuff first.

Exhibitions are usually arranged in a linear order, often beginning with an artist’s earlier and less developed work. You want to see the good stuff before children get impatient, so don’t feel bad about missing out the first few rooms.

I find that impatience comes in three phases:

  • Stage one: I’m enjoying this.
  • Stage two: I’m bored with art but happy to do something else while you look around.
  • Stage three: We have to leave right now!

With Turner we had about forty minutes of stage one (with drawing on the iPad), fifteen minutes of stage two (with world map puzzles, again on the iPad) and it took five minutes of stage three to get out of the exhibition. Strangely, as soon as we got into the gift shop we reset to stage one.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ 1823-4

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ which I was enjoying as we moved from stage one to stage two.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’. Formerly the nation’s favourite painting, which I had to go back to the National Gallery and see alone, as we had entered stage three before we found it in Turner and the Sea.

If you do some research before you leave home, you can generally find out what’s going to be where in the exhibition. This also gives you the opportunity to familiarise your child with the most well-known works in advance, so finding them is part of the discovery.

4) Queue-jump if possible.

I’m not suggesting pushing in but, if you book in advance, many places offer timed tickets which reduce the amount of queuing at the door. Standing in a queue to get into the exhibition cuts into your stage one time, as I found at the Natural History Museum to my cost.

5) Don’t worry about other people.

Some artists seem to inspire a muted awe in their viewers, and Turner is the apotheosis of this reverential appreciation. But people who visit art galleries, and especially those who pay for exhibitions, are generally keen that young people learn to appreciate art for themselves, so they would rather see children engaged and talking than absent or silent. Other visitors to a gallery will be using the audio-guide headphones, so can’t hear you anyway.

If you’re at stage one of a visit then most other visitors are going to be charmed, rather then annoyed by a small person commenting on the exhibition. If you’re at stage two then you may need to have headphones on the iPad. If you’re at stage three then the person who is most likely to be disturbed by your child is you, so cut your losses and head for the gift shop.

  • What have you learnt from your own trips out with small children?
  • What have you seen working and not working when you’ve encountered other people’s children in galleries?

Sun Rising Through Vapour

Impression of ‘Sun Rising Through Vapour’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Evening harbour scene with boats being unloaded and spectators

Impression of ‘Habour Scene with Boats being unloaded and Spectators’ by Claude-Joseph Vernet.

The Summer of Art

NTDeckchair

This summer I’m going to be taking a three-month sabbatical. This is a period when I’m released from my duties in the parish to allow “time for rest, renewal and re-creation so as to return refreshed for ministry”.

I’m hoping to do a few different things this summer, so I thought I’d share my plans with you.

1) Research

The first part of the sabbatical will be spent visiting several Church of England training colleges and meeting with their Principals. I’m planing to ask them questions about what makes their college distinctive and how the selection process impacts on the training they offer. I’m doing this part of the sabbatical wearing my ‘Dean of Studies’ and ‘Diocesan Director of Ordinands’ hats. Depending on what happens in these interviews, I might put together a research degree proposal from my findings.

2) Renewal

I’m going to be spending five nights away on a personal retreat in Spain. I’ve got a couple of books lined up to read, but am open to suggestions about what to take, what to read and what to pray.

3) Recreation

I’m planning to spend the largest chunk of my time away taking up a new hobby. I’m going to be studying a bit of Art History and visiting galleries. With only six weeks I’ll be limited in what I can see, but I’ve got my ArtFund pass at the ready and I’ll hopefully be able to fit in a trip to the Louvre.

I’ll be taking The Boy with me on some of these trips and I’ll be blogging about what I’ve seen and learnt (which called for a new look on the blog). The boy will be taking my iPad with him, so I’ll post his interpretations of what he’s seen too.

4) Rest

As well as catching up with friends while I’m on my travels in the UK, we’re also looking forward to visiting Tuscany for a holiday with our Godchildren and their parents. As part of this we’re going be spending three nights in Florence, so I’m really looking forward to educating (boring to tears) everyone with my newly acquired art knowledge. There will be lots of photos.

5) Refreshed for Ministry

I’ll be back at St. Pancras just in time for the ordination service in Exeter Cathedral. This is particularly exciting as one of the new deacons will be Wendy Bray, who is going to join the staff of St. Pancras as Curate in September. I’m really looking forward to this new phase in our ministry to the people of Pennycross and Plymouth. Please do pray for my time away.

Resolution

2361057568_00795a66e6_oI don’t often find myself asked a question which I can’t answer, but I really didn’t know what I thought when Tanya asked:

“Looking at your papers now, would you have put yourself through?”

The papers in question were all the forms and reports from my selection and training for ordination, stretching back fourteen years and now neatly bound and filed away in my study. When I received two sets of application forms from ordination candidates who I’m working with, something prompted me to get out my own reports and this prompted Tanya to ask me the question.

The question stumped me because I’m sure I’m in the right job and it was right for me to be ordained into the Church of England, but it was only the seven years of theological college and curacy that allowed me to iron out those issues which, at the time of my selection, nearly put an end to the process.

One thing which the assessors thought might be a problem (or an indicator of a deeper issue) was that I’d written on some form or other that I didn’t really get angry. This translated into the following line in my selection conference report:

“Jon was unable to provide any evidence of how he would deal with anger.”

Eleven years on from that report I still don’t get angry. By which I mean I don’t lose my temper and shout when people upset me or I don’t get my way. I can control myself in heated meetings and debates and I can show immense patience with difficult or obtuse people. I don’t even write forthright letters of complaint or reply in haste to tweets and I certainly try to avoid replying in kind to moaning e-mails.

What I’m coming to realise is that maybe the report was right.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because I’m not getting angry when I should be. And that anger has to come out somewhere.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because I get angry about stupid stuff. Like when my neighbours won’t park in their own drive or when people use Sellotape on painted surfaces in the church hall or when motorists abuse disabled parking bays or when I’m subjected to bad PowerPoint.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because my anger is in the wrong place. So I’ll let stupid stuff upset me instead of doing something about the things that should make me angry. 

Things like when my MP voted against an investigation into the causes of the rising need for food banks or when I find myself in Child Protection meetings when I’m the only one (of the 20+ social workers, teachers and police) around the table offering any support to the parents. Or when I read about how disability benefit claimants are treated by the private company who run assessment centres or when I see magazines and newspapers which objectify women and excuse violence and abuse or when my hairdresser tells me about city centre shops forced to close because of the greed and lack of compassion of the management company.

These are all the result of public policy, government outsourcing (local and national), unrealistic targets, companies putting profit before people and public office-holders putting personal interest before the needs of those they purport to represent. As one of those represented people, I’m going to start by making my voice heard and calling elected representatives to account. In 2014 I’m going to deal with anger. I’m going to do it by getting angry. Angry at the right things. I’ve even got myself some nice new printer paper, because well written polite letters are so much more effective.

IMG_8575

What Would We Have Done? – A Midnight Meditation for Christmas Eve

Bible Readings: Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:8-17 and Matthew 2:1-12.

Lord of grace and truth,
we confess our unworthiness
to stand in your presence as your children.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


Mary

What would we have done, if we had heard that God was doing something new and unique deep within us?

Would we lay claim to our flesh, our biology, our reputation, our safety?

Or would we surrender ourselves saying “not my will, but yours be done”?

Joseph

What would we have done if we had listened to the gossip and found we were the butt of the joke? We’d been lied to, taken for a fool.

Would we clamour for justice, for the world to see the lies for what they were, for our name to be vindicated and our path clear to start again?

Or would we remember our place in history, the earthly link to a heavenly king? Would we trust that what was conceived in her was from God, as unlikely as that sounded? Would we care for these helpless ones as if they were our own flesh and blood?

The People of Bethlehem

What would we have done if we had been woken in the night by travellers filthy from the road? Would we have closed the shutters of our hearts to the pain and the desperation of those far from home?

Or would we have made room for the mess and the chaos of birth, going without to feed another mouth, risking the unknown but opening ourselves up to this holy mystery.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The Virgin Mary accepted your call
to be the mother of Jesus.
Forgive our disobedience to your will.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


Hearing the Angels

What would he have done if God had broken into our world, calling us to attention and exposing our weakness with the light of His glory?

Would we have hidden away, desperate to keep our hearts hidden from the gaze of the one who sees and knows?

Or would we have listened to the words of welcome – “Don’t be afraid, this is good news” – and been the first to feel the joy of heaven as it rushed across the earth?

The Shepherds

What would we have done if we had to choose between guarding our assets and proving the words from heaven?

Would we have huddled more closely to the light of the fire, warding off the terrors of the night and preferring to ignore the words of invitation?

Or would we have set out into the unknown to see this thing which had happened, this thing which would amaze all they told and would turn the scum of the earth into the heralds of the kingdom of God.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The shepherds left their flocks
to go to Bethlehem.
Forgive our self-interest and lack of vision.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


The Magi

What would we have done if the moment we had been waiting our whole lives for finally came?

Would we search for an explanation, a rationalisation an reason to stay put where we are the masters of our own destiny?

Would we be swayed by the trappings of power and the veiled threats, and betray this undefended child into the hands of violent men?

Or would we search for the one who calls out the stars by name and lay down whatever we can in his service?

Herod

What would we have done, if we had heard that the promised king had been born and his star had risen in the sky?

Would we take counsel together and discuss this threat to national security, this pretender to the throne who had been born in Bethlehem.

Would we allow our own pride and desires to be unseated before this king who has no equal and who wants our hearts for his own?

Would our hearts be filled with gladness that God had heard the cries of his people, that the silence had been filled with a baby’s cry?

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The wise men followed the star
to find Jesus the King.
Forgive our reluctance to seek you.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


You and I

What will we do as we come to his table? As we hear again of the night he was abandoned, in the garden and on the tree? As he broke himself for us and poured himself out that we may be filled.

Will we stay into the darkness, or will we come into the light, daring to believe that this was for us.

Will we receive the gift of God?

Will we receive Him?

Unto Us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Unto Us a Son is Born
Unto us a Child is Given

The Peace of the Lord be always with you
And also with you.


Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is included in this post, is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

Learning about Church – from the Atheists.

I don’t think I’ll be going to the mission meeting in Plymouth tonight. It isn’t that I’m not interested, it’s just a bit tricky to find the time to squeeze it in.

Anyone who has tried to drum up enthusiasm for church will be familiar with this sort of response. There doesn’t seem to be any less interest in spiritual matters, but with regular church attendance now defined as going once a month, there are just too many other attractive alternatives.

After decades in denial, both national denominations and local congregations have now woken up to the fact that we ought to be doing something about dwindling numbers, and this has led to a great diversification in the way we do church. The manta for most of these fresh expressions has been – “it’s the format which is broken, so let’s do church differently”.

Which is why its something of a surprise that tonight’s mission meeting is promoting the ‘Sunday Assembly Everywhere’ organisation who hope to see “a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

And despite their rejection of any sort of divine mandate, these atheist gatherings are surprising rigid in what they do and don’t allow – in essence it’s trendy Church of England, on a Sunday, but without God.

Hang on, I thought that Sunday wasn’t a good day for church anymore – the kids have got sports clubs and anyone sensible will be hung-over from the night before. And what about the singing, which people find strange? And the sermon, which people find boring? And the sitting in silence – which people can’t cope with?

But all these elements are essential parts of a Sunday Assembly. In fact, this is part of the attraction. One participant was quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“there was just something that clicked … It’s unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format, so it’s part of the collective consciousness.”

If this is true of the wider population then this present a serious challenge to some of our own assumptions about fresh expressions. Maybe it isn’t the format which people are rejecting. 

The Church needs to stop telling husbands to lead, and start teaching them how to love.

It’s been 13 years since our wedding day, a day when Tanya promised to ‘love, honour and submit’ to me, and where we started our Bible reading with Ephesians 5:21 to remind us that submission in marriage is a two-way street.

But to this day, the blank line in many translations between verses 21 and 22 of Ephesians chapter 5 seems to remain an insurmountable barrier in much of the teaching on submission in marriage. Why do we so often start with verse 22 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” and not with verse 21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”?

This week a number of bloggers are posting syncro-blogs exploring the Bible Texts which mention submission in marriage and my contribution to the debate is to ask just what problem these New Testament ‘household codes’ are trying to address. The answer to this question makes a big difference to our application of these passages and what I want to suggest is that these instructions are intended to help Christian families live in the freedom which Christ alone offers to men and women. In other words, they are part of the overthrow of the effects of the fall.

There is a powerful and popular school of thought that teaches that female submission and male leadership are the antidote to the sins of the fall. in this schema, Adam’s sin was his failure to take the lead (“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…” 3:17) and Eve’s sin was her disastrous delusion that she could make decisions on behalf of her husband (“she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” 3:6). The application is worked out in the common-place teaching that husbands should exercise leadership more explicitly in their homes, and wives should actively submit, whether or not their husbands temper their leading with love.

And this is really important because as a result of this teaching, men, even Christian men, who have a tendency to abuse women are given theological justification for doing so. Even more horrifically, I keep hearing accounts of how some churches are complicit in this abuse as they tell women who complain to go back and do a better job of submitting.

When I hear about these stories of abuse, what I can’t get to grips with is how we got to this teaching in the first place. The passages in the New Testament which talk about wives or slaves submitting never use leadership as the male counterpoint, they always talk about love. In any case, leadership in the New Testament is always modelled on the pattern of Christ, who led by his total self-giving sacrificial love.

It is much more consistent with the overall witness of the Bible to see these codes as written to deal with the effects of the fall. In them God himself demonstrates how the curses of the fall will be undone.

It is Jesus who is the second Adam, succeeding where humanity has failed. These codes are not written to show us how to correct the sins of Adam and Eve, but to teach us how to live, throwing off the curses which their sin laid upon us.  

Much of the discussion about women submitting will draw on the context of the patriarchal nature of Jewish and Greco-Roman society. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that patriarchy too is a result of God’s curse and not part of God’s design. In Genesis 3:16 God says to Eve:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (NRSV)

Until this point the relationship between Husband and Wife had been one of mutuality and co-operation – that was the intention of the one-flesh union described in Genesis 2:24. But as a result of the fall man would rule over woman, which is what we have seen perpetuated in patriarchal society in every generation since.

But Peter and Paul in the New Testament are writing to Christians about how to live Christ-empowered lives which challenge the dominion of sin and challenge the effects of the fall. And I want to suggest that these household codes have nothing to do with maintaining patriachal society, instead, we see submission and love as the counterpoint to the sinful tendencies pronounced over women and men at the fall. This will now be their default mode of operation.

“yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

To see the full semantic range of the words in bold, we can look ahead one chapter in the Genesis narrative to see how the author deliberately puts the Hebrew words together again. God is speaking following the exposure of the sin of Adam and Eve’s firstborn son Cain, who has begun to plot to kill his own brother.

“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:7 (NRSV)

Here the words present a power struggle, sin desires to have you under its control, but you must exert your rule over it. And this is the same struggle which is seen in ‘the battle of the sexes’. The wife desires to control her husband, but he will use his superior strength and power to dominate.

All the Bible’s teaching about men and women is built on the foundation of Genesis chapters one to three. So when we come to its teaching about submission and love in marriage, it makes sense to see submission as the antidote to the desire to control, and love as the antidote to domination.

Submission then, cannot be the blind acceptance of a Husband’s decisions, however benign. Neither can love be construed to be taking control, however well intentioned.

We (and I say ‘we’ as a church pastor and Bible teacher’) do both husbands and wives a serious disservice when we tell husbands to ‘man up’ and lead their families. What men need is to be taught how to overcome their fall-driven impulses to use their strength position and power to  dominate. They need to be taught to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and nowhere is that love expounded more clearly than in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The love of Christ for His church is a love which gives up all superiority (however much it was deserved) and takes the position of a slave. No wonder we men find it hard to love – we need Christ to teach us how to love like this, and the church to celebrate that love, not tell us to put down our cross and exert our authority.

Everything Changes

It’s an old joke, but what would actually happen if the Vicar forgot to put the clocks forward at the start of British Summer Time? And what if that Sunday was Easter Sunday?

So, picture the scene – the Vicar is missing, the service is starting, but the church is all set up for a Skype call later in the service. This is the conversation that follows:

How will they get here in time for the service? Something fast is needed. So after the hymn, here’s how we arrived and got to the Easter Acclamation.

Two men receive shocking news that brings them running to the scene.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

John 20:1-4

But what makes grown men rush off early in the morning. As we look further into the eye-witness accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in John 20 and 21, we saw that everything really does change at the resurrection. From the bottom upwards – Here’s the rest of the sermon from my Twitter feed as @JonMSpeaker.

And everything that changed in those first witnesses is offered to us. Everything Changes when we begin to trust in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

 

Alleluia, Christ is Risen
He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! 

 

P.S. I have no way of controlling what videos Skype suggests you watch after mine. I think recommendations are based on your own YouTube viewing history.  

Ruth in Haiku

New to Twitter Login ScreenIn a recent Bible Study we was challenged to try and summarise the ‘story so far’ in each of the chapters of the book of Ruth. I cheekily suggested we should summarise each chapter in Twitter-friendly haiku poems – and promptly found myself challenged to do just that. The results are below, in a slightly more permanent form than their original Twitter form (with line breaks, typos corrected and one refinement).

Ruth Chapter 1

Starving House of Bread
Ruth clings as Naomi pleads
Don’t call me Pleasant

Ruth Chapter 2

At barley harvest
Ruth’s diligent gleaning prompts
Kindness from Boaz

Ruth Chapter 3

Boaz uncovered
Ruth finds rest and Godly love
Under his mantle

Ruth Chapter 4

God in the detail
Ruth weds Kinsman-Redeemer
Mara full again

A Belated Post for Purim – Finding God in Esther

Last Sunday two global pageants took place. The Academy Awards Ceremony captured the eyes of the world on Sunday evening, but as the Oscars were starting, the Jewish festival of Purim was ending. Between sunset on Saturday and nightfall on Sunday, Purim was celebrated with carnivals and processions, fancy dress and feasting, as Jewish people remember the Old Testament story of Queen Esther and the deliverance of God’s people.

This is a belated post for Purim, not just because the festival has passed, but also because it’s a post I said would be ‘my next post’ way back in December 2011. You can read the first two parts of my discussion about Esther here and here. Since I wrote this a long time ago, there is some repetition in what I’ve written below, and I’m still trying to home in on the answer to the question I posed back then “Do we need to put God back into Esther?”

In my former posts I was trying to clear the ground of unhelpful approaches to Esther and, having done that, we now need to look at the story. It’s in this colourful narrative that we begin to see that God was right there all the time.

We might have seen it as a vegi-tale, where Esther is an aubergine or something, but I imagine that a retelling for children left out some of the more sordid details of this book. And there are some fairly questionable things going on here.

We start in chapter one by being introduced to King Xerxes I, who is also know as Ahasuerus. This places the story between 485 and 465 BC, so some years after the exile, and in keeping with what we know about the geo-political situation of the time, Xerxes rules over the mighty Persian empire, 127 provinces stretching from India in the east to Libya and Greece in the West.

So at this time there had been a remnant return to Jerusalem, but Jewish people lived throughout the empire, some of them even in the citadel of Suza, which is where the action in Esther takes place.

So how do you treat the most powerful man in the world? Well, there is an expectation of obedience, not just from his armies, or his government, but also from his household. So one day during a lavish banquet King Xerxes and the visiting dignitaries and the nobles are beginning to behave in some fairly unpleasant laddish behaviour. After a few drinks too many, the men begin to boast about their sexual conquests and the king begins to boast about his queen. After all, the purpose of the banquet was the display the might and prowess of the empire, and what better way of doing so than to parade the king’s greatest trophy to the world.

Now this was well before the days of political correctness, and so the king summons his attendants to go and get queen Vashti. We read in chapter one verse 11: that she was to be brought “wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.”

Now chaps might expect the same response if we tried to get away with this sort of thing. Vashti is often dismissed as a small bit-player in the Esther narrative but, like many of the more interesting women in the Old Testament, Vashti is something of a proto-feminist. As Queen, the eyes of the empire will be on her and her actions will be noticed and copied by the women of the realm, and Vashti won’t come and be treated as a sex-object, something to be ogled at and fantasised about. So the King has something of a problem – here is someone in the very heart of his household who will not obey him.

The King’s advisors say to him, if you let her get away with this, then people the notice and the same problem will spread. Wives will say to their husbands “If even the wife of Xerxes does not obey him, why should we obey you?” So Xerxes makes an example of Vashti and kicks her out. This leave a vacancy, not in the kings bed, it seems, there are still plenty of young women in the harem for that purpose, but there is no queen, and so the king decides to do what any self respecting monarch would do, he decided to choose his next queen by holding a beauty pageant.

So it’s a case that whoever is the most beautiful wins. Or at least that’s the vegi-tales version. The real criteria seems to be whoever most satisfies the king sexually would be the winner. This is not just a beauty pageant, this is about how good you are in bed.

And just in case we are a bit squeamish about admitting what was actually involved, what happened at this point is that the women went from one part of the harem, where the women were virgins, into the king’s bedroom and then on to another section of the palace where the women were wives or concubines. Verses 13 and 14 of chapter 2 spell it out for us”

“And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.”

And presumably if you were called, you learnt the lesson of Vashti, and you came.

Now Esther is the heroine, she has received a little help, and undergone months of beauty treatments, and at the end of the day she is brought to the king.

And Esther pleases the king and she is made queen, and the citadel celebrates by having another lavish banquet in her honour, decreeing a public holiday and showing the provinces with gifts from the royal treasury.

While all this is going on, the camera shifts. We are still in the citadel of Susa, but now Mordecai is the focus. Mordecai is a Jew, and the Uncle of Esther, and we read that he has raised Esther like a daughter. Now Mordecai is a fairly shrewd operator, and he keeps a low profile and we realise that it was on his instructions that Esther has kept quiet about the fact that she is a Jew.

One thing, however, brings Mordecai to the attention of the king – from where he sits at the kings gate, he is able to hear a lot of gossip, and one day he stumbles upon a plot among the royal officials to assassinate the king himself. Mordecai reports this, the culprits are captured and executed and Mordecai’s name is written down in the annals as someone worth honouring. This is a little like having your name on the Queen’s new year’s honours list, it’s symbolic rather than of any material value.

Chapter three introduces us to another character, Haman the Agagite. Haman is a senior official in the government of Xerxes and, like the king, he is a man who expects to be obeyed. He expects people to recognise his importance and to do as he says.

Now Haman thinks that a good way to show respect is by bowing down, and so he issues an order that whenever he rides past, everyone must bow down and worship him.

This is a man with delusions of grandeur on the scale of a Kim Jong-Il or a Saddam Hussein, and if you refused to play along, you would find yourself in real trouble.

And just in case we think that Haman is an historical anomaly, take a look at the luxury motorcade which carries Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe around his poverty stricken country. Since 2002, motorist have been required by law to pull off the road of they see the president’s entourage coming. It’s also an offence to gesticulate at the vehicles, and pedestrians who don’t get out of the way run the risk of being mown down or shot as terrorists.

But one person in Susa won’t obey the order. Mordecai won’t bow down and so Haman is enraged. Every time he enters the king’s gate, there is this man who will not show reverence. One thorn in his flesh, reminding him that he is not as powerful as he would like to be. Haman can command men’s actions, but he cannot command their will.

We don’t know if Mordecai is simply standing while those around him bow. We don’t know if he turns his back or if he makes rude hand gestures as Haman rides past, but his defiance causes Haman to hate this man and to hate his people. He might be saying to himself, “this is typical of this weak king and his tolerance of these people. These Jews are a threat and a danger”, and so he plans to get revenge on the Jews, and he arranges for the king to sign a death warrant for this people.

So the day is set, the command is signed, sealed and delivered, and we’ll remember from Daniel that the laws of the Meads and the Persians cannot be repealed. Once they are written then must be carried out.

So the Jews are sentenced to death, at the hands of Haman, with the authority of the king.

Now this leaves Mordecai with a serious problem, and unbeknown to the king, it also leaves Esther with a problem. And so Mordecai begin to fast and pray. He tears his clothes, he sits in sackcloth and ashes and he talks to queen Esther.

Mordecai says to Esther, you have the ear of the king. You are his queen and with him when no-one else is, can’t you whisper something in his ear during your pillow talk and do something to stop this. Esther’s reply is to remind her uncle what happened to queen Vashti. Chapter 4 verse 11, Esther says:

“All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold sceptre to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”

But Mordecai has faith that there is more going on than meets the eye. And so he replies with this well known phrase, which is at the heart of the book and at the centre of our understanding of Esther. Chapter 4 Verse 13:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

And so reflecting on this Esther realised that she has no choice. This is not just about doing the right thing, but about survival and so she resolves to do something very risky.

Esther puts on her best clothes, and goes to the palace, and stands before the king. And, he is pleased to see her – which is good news and Esther and great news for the Jews.

But it is not enough for her to just go in and argue about politics, the law cannot be repealed, and so instead Esther begins to put in motion a plan to save the Jews.

Esther asks the King to come to a private banquet, and to bring Haman with her. Which makes Haman think even more of himself. He thinks, what a privilege to be invited to dinner at the royal table, what a recognition of my status, what an accolade!

But there is still someone who can dent Haman’s mood, and as he leave the palace, again he sees Mordecai in the gate, and this time he resolves to destroy him utterly, and so builds high gallows in his back garden, with the intention of stringing Mordecai up on them, publicly humiliating him as he has done by refusing to bow down.

What happens next is nothing short of divine intervention. Seemingly by co-incidence that night the King cannot sleep. And to help him nod off he begins to read through the annals until he comes to the part which records Mordecai’s involvement is uncovering the assassination plot. He also realises that he has done nothing to recognise this.

At that moment Haman comes into the court, with the death warrant ready for signing, but instead the king asks him “What should be done for the man the king delights to honour?” Haman cannot think of anyone who could possibly be more worthy of honour than himself, and so he thinks ‘what would I really like’ and so he says, verse 7 of chapter 6:

“For the man the king delights to honour, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honour, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!’”

“Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.”

Don’t you just love that bit? The tables are turned and the hero is exalted. This man who has humiliated Haman, will now humiliate him once again, and Haman is no fool, he goes out and obeys the king. We might see the forces smile on his face, but we know than inside his heart is seething with impotent rage at his powerlessness to destroy this man who keeps on defying him.

After this Haman attends the Banquet arranged by Esther. And at this feast, as is often the way, the drama is paced out. So on the first night they have a great time, they have the best food and the best wine and Esther asks if they can do it all again tomorrow.

The next night the scene is the same, but during the second feast, Esther begins to reveal her hand. At the start of chapter seven, the king again asks Esther what she wants and she says this:

“If I have found favour with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.’”
King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
Esther said, “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman.”

Brilliant! Esther is a Jew, and Haman has signed her death warrant with the King’s own signet ring, and here he is cowering at the dinner table, fully aware of what is about to happen.

Well, this where the story turns from Drama to Farce, at the king storms out Haman falls down before Esther and begin to plead for his life. At this point the king returns and sees Haman with his hands all over the queen and thinks “if this wasn’t bad enough, now Haman is trying to molest the queen as well, and so he has a bag put over his head, and he is let out to the very gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai.

After that Ester and Mordecai put together this plan to save the Jews. As we said, these laws cannot be repealed, so a new law is passed, that gives the Jews permission to arm themselves and to kill anyone who is planning to kill them.

And so this threat of destruction to both sides means that a truce descends and the feared ethnic cleansing does not take place. There is some fighting, but those who are the enemies of the Jews are frustrated and themselves killed.

Finally, Haman’s family are hung on the gallows they had intended for the Jews, a very public demonstrations of the triumph of the Jews and the destruction of their enemies.

This is a story which records God’s deliverance. That’s why it is read at the festival of Purim as a reminder of the rescue of the Jews.

At the end of the story the tables are turned completely, The final verses of the canonical Esther say this:

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. Here is a godly prayerful man in a powerful position.

It’s a great story isn’t it? A riveting read with high drama, great irony, black humour, and captivating suspense. But we are still left with the question we started with.

Where is God is all of this?

  • We can infer that he is behind the scenes, but can we prove it?
  • Can a book which makes no reference to the divine names be rejected as lying outside the interest of Old Testament scholars?
  • Is this book in the wrong place, does it belong in the apocrypha as a ‘useful’ book, rather then in the Bible as scripture?

As we read and reflect on the story of Esther, we cannot help but see that it belongs in the canon. The book highlights the Jewish people, scattered and exiled throughout the immense territory of King Xerxes, which the opening verses record, covered North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Asia. The story recalls how the enemies of the Jewish people contrive against them but through a combination of providence, bravery and cunning, the eponymous heroine secures the safety of her people and the destruction of those who oppose them.

The book of Esther reads as if it is has been written by a secular chronicler, anxious to convey the details accurately and favourably (especially the splendour of the king and his kingdom), but unwilling to attribute the outcome to a mere tribal deity. The story has the hallmarks of a ‘romance’ or a ‘historical novella’ and has assonances with the Arabian folk tale ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ . In Esther the king is powerful but benevolent, the heroine beautiful and brave and the enemy is ruthless and devious. There is a rags-to-riches transformation and justice is seen to be done, but there is more here than pure entertainment.

There is also the air of a moral fable to the story. Proverbs 3:34 teaches that YHWH “mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble” (NIV) and the story reinforces such a reversal of fortunes as the proud Haman is humbled and the lowly Mordecai is exalted.

In fact those Jewish scholars who were so keen to add to the book of Esther make this point explicitly in the Apocryphal chapter 11 where we read of the Jews

“Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water; light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour.” Esther 11:10-11 (DC)

But this story is much more than a cautionary tale. Although it is not explicit in the text, the story is one of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness to those who are faithful to Him. In a world of cultural and religious relativism, Esther and her uncle Mordecai refuse to abandon their absolute faith in the God of the covenant and instead of being destroyed, they are elevated to great power.

The main characters in Esther are portrayed as flawed but faithful. Esther finds favour from the king as a result of her performance in his bed (2:17), she became concubine to the uncircumcised pagan king and is defiled as she eats the food from his table. On the advice of her Uncle she also conceals here true identity (2:20) and presumably as a result is required to participate in the pagan worship of the Persian court.

Again, in their attempt to make the Jewish characters in the book into better role models the LXX attempts to explain away these defilements with prayers from Mordecai and Esther justifying their actions. But the Hebrew text, which is bereft of these excuses, presents more believable and more credible characters. These flawed characters are more true to the Hebrew scriptures taking their places alongside Samson, Gideon, David and other flawed people who are, nevertheless, used by YHWH.

It is not perfection, then, which is the defining characteristics of the Jewish characters. Rather it faithfulness and trust. Mordecai’s response to the news of Haman’s plot is to put on sackcloth and ashes (4:1), as is the response of the scattered Jewish communities throughout Persia (4:3). In the Jewish scriptures, wearing sackcloth and ashes was synonymous with calling out to YHWH in repentance or supplication and there is no reason to suggest that the action has any other meaning on this occasion. Even the King of Nineveh, on hearing Jonah’s warning exchanges his royal robes for these garments of repentance (Jonah 3:6) and exhorts his city to “cry mightily to God” (3:8).

As we look for signs of God’s activity in the book of Esther, we realise that it is Mordecai’s Jewish identity and faith in God’s promises to His people that lead to the planned holocaust. Verses 3 and 4 of chapter 3 tell us as much:

“Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behaviour would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.”

(Esther 3:3–4 NIV11)

‘He had told them that he was a Jew.’ These are the only words of explanation about Mordecai’s motivation for his refusal to bow down.

I an attempt to find some deeper connection, some commentators have suggested that it was his family history that prevented him from showing respect in this way. In 2:5 Mordecai’s family is traced back to Kish and in 3:1 Haman is identified as an Agagite. The connection that is drawn is that in 1 Sam. 15:20-33 Saul, the son of Kish fails to put to death all the Amalekites and especially their King Agag. Knowing who Haman was, how could Mordecai then bow before him?

This theory, although providing a speculative insight into the background of these two men, does not seem to advance an understanding of the theology of the book of Esther. In addition it contains a further problem in that in 2:6 the text records that “Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away.” This can hardly be the same Kish, appearing both in the deportation of 597 B.C. and the genealogy of King Saul some 400 years previously.

It is, maybe, more reasonable to give to Mordecai’s actions the force the texts suggest. Mordecai refused to bow or do obeisance to Haman, and although some commentators attribute this to arrogance and the Rabinic sources suggest that Haman had “a divine image embroidered on the chest of sleeve of his garment” , it is taken for granted by the author of the text that the reason why Mordecai will not bow is simply because he is Jewish. Surely, as the book hints and the LXX additions (13:14) make plain, this is because to bow to anything other than YHWH himself is to break the most important commandments, it is to deny the very thing that underpins the Jewish identity.

If his motivation is not to dishonour God, what of the explanation of his actions to those who were also at the King’s gate? When the King’s servants saw that Mordecai did not obey the king and bow before Haman the text records that they asked him why this was (3:3).
Mordecai’s response is not recorded (except that he would not listen to them, 3:4) and when he is reported to Haman it is “in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew” (3:4). The reader is left to imagine what these words of Mordecai might have been, but there are very clear parallels elsewhere in the genre of wisdom literature where these words of explanation are make explicit.

When Daniel’s companions are faced with the rage of King Nebuchadnezzar for their refusal to bow down and worship his image, their response is simple and displays the same trust the Mordecai has that relief will come for the faithful Jews. They reply to the king saying:

“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Daniel 3:16-18

In Esther, the King’s servants want to test Mordecai’s words, and the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego seem to fit the mouth of Mordecai perfectly. There is trust, challenge and the simple refusal to compromise the worship of YHWH with the relativism of Babylon and Persia.

Joseph is in a similar situation in Egypt when he is asked to interpret the King’s dream. Having learnt humility in the disgrace of Pharoah’s dungeon, now Joseph is not coy about who it is he worships. Joseph says “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer” (Genesis 43:16). These short confessions are charged with meaning and again point to the source of Jewish identity – God himself.

One final example, again in the broader category of wisdom literature is that of Jonah. Again, a Jew finds himself among pagans and out of their favour, but as Jonah explains who he is and who he worships, the response from the pagan sailors is not anger, or incredulity, but blind panic. Jonah tells them

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship [YHWH], the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Jonah 1:9

Among these men there is a realisation that YHWH is more then a tribal deity, he is the cause of their calamity and must become the object of their worship (Jonah 1:16).

The proving of the words of Mordecai is synonymous, then, with testing the faithfulness of YHWH. Mordecai firmly believes that deliverance will come and he recognises that he and Queen Esther may be YHWH’s instruments in obtaining that deliverance, but that whether or not they act in accordance with His will, YHWH will deliver the Jews from their enemies and from the ethnic cleansing orchestrated by Haman. That one possible circumlocution which I mentioned earlier is the word ‘place’ in 4:14– “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.”

As the text plays out the story becomes one of role reversal. The powerless Jews are elevated by the king while the powerful enemies of the Jews are overcome. Mordecai is promoted from sitting at the king’s gate to riding on the king’s horse while Haman and his sons are hanged from the very gallows upon which they had intended to humiliate Mordecai.

From a human point of view, the bravery and courage of Esther brought about the liberation of her people. But the book of Esther stands firmly within the canon of scripture as it tells the story of YHWH’s providence and his faithfulness to those who follow Him. Although these people are morally compromised, such is YHWH’s grace to them that they can become His agents for deliverance in a foreign court. This is the reason for celebration. This is why this scroll would be read both morning and evening at the festival of Purim to remind the Jews that as they participated in Purim, just a month before Passover, they were remembering YHWH’s deliverance, his grace and his covenantal faithfulness.

So Estehr book is not just a Jewish book, and Purim is not just a Jewish festival. The theology of Esther is the theology of Purim, faith in a foreign land. YHWH’s faithfulness to those who were faithful to Him.

So where is God in the book of Esther – He is there, we just need to look a little closer to see him at work.