Do we need to put God back into Esther – Part II

Yesterday (in part I of this post) I looked at two historical approaches to understanding the Bible book of Esther, and began to highlight some of the drawbacks of these approaches. The first approach is to ‘downgrade’ the book to something that is useful and historical, but not scripture. The second approach is to ‘fill in the gaps’ so that the story has a particular interpretation and application, even though this is not required by the original text.

Today I’m going to look at a third approach to this book, which is:

Approach #3) Use it as an illustration for New Testament preaching.

This approach is very common in many sectors of the church, even if Bible teachers don’t admit that this is what they are doing. When preaching an Old Testament passage, it is all to easy to look for some jumping-off point to take us to a New Testament passage, and then expound the NT passage, briefly referring back to the Old only to add colour or illustration.

In my own tradition (Church of England), the idea of having several set readings plays into this approach almost without thinking. We have a reading (OT or Letter) and then a Psalm and a Gospel, but the sermon is often from the gospel. If there is any thematic link between the passages, they will be strip-mined for illustrations, but seldom is there any sense that the preacher is attempting to exposit and apply the OT text.

In Esther, this can work its way out down one of several blind alleys. Most obvious is the ‘Esther as a good example’ model, where all the events of her life are reduced to the one action of coming before King Xerxes and this is used to illustrate some NT principle like hope or faith. We might go on modify this to look at Esther as the forgiven person who is used by God when she starts to make good choices, or even as the one whose obedience to her uncle led to God’s blessing.

Another potential blind alley is to look at the story in our chain-reference Bible to see if any of the language reminds us of larger principles or other events. So in Esther, a royal wedding becomes nothing more than an allegory for Christ and His bride, Xerxes illustrates for us the splendour of Jesus and Esther’s perfume becomes the adornment of a living sacrifice.

Now I want to suggest that these are blind-alleys because they don’t allow the text to speak for itself. As such, they either fall into the trap of approach 1 (seeing it is the illustration to the main event – ie our New Testament Passage) or of approach 2 (forcing us to see an interpretation which isn’t necessarily there).

Now at this point I need to be careful about definitions, because what I’ve described above sounds similar to the use of Typology as a means for understanding the Old Testament in the light of the New.

As I understand (and teach) it, typology is when we can see an event, person, place or ritual in the Old Testament (the type) pointing us forward to something (the anti-type) in the new. Old Testament types are important for our understanding of the New Testament as they often give us categories of thought to help us understand key events (see the passover example below). Types also show us that what happened in the life of Jesus and the NT church was part of God’s unfolding plan. We are given authority to see OT types in this way by the NT writers make these links themselves.

Typology in Action – The Passover

The Passover is one of the most important ‘types’ in the Old Testament as it lifts our gaze beyond the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and points us to the rescue that Jesus won for us on Calvary.

The Exodus story explains that God brought a plague on the whole of the land such that the first born would be killed in every home. Those who would escape God’s anger would be those who took an unblemished lamb and paint its blood on the door posts and lintel of their homes. When the destroying angel saw the blood, they would know to pass-over that house, because there had already been a death in that house.

The Passover, then is the type. The anti-type is seen in the New Testament in the person of Jesus. When John the Baptist sees Jesus approaching in John 1:29 he says “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”. This is flagging up that here is the person to whom this type points and Jesus is the fulfilment of the type.

In fact, the typology here does not merely give us a way of applying the exodus to ourselves, it also gives us the framework for understanding the death of Jesus.

The New Testament does not give us a complete theology of the work of the cross, but as we see the cross in the light of the Passover (and the day of atonement, etc), we are able to understand what is referenced in the New Testament. We need the whole counsel of God (OT & NT) to do biblical theology.

So, can we use the principles of typology to help us understand Esther? At a macro-level there there is certainly a powerful demonstration of God delivering his people. But in the absence of any explicitly NT link, what about the characters themselves?

There are two drawbacks with simply making connections in this way. The first is that we don’t know where to stop if our only criteria is what this reminds us of. So if Xerxes is a type of Christ (for his power and generosity and his choice of a bride) then why do we not also see Esther as a Christ-type for her self-sacrificing actions to save her people. If we want to take this to its logical extreme then we might also see Vashti as a type of Christ (the one who was despised and rejected) and even Haman could help us see calvary as he is cursed and hung on a tree. Hopefully our tolerance for silliness will have been exceeded by this point.

But the more serious drawback in attempting to see these characters as types, is that they don’t reveal God to us. In fact, if we try and find out what God is like from these ‘types’ we will have a seriously skewed view of Jesus.

For example, if Xerxes is a type of Christ, and Esther is the church, what does that tell us about our relationship with Jesus? What we would have to conclude that we are chosen on our own merit (Esther’s beauty), that our status is granted on our ability to please God (2:14 paints an unpleasant picture of how we might do it), that we should not expect any ongoing relationship once we are his, and that we have a god who will reject us on a drunken whim to save face (1:10, 1:16-17).

Since we are (hopefully) unwilling to accept all of these as Christian doctrines, we are left having to pick and chose those bits we like to make our point. This is hardly allowing the Bible to speak and to reveal God to us on His own terms.

So how should we read the book of Esther as holy scripture? In my next post I’ll begin to explore how this exciting story teaches us about God’s covenant faithfulness to his faithful people and how the apparent absence of God in this book provides us with a dramatic picture of faith in a foreign land.

P.S. I did finally get around to writing that post. Here it is: A Belated Post for Purim.

Do we need to put God back into Esther?

During a recent Twitter conversation between Tanya Marlow and Dave Bish about how we read the book of Esther, Dave described it as “a gospel-shaped story laced with bible language”. This is a evocative description and, in the interest of sharing notes, I thought I’d try to explain how I approach this enigmatic book and see the God of grace glorified in its pages.

Over the years Esther has provoked a number of strong reactions, not least because the Hebrew text of the book omits any mention of God. We’ll return to this later, but for now it’s worth noting that the specific name of God, ‘YHWH‘ appears 6828 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, the more general ‘God’ (elohim) appears 2602 times and the word ‘Lord’ (adonai) appears 775 times, many of which are references to God. In addition to this there are countless circumlocutions in the Hebrew text which refer to God and His name by euphemistic words such as ‘name’ or ‘place’. In Esther, not only are YHWH, Elohim and Adonai absent, there is only one possible circumlocution. As we shall see, however, I think it’s an important one.

I’m going to look at three different ways in which people have tried to understand Esther and highlight some of the drawbacks of these methods and then offer what I think is a more helpful way forward as we try to understand, apply and teach this book. The first two approaches are outlined in this post, and I’ll look at the third and at my response tomorrow.

Approach #1) See it as useful, but not scripture. 

Now before we dismiss such an approach as crass and heretical, we need to remember that during the formation of the Christian canon, the book of Esther has not always made the cut. In fact, in what is arguably the most important list of canonical books, Esther is relegated as follows:

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read.

The 39th Easter Letter of St. Athansaius (367AD)

In a similar way, some Jewish communities were also suspicious of Esther. In the Essence community (the first century BC separatist Jewish sect from whom we were bequeathed the Dead Sea Scrolls) there is no mention of Esther, suggesting that they too excluded it for their canon.

Some have also argued that the New Testament writers found themselves in a similar position, as the NT doesn’t seem to quote from Esther. This is a red herring, though, as there are other unquoted Wisdom (and history) books which don’t share the same ignominy as Esther.

So, what do we make of the claim that Esther is useful for instruction, but not scripture? Well, the drawbacks to this approach are fairly obvious, as Esther does appear in the hebrew versions of the Old Testament (which the other books Athanasius mentions do not) and we are not free to pick and choose which books of the Bible we want to include based on their content alone.

So, if Esther is holy scripture, then we need to see it as part of God’s revelation of Himself to his people. Which has led some people to a second approach, which makes it easier to see how to apply Esther, but at the same time it removes and opportunity of discovering what this book is actually about.

Approach #2) Fill in the gaps left by the original author.

As with the first approach, protestants will be quick to dismiss the very idea of adding to the Bible, but a quick look in the Bibles of our fathers will reveal that until 400 years ago the story of Esther had a very different shape.

The variations between the Canonical Esther, and the version found in the Apocrypha can be traced back to Jewish scholars in the first century BC who were having real problems accepting with what they read in the Hebrew text. Here was a book with no mention of God, where Jewish people were depicted defiling themselves, hiding their nationality, unaware of what God was doing and trusting their deliverance to fate. What was needed was a jolly good redrafting, and this is just what happened as the Greek translation of the Old Testament took shape.

The first thing to do was to redress the balance of the language. So the names of God were hastily included. In the few extra chapters the word God (theos) appears 26 times and Lord (kurios – which is what we would expect as a translation of YHWH into Greek) appears 25 times.

More important, though, is the introduction of new content which seeks to justify the actions of the books Jewish protagonists, and to make explicit their faith in God and their expectation that it is He who will deliver them from the ethnic cleansing contrived by Haman.

So as we fill in the ‘gaps’ we have Esther praying for forgiveness for her defilement at the hands of the uncircumcised pagan king and his court:

You have knowledge of all things, and you know that I hate the splendor of the wicked and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised and of any alien.  You know my necessity—that I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on days when I appear in public. I abhor it like a filthy rag, and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure.  And your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honoured the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations.  Your servant has had no joy since the day that I was brought here until now, except in you, O Lord God of Abraham.

Apocryphal Esther 14:15-18 (NRSV)

We have Mordecai seeking to justify himself in prayer, explaining that his refusal to bow to Haman was simple faithfulness to the Law.

You know all things; you know, O Lord, that it was not in insolence or pride or for any love of glory that I did this, and refused to bow down to this proud Haman;  for I would have been willing to kiss the soles of his feet to save Israel!  But I did this so that I might not set human glory above the glory of God, and I will not bow down to anyone but you, who are my Lord;

Apocryphal Esther 9:12-14 (NRSV)

And in the prologue for the whole book we find the description of a dream in which Mordecai sees quite clearly the source and method of the delivery 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.

Mordecai saw in this dream what God had determined to do, and after he awoke he had it on his mind, seeking all day to understand it in every detail.

Apocryphal Esther 11:10-12 (NRSV)

If you haven’t ever read the apocryphal Esther, then its fascinating to see what else these scholars though was missing.

Now the drawback of such an approach will readily become apparent as we think about how we derive meaning from a text. The Greek version of Esther is more than a translation, it is also an interpretation. Now although we might look at the Hebrew text and come to the same conclusions as those scholars, we might not. The additions drive us to a particular meaning, which is not necessarily there in the original text.

Once this book has been given the airbrush treatment, we can again see Esther and Mordecai in the same light as Ruth and Boaz, as faithful followers of God whose godly example we do well to follow. In doing so we miss the compromise and the ambiguity that characterises these people and this book and we are presented with a trite answer to a profound question which we do well to grapple with “where is God in this book?”

With that question hanging in our minds, I’ll leave approach #3 until tomorrow.