Modern Art and the Life of a Culture – Review

In this compelling collaboration between an artist and a theologian, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness begin a conversation about how Christian artists, critics, enthusiasts and theologians can reclaim and rediscover modern art, identifying and celebrating its religious and spiritual impulses.

For any fans of Rookmaaker’s important book on theology and art, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, this recent volume offers a different, more positive perspective on modern art and its worldview.

I’m excited to say that my full and thorough review has been published up on the Transpositions website – please do click the link to read and check it out here.

 

Grab the book from Amazon.co.uk from £11.39

Grab the book from Amazon.com from $14.21

Read the full review on Transpositions here. 

Note: The Amazon links above are affiliate links, which means if you click through and buy anything at all, you help this site with no extra cost to you. I was given a review copy, though not under obligation to give a review, either positive or negative. This is my honest review. 

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.

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.

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.

What was lost this week?

Something more than a measure of Synod was lost this week. In the aftermath of the vote on Tuesday evening not to accept the legislation that would make it possible for women to become Bishops, we also seem to have forgotten how to finish these phrases:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called …

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as …

“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of …

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you …

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and …

(Matthew 5:9; Colossians 3:13; 1 Corinthans 6:1; John 13:35
& Matthew 5:23-24 if you do need to look them up)

From what is being reported of church services this morning, there have been a very wider range of reactions to the General Synod vote, but everyone seems to agree that we can’t leave it here.  Synod has spoken, but no-one is happy, the question is whether synod members are willing to return to the table and work out a solution before being asked to vote again.

Right now, today, we have an opportunity to do something remarkable. Instead of defending our corner or justifying our decisions and actions, what if representatives of the different groupings in General Synod decided (or were invited) to meet together and try and agree what to do next.

Instead of trying to win public sympathy for our cause while we let open wounds fester and turn septic, let’s show the world what it means to be the household of God. Let’s do what Christians do: sit down together and study the scriptures with an expectation that God will speak though them; listen to each other’s hurts and frustrations; pray blessing over each other; then share a meal together and say “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread”.

But what we can’t expect from such a meeting is that anyone will go away with exactly what they want. A common refrain during the Synod debate was that everyone felt they had compromised more than enough already but, as painful as it is, compromise is the only way we can find a consensus. On Tuesday the Church of England was humiliated before the world and we deserved it. Synod was presented with a piece of legislation which very few people were happy with and we cannot allow this to happen again. I pray that we can pass legislation with a 100% majority in each house, but this can only happen if we work out a solution in advance.

So here is my solution. Here are where I see possible compromises, and also why I think these are less serious that they might appear. Apologies for the simplification and grouping of positions, but I wanted to keep this post shorter then my usual efforts.

Legislation.

  • Pass a measure which removes the block on women being ordained as bishops, but rather then completely removing the provisions from the 1993 measure and the accompanying Act of Synod, retain the option for a PCC to request alternative episcopal oversight from a Provincial Episcopal Visitor (PEV, or Flying Bishop) but without the need to pass a resolution preventing women from ministering in churches.
  • As they do at the moment, PEVs would continue to act as suffragan bishops, providing pastoral care and episcopal ministry in churches which request them. They cover a wider area than just one diocese and so there might need to be more than three if more churches opt into this scheme.
  • This also removes the need for an unknown ‘code of conduct’ and removes the ability of an individual bishop to devise a scheme which does not meet the need of those who request it.
  • NOTE: as ever, the devil is in the details, the Act of Synod which provides for the ministry of PEVs is not enshrined in legislation, but carries a similar moral force. Extending the scheme in a way which met the needs of groups #2 and #3 below would be the main sticking point for group #1.

Group #1 Supporters of a Single Clause Measure

  • The compromise for this group is significant. PCCs will effectively be able to reject the ministry and pastoral oversight of a women bishop.
  • But we need to remember that this is the current position and has been for the last 20 years. Diocesan Bishops have not been complaining about feeling like second class bishops just because a PEV operates in their diocese, so women who become diocesan bishops and men who ordain women need not feel that what is being created is a two-tier system within the House of Bishops.

Group #2 Conservative Evangelicals who cannot accept the episcopal oversight of a Women. 

  • The compromise for this group would be in accepting that a woman could be appointed who was legally responsible for them and to whom they would be required to swear canonical obedience.
  • They would also have to give up any idea of ‘co-ordinate jurisdiction’ of a province within a province.
  • But this is not really a theological issue, as we already reason that the oath of canoncial obedience is made to the ‘office of bishop’ rather then the particular incumbent and that it is only ‘in all things lawful and honest’. So we already (sometimes) make that declaration to bishops we don’t agree with.
  • Similarly, we currently invite bishops to come and perform episcopal ministry and we choose which bishop to invite by thinking about the style of service, the pastoral needs of the participants and even which different bishops will insist on wearing. If there is no acceptable diocesan or suffragan bishop in a particular diocese, the PCC can opt to come under the ministry of a PEV.

Group #3 Anglo-Catholics seeking sacramental assurance

  • The compromise for this group is that they lose the rights given in the 1993 measure to prevent the eucharistic ministry of a woman priest in their church. They too have to swear canonical obedience to the diocesan bishop (male or female) and would have to accept ordination to the diaconate from a female bishop or a male bishop who has ordained women.
  • Also lost would be any legitimisation of ‘societies’ or quasi-diocesan structures within the Church of England.
  • Again, the compromise is not as great as it may seem. No incumbent need invite a women to offer any of the sacraments (or to preach) and no parish reps need accept a women as incumbent. With PEVs in place, the issue of sacramental assurance is also clear. Ordinations to the priesthood are usually done in the parish anyway, so a PEV could ensure that the priest was being ordained by a man who had not ordained women and who was not himself ordained or consecrated by a women.

So will you join me in inviting the people who spearhead your campaign to start talking to each other? If there was an easy solution then we wouldn’t be in this mess now, and what I’ve said above might be totally unworkable, but I don’t see anything else on the table.

So this is my open letter or my own petition to synod members, to the Archbishop Designate, to WATCH, Reform, GRAS, Forward in Faith, Anglican Mainstream and everyone else. If you like what I’ve said, then please give me a retweet or comment.

If you don’t then come up with something better, but please, please be a peacemaker, for they will be called Children of God.

People are Rude

How do you deal with discouragement?

This week I was chatting to an artist friend who told me that, over the bank holiday weekend, he had hidden the gallery visitors’ book because people had been leaving disparaging comments about his work.

Now if you are an artist, one way to deal with negative comments is to tell yourself that people are rude philistines and that you are misunderstood. Another way is to do what the rest of us do and mentally balance the good stuff with the bad stuff and hope that the scales tip in favour of encouraging ourselves.

So for Martin, the artist in question, he could recall that someone recently compared some of his work to Tracey Emin. He could eavesdrop on a conversation I had where another friend made the link to Matisse. He could re-read my own recent blog post where I wax lyrical about one of his more evocative paintings. Or he could get out the sales ledger and remind himself that people actually do pay for his work, so he must be doing something right.

Incidentally, you might want to compare the three artists mentioned above for yourself. All three have produces series of blue nudes, some of which I’ve linked here. You might not be able to afford an Emin or a Matisse, but you could probably stretch to owning one an original Bush. (but be quick, you never know when fame might strike).

There are times when I get discouraged with my work, and I guess I’m not alone among my fellow church ministers in this respect. The temptation for us is to conduct a similar mental exercise to try and balance the good to outweigh the bad.

The trouble with doing this is that Jesus promises that there will always be something discouraging lurking around the corner. He reminds Christians that people will treat them the same way they treated him, and we shouldn’t expect exemption from the rule because “no servant is greater than his master”. So when we see how powerfully the Holy Spirit has worked through a sermon we preached on Sunday, there will often be an e-mail waiting on Monday morning questioning the theology of what we’ve said. When we see people coming to a living faith in Jesus, there will often be people drifting away from church. High-functioning leadership teams often seem to have people who find it easier to criticise than encourage. Even in our own lives, when we find ourselves feeling victorious about a personal victory, the old sins are still lurking at the door to trip us up.

To use a silly example of trying to balance encouragement and discouragement: last night we had a great prayer meeting asking for the Holy Spirit’s power to keep working to transform those who are being baptised and confirmed over the next few weeks, but I knew that afterwards I was going to have to empty the church recycling dustbin as local dog walkers have been using it as a in for their dog’s poo. The trouble with balancing the good with the bad, is that there is no guarantee we will come out encouraged. 

So is there another option? For the Christian there is, and in the passage I’m preaching this Sunday morning, the Apostle Paul spells out a more secure foundation for dealing with discouragement. He writes:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Philippians 2:1

This is powerful stuff! Suddenly we see that our mood or our measure of success is not dependent on how well our ministry is going, how our congregation is growing, how our budget is balancing or what local people think about us – it is about being united with Jesus Christ.

And unlike growth, reception and people’s good opinion, being united with Jesus Christ is a permanent state, as is his love and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded this week (by Twitter, no less) of a quote from Martin Luther:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

So although people are rude, and we are not as good as we like others to think we are, Jesus is constant and we are loved.

Books for Bible Teachers

I’m currently putting together reading lists for students on the PGP course who will be writing essays as part of their assessment. Some of the books on my own bookshelf are beginning to look a bit dates, so I’m looking for suggestions for books for the essay titles below.

All these essays are being marked at HE Level 4 (First year of a degree course) so the level needs to be suitable for people who might not have studied theology academically before. Also, at this level, 90% of the marking criteria is aimed at explaining and synthesising views which are taught on the course. This means that the reading list should include non-evangelical views, but this will only contribute a small component of the mark. For more information about PGP’s approach and methodology, please see this statement on our website.

If you’ve got any suggestions, please leave them as comments or send them via Twitter, FB, e-mail, etc. If you are able to include the full bibliographical information then it makes my life much easier – but the suggestion is more important. Please use the essay code to say which essay your book is for.

Thanks

Jon.

Module PPTC01- Applied Biblical Theology

C01-1. Is it possible to identify a single storyline throughout the whole of the Bible?

C01-2. ‘The Bible doesn’t make any sense without Genesis chapters one to three’ To what extent does our interpretation of the Bible stem from an understanding of its first three chapters?

C01-3. “The Psalms are a mirror for the soul – every human emotion is there.” How does an emotional engagement with the Psalms help us interpret and apply them?

C01-4. How do the Old Testament prophets speak beyond their own situation and into the contemporary Christian Church? Illustrate your answer with examples from the books of Isaiah or Ezekiel.

C01-5. ‘The new is in the old, concealed – the old is in the new, revealed.’ How important is an understanding of the Old Testament for a responsible reading of the New?

C01-6. How does an understanding of different literary genres help us apply the Gospels?

Module PPTC02 – Biblical Theology for Christian Ministry

Doctrine

C02-1-1. “St. Patrick said the three leaves of the shamrock represent the trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s why four leaf clovers are so lucky, you get a bonus Jesus.” – Stephen Colbet. Explore the usefulness and limitations of using illustrations to teach the doctrine of the trinity?

C02-1-2. “The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith” – Steve Chalke. Using both Old and New Testament passages, discuss the importance and relevance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

C02-1-3. Explain which Bible text or texts you consider to be most important when teaching about the role of women in the Christian church.

C02-1-4. “That which he has not assumed, he has not healed” – Gregory of Nazianzus. Discuss whether Jesus needed to become fully human to redeem humanity.

C02-2-1. “The next time you see a clean-shaven fundamentalist wearing a poly-cotton shirt and eating a shrimp, remember to shout ‘Abomination!’” – Jeffrey John. How does the ‘six act’ division of the Bible contribute to our understanding of the ethics of human sexuality? Answer with reference to either homosexuality or marriage and divorce.

Ethics and Pastoral Ministry

C02-2-2. What role should the Bible have in Christian Counselling?

C02-2-3. How should an awareness of the culture of our hearers influence our teaching of the Bible? Illustrate your answer with reference to communicating with children, teenagers or people with a postmodern worldview.

C02-2-4. How do the pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy and Titus) challenge Christian leaders today? Illustrate your answer by reflecting on your application of these letters to your own life and ministry.

C02-2-5. Can prayer be taught or just caught? Illustrate your answer by reflecting on the development of your own prayer life.

Copyright Notice: All the above material relating to the PGP course is © Peninsula Gospel Partnership, 2011. Please feel free to link to this post, but please do not reproduce or copy anything without written permission from the Training Course Director (me).

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.