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.