The Bible in a Year – 25 August.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

Introductory notes to Esther

The book of Esther in the ‘standard’ Bible, i.e. the one generally read by the Protestant church, consists of ten chapters.  It is in fact an abridged version of the full story as found in the Greek (Septuagint) Bible still used by the Catholic Church and which consists of 16 chapters. However scholarship has shown that these are out of order.

 I am commenting on the fuller text as set out in the Revised Standard Version Common Bible (Collins edition, 1973), which sets these 16 chapters out in a sequence that tells the story of Esther in its natural order. This is why the chapter numbers may appear in my comments to be out of order.  I hope that makes sense.  In this version, the name of the King is Ahasuerus.  In other translations this Babylonian name is rendered Xerxes (don’t ask me why!)

 25 August. Esther chapters 1-3

The book of Esther is notable for two things: firstly it is not a historical story.  Maybe some very conservative Christians think it must be, but it is generally accepted to be an early example of the novel genre, set in the time of the Babylonian captivity.  This is clear from the exaggerated way much of the story is told – it is a fairy tale, not a historical novel in the modern sense where authenticity is everything.  The English translation should really start “Once upon a time…”

Secondly, there is in the abridged version (see introductory notes above) no mention of the name of God.  You could read this book, taken out of its Biblical context and knowing nothing about Judaism, without realising that the Jews are people defined by belief in God, although they are clearly identified as an ethnic group facing persecution.

The complete text, however, does mention God, and in chapter 11 (a ‘prologue’ to the abridged text) Mordecai is given a dream in which a great river, and light, arise to save God’s people from persecution.  The identity of this water and light will become clear.  Chapter 12 which follows, summarises the plot of the book in a few lines. Presumably it was removed from the abridged version as  a “spoiler”!

Chapters 1 to 3 can be summarised as follows (though it is difficult to summarise such an action-packed story). The king gives a 7-day banquet, at the end of which his queen refuses the order of her drunken husband to come to him.  The king’s advisers, fearful that if this becomes known among the common people, other women could refuse to obey their husbands (what a horror in a patriarchal society!), command that she should be deposed and a new queen sought.  So the king organises a beauty contest in which he sleeps with each young woman in his harem once, to choose the new queen.  And guess what, Esther (who is in the harem, but keeping her Jewish identity secret) wins it!  A second great banquet follows. No sooner was that completed than two men plot to kill the King.  Mordecai (Esther’s cousin and guardian) hears of it, gets her to betray them to the king, and the plotters are hung. Haman then becomes the king’s chief adviser, and everyone is expected to kowtow to him. But Mordecai does not.  As a Jew he refuses to bow down to anyone but God. Haman then decides to use his power not only to kill Mordecai but to persecute all the Jews. The king is persuaded to sign a decree that they should be ‘ethnically cleansed’ as we would now say. Chapter 13 give the full text of the order, to be sent to all parts of the empire, that all Jews were to be murdered on one day, the 14th of Adar, on the charge of living in a way prejudicial to peace and tranquillity.

Now pause for breath!  Even allowing for this being a fairy tale, with the heroes and villains, the wicked deeds and heroic actions, that such stories demand, it should make us think.  Could it ever happen that all the Jews could be destroyed?  It had already nearly happened at the time of the Exile, before this story was written.  It nearly happened again when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD 70.  It nearly happened again under the fascists in Europe within living memory. The lies and exaggerations that the Nazis told to the German people about the Jews persuaded the majority of them to be complicit in the Holocaust, just as the decree of Ahasuerus was about to be carried out across his empire.  So, sadly, the premise of this story is no fantasy.  Praise God that he does always rescue a remnant of his people to keep his promise to them, even in the face of the wickedness of dictators. And watch out for the rise of such people in our day.