Saturday, 25 August 2012

Applying a canonical hermeneutic to Esther

The following relates to an article I read for my Old Testament Prophets and Writings class, by G Goswell, “The Order of the Books in the Hebrew Bible” from the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. My thoughts:

Goswell’s main thesis is that ‘In almost every case, the location of a biblical book relative to other canonical books, whether in terms of the grouping in which it is placed, or the book(s) that follow or precede it, has hermeneutical significance for the reader who seeks meaning in the text.’ (p.688). In accepting this thesis, I will apply it to an understanding of the message of the book of Esther, given its canonical location in the Hebrew ‘Tanak’, and show how I come to a very different understanding of Esther than that of Goswell in this article. Goswell wrote, ‘possible principles of order [include] thematic considerations ... e.g. Proverbs followed by Ruth with the figure of Ruth providing a real-life example of the “good wife” described in Prov 31:10-31.’ (p.674-675). I will consider how thematic considerations might apply to the book of Esther, which falls after Lamentations, and before Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah in the Hebrew canon; rather than the (perhaps more simplistic) ‘storyline thread’ ordering principle (p.674).

If an ongoing, elaborated theme is indeed important to the placement of Esther after Lamentations and before Daniel, this suggests Esther may be a book of lament over the way God’s people in exile continue to rely on people (in the persons of Mordecai and Esther) to save them, as they had previously relied upon Egypt and Assyria, rather than upon God. This contrasts with Daniel who prays for God to redeem the exiles. This interpretation would explain why God is not mentioned explicitly in Esther: she becomes, not ‘someone to emulate’ (p.676), but a warning or a negative example of just how far the people have rebelled against God, even in the midst of their punishment for not trusting God previously.

This reading is in conflict with Goswell’s assertion that ‘Esther provides a happy ending’ (p.687). Rather, it shows that the people (who did not return with Ezra to Jerusalem) were still in rebellion against God. This perhaps even gives a rationale for the exclusion of diaspora Jews from the New Covenant because it demonstrates these Jews continued to choose to be self-reliant rather than trust in prophetic promises of God’s future salvation. Furthermore, Goswell notes that ‘the lesson of that book’ [ie, Esther] is ‘put in the mouth of Zeresh, the wife of Haman the archenemy of the Jews’ (p.687) in Esther 6:13, which says that Haman will surely fall if (or because) Mordecai is one of the Jews. Goswell does not, however, observe any significance of a prophecy coming from the archenemy of the Jews. However, it seems likely that since this is not God’s words through God’s prophet, it is not a prophecy coming from God, and hence the salvation that is prophesied is thus not from God either. The evidence that the author of Esther was willing to ascribe such a significant prophecy to an enemy of the Jews as rationale for Esther’s actions in calling for Haman’s death should be seen as indicative that God was not behind Esther’s action, though pagan superstition was.

Jeremiah prophesies that the temple will fall despite the people’s belief in it’s divine indestructibility, which that prophet recognises as pagan superstition rather than faith in God (Jer 7:4). It seems that Esther, (in its canonical position following after the book of Lamentations which records the coming to pass of exactly that prophesied fall,) may be read as recording the rise of the next of the Jew’s pagan superstitions – the idea of the indestructibility of the Jewish race, wholly apart from considerations of their position and designation as God’s people. These events were recorded wholly apart from (a) any mention of God and (b) any attempt by the people to return and take hold of God’s covenant promises, as testified by their refusal to leave with the returnees recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah. Esther also shows the remaining Jews were still ‘oppress[ing] the foreigner’ (Est. 8:11; 9:5-10,13-15, cf Jer. 7:5-6), the very act that Jeremiah told the people they needed to change if their trust in the invincibility of the temple was to be vindicated. Esther’s oppression of the Jews’ enemies is contrasted with the actions of Nehemiah, which are stressed in the book of his name that falls shortly after Esther in the Hebrew canon. Unlike Esther, who only appears interested in increasing her own and Mordecai’s status, Nehemiah is at pains to help the poor and provide for their needs (Neh. 5), obediently responding to the prophetic instructions of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

With respect to the placement of Esther and its ‘liturgical’ role or nature (p.686) I note that the Feast of Purim is the only festival that was not ordained by God and has no explicit divine mandate. Esther 9:29 says, ‘Esther ... wrote with full authority’ but it was the authority of a person, not God. Esther 9:27 makes it clear that ‘the Jews took it on themselves to establish the custom’ of celebrating Purim. Purim is thus a festival of the Jewish people but not a festival of God’s people, unlike the other four Israelite festivals which stem from the Mosaic/Sinai covenant.

Goswell says, ‘Daniel following Esther ... provides a theological explanation for the confidence expressed in the book of Esther concerning the survival of the Jewish race.’ (p.687) However I believe Daniel instead provides a theological explanation for confidence in the prophetic books which Ezra-Nehemiah and 1 & 2 Chronicles clearly show is not achieved in the initial return. Daniel, in hyperbolic contrast to Esther – a contrast made blatant by the Tanak juxtaposition of these texts – shows God has a plan for his salvation of his people, for ending the exile and providing restoration of his people by his own hand, for his own glory (Dan. 9-12).

Daniel may also be understood to provide a commentary of Esther through its placement immediately after Esther in the Hebrew canon. This commentary may be understood from Daniel’s use of Ezekiel’s imagery (eg Dan. 10:5-6; 12:5-7, cf Ezek. 9-10) of the man clothed in linen who was above the waters of the river. Daniel quotes the man saying, ‘”When the power of the holy people has been finally broken, all these things will be completed.”’ (Dan. 12:7) This can be seen as a prophetic condemnation of Esther’s (albeit successful) attempt to increase the power of the Jews. While she increased their worldly power, she in effect delayed the coming day of the LORD. As the man observed to Daniel, ‘“the wicked will continue to be wicked.”’ (Dan. 12:10).

Goswell argues, ‘Juxtaposing Daniel-Esther-Ezra/Nehemiah suggests that all three books are being read as court tales.’ (p.688). If this is so, is it legitimate to read these books as telling how Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles with instructions for exilic life (Jer. 29:1-23) was responded to by its recipients? Daniel is the exile who seeks ‘the peace and prosperity of the city’ (Jer. 29:7) and listens to God’s words through the prophet (witness Jer 29:10 and Dan. 9:1-19). Ezra-Nehemiah shows the exiles who held to the promises of God and tried to obey God’s instructions, especially regarding the poor, though they largely failed with regards to intermarriage. Esther, by contrast, is the one of the exiles whom God condemns with the words, ‘you exiles have not listened either.’ (Jer. 29:19).

I realise that this rather negative view of Esther’s history is not that of most critics of Esther today, nor those Jews who still celebrate Purim with the same zeal that they celebrate Passover or Booths (the latter is celebrated annually in backyard tents by Jews in a Perth suburb near where I used to live). As such, feel free to comment upon and criticise my application of Goswell’s thesis of a canonical hermeneutic to the understanding and evaluation of Esther and Mordecai’s actions.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Konga vs Zumba

The girls are at an Active After School Konga class, but the boys are at home having fun with with Wii Zumba:

"Mum! Guess what? I got Zumba Master, 4 stars..."

Monday, 20 August 2012

Red Gum Springs

We took advantage of the sunshine and blue skies on Saturday to take the kids to Red Gum Springs for a picnic lunch and a hike up the nearby hill. We met a friend from school J and his dad Mr D in the Stirling Range National Park, and enjoyed the opportunity to be outdoors together.

At first, Jeff wasn't keen on climbing the hill; "It's too big, it'll take too long, we'll get lost!"
I told Jeff, "That's why we call it a Family Adventure not a Family Activity!" And we did discover a path up the hill ... once we had already made our way half way to the top.

The kids made their way to the top ahead of the three adults. They knew to stop when they reached the (obligatory) cairn, which Anna and Abigail promptly claimed as their own.

The views from the top were lovely and the kids had a good time exploring around a fairly flat knoll near the proper peak, which we didn't get to.

The canola which is one of the local crops is starting to flower, and some of the paddocks in the distance to the south were showing yellow-green rather than grass green.

The wildflowers which are just starting to appear brought colour to the nearby scene.

When we returned to the bottom of the hill, Samuel and Abigail both wanted a photo taken of the rocks they had found. I had explained to them the bushwalker's maxim,
"Take only photographs,
Leave only footprints."
So they wanted to be sure we had a photo of their treasures before we left them behind.

As we walked to church on Sunday, Anna told me she'd like to climb "another mountain like the one we climbed yesterday." So I'll have to judge this Family Adventure a success.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Motor Cross

We went to the local open day for the new Motor Cross today.

Jeff and I, at least, thought it was a great day. Abigail enjoyed the chance to play with some friends from school in the trees beside the track. Samuel talked to everyone who would listen about his present favourite computer game, Plants vs Zombies.

Joshua borrowed a helmet from friends from church, before both he and Anna went for a ride around the rear of the official track, on the back of another friend's bike.

Anna loved her ride:

Joshua was not quite so sure after all the speedy turns:

Joshua observed: "I think the difference here in the country is that in the city people like to do more indoor things like play computer games and here in the country people like to do more outdoor stuff like ride motorbikes. I think I'm more of an indoor person." I hope he'll adjust!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Lego Olympics

The kids made some events for the 2012 Lego Olympics recently.

Clockwise from left in the top photo you can see cycling, the lighting of the Olympic flame, fencing with seating for a small crowd, hurdles, a food stall and the winner of the archery contest surrounded by ... um ... Robin Hood and several aliens?

And in this photo, clockwise from top left, you can see swimming, archery, high jump, javelin, more cycling with a couple exchanging flowers and a flagbearer, and a steeplechase, observed by a random pig.

A fun way to reflect upon current events.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Jobs to earn pocket money #2

We received a wonderful gift from one of the ladies in our church last weekend: two beautiful white Sussex chickens!

Samuel wanted to name them Chicken-tin and Chicken-robber, but I have succeeded in convincing him that they should be called Snowy and Lily. Just don't ask us which is which in these photos!

They are perfectly at home in the coop that came with our manse.

I remember when I was a kid, our minister's wife also had chickens. I was afraid of them and their potentially scratchy beaks and claws. Samuel has no such fears. He is responsible for feeding the chickens their food scraps, laying mix and wheat grain each morning. He also checks their roosting box for eggs. Most days so far we have had one egg but as the chickens settle in Sam is finding two eggs more often.

One day, Sam and I went out early to feed the chickens and Lily was still sitting in the roosting box. She sat there the entire time that Sam took in the food, and then, while we watched her from the doorway we heard a little thud. Lily promptly stood up and looked underneath her body, then hopped down from the box and went out to peck at the food. We hurried around to open the roof of the coop to find a newly laid egg, still warm! Samuel was very excited. I was too.

Samuel's chicken syllogism:
Sam: "So can we call our home a farm now?"
Me: "Why?"
Sam: "Because chickens live on farms and now we have two chickens. So we live on a farm."
Dad: "Not until we have a rain gauge."

[For posterity, this is my 700th post on this blog.]