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.

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