Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Esther is a strange and difficult book for several reasons, first and foremost because it is apparently non-theological.

September 27, 2009

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Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Esther is a strange and difficult book for several reasons, first and foremost because it is apparently non-theological.

God never appears in the Hebrew version of the book, which is the form translated in most modern English versions. The Greek version of Esther, familiar from Catholic Bibles or from ecumenical versions which contain the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical “Additions to Esther,” is a very different matter. In that version, God is frequently mentioned, and the main characters, especially Esther, are shown to be pious Jews who are never far from prayer (see especially Addition C: Add Esther 13:8-14:9). But all that “Greek goodness” is absent from the austere Hebrew version, which never once mentions God or prayer, nor really anything whatsoever of Jewish religion and piety.

The closest one gets to a mention of God in Esther may be Mordechai’s comment:
“For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)

But whether this other “quarter” (or “place”; Hebrew: māqom) from which deliverance will come is really an allusion to God can be doubted. Even if it is such an allusion, one must admit that it is a muted one, hardly transparent.

Not only is Esther apparently non-theological, it is also disconcerting on several levels, especially concerning matters of violence. Violence in the Bible causes many contemporary readers discomfort, especially in opulent First World settings where oppression is more often something one perpetrates on someone else–perhaps via one’s stock portfolio–than something that is regularly experienced. (Non-First World settings often see the retributive justice of Scripture in a different light.) If such discomfort is caused by patently theological texts like Joshua or Revelation, how much more is the issue a problem in a non-theological text like Esther!

Small wonder, then, that the lectionary exercises more than a good bit of editorial license in constructing a pastiche from two different chapters of Esther. The good preacher will worry, that is, not just about the non-theological nature of Esther, or its disconcerting aspects (especially violence), but also about the lectionary’s theological-liturgical censorship, especially since this is the only text from Esther that appears in the entire Revised Common Lectionary!

In considering the lection’s “constructed” nature, good preachers will worry about what’s been left out. In a word, a lot. The omission of 7:7-8 is rather minor; the big cut is found in the omission of all the material from 8:1 through 9:19. Particularly important (and difficult) in this section is the authorization of the Jews “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods” (8:12) so that the Jews could “be ready on that day to take revenge on their enemies” (8:13). Despite the discomfort such verses might cause us, 8:16 states that “For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor” because of this edict. It is probably no surprise, then, that many people “professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (8:17b; cf. 9:2-3).

The edict is carried out in Susa on two successive days: the first finds five hundred people killed but no plunder taken (9:5-10); the second sees three hundred more killed but again without taking plunder (9:11-15). In the provinces, the Jews’ “relief from their enemies” has a higher body count: seventy five thousand, but again no plunder is taken (9:16). In both Susa and the provinces, these victories are followed by days of resting, with feasting and gladness among the Jews (9:17-19).

This rather violent story is, in fact, the background to the feast of Purim, which the last part of the Sunday lection covers (9:20-22; further verses 23-31). This rather violent story is, in fact, what the lectionary “selects out.”

Given this “back story,” one can sympathize with the lectionary’s editors! A few key things must not be missed, however:

  • Despite the king’s authorization that the Jews could plunder their enemies (8:11), it is repeated three times that they did not (9:10, 15, 16). This detail reminds one of holy war situations in Deuteronomy and Joshua where there, too, plunder is not to be taken. In holy war theology, this practice:
    1) signals that the military action is not a matter of financial gain,
    2) is a way of dedicating the “spoils of war” to God,
    3) highlights Israel’s need to have God fight on their behalf. If the “no-plundering” detail is intended to evoke holy war theology, it, too, is at best allusive, but it gains further support by the considerations that follow.
  • The violence of the Jews is presented as both defensive and justifiedenemy people who hate them are seeking to attack them, and so they must be able to “defend their lives” (8:11; cf. 9:1-2, 5, 10, 16, 22).
  • This defensive action is a precise reversal of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews (see 9:1; cf. 8:11-12 with 3:13). If this “payback” sounds (re)vengeful (cf. 8:13), it is — it reflects the kind of perfectly balanced retribution that marks biblical notions of divine vengeance: eye for eye, tooth for tooth. In the ancient world, such a yardstick was not merciless but merciful, making sure the punishment fit the crime exactly, no more, no less.
  • After the days of violence come the days of rest, feasting, and gladness. These terms evoke key texts and practices from the Torah: Sabbath, for instance, or the worship and sacrificial celebrations in Deuteronomy (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:7, 12, 18-19; 14:26-27; 15:20; 16:11, 14; 26:11). Here too the evocations are allusive, if not elusive, but they receive additional support from the notations in Esther that these days were marked by giving gifts to one another and to the poor, a detail otherwise unexplainable (cf., e.g., Deuteronomy 14:27-29).

Taken together, these considerations indicate that, again, violence in the Bible — or here in Esther — isn’t all that it may seem to be on first blush, and so we should be careful how we treat it, especially if we ourselves have not faced enemies who hate us and who are set on our destruction. By cutting and pasting snippets together, the lectionary effectively eliminates the violence problem altogether, but preachers should be careful to not do the same. False impressions about Esther can be created by such “snippetology.” False impressions about violence in the Old Testament (and the New Testament!) can also be created without careful and thoughtful treatments.

This is not to say that the problem of violence in Scripture should be baptized, especially baptized quickly. But the comments above suggest that the issue is more complex and subtle than might at first appear. The same could be said of Esther as a whole: more subtle — even more subtle theologically— than might appear. Perhaps more insight on its theological subtleties and further clues regarding the interpretation of its violence might be gathered from the other lessons for the day: Psalm 124, which praises the LORD who was on Israel’s side and kept them from certain destruction; Mark 9:38-50, which redefines who is for us and who against us, and which warns us about sin and its consequences; and James 5:13-20, which reminds us of the power of faithful prayer and the confession of sin.