July Bible Study

I don’t know how many of you are into pub quizzes (when regulations allow!) or avidly listen to quizzes on radio or television. But here is ‘your starter for 10’ in this month’s bible study;

“What is the only book of the Bible which doesn’t mention God?”

The answer lies in the book that tells of this month’s biblical heroine, Esther. The book of Esther tells her story, or more accurately, that of her and her uncle and adviser, Mordecai. It is about the story of a Jewish community living in exile in the Persian empire. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of those who returned to the homeland. Esther is about those who stayed at the heart of the empire. It is about how Jews can survive as a community under a foreign king and empire.

The book has something of a reputation of being a ‘marmite’ book – you love it or you don’t. In part that is because it was recorded for a public audience in Israel. Through the ages it was revered in that it encouraged the reader to remain confident that Jews and Judaism would prevail over their enemies. It reads a bit like ‘a whodunit’ with intrigue, jealousy, plotting and the eventual triumph of the heroine and her community.

Esther is a young Jewish orphan being brought up under the guardianship of her uncle, Mordecai. The previous queen, Vashti, is deposed for not obeying her husband and failing to appear at a banquet. Esther becomes queen in her place, others not knowing she was a Jewess. In parallel Mordecai discovers a plot against the king, Ahasuerus, and is rewarded.

At this point Haman arrives on the scene having become ‘prime minister’. Haman is jealous of Mordecai and angered by the latter’s refusal to bow to him. This anger is turned against all of the Jews. Haman plots to kill the Jews. Before going to the king he casts lots (in Hebrew purim) to determine when this should be done. The king goes along with Haman, and issues an edict to the effect that all Jews would be killed, not realising he was condemning Esther, his queen.

Having struggled with the dilemma of the situation, Esther puts on a banquet for the king and Haman. Haman, not knowing the real situation, is delighted to be honoured by the queen. The king offers her anything she wishes – all she asks is for a further banquet, thereby heightening the dramatic tension! Haman’s anger at Mordecai develops and he erects gallows in anticipation of killing him.

Overnight the king has the chronicles of his nation read to him and is reminded of Mordecai’s faithfulness. He arranges a festival of recognition. Haman is mortified to find that it is not him, but Mordecai, who is going to be honoured. At the banquet that evening, queen Esther declares herself as a Jew and in answer to the king’s offer of favour asks for the life of her people. She explains how Haman has plotted against the Jews. The climax borders on farce as Haman begs for his life to queen Esther, but is hanged on the gallows he has prepared for Mordecai.

The decree to kill Jews is rescinded and another enacted which allowed the Jews to defend themselves against those who plotted against them. The time of this was called Purim as it happened on the date Haman had divined for his action. Purim, on orders of the king, was enacted each year on the 14th and 15th of Adar. The book ends with the list of the great honours bestowed on Mordecai.

The story of Esther is far from the norm of stories in the Old Testament. Some of its theology is at odds with other parts of the first Testament. The feast of Purim has its roots in the Bible, but it is not commanded in the biblical laws. In this it differs from the three major feasts of Israel – Passover/Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Tabernacles.

A distinctive feature of the story of Esther is the contrast between its comedic aspects and the things which threaten the Jews and finally fall on their enemies. Perhaps the story is best interpreted as a “What if . . .?” story: what would happen if sudden destruction, even that decreed by an imperial power, were to threaten the Jews? Would they survive, and how?  

The book of Esther appears not to be quoted in any part of the New Testament. However, Philip Satterthwaite and Gordon McConville at the end of their commentary make the point;

“Some of the theology of Esther; however, is common to Jew and Christian: a belief that God is at work in the world in unseen ways, and often when there is no immediate and apparent sign of his working.”

Revd Preb Graham Earney

Books used in the preparation of this piece; Book of Esther (RSV); Cambridge Bible Commentary by Wesley J. Fuerst; Exploring the Old Testament, vol 2.

Note: The answer to the quiz question at the beginning is factually correct. Some very late Jewish texts appear to have been edited to include reference to God. As far as I am aware no Christian versions of the book are based on these later editions. GE