Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Esther -- Part 4

Thomas Allen

    The traditional interpretation, as expressed by the Zionist Scofield, is that Esther shows God secretly watching over the dispersed Jews. Demaray, Fausset, Halley, Martin, C. Pfeiffer, Unger, and others also hold this view. Although the book no where suggests that God be working through Esther or Mordecai to save the Jews from persecution, this interpretation claims such provincial care exists. Many go as far as to insert numerous references to God in their commentaries, which are completely missing in the book of Esther (for example, C. Pfeiffer). Unger remarks, “The purpose of the book is to demonstrate God’s providential care of His people in their trials and persecutions. . . .”[32] Davis declares, “The great lesson of the book is, in fact, the overruling power of Providence.”[33]

    Unfortunately for the providential care argument, the book only weakly suggests it. It does not identify, or even imply, that the source of this providential care is Jehovah God. The source may just as well be a god of Freemasonry, Islam, Hinduism, or some New Age religion. Satan had won the hearts and souls of most Jews. Could he have been using them to feed his lust for blood? Based on the book as a whole, this providential care is human in origin and not divine.

    Some believe that the purpose of Esther is to justify the Feast of Purim. No other Scripture sanctions this feast. This feast celebrates the triumph of the Jews over anti-Semitism. (Today, it would be a celebration of Jews over anti-Jews as few Jews are Semites or, perhaps more correctly, over Gentiles.)

    Those who believe that Esther is a historical romance book generally view it as justification for Purim. Esther was written to glorify the Jews at a time when they were envied and hated.

    One problem with the Purim interpretation is that Purim is not a Hebrew word. It is highly unlikely that Jews would use a foreign name for one of their great commemorative celebrations. Another is that Ezra did not include it in the Priestly Code.

    Another interpretation is that Purim is a foreign holiday adopted by the Jews. It justifies the celebration of a festival that had no religious significance or basis in the Law but that had become popular with the Jews. Purim is possibly the New Year Feast of Marduk, the Ishtar feast, or the Babylonian observance in the month of Adar.

    Others believe that Esther is describing a conflict between the gods of Babylonia and Elam. On one side are Esther (Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess) and Mordecai (Marduk, chief god of Babylonia). On the other side are Haman (Hamman, chief gold of the Elamites), Vashti (an Elamite deity), and Zeresh (Kirisha, an Elamite goddess and presumably Hamman’s consort.). Jews learned this story during their captivity. Esther is a Judaized version of this conflict that Jews have converted to their own use.

    A criticism of this interpretation is that many names and characters in Esther do not fit neatly into the myth. Identifying Zeresh with Kirisha presents another problem. Moreover, Haman is identified as the son of Hammedatha and an Agagite. (That the Jewish writer of Esther would identify the chief villain of the story with Israel’s arch enemy, the Amalekites, is not surprising.)

    Another possibility is that Esther is a fiction describing in allegorical terms the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids. Under this interpretation, the writer is using the events around Phaedymia, Esther of the story, who is the wife of Darius-Hystaspis and mother of Xerxes. She saves her people from the Magi, as Esther saves hers from Haman and his rabble. Purim may come from the Persian festival of Magophonia, which celebrates the Persian massacre of the Magi. However, it celebrates the Maccabean victory. Moreover, Esther’s Jewish name is Hadassah, i.e., Myrtle, which is the same as Adasah in Judea where the Maccabeans defeated Nicanor in 161 B.C. Under this interpretation, Mordecai represents Judas Maccabeus and Haman represents Antiochus Epiphanes and particularly Nicanor. Thus, Esther explains the origins or Purim, which is a celebration of the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids, Syrians, commanded by Nicanor.

    According to C. Pfeiffer, the purpose of Esther “was an invitation to a war of conquest and revenge.”[34] He adds, “the story leads up to a wholesale massacre of non-Jews and the yearly celebration of that carnage.”[35] The moral that Esther teaches is “love your kindred, hate your enemies.”[36] “[T]he might of the Jews and the destruction of their enemies are the supreme moral ideals of the book.”[37]

    A combination of several of the above interpretations leads to a better understanding of Esther. Jewish religious leaders used a Babylonian or Persian holiday that Jews had become accustom celebrating. This holiday they converted to a Jewish holiday to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Gentiles. (The Christian church did the same thing with Easter. It converted a pagan holiday to a holiday commemorating Christ’s resurrection.) To this holiday, they overlaid a Judaized version of a Babylonian story about the Babylonian victory over the Elamites. The gods of Babylon defeat the gods of Elam. The Jewish writer changes the Babylonian gods to Jews and Elamite gods to Agagites and Elamites, who represent Gentiles in general. Instead of a mystical war, the writer of Esther could have used the Persian slaughter of the Magi and converted the Persian holiday celebrating that event to the Jewish holiday Purim. Here the Persians become Jews, and the Magi become Gentiles. Whichever story that the writer uses, he greatly embellishes it to make it more exciting and relevant to his Jewish audience.

    Even if Esther is an accurate account of actual historical events, the conclusion of this article does not change. In fact, an actual historical account is more supportive of the conclusion than a mystical story or historical fiction.

32. Unger, Dictionary, p. 325.

33. John D. Davis, A Dictionary of the Bible, 4th rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Michigan: Baker Book House: 1957), p. 218.

34.  R. Pfeiffer, p. 477.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Coley Allen. 

Part 5 Part 3

 More articles on religion.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Esther -- Part 3

Problems with the Story
Thomas Allen

    The story occurs during the reign of Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.), who is called Ahasuerus in Esther. No historical records show that Xerxes ever had a queen named Esther or a Jewish queen. Moreover, Xerxes’s marriage to Esther would have been contrary to the law. According to Persian law, the king could only marry a wife belonging to one of the seven great Persian families.[25] (Likewise, Ahasuerus’s marriage to Vashti, if Vashti were her real name, would also have been illegal. Vashti is an Elamite name.) Between the seventh year and twelfth year of Xerxes’s reign (2:16; 3:7), when Esther is supposed to be his queen, his queen is Amestris, the daughter of a Persian general, Otanes.[26] Furthermore, at that time for a Jewess to marry voluntarily a Gentile was unthinkable.

    No historical record shows Haman, Mordecai, or Vashti. That a Persian king would appoint a foreigner to be his prime minister, grand vizier, is highly unlikely. Haman is an Agagite (3:1, 10), i.e., an Amalekite (Agags were kings of Amalek, Israel’s bitter enemy). Mordecai, of coarse, is a Jew.

    Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah mentions them. Sirach, who wrote about 180 B.C., does not include Esther, who supposedly saved the Jewish people, or Mordecai among the Hebrew notables (Sir. chap. 44-49).

    Moreover, no historical record shows a massacre in Susa. A lack of any historical record independent of the Bible does not mean that the event described in the Bible did not happen as described.

    Another conflict in the book is Ahasuerus (Xerxes) ordering Vashti to appear before his party unveiled. Such an act was contrary to custom and Persian law.[27] (If Vashti were a real person, violating the custom and law accounts for her refusal to obey the king.) Some scholars doubt such custom and believe that the king’s command was not improper.[28]

    The explanation commonly offered to all these violations of Persian laws and customs is that the king just ignored them. If true, why did he not ignore the Persian law against rescinding a royal decree? If he were in the habit of ignoring Persian law, why did he not merely revoke the decree that authorized Haman to kill the Jews and take their property?

    Esther did ask him to revoke it (8:5). Was she saying one thing with her lips and another with her body language? Did her body language say do not revoke the decree instead grant us Jews the right of revenge? If so, the king obeyed her body language instead of her lips.

    Many scholars believe that the kings of Persia could revoke their decrees. Historical evidence does not support Persian royal decrees being irrevocable.[29]

    A major problem with Esther is its lack of any religious substance. It does not mention God. No direct reference is made to worship. Although it alludes to fasting (4:16) and the “cry” of the people (9:31), they appear to have no religious connection.

    To explain away Esther’s lack of religious content, Martin offers, “A possible explanation is that the book was written at a time when the mention of the name or religion of the God of Israel was either unwise or dangerous or both.”[30] A problem with this excuse is that believing God would sanction such cowardice is difficult. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not shy away from mentioning the God of Israel although it meant their lives. For the most part the Persians were friendly enough with the Jews to allow them to rebuild the Temple and to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

    C. Pfeiffer rejects Martin’s excuse and quotes Edward Young to explain away the lack of religious substance. Young writes:
 . . . since these Jews were no longer in the theocratic line, so to speak, the Name of the Covenant God is not associated with them. The Book of Esther, then, serves the purpose of showing how Divine Providence overrules all things; even in a distant, far country, God’s people are yet in His hands. But since they are in this distant, far country, and not in the land of Promise, His Name is not mentioned.[31]
Nehemiah and Malachi came after Esther if the earlier date is correct, and they are filled with religious substance. Moreover, why would God excuse “His people” ignoring Him when they are not around Jerusalem? Abraham, Joseph, and Moses did not ignore Him when they were in Egypt. Jacob did not stop worshiping God when he went to a far country. David did not stop worshiping Him when he entered a foreign country. Living in a foreign country is no excuse. However, the Jews in Esther show no reverence to God. Like Martin’s excuse, Young’s excuse is extremely poor.

    Their peculiar laws (3:8) seem to be the only thing that distinguished the Jews from the Gentile in the story. However, they quickly abandon their peculiar laws when it suits their purpose (2:9). Thus, Esther can easily conceal that she is a Jewess (2:10).

    While Mordecai convinces Esther to conceal that she is a Jewess and causes her to violate Jewish laws, he practically boasts of being a Jew. (To conceal her Jewishness, Esther would have to eat unclean foods and bow to the king, who was considered a deity — thus, violating the first commandment.) Yet Mordecai risks exposing her as a Jewess by his daily visits and inquiries (2:11).

    The moral height of the book is Esther’s resolve to risk her life by going to the king and pleading for her people (5:1-8). However, if she believes Mordecai’s argument, she has everything to gain and nothing to lose. He claims that if Haman’s decree were executed, she would be killed (4:13). Apparently, Mordecai convinces her that Haman would not make an exception for the queen, and the king would allow her execution. Moreover, if she does not intervene to save the Jews, someone else will (4:14). Therefore, if she does not act, she will not receive the glory. She does not ask why she should risk her life to intercede for the Jews if they will be saved without her intercession.

 25. Fausset, p. 213.

26. Davis, Westminster, p. 172. Fausset, p. 213. Paton, p. 230.

27. Fausset, p. 213.

28. Archibald Duff, “Esther,” in A Commentary on the Bible, ed. Arthur S. Peake and A.J. Grieve (New York, New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, n.d.), p. 337.

29. Richardson, pp. 233-234.

30. Martin, p. 919.

31. C. Pfeiffer, p. 447.

Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Coley Allen.

Part 4 Part 2

 More articles on religion.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ester -- Part 2

The Story
Thomas Allen

[Editor's note: Footnotes in original are omitted.]

    Esther is a Jewess of the tribe of Benjamin. Her Jewish name is Hadassah (2:7).

    Mordecai is also of the tribe of Benjamin (2:5). He is Esther’s foster father and cousin (2:7, 15). As he is closely connected with the harem (2:11, 19, 21), he may have been a eunuch gatekeeper.[15] After learning of a conspiracy to kill the king, he warns the king through Esther and thus saves the king’s life (2:21-23).

    Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, who is Xerxes, deposes his queen Vashti for refusing to reveal her beauty to the revelers at his royal feast (1:10-19). Vashti is disposed in 482 B.C.[16] or 483 B.C.[17]

    Then the king orders that the fairest virgins of the land be presented to him. From them he selects his new queen (2:1-4). Esther is among those presented, and Ahasuerus picks her (2:8-18). She becomes queen of Persia in 478 B.C.[18] or 479 B.C.[19] He does not know that she is a Jewess (2:10, 20).

    Mordecai offends Haman, the prime minister (or grand vizier), by not bowing or paying homage to him (3:2). Haman seeks the king’s permission to kill all Jews because of Mordecai’s irreverence. The king grants permission to Haman to kill them and seize their property (3:4-15). To obtain this decree, Haman offers the king a bribe of 10,000 talents (3:9), which according to some, the king refuses, but according to others, he accepts. Ahasuerus grants this decree in the twelfth year of his reign (3:10-11), five years after his marriage to Esther.

    Mordecai urges Esther to intercede with the king for her people (4:7-9). Uninvited, Esther enters the king’s presence (5:1-2). She requests that the king and Haman attend a banquet, a drinking-feast, that she prepares (5:4). At the banquet she invites the king and Haman to meet the next day for another feast when she promises to reveal her request (5:7). (Between the two feasts, the king orders Haman to honor Mordecai. Mordecai is honored for earlier exposing a plot to assassinate the king [ch. 6].) As the second feast begins, she informs the king of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews and pleads for her people. Because she is a Jewess, Haman will kill her (7:3-6).

    After recovering from this shocking news, Ahasuerus orders Haman hung on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai (7:9-10). Then he gives Mordecai Haman’s post of prime minister and Esther Haman’s wealth, who in turn gives it to Mordecai (8:1,2).

    Although Esther asks the king to rescind Haman’s decree (8:5), he does not because it is irrevocable. Instead he authorized Mordecai to issue a decree in the king’s name allowing the Jews to do whatever Mordecai deems appropriate (8:8). Mordecai grants permission to the Jews to destroy, slay, and cause to perish all the people who would assault them, including women and children (8:11). (Mordecai’s decree goes beyond merely self-defense. It authorizes preempted strikes and allows Jews to initiate action [8:11, 9:2, 13].) The language of Mordecai’s decree (8:11) is almost identical to the language of Haman’s decree (3:13).

    Moreover, Mordecai’s decree allows the Jews to take the property of their victims (8:11). However, they do not take the spoils (9:10, 15, 16). This decree pleases the Jews so much that they have a feast to celebrate the upcoming slaughter (8:17).

    Apparently, the Persians do not interfere with the Jewish slaughter of the Gentiles since the victims are not Persians. To the contrary, Persians aid the Jews in their massacre because they feared Mordecai and the Jews (9:3). For fear of the Jews, many became Jews (8:17). These events occur in 473 B.C.[20] or 474 B.C.[21]

    On the day that Haman had set for the roundup and execution of the Jews, the Jews in turned slaughter Haman’s family and many others. The killing lasted two days. According to the story, 800 were killed in Shushan, Susa, and 75,000 were killed in the provinces (9:6, 15, 16).

    To commemorate this great Jewish victory over the Gentiles, the Jews establish the feast of Purim (9:20-32). It is on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar (February and March). Purim is a day of “feasting and joy, and of sending portions to one another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22).

    According to Paton, the book is completely void of noble characters:
    Xerxes is a sensual despot. E[sther], for the chance of winning wealth and power, takes her place in the herd of maidens who become concubines of the king. She wins her victories not by skill or by character, but by her beauty. She conceals her origin, is relentless toward a fallen enemy (7:8-10), secures not merely that the Jews escape from danger, but that they fall upon their enemies, slay their wives and children, and plunder their property (8:11, 9:2-10). Not satisfied with this slaughter, she asks that Haman’s ten sons may be hanged, and that the Jews may be allowed another day for killing their enemies in Susa (9:13-15). The only redeeming traits in her character are her loyalty to her people, and her bravery in attempting to save them (4:16). Mordecai sacrifices his cousin to advance his interests, advises her to conceal her religion, displays wanton insolence in his refusal to bow to Haman, and helps E[sther] in carrying out her schemes of vengeance. All this the author narrates with interest and approval. He gloats over the wealth and the triumph of his heroes, and is oblivious to their moral shortcomings.[22]
    Conversely, Fausset sees Esther as a highly noble character although humanly flawed:
    E[sther]’s own character is in the main attractive: dutiful to her adoptive father, and regardful of his counsels though a queen; having faith in the high destiny of her nation, and believing with Mordecai than even “if she held peace at the crisis deliverance would arise to the Jews from another place" and that providentially she had “come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (iv. 14); brave, yet not foolhardy, but fully conscious of her peril, not having received the king’s call for 30 days, with pious preparation seeking aid from above in her patriotic venture; “obtaining favour in the sight of all them that looked upon her” (ii. 15). At the same time Scripture does not hide from us the fact of her not being above the vindictiveness of the age and the country, in her requesting that Haman’s ten sons should be hanged, and a second day given the Jews to take vengeance on the enemies who had sought to kill them.[23]
    Quoting McCurdy, Unger also describes Esther as a highly noble woman:
    The character of Esther, as she appears in the Bible, is that of a woman of deep piety, faith, courage, patriotism, and caution, combined with resolution; a dutiful daughter to her adopted father, docile and obedient to his counsels, and anxious to share the king’s favor with him for the good of the Jewish people. That she was a virtuous woman, and, as far as her situation made it possible, a good wife to the king, her continued influence over him for so long a time warrants us to infer. There must have been a singular charm in her aspect and manners since she obtained favor in the sight of all that looked upon her (Esth. 2:15).[24]
    Whereas, Fausset acknowledges Esther’s flaws, Unger does not. Whereas Fausset downplays her attributes of being a conniving, lying, deceiving, vengeful, manipulative, irreligious woman, Unger ignores them.

15. Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Handbook: An Essential Guide to Understanding the Bible (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1966), p. 265.

16. Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook: An Abbreviated Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965), p. 238.

17. How, p. 305. Unger, Handbook, p. 264.

18. Halley, p. 237. Unger, Dictionary, p. 325.

19. Pfeiffer and Harrison, p. 449.

20. Halley, p. 237. Pfeiffer and Harrison, p. 455.

21. Pfeiffer and Harrison, p. 455.

22. Paton, pp. 231-232.

23. A.R Fausset, Fausset’s Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1949), p. 214.

24. Unger, Dictionary, p. 325.

Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Coley Allen.

Part 1 Part 3

More articles on religion.