Monday 7 September 2009

Frederic W. Bush on Esther

Frederic W. Bush, ‘The Book of Esther: Opus non gratum in the Christian Canon’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 8 (1998), 39-54.

In summary, Bush here argues that ‘Esther offers readers an insightful satire of the pagan world and yet at the same time provides a glimpse of the dangers the Jewish people have faced in the diaspora’ (39).

The world of the story is the Jewish dispersion. Outside Daniel and Esther, there is little in the Old Testament about those who remained in exile. Nehemiah starts off in Persia, but his attention is on the restoration of Jerusalem; Daniel, like Nehemiah, serves in the Persian court, but his concern is likewise for the Judean community in Palestine, and he faces Jerusalem when he prays (44-45). The Book of Esther provides a contrast, with its seeming lack of interest in Jerusalem and the temple. The welfare of the Jewish people in the diaspora is its concern (45).

If this is the case, it’s interesting to note the characterisation of the king and the world in which he rules (45-47). The opening chapter can be seen as a satire, which mocks the world in which the Jewish people must live – a mocking which instructs and not just ridicules. However, ‘the satire has a sinister side. It reveals a society fraught with danger. Though it is ruled by law, this does not guarantee either security or justice, for it is easily manipulated by buffoons whose tender egos can marshal the state’s whole legislative and administrative machinery for the furthering of selfish causes’. There are dangers ‘that lurk below the seemingly ordered society of the world of the diaspora’ (47).

Although God seems absent, ‘the book nonetheless predicates the providence of God, as does the rest of the OT, for the deliverance of the Jews is effected not only by the loyalty of Mordecai and the cunning and courage of Esther but also by a series of truly remarkable and dramatic coincidences with which the story abounds’ (49).

Bush concludes:

‘On the grounds of this study of the characterization of the world of the story and its characters, the theme of the story can be stated as follows: In the dangerous world of the diaspora, with its opulence, uncertainty, and evil, the loyalty of Mordecai to the Jewish people and the king, the courage and shrewdness of Esther, and the reliable providence of God delivered the diaspora Jewish community from the terrible threat of annihilation, demonstrating that a viable life for the Jews of the diaspora is possible even in the face of such propensity for evil’ (50).

Along these lines, the institution of the feast of Purim is a celebration from the relief of persecution, along with the joy of deliverance.

‘But the character of the festival of Purim has a word to speak to the Christian, as well as to the Jewish, community. Christians at times have also lived in a dangerous and unfriendly “diaspora world,” marked by hatred and persecution… The story of Esther also holds out to the Church the hope that “relief and deliverance” may indeed be effected by the combination of the providence of God and human effort. Esther and Purim call the Church to celebrate the joy of deliverance in the face of unmitigated and unthinkable evil’ (54).

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