Purim and the gentiles

Non-Jews show interest in the Book of Esther.

March 4, 2015 21:41
Purim celebrations in Jerusalem

Purim celebrations in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Purim seems such a nationalistic Jewish event that one wonders why non-Jews should show any interest in it or in the Book of Esther as a whole.

There are non-Jews in the story, to be sure: Ahashverosh, Vashti, Haman, Zeresh, the royal courtiers, the nation’s nobles, even the ordinary citizens. But they are just the supporting cast. The megillah is not the Book of Haman or Ahashverosh but the Book of Esther (the Books of Maccabees calls it the Book of Mordechai), and the focus is on the Jews of Persia, not the gentiles.

We could of course argue that irrespective of the Jewish connection, the story is simply a good one – one of what Immanuel Lewy called the “three dramatic narratives in ancient Hebrew literature, the stories of Joseph, Job and Mordechai,” but that in itself is not sufficient reason to justify the book being part of the Christian version of the biblical canon. Possibly there is a hint in Lewy’s further remark that all three stories “portray a suffering hero.”

From the Christian point of view there might be a special appeal in the “suffering hero” theme, but the Purim story seems to have little interest for the New Testament writers, apart from an incidental quotation in Mark 6:22-23 when Herod tells a maiden who had danced for him at a feast for the nobles, “Whatever you wish, I will give it to you, even half of my kingdom,” and an echo of Esther in the Letter to the Hebrews, which we will quote a little later.

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Luther fiercely opposed the Book of Esther and if he had been making the decision he would not have brought it into the Christian Bible. “I wish it had not come to us at all,” he said (Table Talk 24), because of its “heathen unnaturalities,” whatever those words mean.

To this day, the book gets a mixed reception among Christians. Some query both its nationalism (though there are many nationalistic books in the Tanach) and what they see as its vindictive spirit, and they find in it no great spiritual or moral model or teaching.

However, some early Christian writers had a more positive view. Jerome thought that Esther and Mordechai were symbols of the Church and Jesus. Because Esther saved her people, some thought she was a type of Christ.

Her courage in approaching the king is seen as symbolic of man’s pleas to God: “Let us boldly approach the throne of our gracious God, where we may receive mercy and in His grace find timely help” (Heb. 4:16). Haman is thought of as a sort of Antichrist, and some see the story as a parable of the persecution of the Church.

The attitude to Esther was partly dependent on geography.

Carey Moore documents in the Anchor Bible edition the view of earlier scholars that in the West, Esther was almost always canonical, but not in the East.

The book was debated in Jewish circles for centuries before being accepted into the Tanach in about 90 CE, though the debate might really be about whether to endorse the fait-accompli whereby the controversial books were already part of Scripture. The Essenes opposed the canonicity of Esther, and it is the only biblical book not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. A series of internal difficulties in the book which arouse such concern among the exegetes engages academic scholars but not the ordinary Bible reader.

There is one major exception, which we would have thought would puzzle even the non-academic gentile – the omission of any direct mention of God anywhere in the narrative. Some Christian Bible scholars address the question and find hints of God at crucial points of the narrative, but how about the ordinary reader? The clue seems to lie in the fact that there are two versions of the story, one in Hebrew – the text we know from Tanach – and the other in Greek. The New Testament habitually uses the Greek Septuagint texts, and it is the Latin translations of the Septuagint that Western Christians tended to use. In the Greek version the conventional marks of piety, the “religious” elements of prayer, miracles and God Himself, are there, and this theological pattern makes the Christians more comfortable.

In the Greek texts, Mordechai prays, “O God, Lord and King who rules over all things, spare Your people; have mercy upon Your inheritance, that we may live and sing praise to Your name.” Esther wore sackcloth and prayed, “O Lord our King, help me who am alone with no helper but You.” In the Greek version Mordechai even praises God for His intervention, using language reminiscent of the Hallel psalms.

Christians who had a soft spot for the Book of Esther may thus have been looking at a different text from ours.

We have our own tradition about the problems in the Hebrew version – particularly the non-appearance of the Divine name. We argue that the presence of God presides over the events whether He is named or not, and the omission of His Name may be because of the light-hearted spirit in which the Book is read or the fact that in Persian literature the Jewish God might not be treated with proper sanctity – though did the Persians write in Hebrew? For us, and logically for the whole of mankind, the story ought to be seen as a symbol of evil defeated, which is the theme of Psalm 92, read each Shabbat (“though the wicked flourish like grass, it is so they will be destroyed for ever”) – and of human beings able to live quietly without fear or molestation, which is the messianic hope of Isaiah chapter 2 and Micah chapter 4 (“everyone shall sit under his own vine or fig-tree, and none shall make him afraid”).

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