Friday, November 13

2 Chronicles 34: Josiah’s chronology seems pretty well established for us. Reasonably placing the beginning of his reign (under a regency, of course) in 640, we surmise he was born in 648 (verse 1), fathered by the 16-year-old Amon (cf. 33:21). Josiah himself became a father at age 16 (cf. 36:2). It was 632, and he had a serious religious conversion that same year (verse 3). Fathering children and getting serious about God often go together.

On reaching age 20 in the year 628, Josiah took the kingdom in hand and initiated a religious reform of the nation (verses 3-7). There are five things noticeable about this reform.

First, Josiah got rid of only Canaanite gods (verses 3-4). Evidently the Assyrian gods had already been purged by the repentant Manasseh (33:15).

Second, in the pursuit of this reform Josiah ignored his northern border (verse 6). He could afford to do this, because the recently weakened Assyrian warrior would never again show his face at the walls of Jerusalem. The last of the great Assyrian emperors, Asshurbanapal (668-633) had lately died, and none of his feeble successors could ever again threaten the western end of the Fertile Crescent. The Assyrian Empire was already in grievous decline, and the Babylonian king, Nabopolassar (626-605) would soon be in full revolt against it. Asshur would fall to the Babylonians in 614, Nineveh in 612, Haran in 610, and the dreaded Assyrian would be no more.

Third, only the Chronicler notes that the Levites were charged with the financial oversight of the refurbishing of the Temple (verses 11b-13). This is not only the kind of detail we expect in Chronicles, but it also ties the Levites to the discovery of the scroll in the Temple. In the next chapter it will be obvious that the priests and Levites were very much involved in Josiah’s project of reform.

Fourth, Josiah’s reform was seconded by the prophet Jeremiah. Apparently born in 640, the very year of Josiah’s succession, Jeremiah received his prophetic call in 627 (Jeremiah 1:2), five years before the discovery of the scroll in the Temple. Thus, Jeremiah was only 18 when the scroll was discovered. Josiah’s reform seems to have been something of a youth movement. In 627 Jeremiah complained, in fact, that he was still a mere boy (Jeremiah 1:6).

Fifth, Josiah’s reform involved the refurbishing of the Temple, and as preparations were being made for it in 622 a mysterious scroll was discovered there (verse 8). Except for the mention of the Levites, the Chronicler (verses 9-11a,14-18) describes this discovery pretty much as it is described in 2 Kings 22:3-7. The scroll is described as containing “the law of the Lord given through Moses,” and biblical scholars since patristic times have suspected that it was either the Book of Deuteronomy or a significant portion thereof.

On hearing the scroll read and learning its content, Josiah was horrified, realizing how woefully he and the people had failed to observe the Law (verse 19). Even his extensive reforms, which have been in progress for several years, did not measure up. The king had a sense of impending doom by reason of the nation’s accumulated sins over many generations, so he sent his companions to seek prophetic guidance on the matter (verses 20-21).

They consulted the prophetess Huldah (verse 22), who did the them kindness of telling them the worst. The accumulation of evil was already too great, she said, to evade its inevitable results. The scales were already overbalanced to the point of a relentless crash, and there was no way to stop the forces of history unleashed by so much sin. The nation would soon perish because of its chronic infidelities (verses 23-25). Only thus, remarked Josephus, could the Lord vindicate the warnings of the prophets (Antiquities 10.4.2).

The sole consolation held out by Huldah was the guarantee that the punishment of the nation would not come to pass during the lifetime of the present godly king (verses 26-28). Since Josiah was a relatively young man at the time, perhaps there were those who took comfort in the thought that they too would be spared the vision of the impending punishment. Alas, they did not know how little time Josiah had left in this world. The king would be dead in thirteen years.

Josiah took this prophecy of Huldah in the same spirit of humility that he displayed when the Law was first read to him. Resolving that whatever time was left would be spent in the pure service of God, he caused the book of the Law to be read aloud in the presence of the national leaders and whoever else could join them (verses 29-30). He would not spare them the bad news. He would not permit them to walk blindly into the future or put their hopes on a vain sense of security. Their days were numbered, after all, and Josiah thought it a mercy that they should know it. God was still God, and man still owed Him pure service (verse 31). Josiah would continue to love God “with all his heart and all his soul,” an expression that he had recently learned from reading the Sacred Text of Deuteronomy!

The chapter’s closing verses (32-33) are proper to the Chronicler.

Saturday, November 35

2 Chronicles 35: Although 2 Kings 23:21-23 tells of the Passover observed in Jerusalem in the year that the scroll was discovered, the account of that same celebration here in Chronicles is far more ample and detailed. Indeed, verses 2-18 of the present chapter are peculiar to the Chronicler.

Josiah entrusted the organization and preparation for this feast to the ever-reliable Levites, who were especially charged with the actual slaying of the paschal lambs (verses 3-5). At each part of the ritual the Levites performed their sundry duties as assistants, musicians, and doorkeepers (verses 10-15).

So great was Josiah’s celebration of Passover that the Chronicler’s mind was forced back to the time of Samuel to find its equal (verse 18). For two reasons this high estimate is unexpected. First, it makes Josiah’s celebration of Passover eclipse notable Passover celebrations of David, Solomon, and Hezekiah. Second, it suggests a liturgical standard in the pre-monarchical period, a time about which, as we have seen, the Chronicler had fairly little to say at the beginning of the book. These considerations render the Chronicler’s assessment very surprising.

The Chronicler is careful to note that this Passover celebration involved “all Judah and Israel” (verse 18). Josiah’s ability to bring together the entire Chosen People, all the descendents of those who celebrated that first Passover on the night before the Exodus, indicates the recent political changes in the Fertile Crescent. Obviously no one was any longer afraid of what the Assyrians might think.

It is very significant of Josiah’s thinking, moreover, that the remnants of the northern tribes were invited to the feast, as Hezekiah had done in the previous century. The Passover was not just any feast. It was the feast in which Israel was separated from all other peoples of the earth. It was the feast that rendered Israel God’s Chosen People. Therefore, it was preeminently the feast of the unity of the People of God.

Being restricted to Jerusalem, Josiah’s celebration of the feast, we observe, corresponded to the prescription of Deuteronomy, which we believe to have formed, at least in part, the scroll so recently discovered. In that text it was commanded, “You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, but at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover sacrifice” (Deuteronomy 16:5-6 ESV).

Perhaps more than any other feast in the liturgical calendar, Passover roots Israel’s worship in the concrete, documented facts of history. The annual feast itself is part of the historical continuity inaugurated by the events remembered on that holiest of nights. Israel represents, in this respect, a religious adherence profoundly different from that of the religions of India, which involve various efforts to escape from history into some kind of experience transcendent to history. Israel’s worship does not endeavor to escape the flow of history but to place the worshippers into the People’s historical identity established by historical events. Those who keep this feast become one with those who have always kept it, including those who stood to eat the Passover on that first night, protected by the sprinkled blood of the paschal lambs.

The proper celebration of the Passover, however, is more than a “then and now.” The “then and now” forms only the two extremes of the greater continuity. The full continuity is also important, because this feast is essentially an inherited feast, and the inheritance is received, not simply from the distant past, but from the more immediate past of the previous generation of worshippers.
What was true of Israel’s celebration of the paschal feast is, of course, likewise true of that new Pascha celebrated by Christians (in the identical historical continuity, for those Israelites were our own forefathers!). This is how we should understand the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians at Passover season, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
The closing verses (20-27) of this chapter bring us to the year 609, when the final remnants of the Assyrian army were destroyed at the Battle of Carcemish. Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, had fallen to the allied forces of the Medes and Babylonians three years earlier in 612 (to the great joy of the prophet Nahum, who made this the theme of his book). In 610 the vestigial, refugee government of Assyria were driven out of Haran, at the top of the Fertile Crescent. The Assyrian situation had become desperate.
To the new pharaoh who took the throne of Egypt that very year, Neco II (610-594), this was not a good development. He felt certain that the Babylonians, after they finished off the Assyrians, would begin to cast its gaze down toward the southwestern border of the Fertile Crescent. Deciding to cast in his lot with the remaining forces of Assyria, Neco marched his army northwards along the coastal road through the Carmel range, heading toward a rendezvous with the Assyrians at Carchemish on Euphrates River, with the hope that with joined forces they might stop the march of the Babylonians and the Medes.
This road lay, of course, right through the territory of Judah, and Josiah was forced to make some determination about the matter. Perhaps recalling that his great-grandfather Hezekiah had been friendly toward Babylon (32:31), and certainly remembering all that the Holy Land had suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, Josiah determined to throw in his lot with Babylon and resolved to march counter to Pharaoh Neco and stop him from reaching Carchemish. When their two armies met at a crossroads on the plain beneath Armageddon, the “hill of Megiddo,” King Josiah perished in the battle.
Whereas in 2 Kings this story is told in two and a half verses (23:28-30a), the Chronicler provides a longer, more detailed, more colorful account. According to this account Pharaoh Neco tried to dissuade Josiah from fighting him, claiming even the will, protection, and providence of God for the side of the Egyptians (verse 21). What is important here is not the nature of Neco’s claim, but the fact that the Chronicler apparently agreed with it (verse 22). In the narrator’s eyes, this was one more occasion when a king of Judah refused to pay heed to a message from on high, with disastrous results for the kingdom. He will summarize this theme in the next chapter (36:15-16).

Sunday, November 15
2 Chronicles 36: Whereas 2 Kings (23:31—25:21) devotes 58 verses to narrating the history of Judah after the death of Josiah, the Chronicler needs only a dozen verses to describe the same period (609-587 B.C.). It was a miserable time, easily summarized, and the Chronicler was not disposed to dwell on it.

As we have suggested, Josiah’s own motives may have been mixed when he determined to attack the invading army of Pharaoh Neco. The decline of the Assyrian Empire, a process requiring two decades until its fall, had created something of a political vacuum in the western half of the Fertile Crescent. In Judah itself at least one political faction favored the rise of Babylon, and this faction apparently included Josiah himself. The books of 2 Kings and Jeremiah indicate the emergence of another party that preferred an alliance with Egypt. One side or the other would prevail, because it was becoming evident to everyone that Judah’s days of political independence were at an end.

The first part of the present chapter (verses 1-10) illustrate the political struggles in which these competing forces worked themselves out. Josiah at his death was not succeeded by his eldest son Jehoiakim. A popular uprising, apparently motivated by pro-Babylonian sympathies, gave the crown to another son, Jehoahaz/Eliakim (verse 1). Within three months, however, Pharaoh Neco intervened and took this son hostage into Egypt. To replace him on the throne of Judah he chose the older son, Jehoiakim, who was perhaps more favorable, and certainly more acceptable, to Egypt (verses 2,4,5). The annual tribute that Judah paid to Egypt made manifest the de facto subjugation of Judah (verse 3).

After eleven years, nonetheless, Babylon decided to make its move on the southwest end of the Fertile Crescent, deposing Jerhoiakim and replacing him with his son Jehoiakin (verses 6-9). (In verse 9 read “eighteen” instead of “eight,” following the Greek manuscripts and 2 Kings 24:8). Within three months the Babylonians found the latter also unacceptable, so he was deposed and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah (verses 10-11), the youngest son of Josiah. (In verse 10 he is called Jehoiakin’s “brother,” but this noun is to be understood in the normal biblical sense of “kinsman.” Only rarely does the word “brother” carry in Semitic languages the strict and limited sense that it has in English.)

The Chronicler especially blames Zedekiah for ignoring the sound counsel of Jeremiah, the last of the pre-exilic prophets. Indeed, the entire leadership of the nation is charged with polluting the Temple (verse 14), apparently with various forms of both idolatry and neglect, an indictment found only in the Chronicler.

In addition, the Chronicler speaks of two pre-exilic spoliations of the vessels of the Temple by the Babylonians (only one of which is mentioned in 2 Kings 23:13). These sacred vessels of the worship thus suffer, as it were, an early captivity in Babylon. (The Book of Ezra will give much attention to their return.)

The Chronicler perceived such defilements of the Temple and its worship, by both the Chosen People and their enemies, to attack the very being of Israel. Eviscerating the very reason for Israel’s existence, these defilements led inevitably to the downfall of Jerusalem.

The Chronicler indicts the leaders of Judah for their sustained refusal to take seriously the warnings of the messengers whom the Lord who “sent warnings to them . . . , rising up early and sending” (verse 15). This quaint latter expression the Chronicler took straight out of the Book of Jeremiah, where it is common (7:13,25; 25:3,4; 26:5; 29:10; 35:15; 44:4; cf. 11:7; 32:33), though it appears nowhere else in Holy Scripture.

The Chronicler, even as he invokes the prophetic literature against his countrymen, appeals to the Wisdom literature by accusing them of mockery (mal‘bim), contempt (bozim) and scoffing (mitta‘t‘im) (verse 16). That is to say, the leaders of Judah have proved themselves to be the consummate “fools,” who not only refuse to receive instruction but treat with malice those who would instruct them. Against such as these, says the Chronicler, there is no remedy.

As our reading of Chronicles would lead us to expect, Jerusalem’s fall is described chiefly in terms of the Temple (verses 17,19) and its sacred vessels (verse 18).

Judah’s exile in Babylon lasted until 517 B.C. (verse 20), exactly seventy years from Jerusalem’s fall in 587. The Chronicler notes that Jeremiah (25:12) prophesied this detail (verse 21). That number, seventy, serves in the Bible as a kind of ironic Sabbath, because during all this period it is a fact that the land lay fallow and no one worked on it.

Because there was no Temple, active priesthood, nor sacrifice during the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity, that period held no interest for the Chronicler. He skipped it completely and went straight to the downfall of Babylon and the return of the exiles in the Book of Ezra.

In a later editing the Book of Chronicles were separated from Ezra and Nehemiah, which had originally served as a narrative sequence, and became the final works in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence, this became the last page of the Hebrew Bible. When this editing was done, the opening verses of the Book of Ezra were borrowed and added to the end of Chronicles, an arrangement that permitted the Hebrew Bible to end on a positive and optimistic note.

Monday, November 16

Esther 1: The account of Esther commences with an emperor and his empire. This emperor’s original—Persian—name was Xšay?rš?. The Babylonians called him Achshiyarshu, which gave rise to the Hebrew version in the Massoretic text, Akhashverosh. Jerome, in his Latin translation from Hebrew, transliterated this to Ahasuerus, the name maintained in most English translations of Holy Scripture. In the LXX this emperor is known as Artaxerxes. From the Book of Esther it is not clear whether this is Artaxerxes I (465-424) or Artaxerxes II (404-359). The question of his identity does not matter in the slightest to our understanding of the book. For what the author of the Book of Esther has to say, it could be either man . . . or neither.

Ahasuerus is, and remains, the utterly dominant figure throughout the Book of Esther. Because he is the most predictable, he is also the least interesting. From the opening verses we learn several things about him.

First, Ahasuerus assumes the place of God. While it has long been noted that God (or prayer or anything religious) is no so much as mentioned in this book, it has only more recently become clear that Ahasuerus, in this narrative, has become God’s “replacement.” He is a political god, providing the sort of idolatry, Tertullian observed, that is most dangerous. Ahasuerus is portrayed as all powerful; his personal will is the source of all law, and everyone in the story is dependent on his favor.

Ahasuerus rules over all the earth—at least over all the earth considered in this book; “this was the Ahasuerus,” we are told, “who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia.” These two regions lie directly outside the extreme southern points of the Fertile Crescent.

If it seems that the biblical author is making fun of this emperor, let me suggest that the impression is accurate. Artaxerxes is portrayed, throughout this book, as a consummate buffoon. When things go badly, the cause can normally be traced to some royal decision or decree. When things go well, the emperor is never the cause of it. Throughout the book, the all-powerful king fails to make a single wise decision. Later in this chapter, for instance, he will forbid Queen Vashti to come into count, as a punishment for her failure to come into court!

This book is both a comedy and a tragedy, both a farce and a melodrama. The author seems to have his tongue in his cheek most of the time. It is a book to be enjoyed. Only after the reader has appreciated the humor should he start to look at its themes more seriously.

In the Hebrew text the emperor begins the action by hosting two large banquets. Let us note here, in passing, that this format of two banquets will find its parallel, near the end of the book, in two suppers hosted by Esther herself.

The first banquet is for all the “officials and servants—the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces” of the large realm. The purpose of this feast was for the emperor to show off “the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty.” As it turned out, these riches were so extensive that it required 180 days for these political officials to see them all. Evidently the workings of the empire were sufficiently stable that all the regions were able to dispense with local government for six months! The reader begins to suspect that there is something farcical about this story. As we go along, we shall observe other evidence to support this suspicion.

Also, the Christian reader easily detects that this feast, universal in its invitation list, makes the emperor a sort of would-be rival to the true King, who summons all mankind to his universal banquet.

The list of political guests invited to the first banquet finds a parallel in the Book of Daniel:

King Nebuchadnezzar sent word to gather together the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered together for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up (Daniel 3:2-3).

In both these cases it is difficult not to notice the element of derision and farce. Both authors endeavor to show that man, particularly political man, when he attempts to replace God, makes rather a hash of the business. Each of these authors, in his own way, illustrates what the Psalmist says about those political forces that pretend to replace God: “He who sits in heaven will laugh;? / The Lord shall hold them in derision” (Psalm 2:3).

The second banquet is, in its further details, even more impressive. We observe, for instance, that it is held for seven days and in a garden:

And when these days were completed, the king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel, from great to small, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.

The parallel with the Creation account is striking. Both stories involve seven days and a garden.

Certain features of this garden deserve further comment. We observe, for instance, that it was adorned with “white and blue linen hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillars.” These details, which put the reader in mind of the furnishings of the Lord’s Tabernacle in Exodus 26, convey am impression of satire.

Like the appointments of the Lord’s Temple, the goblets used in this garden party are made of gold. One recalls that the first mention of gold in the Bible is found in the description of the first garden:

Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which skirts the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good (Genesis 2:10-12).

Like the original garden, which included, among its wonders, “bdellium and the onyx stone,” the walkways in the garden of Ahasuerus are paved with mosaics of exotic stones, “alabaster, turquoise, mother-of-pearl, and black marble.”

In short, what we find in this first chapter is a universal kingdom where a worldly king has replaced God, and he surrounds himself with the symbols associated with the garden of Creation and the service of the Lord’s Sanctuary.

The questions raised throughout this book are fairly simple: How do the servants of the true God survive in a setting where He is excluded from the public sphere? How do the People of God serve Him when the State defines the structure of reality, the social institutions, and the components of the moral order? How do they remain faithful when the differences between right and wrong are determined by a high school sociology textbook?

Since modern readers of Esther likewise live in this sort of world, surrounded by secular parodies of the Kingdom, such are appropriate questions for believers to ask of the Sacred Text.

Queen Vathti is summoned to the men’s gathering, so that the king can show off her beauty to the men. We are not told why she refuses to comply; it is not a detail important to the development of the story.

The incident does, however, continues to illustrate the ridiculous quality of the Persian government. It also serves as a key to opening certain moral questions in the text. We take each point in turn:

First, Vashti’s refusal to appear in court, whatever its motive, puts a genuine damper on the garden party. After all, much was made of the summons, which was sent by no fewer than seven eunuchs. When the summons was declined, the matter was the subject of the seven leading counselors of the realm.

The entire privy counsel discusses what we would expect to be simply a domestic concern. And what is their advice? Their leader recommends that the king put forward an irreversible decree to the effect that the men in the realm should govern their own households. Brilliant!

If you have been counting, this is the second decree issued from the royal palace since the book began. The first decree, we recall, stated that every man should drink as much as he wants (1:8). Now, this second piece of legislation determines that men should rule their own households. Obviously this kingdom is ruled by individuals who believe a new regulation is the best way to solve every problem. Have a dilemma or difficulty of some sort? No problem. Just issue another irreversible decree.

The king’s ridiculous new decree, which is translated into 127 languages, insures that the Vashti-incident receives maximum notoriety throughout the empire. Everybody from the Indus River to Ethiopia will be discussing it. This is the sort of thing that may happen when a man plays God.

Second, Vashti’s refusal is the book’s only instance of someone’s refusing to cooperate with the king. And, we observe, it is not successful. Vashti is in no position to resist the imposition of the emperor’s will. For her attempt to do so, she is simply expelled from being the queen. Perhaps she is happy on hearing this news; we don’t know. This is beside the point, however. The plain fact is that Vashti is powerless in the matter.

Her loss of title and position, nonetheless, serves as a lesson to anyone else in the story who may be disposed simply to resist the imperial will. Only one other character in the story hazards disobedience to an official decree—Mordecai—and, as we shall see, he thereby endangers all the Jews.

Although the real villain in the Book of Esther is certainly Haman, Ahasuerus arguably functions as the major fool. I take this word in its biblical sense; it indicates not a low intelligence quota but a flaw of character. It is a moral category, and Ahasuerus shows some of the symptoms:

First, he is rash, compulsively driven, hot-tempered, stubborn, and exceedingly slow to learn. When the book comes to an end, the king will not be one wit smarter than he was when it began. He has no sense of who is responsible for what. For instance, when he learns of a decree has gone forth to annihilate the Jews, he waxes furious (7:5-7), not remembering that he was responsible for the decree (3:10-14). Ahasuerus remains clueless through the entire narrative.

Second, Ahasuerus seems never to have any ideas of his own. Every decision is suggested by someone else, whether the royal cabinet (1:19), the king’s private chamberlains (2:2-4), Haman (3:8-9), or Esther 5:4-5). As someone noted, he simply assumes the shape of the last person to sit on him. The Persian king is portrayed as both all-powerful and supremely powerless. Perhaps a reader may be pardoned if, after some exposure to Ahasuerus, he feels himself sympathetic to the regicidal aspirations of Bigthan and Teresh (2:21)!

Third, the king has a drinking problem. We observe, for instance, that only two verses separate two statements about him. First, we are told, “the heart of the king was merry with wine” (1:10). Then, just two verses later, we read, “The king became furious and burned with anger” (1:12). Anyone who has ever dealt with intoxicated men will recognize the pattern: They may go from merriment to anger in only a few seconds. All it takes is a provocation.

In Holy Scripture, fondness for alcohol is one of the marks of the fool, and it is especially deplorable in those who exercise authority over others. Ahasuerus fails to take to heart the counsel given, centuries earlier, to King Lemuel by his mother: “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor is strong drink for princes” (Proverbs 31:4).

As though to illustrate that counsel, the author of Kings tells us that Benhadad, the King of Syria, was engaged in a drinking binge when he decided to go to war with Ahab of Israel (1 Kings 20:12). What we have here in the Book of Esther is much worse: The king who rules all the territory from the Indus River to Ethiopia, is portrayed as issuing universal decrees while he is both drunk and angry.

The laws of this Persian Empire, as portrayed in the books of Esther and Daniel, are ridiculous, of course, and the subject of endless ribaldry and burlesque. But the foolishness of the royal court does not render it any less dangerous. Charlie Chaplin’s mockery of Hitler did not make Hitler one bit less dangerous. Ahasuerus continues to prove himself a consummate fool, but, still, he must be dealt with. Besides, as the narrative will soon disclose, the Jews have a much worse enemy than the emperor.

Tuesday, November 17

Esther 2: This first scene of chapter 2 opens with the King coming to his senses . . . or, if this is too much, coming out of his hangover. We are not certain how long Ahasuerus stayed in that drunken stupor. When he does come out of it, however, he “recalls (zakar) Vashti.” He remembers that she “what she had done, and what had been decreed against her.”

Observe the wording. He remembers what Vashti did, and he remembers “what had been decreed against her.” The passive voice here is significant. It does not say that Ahasuerus himself remembered that he had made the decree against Vashti. The whole business seems to be vague in his mind. The king’s memory is not very reliable in this book.

After all, the banishment had not been his idea. In this story Ahasuerus seems not to have ideas of his own. He invariably follows the advice of whoever is talking to him at the time, whether of the royal cabinet or, as in this chapter, of his private chamberlains. Even the most self-evident ideas come to Ahasuerus from outside. In particular, actions in this book rely in part on the structures of bureaucracy. Even the king’s sex life requires a committee.

An early reader of this book, Flavius Josephus, was probably right in thinking that Ahasuerus genuinely missed Vashti. No matter, an irreversible decree had gone out in his name, and there was nothing he could do about it. Josephus observed,

But the king, being in love with her (diakeimenos de pros avten erotikos), did not hold up well with a separation. But yet, because of the law, he could not be reconciled to her. He grieved, therefore, not being able to do what he wanted to do (Josephus, Antiquities 11.6.2. #195).

When a man in power—especially in that absolute power which, as Lord Acton commented, “corrupts absolutely”—is also given to drunkenness and anger, the last thing he needs is to be surrounded by those who cater to his every whim. Alas for Ahasuerus, who has only “yes men” about him. In the previous chapter his royal cabinet, the lords of the realm, prompted him to promulgate a universal decree that probably put the entire empire into turmoil. Now, he takes counsel from the private chamberlains, those who take care of the business of his household. On the basis of their advice he issues yet another edict: “Round up all of the good-looking young women!” Thus, the quest for a new queen begins with an expansion of the king’s harem, an enterprise requiring the full apparatus of the empire.

It is worth mentioning, perhaps, that this was apparently not the normal way Persian kings chose their queens. According to Herodotus, the Persian king was forbidden to take a wife except from among seven houses of the nobility (Herodotus 3.84). The biblical account of Esther’s arrival at court, however, will certainly remind the Bible-reader of the process by which David’s last wife was selected (Cf. 1 Kings 1:1-4).

Verses 5-7 introduce the story’s true servants of God, Mordecai and his younger cousin Esther. The order is significant, inasmuch as Mordecai is portrayed as the “thinker” in the story that follows.

He is said to be “a Jew . . . the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite.” The expression “son of Jair” (ben Ya’ir) is simply Mordecai’s patronymic. The other names mentioned, however, appear not to refer to his immediate ancestry. They serve, rather, to tie Mordecai to the larger context of biblical history and literature.

First, the author seems to evoke the beginning of the Book of Job, which declared, “A man there was in the land of Uz”—’ish haya be’eretz Uts. The author of Esther writes, ’ish Yechudi haya beshushan, “a man there was in Shushan, a Jew.” This term, Yechudi, by the period represented in the present book, does not necessarily refer to someone from the tribe of Judah; “Jew” has become a standard reference to any Israelite, since the major remaining group of Israelites in the world was made up of the tribe of Judah.

Second, Mordecai’s ancestry goes back, in fact, through the tribe of Benjamin, the only other Israelite tribe to adhere politically to the tribe of Judah when Israel divided into two kingdoms in 922 BC. The descendents of Benjamin were rather proud of their distinctive ancestry among those called “Jews.” One of them, for instance, proclaimed himself to be “a Jew” (Galatians 2:14; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:15), “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5).

Third, one of Mordecai’s forefathers was Kish, the father of King Saul (1 Samuel 9:1). His paternal line likewise included Shimei, another relative of Saul (cf. 2 Samuel 16:5). Our author, by introducing this more ancient ancestry, particularly Mordecai’s biological connection to King Saul, prepares the reader for the historical significance of his contest with Haman a little later in the story. We shall see how the story of Mordecai is related to the memory of Saul, the Benjaminite who served as Israel’s first king.

Fourth, Mordecai came from the line of those who “were “carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been taken with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.” Those captives were transported in 597, a decade prior to the fall of Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:14-15). That earlier deportation included only the nobility and the political and religious leaders of Judah; for instance, the priest Ezekiel was among them. Mordecai’s social condition, then, was not that of a commoner. Indeed, his presence in the royal citadel at Shushan may point to his being, already, an official of the government.

Mordecai’s name, likewise, is derived from the Marduk, the patronal god of Babylon.

As for Esther, who is described as Mordecai’s cousin and ward, she is “fair in form and lovely to see” (yaphat-to’ar wetobath mar’he). One is reminded, not only of the other beautiful women described in the Bible, but also of the Beloved in the Song of Solomon, the beautiful woman whom the Rabbis identified as Israel. In this respect Esther is likened to the heroine Judith, to whom she is often joined in the memory of the Church. Both women are vanquishers of the enemies of Israel. In fact, the orphaned Esther symbolizes the homeless Chosen People, foreign and forlorn in the land of Persia.

She has two names, in Hebrew Hadassah (a feminized form of Hadas, “myrtle”) and Esther in Persian, in which sitar means “star”). Thus, her two names liken her to both a star and a flower.

As I remarked in the Introduction, Esther resembles the stars in her quiet beauty. Her fair presence quietly dominates the whole story, but, like the stars, she does not say very much. Like the woman described by Byron,

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

In the following section Esther’s beauty comes to the attention of the Persian government.

If, as I have suggested, Ahasuerus is a sort of caricature of God, his irreversible decrees serve to mimic, as it were, the eternal laws of God. If the reader is counting, the decree mentioned in this section is his third since the book began: first, drink as much as you like; second, women should not contradict their husbands; and, third, round up all the good-looking girls.

Throughout these and the verses that follow, our author is deliberately vague about the implementing of this third decree. The verbs are mainly passive: the king’s decree was heard, the maidens were gathered, and Esther was taken to the palace. There is a studied reticence about who did all these things; those items not important to the story. The main thing is to get Esther into the palace, along with the other beautiful young women with whom she will be in competition for the special favor of the king.

Two details are important in these verses, however:

First, Esther gains the approval of the eunuch in charge of the royal harem, who provides her with proper cosmetics and nourishment. This last detail is reminiscent of the three young men in Daniel 1, whom Ashpenaz was charged to feed so that they might look well-nourished in the royal presence. Both these stories suggest a particular kind sensitivity in the oriental kings of that period. Perhaps they shared the preference expressed by Caesar when he declared, “Let me have men about me that are fat;? / Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights.”

The word used for Esther’s nourishment here is manot, perhaps best rendered as “dainties,” or “delicacies.” (Think of the German delikat essen.) Near the end of her story, we will learn of the special gifts of food associated with the feast of Purim. (The triangular cookies currently associated with Purim are called hamantaschen, a Yiddish expression meaning, “Haman’s pockets.”) The same word, manot, used in both contexts (verse 9; 9:19, 22), forms a sort of inclusio for the book. The reference to Esther’s special diet also serves to set the context for the fasting she will assume later, as the drama unfolds.

When Esther gains the approval of Hegai, the reader should recall Joseph was similarly noticed by Potiphar, who served the pharaoh of Egypt. With respect to these two officials, both Joseph and Esther are said to have found favor “in his eyes” (verse 9; Genesis 39:4).

Second, Mordecai insists that Esther remain “undercover”; she is not to reveal her ethnic identification. She is to be a “secret Jew,” invisible to the unbeliever. In this respect Esther resembles another exile in Egypt, Moses, whom even his future wife calls, “an Egyptian” (Exodus 2:19).

Besides the political meaning this secrecy conveys in the context of the Diaspora, this concealed aspect of Esther’s life points to an even deeper secrecy in the story in this book, namely, the covert but operative Providence that hides itself so completely as to preclude even the mention of its name. Just as Esther is a secret Jew, so the Lord remains, throughout her story, a secret God.

Perhaps it is necessary to emphasize this aspect of the story, in view of a modern tendency to think of the Book of Esther as fostering a self-help approach to life. One loses count of more recent authors who contend that the author of this book had in mind to tell his contemporaries, ‘We Jews can’t depend on God for your deliverance. In this world, we have to work out our deliverance on your own, as Mordecai and Esther did.’

The underlying assumption of the present commentary is that the very opposite is true; God is very active in this book. To be sure, there are no overt miracles in the story, no inexplicable wonders by which God delivers the Jews. But this absence also pertains to God’s deliverance of Joseph and David. Mordecai and Esther are no more “active” in their own deliverance than were Joseph and David. The major difference between the earlier stories and the Book of Esther is not that God is absent in the later work. He is simply more concealed. He is not, for all that, less active, or less redemptive.

Now the story gets down to the details of how Esther becomes new queen. Each of the chosen young women gets her turn in the royal bed, following the custom of the harem, concerning which Herodotus wrote, “Their wives come to the Persians by rotation (en peritopei)” (3.69). So here, too, each maiden goes “by turn” (tor). A favorite might be called back again, but under no circumstances was she—even the queen—ever permitted to approach the king unbidden.

Just the banqueting described in chapter 1 was lavish and exaggerated, so was the physical preparation of these young women for their entrance into the king’s chamber; their beauty treatments alone required an entire year!

This process of selection takes four years (Compare 1:3 and 2:16), one year devoted just to getting the candidates ready for the king. It appears, then, that more than a thousand young women were brought to the king before Esther.

One suspects a good deal of rivalry in the harem in regard to cosmetics and other beauty aids. Last minute preparations probably included a generous application of the usual amenities: jewelry, lingerie, powders, creams, blushers, and other color enhancements. The prophet Isaiah, adopting a dim view of such adornments, provides a rather impressive list of them (3:16-24).

Indeed, it is hard to see that modern experiments in feminine cosmetics—surgery excluded—are much advanced beyond the items already available in antiquity. For instance, the Egyptians, representing a civilization much more ancient than Persia, had already perfected eye shadowing; remnant art from that period indicates that their preference for a greenish ointment for that purpose. Again, no woman known to history was more elaborately made-up than the famous La Parisienne pictured in Minoan art. Persian archeology, likewise, testifies to the use of indigo shadowing, gold spangles, and both white and rouge powders. From the Bible we recall how Jezebel, well past her prime, still brushed on some eye shadow for special occasions (2 Kings 9:30). During a somewhat later period, Cleopatra was fond of bathing in milk and honey. And so on. Getting oneself all-dolled-up for a big date is hardly a new phenomenon.

And when their proper time came, each young woman was provided with other supplemental aids to hold the king’s interest and bolster his enthusiasm. Though these items are not identified in the story, the author perhaps has in mind special perfumes, aphrodisiacs, romantic potions, and so forth. But let us forbear; the author’s failure to give details discourages further speculation on the point.

Our text indicates that Esther declined to take along any extra attractions when the time came for her entrance into the king’s bedroom. This fact evokes the examples of other Diaspora Jews who spurned the luxuries of the Gentiles (Cf. Daniel 1:8; Tobit 1:10-11).

When the big night comes, the king is more than merely “pleased” (hapes) with Esther. Rather, he is said to “be in love (wayye’ehab)” (This is the same verb that described his former affection for Vashti.) Always a party enthusiast, as we have seen, Ahasuerus throws yet-another banquet, this one for Persia’s new queen.

In addition, the king gives “relief” to all the citizens of the realm. This reference apparently indicates a reduction of taxes and/or forced labor by way of encouraging enthusiasm for the new queen. Here we see that Esther, not yet known to be a Jew, is already a source of blessing to the whole populace of the empire. This idea points to an implicit thesis of the entire story: When the Jews do well, everybody does well. God is good to those who favor His People. This Jewish persuasion is a sort of political and social application of the Lord’s promise to Abraham that “all nations” would be blessed in his name.

(Verse 19 is troublesome. Unsupported by the LXX, it should probably be omitted as a textual corruption.)

In this brief story, where Mordecai preserves the life of Ahasuerus, four points deserve further comment:

First, this account serves to establish Mordecai as a loyal citizen of Persia. This picture fits the author’s overall concern to portray all Jews as loyal citizens. We have already reflected that such a concern is characteristic of Diaspora literature in general. (It is the business of this book, consequently, to depict Haman as an evil man, inasmuch as he conspires to deny that loyalty.)

Joseph, Israel’s first example of a displaced Israelite, served to exemplify the qualities required of a Jew living in the Diaspora. He was a good citizen of the place where they lived. Indeed, Joseph even served in the employ of the government of the host country; thus, he was the forerunner of men like Nehemiah and other Jewish protagonists. Joseph is also the forerunner of Mordecai. Both men, living and serving under foreign monarchs, used their unique positions to bring deliverance to the Chosen People.

Second, the incident chronicled here prepares for the scene in chapter six, where Ahasuerus, unable to sleep, discovers in the royal archives the record of what Mordecai did. That discovery, as we shall see, directly leads to the downfall of Haman and the vindication of Mordecai.

Third, the story of Bigthan and Teresh illustrates our author’s sense of proportionate justice. He is certainly on the side of Saint Paul with respect to the proposal, “whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Accordingly, Haman will be put to death by the same means he devised for the murder of Mordecai, and the anti-Semites in the story suffer the fate they planned for the Jews. In the present case, too, thee is a correspondence: Bigthan and Teresh “inquired” (wayebaqshu) how they might kill Ahasuerus, but proportionate justice was achieved when the government “inquired” (weyebuqqash) into the matter.

Fourth, this story puts the Bible-reader in mind, once again, of Joseph. One recalls that Pharaoh, like Ahasuerus, had two servants with whom he was displeased. Indeed, Pharaoh became angry (vayiqtsoph) with them (Genesis 40:2), whereas, in the present story, the two servants became angry (qatsaph) with Ahasuerus. Each incidence of anger leads to the deliverance for the corresponding protagonist, Joseph and Mordecai, both of whom are ultimately rewarded by their respective monarchs.

We observe, moreover, the element of delay in each instance. In the first story the baker simply forgets to recommend the wisdom of Joseph (Genesis 40:23); in the second, Ahasuerus, unaccountably, overlooks the loyal intervention of Mordecai. In neither case does the protagonist in the story become impatient or complain. Both men tarry the Lord’s leisure, awaiting their reward at the time He chooses. In the end both protagonists are remembered: Joseph, when Pharaoh has a troubling dream, and Mordecai, when Ahasuerus is unable to sleep.

Wednesday, November 18

Esther 3: Although one might expect the next stage of the story to tell of the king’s promotion of Mordecai as an expression of the royal gratitude, it speaks, rather, of the favor bestowed an a completely different person—a stranger to the reader—someone named Haman. The irony is obvious.

Everything we need to know about Haman, at this point in the story, is conveyed in the brief identification of him as “the son of Hammedatha the Agagite.” The author expects us to remember that Agag was the king of the Amalekites, the monarch whose end is recorded in 1 Samuel 15. From that older account we know that Saul, Mordecai’s distant relative, had defeated Agag in battle. Consequently, we readers, knowing of the “bad blood” between these two families, should pay close attention to this sudden appearance of this “Agagite” in a story about a relative of Saul. It is an ominous sign. Even before he tells anything else about Haman, we sense that our author is setting the scene for a “grudge match.”

Mordecai, for his part, immediately perceives the appearance of Haman as a serious challenge to his integrity. When a royal decree is proclaimed that the king’s new appointee, when he passes through the city gate, must be universally greeted with a deep bow, Esther’s uncle demurs. No bow for Haman, he resolves. No Jew is going to bow before an Amalekite; the thing is unthinkable.

In refusing to bow to Haman, Mordecai is moved by a deep and disturbing memory. He recalls that God’s People, in olden times, had just managed to escape the clutches of Pharaoh when “Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” At that time, after Israel’s army defeated the Amalekites while Moses prayed on top of the hill, the Lord Himself pronounced the curse that summed up what He thought of this enemy: “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” The Lord, indeed, went even further, dictating what Israel took to be the proper attitude, at all times, with respect to the Amalekites: “the Lord fights with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:8-15). Mordecai is keenly aware of representing the current generation, and he determines to “do his bit.”
Mordecai also knows that his distant relative, King Saul, failed to implement that curse against Amalek. When Samuel invoked the relevant curse with respect to Agag, Saul spared the life of Agag, disobeying the prophetic injunction, and the Lord rejected Saul for this disobedience (1 Samuel 15:1-20). Mordecai, remembering the disobedience of his distant relative, is determined not to repeat it. No, Saul was rejected for treating Agag with mercy, Mordecai is certainly not about to demonstrate public obeisance to this son of Agag. Saul was rejected for not doing something. Mordecai is not about to be rejected for doing something. Bow down to Haman? Forget it; it won’t happen.
Haman, meanwhile, his head held high over the prostrate forms of those who did him homage on his entrance to the city, fails to notice the solitary figure of Mordecai, who remains seated at the gate. However, two of the king’s servants take note of it and become alarmed; this kind of behavior is not safe.
Indeed, it is rebellious. Everyone remembers the fate of Vashti when that unfortunate lady declined to obey the command of Ahasuerus. Now here is this Mordecai, sitting down, each day, in flagrant defiance of a royal decree. Vashti’s disregard for he husband’s authority, it was feared, would incite other women to a similar disrespect in their own homes. How much more will this defiance on the part of Mordecai provoke a spirit of rebellion in those who learn of it. This Jew, then, must be warned.
The two servants approach Mordecai several times for an explanation. ‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘I can’t do it. I am a Jew, and that’s that. You Persians would not understand, and it would take too long to explain it to you. But believe me, no homage for Haman.’ The servants, probably afraid they would be held liable for permitting Mordecai rebellious, bring the matter to Haman’s attention.
Haman’s memory of history, it turns out, is just as long as Mordecai’s, and he fully understands the implications of the latter’s refusal to do him homage. One of our first commentators on this story, Flavius Josephus, understood the situation very well:
Now there was a certain Haman, the son of Amedatha, an Amalekite by birth, who was accustomed to approach the king. . . . And when he wished to punish Mordecai, he thought it too insignificant a thing to request of the king that he alone should be punished; he resolved, rather, to annihilate the whole nation, for he was naturally an enemy of the Jews, because the Amalekites, to which he belonged, had earlier been destroyed by them (Antiquities of the Jews 11.6.5).
In addition to these observations on the opening verses of the present chapter, attention may be drawn to yet another correspondence with the Joseph saga in Genesis 39. There are a striking verbal resemblances between the stories in which these two protagonists are accused: Just as Potiphar’s wife pesters Joseph “day after day” (yom yom) with her unwelcome advances and “he does not listen to her (welo’ shama’ ’eleyha),” so the royal servants speak to Mordecai “day after day” (yom wayom) and “he does not listen to them (welo’ shama’ ’eleyhem).” At the end of their respective ordeals, both men are finally accused. In these details we detect, once again, our author’s sustained effort to connect Mordecai with Joseph, the original model of the Diaspora Jew.

Thursday, November 4
Luke 20:1-8: The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or a no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus—or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.

Reading their hearts and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax.

That point established, He then obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so they can continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It is his.

Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).

But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).

It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.

And this is the sense in which we should understand Jesus’ response. Understood in this way, the Lord’s directive is full of irony. He tells His enemies to give back to God that which belongs to Him. And, in context, just what is that? It is Jesus Himself, whose life they will steal, and in their act of murder that which belongs to God will be rendered unto God.

Friday, November 20

Luke 20:9-19: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’ teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, I believe, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

This parable of the vine-growers, in which the sending of God’s Son is presented as the defining moment of history, may be regarded as an extension of what Jesus said when he first preached on Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In the story of the vine-growers, we see the clearest evidence that Jesus addressed, in his own heart, the large dimensions of his destiny.

In Luke, as in Mark (12:6), the son in the parable is described as “my beloved,” agapetos mou, the same expression the Father used to address Jesus at both his baptism and his Transfiguration.

This identical expression—agapetos mou—is found, likewise, in the Septuagint (Greek) version of Isaiah’s poem—“My beloved has a vineyard.” Here agapetos mou translates Isaiah’s Hebrew expression dódi, “my beloved.” Jesus’ parable, then, identifies the son as the “my beloved” in Isaiah’s poem. It is to him that the vineyard truly belongs, because he is the heir. He is the son with regard to God, and the heir with regard to Israel’s history.

Revelation 4:1-11: In Chapters 2 and 3 John has warned the Christians of the seven churches of Asia that judgment is imminent. He has endeavored to strengthen them for an impending outbreak of chaos and disorder.

In the present chapter, John turns their vision on high, to the throne of God, which is the source of all order. Like Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and other prophets, John slips into an ecstatic trance, a rapture in which he is seized by the Holy Spirit. He hears a voice, and a mysterious door opens (verse 1). He is introduced to the heavenly worship before God’s throne (verse 2), over which is the rainbow of the covenant (verse 3; Genesis 9:12-17). The dominant color is green, the symbol of spring and hope.

As in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7:23), which was modeled, after all, on the heavenly throne room, there is “a sea of glass, like crystal” (verse 6), symbolizing the chaos over which the Holy Spirit brooded in Creation. Other details remind us of Isaiah 6 (which is also read today) and Ezekiel 1. This should not surprise us, because in all of Holy Scripture we are dealing with the same God and the same heaven. The hymn, with which the chapter closes, concentrates on Creation. Recall that this vision takes place on Sunday (1:10), the first day of Creation.