Friday, November 29
Esther 2: The story told in the Book of Esther is placed during the Persian period, this time understood as the interval between the fall of Babylon to Cyrus in 539 B.C. and Alexander’s defeat of Darius III in several battles, notably at Issus in 333 and Gaugamela in 331. During those two centuries Jews who lived outside the Holy Land were politically free to return if they wished. They did not live in exile, that is to say, but in what in Greek is called Diaspora, “dispersion.” The word indicated some sense that they were living away from home, but it also camouflaged the fact that they had no serious intention of returning home; for whatever reason, they lived abroad deliberately. Some of their descendents are still there to the present day.
Why the Diaspora? Well, during the period of Judah’s Babylonian Captivity (597-538)—exile in the strict sense—most of the deported Jews settled down peaceably in Mesopotamia where their captors had brought them. They did exactly what Jeremiah had counseled them to do:
Build houses and settle in plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And pursue the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
Prospering in the land of exile, most of these Jews were reluctant to take leave of it when, in 538, a decree from Cyrus permitted them to return to the Holy Land. Relatively few of the exiles returned from Babylon, perhaps only fifty thousand, returned during the century after 538, and only a fraction of these—mainly young, unmarried men—came back in the first wave with Zerubbabel.
This means that the greater mass of the Jewish population remained in the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent, where they had managed to make good lives for themselves during the Exile. They, along with those who fled to Egypt when Jerusalem fell in 587, formed the Diaspora—significantly, as I mentioned, the word is Greek; few Jews could any longer read Hebrew, much less speak it. They adopted Greek as their own international tongue, much as later Jews learned to communicate in a Germanic variant called Yiddish (Juden Deutsch) and a Romance dialect known as Ladino (Latina). Both these alien languages are written in the square script adopted for Hebrew during the Persian period.
From the Persian period forward, and to the present day, the Jews of the Diaspora have always outnumbered the Jewish population of the Holy Land. Even the losses of the Holocaust and the modern formation of the State of Israel have not completely reversed that historical pattern.
Saturday, November 30
Esther 3: Haman, the highest official of the Persian court, represents a perverse and malicious philosophy. He belongs to that class of men whom Jeremiah described as “wise to do evil” (Jeremiah 4:22) and of whom Isaiah said they are “wise in their own eyes, / And prudent in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:21). Haman violates all the rules of true wisdom: First, he permits himself to be filled with rage (Esther 3:5; 5:9; cf. Proverbs 21:24; 29:22). Second, moved by passion, he reacts precipitously and without caution (Esther 3:6; cf. Proverbs 14:17, 29). Third, he becomes imprudent in his speech (Esther 5:10–13; cf. Proverbs 12:23). In short, Haman represents the worst features of folly, as these are described in Israel’s Wisdom literature.
Mordecai, too. is an official of the realm, described as sitting “within the king’s gate” (Esther 2:21), an expression meaning that he is a judge or magistrate who adjudicates legal cases. (Indeed, we also know Mordecai from a contemporary Persian document that refers to him as “Marduka.”) Though hardly the wisest man in Holy Scripture, he has more than enough wisdom to outwit Haman.
Josephus speaks of Mordecai’s wisdom (Sophia), born of his reverence for the Torah (nomos). Mordecai is not moved by passion, is not precipitous to act, nor does he rashly speak his plans to others.
In all these things he shows himself a true sage and man of self-control (cf. Proverbs 12:23; 13:3; 16:32), worthy to replace the arrogant Haman (Esther 6:1–14). In short, these two antagonists illustrate a contrast that permeates Israel’s Wisdom literature.
Consequently, what finally ensues in the encounter of these two men is exactly what the Bible’s wisdom literature would lead us to expect (Proverbs 11:8; 26:27; Psalm 7:14–16; Ecclesiastes 10:8). Haman is put to death (Esther 7:10), whereas Mordecai is given the signet ring of the king (8:2, 8) and honored in the sight of the nation (8:15).
The conflict between Mordecai and Haman also links this book to Israel’s earlier historical literature. When old King Saul, the earlier son of Kish, defeated Agag centuries before, his failure to kill that Amalekite had earned him the censure of Samuel (1 Kings 15:9, 20–23). Indeed, that was the occasion, we recall, when the Lord regretted having made Saul the king (15:11). In the Book of Esther, however, the situation is set aright. The moral failure of the earlier Benjaminite is not duplicated in the case of Mordecai. Haman is not spared, but dies the death he deserves.
With respect to that ancient feud, there is a further irony in the story of Mordecai and Haman. Whereas Saul, the first descendant of Kish, had despoiled Agag without killing him, this second descendant of Kish, Mordecai, kills the Agagites without despoiling them (Esther 9:10).
Sunday, December 1
Esther 4: The Jews in the Book of Esther live in the Persian capital, Susa, known to modern archeology as Shushan. The excavations at Shushan show evidence of great wealth, amply supporting the indications of prosperity in this book.
The Persian emperor in this story is Ahasuerus, known in classical history by his Greek name, Xerxes (486-465 B.C.). The fourth emperor of Persia and the first to bear this name, he is often called Xerxes the Great. He ruled an empire that covered the entire Fertile Crescent and extended from the Danube River in the northwest to the Indus in the southeast. When Xerxes invaded the Greek mainland in 480, his massive international army included even Jews.
The most famous of his battles, I suppose, was that at Thermopylae later that year. Because the heroism of the small band of Spartan defenders who faced him—and perished—at Thermopylae, Xerxes left a rather unfavorable impression in the West, nor did he improve it by his subsequent burning of Athens. Indeed, Xerxes’ unfavorable reputation endures to the present day. (Recall how he was portrayed in that awful movie 300 a few years back.)
There is precious little in the Book of Esther to improve the classical remembrance of Xerxes/Ahasuerus. He is portrayed as a willful man, whose will tolerated opposition from neither wife nor public sentiment. Although Xerxes is not directly blamed for the plot to massacre all the Jews, the reader suspects he could have squelched the idea early if he had a mind to. His presence overshadows the whole story, but he is not, strange to say, one of the dominant personae dramatis. Indeed, we generally find him reduced to acting in situations determined by other characters: Vashti, Haman, Mordecai, and Esther.
Revelation 9:13-21: To the citizens of the Roman Empire the Euphrates River was a symbol analogous to the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War era, that is, a border beyond which the enemy world lay massively in menace (verse 14). The enemy in their case was the Parthian army, whose most memorable feature was its cavalry of archers. Guiding their mounts with their knees, and thus leaving both hands free, those fearsome Parthian horsemen could shoot arrows very quickly in all directions, including to the rear. This is perhaps the point of reference for John’s image of horses that bite with both their mouths and their tails (verse 19). By such means, says John, God will further chastise those who persecute His people.
Many details of this vision evoked by the sixth trumpet have striking parallels in Ezekiel 38-39. Fierce as it was, however, the Parthian army was never as fearsome as that described by John (verses 17-18). This is the army of hell, whose immense reserves are superior to all merely human forces. The number given by John, “two hundred million” (verse 16), would certainly constitute the largest army ever assembled. To gain something of its magnitude, we may bear in mind that Alexander the Great captured everything from the Danube to the Indus with an army of a hundred thousand.
Monday, December 2
Luke 23:13-25: More than the other Evangelists, Luke stresses Pilate’s repeated declarations of Jesus’ innocence. Immediately after his first interrogation of Him (verse 3), Pilate declares to the crowd, “I find no case [aitia] respecting this man” (verse 4). He would repeat this a second (verses 13-16) and a third time (verses 20-22). The charges originally brought against Jesus—subversion and encouragement to evade taxes (verse 2)— his own accusers knew to be false (20:25).
After dismissing this charge, however, for want of evidence, Pilate sends Jesus over to Herod, Rome’s representative in Galilee, for further adjudication (verses 6-12). Pilate’s situation being delicate, he wanted to play it safe. Already he had twice been summoned to Rome to answer accusations leveled against him by the Jews. There were limits to Rome’s patience, and Pilate seems to have spent much of that morning protecting his own political interests.
All things weighed, Luke goes relatively lightly against Rome with respect to the death of Jesus. He does not so much as even mention here the brutal treatment Jesus received at the hands of the Roman soldiers. Indeed, these solders are not even mentioned in the course of Jesus’ trial. Although he speaks of the white robe in which the mocking courtiers of Herod arrayed Jesus (verse 11), he does not speak of the purple robe with which the Roman soldiers clothed Him. Neither does Luke explicitly speak here of the terrible scourging that Jesus received at the hands of the Romans, though he had mentioned it earlier (18:33).
Luke stresses, rather, that the real impetus for Jesus’ murder was shared among the Jews and was not simply a plot concocted by connivance between the high priest and the Roman authorities. For Luke, the guilt was shared by “the chief priests, the rulers, and the people” (verses 13,18,23).
The modern, politically correct notion that Jesus’ death was brought about by a collusion of the Roman authorities with the pro-Roman Jewish priesthood simply will not stand up to the evidence of Holy Scripture. It was certainly not the view of (the Jew) John, in whose Gospel the enemies of Jesus are regularly referred to simply as “the Jews.” Nor was it the view of (the Jew) Paul, who laid the blame for Jesus’ death solidly at the door of the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 [One laments that the New King James Bible translates the word “Jews” in this text as “Judeans,” with the obvious intent of misrepresenting history in the interest of political correctness.])
Nor should this historical fact be obfuscated by appealing to the sound theological truth that “all of us killed Jesus” by our sins. This latter dogmatic truth is not pertinent to the historical question of Jesus’ murderers. As a point of history, the entire New Testament lays the moral blame for Jesus’ death on the crowd of Jews gathered that day in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
It should not be necessary to say that that historical fact in no way implicates later generations of Jews in some sort of inherited guilt for the crime committed that day, and only a perverse, deranged mind would imagine so.
Tuesday, December 3
Luke 23:26-34: Although we know on the authority of Plutarch that every criminal condemned to crucifixion by a Roman court was obliged to carry his own cross to the place of execution, the soldiers charged with crucifying Jesus evidently believed that His weakened state would not permit Him to do so. Consequently, they obliged a “certain man . . . passing by” (says Mark) to carry Jesus’ cross to the place of crucifixion. That man was returning to the city “from the country” (say Mark and Luke), perhaps for his midday repast. His name was Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27:31-32; Mark 15:20-21; Luke 23:26).
A descendent of certain Jews who had settled on the north coast of Africa (in modern Libya) about 300 BC, Simon doubtless belonged to that synagogue in Jerusalem particularly frequented by Cyrenian Jews who had moved back to the Holy Land (Acts 6:9). These were among the Jews responsible for the stoning of Stephen.
Luke’s description of the event is especially instructive: “Now as they led Him away, they laid hold of a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, who was coming from the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus” (opisthen tou Iesou). Luke is the only evangelist to express the matter in this way.
In order to see the significance this expression held for Luke, it is useful to compare the text with other Lukan passages. For example, Luke 9:23: “If anyone desires to come after Me [opiso mou], let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” And 14:27: “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me [opiso mou] cannot be My disciple.” Luke’s latter text (particularly if we contrast it with the parallel text in Matthew 10:38) shows that the bearing of the cross “after Jesus” is the true mark of discipleship. That is to say, Simon of Cyrene, bearing the cross and following after Jesus on the way to Golgotha, becomes the symbolizing embodiment of Christian discipleship.
Holy Scripture gives us no reason to think that Simon of Cyrene had been a believer in Christ before that day when Roman soldiers compelled him to assume the weight of the Holy Cross. That was the very beginning of his discipleship. He became, however, the model of those who follow Jesus to the place of His crucifixion, outside the walls of Jerusalem (“as they came out,” says Matthew 27:32; “led Him out,” says Mark 15:20). Carrying Jesus’ cross, he shared in Jesus’ shame. Simon paid heed to that exhortation of the Epistle to the Hebrews which is addressed equally to us all: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (13:12-13).
Wednesday, December 4
Luke 23:35-43: Referring to the two thieves who died on either side of Jesus, St. Mark records that “those who were crucified with him reviled him” (15:32). At least they did so for some time. During the course of the afternoon, however, one of them came to think better of the matter as he watched our Lord hang there in patience, praying for His enemies. Today’s reading from Luke tells his story.
This profoundly moving scene is best considered, I believe, within both its immediate and its wider context in the Gospel of Luke. Three considerations suggest themselves with respect to Luke’s immediate context:
First, this scene with the thieves is the second of three times that Jesus is pronounced innocent. Pilate and Herod make the first pronouncement (23:14–15), and the third will issue from the lips of the centurion under the Cross (23:47). This verdict of the second thief, then, is added to the chorus of those who profess Jesus to be executed unjustly (23:41).
Second, the blasphemy by the unrepentant thief is the third and culminating instance in which the crucified Jesus is reviled in identical terms. First, there were the Jewish rulers who challenged Jesus to save himself if He was the Messiah (23:35). Then the Gentile soldiers defied him to save himself, if He was a king (23:37). Finally, the unrepentant thief challenges Jesus to save himself, adding “and us” (23:39).
We observe that the same verb, “save” or sozein, is used in all three instances. The thief’s reviling of the Lord thus forms a climax to the theme.
This sequence prepares for its foil, the scene’s culminating irony, in which only one man, the “good thief,” perceives the true path to salvation. He boldly grasps the salvific meaning of Jesus’ death. He is the “good thief,” indeed. In his final and defining act of theft, as it were, he extends his soul and clutches hold of eternal life.
Third, the encounter with the two thieves immediately precedes the death of Jesus, so that Jesus’ words to the second thief, promising to meet him that day in Paradise, are his last recorded words to another human being during His earthly life. The good thief represents the repentant Church gathered at the Cross, and the words that he hears are the last thing that Jesus has to say to his people on earth.
Thursday, December 5
Luke 23:44-49: When we speak, even today, of excruciating pain, we do well to look at the etymology of that adjective: ex cruce, “out of the cross.” It is nearly impossible to exaggerate what the Savior suffered on the cross.
Whether the cause of his death was asphyxiation, or hypercarbia, or hypovolemic shock, or heart failure, or exsanguination, or total physical exhaustion brought on by tetanic contractions throughout his entire body—or any combination of these, or any other plausible suggestion—the astounding fact is that Jesus, at the very end, “cried out again with a loud voice.” From a medical perspective, this is surprising. Surely, it was the last thing anyone on Calvary could have expected.
Jesus did not simply die. He willingly tasted death, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews. He deliberately went through the actual experience of dying. The gospels indicate that he was conscious and self-aware to the end. There was no coma, no disorientation, no mental befuddlement. The gospels testify, in fact, that he declined a narcotic that would have disguised and muted his pain. Jesus knew what he was doing.
He knew, moreover, why he was doing it. It is remarkable that his disciples—then and now—express the conviction that Jesus, in the act of dying, thought of them and poured out his life for each of them. This is the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that he, by the grace of God, might taste death for every person (Hebrews 2:9 emphasis added).
Hebrews says, “for every person” (hyper pantos), not “for all persons” (hyper panton). Although Jesus certainly died “for everyone,” it is important to remark that he died “for every one.” In the mind and intent of Jesus, the beneficiaries of his death were not an amorphous group. The Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep, “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3 emphasis added).
More than two decades after the event, someone who had not known Jesus on earth, was so confident on this point that he declared,
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and my life in the flesh I live now by faith of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 emphasis added).
Friday, December 6
Luke 23:50-56: Joseph had purchased for himself a special burial vault that was situated, says John (18:41–42), in a garden not far from where Jesus had died. According to Matthew and Mark, this tomb was carved out of solid rock. Luke and John both mention that it was brand new.
Jesus’ elaborate burial arrangement suggests that Joseph of Arimathea was a man of some means. Indeed, Matthew (27:57) explicitly records that he was rich. This detail is, furthermore, of theological significance, because God’s Suffering Servant, according to prophecy, was to be buried “with the rich” (Isaiah 53:9).
Luke features certain parallels between the account of Joseph of Arimathea and the infancy narrative, near either end of his Gospel. First, of course, a Joseph is prominent in each story.
Second, in each account the naked, helpless body of Jesus is decently wrapped (2:7, 12; 23:53).
Third, Luke’s portrayal of Joseph of Arimathea is strikingly similar to his description of Simeon, who welcomed the newborn Jesus on His first visit to the Temple (2:25). Thus, both stories begin with “and behold” (kai idou). Both men are called “just” (dikaios), and both are said to be “waiting.” Simeon is “waiting for the Consolation of Israel,” and Joseph is “waiting for the Kingdom of God.” This complex set of parallels establishes a literary inclusion in the Lukan structure.
In all of the Gospels, Joseph’s actions are contrasted with those of the other members of the Sanhedrin. Whereas they blindfolded, mocked, and abused Jesus, Joseph treats even his dead body with dignity and respect. Although executed criminals were often buried in a common grave, or even left as carrion for wild beasts, Joseph carefully places the body of Jesus in a special tomb, a place befitting the dignity of the coming Resurrection.
Michelangelo, in his final and less famous Pieta, the one at Florence, portrayed Joseph of Arimathea in his own likeness. I have long thought, similarly, that that just man who buried Jesus in his own sepulcher serves as a model for all believers. That tomb, originally planned for Joseph, has been unoccupied these many centuries, a symbol of the hope we have for our own graves.