Book Overview - Esther
by Arthur Peake
(See also Supplement)
BY PROFESSOR ARCHIBALD DUFF
IN Windsor Castle seven fine Gobelin tapestries with scenes from Esther adorn the very chief apartments, and fittingly do these tell their great tale there. For chief interest in the story arises when we realise how nearly all soholars agree that it was written in and for the last few generations before Jesus lived; so it gives us material for knowledge of His audiences, and of Himself. We are bound also to see whether the common imputation of cruelty to the story, and to the people of that time, is correct. It is said that Esther is revengeful, and so also were the Jews in those generations. Is this true, or is it a traditional but unfortunate way of uttering illwill against the folk among whom Jesus was killed? It is said, moreover, that the book is irreligious, for it never speaks of God. Is this true?
A word must be said here concerning a common theory that it was written originally in the Heb. language, and in the form given in the common MT. Against this we hold that MT is a truncated version of a longer Heb. story, and perhaps there is a nearer approximation to the original in our present LXX. We do not claim, indeed, that our LXX is actually the exact translation of the original, nor that it is the original itself, in case the tale was written originally in Greek; but that original had certainly passages much like what we find in what are known as "the Greek additions." It is well to state at once the arguments of those from whom we dissent; and Dr. L. B. Paton in ICC may be taken as a thorough representative of that school. His objections to our view are: (a) "There is no evidence of the existence of Semitic originals for these passages." No, nor is there any such for the existence of the original of J, E, D nor is there even much for P. (b) But Dr. Paton says, "The additions themselves bear no evidence of having been translated from Heb. or Aram." This is a better argument; yet Paton himself follows it up by saying, "This, of course, does not preclude the idea that they may have been derived from traditional Jewish oral sources." Now that is exactly our position. (c) He says, "The interpolations contradict the Heb. text in so many particulars that it is impossible to regard them as having once formed an integral part of the Book of Esther." This is well answered by what he has said in the quotation just given. Then when he gives ten instances of contradiction, one is that in Heb. Haman is hanged, but in Gr. he is crucified. This is simply a variation of the translation of words which really say that he was neither hanged nor crucified, but was "impaled." Other instances of contradiction could be as easily answered: but in general, we know well that writers in those days were not careful to avoid contradictions. See the remarkable contradictions between J, E, and P. (d) Dr. Paton says, "The additions do not come from the hand of the original translator of Esther, but are interpolations in Gr. itself." Yes, certainly, they were made by a later editor in order to preserve those early additional traditions just as J and E were inserted in P. Now, on the other hand, if Paton's objections fall away thus easily, we may watch as we read the story how necessary are the Gr. additions, or something of the same nature, in order to give the story a reasonable verisimilitude. We shall discover one in the very first verse of ch. 1. Then since Heb. never mentions God, while LXX speaks of Him constantly, we note how certain it is that no Jew would write at first hand a story with absolutely no mention in it of his God Yahweh. Here, in the total absence of the sacred and dearly-loved name, is a sure mark of a scholastic and purposed truncation of an earlier and fuller tale through some cause which we may possibly be able to point out ere we have done with the book.
[The reader should remember that the view here advocated that LXX represents the original work better than Heb., has found hitherto practically no acceptance among scholars (Willrich being the most notable exception), and the general editor must express his decided dissent from it.—A. S. P.]
A general outline of the book is: (A) If., A foreplay and account of the personages. (B) Esther 3 f., The Gentile plot to massacre all Jews. (C) Esther 5:1 to Esther 8:2, Esther pleads and Haman falls. (D) Esther 8:3-17, The Jewish queen cries, "Do not kill!" the Persian king cries, "Yes: fight and slay!" (E) Esther 9:1-16, The fight and its result. (F) Esther 9:17-32, Purim or Phrourai: memorial of Yahweh's salvation. (G) Esther 10, Postscript, Mordecai's excellence. Recapitulation. Translator's note.
Literature.—Commentaries: (a) Rawlinson (Sp.), Streane (CB), T. W. Davies (Cent.B); (b) L. B. Paton (ICC); (c) Cassei, Ryssel (KEH), Wildeboer (KHC), Siegfried (HK); (d) Adeney (Ex.B). Other Literature: Articles in Dictionaries, Discussions in Introductions to OT, Histories of Israel, Handbooks on Religion of Israel, P. Haupt's Critical Notes on Esther, Lagarde's Purim, Wilhelm Erbt, Die Purimsage in der Bibel. J. G. Frazer, The Scapegoat, pp. 360ff. The literature on the book, while for the most part valuable, is marred by anti-Semitic prejudice which passes too unfavourable a judgment on the Jews. Haupt is an exception, so also is McClymont in HDB.
1. Esther is a fiction picturing the Maccaban Revolution against the Seleucids, which the Feast of Purim celebrates. But neither feast nor story was favoured by the ruling literary men about A.D. 1. (On the dispute as to its canonicity, see pp. 39, 411.)
2. Spinoza of Amsterdam showed, 250 years ago, in his Theological and Political Tract, that the story, and other works like it, must have originated because of the defeat of the Syrian armies by Judas Maccabus and his comrades.
3. The story was for the ordinary folk, and it honoured among these the Jewish generous treatment of poor by rich, and even of enemies by the suffering Israelites. The people abhorred blood thirst, and selfish spoiling of conquered persons. They were deeply religious, attributing all guidance to Yahweh, and they expected to rule the whole world for Him. The common fancy that Esther is a cruel book is entirely mistaken, even when the short Heb. edition is taken as authoritative.
4. It would be well that we studied more carefully the Revolution with its new "David," as the forerunner of Christianity, and as a remarkable preparation for the coming of Jesus. The apocalyptic confidence of the Jews, and their high level of moral conduct, are signs that the world was ready to have the great Saviour come and take His throne in Jewish hearts.
5. The readiness of the scribes to alter the narrative and to make it appear non-religious is quite explicable. In those days there was no superstitious unwillingness to alter literature, and even "sacred writings," as we see in the frequent enlargements of the Pentateuch and in the alterations of many Psalms in this period. But the scribes were moved chiefly by politico-religious motives, arising out of their stern nonconformity as against the Sadducee and Hasmonean court.
6. Nevertheless the people were always deeply attached to the Esther story and to the Purim Festival, which indicates how important are the events of those days for an understanding of the common people from whom were drawn the audiences of Jesus, and who heard Him gladly. Were we to study those times thoroughly, we should be much more certain of His real historicity. These common folk were His comrades in His home, they were the weary, heavy-laden men and women whose sufferings aroused Him to preach; it was they that were waiting for the Consolation of Israel, both as against the cruel Syrians or Romans without, and the stern, stiff theological scribes, or the cold court party, within their nation.
[On the literary characteristics of the book, see p. 22—A. S. P.]
the Second Week after Epiphany