This sermon was first written for the Timaru Herald in 1987
Intrigue at Court. Power politics. An assassination attempt. Bloody revenge. No, this isn't the Game of Thrones or similar. Instead, welcome to the latest edition of Far Country Tall Tales and True #talltruetales.
These details sound like all the usual ingredients for a gaming show or historical romance. They are. But it's not from the pen of a Catherine Cookson or George R. R. Martin. Nor is it set in the time of the War of the Roses or similar period. In fact, this plot is straight from the pages of the Old Testament, and you could say it's one of the very first, if not the first, historical romance.
The book of Esther, in ten short chapters, endures as one of the biblical world's greatest stories. Esther herself emerges as one of the great folk heroes of Israel. A capable, resourceful woman who saves her people from total ruin.
Aided by her compatriot Mordecai she rises to a position of prime influence as the Queen of Persia. There is a darker side to this story, however. The pride of Jewish nationalism tears the heart out of the Jewish religious compassion.
Indeed, the Queen averted the slaughter of the Jews. But, in equal measure, gave the wicked orders for the punishment of all those who were ready to rise up against her, and her followers. So, the persecuted become the persecutors. Those sinned against become vengeful and bloodthirsty, once the tables were turned.
It is crucial in reading the book of Esther to understand what is meant by the term historical romance. Otherwise it is almost incomprehensible to understand how it got into the Bible. Obviously an historical romance is a work of fiction, not a factual history. But Esther is given an historical setting. The Bible is like that throughout many of its pages. Sometimes stories aren't history but belong to the realm of Jewish and Christian folklore.
Dating the book of Esther has been problematic for the biblical scholars. It's set in the time of King Xerxes 485-65 BCE, that's Before Common Era, but it's not likely to have been written then. They do know that it was popular among Jewish people around 150 BCE. Like the other great book of that time, Daniel, it fired up the popular imagination.
Now here's the crucial fact. The name of God does not appear in the book, not even once. So how did it get into the Old Testament? It's a story of Jewish nationalism which celebrates victory, and this became the Feast of Purim, now a major Jewish festival. Purim is a word in Hebrew conveying a special meaning: the day on which the Jews were to be annihilated becomes the day of the destruction of the enemies. So this becomes the major reason for the book of Esther to be written and retained.
It has a superb storyline which sweeps the characters forward, with issues of marriage, loyalty and blood ties. But no values really beyond that. So did Esther really exist? Or was she a fictional hero only? Very possibly Esther lived, there is a strong tradition of a Jewish woman who won favour with the Persian King. But the tradition doesn't speak of marriage.
There's a second tradition about Mordecai the Jew, her helper. He, and Harman, the King's Prime Minister, were locked in a battle of wits and wills. Harman all the while plotting the destruction of all the Jews in Persia.
A third strand comes from the literature about Persian harems, which mirrors the opening of the book of Esther. It is basically about a beauty contest. So the author and later editors wove the strands together and we have now a racy, fast-paced novella. But one which lacks most of the moral virtues of Judaism and subsequent Christianity.
Because there is no moral aim in Esther it surprises many Christians as to its enduring value in the Bible. Why have it there? Yet it does convey much important background to the story of Jesus. Knowing the backdrop of his time and context helps us understand his message all the better.
We can appreciate more deeply what he accepted and what he rejected. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, is not the way of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.
The book of Esther thus has its uses for Christians. And it has stood the test of a very long time, as a story. There is a fine translation in the New English Bible, and it's a short read.
I'm David Bell, do subscribe, comment and share in YouTube to get videos each week from the Practical Theology Channel. And, thanks for watching.