Esther & Cover-up?
[Update (2/14/2014)—My new book Esther and Her Elusive God: How A Secular Story Functions As Scripture is now available. My posts on this site represent stages in the development of my thinking about Esther. For the full argument check out the book].
Over the last three weeks I’ve been looking at the book of Esther. In post #1 I addressed the book’s canonicity. In post #2 I looked at evidence of impiety (compromise). And last week in post #3 I noted the lack of covenantal imagery. My essential argument has been that Esther’s abiding theological value is not in finding a reputable person of faith to emulate (as is often thought), rather I’ve argued that Esther should be read as a narrative of God’s faithfulness to his people even when they remain unfaithful to him. If these suggestions sound odd, I invite you to read the previous posts hyper-linked above. This post will be my final attempt to tease out the way I read Esther. Essentially this post is an additional argument along the same lines as the previous two posts, but I want to look at this issue from a different direction: How was the book of Esther first interpreted and understood? Was it originally understood as a dodgy tale of compromise? These are difficult questions, but if we look at the Greek translations of Esther (LXX) we can come close to answering them.
The most intriguing feature of the Greek translations of Esther are the six extended additions made to the text which develop a pious theology . These additions were found in every Greek manuscript of Esther, yet there are no Hebrew or Semitic sources that contain any hint of these additions (i.e. Old Testament manuscripts, Targums, Talmud, Syriac translations) . Regardless of when and how the additions were inserted into the story of Esther, it is quite clear what the intentions were in adding this material. The author of the additions found the story of Esther to be theologically bankrupt and sought to redeem it with elements of Jewish piety. Furthermore, several elements of the Greek additions highlight the setting of Diaspora and can be read as a separate response to being dispersed from Israel (whereas the Hebrew text shows us a group of assimilated Jews). We will survey the six major additions in order to see the theology of the author of the Greek translations.
NOTE: If the gorey-details don’t interest you feel free to skip to the conclusion. You can also read the additions to Esther on your own if you have a Catholic Bible (the additions are included as ‘deuterocanonical’). Here’s the gist of the additions: all the Jews in the story are very pious!
Addition A precedes the traditional narrative of Esther and describes a vision that Mordecai received. Within the dream, Mordecai receives a vision of two large dragons that are opposed to each other within a period of particular tumult. All the nations prepared to battle alongside the two dragons. The righteous nation that was opposed by one of the snakes feared their survival and called out to God. Because of their prayers, God caused a fountain to appear. Although the dream does not specify how, the abundance of water, coupled with the dawning of the sun, led to the downfall of the unjust. The reference to God and prayer here, which does not occur in the Hebrew text of Esther, is clearly meant to show that the story should be understood from within the life of faith and the providence of God.
When Mordecai awoke from his dream he wanted to know the meaning of the dream. In addition to the dream, Mordecai overheard that there would be an attack against Xerxes. So he warned the king and two of his chamberlains were executed. Thus, Mordecai was given gifts for his service. This causes great distress for Haman; leading him to despise Mordecai and his people, which ultimately sets the stage for the major conflict of the story. This accomplishes a few things thematically for the story of Esther that are lacking from the Hebrew version. For one, it places the animosity of Haman against the Jews prior to Esther’s participation in the beauty pageant. Thus, removing from her role in the contest an element of compromise.
The purpose of Addition B is to disclose the contents of the letter referenced in Esther 3.13, which the original MT does not provide (regarding how all the Jews were to be killed).
A prayer of Mordecai is inserted after Esther consents to go to the king un-summoned (Esther 4.17). This addition is naturally meant to demonstrate that this act was not undertaken without seeking God’s guidance. Some of the major emphases of Mordechai’s prayer includes: God’s role as creator and king, his sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, glory, and his covenant. Mordecai’s decision not to bow to Haman is given a pietistic gloss (removing the prejudice as I argued in post #3): “But I did it in order that I might not put the glory of a man above the glory of God, nor will I bow down to anyone except you who are my Lord…” God’s covenant with Israel is also stressed. This is seen through references to Abraham and the Exodus. Israel is referred to as the Lord’s people, the ‘ancient heritage,’ portion, and ‘inheritance.’ After the prayer ends, a narratival addition is added which says that all Israel cried out; showing that the whole nation was honoring God.
Following Mordecai’s prayer is a prayer from Esther. She removed her attractive garments and wore clothes of lament; placing ashes and dung upon her head. The primary concern of the prayer is to ask for strength and courage as she prepares to visit the king unannounced. In Esther’s prayer God is Israel’s King. He is “King of the gods and Lord of all governments.” Esther prays that the Lord would not relinquish his ‘scepter.’ The covenant of Israel is also a major aspect of the prayer. Esther reminds the Lord that he chose Israel and their fathers as a perpetual inheritance. The Lord is called “the God of Abraham.” Reference is made to God’s house, the temple, and the altar. Their current state of distress appears to be a covenantal curse due to their idolatry. Further, Esther notes that she despises the bed of the uncircumcised and other foreigners. She also presents herself as one who is merely performing a duty as Queen and that deep down she loathes and despises her position. This helps remove the tension of the Hebrew version regarding Esther’s marriage with a Gentile king.
This Addition takes Esther 5.1-2 (Esther’s preparation to go to the king) and expands it considerably. It references Esther’s prayer, that she called upon the ‘all-seeing God and Savior.’ Furthermore, this addition notes that ultimately God was providentially in control of the disposition of the king; “God changed the king’s spirit to gentleness.” Also, the Hebrew version never mentions that the King was angered by Esther’s actions, yet until God changed the King’s heart, the text states that the King “looked at her in fiercest anger.”
This is the second royal letter that is added to the text of Esther (between Esther 8.12-13). Undoubtedly, this addition is placed within the narrative to provide disclosure about the contents of the royal decree, just as Addition B. The letter makes mention of those who try to escape the ‘evil-hating justice of God.’ It is apparent that the letter attempts to show that Xerxes had good intentions but was merely beguiled by Haman (referring to the persuasiveness of friends), which was ‘beguiling the good faith of their rulers by malicious equivocation.’ There is also an emphasis on the uprightness of the Jews in this edict. The letter states that they are not criminals, but are governed by ‘very just laws.’ As Moore notes, the purpose of the edict would have resonated well with pious Jews of the Diaspora who desired to practice their religion without discrimination . They are ‘sons of the living God, most high, most great…” In regards to Haman’s sentence to death, Xerxes notes that the “omnipotent God” passed this “appropriate sentence.” Furthermore, he states that the “omnipotent God” is reasonable for saving “his chosen people.” The festival receives credence in this letter and is seemingly being commanded by Xerxes to be observed, for judgment will come upon those who do not adhere.
At the conclusion of the Esther story, Mordecai recalls his original dream (Addition A), which occurred prior to the events of the traditional story. Mordecai remembers his dream and concludes, “This is God’s doing.” Furthermore, he unpacks all of the individual pieces of the dream and unveils what each symbol represents. He concludes again that the Lord has saved and rescued his people by performing signs and wonders unlike what had ever occurred among pagans. Essentially, the impact of the prologue and epilogue is to subordinate all the events of the Esther story to Mordecai’s dream; making him the unambiguous hero of the story and God as the active participant behind the scenes .
 The additions add a total of 107 verses to the 167 of the Hebrew! See Joyce Baldwin, Esther, 45.
 Karen Jobes, The Alpha-Text of Esther, 162
 Carey A. Moore, Daniel, Jeremiah and Esther: The Additions, Anchor Bible, 238.
 Karen Jobes, The Alpha-Text of Esther, 184-185.