You’re reading the wrong Book of Esther

You’re reading the wrong Book of Esther June 9, 2013

The Book of Esther occupies a controversial place in the Bible.

John Calvin did not include the book in his biblical commentaries and only referenced it once in the Institutes (see 4.12.17). Though he included it in his Bible, Martin Luther was highly ambivalent about it. “I am so great an enemy to . . . Esther, that I wish [it] had not come to us at all, for [it has] too many heathen unnaturalities,” he said in Table Talk 24. And in one exchange with Erasmus he said it “deserves. . . to be regarded as noncanonical.”

No God, no prayer, no miracles?

Those looking at the Hebrew text of the book might wonder why it’s included in the Bible at all. No other biblical writer quotes it (something that cannot be said of more problematic books like Enoch). There’s nary a reference to miracles, prayer, or even God in the entire book. Long before Luther, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, ancient Jewish authorities objected to the book’s canonicity.

But early Christians loved it. In his book The Rest of the Bible Theron Mathis mentions several church fathers who referenced the book approvingly: Clement of Rome, Athanasius of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, and Aphrahat the Persian. Even Jerome, who discounted portions of the book, saw the book’s principal characters, Esther and Mordecai, as types of the church and Christ.

Were these fathers reading the same book as Luther? Actually, no.

Two versions of the same book

There are two primary versions of Esther, the Hebrew and the Greek, the latter of which contains several additional sections. Luther favored the Hebrew, as did the other Protestant Reformers. Until Jerome, the Church almost universally favored the Greek, though even he retained the extra material when he translated the Vulgate principally from the Hebrew, as he did with other books Protestant scholars later regarded (and disregarded) as “apocryphal.”

In the East, the church never stopped using the Greek Old Testament (including the longer version of Esther and all those other “apocryphal” books). Consequently there was very little controversy over Esther in the Eastern church. Why? It turns out that all the missing “God stuff” in the Hebrew version is present in the Greek, the version quoted approvingly by Clement and Athanasius.

Missing prayers

For one example, here’s Mordecai’s prayer upon hearing of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews:

O Lord, Lord, King who rulest over all things, for the universe is in thy power and there is no one who can oppose thee if it is thy will to save Israel. For thou hast made heaven and earth and every wonderful thing under heaven, and thou art Lord of all, and there is no one who can resist thee, who art the Lord. . . . O Lord God and King, God of Abraham, spare thy people; for the eyes of our foes are upon us to annihilate us, and they desire to destroy the inheritance that has been thine from the beginning. Do not neglect thy portion, which thou didst redeem for thyself out of the land of Egypt. Hear my prayer, and have mercy upon thy inheritance; turn our mourning into feasting, that we may live and sing praise to thy name, O Lord; do not destroy the mouth of those who praise thee. (13.9-11, 15-17 RSVCE)

Following Mordecai’s prayer, Esther offers one of her own. It’s seventeen verses long. “O my Lord,” she begins, “thou only art our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but thee. . .” (14.3). The text says she discarded her royal garments and crown for sackcloth and dung (14.1-2) and seems to have prayed for three straight days (15.1).

The saving actions of God

Faced with the fact that God is mentioned not all in the Hebrew text, some commentators say that he’s present providentially, working behind the scenes. That’s true, but in the Greek version Mordecai proclaims the fact loud and clear. “These things have come from God,” he says. “The Lord has saved his people; the Lord has delivered us from all these evils; God has done great signs and wonders, which have not occurred among the nations” (10.1,9).

If you’ve not read Mordecai’s statement, you might be reading the wrong Book of Esther.

To change that, you can turn here and see the Revised Standard Version’s full version, which I quote above. It’s clunky in places and the verse numbering is a bit tricky, but just read from start to finish and you’ll be fine. You can also read the two Greek versions contained in the New English Translation of the Septuagint.

I realize that there are several obstacles to the full version finding its path back into (some of) our Bibles, but there’s no reason we can’t read it for ourselves and see what the ancient church loved and appreciated in the book.

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