X is for Xerxes

Xerxes is the Greek name of a Persian ruler who reigned in the 5th century BCE. In the Hebrew Bible he is named Ahasuerus which is a transliteration of his name from Persian. In English translations this word is usually rendered Xerxes as this is how he has become known in classical history. An exception is the New Revised Standard Version where he is given his Hebrew name. Despite appearing in nearly every chapter of Esther, he is only mentioned once elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in Ezra 4:6.

Details of the life of Xerxes and his reign are found in diverse documents from the time he ruled and shortly after. A more complex issue is how factual the story of Esther might be. On this matter scholars differ significantly. The story certainly has some remarkable features to it which make it sound like a fable (see the previous post, ‘N is for Novella’). One of these is the classic line whereby King Xerxes besotted with Esther offers her: “Even up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3 and 7:2). The most remarkable aspect of the story, however, is the coincidence that occurs which works against the villain of the story, Haman.

An element of the book of Esther which is frequently noted is that God is absent from the story. Or to put it more precisely, he is not directly referred to. The inference from the story and the coincidences within it, by which the Jewish people escape death at the hands of Haman, is that God is at work providentially behind the scenes.

I am reminded of my all-time favourite film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson called Magnolia. This film is not for everyone as it contains some unsavoury scenes in the lives of people who are in different ways broken by modern American life. The main characters all live in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, California. Much of the film documents the lives of these dysfunctional people and the audience puzzles at these only vaguely connected lives. Deep into the film a remarkable event occurs—I won’t spoil it here but will say that is thoroughly biblical. This event finally explains why the film is named Magnolia. The title it turns out is a play on the theological term, magnalia Dei which means the mighty acts of God. Just like in Esther, God is not mentioned and yet the implication is that he, or some powerful force, is there working behind the scenes.

What really matters as we live our lives is the knowledge that God is at work behind the scenes. Whether you see Esther as a historically reliable account or a literary fiction is less critical. In the words of the opening of Magnolia:

It is the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just something that happened. This cannot be one of those things. This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.

 

 

 

R is for Rewritten History

The term rewritten history is a fairly recent one which captures what has been recognised for centuries, that the book of Chronicles is an alternative account of a history known from another source. The book of Chronicles itself acknowledges this, see1 Chronicles 9:1. Many scholars see the Hebrew Bible’s Ezra-Nehemiah as similar to Chronicles. These two books—Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah—do even more as will be explained below. In ‘D is for Deuteronomistic History’ the point was made that the account of the history of Israel found in the Former Prophets was not a neutral one. This is inevitable as all accounts of the past are to a greater or lesser sense reconstructions. As soon as a narrative is given to past events neutrality has gone. Whilst this seems to perplex some people of faith it is not fundamentally problematic. On the contrary appreciating this is essential for an appropriate understanding of the text. As noted in an earlier post we are always dealing with history interwoven with theology. Any attempt to separate the two is to apply modern categories anachronistically to ancient texts.

When Chronicles is compared to the Former Prophets it is not long before it becomes apparent that the author shows their ideological concerns. It should come as no surprise that a national history presents things from the perspective of the nation concerned. Being written at around the end of the Persian period or the beginning of the Greek period means that national identity focused on the city of Jerusalem is central to the author’s intent.

In Chronicles there is a strong focus on boundaries, or what it is that separates true Israel from those outside. This has perhaps less to do with exclusion per se and more to do with an exhortation to readers to commit to belonging. One of the puzzles is whether the writer or editors of Chronicles expected their account to supplant or to complement the Former Prophets. This is especially interesting given examples where on the face of it there is a discrepancy between the two stories. Space permits only one example in this post but it is an especially puzzling one.

2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 both recount the same story. In the story David angers God by counting the fighting men of Israel. God sees David as relying on the security of an army rather than trusting in him as a warrior God. Both stories commence in a very similar way except one vital detail which is remarkably different. This is best shown by comparing the two openings:

Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”

So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enrol the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”

But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?”

2 Samuel 24:1‒3 (NIV)

 Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.  So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.”

But Joab replied, “May the Lord multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord’s subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?”

1 Chronicles 21:1‒3 (NIV)

Now the sceptic will simply see this difference as a discrepancy—the author of Chronicles presenting alternative facts. There is however a richer theological potential here. Could it be that the author of Chronicles is recognising the authority of Satan operating beneath that of Yahweh. Some might be troubled about this and it certainly raises issues regarding the nature and origin of evil. If this is the case it is certainly coherent with the other famous account of the Satan in the book of Job. In a book which weaves together the question of suffering and evil it is again the case that in some sense the satan operates only under Yahweh’s authority. This perhaps disturbing situation is vitally important to the Hebrew understanding of the universe, because contrary to much modern cinematic myth, the universe is not home to an ongoing dualistic battle between good and evil. Rather, the Hebrew Bible portrays an uneven struggle in which good and God ultimately triumph.

For this and other reasons, the rewritten history that is Chronicles adds something to what might have been thought to be a finished story about Israel and her God Yahweh.