Monday, June 18, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Esther 1-2 and Acts 1

Please excuse any weird type-font irregularities - can't seem to get them to go away.

The Book of Esther is part of what are called Writings in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is dated somewhere in the 3rd or 4th century BC and was thought to be a redaction of a text originally written the man Mordecai, who is part of the story. It is a story that explains the background and meaning of the Jewish festival of Purim [Day of Deliverance].


There were Greek additions to the text around the 2nd to 1st century. The Jerusalem Bible version includes these Greek passages, which Jerome placed in an appendix of his Latin [Vulgate] version. A note indicates that they add an “enigmatic and apocalyptic” flavor to the story from the start. The Greek beginning is Mordecai’s dream. Mordecai is a Jew living in Susa, one of the deportees. He is said to be a courtier of Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes) around 480. Scholars think the reference is really to Xerxes even though the exile occurred in the reign of Jeconiah (598 BC).


Chapter 1 – In the days of Ahasuerus [known in Greek at Xerxes – r.486 to 465 BC], when Persia stretched from India to Ethiopia, a land of 127 provinces, the king gave a banquet and celebration of high luxury for all his higher officials. After this he also offers a similar week-long banquet to “all the people in the capital city of Susa, rich and poor alike” (1:5).


His queen, Vashti, gives a similar party for the women of the palace. After seven days of festivities, the king tells seven of his eunuchs to bring the queen to him so he can show her off, but she refuses to come. 


The king consults his lawyers as he wont to do, and then calls in his seven top administrators to consult with them about what he should do. They all basically counsel him that the queen has not only insulted King Ahaseurus, her behavior has offended “every man in the empire” (1:16). “Every woman in the empire will start looking down on her husband as soon as she hears what the queen has done” (1:17).


They say he should banish her forever and “confer her royal dignity on a worthier woman” (1:19). This will let all women know how they should behave. A Jerusalem Bible note here indicates that biblical books with Persian context often refer to “irrevocable decrees” that are promptly overturned—a kind of  “Jewish irony” on the powers inherent in earthly rule.

The king takes this advice. He sends letters out in every language spoken in the empire, so that “Every husband should be the master of his home and speak with final authority” (1:22).

Chapter 2 – The King remembers Vashti after a while and seems to regret having acted so peremptorily toward her. His courtiers suggest he look for a new woman. “You can appoint officials in every province of the empire and have them bring all these beautiful young women to your harem here in Susa. . . Put them in the care of Hegai, the eunuch who is in charge of your women, and let them be given a beauty treatment” (2:3).

In Susa a Jew named Mordecai of the tribe of Benjamin lived. He had been taken into captivity along with King Jehoichin when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah. He had a cousin named Esther [Hadassah in Hebrew] who was a beautiful young woman. He had adopted her and raised her as his own daughter. She was beautiful, and is summoned with many others to the court of the king.

Hegai, the eunuch in charge of all these women, likes Esther. He makes sure she gets the “beauty treatment” of massages and special foods that went on for about a year. She does not reveal her race to anyone on Mordecai’s orders, and Mordecai every day paces up and down in front of the palace where the girls were being kept, anxious about how she is being treated.
In the tenth month, Esther goes before the king, and he likes her better than any of the others. He proclaims her his new queen, and gives a great banquet for everyone.
Meanwhile Mordecai learns that two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthana and Teresh, two malcontents, are plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther about it, and after a brief investigation, the two are sent to the gallows.

Chapter 3 – After this all, the king promotes a man named Haman from the land of Agag to be his “prime minister” or chief official. This unknown country takes the name of the king of the Amalakites, whom Saul conquered—Mordecai like Saul is of the line of Kish. The king demands that all officials of his court bow down and prostrate themselves before this new appointee, but Mordecai refuses. Everyone tries to convince him he should just DO IT, but Mordecai insists he is a Jew. He cannot bow to Haman (3:4).

Haman becomes so angry with Mordecai, he determines to kill him, and not only him but all Jews. Haman casts a lot (called “pur” in Babylonian) to determine the most propitious day to begin the extermination—it falls on the 13th day of the 12th month [Adar]. He justifies it to the king in these words: “There is a certain unassimilated nation scattered among the other nations throughout the provinces of your realm; their laws are different from those of all the other nations and they ignore the royal edicts; hence it is not in the king’s interests to tolerate them” (3:8). He also says it will bring in 375 tons of silver into the kings coffers.

The orders go out and the king and Haman sit down and have a “drink while the city of Susa was thrown into confusion” (3:15).

The Jerusalem Bible introduction to Acts says that until 150 AD, when the books were separated, Luke and Acts were presented as one work. Both are addressed to someone named Theophilus. Ancient tradition holds that Luke was a Syrian from Antioch, a doctor of pagan origin. He was close to Paul and was with him during his two periods of captivity in Rome. It has been dated to somewhere between 64 and 70 AD.

Luke tells us in the first chapter that there are many, many sources of stories about Jesus, and his gospel reveals this. Despite his redaction, the difference in source material is apparent. There are variations in style from really good Greek – in the sections that concern his own travel – to awkward sections where he is trying to stick close to Aramaic course material.

Acts 1 – Introducing what appears to be a second book to Theophilus, the author of Luke says that before Jesus left them and was “taken up to heaven,” he “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs,” and told “them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (1:4).
When they came together and they asked Jesus, just before he left them, if he now was going to come and “restore the kingdom” to Israel, he told them  “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:7-8). Then he was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (1:9).

Then two men in white robes appear, and they ask them why they are staring up toward heaven, that Jesus will come back to them in the same way at some point in time (1:11). In the Book of Daniel, chapter 7:13, clouds bring the one who is like a Son of Man.

They return to Jerusalem and go to an upstairs room where they stayed and prayed—Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the son of James and certain women, including his mother and his brothers too. Peter stands up among a crowd of about 120 and addresses them. The tenor of his address is that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was a fulfillment of Scripture. As an aside he relates that Judas ended badly in the field he had bought with the dirty money he got for his betrayal. Psalms made reference to here are 69 and 109, both Davidic psalms reflecting cries by David for divine justice against enemies that have plagued him. So they want a replacement for him, someone who can witness to everything Jesus did from his baptism to his ascension. Joseph, Barsabbas, (or Justus) and Matthias are proposed. They pray and ask the Lord for guidance. They cast lots and Matthias is picked (1:26). They don’t know that the Lord has plans to recruit Paul as a replacement “apostle.”

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