Archive for the ‘Xerxes I’ Tag

Esther I: Vehicles of Grace   1 comment

Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus

Above:  Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus, by Paolo Veronese

Image in the Public Domain

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The daily lectionary for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), as found in their service book-hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), is the one attached to the Revised Common Lectionary.  For the Thursday before Proper 12 through the Wednesday after that Sunday in Year C the first readings come from the Book of Esther, starting with 2:19 and continuing through 8:17.

The Book of Esther exists in two versions–Hebrew and Greek.  The Hebrew version, which does not even mention God, probably dates to 400-300 B.C.E., at the end of the Persian Empire or the beginning of the Hellenistic Age.  The 107 additional verses in the version from the Septuagint bring the word “God” into the story and elaborate on certain details.  The Greek version of the Book of Esther is canonical in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

As I read the Book of Esther again I will consult Jewish and Roman Catholic Bibles.  My plan is to read the Greek version fully in English-language translation.  The New American Bible labels the Greek additions conveniently as Chapters A-F, a system I will cite.

The Book of Esther is a satire, comedy, burlesque, and work of religious fiction.  Jewish exegetes have known this for a long time.  Some characters are buffoonish, our heroes (in the Hebrew version) are strangely less dimensional than other characters, and exaggeration abounds.  One should not, out of piety, become so serious as to misread a book of the Bible.  There are various contexts in which one should read scripture; genre is among them.  Furthermore, the internal chronology of the Book of Esther (in either version), like that of the Book of Daniel, makes no sense.

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In the Greek version the book begins with what The New American Bible calls Chapter A, containing 17 verses.  We meet Mordecai, a Jewish member of the court of King Ahasuerus (sarcastically “the great,” according to A:1) at Susa.  Ahasuerus is a fictitious monarch of the Persian Empire.  Sources I have consulted indicate elements from the actual Xerxes I (reigned 486-465 B.C.E.) and Artaxerxes I (reigned 465-424 B.C.E.).  Mordecai has a dream in which, on a gloomy day amid “tumult, thunder, and earthquake,” two dragons prepare to go to war.  The just live in fear of what might happen to them.  They cry out to God, a mighty river arises, sunlight breaks through, and the lowly rise up and devour the boastful.  Mordecai awakens and attempts throughout the day to comprehend the dream and what God intends to do.

We read in A:1 that Mordecai is not only of the tribe of Benjamin but a descendant of Kish.  This makes him a relative of King Saul (whose father was Kish), who conquered Agag the Amalekite in 1 Samuel 15:1-9.  Haman, Mordecai’s foe, is an Agagite.

Mordecai overhears two eunuchs plot to assassinate Ahasuerus.  The loyal courtier alerts the monarch directly.  Ahasuerus orders the arrest, interrogation, and execution of the eunuchs.  Mordecai receives a reward for his fidelity, but Haman, who had conspired with the eunuchs, begins to plot to harm him.

Chapter 1 depicts Ahasuerus as less than great.  The text states that the king ruled over 127 provinces, or satrapies, but historical records indicate the existence of between 20 and 32 satrapies during the duration of the Persian Empire.  Ahasuerus is wealthy, living in luxury.  He is also mostly powerless, for people manipulate him easily.  The king is also too fond of alcohol in excess.  Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to degrade herself  by displaying her beauty to his courtiers .  She refuses the command, thereby disgracing the drunken Ahasuerus.  Thus an imperial incident occurs.  Can the monarch restore his honor?  Vashti loses her position and possibly her life, for he proceeds to choose a new queen from his harem.  Among the virgins in the harem is one Esther, cousin and foster daughter of Mordecai.  This is a secret relationship, however.  He coaches her in how to become the next queen.  She succeeds Vashti.

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What are we supposed to take away from this material and apply to life?  God works behind the scenes in the Book of Esther.  God even works through drunk and easily manipulated monarchs.  Vehicles of grace come in many shapes and sizes; many of them will surprise us.  Many of them do not even know that they are vehicles of grace, but that does not prevent God from working through them, does it?

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 17, 2016 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT PATRICK, BISHOP OF ARMAGH

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Adapted from this post:

https://ordinarytimedevotions.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/prologue-to-posts-scheduled-around-proper-12-year-c-revised-common-lectionary/

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Commitments   1 comment

Above:  The Far West of the Persian Empire in 525 B.C.E.

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Nehemiah 2:1-9 (TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures):

In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, wine was set before him; I took the wine and gave it to the king–I had never been out of sorts in his presence.  The king said to me,

How is it that you look bad, though you are not ill?  It must be bad thoughts.

I was very frightened, but I answered the king,

May the king live forever!  How should I not look bad when the city of the graveyard of my ancestors lies in ruins, and its gates have been consumed by fire?

The king said to me,

What is your request?

With a prayer to the God of Heaven, I answered the king,

If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, send me to Judah, the city of my ancestors’ graves, to rebuild it.

With the consort seated at his side, the king said to me,

How long will you be gone and when will you return?

So it was agreeable to the king to send me, and I gave him a date.  Then I said to the king,

If it please the king, let me have letters to the governors of the province Beyond the River, directing them to grant me passage until I reach Judah; likewise, a letter to Asaph, keeper of the King’s Park, directing him to give me timber for roofing the gatehouses of the temple fortress and the city walls and for the house I shall occupy.

The king gave me these, thanks to my God’s benevolent care for me.  When I came to the governors of the province of Beyond the River I gave them the king’s letters.  The king also sent army officers and cavalry with me.

Psalm 137 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1  By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,

when we remembered you, O Zion.

2  As for our harps, we hung them up

on the trees in the midst of that land.

3  For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,

and our oppressors called for mirth:

“Sing for us the songs of Zion.”

4  How shall we sing the LORD’s song

upon alien soil?

5  If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand forget its skill.

6  Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

7  Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,

against the people of Edom,

who said, “Down with it!  even to the ground!”

8  O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,

happy the one who pays you back

for that which you have done to us!

9  Happy shall be he who takes your little ones,

and dashes them against the rock!

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Let us ground ourselves in time and space before we proceed.  Cyrus II “the Great” of the Persians and the Medes conquered the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E.  He permitted the first group of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland one year later, 538 B.C.E.  He died in 530, and Cambyses (reigned 530-522) succeeded him.  After Cambyses came Darius I (reigned 522-486), who permitted the construction of the Second Temple from 520 to 515.  Xerxes I (reigned 486-465) occupied the throne next, after which came Artaxerxes I (reigned 465-424), Nehemiah’s king.  (Thanks to The Jewish Study Bible for the dates.)

Nobody had restored the walls of Jerusalem nearly a century after the first group of exiles had returned.  So, circa 445 B.C.E, Nehemiah, the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes I, sought and received permission to oversee the restoration of those walls.  The diminished state of Jerusalem troubled Nehemiah so much that he had to do something about it.  He committed himself to that great task.

Although the Biblical authors are generally favorably disposed toward the Persian kings who helped the Jews, many of the writings from and about that time have an air of melancholy about them.  The reality of 538 B.C.E. and the following years exists in the shadow of pre-destruction Jerusalem.  The Second Temple was far less grand than the complex from Solomon’s time, the city walls were in a dilapidated state for almost century, and home was part of a far-flung yet generally benevolent empire they did not govern.  Furthermore, Judea was one of the poorer regions of the Persian Empire, a fact of which the residents were quite aware.  There were many reasons to feel discouraged.

Consider Psalm 137 also.  It speaks of a time prior to the Persian conquest of Babylon.  The frustrations of the exiled, conquered, and/or colonized are understandable in any time or place.  These are on full display in Psalm 137, which I have typed in its entirely.  The lectionary said to stop at verse 6, but the full impact of the text requires that one read all of it.  Verses 7-9 speak of violence and the desire for revenge, even upon innocent children unfortunate enough to have been born Babylonian.  The Book of Psalms is honest about raw human emotions, as we should be without condoning certain ones.  But let us not skip over the verses we find uncomfortable.

The text in Luke has a parallel reading in Matthew.  Follow the URL I have provided to read my thoughts about the Matthew version.  It is sufficed to say here that, as I interpreted the Matthew version in the light of the verses before it, I will do the same for this day’s reading from Luke.  Jesus has just set his course for Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week.  So he does not tolerate excuses from anyone.  He has committed himself, so he expects others to dedicate themselves.

It is also worth noticing that, in the next section, Jesus sends the outer circle of disciples out on a preaching mission.  Thus 9:60 makes sense.  It reads, “…your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.”

There is much work to do for God.  May we avoid distractions and excuses; may we begin or continue to fulfill our vocations.  Along the way we may need some help from others of a different religious or ethnic or social group or economic class.  May they do their parts too.  And may we leave behind all baggage that would weigh us down.  May the love of God fill us and drive away all that is not love.

That is a commitment worth keeping.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

APRIL 21, 2011 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF ROBERT SEYMOUR BRIDGES, POET AND TRANSLATOR OF HYMNS

THE FEAST OF SAINT ANSELM, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY

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Published originally at ORDINARY TIME DEVOTIONS BY KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR on April 21, 2011

Adapted from this post:

http://ordinarytimedevotions.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/week-of-proper-21-wednesday-year-1/

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Posted October 26, 2011 by neatnik2009 in Nehemiah, Nehemiah 2, Psalm 137

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