Monday, April 23, 2007

Remarkable Parallels and Intriguing Differences: Daniel and Esther

This was an old post I drafted and then lost track of. Perhaps of interest . . . .

For a number of years now, I've been experimenting with different ways of reading through the Bible; different arrangements of the books, different speeds (a chapter or so a day, vs. a whole book at a sitting). Recently I read Esther and Daniel, each in one go, on successive Sundays, and realized how remarkably parallel in theme, episodes, and theology the two works are.

Both deal with Jews exiled in a great empire. The Jew or Jews have been recruited by the command of the emperor (Esther 2, Dan. 1:3ff). As part of that command they undergo a kind of trial (the beauty treatments of Esther 2 and the training and feeding of Daniel 1). In this trial, they have the assistance of the court's eunuchs whose favor they win. Once at the court they face the jealousy of rivals (Haman in Esther 3, the counsellors in Daniel 6), who attack them on basis of being a people who refuse the law of other nations. At crucial moments, when asked to go into the presence of the ruler and risk death, the highest-placed ones asks their supporters to pray for them (Esther 4:15-17; Daniel 2:18), and in the end they pass the test spectacularly, and the rival counsellors are punished by the same punishment they planned for the Jews, together with their wives and children (Esther 7:9-10; Daniel 6:24). A crucial narrative motif in is the idea that the laws of the Medes and Persians cannot be changed (Esther 1:18, Daniel 6:12, 15) -- this prevents the benevolent Median-Persian king from defending Esther/Daniel, so that they must rely on either communal self-defense (Esther) or else God's hand (Daniel).

So those are the remarkable parallels. What are the intriguing differences?

The most obvious is related to the famous absence in Esther of any explicit mention of God. Daniel on the other hand is quite soaked through with references to the "Most High." The second is the complete absence in Esther of either the civil disobedience theme or the rise and fall of empires, which together define the first and second halves of Daniel. No trace of judgment on the Persian monarchy can be found anywhere in Esther. (As noted here, it is important to distinguish the Hebrew Esther here from well-nigh infallible sources such as Herodotus, Three Hundred, and the Greek apocryphal additions to Esther.) In Daniel asceticism is emphasized with the vegetarian diet; in Esther cosmetics occupies that niche -- hardly something compatible with asceticism. In Daniel 2, the prophet actually delivers the astrologers (i.e. the rival servants of the king) from the wrath of the king while Esther replaces Vashti without a backward glance (Esther 1:9-2:17). In Esther, the Jews defend themselves with their own hands, but in Daniel, it is always God who intervernes to defend His chosen one. In every respect Daniel illustrates the highest standards of Christian morals, while Esther seems fleshly and sub-Christian in its vengefulness.

Remember the rule of allegorical interpretation enunciated by Philo, Augustine, and other writers? If a Biblical story seems to have a morally indefensible point, this is a clue that it is to be read as allegory. With that in mind, I wonder if Esther is not in fact an allegory in which Ahasuerus plays the role of God, Vashti of the powerful and arrogant nations, and the Esther of Israel, God's humbled people. God is then there in person of King Ahasuerus -- this would explain why he is not placed under judgment in the story. The beauty treatment then is the church making herself pleasing to God. The repeated use of the term mishta "feast" (twenty times in Esther, vs. twenty-four in the rest of the Hebrew Bible; see here) suggests the fellowship of God and his beloved, culminating in the victorious feast of Purim. Just as Esther shows no concern over Vashti's fate, so God's church must not second guess our King's predestinating judgment in her favor. Ahasuerus's inability to say "no" is God's willingness to hear prayer -- all you need to do is humbly ask. Sometimes it seems like God has forgotten his people and their good deeds just as Ahasuerus has forgotten Mordechai's good loyalty -- but they are written in His book and will be remembered. Purim becomes a type of the triumph of God's people through the church's reliance on the good favor of the King to be bold in resisting the attacks of the world powers who seem for the moment to have God's favor.

In short, I suggest that while Daniel is a realistic story of how individual Christians should act in a world run by nations often in rebellion against Him, Esther is an allegory of the church's collective position among the nations of the world all competing for God's favor, and God's favor to her.

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