Is the Book of Esther Fictional? Does it Really Belong in the Bible?

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Did you know that the Book of Esther never mentions God?

Did you know that whereas almost every Old Testament book is quoted in the New Testament, the Book of Esther is not?

Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of every Old Testament book except the Book of Esther? (for more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians)

The Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl in Persia who becomes a queen and uses her position to save the Jewish people from an attempted genocide. This story is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday which is not prescribed in the Law of Moses.

These facts, along with the lack of corresponding historical records which corroborate the events talked about in the book have led many people to question not only whether Esther is historical, but whether it belongs in the Bible at all.

Martin Luther, for example, criticized the Book of Esther, accusing it of being too aggressively nationalistic and containing no gospel content.

It isn’t only Christians who are divided over the Book of Esther; Jewish congregations are also divided over whether Esther is a true story or a fable, and whether it belongs in the canon of Scripture (e.g. the Orthodox Union considers it historical and canonical, whereas the Assembly of True Israel considers it neither historical nor canonical).

Let’s consider the relevant questions:

Is Esther Historical?

The Book of Esther focuses on a ten year period (483-473 B.C.) in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes.

The book contains several historical, chronological and cultural details, which would lead us to believe that it is intended to be read as actual history, rather than as a parable. As in the case of Jonah (see: Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?), specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son).

In Esther 1:1 we read an accurate description of the extent of Xerxes’ empire, in 1:2 we read about the location of the seat of the Persian government, and in 1:3-4, we read that in the third year of his reign, Xerxes gave a banquet for all his officials and servants, including the army of Persia and Media. The reason this is important is that it coincides with the accounts of the historian Herodotus which tell us that Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece took place from 480 to 479 B.C., which means that this great gathering mentioned in Esther 1:3-4, which verse 4 says lasted 180 days, is likely describing the preparation for that military invasion of Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes began his return to Persia after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis at the end of 480 B.C. The dismissal of Queen Vashti, described in Esther chapter 1, would correspond to this timeline, having happened just before Xerxes departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther would have happened just after his return. Herodotus claims that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis,” which corresponds with what the Book of Esther describes and the time when Esther would have become queen.

Despite the clear historical setting, no outside sources exist which tell us about Esther becoming queen or about the killing of 75,000 Persians. However, it seems that the author’s intent is to relay historical events, and while corroborating sources do not exist, the same is also true of other historical accounts, including those of Herodotus.

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence which would lead us to believe that Esther is not a historical account, and where historical accounts from this period do exist, they line up with the historical, cultural and geographical details that Esther gives.

Why is Esther in the Bible if it doesn’t mention God?

Esther was recognized as scripture by the Jews before the time of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses “until Artaxerxes,” whom Josephus identifies as the “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther (Against Apion 1.40-41 & Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore, Josephus understood Esther to be the last book to be written in the Jewish canon.

In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, but was widely accepted by Christians as canonical long before that because of its inclusion in the Jewish Old Testament canon.

Although God is not named in the book, God is not absent from the story. Like in the story of Joseph, Esther is a story which highlights the providence, or the “invisible hand of God” at work in the world, ordering and ordaining events to happen according to His divine plan.

Many scholars believe that the absence of the word “God” from Esther was not a mistake, but was an intentional literary device, aimed at focusing attention on the importance of human initiative and divine providence. The sheer number of “coincidences” in the Book of Esther beg the reader to take notice of the invisible hand of God at work to bring about salvation and justice.

Does Esther contain any gospel content?

Contrary to Martin Luther’s claim that Esther does not contain any gospel content, the story actually contains very many foreshadowings of the salvation which Jesus will bring. Consider, for example the basic elements of the story:

There is an enemy of the people who wants to kill and destroy them. God raises up a savior at just the right time, who uniquely has access to the throne of the great king, who alone can save the people from this impending doom. This savior, at risk to herself, enters into the throne-room of the king and intercedes on behalf of her people, thus securing their salvation. The evil-doers, who throughout the story seemed to act unencumbered, receive the pronouncement of judgment from the king.

Furthermore, we see how the evil Haman desired to be treated as royalty even though he was not. In this we have a contrast with the one who was indeed royalty, but set aside his privileges in order to become a servant so that He might save us (see Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 20:28).

Finally, we see in Esther an example of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

Conclusion

Because of the scarcity of historical accounts and the lack of thoroughness of those which exist, it would be unwise for us to assume that this story is not historical just because we have not yet found other accounts which corroborate certain aspects of this story. The fact that some parts of the story do have corroborating historical evidence and accounts should give us confidence that Esther is a historical story about actual events – which ultimately are part of the picture and foreshadowing of the Great Savior who has now come: Jesus Christ, who entered into the throne room of God to make intercession for us, that through Him we might be saved from the great enemies of our souls.

Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?

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The story of Jonah is a fantastical story about a rebellious prophet who runs away from his calling, then tries to kill himself and gets swallowed by a giant fish who transports him back to where he started and barfs him up on the beach. Then he walks into a large city, preaches the worst sermon ever, and the whole city repents – much to Jonah’s dismay.

The key literary device used in the Book of Jonah is: satire, defined as: the exposure of human vice of folly through the use of humor and irony. In other words, the story of Jonah is intended to make you laugh…and then cry – as you realize that you are actually a lot like Jonah yourself.

Is Jonah an Allegory?

For these reasons, many people have questioned whether Jonah should be understood as an allegory instead of an historical account. As an allegory, Jonah represents Israel: a nation who has not shared the heart of God for lost people and has run away from their calling to be God’s light to the nations. The fish would represent Israel’s (at that present time: current) captivity, which would mean that the calling to go to Nineveh represents the implied proper behavior or response that Israel should have once their captivity is over.

Aside from the miraculous (fish) and fantastical (all of Nineveh repenting) nature of the story, another reason people have argued that Jonah is meant to be understood as an allegory or parable is because there is no historical record outside of the Bible that corroborates the repentance of Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah.

Why Most Bible Scholars Believe Jonah is a Historical Account

1. Jonah is a historical figure

2 Kings 14:25 speaks of a prophet named Jonah who lived in the 8th Century BC. This lines up with the timeline of the events of the Book of Jonah, and it would line up with the Assyrian Empire being powerful at this time.

2. The story presents itself as a historical narrative

The book is presented as a historical, not a fictional narrative. Specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, allegorical stories which are given no historical or geographical anchoring). See: Jonah 1:1-3; 3:2-10; 4:11.

Furthermore, the story of Jonah has all the marks of a prophetic narrative, such as those about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings, which also set out to report actual historical events.

Therefore a simple reading of the text would lead us to believe that this is a historical narrative.

3. There is no strong evidence against it being historical

For those who would argue that the miraculous element of the story is not possible, that would lead to bigger questions about the ability of God and the nature of the world. This assumption, of course, would have implications for how one reads most of the Bible, not just the Book of Jonah. If, on the other hand, God is capable of doing miracles, this should not be considered a major issue.

The lack of historical account from Nineveh about Jonah’s coming and the subsequent repentance of the entire city is not considered strong evidence against Jonah’s historicity either, since 1) records were not kept in ancient society as they are now, and 2) whatever records did exist were regularly and intentionally destroyed by each successive ruling party or civiliazation. Historians would not consider the lack of corroborating historical accounts from Assyria to be evidence against the historicity of the Book of Jonah – whether they believe the story to be true or not.

The question of whether an entire city would repent is not really a problem either considering the communal nature of ancient and Eastern societies. A look at the history of the spread of different religions shows that entire nations have often converted after the command of their king or ruler. Such a response, therefore, would not be unprecedented or even unusual.

4. Jesus spoke of the story as having historical and future relevance

In Matthew 12:40-41, Jesus declared that “the men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.”

Conclusion

Therefore, my conclusion is with the majority of scholars who believe Jonah to be a historical account. Certainly we should acknowledge though, that it is not history for history’s sake, but that there is a particular didactic (teaching) intention in the way the story is told. May we learn from it!

For more on Jonah, check out this study I did at White Fields Community Church: Jonah: God’s Mission in the World

David Foster Wallace on Atheism and Worship

In 2008, at the time of his untimely death, the Los Angeles Times declared that David Foster Wallace was “one of the most influential writers of the last twenty years.”[1] He was an award-winning, bestselling postmodern novelist, who loved to push boundaries in his storytelling.

Although Wallace was an agnostic, he made some profound statements about atheism and worship in his now famous commencement speech, which he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

Here’s what he said:

webdavidfosterwallaceYou get to choose what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god … to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day … without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. [2]

Wallace, although not a Christian, understood and communicated a very profound and very biblical truth: everyone worships, but anything you worship other than God will “eat you alive.”

Romans 6:16 tells us that there is no such thing as not worshiping, and that anything we worship other than God will enslave us.

Rebecca Manley Pippert puts it this way:

“Whatever controls us in our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by it. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. (Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker, p. 53)

Whether we call ourselves religious or not, all of us have a lord, a master, and we are all worshipers.

The only way to be free, is by having a lord and a master who will not crush you, but who will liberate you – and in Jesus we have exactly that: one who came not to crush us, but to liberate us from all that enslaves us and to fulfill our deepest longings.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13)

What a tragedy it would be to know this truth and not come to the fountain of living water and drink in order to be liberated and fulfilled!

Here is a recording of Wallace’s speech. The part about worship begins at 17:50.

The Hijacked Mind (and How to Be Free)

I don’t usually feel much sympathy for cockroaches, but I recently found out about a strange parasite that attacks beetles, grasshoppers and cockroaches.

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Spinochordodes tellinii (S.T.) is a parasitic worm. Once it enters its host, it lives quietly and peacefully inside of them as it develops and grows. Once the S.T. has grown into maturity, it hijacks the mind of its host and causes them to commit suicide by compelling them to find water and cast themselves into it and drown.

The S.T., which by this point has grown to be larger than the host when stretched out, emerges, leaving their host dead in the water, and swims away to find a mate and reproduce.

You can read more about it here: Parasites Brainwash Grasshoppers into Death Dive

The way this parasite functions is similar to the way that sin works in our lives.

We have been studying the Epistle to the Romans on Sunday Mornings at White Fields. (Click here to see those messages) This Sunday we will be looking at Romans chapter 6, which tells us that sin is not something we can merely dabble in, but that our sins actually enslave us.

The only way to be free, we are told, is paradoxically by becoming “slaves of God.”

The paradox of freedom is that freedom from God enslaves us, but serving God frees us.

This is why, when God told Pharaoh through Moses to let his people go, he didn’t merely say, “Let my people go,” (as Charlton Heston incorrectly portrayed), the message was always actually, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” (For more on this, check out: The Setting for Salvation, a study of Exodus chapter 1)

In other words: freedom from the slavery they were in was not found in just coming out of slavery and then doing whatever they wanted. Why? Because it only would have been a matter of time before they would have been captured and enslaved by someone else. The only way for them to experience true freedom was for them to serve a new master who could, and would, truly liberate them and cause them to thrive.

As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

In Romans 6, we are told that we will either be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. The thing about sin is that it acts a lot like the Spinochordodes tellinii: it seems innocuous at first, but as it grows and matures, it will enslave you and ultimately destroy you.
The good news is: there is one who is greater than the greatest parasite: Jesus Christ, who took our sin and conquered the great enemy, so that we might be free. He sets us free from the great hijacker of our minds, hearts and souls.

Jesus told his disciples: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:13-15)

And yet, the followers of Jesus would refer to themselves as “bondservants of Jesus.” A bondservant was a slave by choice; it was a slave who had been granted their freedom, and yet chose to serve their master, because of their love for their master and desire to remain with them. (See: Free to Be a Slave)

To be a Christian is to be set free from bondage to sin, and to become a bondservant of God, because of Jesus.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Video: Christianity and Politics

“The Gospel is an inherently political message.”

See what we mean by that in this episode in which Mike and I have a discussion about Christianity and politics, and we consider some guiding principles for how Christians should view and engage with this often polarizing and divisive topic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment below.

You can also listen on Soundcloud, and don’t forget to subscribe to our channel on YouTube and Soundcloud so you’ll be able to get new content when it comes out.

 

Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet about His Miracles and Identity?

I received this question from a reader:
There are a number of times in the gospels that Jesus performs a miracle and then tells the person healed and those who witnessed to not tell anyone…. I wonder: why?
The obvious answer from a human perspective is because he feared the Jews and those who wanted to shut him down. But since He is God, why would he not just be glad for the good news to spread far and wide? Being fearful of sinful men strikes me as not really his nature…
Thanks for this question, this is one that many people wonder about. Here are a few things to consider which help us understand why he did this on occasion:

Sometimes Jesus told people not to tell others about his miracles and identity, but other times he told them to tell everyone.

There are three main instances in which Jesus instructed people not to tell others who he was or what he had done:
  1. After confirming to his disciples that he was indeed the Messiah, Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone. (Matthew 16:20; Mark 8:29-30; Luke 9:20-21)
  2. Jesus healed a leper and told him not to tell anyone that it was he who had done this. The man, however, did not comply with this request. (Mark 1:40-44; Matthew 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-15)
  3. Jesus told demons not to speak about him and tell others who he was. (Mark 1:34, 3:11-12)

Conversely, there are occasions where Jesus tells people to go out and tell everyone what he did for them:

  1. Mark 5:18-20 (also found in Luke: 8:38-39): As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.
  2. Matthew 28:18-20 (also Mark 16:15-16): And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

What was the reasoning behind these different approaches, and why would Jesus ever tell people not to tell others what he did or who he was?

Here are two reasons:

A Matter of Publicity

One problem with people spreading the word about Jesus healing them was that it resulted in large crowds following him around. This was the case with the leper who did not comply with Jesus’ request that he keep quiet about it. That man went out and “began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news,” and the result was: “so Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.” (Mark 1:45)

If everyone was crowding around him trying to touch him and clamoring to be healed, it would be harder for him to preach – and preaching, not healing, was his primary objective (see Luke 4:42-43).

When it came to demons, Jesus understandably didn’t want demons to be proclaiming who he was, lest people associate him with demons, or they misrepresent him.

Furthermore, the Jews had many misconceptions of who the Messiah was going to be. Some didn’t believe there would be a Messiah; others thought there would be two Messiahs (a king descended from David and a Levite priest); still others were waiting for a warrior-king to overthrow the Romans. In many cases, Jesus wanted to introduce himself to people first, before telling them that he was the Messiah, so he could teach them things without the baggage of their expectations influencing the way they heard the things he said to them.

A Matter of Timing

Jesus had a very keen sense of timing.  According to prophecy, he had to die in Jerusalem at the Passover. (For more on that, check out: Easter Math: How Does It Add Up?)

There are several passages which show Jesus’ sense of timing and his caution to not come out too early.

  • John 2:4: Jesus tells his mother that the time to begin his ministry had not yet come.
  • John 7:6: when his brothers challenged him to go to the festival, Jesus tells them that “the right time for me has not yet come.”
  • Luke 9:51: it says that the time was approaching for him to be taken to heaven, and at that time, he turned his face resolutely toward Jerusalem.

In John 6:15 we read that some people, hearing that Jesus was the Messiah, wanted to come and make him their king, by force!

However, once the timing was right, Jesus revealed himself as king on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21), and encouraged his followers to tell everyone. For Jesus, this was a matter of publicity and timing.

Easter Math: How Does it Add Up?

Have you ever wondered why the date of Easter changes every year?

Have you ever wondered how it can be that Jesus was in the grave for three days and three nights if he was crucified on a Friday and rose on a Sunday?

How does the Jewish Passover Week correspond with Jesus’ final week leading up to his crucifixion?

Check out this video in which Mike and I discuss these questions!  (Hint: Good Friday is indeed good, but it wasn’t a Friday…)

 

Is Good Friday Actually “Good”?

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This is the day on which we celebrate the death of an innocent man – and not just any man: the greatest man who ever lived. It is the day when we remember that the Light of the World was overcome by darkness; that the Savior of the World was murdered by those He came to save.

Why in the world would we call this day “Good Friday”?

John Stott put it this way:

“The essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God; we put ourselves where only God deserves to be … that’s the essence of sin. But the essence of salvation is that God substitutes himself for us; God puts himself where we deserve to be … that’s the essence of salvation.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In this verse we see what it is that makes Good Friday so incredibly “good”. It is something we call “imputation”, and it has two sides: On the cross, God imputed your flawed record to Jesus, so that He could impute Jesus’ perfect record to you. On the cross, God treated Jesus as if he had lived your life, so he could treat you as if you had lived his life.

Jesus’ act of substitution, God’s act of imputation – lead to our reconciliation with God.

And the way to receive this gift of God’s grace, the Bible tells us, is to “receive him, who believe in his name.” (John 1:12) This kind of belief isn’t merely to believe that it happened, but to believe it personally, in the sense of trusting in it, relying on it, and clinging to it.

If you do that, then today will indeed by a Good Friday for you!

The Last Supper? Actually, No.

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This week is Holy Week, the week during which we remember the final week of Jesus’ life on Earth leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Maundy Thursday is the day in the church calendar when we remember what we call “the Last Supper”, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified. For more on the “lesser known” days of Holy Week, read: “The Less Famous Days of Holy Week

However, there are several aspects to these traditions that might be misleading.

First of all, Jesus’ Passover Dinner with his disciples would have been on Wednesday evening. According to Jewish thinking, this would have been Thursday, since in Jewish thinking the new day begins at sundown. Thus, what we consider to be Wednesday night would actually be considered Thursday by the Hebrews.

For more on the timing of Holy Week, read: “Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up

But most importantly, what is misleading is the name “the last supper”. Consider what James K.A. Smith has to say on this topic:

when Jesus celebrates the Last Supper, he actually intimates that it’s not really the last supper, but the penultimate (second to last) supper.1

Smith is right. Think about what Jesus said during that supper:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29 ESV)

Paul the Apostle then says this about the practice of the Lord’s Supper by Christians:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV – emphasis mine)

In other words, the meal commonly referred to as “the last supper” was not ever meant to be thought of as the last supper that Jesus would have with his disciples, but as the preview of the great supper that they would one day share with Jesus in His Kingdom.

In other words, Communion, AKA the Lord’s Supper, AKA the Eucharist is an eschatological supper, through which we remind ourselves week in and week out of what is to come: the wedding feast of the lamb, in the New Jerusalem (Heaven).

Consider these words further thoughts from James K.A. Smith:

there’s a certain sense in which the celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be experienced as a kind of sanctified letdown. For every week that we celebrate the Eucharist is another week that the kingdom and its feast have not yet fully arrived.2

As you remember and reflect during Holy Week on Jesus’ penultimate supper, and every time you take communion, keep in mind that we do so both as an act of looking back and as an act of looking forward! Both are essential aspects of the hope that we have in Jesus!

 

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdomp.199
2 Ibid., p.200

Longmont Pastor Video Blog – Episode 1

Starting today, every Wednesday we will be dropping a new episode, in which we will be covering some of the topics addressed here on the blog, as well as others topics and interviews with guests about topics relevant to life, culture and the gospel.

Check out Episode 1: The Role of the Law in the Life of the Believer, and follow us on YouTube or Vimeo and Soundcloud.

You can help us spread the word by giving the video a like and sharing it on your social media or sending it directly to some friends.

Here’s the video (email and WordPress subscribers click here):

Thanks to Ocean Babin for all his hard work recording and editing this video, as well as to CryBaby Design for the great background image. We also want to thank Nick Morris Sound Services for making the music for the intro!

For the content mentioned in this video, check out these posts: