Saturday, March 11, 2017

Esther in the Septuagint

PURIM IS ALMOST HERE: The Three Faces of Esther. How the story of Purim is told in Christian scripture, and how Martin Luther became Esther’s enemy (Matthew Abelson, Tablet Magazine). As the headline indicates, this article is about a range of things pertaining to the Book of Esther. But I want to focus on the comments on the Septuagint version:
One popular misconception is that Jews and Christians share one set of books—what Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh—but not a second set, the New Testament. However, the presence in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testament of books such as Judith and Tobit—which are not in the Tanakh—and the appearance of different versions of other books, such as Esther, challenges the popular conception of a one-to-one ratio between one half of Christian scripture and all of Jewish scripture.

In the case of Esther, the differences in the versions that Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians include in their canon are quite telling. Perhaps the most famous feature of the Book of Esther for Jews is the absence of God. In the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox versions, however, God is present in the narrative.

When Jews living in Alexandria composed the Septuagint, they chose to rewrite the Book of Esther in Greek. While the version they composed is largely based on the Hebrew version, it is not a translation. In addition, the Septuagint’s version has several key additions: prayer and God. In the Septuagint’s version of the Book of Esther, the heroine prays to God after sending word to Mordecai that he should declare a three-day fast. “On the third day, when she had finished praying, she took off her suppliant’s mourning attire and dressed herself in her full splendor. Radiant as she then appeared, she invoked God, who watches over all people and saves them.” Additionally, this version states that just before she approaches King Ahasuerus, Esther feels faint with fear, but “God changed the king’s heart,” and in his kindness, Ahasuerus invites Esther to come before him. God does not appear as the Great Intervener, as he does in Exodus, but the mere mentioning of Esther’s prayer to God and God’s changing of Ahasuerus’ heart fundamentally alter the nature of the Book of Esther.

The Tanakh’s Book of Esther is unique in large part because prayer and God are not part of the narrative. In fact, along with The Song of Songs, Esther is the only other book in which God is not mentioned. For this reason, Esther has come to represent the dimension of Judaism that emphasizes human initiative, not total dependence on God. By inserting prayer and God into the narrative, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments removed this aspect of Esther’s uniqueness. The book is flattened into accord with the overwhelming message of Scripture—both Hebrew and Christian—of human dependence upon God.