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Sunday, September 30, 2007

2 Samuel 3 -- The Man of Shame

Today's post is an exercise in self-evaluation via an examination of someone else's shamelessness. The question we are asking ourselves is, "How far am I willing to follow someone when the course he is taking begins ro bother my conscience?" Fortunately, we can examine this shameless behavior from a safe distance of about 3000-2500 years. It gives us some space to think calmly and test our resolve before it will cost us something dear to stick our heads up and shout, "Wait ... a ... minute!"

The shameless individual is (I think) the narrator of 2 Samuel 3. We are catching him in the middle of his account of the war between the "house of Saul" and the "house of David." To summarize, David had just become king of Judah after the death of Saul and Jonathan at the hand of the Philistines. Abner, the commander of Saul's armies, had taken Saul's son, Ish-Bosheth (or Ishbaal) and made him king of Israel. War broke out between the two camps over who would be king of all "Israel." Most of chapter 2 is taken up with an account of the first battle in the war, and the focus of the account of this battle is the death of Asahel, youngest brother of Joab, commander of the armies of Judah, at the hands of Abner. This story prepares us for some of the events of chapter 3.

The narrator opens chapter 3 with a summary of the war's progress and a list of the sons born to David while he reigned in Hebron. Basically, though the war lasted "a long time," it was going well for David. Not only did he prosper militarily, his family was enlarged by the addition of several wives and sons. The rest of the chapter deals with a set of pivotal episodes in the war over the kingship. The main figures in this set of episodes are Ish-Bosheth, Abner, David, and Joab. Remember that pairing: Ish-Bosheth/Abner and David/Joab.

I took the title of this post from the name "Ish-Bosheth," which translates roughly as "man of the shameful thing." As has been pointed out many times, it is likely that the man's real name was "Ish-Baal." Over the course of time, names ending in "Baal" came to have a bad connotation to Jews. It reminded them of the Canaanite god, Baal, the worship of whom by their forefathers had so incensed the prophets and had become in some Israelite theology a primary cause of the political disasters suffered by the Israelite kingdoms in the 1st millenium BCE. So, his name was changed by the narrator or a later editor to reflect "right thinking" about the significance of "Baal" in a person's name. But of course, whether concocted by the narrator or a later editor, the moniker fits Ish-Baal. His abject weakness compared to Abner and David is shameful. If you think his situation is shameful, just wait.

The next part of the story deals with a conflict between Abner and Ish-Baal. The narrator informs us that in the course of the war Abner "strengthened his own position" in the house of Saul. We are not told how he accomplished this, but we are told that Ish-Baal accuses him of sleeping with one of Saul's concubines. If true, Abner would have been asserting a claim to the throne of Israel. (The political significance of taking possession of the (former) king's wives/concubines is stressed several times in the story of David.) Abner speaks as if he were incensed at this accusation, defends his loyalty to the "house of Saul," and swears that, since he has been rewarded with a false accusation, he will turn the kingdom of Israel over to David.

Interesting points in the story so far:
1. The narrator does not tell us plainly whether Abner was guilty.
2. Abner describes himself as a kingmaker. According to the narrator, that was his role for Ish-Baal. Now Abner describes himself in the same terms. He claims quite boldly that he will fulfill the promise God made to David that he would become king over all Israel.
3. Ish-Baal does nothing to stop his commander, because "he was afraid of him."

The next set of episodes involves Abner's negotiations with various parties to effect the transfer of the kingdom to David. He communicates with David, the elders of Israel, and the Benjamites. As part of the settlement, David insists on having his (former) wife and Saul's daughter, Michal, restored to him. The narrator informs us that David communicated this demand to Ish-Baal directly, who complied -- another indication of his shameful weakness. The negotations give the narrator the chance to show how Abner and the elders of Israel recognized that God's blessing had and would rest on David and on Israel with David as king. We are told that David and Abner made a covenant which apparently involved Abner joining David's staff and taking a high position in the military command and that David and Abner celebrated the covenant with a communal meal and then departed in peace.

What are we to think of Abner? First, he is a realist. His position was endangered by the growing weakness of the Saulide kingdom. Second, he is ambitious. By entering negotiations with David, he was giving himself a chance to hold on to power. He was negotiating from a position of weakness, but tried to hide that weakness behind rhetoric and the appealing offer of a peaceful transfer of power. Third, he really was powerful. His efforts to bring the Israelite tribes under David's rule succeeded.

Of course, being a Saulide, Abner himself cannot prosper. This has been the narrator's determined view of everyone associated with Saul. Abner is killed by Joab in retaliation for Asahel and perhaps to prevent Abner from muscling himself in front of Joab. We have already seen his exalted view of his own role in David's ascent to kingship. In addition, the narrator uses David's words of lament to tie Abner to Nabal. David asks, "Should Abner have died as the lawless die?" (NIV) "Lawless" is actually "nabal," the Hebrew word for "fool." It suits the narrator's purpose for this verse to have a double meaning: "Should Abner have died like Nabal?" The comparison intended by the narrator is not the manner of death (contra McKenzie in King David: A Biography) but the cause of death: a consequence of one's own actions, particularly actions opposing the ascent of David.

Now that the kingdom has been transferred to David, the narrator shifts his attention to the death of Abner. It is clearly all Joab's fault. He and the army return from a raid to find out that David has made a treaty with Abner and sent him away in peace. Joab objects that Abner only used the occasion to spy. He then summons Abner back to Jerusalem and, unknown to David, murders him in a gateway. When David finds out, he immediately claims total innocence of the deed and pronounces a curse on Joab's descendants. He forces Joab to join the rest of the people in public mourning. He fasts all day long during the funeral proceedings. The narrator assures us that the king's actions convinced the people that David had nothing to do with Abner's death. The chapter ends with a speech of David to his men, in which he praises Abner, confesses his inability to deal with Joab and Abishai, and appeals to God to bring judgment on them.

Many others have noted how unbelievable David's protestations are. I will only point out the following:
1. To ancient Israelites, calling curses down on the descendants of a criminal may have passed for justice. Too bad for them. In this case, it falls pitifully short. Forget that punishing a person's family for a crime they did not commit is wrong. David is the king, the supreme judge and commanding officer of Israel. What about dealing with the criminal!?!?
2. David's explanation for his failure to deal with Joab (and Abishai) seriously undermines the narrator's entire program. If David is speaking the truth, then he is a God-forsaken weakling. He can't (or won't) deal with Joab and Abishai. Let God deal with them, but don't get me involved. And he says this to his own men! What!! You mean they believe him, but won't back him up? Wow! Who holds the reins of power in Judah? And Abner thought he was a kingmaker! David is far more a "man of shame" than Ish-Baal.
3. But the weakness defense is unbelievable enough to leave most scholars, besides some conservative evangelicals and the like, convinced that we are dealing with propaganda. We should read the story as an attempted coverup. But it is transparently so. This leaves us with a question. Was the narrator aware of how obvious he makes the coverup? Is this parody or irony?

Taking the story as a parody of a coverup offers some comforts. First, it means that the narrator has a conscience. Second, it means that we don't have to make excuses for David. He really was as bad as he often seems to be. Third, it may fit the way David is handled in later chapters of 2 Samuel.

Unfortunately, I don't think we should read the story that way. I have two reasons for saying this. First, there is no serious indication of parody in the sections of the story that imply the narrator's antagonism against Saul. Second, had the narrator wanted to parody the coverup, he had plenty of opportunities to make literary allusions to other parts of the story that would drop us hints as to what he was doing. For example, the narrator could have let us in on Ish-Baal's explanations for his inaction when Abner decided to unmake him. He could have recast the interchanges between David and Joab to mirror more closely the interchanges between Ish-Baal and Abner. He did not, because that was not his intent. He really expects us to believe his version of the story. In fact, he throws down a challenge: "all the people were pleased with David's conduct in the Abner affair; they all knew David was innocent. What's wrong with you?" If you don't know where I'm coming from, go back and read my post "Discerning good from evil". In this passage, the narrator is taking a positively evil stance; this is an individual who has no shame. Are you willing to follow him?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

1 Samuel 25 -- Whose ox is gored?

I take the story of David, Abigail, and Nabal as a cautionary tale about the abuse of power. In fact, most people who read the story come to that conclusion: Don't be a fool like Nabal, who took advantage of David's perceived weakness and paid with his life. On one level, this is the correct application of the story. But I think this story functions as a cautionary tale about the abuse of power on at least 2 or 3 other levels. On the deepest level, it is a cautionary tale about the power (or lack of it) of telling the story.

That perception makes me want to investigate the story more deeply as a platform for ranting about something that really troubles me about our culture lately. There's no point in beating around the bush. I think Americans have decided self-restraint is folly. I'm not just talking about obvious things like sexualized media or the loss of shame over public tantrums by adults. I'm also talking about the loss of a desire for objectivity in thought. People have always had a hard time seriously criticizing their own ideas and listening carefully and sympathetically to people with whom they disagree. In the not so distant past, however, it was a genuine and shared goal among educated people to try to acknowledge and set aside your own prejudices in public discourse, at least enough to be able to tell the difference between complete hooey and telling arguments on different sides of an issue. Sure people cheated and lied about conforming to this expectation. At least they had a standard to cheat over and lie about. These days, it's hard to find anyone arguing for genuine self-restraint. I guess a lot of people figure nobody else knows how to think, so why should I bother?

Who are my villains? To be honest, I'm not sure who to blame. Maybe just about everybody. Maybe me too. I know a few I won't blame: Carl Sagan, Umberto Eco, James Barr (Professor of OT Literature), Paul Tillich (protestant theologian) and a raft of brave souls who toil in education, science, theology, and public policy quietly, precisely because they believe in self-restraint, which naturally gets them no headlines and too few awards. I can pick on a few people who I'm sure have some role to play, but don't know how big: postmodernists who believe that objectivity is an unattainable illusion. (I include here some precursors, too. One known only to conservative evangelical Christians is Cornelius Van Til, a Presbyterian Professor of Christian Apologetics) I can't speak about the genuine pioneers, because I don't know their work (except Van Til), but the second or third-rank followers who have tried to implement their ideas have in some cases royally screwed up. Example? The objectivity of scientific methods is an illusion. They are really a power play to justify andro-centrism or enlightenment autonomy. I don't get these criticisms. What does scientific method have to do with patriarchy? Does openness to correction by data pose some kind of special risk to women's rights? As for enlightenment autonomy or the hegemony of "reason," it seems to me that the only other alternative is to give up on trying to convince people of anything. I take this type of criticism to mean that thinking itself is the problem. The critics will insist that they are only criticizing a particular kind of thinking, one that stacks the deck in favor of the types of conclusions a particular community of thinkers wishes to draw. So, the real target is "materialistic" or "naturalistic" or "abstract/generalist" thinking. The trouble is, when you ask the critics what they want to replace it with, they end up with something that is not thinking at all: unquestioning loyalty to some religious principle, for example. Or worse, nihilism. Current conclusions of scientists about the nature of the world contradict your favorite religious authority? Bummed that you can't convince them to change their views without marshaling adequate evidence and producing a theory that will explain it better than the current models? Fine, you say. Scientifice method is the problem. For the kind of reality I believe in, it doens't work. Ok, then, give up on modern science, but be consistent. You'll have to give up everything it's taught you about the way things work too. Bring back to witch burnings and exorcisms. Throw out all your maps (illusory, who really knows if the earth is round anyway?), trash your computer, tv, turn off the electricity, heat, AC. In fact, you'll have to strip off your clothes and throw out all your books, plates, bedding, furniture, most of your food, tear down your house, disassemble your car. Dump your purse and empty your wallet, too. In short, I think postmodernists are idiots. I don't mean this to be a cheap insult; it's too serious. I think postmodernism saws off the branch on which it sits. Yes, (if you happen to be one of that rare breed who reads Van Til) I'm borrowing this metaphor from Van Til, and I think he was guiltier of it than the enlightenment types he accuses.

Well, now I've gone off on my rant and forgotten about the story of Nabal. But at least you know where I'm coming from. Feel free to trash anything I say from here on out as the ravings of an enlightenment rationalist bigot, if you have to. But I hope you'll at least think through what I say first.

At first glance the story of David, Abigail and Nabal is a straightforward morality tale. We have already been repeatedly informed that David is an innocent man on the run from the murderous and tyrannical king Saul. In fact, David and his small band have been wandering through Nabal's territory already while on the lam. They come back at sheep-shearing time. The narrator tells us that Nabal is rich and a foolish man given to dealing meanly. On the other hand, he has a beautiful and intelligent wife, Abigail. David is already a "hero" in the story. Nabal is the villain, and Abigail is a heroine. Sure enough, David sends messengers to Nabal to greet him, and Nabal "hurls insults" at them. At least, that's how one of his servants describes the situation to Abigail. The servant apparently finds Nabal's behavior infuriating and expects David and his men to feel the same way, so he urges Abigail to do something quick, or Nabal is in big trouble. She gathers a generous supply of food and rides off to meet David and his men. When she meets him she speaks very graciously, takes the blame for the misunderstanding, pronounces a blessing on David, and begs for his consideration when he becomes king. David praises her for preventing him from taking vengeance, promises to spare her busband, takes the gifts and leaves. Abigail goes back home, waits until her husband is sober after some over-enthusiastic celebration, and tells him the whole story, which leaves him utterly stunned. 10 days later he dies at the hand of the Lord. When David is told about it, he praises God for taking care of his enemy for him and proposes marriage to Abigail, who accepts and rides off to meet him. End of story. David and Abigail are rewarded for their virtue and Nabal is punished.

Unfortunately, this reading of the story only works without a hitch when much of the story as actually told is left out. When you fill in the rest of the details, things get murky. First, there's David. What exactly goes on between him and Nabal? We are told earlier in the book that David and his men spent some time in the "desert of Maon," where Nabal lived. We are not told how long they stayed, what they did there, or whom they met. When they go back to this area, David is told that Nabal was shearing sheep in Carmel. Based on what we're told, then, David and Nabal had not met. Of course, there are plenty of people who are willing to fill in the Bible's silence on this matter with suppositions favorable to one party or the other, but the new story crafted out of these careful suppositions takes the edge off what is in the text. We won't go there. We don't know how much about Nabal David knew before he was told about the sheep-shearing or vice versa. Nor does this text really clear those questions up. Presumably, David's men and Nabal's men did know about each other at least a little bit, because they spent an unknown amount of time together in the fields. Most likely, it was not a long period of time. At any rate, we first learn about this in the message David sends with his men, and then again in the report of Nabal's servant to Abigail. Whether any of Nabal's servants told this to Nabal is unknown. The servant hints that no information was exchanged when he tells Abigail "no one can talk to him." In any case, the first "encounter" between David and Nabal, then, is the message sent with David's 10 young men to Nabal in Carmel.

What does David's message mean? It starts off sounding quite comradely. "Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours!" Then David informs Nabal that his men were with Nabal's shepherds in the fields and took good care of them: "we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing." He requests Nabal to give "whatever you can find" to David's men and to David himself, since it is a festive time. What that is not said here should be assumed? Is this a shakedown? On the one hand, for all we know it may have been customary for local armed bands to protect shepherds in exchange for a share in the harvest. And it may have become an understanding among the local owners that they should include local armed bands in their harvest celebrations. Even if this were so, however, there is no clear boundary between this type of arrangement and extortion, if David's reaction to Nabal's refusal to share was typical. Some have argued that David was fully justified in seeking the life of Nabal for refusing to provide provisions for his men. Nabal had broken the "customary" law of repaying protectors and the Biblical law of providing food for the "sojourner." He may indeed be guilty of the latter. After all, since he claims he doesn't know where the men are coming from, don't they qualify as "sojourners?" The text says nothing about Nabal attempting to check out their claims to find out if they are in need. The message they brought was apparently enough for him. If Nabal is guilty of denying provisions to "sojourners," is his death the fitting punishment for his crime? But the worst part of this argument is the assumption that armed bands receiving "gifts" from citizens in exchange for "protection" is a legitimate social arrangement, especially when the armed band gets to decide whom to protect without consulting with the protected, and when they are allowed to kill people who don't reward them for their "protection." It may be that everyone in the story except Nabal, even the narrator himself, regards David's request as legitimate. That doesn't make it so.
Anyway, back to dealing with the nature of David's request. Nabal's servant seemed to think that Nabal was in serious trouble for "hurling insults" at David's men. Why? What did he know or suspect about David that would lead to this conclusion? And why does Abigail immediately gather a generous supply of food to bring to David? The servant only told her that David sent greetings. What does she know about David that leads her to think David's greeting was a request (demand?) for supplies? Finally, David's immediate reaction to his men's report is a command to strap on their swords and march to Nabal's dwelling. Later, we're told what David was thinking: He had wasted his time protecting Nabal's goods, Nabal had returned evil for good, and he was surely going to make Nabal pay for this with his life and the lives of all the men in his household. All of this suggests that the decision to march against Nabal was not an unpremeditated fit of rage, but the normal tactical response to a recalcitrant "dependent." In modern times we are thoroughly familiar with these types of practices from the jungles of Colombia and Peru to the mountain valleys of Afghanistan. It's worth pointing out that Nabal otained or maintained his wealth for an unknown number of years without David's help. What had changed to make him suddenly need it? And we have to ask why David did not make an agreement with Nabal in advance, if all he really wanted was to trade protection for food? Conclusion: David is practicing extortion. The message sent to Nabal is a metal-knuckled fist wrapped in a satin glove.

What about Nabal? His response to David's men is curt and cutting. "Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?"
There have been disputes on the internet about whether Nabal was justified in rejecting David's request/demand. The very fact that Nabal's words, taken without the commentary of the narrator and other characters, would be assessed so differently is telling. Is Nabal insulting David? His apparent ignorance of David may be a slight, or it may be the literal truth. Other details in the story present Nabal as clueless about the general situation. That he would not know who David is fits that picture. Strictly speaking, what Nabal says about the circumstances of David and his men is true. David has broken away from his master. Sure, Saul is pursuing David to kill him, not bring him back into his service, but does Nabal know any of this? In fact, Nabal's statement may be only a supposition: Armed bandits are made up of people who have fled from regulated society. David is an armed bandit, so he and his men must be breakaways. Plenty of people assume that Nabal was speaking from a general knowledge of David's situation. In fact, you can find articles that have Nabal rejecting David's request because he's aware that Saul has been looking for David, and he doesn't want to end up like Ahimelech. The text says nothing about this; it is an unecessary supposition. The last thing Nabal says sums up quite well his reason for rejecting David's request. David and his men have come from who knows where bearing a veiled threat if Nabal does not share his bounty with them. Nabal is not going to deprive himself and his employees of the fruits of their labors for somebody who just shows up demanding something. The general tone of Nabal's words is confrontational. There is no diplomacy or deference here. Why doesn't Nabal show more restraint? I'm not sure. "A gentle answer turns away wrath" must not have had an honored place in Nabal's proverbiary. For no other reason than this, he earns the name "Fool." Does he merit death for this lack of tact? Of course not. Nabal may be plain-spoken, even crass, but he is not the obvious villain after all. He may still be a villain of some sort, but it's going to take some work to make that clear to the reader.

What about Abigail? Of the three main characters, she has the least social power. But she compensates for it by her intelligence. I'm not talking only about her mental acuity; she seems to have a prophetic gift. As mentioned above, she somehow reads between the lines of the servant's words and gathers food for David and his men. In her speech to David, she reveals the following: 1.) David will accede to her request (v. 26); 2.) Nabal will die (v. 26 with v. 29); 3.) someone is pursuing David (v. 29, although translations differ as to whether this is a statement of fact or a supposition); 4.) God has promised David he will be the next "leader" of Israel (v. 30); 5.) God's promise will be fulfilled (v. 31). The narrator leaves us to speculate about how she came to know all this. Some of it can be supposed to have come throught the grapevine; her knowledge about the future could be ascribed to wishful thinking, clever diplomat-speak, unusual insight, or genuine prophetic inspiration. In any case, a surface reading of the text indicates that she possesses a better grasp of the situation than any of the other characters. It is almost surprising that she didn't know David's men had come, given everything she says she does know.

How does she use her power? The standard reading of the text is that she used it virtuously. This reading will sometimes start by attempting to work out the implications of a beautiful, intelligent woman being married to a churlish fool, probably against her will (i.e., arranged marriage). She may have suffered verbal and physical abuse. She may have had to avoid Nabal as much as possible to escape his abuse; they were probably strangers living in the same house. This alone may explain how Abigail can know so much about David and Nabal so little. Whatever scuttlebutt was floating around about David reached her, because the rest of the household could talk to her, but even she could not find a way to discuss these matters with her husband. The woman has been suffering at her husband's hands. Of course, all of this is speculation, presumably encouraged by the narrator's brief comments on their character (much more on this later). We don't really know how Nabal treated his wife. The only time they interact is at the end of the story, when Abigail tells Nabal all about her encounter with David. His response is to lose heart and become like a stone (stroke? catatonia? sudden depression? spiritual hardening of his heart?). So we don't really know how Nabal treated his wife.

We know quite a bit more about how Abigail treated her husband. First, we know that she brought gifts to David without telling Nabal. This initial act is so contrary to the expectations traditional types have about a virtuous woman that you can find several lengthy justifications of it on the web. I won't go into details recounting them. It should be pointed out that 1.) she and Nabal do not agree about how to handle David's request; and 2.) she takes independent action behind her husband's back. When she encounters David, the first thing she does is grovel at his feet. Then she takes the 'blame' for the incident and asks David to "pay no attention" to Nabal. She expostulates on Nabal's foolishness and implies that he is only acting according to character; nothing better could be expected of him. She indicates her 'blame': she did not see the men David sent.

This last point stands as the introduction to her requests. The first request? Let all David's enemies be like Nabal! As mentioned above, this implies a curse upon Nabal that will lead to his death. The second request is that David distribute the food she sent to his followers. The third request is that David forgive her trespass. She explains her request in terms of David's coming exaltation. Since he fights the Lord's battles, God will surely bless him with life and leadership over Israel. By restraining himself now, he will spare himself from a conflicted conscience over the deaths of Nabal's household in days to come. Finally, she requests that David remember her when he becomes the leader of Israel.

One of the interesting issues here is her attempt to take the blame for the situation. First, it should be noted that although she uses the language of wrongdoing and guilt, she does not admit to doing anything really wrong. Her "fault" was not to be there when David's men arrived. This is really a way of casting Nabal in a worse light. (He may deserve it, but nonetheless, she is not defending her husband's character or reputation.) She is saying, "If I had been there, I would have taken care of you; Nabal is just too foolish to treat you the way you deserve." Of course, by trying to deflect the blame to herself, she is increasing the likelihood that David will not carry out his murderous plan; it is far easier to "forgive" a beautiful woman who brings you a generous supply of food, casts herself at your feet, praises you, predicts a glorious future for you, and begs you for mercy (and perhaps hints that she'll be available for something more in days to come), than it is to overlook a curtly-delivered insult by a powerful man. In this respect, Abigail can be understood to plead for her husband's life. So really, she is not taking blame; she is simply trying to coax David into turning aside from his plan and uses the language of guilt to direct his anger away from the really guilty party, Nabal. Now, I think Nabal's guilt is still a matter of doubt, but not David. Abigail is dealing with David's mindset, not a disinterested observer's.

How seriously should we take Abigail's speech? On the surface, she deals very badly with her husband. She curses him, she neglects to plead for his forgiveness, and she neglects to plead for David to give him consideration when he becomes king. Now, it is possible to interpret all of this as a series of concessions to David in order to protect her husband. She understands that David thinks so ill of her husband that the best thing she can do is distract him completely from Nabal and get him to focus his attention on her. On the other hand, nothing in the text prevents us from taking Abigail's words at face value. Her husband is as good as dead, anyway, as far as she's concerned, so she may as well set herself up for the future she is soon to enjoy without him. Later, after David has left satisfied, the sheep-shearing celebrations are over and her husband is good and sober, she tells him "these things." There is plenty of room to guess at what "these things" includes, but it most likely is meant to include everything the narrator has told us about what went on after Nabal's confrontation with David's servants. This means Abigail told Nabal what she said to David. She could have told Nabal nothing, just as she and his servants did heretofore. Why tell him this now? One explanation is that since the crisis is now past, she does the right thing by explaining her behavior to her husband. Presumably, this includes an explanation of her speech as a desperate measure to spare Nabal's life. Nabal reacts to this either with paralyzing fear (the most common interpretation) or hardness of heart. Another explanation is that she tells him everything now as an act of spite. She wants him to know how despicable she thinks he is, how she called death down upon him and cozied up to David to be her protector when he achieves success. Depending on how favorably one regards Nabal's deeds, Abigail's spite can be understood as a virtuous act of self-assertion against a tyrant or wicked opportunism and betrayal. Nabal reacts in shock, perhaps the deep depression of someone who recognizes how deeply he has been betrayed.

We don't know whether Abigail is protecting or separating herself from her husband. Likewise, we can't tell exactly how Nabal takes the news she bears. By the end of the story we still do not know how Nabal and Abigail got along. Maybe the narrator wants us to reach some conclusions about this. One common interpretation of the narrator's intent is that Abigail is deserving of freedom from Nabal and so legitimately acts to free herself from him, and his reaction to her deeds (and his death) confirms that she deserves better.

Why is this conclusion not more obvious? Are we hampered by a lack of common cultural assumptions, or is the real problem in the text?

The gap I am insisting exists between the narrator's apparent intentions and the interpretive options available in the text leads me to focus my attention on the narrator himself. How does he acquit himself in this story? What conclusions should we draw about him?

Now, don't be hasty here. Sure, raising questions about the narrator sounds like a "hermenutic of suspicion." It may resemble some techniques employed by deconstructionists. Please leave the excess theoretical baggage associated with those labels behind.

On the other hand, you may immediately rule my questions about the narrator out of order because the narrator is God and I am a mere man. Who am I to question the narrator's competence or character? Doesn't that prove I'm the one with an agenda? Of course, you may think, this takes us back to the old question, "Is something right simply because God says it is?" Which is more ultimate, the will of God or the standards that will embodies/conforms to? But you don't have to go there. I am not raising questions about how God's will conforms to a standard. I am raising questions about what God's will is. How do we know what God wants us to do? I do NOT assume I know what God is telling me to do just because it shows up in a "holy" book written by someone who claims to speak in his name. It may be that something is right just because God says it is. The question is, how do I know God is telling me it is right?

Actually, some of the traditional discussions of the relationship between the will of God and the moral law end up dealing with the epistemological questions I am interested in. The one I am most familiar with, that of Cornelius Van Til, approaches the question with the understanding that anything asserted by the author of a Biblical text as good and true is also asserted to be good and true by God himself. The epistemological question resolves to "How do I know what the Biblical author is asserting to be good and true?" Once that is settled, any qualms I may have about the goodness or truth of the assertion are my problem. It is a sign of my exceeding sinfulness that I have a problem accepting God's assertion. The solution is to learn the character of my sinfulness so that I may recognize its evil and heartily repent.

I object to this approach. First, there is at least one Biblical counter-example (see post on Discerning good from evil). Under Van Til's view of the Bible, that is enough to undermine his entire position. Moreover, determining what the Biblical author asserts to be good and true in practice includes weighing evidence that does not come from the text and does not directly address the meaning of the text. This is because of the belief that "all truth is God's truth." So, if historical or scientific evidence leads knowledgeable people to believe that the earth revolves around the sun, for example, then that belief should play a role in how one understands the story of the sun standing still in Joshua 10. This procedure amounts to saying that of however many possible meanings may be found in a Biblical text, those that contradict truths discovered outside the Biblical text are ruled out. This principle has been employed by many conservative interpreters to deal with problems of the sort I've encountered in this text. But it is a controversial principle nonetheless, often because interpreters employ it to select an otherwise less probable interpretation simply to efface an apparent error in a Biblical text.

Even more fundamental is the situation in which the text itself appears to undermine its own intention. This is the kind of situation I believe we encounter in 1 Samuel 25. Folks who follow Van Til don't believe that the Bible usually works this way; it is not an ironical or self-parodying/defeating text. This comes from the combination of their view of the character of God and his relationship to human authors. They think God is too directly involved with the surface intention of Biblical texts to let a human author fall into self-defeating behavior, and they don't believe God would actively seek to confuse or frustrate (believing) authors and readers. I think these presumption need testing with Biblical data, and 1 Samuel 25 appears to disconfirm them.

In short, here's what's at stake. On the one hand, the surface intention of the text appears to belittle, insult, and demonize Nabal while presenting Abigail in a positive light and defending David from possible charges of evil-doing in his dealings with Nabal. On the other hand, there are features in the text that at least put a question mark behind these surface intentions, and in some cases directly contradict them. So, are these discordant features purposefully planted clues to the overall meaning of the story or just revealing mistakes? And who put them there? Is this story the product of one hand, or several working at cross-purposes?

Right away, let me dispose of the second set of questions. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't ultimately matter whether 1 or 10 authors "wrote" this story. While answers to those questions may be useful for many other purposes, I don't think they will help us come up with the answer to the question of what "lesson" to derive from David's interactions with Nabal and Abigail.

An answer to the first set of questions, on the other hand, could be quite useful. Is the story trying to get us to question David's character and motives? Is it trying to undercut its own surface pro-David slant? Or is the text a true believer's screed for David and against all his enemies and critics, and we just happen to notice its excesses because we don't share the author's faith in David? If the latter is correct, then our choices are clearer and simpler. We either accept the author's claims because the text is ultimately authored by God, and who are we to question or doubt his use of apparent propaganda, or we reject them because we find propaganda incompatible with God's character and would rather the Bible be untrue than God a Joseph Goebbels.

If the former is correct, the whole situation becomes more interesting. First, it leads one to look for clues of the same kind of narrative behavior elsewhere in the David story. How many are there, where will they show up, how will they qualify or undercut the surface presentation of David? Subsequent posts to this log will show some of these "clues" in other texts. Second, it raises the question of the motivations underlying the "ironical" narrator's actions. Why not just come out and openly declare David a bad guy? Third, it gives an "out" to evangelicals who want the "teaching" of the Bible to come out inerrant at the end of the day. After all, if the narrator ultimately wants you to condemn David for his bad behavior rather than praise him, how can you fault the narrator for propagandizing? But what an out! If a serious evangelical scholar were to adopt and promote this kind of interpretation (to my knowledge, none has), it would start a hermeneutical war.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Book of Esther: Choose Your Own Adventure Edition, Part 2

Before carrying on with this project, I would like to point out a pair of posts that seem to be pursuing some of the same concerns as these posts on Esther, but from a Jewish viewpoint and much better written. See Remembering Amalek Part I and Remembering Amalek, Part II.

Ok, now for another version of Esther that never got written. In this version, there is no reference to the Amalekites whatsoever. Haman's ethnicity is not discussed, only his animosity toward Mordecai, who of course no longer refuses to bow down to Haman. No, in this case Haman is angry at Mordecai for his self-possession, his confident piety, his scrupulous adherence to Jewish customs, or his monotheism. In other words, the story conforms more closely to the scenarios typical of stories located in post-exilic diaspora Judaism. Haman's reason for wanting to kill all the Jews? Their non-conformity. People who insist on being so different from the rest of us must be terribly evil in some way or other. They MUST be disobeying Persian law somehow; they've got to go. When Haman falls, all his willing accomplices fall with him, but nobody else. When Esther pleads for her people, she pleads exclusively for the right of self-defense against real enemies. Mordecai's edict explicitly limits Jewish vengeance to those planning an active role in Haman's plot, and the remedy is not blanket execution but forcible disarmament of the "enemies of the Jews," arrest, trial, and judgment. The story makes a big point of this to illustrate the difference between Jews, who honor the law of God, and wicked murderers like Haman. Personally, I like this version much better than the one we have now. Nothing in this outline would have required the author to sacrifice drama. He could have used all the irony in the existing story and thrown in even more to boot.

I suspect the author held the Torah in as high a regard as most post-exilic Jews. It is highly unlikely that he would have felt comfortable directly challenging the validity of Exodus 17 or Deuteronomy 25 even if he wanted to. But had he a mind to reflect the most enlightened outlook on social justice available in the Torah, he would not have used either text as a template for Jewish relations with their enemies. He would have ignored them and looked elsewhere for precedents, as perhaps the author of the Book of Jonah.

But this version did not get written. Why not? Was the author cowed by Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25? Maybe he thought his Jewish audience would not have accepted any story about relations with Gentiles that did not include a Haman-like figure. Maybe his target audience was experiencing a great deal of Gentile hostility and would not have been encouraged by a story promoting conciliation or evenhandedness. Or, maybe his audience WAS looking for this type of story, and the author thought they were degenerate. To provoke them, he wrote a genocidal tract and framed the genocide in as positive a light as possible. After all, by the end of the book, a Jew who was offended or left cold by the genocidal acts of chapters 8 and 9 may have felt lonely. The author creates a narrative world in which that kind of Jew would be all alone.

Let's try another version of the story. Our next version radically alters the approach Mordecai and Esther take to Haman. Haman's ethnic identity is presented as in the existing story. But neither Esther nor Mordecai respond to that with animosity. In chapter 3, Mordecai honors Haman along with all the other officials. On the other hand, Haman is enflamed with hatred when he finds out that Mordecai is a Jew, and he decides to plot the destruction of them all. When the plot is announced, Esther requests the king to grant her a private audience between herself, Haman, and Mordecai. During that audience, Esther and Mordecai plead the case for humanity with Haman and beg him to issue a countermanding law. He refuses. Esther requests a conference with the king, reveals her nationality and pleads for the life of the Jews. The king is moved and summons Mordecai and Haman. He strips Haman of his office and replaces him with Mordecai. He authorizes Mordecai to issue a countermanding law and condemns Haman to death. Esther immediately pleads with the king for Haman's life to be spared, based on the possibility that the desire for revenge has overmastered him. Mordecai's edict calls for Jewish self-defense ONLY against active attackers. The narrative describes how "fear of the Jews" and the support of the existing authorities led to a bloodless 13th and 14th of Adar. This version can resolve the problem of Haman's hatred either by his remorse, repentance, and restoration to some degree of authority, or by having him attempt to lash out again only to be caught and executed at the order of the king.

This version makes the story a midrash on the Proverb, "When your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat, when he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In this way, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you." (Proverbs 25:21-22) Now the use of Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25 is not just ignored but actively resisted, although without any explicit criticism of either text. Instead, a different model of how to handle the "enemy of the Jews" is adopted and presented in as positive a light as possible. To my mind, this is about the best we could hope for from Jewish thinkers in late antiquity. The authority of the written word of God was just too great to be directly rejected. In my opinion, a good bit of early Christianity is just this sort of thing. The Hebrew Scriptures are the Word of God; they can't be wrong. But they can be read in such a way that apparently scandalous or evil things no longer appear so bad. And we can tell new stories that develop the good things found in the old Torah even further. There are plenty of smarter and more articulate expositions of this method of interpreting divine Scriptures out there. I defer further explanation to the pros.

Of course, this story was not written for the same reasons the other alternative stories were not written. It has nothing to do with the "facts" of the case. Even if all the "facts" actually occurred and the author felt duty-bound to report them, he still had some freedom. He was not constrained by the actual course of events when he decided to dwell on the anguish of the Jews and report nothing about the anguish of the Amalekites. No "facts" prevented him from specifying exactly how the Jews carried out their "self-defense" or against whom. If he knew nothing about these things, how does he know about Haman's conversations with his friends and family? I don't take the historicity of the details of this story seriously for one minute; I only mention these points to indicate how weak a defense of the author it is to say that he was "just reporting what happened." No, these clues to his attitude, taken together with the details that a fundemantalist would want to call "facts" all point the same way, and they condemn him outright.

To expand on the conclusion of my May 30th post, IMHO the only satisfactory way to deal with this book is to openly oppose it. We need to tell the alternate stories, the best ones we can come up with, whether they come from other parts of the Bible, or are "inspired" by them or by good examples from later history or our contemporaries, or even just "good imaginations." We want to celebrate what is good and reject what is evil. What better way than to tell this story, uncover its ugliness, and then refresh ourselves with a story that upholds the good. We should not be cowed by this book's presence in the canon, any more than we should be cowed by anything else found in the Bible. Yes, we need to use the "canon within the canon" to ferret out the ugliness in the canon and call it by its proper names.

Opposing the promotion of genocide in Esther does not go far enough though. The author of Esther did not invent these ideas; he just applied them. We have to go back to the Torah and deal with the texts that "inspired" the author of Esther. This should not be surprising. There is no apriori reason to suppose that any particular part of the Bible (or any other religious literature) will be freer of the stain of human malice than any other. At some point I hope to deal with parts of the Torah, and with a better account of the overall approach to the Bible I am using here.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Book of Esther: Choose Your Own Adventure Edition

In my post of May 30th, I characterized the author as a scoundrel and a coward. I would like to re-examine that conclusion by supposing the author had other stories he could have told and by using the existing book to understand why the other stories were not told.

This post assumes that the story is a work of fiction. Those who believe it is factual or intended to be factual, and that the author was largely constrained by his knowledge of the actual events and/or by existing documents will find much to quarrel with here. That's OK by me. If you have a complaint, let me know!

Alternate story 1: Sometime after the coronation of Queen Esther, Haman, son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, enters the king's service. It becomes known to Mordecai and Esther that this Haman is an Amalekite, whereupon Mordecai incites Esther to seek an audience with the king to request a search-and-destroy mission against the Amalekites. Esther obeys Mordecai. During the audience, Esther regales Xerxes with the historical crimes committed by the Amalekites, the repeated attempts to serve them the full measure of justice, and their pesky escapes and reappearances. She requests permission to finish the job. The king turns over his signet ring to Mordecai, who drafts a law similar to Haman's edict. The story recounts the successful Jewish effort to annhilate their enemies and the establishment of holiday "A" to celebrate the final solution against the Amalekites.

Why didn't this story get told? 1.) No drama, no ironies, no dramatic reversals of fortune. 2.) In this version, the Jews have no reason to carry out the massacres except for the ancient command of Deuteronomy 25. The author apparently either did not regard the command of Deuteronomy 25 as sufficient to justify the deed, or he did not believe the story would be attractive to his target audience unless a further provocation were provided. 3.) This version provokes no sympathy for the Jews. If anything, it does the reverse.

We will concentrate on the second point. The author did not want to tell a story in which the Jews annhilate the Amalekites merely because an opportunity to obey Deuteronomy 25:17-19 presented itself to them. Possibly it offended his conscience. In support of this supposition we have the following:

  • If we adopt the translation of 8:11 found in many versions (NIV, ASV) Mordecai's edict sought the deaths only of "armed bands" or "authorities" seeking to destroy the Jews, not entire ethnic groups including women and children. Haman's sons would have died because they had all joined one of the "armed bands." The author never explicitly claims that the entire populations of "enemies of the Jews" were wiped out, men, women, and children.
  • Furthermore, he never explicitly identifies the "enemies of the Jews" as Amalekites. Rather than using an ethnic designation, he classifies the individuals killed based on their active hostility to the Jews. This could be taken as an attempt to modify the fulfillment of the Deuteronomic legislation based on Ezekiel's arguments against corporate punishment in Ezekiel 18 and 33. In this modified version, any individual who rejects the evil committed by ancestors is not liable to judgment pronounced against them. So then, any "repentant" Amalekite, assuming there were any, would not have been executed. Compare the treatment of Rahab in Joshua 5.
  • His description of the execution of Mordecai's edict is exceedingly vague. It leaves room for someone so inclined to imagine the Jews carrying out a precise, targeted act of retribution, leaving plenty of "Amalekites" alive due to exceptional circumstances such as those mentioned above.
  • At the extreme, one could deny that the Jews were targeting Amalekites at all. Haman's "Agagite" ancestry has nothing to do with King Agag of the Amalekites. It is a designation for an ethnic group indigenous to Iran. (So, for example, the ISBE contributor for Haman, who says that tracing Haman's ancestry to the Amalekites is "ridiculous." You can read this article here and judge for yourself how seriously to take it.) Hence, all the hints of genocide disappear, and the Jewish action is simply self-defense against hostile military forces.

This evidence does not amount to much. For each point, a better explanation can be found. Regardless of whether there actually was a group called "Agagites" in Achaemenid Persia, the literary allusions in Esther make it highly probable that "Agagite" is a reference to Agag the Amalekite. In addition, this supposition explains so much else that the author does it is extremely difficult to resist (See my May 30 post for details). Mordecai's edict in Esther 8:11 makes much more sense in the context of the book as a whole if it specifies the execution of whole people groups, women and children included (Again, see my May 30 post for details). The narrative is quite vague about the execution of Mordecai's edict, but we need the other evidence to stand up before we can ascribe it to the author's tender conscience.

It is more likely that the author did not want to tell a story that showed the Jews annhilating Amalekites merely to fulfill Deuteronomy 25:17-19 because it would not be attractive to his target audience. Consider the following:

  • Post-exilic Judaism shows signs of a tension between exclusivist and inclusivist tendencies regarding the Gentiles. Among the evidences of this tension are

    • the book of Jonah
    • the foreign setting of the book of Job
    • the stories of Daniel 1-6
    • the strong stand taken against intermarriage with neighboring peoples in Ezra and Nehemiah

    The author may have been aware that some fellow Jews would not take kindly to a naked assertion of Jewish right to carry out a genocidal decree in the Pentateuch. Hence, to mitigate the offense, he presents the Amalekites through the character of Haman, who clearly deserves a bad end. Haman also becomes an argument in favor of genocidal action. The Amalekites are so bad that if you leave any alive they can come back to threaten you, even hundreds of years later.
  • Some recent commentators have speculated that the book was written in part as a reaction to events in the Hellenistic period, in which Jews were targeted for reasons similar to those Haman gave to Xerxes for annhilating them. I don't take a stand on this dating; I would simply point out that the stories in Daniel 1-6 provide an analogue. These stories would not have been told unless Jews felt endangered. Their beliefs and practices exposed them to hostile action. Haman serves to embody this danger. It makes the story come alive for Jews under threat.
  • Given this context, the author's intentional vagueness about the ethical identity of the targets of Jewish retribution probably has a more sinister intent. He is trying to extend the application of the decree against the Amalekites to anyone who threatens the Jews. I have already argued that Mordecai's decree is intended to fulfill the command to absolutely obliterate the Amalekites from history in Deuteronomy 25:17-19. By refusing to explicitly identify the "enemies of the Jews" as Amalekites, the author is implying that the Jews did not just annhilate the Amalekites, but any other group that had planned to join with them. In fact, then, Haman's plot provides him with an event in which the participation of other, non-Amalekite Jewish enemies appears plausible. By implication, the author provides justification from the Law of God that the Jews have the right -- no, the obligation -- to utterly annhilate any group of people from whom enemies arise.

In short, the author rejected this story not only because it makes Jews look bad, but because it portrays the end of the Amalekite saga. This author does not believe that saga has ended. And he has plenty of followers. There is no shortage of internet resources, not to mention books, articles, sermons, etc., making the same point. The Amalekites are still with us under other names. Most of these resources do not follow the author to the point of advocating genocide; they tend to adopt one or more of the qualifying arguments mentioned above (or some others mentioned in my May 30 post).

Do you see how bad this is? The author is trying to detach a ruthless piece of genocidal mania (Exodus 17; Deuteronomy 25) from its "historical" moorings and set it free-floating through Jewish history. The irony, the irony, the irony.

In my next post, I will examine alternate stories that could have put the genie of genocide back in its bottle.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Do it your own damned self -- and you can start with me

What should we make of the Book of Esther? For a long time its place in the canon of the Jewish and Christian Bibles was questioned. Many Christians, notably Martin Luther, have been put off by its supposed Jewish racism. In late antiquity doubts about it were raised because Esther and Mordecai appeared to be cultically and/or ethically compromised and the book failed to mention God or present its heroes as pious individuals.

Frankly, I find all of this largely insignificant or wide of the mark. First, the Book of Esther has a definite, if implicit, theology. Second, the consequences of this theology are far more important than the author's viewpoints on Esther and Mordecai's personal piety or sexual morality.

A lot of people (read the commentaries or just google "Book of Esther") relate the threat of Jewish annhilation by Haman and willing helpers to the Holocaust, and rightly so. Fewer folks (I found one here) have considered the implications of the "historical background" to the book alluded to by the author's genealogical notices on Haman and Mordecai.

First Mordecai. We are first told that he is a Benjaminite; then we get a list of his ancestors. If you are inclined to regard the book as accurate history, it is best to read the list as his immediate ancestors culminating in Kish, who was taken into exile to Babylon in reign of Jehoiachin. This fits the supposed chronology of the book pretty well, assuming that King "Ahasuerus" is Xerxes. There are no other Biblical genealogies that mention Mordecai or any of these ancestors under this interpretation. On the other hand, the names Shimei and Kish make one think of old King Saul's family. Kish was Saul's father and Shimei a member of his "clan." Since "son of" in Biblical genealogies can simply mean "descendant of" and can refer to other types of relationships besides biological descent, it is possible that the individuals mentioned in the Books of Samuel are the intended referents of this genealogy. If that is the case, who had been carried into exile by Nebuchadnezzar? Under this interpretation, the only realistic candidate is Mordecai, but even this only makes sense if we assume the author was completely at a loss about the length of time between the deportation of Jehoiachin (597 BCE) and the reign of Xerxes (485-460 BCE) ... and that's assuming "King Ahasuerus" is not Artaxerxes I or II. Some people who adopt this interpretation suppose that the person carried into exile is Jair or some other unspecified intermediate ancestor. But this solution is forced. As a third alternative we can suppose that the author intended to refer to Mordecai's immediate ancestors, but it just so happened that some of them had the same names as (in)famous Benjaminite ancestors, and he listed those ancestors for rhetorical purposes (see below). Or, if you prefer, he decided to give Mordecai's immediate ancestors these names to relate them to the famous Biblical figures for the same rhetorical purposes. Depending on your view of the author's historical accuracy/intent you can pick one or the other.

Now Haman. We are given a much shorter but very pregnant notice. He is the son of Hammedatha, otherwise unknown. He is an "Agagite." Is this genealogical notice referring to some obscure ethnic background now lost to history? Possible, but not likely. Given the implied references to King Saul's family in Mordecai's genealogy, it is best to understand "Agagite" as a reference to King Agag, the Amalekite king captured by Saul in his raid against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). True, Saul supposedly killed all the Amalekites except Agag in the raid, and the prophet Samuel killed Agag shortly after that. Doesn't appear to leave room for any descendants. But David later is able to find Amalekites to raid and wipe out (1 Sam 30) and 400 escape. Another stray Amalekite claims to have euthanized King Saul (2 Sam 1). 1 Chronicles tells us that members of the tribe of Simeon destroyed surviving Amalekites in the days of Hezekiah, some 200 years later (1 Chr 4:43). Once again, the author need not be referring directly to the Agag of 1 Sam 15. The name could be evocative and simply indicate that Haman is an Amalekite.

According to Exodus 17, the Amalekites attacked Israel shortly after they had escaped from slavery in Egypt. After defeating them, the Lord tells Moses to write down that He will completely wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. He will be at war with them from generation to generation (Ex 17:15-16). Deuteronomy 25:17-19 refers to Amalek picking off stragglers while Israel wandered in the wilderness. The people are to remember this until they have achieved rest from enemies in the promised land, and then they must wipe out Amalek completely. In 1 Sam 15 the prophet Samuel refers to similar events during the wilderness wandering and exhorts Saul to carry out genocide against Amalek to fulfill the Lord's promise. In the process, no living thing is to be spared and nothing brought back. Saul and the Israelites wipe out all the Amalekites but bring back livestock and other spoil and take King Agag captive. Saul's failure to carry out these instructions to the letter is one of the reasons given in the book of Samuel for Saul's loss of the kingship. The continued existence of Amalekites during David's reign and afterwards leaves a piece of unfinished business for the Lord and his people.

We can add all the major players in this historical background to the list of unnamed presences in the dramatic world of the Book of Esther. We will focus attention on two of them, Yahweh and Amalek. They play a huge role in the story of Esther, mostly for what the thoughtful reader is led (tempted?) to infer about them from the indirect hints and ambiguous silences in the narrative.

Why does Mordecai refuse to honor Haman? The book does not specify a reason. Some have speculated that it may be out of concern for the 1st commandment. This is unlikely; he would have been unable to "bow down" and "honor" anyone in the royal court, including Xerxes. For that, he (and all other observant Jews) would presumably already be in trouble. A careful study of the phrases used to describe the honor the king wishes all the officials to give to Haman will show that in certain circumstances it was customary for Israelites to "bow down" and "honor" kings and other human authorities without compromise to the 1st commandment.

Given their genealogies, one could suppose that Mordecai refuses to honor Haman because he is an Amalekite. The book does not tell us that Mordecai knew anything about Haman's ethnic background; it does tell us that Esther knew it, at least by chapter 8. We could assume that she and Mordecai have this knowledge in common. But if Mordecai knew Haman's ethnic background, why was he not already seeking the execution of Haman and his entire family? One could explain this as a concession to the circumstances. Refusing to honor Haman is the best Mordecai can do to "remember Amalek" in the present situation. Perhaps he is waiting for a divinely-orchestrated change to open a door for the fulfillment of Israel's duty. Mind you, this is all speculation; the author never tells us what Mordecai's motives were. Still, without this speculation, Mordecai's behavior is completely unexplained.

And the author has purposely kept silent about Mordecai's motivations. His silence strengthens a parallel he has set up between Mordecai and Vashti. Both refuse to carry out a direct command of king Xerxes. In both cases we are not given a reason for their refusal. In both cases court officials perceive in the refusal a direct challenge to royal authority. In both cases there is an official response in the form of new law. The parallel foregrounds the differences between the two situations. The law against Vashti deprives her of her royal position but spares her life; the law against Mordecai threatens the annhilation of all Jews. The outcome of the law against Vashti is her deposition and disappearance from the story. The outcome of the law against Mordecai is his elevation to a position of power and authority second only to Xerxes himself and the utter defeat of the enemies of the Jews. How can we draw a "moral" from these vastly different results? The only bases the author gives us are the differences in their social/ethnic/religious status: 1.) Vashti is a gentile woman resisting the commands of her own husband; Mordecai is a Jewish man resisting the command of a gentile king. Baed on the book's explicit statements, the moral to draw appears to be "Don't mess with the Jews!" In fact, that's just what a co-worker of mine concluded after we had a 15-minute discussion of these issues!

On the other hand, our ignorance of Mordecai's motivations is one of several direct contrasts between Mordecai and Haman. The author gives us several glimpses into Haman's frame of mind by direct assertions and by snippets of conversations he has with his intimates. For example, we are told that Haman finds out Mordecai is a Jew. Furthermore, we are told that once Haman learns this, he is determined to have the entire Jewish population wiped out. The author never explains what it is about the Jews that incites Haman to seek their destruction. But really, do we need any further explanation? This is a case of revenge against the Jews for their many attempts to exterminate Haman's remote ancestors; no other explanation is needed. Furthermore, the author informs us that the law Haman devises explicitly orders the destruction of all Jews: men, women, and children. Now, where did he get that idea from? But of course, the author NEVER explicitly refers to any of the ferocious Pentateuchal legislation against the Amalekites, or any of the stories recorded in the books of Samuel and Chronicles about decimations of Amalekite settlements. "Why should I," we can imagine him thinking, "they're just Amalekites. Do I want anyone to care if their women and children are slaughtered wholesale? Do I want to write anything that might raise (God forbid!) sympathy for these damned wretches?"

We should pause right now to utterly condemn and abominate Haman's scheme. To seek the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children for something their ancestors did hundreds of years ago is depraved. It serves no justice and rights no wrongs. It feeds a demonic hate. It settles nothing. Worst of all, it is "identity" justice, a non sequitur unworthy of refutation. It is beyond the pale. Look, there are plenty of people who will work hard to explain why in case A,B, or C this kind of thinking is OK (See this post for a related example). Yes, many of these people will swear that in THEIR case it is legit. Their chosen targets really deserves everything they are getting. They've considered all the alternatives to collective annhilation and found them worse, etc, etc, etc. As far as I'm concerned, humans would have been better served over the last few thousand years if a way could have been found to lock all the Jewish, Puritan/Reformed, Roman Catholic, Islamist and Nazi apologists for genocide in a room with each other. Maybe in close quarters they'd have recognized kindred spirits and been horrified enough with themselves to rethink things. Well, I can dream.

Back to our author. He, at least, is not in the least disturbed by Haman's tactics. Haman had the right idea, just the wrong target. This is a harsh judgment, and depending on the Bible version you use, it may appear to be unjustified. One of the key passages to understanding our author is Esther 8:11. Here we have the text of the law written by Mordecai with King Xerxes' authority to counteract Haman's edict. The text is ambiguous. According to one common interpretation (e.g., NIV), the Jews are authorized to destroy any force that opposes them or their wives and children. According to the other common interpretation, the Jews are authorized to destroy any armed force, including women and children, that opposes them. Some translations leave the ambiguity in place, so that you have to figure out for yourself whether the law is discussing attacks by Jewish enemies against Jewish wives and children or attacks by the Jews against their enemies' wives and children. There are problems with either alternative, but I think on balance that the latter interpretation is more probable.

First, some may object that it doesn't sound right to group women and children in an "armed force." The Hebrew word is most often used of an army. But the syntax does not require us to assume that the "wives and children" are themselves members of the armed force, only associated with the "people or province" sponsoring the "army." Second, if we adopt the latter interpretation, Mordecai's decree answers Haman's point for point. What was planned for the Jews; that very thing will befall their enemies. Under the former interpretation, you either have to say that wives and children were implicitly included or that the Jewish response did not match Haman's decree on this point. This last alternative is made improbable by the following: 1.) Haman's 10 sons were killed. We are not told that they were all members of an "armed force" of Amalekites. So, how are the Jews justified in killing them? Under any of the other alternatives, that they are sons of Haman is justification enough for their execution. 2.) The Jewish response in every other respect is rhetorically matched to Haman's decree: a.) doing what one pleases; b.) announced to everybody in the empire; c.) right to plunder enemy's possessions d.) "destroy, kill, and annhilate." 3.) Unless the Jews totally annhilated the Amalekites, women and children included, the author's repeated mention that they refused to touch the plunder fails to complete the contrast between the Jewish response in Esther and Saul's failure in 1 Sam 15.

This is sufficient, I think, to conclude that the author intends us to understand that the Jews were providentially enabled to complete the annhilation of the Amalekites by the events surrounding Haman's downfall. What does this mean to the author? First, it demonstrates the truth of Genesis 12:3: God blesses the Jews and curses their enemies. Second, it is cause for celebration by Jews everywhere at all times.

This is all bad. Some people read the Book of Esther as a fictional comic parody. "Relax and enjoy the humor in the book; don't take it more seriously than it was intended." OK, I can laugh over some of Xerxes' foibles, and Haman is a laughably pitiable excuse for a human being, but I draw the line at genocide. If you want to get your jollies that way I can't stop you, but don't expect me to join in. And while you're laughing, remember that Esther is in the Biblical canon. People read this story as the Word of God. Not only is it sober history, they think, it reveals God's character and will. God wants them to rejoice along with the 4th/5th century BCE Jews at the annhilation of another people. He may be planning the same fate for a contemporary group of people, and he may call on them to be the executors of his will. These people are duty-bound to take the story this way. If they really thought God was telling them to "blot out the memory of X from under heaven" they would try mightily to silence their protesting consciences. They would be in an Exodus 32 battle: "Do I follow what my conscience tells me God wants or the word of command I just heard?" You still laughing?

Sure, there are people who read Esther as the Word of God and allegorize the offense away. I found a rabbi who posted a nice allegorization of the Amalekites as the evil impulse in the human heart. Yes, we all ought to commit genocide against our evil impulses. The author of the letter to the Ephesians pulls a similar move in chapter 5: "Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." The proper target of genocide is the demons. The problem with all such indirection is that it leaves the original, "historical," human referents in place, ready to be replaced by another generation of human referents whenever another "prophet" arises to reapply the "sure word of God" to a new situation. Enough apologies, enough reinterpretations, enough laughing. Can't we just take the author at his word and condemn him?

"You can't blame the author for this." Oh? If he wanted to parody the idea of genocide as a ridiculous and monstrous, he could have dropped a few hints. But no, this author never parodies the picture of genocide against the Amalekites. This part of the story we are to take with serious joy.

  • When Haman's decree is publicized, the author grabs for the tissue box. Nearly all of chapter 4 is Jewish lamentation. When Mordecai's decree is publicized, we have nearly a whole chapter of Jewish rejoicing. For the Amalekites, a wall of silence.
  • We are supposed to believe that all the Amalekites were gung-ho to carry out Haman's decree. They lined up publicly in the streets and jeered the Jews, threw dung at them, maybe killed a few when carried away by their eager anticipation. No conscientious objectors. Nope, they all stuck together. When the day for Jewish vengeance came, the Jews had no trouble finding them either. Everybody who died that day was a bona fide "enemy of the Jews." No innocent bystanders were taken down. And none of the real bad guys got away.
  • All the Jews in his story toe the Deuteronomy 25 party line, and none of them gets jabbed for it. All the Jews rejoice at the news of Mordecai's decree. They send one another gifts. They gather together as one nation and "do what they please" to their enemies. They happily slaughter 75000+ people. No Jewish conscientious objectors.

With real Jews this would not happen, because real Jews are human beings, not dummies for an "identity" justice set-up. Even if God himself said it, at least one or two (and in fact, a LOT more), would raise voices in protest and refuse. This author won't allow such unpleasant realities to intrude on his little fantasy. He would probably be tickled to find out that his book is treated as Scripture. In short, this author is a Jewish Drumont. He is just as slimy, just as craven, and just as guilty, whatever little rhetorical/theological tricks he may have tried to disguise his naked race hatred.

What do do? Esther is already in the canon. We could try to convince the church/synagogue to rip it out, but I think it's too late for that. Instead, we should use the book in the Hebrews 5 way: learn to discern good and evil. Have people read it in light of the "historical background" described above. Have them put themselves in the story. Let them imagine hearing the decree of Haman announced on the evening news. How do they react? Now let them imagine hearing the decree of Mordecai announced on the evening news. How is their reaction different? Why or why not? What would happen if, instead of carrying out genocide, the Jews/Amalekites tried A, B, C, or D first to satisfy their outrage over past injustices? Do you think there is any A, B, C, or D that is more just than genocide? If so, what makes it a more just solution? Does the author of Esther speak for God? Does the author of Exodus/1 Samuel/Deuteronomy speak for God? Let people discuss it from both sides and from a "neutral" viewpoint openly and honestly. Sooner or later, someone will probably say, "I don't care if everybody else in the room wants to annhilate X, I don't care if you all think God commands me to annhilate X, I won't do it." If you don't have anyone voice this sentiment, voice it yourself. Let the people decide what to do with you. And if they dodge the question, force it on them: "Look, I won't let you get away with this. If you are going to annhilate X, start with me."

Too dull? Too dry? "A typical liberal Bible study -- honest, open, boring sincerity." Fine. Have a real Purim reading of Esther. Ask everyone to bring their noisemakers. And when you get to the name of Mordecai, blast away. And when all the Fundamentalists are offended, guide the discussion as above. I'll bet it won't be boring sincerity anymore.

This is the only satisfactory response we can give to the apologists for genocide and still be true Christians. And until a potential pawn of the genocidal maniacs is prepared to defy them to the death, he has not become a disciple of Jesus.