the last of the prophets
Week 77 - Read Esther; Jonah
Key Concepts: God saves God’s people and loves the world as well
Stories: Esther opens with the Persian Queen refusing to serve her husband then continues with a search for the new queen, a Jewish woman, Esther, being named queen, the saving of the king by Mordecai the Jew, the plot of Haman to kill all of the Jews, Esther’s discovery of the plot and her plan to avert the slaughter, the King’s recognition of Mordechai’s service, Esther’s dinner party and accusation against Haman, Haman’s plea to the queen, Haman’s hanging, the king’s permission to the Jews to slaughter their enemies and finally the dedication of the festival of Purim. Jonah opens with God’s command to the prophet to proclaim God’s forgiveness to Nineveh followed by Jonah’s refusal to go, his being swallowed by a large fish, his miraculous escape, his lackluster proclamation, the positive response of the people, Jonah’s anger at their response and finally God’s last words to Jonah..
Brief Summary: I have placed these books near the end of the Old Testament because they were probably written just before or just following the return from exile. There are several reasons I say this. The first reason is that the stories treat the enemies of Israel/Judah with great respect. While Persia was had been good to the Jews, allowing them to return, the Jewish people were still under constant pressure from their Persian overlords. The Assyrians, whose capitol was Nineveh, were brutal and utterly hated by the Jews. No one during the time when the story supposedly takes place would have had God sending a prophet to covert the Assyrians. The second reason is that the actions taken by the two heroes, Esther and Jonah are out of character with persons of that day and time. Esther would not have allowed herself to become a queen in Persia. A good Jew would have rather died, literally. Jonah would simply have refused to go regardless of the consequences. Finally the language, images and stories are much more closely aligned to the late Jewish and early Greek period than to the periods described in the books.
Esther is an unusual story in that it does not mention God, has a female heroine and allows Esther to do very un-Jewish things (see comment above). Though there may be some historic basis for this story, perhaps a local liberation of the Jews, there is no record of Jews ever being threatened in this way. The story itself is rather fanciful and reads more like a soap opera than a true Biblical epic. The story is that Esther, a Jew, because of her beauty is made Queen of Persia. Her favored position allows her to undermine the plot to kill all of the Jews in Persia. Her opponent, Haman, is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for the Jews, and the story concludes with the Jews being allowed to slaughter all of their enemies (again, something that would never had happened in the Persian Empire).
Jonah, on the other hand concerns a Jew, Jonah, who does not want to help God in saving the Assyrians. The story is that God calls on Jonah to preach repentance to the Assyrians. Jonah refuses and runs away. God forces him to obey (by causing a shipwreck and having Jonah swallowed by and then vomited up by a large fish). When Jonah complies, his evangelism is at best half-hearted. The people however find Jonah’s message utterly compelling and seek forgiveness from God. The core of this story is that Jews were supposed to be telling the world about the love of God. They were not supposed to stay isolated as a community (think of Ezra-Nehemiah) but were to go out into the world helping people live up to God’s expectations. The story concludes with a comment that God even cared about the cattle as well as the people.
1. What is your favorite part of the Esther story?
2. What is your favorite part of the Jonah story?
3. How do you see these stories as trying to counter other Biblical themes we have covered?
Week 78 - Read Daniel; Psalm 126; Zechariah 9-14
Key Concepts: The key concepts in this section are that God will, even in the face of great odds, save God’s people and that God will send a hero to help lead the people.
Stories: Daniel opens with a series of hero stories which include Daniel and his friends taken captive, the battle of the vegetables, Daniel interpreting a dream and being promoted, the fiery furnace episode, a dream and an interpretation, a wild party and a strange sentence, the lion’s den episode, a visions of four beasts and a ram and a male goat, a prophecy about seven weeks, a vision of the end times, and an interpretation of the vision of the end times. Zechariah includes the destruction of Israel’s enemies, the coming of a messianic figure, reminders that God alone controls history, laments from Jerusalem over their sins, the transformation of Jerusalem , the idols are cut off, God’s shepherd is struck down, a messianic oracle concerning the final battle and the final restoration of all the earth. Psalm 126 is a Psalm of joy in God’s restoring work.
Brief Summary: Daniel is a book written around 164 BCE. We know this because in the final chapter in which the writer is offering up a vision of the future, he gets everything right to a point and then is wrong about everything else. We can pretty much pinpoint this moment to be somewhere around 164 BCE. In addition there are Persian and Hellenistic influences in the stories themselves and the second half of the book is a full blown apocalyptic vision; one in which heaven and earth are merged, Daniel is shown symbolic animals and is given mysterious numbers, and the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people is waged on a cosmic scale. This type of literature only emerges in Judaism at a very late date.
The heart of the stories are that Daniel and his friends, by being absolutely faithful to God, are elevated in status and protected from all evils. This includes not being consumed in a fiery furnace and not eaten by lions. Daniel is also the new Joseph, able to interpret dreams and being rewarded for so doing. And as with Joseph, Daniel will be the almost comic book-like hero who will save his people. These stories and visions have been used by both Jews and Christians as a source of hope during some of their most difficult moments.
Zechariah 9-14, unlike the first half of the book, is not tied to any specific historical period. There is speculation that it could have been written during the period of the return or at a much later date. I have placed it here at the end of the Old Testament readings because it contains descriptions of the “apocalyptic” battle in which the nations of the earth attack Jerusalem, are defeated by God, and then the new age dawns. This is one of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature and it will be found in much of the book of Revelation.
Zechariah contains images of a messianic king figure, “Lo, your king comes to you triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass…” The book also focuses on God’s absolute sovereignty. “Ask rain of the Lord in the season of the spring rain, from the Lord who makes the storm clouds…” This section of Zechariah also moves between God’s punishment of Israel (So I, God, said I will not be your shepherd) and restoration (..and every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts…). In a sense the writer of these prophecies carries on the great traditions of first holding Judah accountable for its way of life; second reminding the people of God’s anger for their lack of faithfulness; and third assuring them that in the end, God will be faithful to God’s people.
1. What is your favorite story in Daniel and why?
2. How does Daniel remind you of Joseph?
3. Where do you see “Christ” references in Zechariah?