The book of Esther was composed during the early Hellenistic period. It’s fairly positive view of Gentiles indicates that it was likely written before the heated struggle before the Seleucids and the Maccabeans began. It is set in the late sixth century, the Persian royal court and is a work of historical fiction that accounts for how the holiday of Purim was instituted. It tells the story of how Esther (Hadassah) and Mordecai, by cunning and decisive action, thwarted the scheming Haman and rescued the people from genocide.  The story shows how diaspora Jews found ways to assimilate to new cultural contexts, but also to retain the distinctiveness and integrity of their own identity. It is telling and tragic that the Jewish people have continued to have need of a holiday to celebrate overcoming the genocidal efforts of others.

This book is one of the latest to gain entry into the canon of Hebrew Scripture (not until the third century of the common era), and no wonder: it is human, not divine agency, that wins the day; God, in fact, is wholly absent in the story; and traditional themes such as law and covenant are missing. Yet it also embodies themes both crucial to traditional Jewish identity (such as survival by one’s wits) and central to emerging Jewish identity (such as how to live amidst Gentiles).

Keep an eye out for how Esther grows throughout the story from a passive “trophy” wife to a commanding presence who saves her people.


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What shall we do in 2013?

I’m looking for advice. You can offer it in the comments here or in Sunday School next week. We need to figure out what to do with ourselves. We’ve done major sections of the Bible from beginning to end. We’re running out of material I know well enough to teach without major preparation! (I’m willing to do major prep at another time, but right now I have a big project going on at work. Sorry.)

Here are a couple of options:

1. We could start over. We have lots of newcomers who weren’t here “in the beginning.” We also have lots of oldcomers who, ahem, may not remember everything!

2. We could look at some of our other “sacred texts.” Here I have in mind liturgies for weddings, funerals, the Eucharist, baptism, and regular worship. 

One other thought: I’m very happy to share or rotate responsibility for leadership. 

Let me know what you think. See you Sunday! I’ll have a post up about Esther in the next day or two. 

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Christmas for the Miller Family

Contrarians – we’ve been invited to help provide a great Christmas for the Miller family. See the note below from Gayle Walker. This could be a great way to show that may be contrarians, but we aren’t grinches! What do you think? We’ll talk about it Sunday. Peace, Kendra


Dear Friends, 

I am writing to invite your church school class to participate in providing Christmas for the Miller family whom Idlewild has been partnering with since August.

We would like to provide gifts for the 6 children (ages 5-14) and the mother. This is an exceptional family that was stable until the mother developed a serious 

heart/lung illness in 2007 which placed her on %100 disability, and the father lost his employment during the recent recession. They are making great strides to find their balance in this new life situation.

The children are in school at Brewster, Lester and Central. They are excellent and committed students. Two of the children are involved in Idlewild’s basketball program and one serves at MTAM. 

We are asking a class commitment of $150 – 200. Please find the guidelines in the attachment. If your class chooses to participate, please let me know on Monday, December 10, and Margaret Burnett will email you the name of the child/mother whom you will sponsor and the gifts that have been identified for him/her. You may want

to recruit a shopping team this Sunday so they can get the gifts before Sunday 16. The wrapped gifts are due Wed, Dec 19. 

Thank you for your consideration. Please call me with your questions, 652-4373.

Advent blessings, Gayle


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Judges 4 and 5: Auld Lang Syne and Bad Hospitality

For Sunday, December 9, we are reading Judges 4-5. This is the story and song of the judge Deborah. Before we get to the story, let’s get a little context.

The book of Judges is part of a longer narrative of the history of Israel from the time in entered the land of Canaan until it left that land to go into exile in Babylon in the sixth century. The narrative encompasses four books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Scholars call the author of these four books, “the deuteronomistic historian,” or “the DH” for short. The DH is driven by a central question: why are we in exile? What went wrong? Let’s take a quick tour through that history.

 Joshua recounts the “conquest” of the land. The massive power of the Israelite army overwhelmed one after another of the Canaanite towns. In a form of total warfare known as herem, the people and livestock were slaughtered, the land was burned, and the wealth of the land was given over to the temple treasury. Israel “cleansed” the land of its foreign people and foreign gods and took possession of what their god had promised them. Archaeologists have found no evidence of a comprehensive, large-scale conquest of the land during the relevant time period. There probably never was a large army of foreigners who infiltrated the land and drove off its original inhabitants. Instead, what we find is evidence of upheaval based on discontent with the a growing degree of social inequality. The habiru (sounds like Hebrew, no?) who were bandits and outcasts right at the heart of this upheaval, banded together and began to think of themselves as one people. It’s possible that they joined together with a small “Exodus” group of Egyptian slaves who sought shelter in the highlands and who worshiped the god called YHWH. In fact, the Bible itself references this history in the book of Ezekiel (see chapter 16). So, if the conquest didn’t happen as recounted in Joshua, why would the DH tell it this way? The answer to that question probably has more to do with the DH’s theological agenda than it does with any misunderstanding of the history. After all, the DH and Ezekiel were contemporaries. They both lived in exile. The DH believed that Judah went into exile because it had violated the terms of a conditional covenant that said God would secure the people in the land on the condition that they would remain faithful to YHWH alone. The book of Joshua shows the people fervent and exclusive in their faith, driving out all foreign influence that might detract from their adoration of God. It is, in other words, an idealized   beginning of a story that ends in tragedy.

The books that occupy the middle and end of the DH’s story account for a fall from this idealized beginning. Slowly but surely the people lose the fervency and exclusivity of their faith. They turn to other Gods. The book of Judges recounts how the people lost and regained their faith many times. It is set during a period when Israel was not yet a unified nation. It was instead a confederation of 12 tribes who had mutual defense pact with one another. The book sets out a clear cycle that begins when the people “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD;” they worship other gods. Next God “sold them into the hand” of some foreign king who oppresses them for a set number of years. At last they “cried out to the LORD” who “raised up a deliverer.” This deliverer is a shofet, a military figure who frees the people from their oppressor. Shofet is the Hebrew word for judge. When victory has been won, the “land rests” for a set number of years until once again the people do “what was evil.” Then the cycle begins again. 

Deborah was the third judge of Israel. She was also a prophet, a nabi, a mouthpiece for God. We find the story of Deborah recorded twice in the book of Judges. Chapter four contains a prose account of her story, and chapter five contains a poetic/musical account. The Hebrew in chapter five is some of the oldest in the Bible – probably 15th century! This language originated six centuries before there was any written form of Hebrew. Like most very old language that persists, it is in musical form. Think about the song “Auld Lang Syne.” Here’s one of the verses:

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

Do you have any idea what that means? Probably not. Could you sing it? I’ll bet you could! Isn’t that fascinating? So, imagine that I told you what it means (Thanks Wikipedia!):

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

Now we know the story and we can sing it. That’s exactly what is going on in chapters four and five. By the sixth century when the DH was writing this, now one had any clue what the archaic Hebrew of the song meant, but they could sing it! So the DH does a simple thing: tells the story and then records the song.

Here are some interesting things to notice about the story:

  1.     In 4:15 Barak – at Deborah’s command – defeats Sisera. But in 5:4, a sudden thunderstorm left Sisera’s chariots mired in mud. (This is interesting, by the way, because Ba’al is the god of thunderstorms, so when the Israelites give YHWH credit for this victory, they are having their god…ahem…steal Ba’al’s tunder!)
  2.          Notice Jael’s hospitality sets Sisera up for an unexpected and scandalous fall. It is unexpected and scandalous because there was a very strong prohibition on committing acts of violence against someone who has eaten and drunk within your own home. Think about the way Lot responded to the crowd of angry Sodomites in Genesis chapter 19.
  3.          Okay, take a look at 4:21. In this sixth century version Sisera is sleeping, when Jael sneaks up on him and drives the tent peg through is temple. Messy, but effective. Now look at 5:26-27. After she puts the tent peg through his head “he sank, he fell.” What?! He was standing up? That doesn’t make any sense. Try to imagine the scene: “Excuse my Sisera, could you stand still for just a minute while I hold this tent peg up against your temple?” No, that’s not what happened. Notice that he fell “at her feet.” This actually isn’t one of those Hebrew circumlocutions. It’s prudish translators. The Hebrew says “he lay still between her legs.” Ah, that makes more sense.



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Fred Terry

Update: Good news! I went to the hospital today (Wednesday), but couldn’t visit because Fred had been discharged. Either he’s feeling better or he was stirring up too much trouble! 



Fred Terry is in Methodist Hospital downtown. Mel Lewis spoke with him yesterday and says that he would welcome calls and visits. He is in Tower 9 34. I’m planning to visit with him today and will convey our love and prayers. Please keep Fred and Happy in your prayers. We need to get him back in Sunday School and stirring up trouble! 



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Bel and the Dragon: Hungry Priests, Dragons, and Lions

I love this story. It's about food. You really don't need much background to enjoy it and to understand its point.

The idea of feeding the gods is pretty common in antiquity. That's what sacrifices are for. In most cases the priests eat the food. In other cases, animals come to consume it. There's a temple to Ganesh in India where rats eat the sacrifices! In ancient Babylon the feast for Marduk (here called Bel) was taken to the king. In this story, though, the king doesn't get the food. He believes Bel eats it. Daniel — clever as he was in Susanna — devises a trick to get the priests to reveal that they are really the ones eating the sacrifice. 

Before you ask: we have no idea what the dragon might have been. Maybe it was a really big snake. Who knows? The point is that, unlike the idol of Bel, the dragon is really living. It can eat. Whereas before Daniel's actions concerned a god who couldn't eat and resulted in the death of priests, now his actions concern an animal who can eat and result in its own death. In both cases the God of the Jews is affirmed as a living God.

Finally, the religiously serious of Babylon have had enough of this Jewish interloper interfering with their gods. They have him thrown the lions. This time Daniel gets to eat and so do the lions. The persecutors became an unexpected meal themselves.

Great story, no? Hmm…let's go see what's in the fridge. 

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Susanna meets Sherlock Holmes

Update: Matt says you can find Susanna on page 1471 of the new study Bibles and on 1683 of the older ones. 

This is a great story. For now, don’t worry about the footnotes, just enjoy the plot. The story has a beautiful woman, scheming men, a sex crime, a close call with an unjust execution, and a little detective work. What else could you want?

Just a few things to notice: 
  • The story is set in Babylon, but doesn’t emphasize the evil of the captors. It focuses, instead, on the corruption of Jewish judges. The very fact that it uses the term “Jew” tells us that it took on final form in the post-exilic period. 
  • It uses “Lord” instead of “LORD” and prefers the term “Heaven” as a circumlocution for God.
  • The story suggests both Genesis and the Song of Songs with its setting in a garden.
  • It also hints at the story of Bathsheba with lecherous men scheming to watch Susanna bathe.
  • It also suggests the sacrifice of a scapegoat when the men lay their hands on Susanna (Leviticus 16.21-22). All of these references tell us that the story originated during a time when the Hebrew Bible was beginning to take shape and the author could assume people knew the Torah, stories of David, and the Song of Songs.
  • The story assumes that readers are familiar with a patronage system where commoners must appeal to wealthy — and supposedly neutral — third parties to settle their disputes. Watch the opening scene of “The Godfather” if you want to see how such a system works. You can see in verses 52-3 that people also knew about corruption in the patronage system.
  • Susanna knows her Torah and “cried out with a loud voice” as Deuteronomy 22.24 teaches a woman about to be raped to do.
  • Daniel also knows his Torah. The trial was illegal because there were not enough witnesses and no cross examination was conducted (Deuteronomy 19.15-20).
  • In verses 56-58 notice how Daniel contrasts daughters of Canaan, Israel, and Judah.
  • There are some nice Greek puns in 55 and 58. Check your footnotes to see the explanations. The fact that these puns work in Greek tells us that the story likely took on its final form during the Hellenistic period (fourth through second centuries).

Last thing: Take the name Daniel out of the story. Change it to whatever you like, or just call him the “young man.” Does it change the story at all? Does Daniel show skill in logical deduction elsewhere in the book of Daniel? If you can answer these questions “no,” then you can see why many scholars believe that this story was originally not about Daniel. It probably circulated independently as a nice little self-contained detective story (maybe a crime series that never got picked up?) and then was later attached to the stories about Daniel.

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