Purim 2: no noose

Posted in feasts, specific Hebrew words on February 27th, 2010 by yf

Esther the name of the heroine of the book of Esther comes from the same root as natsar, meaning hidden. “Hidden” suggests that we should look for some hidden, that is prophetic, message in Esther. One surprise is the fate of Haman, the enemy of Mordechai and the Jewish people. He erects a gallows to hang Mordechai from (Esther 5:14) but ends up hung from it himself (7:9-10). But was he hung?

The Hebrew words used are talah (suspend) and es (tree or wooden thing). One or both words are used to describe legal executions under the Egyptians (Genesis 40:22), Mesopotamians (Lamentations 5:!2) and Persians (Esther 2:12) as well as the general statement in Deuteronomy 21:23 that he who hangs on a tree is cursed. Ancient reliefs and the Roman historian Heroditus (History 3:125, 159) identify such ‘hanging’ as impalement and then llfting up the victim on display. The Roman form of crucifixion was a development of this. The noose was not used, presumably because hanging was an insufficiently awful form of execution.

Haman's punishmentThe execution of Haman marks the salvation of the Jewish people from a terrible threat. At the feast of Purim, Jewish people celebrate this in playful fashion by reading the book of Esther with cheers and boos in appropriate places and, for example, hanging a toy figurine representing Haman. In the early centuries CE, the custom was to crucify and burn the figurine but this proved unwise in Christian countries. Michelangelo’s Punishment of Haman in the Sistine Chapel (left) shows him being crucified.

As if by agreement, both synagogue and church have substituted the less awkward figure of Haman suspended by a noose from a gallows. What this hides is that:
– anti-semitism in the Christian church has made the cross symbolic of those who are enemies of the Jewish people
– salvation for the Jews may yet be associated with such a symbol and the curse upon he who ‘hangs from a tree’.

God’s marital status

Posted in covenant, israel on February 26th, 2010 by yf

is God married
We have all had to fill out a form asking for ‘marital status’. So, what would we enter for God: single, married, widowed, divorced? The correct answer may surprise you.

Scholars agree with Judaic tradition that the entire book of Deuteronomy is a covenant document, with the 10 commandments at its core. It is a marriage covenant, with the Sabbath as the wedding ring of this marriage between the Lord and Israel.

The Hebrew for marriage or betrothal is kiddushin:, from the root kddsh whose meaning is ‘holy’ or ‘separate’. So, marriage is inherently bound up with the concepts of holiness and of separation (from the world and to God).

Israel is told to be faithful in Deuteronomy 6:10-15 and God’s marriage covenant with them is referred to in terms of sexual imagery in Ezekiel 16:8 and elsewhere. But Israel is found to be a harlot (in adultery) in Ezekiel 16:15 and Jeremiah 31:5. In Jeremiah 31:32 the Lord refers to “My covenant which they broke though I was their husband.”

These are not mere words or symbols. A holy relationship within covenant is shattered by sin. The consequence is that the Lord, following His own law of Deuteronomy 24:1 etc, issues a certificate of separation (Isaiah 50:1) and proceeds to a bill of divorce (Jeremiah 3:6-10) from Israel. God is divorced.

Punishment for Israel also follows, and this too is described in sexual terms: God gathers Israel’s lovers against her (Ezekiel 16:35-43) because she broke her covenant with Him.

Yet, the Lord remains committed to Israel: there are many promises of Israel’s restoration and even in Jeremiah 31 the Lord promises forgiveness and an unbreakable covenant with Israel. Thus, there are consequences to sin but the Lord remains faithful, even when we are not.

Purim 1: the cause of the trouble

Posted in feasts, israel, temple on February 22nd, 2010 by yf

The feast of Purim ( this year 28 February) marks the triumph of the Jewish people against the threat of obliteration, recorded in the book of Esther.

Most Jews then lived within the vast Persian empire.  A royal decree was issued for their destruction on the day of purim, but why did this deadly threat emerge at this time?  There are three threads – one more obvious than the others.

First, the dominant courtier of the day, Haman, was angered  by the refusal of the Jew, Mordechi, to bow to him and vowed revenge: a conflict between courtiers.

Second, Haman was an Amalkite, a people with a deep hatred of the Jews.    In 1 Samuel 15, Saul disobeys God’s instructions to wipe them out and kill their king, Agag.   Five centuries later, Haman (a descendent of Agag) plots against Mordechi (a descendent of Saul) and his people.

cup from Jerusalem templeGo deeper for a third thread.  The book of Esther covers a period when the religious Jews had returned to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem: in fulfilment of prophecy and with the agreement of the previous king, Cyrus (see the book of Nehemiah). Those remaining in Susa, the royal capital, had seemingly set that aside.  Indeed, Esther is the only book in the Bible not to mention God.

The opening chapter of Esther records that Ahasuerus gives a banquet for his  princes and nobles at which he displayed his riches and then another one, lasting several days, for all those in Susa.  Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds (Esther 1:7).  Traditional Judaic sources (e.g. Megillah 12a, Yalkut Shimoni) record that the sacred vessels from the Jerusalem temple were used.

Previously, king Belshazar, had drunk from those same cups at a feast in deliberate contempt of the God of Israel (Daniel 5).  Consequently, he received a terrifying vision and perished that same night.  Ahasuerus did not suffer the same fate, presumably because his action was not so defiant.  But the Jews of Susa participated with him and should have known better.

Whilst the pagan king Belshazar suffered the consequences immediately, God is more patient with the Jews.  But still the deadly threat emerges, for His hand of protection has been removed from them.  Yet, through Mordechi and Esther, the Lord provides a solution.  Israel nearly brings destruction on herself but is saved and her would-be destroyers (Haman and co) are themselves destroyed instead.  Hence, the feast.

The previous biblejolts blog

Posted in character of God, creation, israel, specific Hebrew words on February 22nd, 2010 by yf

Find the previous biblejolts blog here.