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The Price of Peace (I)

February 1, 2010, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Esther 3:8-9) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Esther
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Bible, Esther

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Sermon on Esther Addition B (13:1-7) and the history of the Esther Additions

In our first sermon of the series, we were introduced to two versions of Esther: the usual one that we are familiar with in our Protestant bible, and a longer version used by some other Christian groups. In that first sermon, we began with the question: why is there a long and short version of Esther? To answer that question, we were then taught a basic understanding of the ancient Old Testament manuscripts. The conclusion is that we have 2 manuscripts of good authority: the LXX and the MT. Though they are largely similar in content for most bible books, the LXX contains some extra passages not found in the MT for the story of Esther. I know some of us are fascinated by such background knowledge. They came to me personally to express their appreciation of better knowing how the bible came into being. I understand that they want more of these, and we aim to resolve all your niggling queries by the end of this series. However, some of us may find such topics dry and irrelevant. I hope you can see that we are trying to lay some foundational concepts about scripture here. I know that it is more exciting to experiment with the final product instead of going through the instruction manual. But that is also why sometimes the product malfunctions or seemingly fails to perform up to expectations. It is not the fault of the product. It is due to the presumptuousness of the user. Nonetheless, living in a fast-paced pragmatic society, I can empathize with these concerns. My promise to you is that these six foundational lessons will be concise and presented as excitingly as humanly possible. They will only occupy half the sermon, and we will still make it a point to end the sermon with a spiritual message.

Today, we want to answer a second question: If there are two good versions of Esther, how did the Protestant bible end up with the shorter version? The early church in the first few centuries used the long LXX version as their scripture. They were largely Greek-speaking and the LXX was the official Greek translation during those times. According to Jewish tradition, in the 3rd century BC, the Egyptian King Ptolemy of the Greek empire once gathered 72 Jewish Elders. He placed them in 72 separate chambers, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moses, your teacher.' He said this because the Jews believed that the first 5 biblical books, the Torah, were written by Moses. Now, they were ordered to produce a common Greek version of the Hebrew Torah to the king without mutual collaboration! An impossible task if you have ever done any translation. Yet God put in the heart of each one to translate identically to all the others. This is why this Greek translation is known as the LXX, or the Septuagint - the translation of the seventy. This tradition accorded special status to the LXX. It explains why the LXX was the preferred version for the early Christians for a few centuries.

The turning point came when Jerome was commissioned by the Pope in 382 to produce a revised Latin version of the bible. Jerome was the leading scholar of his time, a master of many languages. Unlike those before him, Jerome preferred to translate from the Hebrew original rather than from the Greek of the LXX. So Jerome translated the bulk of the Old Testament from Hebrew. Only for those books or passages not found in Hebrew did he use other sources like the LXX. For the book of Esther, he translated from the Hebrew manuscripts. He then put all the LXX extra passages at the back, from chapter 10:4 to chapter 16. This Latin bible is known as the Vulgate. It became the official bible of the Church since then and was later reaffirmed as authoritative by the Roman Catholics. So the preferred version became the Hebrew version with the LXX Greek additions at the back.

The Protestant Reformers in the 16th century, following Jerome, also preferred to translate the bible from their original languages. Martin Luther separated all the non-Hebrew books and passages into a third section between the Old and New Testament called the Apocrypha. Apocrypha means that these are useful texts but not as authoritative as the rest of the bible. The Anglican Church in their confession of faith (called the 39 Articles) states that these texts are considered scripture. They are of spiritual value to Christian living but not for determining doctrinal issues. Therefore, passages from the Apocrypha can be found in lectionary readings and prayer books. It is the Presbyterians and the Calvinists in their Westminster Confession who were the most uncompromising towards these writings. “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” At this point, the LXX additions of Esther were still in the bible, but they were now grouped into a separate section called the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha continued to remain in the Protestant bible as non-canonical but useful Christian literature for 2-3 centuries. Their final disappearance was because of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Influenced by the Presbyterians, the Bible Society decided in 1826 to refuse to distribute Bibles containing the Apocrypha. Although this position was later reversed 140 years later in 1966, it was too late. Most of the Protestant bibles in the English-speaking world had removed the Apocrypha so that they could receive their funding from the Bible Society. This is the reason why we ended up with the short version of Esther in our Protestant bible.

As a rather traditional Presbyterian pastor, I also agree that the Apocrypha should not be considered authoritative like the rest of the bible. What we have in our current Protestant bible is sufficient for our basic Christian doctrines. But as a fellow seeker of the truth, I think it is unwise to be narrow-minded in our reading and research. I am also interested in how other fellow Christians through the course of history understood the story of Esther. And after going through a few of these additions in Esther, I am enriched by their contribution to the story. I hope to share my reflections with you. May they be relevant in your lives as it is for mine.

Chapter B

This is a copy of the letter:
"The great King Ahasuerus writes to the satraps of the hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia, and the governors subordinate to them, as follows:
When I came to rule many peoples and to hold sway over the whole world, I determined not to be carried away with the sense of power, but always to deal fairly and with clemency; to provide for my subjects a life of complete tranquillity; and by making my government humane and effective as far as the borders, to restore the peace desired by all men.
When I consulted my counselors as to how this might be accomplished, Haman, who excels among us in wisdom, who is outstanding for constant devotion and steadfast loyalty, and who has gained the second rank in the kingdom,
brought it to our attention that, mixed in with all the races throughout the world, there is one people of bad will, which by its laws is opposed to every other people and continually disregards the decrees of kings, so that the unity of empire blamelessly designed by us cannot be established.
"Having noted, therefore, that this most singular people is continually at variance with all men, lives by divergent and alien laws, is inimical to our interests, and commits the worst crimes, so that stability of government cannot be obtained,
1 we hereby decree that all those who are indicated to you in the letters of Haman, who is in charge of the administration and is a second father to us, shall, together with their wives and children, be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without any pity or mercy, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of the current year;
so that when these people, whose present ill will is of long standing, have gone down into the nether world by a violent death on a single day, they may at last leave our affairs stable and undisturbed for the future."

(Esther 3: 14-15)

A copy of the decree to be promulgated as law in every province was published to all the peoples, that they might be prepared for that day.
The couriers set out in haste at the king's command; meanwhile, the decree was promulgated in the stronghold of Susa. The king and Haman then sat down to feast, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.

In chapter 3:8, Haman said to the king, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.” Killing everybody just because they have different customs? This rationale seemed too insubstantial to justify a mass genocide. It is rather hard to believe that the king will fall for it. Furthermore, the Persians are known to be much more humane authorities. The passage today is the text of the edict. Now, we get a clearer picture of Haman’s officially stated rationale. We know from last week that Haman’s hidden reason was to get revenge on Mordecai. But the officially stated purpose of the destruction was world peace. 13:2-3 “To provide for my subjects a life of complete tranquility… to restore the peace desired by all men…. When I consulted my counselors as to how this might be accomplished.” It may seem ironic for the Persians to announce that peace was the reason for the killings. Yet peace is often the very reason for wars, genocide, persecutions and torture. We pride ourselves as beings with higher intelligence. We don’t do crazy things. That’ll be absurd. We only do crazy things for peace.

Sometimes, in reading the story of Esther, we like to think of Haman as the arrogant enemy and the opposite of us. In the text of the edict, we see Haman describing himself pompously. 13:3 “Haman who excels among us in wisdom (NAB) or in good judgment (NRSV)… outstanding for constant devotion and steadfast loyalty…13:6 is a second father to us.” Haman thinks he is always right. He is only doing what the country needs. He is doing what is good for us all. We may think that he is proud and selfish. But upon self-examination, doesn’t it describe us all? We often think that our judgment is the one that makes the most sense. Why can’t others see the logic that I see? I’m the faithful one. I have to make the tough and difficult decision because the country needs it. The organization needs it. The family needs it. The church needs it. The people need my paternal care. Think about the children. I know I’m right. There’s a Haman in each one of us.

This self-centered perspective of the world is unavoidable because we can only see the world from our own pair of eyes. Being overly subjective is a pitfall that we have been warned against repeatedly. The real danger comes when we think we have justification. That makes us think that we are now more objective. I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing this because I have to. It is for peace. Those who are different are disrupting the unity. They have to be removed. This kind of thinking has been repeated throughout history. It is the price of peace. The killings and attacks are necessary. Yet one thing bothers me. If this purpose is a self-evident justification, then why is it always “the others” who have to change, to be expelled or to be destroyed?

Scholars today have little doubt that this text of the edict is a later addition to the original story of Esther. We know it is a later addition because it is written in a very poetic Greek that could hardly have come from a Hebrew original. But just because it is a later addition doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, it is even more real. The oppression of the Jews intensified when the Greek empire took over from the Persian Empire. The Jews saw great value in this little story of Esther from the Persian era. When they were constructing this edict in their retelling of the story, they were describing the actual persecutions they themselves were facing.

I hope that just as how the story of Esther came alive for the Jews during the Greek era, it also comes alive for us today. There is a group of new atheists who think that the world would be better off without religion. I do not deny that religion is the justification for many to bring about misery upon the lives of others. I am equally disgusted with people who use religion as a convenient excuse for their prejudice or ignorance. But I disagree with the attitude of these new atheists. There is a kind of militancy to their approach to remove religion, more vicious and relentless than ever before. I asked some of them how is this different from those who practice genocide. They say that their methods are non-violent, because they use education. Now, I do think that they are morally above those who kill, torture or mistreat others in the name of religion. But in their mocking and ridiculing using books and seminars, I fear that they may just become like the religious persecutors they so hate.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.

This is a famous poem written by Martin Niemöller the founder of the Confessing Church. The Confessing Church is a minority group of Christians in Germany who are against the persecution activities of the Nazi government against the Jews. This poem speaks out against social apathy. We always think that at the cost of peace for all, it is fine to sacrifice the minority who are different. But this is just a selfish desire for uniformity. This illusion breaks apart when one day we realize that we are all different and unique in our own ways. Peace is believing that we can co-exist in spite of our differences. You have to give up your self-centeredness. That is the true price of peace.

I have been speaking about a grand scale of peace. Perhaps you feel that you are too small to make any difference. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. (万丈高楼平地起) You can start by accepting people who are bullied for being different. Then you “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed” (Proverbs 31:8 - NLT). Eventually, little strokes will fell great oaks. (水滴石穿) The world has gone through great changes throughout history. And it always begins with someone first willing to change himself. That is the true price of peace.

These were indicated in his prologues to each book.
Westminster Confession Chapter 1, Paragraph 3
The purpose of this addition is for verisimilitude. This means that it adds historical realism in the telling of the story. It is a very common literary technique in the ancient days of historical fiction.

Esther 3:8–9 (Listen)

Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that it is not to the king's profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king's business, that they may put it into the king's treasuries.”