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Being Part of Something Bigger

January 4, 2010, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Esther 1:1-2) 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, 以斯帖记, 圣经

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Sermon on Esther Addition A (11:1-12) and F (10:4-13) and Old Testament Manuscripts

This year, we will be starting a new sermon series on the book of Esther. We will be using a longer version that includes the deuterocanonical additions to Esther. When we describe something as deuterocanonical, it means that it is found outside of the Jewish bible of Judaism but included by some groups of Christianity, like the Catholics and the Orthodox Church. So why are we preaching from these texts that are not found in our Protestant bibles? Firstly, since we are covering the story of Esther in detail, I believe it will be beneficial for us to know the complete picture from other mainstream perspectives of the story. Secondly, these additions are considered scriptural by many Jews and Christians, especially those in the first century. This means that they are of spiritual value even to the NT writers and the early Church Fathers. These two factors are convincing enough for us to spend time on these additions. There will be six sermons in the series that cover these deuterocanonical texts and we will be taking the opportunity in these sermons to talk about our perspectives of scripture. So in these six Sundays, we will use half of the sermon to educate everybody on some background on the Old Testament and the other half on the contents of these additions to Esther.

Before I began talking about the background, I want to explain why we are doing this even though the subject matter might be dry and technical to some people. We are living in extraordinary times, though I know that is a cliché that would be true of every generation. With the advancement in information and communication technology, we are experiencing a boom in all forms of knowledge that includes biblical scholarship. Never before in history do we have so many top minds working on understanding the bible or archeology, science or philosophy. Academics, both secular and religious, are churning out volumes of new insights every day and inevitably that has radically reshaped biblical interpretation. Some have reacted to this by erecting a wall of fundamentalism. They believe that if we remain immovable in our statements of faith, we will survive the storm of change. I believe in facing this in a different way. I wish to empower you with everything we could possibly teach you. Hopefully, whatever it is you will have to confront, you hear it first from us rather than from your opponents, or worse, from misinformed public media like the Da Vinci Code. If you are willing to put yourself through the rigors of education, I believe you will all go from strength to strength, and we can ride out the challenges together. Simply put, let us go deeper and think further, so that our faith may stay stronger and last longer.

Today, I would like to solve the question of why there is a long and a short version of Esther. To answer this question we need to have a basic understanding of the history of the OT manuscripts. We call this kind of study textual criticism.

What we see in the diagram (see attached pdf) are the names of the most important ancient manuscripts and their relationships with one another. As you can see, the oldest manuscripts at the bottom of the diagram, from which we derive the later manuscripts at the top, are lost in the passage of time. The best and most authoritative Hebrew manuscript is known as the MT, which stands for the Masoretic Text. This manuscript which is of the highest quality, was re-produced by a group of Jewish scribes and scholars called the Masoretes between the 7th and 11th century AD. Though the dating of MT is considered late compared to the other ancient manuscripts, they are generally considered to have remained unchanged even from the Hebrew manuscripts of the 2nd century. The reason we know this is because they largely agree with Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion, which are highly literal Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures in the 2nd century AD. The recent discovery of the dead sea scrolls dated between 1st century BC to 1st century AD reveal that the MT is extremely similar to them. So we can observe a high standard of scriptural consistency from the 1st century BC all the way till the time of the MT. The Protestant translation of the OT is largely based on the MT and this is how we can have the assurance that our scriptures are grounded on a very credible source.

However, the MT differs in some ways when compared to LXX, also known as the Septuagint. The LXX is a Greek translation of the OT which can be dated even further back into the 3rd century BC. The LXX is a very significant text because it is the main Greek version of the scriptures in the days before 2nd century AD. It was held in great respect by the Greek-speaking Jews and quoted by the NT writers and the Apostolic Fathers. Though the majority of text between the LXX and the MT are in agreement, there are still differences which fall into 2 major categories. The first category refers to differences due to translation issues. The LXX prefers to replace Hebrew idioms with Greek idioms. So compared to the MT which preserves the original Hebrew idiom, we can find very different metaphorical words used to describe the same thing. We should also understand that the original Hebrew scriptures contain only the consonants without the vowels or punctuation, because that's how they used to write Hebrew. So in some rare ambiguous situations, from the same original Hebrew scriptures, the LXX may derive a different reading when they use different vowels and punctuations placements from the MT. The second category refers to differences in sources. The differences in Esther fall into this category. The LXX may be translating from a longer or additional source compared to the MT, and this explains why there are additional texts not found in the MT. It is conceivable that when the story of Esther was converted from oral to written form, there could have been more than one story writer or the writer might have written different versions at different times based on new information he got. This is the first introduction on this matter and we will share more about this in the other six sermons in the future.

Esther A/11-12

I: Prologue Chapter A
1 In the second year of the reign of the great King Ahasuerus, on the first day of Nisan, Mordecai, son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, had a dream.
2 He was a Jew residing in the city of Susa, a prominent man who served at the king's court,
3 and one of the captives whom Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had taken from Jerusalem with Jeconiah, king of Judah.
4 This was his dream. There was noise and tumult, thunder and earthquake-confusion upon the earth.
5 Two great dragons came on, both poised for combat. They uttered a mighty cry,
6 and at their cry every nation prepared for war, to fight against the race of the just.
7 It was a dark and gloomy day. Tribulation and distress, evil and great confusion, lay upon the earth.
8 The whole race of the just were dismayed with fear of the evils to come upon them, and were at the point of destruction.
9 Then they cried out to God, and as they cried, there appeared to come forth a great river, a flood of water from a little spring.
10 The light of the sun broke forth; the lowly were exalted and they devoured the nobles.
11 Having seen this dream and what God intended to do, Mordecai awoke. He kept it in mind, and tried in every way, until night, to understand its meaning.
12 Mordecai lodged at the court with Bagathan and Thares, two eunuchs of the king who were court guards.
13 He overheard them plotting, investigated their plans, and discovered that they were preparing to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. So he informed the king about them,
14 and the king had the two eunuchs questioned and, upon their confession, put to death.
15 Then the king had these things recorded; Mordecai, too, put them into writing.

This is the first Addition of Esther in LXX and it describes a dream of Mordecai. Now we will read the last addition of the book which explains the dream at the conclusion of the events of the story.

Esther
Chapter F
1 Then Mordecai said: "This is the work of God.
2 I recall the dream I had about these very things, and not a single detail has been left unfulfilled-
3 the tiny spring that grew into a river, the light of the sun, the many waters. The river is Esther, whom the king married and made queen.
4 The two dragons are myself and Haman.
5 The nations are those who assembled to destroy the name of the Jews,
6 but my people is Israel, who cried to God and was saved. "The LORD saved his people and delivered us from all these evils. God worked signs and great wonders, such as have not occurred among the nations.
7 For this purpose he arranged two lots: one for the people of God, the second for all the other nations.
8 These two lots were fulfilled in the hour, the time, and the day of judgment before God and among all the nations.
9 God remembered his people and rendered justice to his inheritance.
10 "Gathering together with joy and happiness before God, they shall celebrate these days on the fourteenth and fifteenth of the month Adar throughout all future generations of his people Israel."

I think that this final addition that we have just read explains the dream of Mordecai very clearly. The fight between the two dragons representing Mordecai and Haman is symbolic of the battle between the Jews and their enemies. In their cries to God, the Jews are saved by divine providence in the form of Esther. This dream is typical of the main difference between the LXX and the MT versions of Esther. In a cursory reading of the MT Esther, one would notice that God is largely missing in the entire story. The message of the MT Esther seems to be about what individuals must do in order to save themselves or their own race. Yet, the LXX Esther seems to interpret the entire event very differently. Yes, Esther, Mordecai and Haman are still the major characters of the story, but ultimately, God is the director of history. It is God who brought about the salvation of his people. The dream began as a bad omen of chaos about to happen. But at the end of the dream, God overcomes the chaos with light and the restoration of his people.

Next, we find an episode where Mordecai managed to foil an assassination plan and saved King Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes. The LXX had rearranged this episode from Esther 2:21-23 to this location immediately after the dream. What is the purpose of this relocation? In the original location in MT Esther, the episode is like an awkward incidental event sandwiched between the major events of Esther becoming queen and the evil plots of Haman. The LXX Esther in relocating the event to the front, is explicitly expressing something that is only subtly implied in the MT Esther: that nothing really happens by chance. Some events are meant to happen and sometimes we come into certain positions in life to fulfill the will of God. In this case, this episode provided a saving grace from Mordecai to the King that will come in handy in future in saving his people. The LXX Esther also linked the two schemers to Haman. So we know from the very beginning that the hostility between Haman and Mordecai did not happen by chance as well. These events were meant to happen as predicted in the dream with the two fighting dragons.

I think that there is something we can learn from today's deuterocanonical text. Many times, we think that we are dealing with our personal problems and facing our struggles alone. On one hand that may be true. We have to take responsibility for our own actions. On the other hand, today's passage also reminds us that we are all part of something bigger. That is the cosmic battle between good and evil, with God intervening in his own appropriate time. Events do not have to be supernatural in order to show the work of God. Sometimes we observe that things happen in their proper time so that good ultimately triumphs over evil. At such moments, we should be like the writers of the LXX and acknowledge that God is indeed the one fully in charge.

So on one hand, things may seem inconsequential and meaningless. The world does not seem to care about whatever decisions we make in life. On the other hand, LXX Esther presents to us a world not unlike The Lord of the Rings. We may not all be Frodo who has to destroy the ring. But in our own spheres, God has intended for each of us to contribute towards the overall victory against evil. You may be Aragorn who has to offer forgiveness at the right time, or Gandalf who had to face the formidable Balrog. Or you may simply be Gimli or Sam, playing their part as a good companion or a good friend. Every character is a piece of a giant puzzle. It is God who sees and plans the big picture. In our passage today, Mordecai is just doing his job well in saving the king from the evil plans of Haman. But we already know from Mordecai's dream that it is all part of the plan in ultimately saving God's people from their enemies.

From the book of Revelations, we know that God will have final victory over evil. But for each of us today, the battle is still on-going. Do you see yourself as part of the big picture? The passage today from LXX is our assurance that God is in control. Salvation belongs to the Lord.