The story of Esther, a Jewish orphan who became queen of Persia and saved her people from annihilation, is loaded with intrigue and drama. But that doesn’t necessarily make it comfortable reading.
Even in its earliest days, it had mixed reception. The Jews at Qumran ignored it; the Alexandrian Jews added extra passages to make the story more normative to Jewish ideology; and whoever translated the Hebrew into Greek “corrected” the original by (for example) pervasively inserting references to God.
Likewise today, the book’s reception amongst Christian audiences faces tension. However, the topics now seem less concerned with whether Esther kept Torah, and more concerned with the justice (or otherwise) of patriarchy and warfare. Even so, the story remains immensely popular, with commentaries and Bible studies vying to interpret how Esther and Mordecai’s actions are exemplary for the modern Christian.
And in the middle of this, every now and then I see someone drawing attention to Vashti, who was queen before Esther, and they commend Vashti for her thoroughly feminist refusal to be a spectacle for the drunken king.
In fairness, no one has actually come to my blog and ranted about the Old Testament laws. So, this post probably isn’t aimed directly at you.
That said, I want to get more and more into writing about them and I could easily imagine many egalitarian Christians looking at me baffled and asking why I would bother at all. That in itself is not so much a problem; it’s great when people ask genuine questions. The difficulty I want to avoid is people saying things up front like, “Yeah, but we’re under grace now,” or “Moses was a misogynist.”
I have no problem sharing a high-five with anyone who believes women are equally as capable of leading as men are; I have no problem sitting with someone who believes that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law. But I don’t think egalitarians need to disregard the Old Testament, or the Torah (or those deeply uncomfortable Deuteronomy laws) in order to make their case.
Instead, I think the egalitarian standpoint (that’s the idea men and women might be different but are still equally capable of leadership) is stronger when it has an integrated understanding of the Old Testament, its stories and its laws. This is why I want to write about them.
I reckon one of the biggest chasms between Christian thought and sex-positive thinking comes down to how we understand the word “flesh” in the New Testament. Or in the Greek, σαρξ.
The word appears 147 times and in the NIVUK translation it gets rendered 53 times as either “flesh” or “body”, 23 times as “sinful nature”, and a further 58 times with other meanings, translated either on its own or in conjunction with other words. These uses refer to something associated with humanity or earthliness, ranging from neutral terms like “human ancestry” to loaded terms like “perversion”. (And untranslated 13 times for those who want the maths.)
Of the times that sarx is rendered as flesh or body, the context is often negative, emphasising weakness or mortality.
What’s more, the NIVUK repeatedly translates sarx as ‘flesh’ in Galatians 5. That’s the passage where Paul writes this:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIVUK)
Upshot: it’s very, very easy to come away from the New Testament thinking that flesh is bad, bodies are bad, and anything to do physical pleasure is very, very bad. This is particularly the case for Paul, whose letters account for 20 of the 23 times sarx is translated as “sinful nature”.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about purity pledges.
For the uninitiated, these are when Christian teenagers (both male and female, though it seems to be more common for girls) promise to be sexually abstinent until marriage. The promise is made usually around the time they hit puberty and girls sometimes buy or receive a ‘purity ring’, possibly given to them by their parents. In the more extreme forms, you have ‘purity balls’, where young girls go on ‘dates’ with their fathers during which they promise that they will not to have sex or marry against his wishes. Sometimes, they even sign a covenant to that effect.
I’ve read a number of articles and stories about the damaging effects of these pledges and the culture which endorses them (witness the links above).
What I haven’t seen is a theological, Bible-focussed discussion of the concept of pledges, or how they compare to the various kinds of commitments we see in the Bible.
I’m guessing one of the reasons for this is because, at a glance, the Bible seems to paint a confusing picture. Solemn promises are meant to be kept, yet there are many examples where keeping a promise led to death and destruction. We also have Jesus’ teaching that we shouldn’t swear anything at all – which is somewhat puzzling for couples who (like myself) have made wedding vows. So, are promises good or not? And what kind of commitment is a purity pledge?
To answer these questions, I’ll first look at the different types of commitment in the Bible (this post), then I’ll look at what characterises good and bad commitments, and lastly I’ll apply the findings of those two posts to the specific example of purity pledges.
Here we go. (Grab a cuppa, this post has 3,500 words.)
It’s no secret that the majority of named people in the Bible are men. As a woman brought up in a Christian household, it was important to me to be informed about the women in the Bible, including Esther. She is, after all, one of only two women who has a whole book named after her.
I read the story as a child, lapping up the arrogance and doom of the “vile Haman” who plotted to destroy the Jews, as well as the beauty and courage of Esther who spoke up for her people. I didn’t really get why chapter 10 was all about her uncle Mordecai and I didn’t think too much about the vengeance massacres in the later chapters. I knew that the book didn’t mention God but only because my mother had told me it didn’t and the children’s versions I read talked about God a lot.
All in all, I thought I knew the story pretty well, but the truth is I didn’t really know it at all. What brought me to this realisation is what I would call the best book I read in 2015: Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought, by Aaron Koller (Cambridge University Press). It is an academic book and comes with a pricey price tag, but I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who’s serious about in-depth Bible study. Here are some of the things it taught me.