dorthy.jpg (3897 bytes)Dr. Dorothy’s "Books of Esther" Published!

The family of the late Dr. Charles V. Dorothy recently received a few complimentary copies of the newly published The Books of Esther — Structure, Genre and Textual Integrity (Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, England, 1997, 384 pages).

With deep almost inexpressible satisfaction we handled, opened, and paged through the book Charles had labored so long, so hard to research and write. How he would have loved the moment! we would have loved sharing it with him. The book rolled off the press a year too late for Charles. Have you noticed how it is that joy and sadness are sometimes served up on the same plate?

Many of you have expressed interest in obtaining a copy Charles’ book when published and that is now possible. As you may know, this is a scholarly work written for the professional specialist in biblical studies. His audience for this study was the scholarly community familiar with previous Esther studies and with some of the unresolved questions and mysteries he attempts to resolve.

After reading his book, my sense is that to make full use of the material it would be helpful to be literate in biblical Hebrew and Greek (which I’m not). Some background in the more recent discipline and very fruitful field of biblical analysis, form criticism, would also be helpful to the reader’s comprehension. I mention these warning not to scare anyone away who wants to tackle the material—I did and got a lot out of it—but I must point out that this is a highly technical study and may overwhelm the non-technically minded.

With this study, to which Charles devoted a decade of his life, some of the major unknowns about Esther have been discovered and many age-old questions answered. The highly regarded Sheffield Academic Press of England, which specializes in scholarly works in biblical studies, included CVD’s book in its weighty Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (JSOT) series. This volume will now find its way into the world’s leading universities, seminaries, and into the personal libraries of biblical scholars, theologians and serious students of scripture everywhere. All future commentaries and studies of Esther will draw upon CVD’s foundational analysis.

Four Esthers?
The title The Books of Esther may strike you as strange right off the bat. What do you mean, Books? Isn’t there just one book of Esther in the biblical canon? The answer, of course, is yes. But there are three major Greek texts of Esther in addition to the Hebrew Esther that is part of the OT canon. Each of the Greek texts tells the same story, yet "One cannot help being struck by the contrasting tone of the Greek and Hebrew stories, the greater length of all three Greek texts versus Hebrew Esther, and the notable divergences in content and order of events among all four texts" (Introduction, p.13).

Charles notes: "The Hebrew book of Esther dramatizes the life and death struggle for the survival of the Jewish people under Persian rule in precisely 3,044 words. In all of these words a secular air prevails and the divine name is not once found. Greek Esther on the other hand, although it chronicles the same life and death struggle, comprises something generically quite different from the Hebrew narrative. Standing in three variant textual forms (LXX, so-called A or L, and Josephus’ version), Greek Esther sounds pious notes throughout: there are multiple divine names, long prayers, a prophetic type dream (serving as prolog to the whole book) and its interpretation (standing as epilog), two (or in one tradition, three) dramatic divine interventions" (Intro., p. 13).

The three Greek Esthers are more than just a little longer—32% longer for Josephus, 45% for L, 76 % for the Septuagint. And that’s after adjusting for the fact that even a wooden translation of Hebrew into Greek produces a 12% longer text. Charles carefully analyzes and compares the Greek Esthers, which have venerable traditions among both Jewish and Christian communities, against Hebrew Esther of our common canon.

One of the long standing mysteries of the book of Esther that his book solves is the literary identity of the book itself. Literature comes to us in many forms or genres. Recognizing what type of literature we are reading is critical to our understanding of it. We deal with various types, or genres, of literature all the time. Genre represents a set of literary conventions shared by readers and authors. If we recognize what we are reading is a legal brief and not a poem, we won’t be confused. Authors accept the genre in which they write their texts and adhere to its rules. There are many literary forms which we immediately recognize and we interpret content based on that identity. A cartoon is a genre of literature. We do not interpret its text in the same way we read the obituary page (another genre), or a news report, or poem, or science fiction, or narrative, or a novel.

Solving the Mystery
The business of interpreting Scripture—all of which is 2000 years old or older—requires an understanding of ancient literary forms in which its authors wrote and their readers understood. A biblical literary genre (such as poetry, parable, proverb, apocalyptic, teaching, novel, epistle, etc.) can sometimes stand alone as one book (like Proverbs) or can be mixed as subgenre with other forms within a book (the Gospels contain several specific literary forms).

What type of literature is the Book of Esther? While it contains various subgenre, what is the overall form to which the author conformed his story? A royal "novella" (a long prose narrative—or short story—written for a particular purpose)? A report? A wisdom narrative? A historical novel? A historical romance? All have been suggested by literary analysts, but none could be soundly established from internal and external evidence. The genre of Esther remained a mystery.

In problem is stated in the prestigious Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries Series volume on Esther (Vol. 12, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1984) where author Joyce G. Baldwin laments "...It is still not possible to establish for certain the genre of the book of Esther..." (Introduction, p. 36). The answer to this long-standing dilemma is one of the major contributions of Charles’ research.

Charles writes: "Thus a book bearing an Israelite queen’s name, Esther, begins and ends with a Gentile king. More: the king figures prominently in the complication, uniquely in the crisis, and importantly several times in the dénouement [the outcome or solution to the plot]. But notice that the content of this remodeled [ by Esther’s author after the Persian royal novella of which we have 25 extant examples] form of Esther dictates that it be classified, not as a royal, but as a rescue novella.

"Thus the identification of a non-Israelite literary form [the royal novella used as skeleton or receptacle] explains why the Jewish rescue novella begins and ends with a foreign king who, though important, is not the central character, and with whom the reader never identifies. It also explains why the king seemingly cannot move without counsel throughout the narrative, and why the pivot point involves the king before it does either hero: these elements are typicalities constitutive of the royal novella" (pp. 340-1).

The author of Esther used elements of a current literary form typically used to tell a story of the exploits of royalty—the Persian royal novella—to construct something quite different: a Jewish rescue novella—A Jewish Rescue Story.

God Can Save…Anywhere
Like the Exodus story, the Joseph story, and the Daniel story, the rescue story of Esther once again demonstrates that God delivers his people. His salvation reaches his chosen people regardless of where they are, who is king or pharaoh, and what the odds are against them.

Is it any wonder that Esther is the number one favorite biblical book with Jewish communities and is read in the family every year at Purim—which feast finds its origins in Esther; and why more manuscripts of Esther exist than for any other book of the OT (yet surprisingly, it is the only book not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran).

Esther has been described by literary critics as "a masterpiece of literature" and "a literary treasure"—even by secular literary standards. Martin Luther, however, didn’t like it and said " I am so hostile to this book (2 Macc) and Esther that I wish they did not exist at all; for they Judaize too greatly and have much heathen impropriety." But then Luther had some self-confessed anti-Jewish bias. Some say his remarks have been misunderstood and that they were directed toward only the Greek versions, or perhaps to Esther’s lack of material that could be interpreted as foreshadowing the life of Jesus. "In the preface of Luther’s German translation of Esther, he acknowledged that ‘it contains much that is good’" (Expositor’s Biblical Commentary, vol. 4, p. 784). Well, that’s nice to know.

"The Jerusalem Talmud says that though the Prophets and the Writings may come to nought, the Pentateuch and Esther will never perish" (ibid. p. 784). Esther’s place of highest esteem among Jews is due in large part to its witness to the mighty acts of Yahweh to save his people. Genocidal anti-Semitism make their first major, ugly appearance in Persia shortly after Esther was promoted from the king’s harem to be queen. Queen Esther was told by her step-father Mordecai of the Persian genocidal plot. He challenged her to act against the plot with these words: "Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).

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The divine name does not appear in the book, but divine salvation is the message. Christians under attack now and in the dark days that lie ahead must cling to Esther’s message: Divine Providence overrules all things; even for Christians in a distant, far land, we remain in His hands. God Delivers! He rescues his people!

Whether or not you read Dr. Dorothy’s The Books of Esther, may I suggest you take a fresh read of this remarkable book in your Bible. You will be encouraged and inspired.