In the morning Eucharist I enquired whether anyone had made much sense of the First Lesson reading (from Esther); so for the brief reflection I offer at Choral Evensong there was this ...
Choral Evensong 27 September 2015
Readings: Exodus 24; Matthew 9:1-8;
We have probably all had the experience of reading or hearing a passage of scripture during a service and wondering why we read it and what it means. This morning I found myself wondering why we were reading from the Book of Esther: a weird story, historically flaky, violent, lots of conspiracy, with elements of sex and death – it could be worked into a blockbuster novel – but you would have to search to find any mention of God.
The story of Esther concerns a Jewish maiden during the reign of Xerxes over the Persian Empire (485-465 BCE).Esther is an orphan and is raised by her uncle and rises to become queen of the Persian empire and saves the lives of the Jews from the scheming of Haman. Jewish opinion on the book appears to have been divided: some struggled with its lack of religious sentiment but, because of its treatment of anti-Semitism, Jews through the centuries have often also read it as their ‘story’. As for the secular tone of the book – its silence about God – the curious thing about the story and dilemma Esther faces is that so many pieces have to fall into place for the Jews to escape annihilation that a careful reader eventually has to look beyond a series of remarkable coincidences and start to see the careful operation of a hidden God working behind the scenes.
Then again the passage from Exodus we have just read presents all sorts of problems. Unlike Esther, God is the main subject of this book. It is a strange book: it is anonymous; it is ancient; its cultural roots are deep and remote from anything we know; and what sort of writing is it anyway? If we attempt to read it as a historical account of actual events our minds resist the text – yes there may be fragments of history but there is so much more going on, and it feels more mythological than historical. Though the Exodus text seems to present a strange but orderly narrative sequence more likely it condenses what was really an evolving religious understanding formed over many centuries.
Why do we read such texts – or at least why do I think we should read them? At the simplest level we read them because these books are part of the many-layered story of faith; they are texts that belong within the scriptures and however untidy or strange or remote they may be – nonetheless they belong there and we read them for that reason.
Of course, they puzzle us and often trouble us. That is another reason we ought to read them. They give us another view or another angle or attitude to how we may think about God. To read them is to enter another world, encounter another way of thinking, and to remember that the story of faith is more complex than we imagine. Our own fragment in that story takes on a new perspective when we start to grasp this.