October 14, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The books of Esther and Baruch

John F. FinkNext week, the 29th week in Ordinary Time, the Old Testament books of Esther and Baruch are included in the Office of Readings. Most of Esther is read on Sunday through Thursday and parts of Baruch on Friday and Saturday.

The Book of Esther is historical fiction, a novella about God’s Providence. It’s the story of a young Jewish girl who is chosen queen of the Persian Empire by King Ahasuerus—Hebrew for King Xerxes, 485-464 B.C. She is queen when the king’s powerful vizier, Haman, plots to destroy, in a single day, all the Jews living in the empire because of his hatred for Mordecai, who happens to be Esther’s uncle and foster father.

Esther uses her charms with the king to avert the pogrom against the Jews. She manages to reverse the royal decree of extermination so that Haman is hanged on the gibbet he built for Mordecai.

The Jews celebrate their deliverance with the annual feast of Purim.

The story has three major sections: how Esther is selected to become queen; Mordecai’s conflict with Haman and Esther’s intervention to save the Jews; and the revenge the Jews take against their enemies.

This book was originally written, in Hebrew, toward the end of the Persian Empire in the fourth century B.C. However, it had no reference to God anyplace in it. In the second century B.C., a Greek version was produced with the addition of 107 verses inserted in appropriate places. The additions include prayers by Mordecai and Esther.

Since the additions were in Greek, the Jews did not accept them in their canon, but the Catholic Church did, including Esther’s prayer before she went to meet the king.

The only New Testament reference to the Book of Esther occurs when King Herod Antipas says to the daughter of Herodias, “I will give you anything you ask, even half my kingdom” (Mk 6:23). That’s an echo of King Ahasuerus, who said to Esther, “What is your request? Even if it is half of my kingdom, it shall be granted you” (Est 5:3).

The Office of Readings has only two passages from Baruch, a book ascribed to Jeremiah’s scribe but actually composed by four writers centuries after Baruch’s death. The first passage is a penitential prayer, which consists of a confession of guilt speaking of God in the third person, and then a plea for mercy addressing God directly in the second person.

The second passage, the book’s centerpiece, is a poem that extols wisdom as the great gift God has given to Israel. It demonstrates that two scriptural traditions, that of Job and that of Sirach, are not incompatible. Job illustrated that wisdom is unfathomable (Job 28:1-28), while Sirach stated that it is accessible in the law (Sir 24:1-34).

Baruch says that only God knows wisdom, but he has revealed it to Israel in the Torah: Wisdom “is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; all who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her” (Bar 4:1). †

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