Sunday, February 26, 2012

Saved by the Belle

My weakness for fairy tales began early, probably because most bedtimes found me nestled beneath the covers, listening to my mom begin, “Once upon a time…” Since I have older siblings, it’s reasonable to assume I first heard these words while still in the womb.
If any book in the Bible reads like a fairy tale, it’s the book of Esther, featuring a powerful king, an orphan who became queen, a grand palace, fabulous wealth, and a happily-ever-after ending. But also like a fairy tale, Esther includes sinister and dangerous elements.
Once upon a time, between 483 and 473 B.C., King Ahasuerus—also called Xerxes—ruled Persia, and the Persian Empire controlled all the lands from India to Egypt. King Ahasuerus needed a new queen, having banished the last one for disobedience. Esther’s second chapter reads like a beauty pageant: Beautiful virgins, collected from Persia’s 127 provinces, traveled to the palace in Susa, where a year of pampering in a spa made them even lovelier and more refined.
One of these virgins was Esther, a Jewish orphan raised by her older cousin Mordecai. Their family has been in Persia for about one hundred years; in 586 B.C. the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and expelled the Jews. By Esther’s time, some Jews had returned to Jerusalem, but not Esther’s family. So when the virgins were recruited, probably not voluntarily, Esther—described as lovely in form and features—was recruited also.
Esther arrived in a situation not of her own choosing. She didn’t choose for her homeland to be defeated by a foreign enemy. She didn’t desire her grandparents or parents to be taken captive. She didn’t want to belong to a minority population in a foreign nation. She didn’t opt for her parents to die and leave her an orphan. She didn’t prefer to leave her guardian Mordecai and move into the king’s harem.
At first it sounds fabulous—twelve months of beauty treatments and sumptuous dining. Esther would then spend one night impressing the king, and the next morning enter a different section of the harem. She would change from a candidate into a concubine, never to see the king again, unless he requested her. She would never leave the harem. She could enjoy everything she desired materially, but never have a husband, children, or her own home. Like the other virgins, Esther faced a lifetime of incarceration in a posh prison.
Although Esther’s wedding night made her not a concubine, but the queen, her confinement became even more restrictive. She continued to hide her identity as a Jew in a palace of pagans. She used messengers to communicate with her cousin Mordecai, never speaking face-to-face. If asked, “Would you rather be Queen of Persia, or a wife and mother in a humble dwelling with a godly husband,” what would Esther have chosen? But she never had that choice.
Esther only chose how she would act in her unchosen circumstances. She always sought the wisdom of those who knew more than she, whether her cousin Mordecai, or the eunuch in charge of the harem. And now, as Queen of Persia, Esther had one big choice, the biggest of her life.
An evil and powerful man named Haman had duped King Ahasuerus into granting him authority to annihilate the Jewish population of every province in the Persian Empire. Now, Mordecai implored Esther to approach the king—an illegal action even for the queen—identify herself as a Jew, and plead for the lives of her people. How did Esther respond? Did she select Option A (continued safety in the luxurious palace prison) or Option B (the survival of an entire race of people)?
Leave Esther to her decision, and detour 800 miles west to a seemingly unrelated story. Led by Zerubbabel, some of the Jewish exiles had returned to Jerusalem in 538 B.C., about 45 years before Esther’s dilemma. Zerubabbel, who became the governor under Persian authority, may not have still been living when Esther confronted her agonizing choice, but his son or grandson would have been. Haman’s plan of genocide included all Jews in Persia’s 127 provinces from India to Egypt.
Including Jerusalem.
Including Zerubbabel’s offspring.
Esther chose Option B. She would approach the king, whatever the danger. She anointed that decision with a three-day fast by all the Jews in Susa. King Ahasuerus responded favorably, and the Jews were spared annihilation.
Including Jerusalem’s Jews.
Including Zerubbabel’s offspring.
Why is this noteworthy? Travel with me to another story, this time more than 500 years into Esther’s future. Two followers of a traveling rabbi, Jesus of Galilee, recorded his genealogy in the short biographies they wrote. In Matthew’s first chapter and Luke’s third, the name Zerubbabel appears in Jesus’ genealogy. What’s more, the two branches of Jesus’ lineage—one through David’s son Solomon and the other through David’s son Nathan—mysteriously converged in Zerubbabel, then divided again to lead to Joseph and Mary.
When Esther saved the Jewish people, she saved Zerubbabel's descendants 800 miles away. When she saved them, she saved the messianic line. When she saved the messianic line, she saved Jesus, born over 500 years later.
When she saved Jesus, she saved me.
Finding herself in an unchosen circumstance, Esther sought wisdom outside herself and clung to prayer. As children of God, let us imitate her. We have no idea how far reaching the results of our choices will be.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

If it’s poetry, why doesn’t it rhyme?

            The students in my Old Testament Tour 2 class are in for a real treat. I don’t mean food, although there are some holidays coming up:  Purim begins March 7 and Passover April 6. Hamentashen first and then charoset. Those are sweet treats. (We won’t mention the parsley dipped in salty water and the horseradish…)
            No, the treat the kids will experience this coming week is my unit on Hebrew poetry. By the time we finish, they will have written their own psalms, specifically laments. I may write a new one myself.
            Academic information rarely excites anyone, but I was amazed at what I learned when I first prepared this unit on Psalms. Although Psalms are poetry, they don’t rely on rhyme or meter like traditional English language poetry.
            Hebrew poetry uses parallelism, where the second line completes or repeats the thought of the first line. Someone—wish I could remember who—said ideas rhyme instead of words.
            Psalm 19:1 displays synonymous parallelism—the second line echoes the first line in similar words, or synonyms.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (NIV)
            As I wondered why God chose this poetic style for his collaboration with human authors, I pondered the difficulties of translating poetry: Words that rhyme in one language usually don’t rhyme in another. Likewise, a two syllable word in one language may translate into a four syllable word in another. So much for meter or rhythm. To truly appreciate a poem, you have to read it in its original language.
            Parallelism avoids these difficulties and translates well. The second line echoes or complete the thought of the first line in any language.
            Then it hit me:  God never meant Psalms to be an obscure poetry anthology for a tiny nation of Hebrew-speaking people who lived three millennia ago. Instead, he planned that any person who understands any language in any location in any era might access the wealth of encouragement, insight, and inspiration in Psalms.
            Now that’s exciting!

            Thank you, God, for your incredible book, written in ages past, transcribed and translated by your faithful servants over the centuries. Now it speaks your voice in my mother tongue. Amen.