Historical narrative and wisdom: towards preaching Esther “for such a time as this”
Leder, Arie C.
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This article considers the problem of preaching OT historical narrative from the point of view of the depiction of God’s participation in the drama. It suggests that historical narrative in general depicts a God who reveals himself infrequently, that his presence is normally veiled, and that the reader often has more information about God than the characters in the narrative. The discussion then focuses on Esther where God is resolutely veiled, even from the reader, were it not for the inter-textual references which the competent reader of OT historical narrative will discern. The article suggests that biblical wisdom literature, which discerns God’s veiled presence without respect to acts in history, can be employed to profitably preach Esther in a world where God is present, but readers experience him as veiled. The article ends with suggestions for a series of sermons on Esther. Biblical characters have long fascinated Scripture readers: Good deeds received praise and were deemed worthy of imitation; dark deeds were examined for their doctrinal worth.2 The four senses of the text – the literal, spiritual, ethical, and eschatological – fostered such readings (Lubac 1998:1-14). Some homileticians and exegetes characterize this approach as “exemplary,” that is, of reducing the complexities, especially of the historical narratives, to a picture gallery of ethical models. Critics of this position counter that biblical historical narrative is not about models of ethical behavior, but about God’s redemptive acts in a history that moves organically to the revelation of Jesus Christ. Biblical historical texts, they argue, should be preached redemptive-historically, with a clear focus on Christ as the fulfillment.3 Although he does not advocate an exemplary approach to biblical historical narrative, Douglas Stuart understands that historical narratives do not necessarily teach directly, they often illustrate what is taught directly and categorically elsewhere. This represents an implicit kind of teaching, which in cooperation with the explicit teachings of Scripture, is highly effective in generating the sort of learning experience the Holy Spirit can use positively (Fee & Stuart 1993:82). Stuart’s position suggests that historical texts need something besides themselves to function properly within the Church. It is true, of course, that Christians read the OT in the light of the NT. But, the question of how OT historical narrative was heard before the coming of Christ is not unimportant. Or to question Stuart: May we consider OT historical narrative to be theological literature in its own right? Or is it merely historical? Did this literature teach Israel what to believe or how to behave, or both? Is this literature theological instruction? Redemptive-historical hermeneutics answers this in the affirmative: historical texts, argues Sidney Greidanus, proclaim God’s acts in history. Because they have a theocentric, not an anthropocentric, focus these texts are also immediately relevant to the addressees (Greidanus 1970:215; 1988:116-121). Using the hermeneutic of redemptive-historical progress OT narrative is then usually read in the light of God’s penultimate mighty act in Christ.5 Although Stuart argues that historical texts are implicit illustrations of explicit doctrines taught elsewhere, his discussion of the Joseph and Ruth narratives points to the narratives’ being explicitly theocentric (Gen. 39:2-5, 21-23; 50:26; Ruth 1:17; 4:13), because neither of the stories are about people. But are these narratives explicitly theocentric? Are not the Joseph and Ruth stories about people who behave in ways that lead to the well-being of others, especially that of God’s people? And, does not the so-called Court History of David (2 Sam. 9-20) describe David’s personal failures as king, especially against the background of 2 Samuel 8:15? It is true that the narrators and/or characters mention God, and that in this sense the narrative evokes him, but the Joseph and Ruth narratives do not depict God’s ways with human beings as do the narratives about Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Samuel, Saul, and even David in 2 Samuel 7. And then there is Esther. Among difficult preaching texts Esther has pride of place: the narrative depicts no mighty acts of divine grace, blessing or judgment. And, because it does not mention God at all, Esther outperforms even the Ruth, Joseph and David stories, where God appears briefly, if only by narrative comment or by reference in human speech (Ruth 1:6, 20-21; 4:11, 13, 14-15; Gen. 39:2, 5, 9, 21; 50; 43:14; 44:5; 50:19, 24; 2 Sam. 11:27c; 12:1-25; 17:14). Human actors undeniably assume major roles in these narratives. Even more, they initiate the action: Elimelech moves to Moab, Ruth decides to go with Naomi, Boaz speaks to the harvesters in Ruth’s favor, Jacob urges Joseph to visit his brothers, and Joseph acts on his own in Potiphar’s house and in jail. Only now and then does the narrator inform the reader of God’s involvement. In Esther, however, the focus is exclusively on human action. Xerxes, Vashti, Esther, Mordecai and Haman act on their own, without any of the normally expected textual indications of divine involvement or causation. This essay will examine these and other peculiarities of the Book of Esther with a view to making suggestions for preaching Esther in the Christian Church. Scholarly opinions about its genre and historicity6 will only enter the discussion when contributing to the question: What is a good way to approach Esther for preaching? To that end the essay will first examine the nature and readers’ expectation of biblical historical narrative. It will then proceed to reflect on how a convergence of narrative and wisdom can provide fertile ground for preaching Esther, especially from the point of view of wisdom.