Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Free Esther!

The ESV Study Bible notes on Esther were written by Barry Webb, lecturer in Old Testament at Moore College. I interviewed him for the Sola Panel here, and if you head on over you can download the complete Esther notes for free!

A current pet peeve of mine is people who want to insist that we be culturally savvy in our understanding of our own culture and the culture of the Bible, and that this needs to happen before we can really get the message from the text. It seems to me a subtle attempt to deaden and dull the immediacy of God's living word. So my ears always prick up when I get the hint that others see this as a problem too. In the interview, Barry says:

The Jewish people during the inter-testamental period even added a bit to the story of Esther, and this has been preserved in the Septuagint [the traditional Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament]. In these additions, whoever wrote them seems to have wanted to exonerate Esther from the charge of having broken the law and behaved immorally.

So one of the exciting and fascinating things for me was when I read the book of Esther, having questions about their behaviour, and then discovered that the Jews of the inter-testamental period had the same thoughts. It was a good example of a modern reader reading the same text, with my questions coming not out of my modernity or my Christianity; it was a real issue that arose for earlier readers too.


I am not sure at all that Barry shares my annoyance with scholarly attempts at authoritative cultural exegesis. But his observations about the continuity between BC culture and his questions—my questions too, when I read Esther—help us see why it is that the Bible speaks to day. It's God's inerrant, infallible and true word, applied by his Spirit to people who have been made in his image. It's an image that remains despite the passage of some two and a half thousand years between when God first addressed his hearers, to when he addresses us now.

19 comments:

Mikey Lynch said...

and yet... and yet... and yet....

Timothy Wonil Lee said...

Thanks for this, Gordon. I should really think about how I have been approaching the bible in cultural aspects.

The Pook said...

...and yet, the fact that later Jews had the same questions about Esther that occur to us could also show that their culture was different from that of Esther's and whoever wrote the book, just as ours is.

I do agree that the cultural context thing is often overworked and over emphasised, however. It is also used tendentiously by people to support whatever their interpretation of certain parts of scripture might be. Both conservatives and radicals are guilty of that.

Cultural differences are sometimes important negative factors in us MISinterpreting Scripture, but I think are less important in positively arriving at the correct understanding of a particular obscure passage than other simple biblical/literary principles like allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, taking the plain common sense garden variety meaning of the words and grammar unless there is a good reason not to, carefully studying the cotext and context, and having the epistemic humility to admit when we're stumped.

Mikey Lynch said...

you don't need to be culturally savvy to read ancient Hebrew? that's an immediate thing?

Gordon Cheng said...

you don't need to be culturally savvy to read ancient Hebrew?

No, you need to be linguistically competent.

Mikey Lynch said...

and what definition of culture doesn't include language?

Gordon Cheng said...

Culture's a blancmange that essentially includes everything, except stuff that was around before Genesis 1:26. Even some of that can get absorbed sometimes, as seen in the 1950s movie The Blob.

So to say language is a part of culture doesn't advance the cause much. You need language to understand culture, but you don't need culture to understand language any more than you need The Blob to understand ten-pin bowling (if you've seen the movie, you'll know what I mean).

Gordon Cheng said...

My other theory here is that language is inherent in the nature of God, and thus is necessarily able to be considered independently of culture. Gen 1:3 "Let there be light" may be the earliest known example of this, although note Eph 1:4.

Mikey Lynch said...

Don't need culture to understand language? Language is a constantly evolving phenomenon... I'm afraid I just don't understand how you can define culture in such a way that language is not a central part of it. I don't see how you can separate it.

wrt God's speech:
-God never speaks to us in the language he spoke to himself, does he? Just because God's language can be understand separate from culture doesn't mean ours can.
- Insofar as it is right to speak of God's language it is also, I think, fair to speak of God's trinitarian 'culture'. I don't think your argument for separating language from culture can be maintained.

Taking the sort of line you are taking makes me think you are in great danger of ending up making all sorts of interpretive and culture assumptions, but be deaf to any criticism since you would insist that 'culture had nothing to do with it'!

Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Mikey

Don't need culture to understand language?

That's right. Every word spoken by God to God, By God to Adam, by Adam to God (and possibly himself) up to and including Genesis 2:23 is culture-free. Arguably, there is no culture at all until Genesis 4:2b.

wrt God's speech:
-God never speaks to us in the language he spoke to himself, does he?


Why do you think that? It seems to be the opposite of what Genesis 1-2 asserts, especially Genesis 1:26-28.


- Insofar as it is right to speak of God's language it is also, I think, fair to speak of God's trinitarian 'culture'.


See? I told you that 'culture' was merely a blancmange that ate everything in its path. You've just proved the point by making culture eat God!! Eeeaiieeearrrgh!!!!

I don't think your argument for separating language from culture can be maintained.

Well, not if you're going to insist that culture includes God as he is in himself, before the creation of the world. I'll admit defeat on that one. But not before I ask you what you think 'culture' is. I'm defining it, for purposes of this discussion, as the blancmange that ate everything.

As for your final paragraph, whether this is true or not it is something of a non sequitur and probably merits its own discussion in another place.

The Pook said...

One flaw with your argument there Gordon is that although the events of Genesis 1-3 take place before "culture" as we know it, the story in its written down form in Hebrew did not come into a cultural vacuum but was given by God to Moses as part of the whole package deal of the covenant with Israel. And they certainly had a culture, which included the Hebrew language. Not to mention the rest of the bible, where cultural considerations are clearly important. In fact some of the bible, such as Daniel or some of the New Testament epistles are largely concerned with questions of how God's people can live godly lives in an ungodly culture. The cultural backdrop of Daniel is certainly one of the factors in understanding the book.

I hear what you're trying to say, but I think thou dost protest too much (in the Shakespearean sense of the word).

As for God's language, as Calvin observed, we cannot know or experience God as God does himself. The God that we have necessarily to deal with is the Economic Trinity. God deigns to use human language to communicate with human beings. It is Islam, not Christianity, that teaches that God's communication comes in the language of heaven (which is apparently 7th century Arabian). Angels appear not to have an angelic language but to use the languages of people (I take "the tongues of men and angels" in 1 Cor 13 to be a hendiadys). And I agree with Mikey, you can't separate language and culture. Any more than you can separate the flour from the milk in the blancmange.

marion said...

So could somebody pls define "culture"?

And are there 2 categories Godly & non-Godly?

thatgreatcity said...

on a tangent from the culture/language stuff...

Looks like the study bible will be worth it just for the notes.
I'm not going to be using the ESV for preaching or my own reading but I'd buy this for the notes/maps etc.

Gordon Cheng said...

Marion said:

So could somebody pls define "culture"?

And are there 2 categories Godly & non-Godly?


I suggest:

The product of all non-biological human interactions.

So babies and eating are excluded, for example. Cooking isn't.

By itself, it can't be either godly or ungodly.

marion said...

I like it Gordon.

But what if the cooking involves killing & eating your enemy? (Which was happening till very recently in PNG).

Can culture be neutral?

Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Marion,

Culture takes on the moral character of the people who form it. Once the blancmange is out, however, it can turn on its originators and bite back, as blancmanges do.

How is this illustration going? Culture: the blancmange that bites!

The poook:

One flaw with your argument there Gordon is that although the events of Genesis 1-3 take place before "culture" as we know it, the story in its written down form in Hebrew did not come into a cultural vacuum but was given by God to Moses as part of the whole package deal of the covenant with Israel.

Nothing these days comes in a cultural vacuum. But even from within a culture, we can look back to a time before culture was, and this is exactly what Genesis 1-3 does. The divine spiration of Scripture is what stops this from being more than an attractive guess. I'm sure you know what I mean, the pook. ;-)

Mikey Lynch said...

Hi Gordo, I'll venture one more comment then leave this alone:

0. Yes culture is a broad thing. that point *does* "advance the cause" a great deal. It is why it is so strange for you to be so insistent that it be separated from language... and that language can be understood without it!

1. Calvin's intro to the Institutes feels relevant here somehow: theology is about knowledge of God *and* his world.

2. Even in Gen 1-3, Adam and Eve were individuals who saw the world in an individual way. As soon this was done there is culture going on. They are reflecting on and reacting to the world around them. Surely God's speech was catered to their (good) creatureliness, their individuality, their location in space? Surely as soon as it was spoken, it became a part of their nascent culture?

3. Are you really suggesting that God spoke to Adam and Eve with the form of divine and transcendent self-expression 'language' of the Trinity? Really?

4. There seems to be a subtle but implicit strand in your reasoning that sees this pesky 'culture' stuff, with all its complexities as post-fall... at least not bound up with God's good creation. A subtle dualism?

I'll give you the last word if you want it :-)
Thanks for the discussion bro. God bless.

The Pook said...

Yes, I agree Mikey that there may be a kind of dualistic implication there. And I'm not sure that dividing culture off as "non-biological" isn't also a false dichotomy. Culture is affected and influenced by all kinds of factors, including biological ones. Furthermore, eating, procreating and giving birth may not in themselves BE culture, but HOW you do those things and how you think about them and react to them certainly IS culture. Even WHAT you eat and don't eat is cultural, and sometimes religiously cultural. Eating and drinking are very important cultural topics in the bible.

I agree that 'culture' (as opposed to individual examples of it) is neutral in itself. Though because of Total Depravity, all culture is now impure in every part. This is also true of Art, Science, Sexuality, and any other universal human descriptor.

marion said...

Maybe this is off topic but I have just read an article about the imbalance of girls to boys in India. (normal ratio 927 to 1000 boys but in the Punjab as low as 300 girls to 1000 boys)

A cultural practice - an expensive dowry for daughters thereby leading to the killing of them so that only sons survive. Not neutral. Very unGodly & deadly.