Carol M. Bechtel, Esther. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002. 98 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 0-8042-3113-3. $19.95.
There is not much available by way of commentaries on the book of Esther. As a preacher I must admit that I have neglected the book of Esther, finding it both fascinating and yet mysterious in terms of its purpose and meaning in the history of redemption. Carol Bechtel acknowledges this struggle for many of us and provides a classic quote from Martin Luther who apparently "confessed that he wished the book did not exist at all, saying that it 'Judaizes' too much and is full of 'pagan naughtiness.'" Nevertheless, although this little commentary is interesting to read, it does not open up for us the message of Esther; furthermore, it is devoid of any true eschatology. What is most indicting of her approach is that, with the exception of one simple reference in passing (p. 19), the name of Christ is not even mentioned in the commentary.
This commentary, written by Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, is part of the series entitled "Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching." It is short98 pages in all, plus a two-page bibliography. The commentary is divided into three main sections: a twenty-page introduction is followed by sixty-two pages of commentary which is broken down into thematic preaching sections rather than verse-by-verse commentary. The final section is a thirteen-page appendix entitled "the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical additions to Esther." In this appendix, the author deals exclusively with six additional sections to the book which are found in the Apocrypha and are also in the Septuagint, but which stand outside of the Protestant Canon.
The introduction section is interesting with a few helpful insights into the structure of the text. For example, there is a structural analysis of the book on page 6 where she outlines the book in its entirety as a chiasm. However, in the commentary section, Bechtel spends most of her time simply retelling the story, highlighting the ironies. She finds no eschatology in Esther. And she fails to see in the story of Esther the story of Christ and his church. In her understanding of the text, Christ is absent and clearly not relevant to the message. Therefore, she is left looking for moral examples both good and bad. Esther and Vashti become examples of dealing with limited control. As Bechtel points out, Vashti may be Queen, but "she is still a woman in the midst of a patriarchal culture, and thus has limited control over her situation" (p. 11). She then presents us with a dilemma. Shall we follow Vashti's "outright rejection of the status quo," or follow Esther who "opts for critical compromise?"
In her introduction, Bechtel discusses the conspicuous absence of the name of God in the book of Esther and, after discussing how God is in fact working behind the scenes, concludes that God is just one character among many. She writes, "God is very much a character in this book, though one who evidently prefers to remain anonymous" (p. 14). The comfort we are to draw from this is that God is with us in the midst of our struggle as we try to remain faithful in an unfaithful culture. She fails to see that God is the one who is really on the throne in Esther and that Ahasueras in many ways represents the true Almighty King ("Esther Lessons", Jonathan Stark). Bechtel seeks to make a case for seeing the rivalry between Mordecai and Haman as a continuation of the "rivalry" between King Saul and King Agag. She does this by drawing on their respective lineages in Esther where Mordecai is introduced as "Mordecai the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the Son of Kish, a Benjamite," (Esther 2:5) and Haman is called "Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite" (Esther 3:1). This "rivalry" between Saul and Agag refers back to 1 Samuel 15 where Saul in disobedience spared Agag's life and as a result the kingdom was torn from him. However, since she does not see Mordecai as a type of Christ, the rivalry between Mordecai and Haman is trivialized so that instead of being the rivalry between Christ and his enemy it becomes the story of King Saul's revenge on Agag (p. 30).
Throughout the commentary Bechtel seeks to explain the importance of the book of Esther in the history of Judaism with an emphasis on the power of the written word. She mentions the theme of deliverance for the Jews and how we, as Christians, can read Esther and remember the deliverance of Jesus Christ over sin and death. But she fails to show any connection from the book of Esther to Christ, finally concluding that "Christians can learn much from the Jewish experience of the book of Esther" (p. 19). In general we are reminded of God's providence and our responsibilities (whatever they may be). She concludes her analysis of Esther with pure drivel about the importance of "(1) reading the book in its entirety, (2) reading it aloud, and (3) reading it interactively . . . [and] reading it repeatedly" (p. 20). But she doesn't really have a clue as to what the message of the book is in the history of redemption. In conclusion, it would certainly appear that Martin Luther would appreciate this commentary about as much as he seemed to appreciate the Book of Esther for, although it is not filled with pagan naughtiness, it is filled with much Judaizing. But Praise God, there is a better way!
Calvin D. Keller
Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church