Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Linda M. Day, Esther (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), Pp. xi + 177. Paper, US$24.00, UK£17.99, CAN$32.99. ISBN 0-687-49792-2.

The aim of the Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries series is to provide, in a readable and concise format, sound biblical scholarship for students and pastors. The authors of the series represent a variety of denominational backgrounds and are generally well-established scholars. Common to the genre of biblical commentaries, the volume is divided into two main sections, involving an introduction that covers literary and narrative issues (style, structure, characters, genre, and themes), the original context of the book, theological concerns (pp. 1-22), plus the commentary proper (pp. 23-170). This is followed by a brief bibliography of cited works and annotations to the major commentaries and monographs dealing with the book of Esther (pp. 171-77). Unfortunately, no indexes are included. The commentary proper appears to be divided along the lines of thematic units, although this is not explicitly clarified in Day's introductory section. Ancient delimitation markers, such as those found in the MT, do not seem to have been used for the division of the thematic units of the commentary, as can be seen in Day's division of the Esther 1:1-2:4 (1:1-8; 1:9-2:4), which does not conform to the MT's delimitation markers. Each commentary sub-division includes three important elements: firstly, Day discusses the literary structure and relevant narrative elements of the section, which is, secondly, followed by exegetical remarks, which include the discussion of significant Hebrew vocabulary (in transliteration), translation issues, and/or historical explanations. Thirdly, the author includes an overview of the theological and ethical repercussions of the text, where the larger theological themes (and/or arising ethical concerns) are discussed and possible applications of these principles and themes are drawn for the modern reader.

I found Day's introductory remarks very informative and relevant, while at times lacking more serious conversation with scholarship that does not view the book of Esther exclusively as a Jewish novel. This lack of interaction is most probably due to the limited space and also the intended audience of the Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries series. However, it appears to be an increasing tendency in scholarship in the postmodern era, that one interacts less and less with other-minded scholars, or that the so-called majority view is taken to be “authoritative” (which is in itself an oxymoron in current scholarship). Day characterizes Esther as “a work of fiction” (p. 15) which does not seem to reflect the historical realities of the period in which it is purportedly written. However, Day herself states that the social conditions, reflected in the book, “may reflect actual conditions in the Persian Empire” (p. 15). She admits to the uncertain nature of the provenance and dating of the work (p. 16) and seems to favor a date during the Hellenistic period (p. 17).

The discussion of the major theological motifs and concerns of the book treads familiar ground. Day underlines the hiddenness and absence of God, a motif also known from other biblical books (e.g., Exodus 1-2; compare the relevant discussion of Donald E. Gowan, Theology in Exodus. Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994], 2-24), which seems to be one of the certainties in a “story of uncertainties” (p. 18). Furthermore, Day suggests that Esther is replete with echoes of biblical narratives (e.g., the story of Joseph [Gen 37-50]; origin of and relationship between Jews and Amalekites [1 Sam 15]; etc.) which situates it squarely in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Day also places the book within the larger historic stream of the twentieth century and the Shoah, which suddenly transforms the book from fiction to a tragic and horrible reality (p. 21). In this sense, Day challenges the reader to see the spirit of human resistance in the narrative, as read in post-Shoah world (p. 22).

The attention given by Day to the text of the Hebrew Bible and her careful observations are highly relevant and to the point. She interacts sometimes with other scholars, using in-text references, but mostly limits her comments to the Hebrew text itself. The layout of the Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries series does not allow for a fresh translation of the Hebrew text by the author of the commentary (NRSV is the preferred English translation) which is unfortunate, since translation is such an important preparatory step for exegesis. Day occasionally comments on standard English translations, but does not do so consistently. When discussing the application of the biblical text to the 21st century, Day often makes pertinent statements, as can be seen in her comments on the justification of physical violence in the context of an increasingly violent US society (p. 141). Other examples of Day's thematic application involves the type of female leadership to be advocated in present-day culture or the position and treatment of minorities (p. 142). While these comments are highly relevant, I wonder if a commentary should be driven by the current social agenda. To be sure, Day is first and above all interested in the structure and meaning of the biblical text and its narrative force and design. But the inclusion of these highly evocative red button issues may lead some readers to overlook important aspects of the biblical text, putting the locus of meaning in the reader or current society, which is—as it appears in Day's comments—limited to a Western, US-based culture.

All in all, Day's highly readable and literarily sensitive reading of the Hebrew book of Esther is captivating and by no means heavy-duty (or boring!). It is not an academic pronunciation which lacks relevance and consequence. I caught myself just reading on at the end of a thematic unit, which does not happen too often when using a commentary. I would have wished for a more serious interaction with those who would not put the book of Esther entirely into the camp of fiction (see, for example, my comments on the terminology mentioned in Esther 8:10, 14 and their historical Sitz im Leben; Gerald A. Klingbeil, “רכשׁ and Esther 8, 10.14: A Semantic Note,” ZAW 107 [1995]: 301-3). Furthermore, culturally sensitive comments should go beyond the mere focus on Western society (be it USA or European centered) but needs to interact with non-Western readings of the biblical text as well. Notwithstanding these minor critical remarks, I highly recommend this volume for the serious student of biblical narrative and theology.

Gerald A. Klingbeil, Theological Seminary, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Philippines