A review of Karen Jobes', "Esther," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
Karen H. Jobes. Esther. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. 248 pp. $19.99. ISBN 0-310-20672-3.
As stated in the introduction to this volume, the express purpose of the commentaries in this series is “to help you [i.e., the reader] with the difficult but vital task of bringing an ancient message into a modern context” (p. 9). In order to fulfill this aim the discussion of each passage is divided into three parts: “Original Meaning,” “Bridging Contexts,” and “Contemporary Significance.” The middle section attempts to discern “timeless” principles from the biblical text; the last section looks for “contemporary situations, problems, or questions that are truly compatible to those faced by the original audience” (p. 12). The challenge for such a combination of tasks is to do each part well, particularly the biblical exposition. All too often, in commentaries that stress application, the details of the biblical data are just given a nod and then are used as a springboard to focus on what are deemed to be some important issues of modern relevance.
This work by Jobes admirably succeeds in providing its readers with what is promised. The quality of the scholarly effort behind the treatment of the biblical text is evident in at least two ways. To begin with, the volume begins with a more extensive introduction than one might expect from this kind of series (pp. 19-55). This introduction presents pertinent information about the historical background of the Jews in the post-exilic period under Persian rule, explores questions concerning the authorship and date of the composition of the book of Esther, and defends its historicity. There is also a very helpful discussion of the nature and power of biblical narrative-that is, readers should not try to force it to imitate the modern genre of a pure history book nor should they miss the means by which the account draws one into the story-line in order to communicate its message. As Jobes says, “Rather than deciding whether the book of Esther is history or literature, the real question is how to understand it as both” (p. 37; my emphasis).
Esther, of course, is the only book of the Bible that does not mention God. Nevertheless, Jobes believes that its primary theological point is that God is faithful “to fulfill his covenant promises through his providence” (pp. 38, 46, passim; cf. “A Theological Postscript,” pp. 233-42). This theological truth, she proposes, is communicated through the events and surprising coincidences of the narrative, that has as its dominant motif the banquet. While for Jews Esther continues to be read in the feast of Purim, which celebrates their preservation as a people, the book can also remind Christian believers that God works in the details of everyday life; when he seems most absent, he might actually be most at work (pp. 37-49). The introduction closes with an up-to-date annotated bibliography pp. 52-55).
A second verification of Jobes scholarly work is apparent in the “Original Meaning” part of the exposition of each passage. On the one hand, she provides sufficient historical details, cultural information, and textual insights (note, e.g., her comments on the differences between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint version, pp. 224-28) to inform her discussions; on the other hand, Jobes is sensitive as well to the literary techniques and flavor of the narrative. An example of the latter are her comments on the satiric tone of the book’s handling of the irrevocability of the laws of Persia and Media (under 1:13-22). Modern readers might focus all of their energies in seeking explicit ancient corroboration of that legal position, but in so doing they can miss the text’s humor and parody: although the threat of extinction is serious and real, ultimately-in light of the complete story-this sort of human hubris is baseless and even self-condemning (pp. 78-83).
The “Contemporary Significance” sections usually offer applications at the level of the individual believer, and there are instances of extrapolating lessons to church communities and beyond. Jobes also handles several critiques that have been launched against this canonical book. Thus, she engages the views of more radical feminism and, as a woman, is able to demonstrate the text’s abiding worth. Esther is no “feminist tract,” but it does deal openly with the dynamics of gender roles in a specific socio-historical setting (e.g., pp. 70-76). In addition, Jobes does not avoid wrestling with awkward passages, such as the sexual and moral problems of Esther’s conundrum of becoming part of King Xerxes’ harem (2:12-18, pp. 10-15) or the killing of thousands by the Jews by order of the decrees of the king and Esther (9:1-19, pp. 194-211).
My only caveat in terms of some of the application discussions is that I would deal more explicitly with the socio-political implications for today; and, as a premillennialist, I would not “spiritualize” the divine vindication of God’s people and plan and project it into our destiny “beyond death’ (see pp. 220f.). My conviction is that these wrongs will be made right within our own human history on this earth. These are just quibbles, however, not meant to diminish my appreciation of Jobes’ commentary.
I heartily endorse this volume. This is the first in the series that I have read, and my hope is that the others that have appeared might be of equal value. I have already begun to recommend Jobes’s work to my classes as an example of a happy wedding of exegesis and contextualization. This volume can also serve as an encouragement to my female students of the positive contributions they can make to what has historically been the male-dominated field of biblical studies.
M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament