Fun with the Bible: 7 Fun Facts About the Book of Esther This Purim

Rather than go through the entire book of Esther, which would be an enormous undertaking and not what Fun with the Bible is all about, I’m going to point out a few fun things about the biblical book of Esther.

1. It’s one of the scrolls, or megillot, that the Jews read in full at particular times throughout the liturgical calendar year.

2. In Judaism, the holiday surrounding the Book of Esther is called Purim, and it is a particularly fun holiday with partying, games, costumes and revelry, celebrated in a fashion much akin to Halloween. It is the one holiday during which it is sanctioned to get wasted – so wasted in fact, that you are not supposed to be able to tell the difference between the names of the good guy and the bad guy in the Purim story (think Carnival).

3. The bad guy in the story is named Haman, and in episode 309 of South Park, “Jewbilee,” some cryptic references to this arch-enemy of the Jews are made. Curiously, they have nothing to do with Purim. Haman, the king’s vizier, was planning on killing all of the Jews across Shushan (ancient Persia) because one Jew, Mordechai refused to bow down to him. Mordechai, using his niece who had recently married the king, managed to thwart Haman’s plan and have Haman killed instead. And in the general telling, that’s where the story ends. What people often leave out is that the Jews were able to rise up and kill 75,000 of their enemies on the same day (legally sanctioned by the king, fyi). Twisted and often ignored.

4. The holiday begins with the Fast of Esther, the name of Mordechai’s niece who helped save the Jews from Haman. Before executing her plan she fasted for three days. Jews commemorate this fast with one fast day of their own.

5. The book of Esther is the ONLY book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God in any way.

6. Strangely enough, the book of Esther is the only Old Testament book (the only books around at the time, mind you) not discovered at Qumran amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.

7. My girlfriend’s name is Eszter (the Hungarian spelling of Esther), so I have a particular affinity for this book…if only for this reason.

If you’re celebrating, Happy Purim!

Get a FREE Bonus Chapter from The Zen of South Park.

Enjoy more Fun with the Bible posts.

Advertisements

Fun with the Bible: The Use of the Word Messiah/Christ/Mashiach/Savior in the Bible, Judaism and Christianity

Oh boy is this a loaded term, and once again we get the pleasure of such a fascinating topic thanks to Kay, who was wondering about the various usages, meanings and importance ascribed to this word.

The Word Messiah as it Was Meant to Be

Let me start by saying that the word messiah did not begin with what today one would call messianic inclinations. That is, the messiah was never about some wonderful, future savior in ancient Judaism (which we should really be calling the ancient Israelite religion, since Judaism would have come from the descendants of Judea and we’re really talking about the entire area’s religion before it was just Judea). In any case, “messiah” literally meant anointed and referred to the king who was anointed into his position with oil.

You may recall such a scene in the New Testament book of Mark (14:3-9) when an old woman comes and pours nice oil on Jesus’ head. Though Jesus speaks of this as a preparation for burial, Mark’s understanding of his quality as Savior was not particularly developed, and a story like this later became prized for its value of equating Jesus with the long-awaited Davidic king. Speaking of this, David himself is anointed by Samuel (I Samuel 16), and other kings are anointed too. It was an important ritual act to signify that someone had been chosen by God.

Cyrus as Messiah

The reference to Cyrus as God’s anointed one is made by Isaiah (45:1), and makes good sense when we think about what Cyrus had done (notably, Cyrus is the ONLY non-Israelite to ever be referred to by this term). After the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and decades of Babylonian captivity, Cyrus, King of Persia, decrees that the people of Judea be allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple to their God. It would certainly seem that a benevolent and wonderful act like that could only come from a person that God himself had wanted anointed as king. (As a side note, my cat’s name is Cyrus, both because of this biblical story and because Herodotus seemed to me to describe this same king Cyrus as a mischievous fellow).

It is in the book of Daniel (9:25-26) that the term mashiach nagid (the great messiah) is used, and it is thought that this is a reference to Cyrus for the wonderful thing he did for the Jews. However, bear in mind that Daniel is not a prophecy. Though it purports to come from a captive in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court in the sixth century, Daniel was written in the middle of the Jewish revolt against the Greek king Antichus IV (c. 167). That’s why he is able to so accurately run through the history of the Ancient Middle East’s rulers that affect the Jews, and get increasingly specific as he describes what goes on between the Greek kings that lead up to the war of his day.

Think about Cyrus’ motivation for allowing the Jews to return to their land after he conquered the Babylonian Empire and found so many subject peoples. It wasn’t just the Jews. Cyrus was a wise statesman and realized that if he conquered the Babylonians and let all of the people they had conquered go home, they would love him and do what he says (tribute, baby). Moreover, if they rebuild their temples and pray to their gods they will pray on behalf of him, his health, wealth, and success. And that’s exactly what Cyrus asked everyone to do.

Waiting for the Messiah

So after the use of this word in these various contexts and after the Jews returned to Judea, there was no more Davidic line of kings ruling over the people in the same way that there had always been, but looking back to the time of David filled the Jews with pride and longing because it was when they were strongest, unified and their religion and homeland were the least ‘corrupted’ with outsiders (or so they thought through the lens of their backward gazing). In any case, they looked back and desperately wanted independence and their Davidic king (a king who descended from the line of David, in case that hasn’t been clear), and as this person was always mashiach, anointed, they looked forward to a time when God would give them back their anointed one. And thus begins (in an overly simplistic fashion, mind you) the beginning and longing for a Messiah that would come and free the people.

In the centuries hugging the year zero – particularly after the Romans took over the region – every person and his brother claimed to be the messiah: sent from God to rescue the people. People also claimed to be prophets at this time – in unusual abundance.

And no, to answer a question previously posed, prophets and messiahs are not the same thing. Prophets brought a message from God and the Messiah was not a messenger but a savior – the person sent to do the dirty work. He didn’t have words to deliver but a better life for the people. That idea wasn’t otherworldly in Judaism (too much, at least). It was literally about getting the king back and having independence. Jewish messianic aspirations were not always about ending this world or the world-to-come – that’s the result of two millenia of Christian influence.

Christianity and the Messiah

However, when Jesus came and was believed to be the long-awaited descendant of the Davidic line, jubilation erupted among some. His death, though, put a damper on people’s spirits (no pun intended) because they believed that he would restore the line and rescue them from the Romans. When that didn’t happen, the idea of Jesus as the anointed one was used in different ways, most successfully by Pauline Christianity who made the rest (an insanely complicated) history. Thus, Jesus was the Messiah, and when that saving was not able to be earthly salvation (the Judean kingdom), it was transformed into the other-worldly salvation of Christianity. And now Christians still await the Messiah – Jesus’ return – to bring those end of days and the good times.

Khristos, the Greek word from which we get Christ, is the term used to refer to Jesus in the language that Paul’s Christianity spread through the Greek-speaking world. That’s why that word become the popular one.

Summary

Any questions, comments or thoughts? Please don’t be shy. Leave them below!

Get a FREE Bonus Chapter from The Zen of South Park.

Enjoy more Fun with the Bible posts.

Missed Picture Day Make-up: Some Pictures of Cyrus

This has nothing to do with writing and less to do with South Park but nonetheless, I’m going to post some pictures of my cat, Cyrus. Yesterday, Chandler posted some pictures of Sterling, and since Sterling and Cyrus are friends (boyfriend and girlfriend if the truth be told), I thought I would toss up some pictures of him just for good measure.

Cyrus has been with me for the duration of The Zen of South Park, and though sometimes his incessant meowing can be annoying and distracting, he has always been a faithful friend and acted as encouragement since I have to provide him with a good home off of my monstrous writing salary.

His name, Cyrus, comes from the Persian King in the fifth century BCE. He is mentioned in the Bible in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah and also in Herodotus’ works. In the latter he seems to be a mischievous person (and that’s where that connection lies with Cyrus the cat), and in the Bible he is the emperor who allowed the Jews, who had been dispersed by the Babylonians, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Since he comes from Israel, it’s a most fitting name.

Without further ado, here are some pictures of Cyrus.

Get a FREE Bonus Chapter from The Zen of South Park.

Read about and see more Around the World Pic posts.