Purim in the Bible – The Book of Esther

1024px-Homemade_hamantaschen2A friend once told me that all the good holidays in Judaism fall into the same mold: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” And while that may be true for a few holidays, it is never truer than on Purim, the holiday which celebrates the Jews’s escape from a Persian genocide thanks to the attractiveness and intelligence of a secret Jew, Esther, the queen of Persia. Esther’s story is told in the Book of Esther, one of the last books to be added to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Especially in Israel, Purim has become something like Halloween mixed with Saint Patrick’s Day. Children wear costumes and eat special cookies– my wife makes amazing hamentaschen– while religiously observant men are commanded to get so drunk that they cannot even “distinguish between ‘[…] Haman’ and ‘[…] Mordecai.'”, the antagonist and protagonist of the Esther story.  I did not believe that when I was told, but yes– it’s in the Talmud (Tractate Megillah, Ch. 1, 7b).

In this post, we will be introduced to the world of the Persian Jews, a competition to become queen, and finally the decree of the king of Persia to massacre all of the Jews in his kingdom.  Spoiler alert: the Jews survive. Read on for this fantastic story.

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Lent in the Bible and the Temptation of Jesus

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“What are you giving up for Lent?” is a common question on my Facebook feed this week as my Catholic and some Protestant friends confront their inner demons or look to bring themselves closer to God for in preparation for Easter. A few friends are giving up alcohol, one is becoming a vegetarian, and at least one poor soul is trying to use his iPhone less often. Even those who are not deeply religious, or whose denomination does not celebrate Lent, are getting into the act. The act of giving up something solemnizes the season and serves as a daily reminder to be thankful for the things that we have.

Not all Christian denominations celebrate Lent, and even those that do disagree on some of the specifics, but Lent commemorates and prepares believers for the coming of the crucifixion. For most, it is a period of around forty days from Ash Wednesday (better known in some circles as “the morning after Mardi Gras”) and ending the friday before Palm Sunday, Holy Week. Lent also brings the story of Jesus full circle: as Christians prepare for the end of Jesus’s time on Earth, Lent calls back to just prior to his ministry, one of the first stories of the New Testament: the Temptation of Jesus. Jesus’s forty days in the desert, culminating as he resists three temptations by Satan, was his call to arms to begin teaching the masses. Even for non-Christians, it’s a great story with explicit connections to the Hebrew Bible.

Forty days, three temptations, and only one link to click. Read on for more.

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Esek, Sitnah, and Rehoboth: What Ever Happened to Isaac’s Wells?

The Landing of the Pilgrims by Henri Bacon (1877)In 1643, a group of British colonists from Plymouth journeyed west to find a new home. It had been a generation since the founding of Plymouth colony and the world was changing rapidly. The colonists had seen war and hardship, they saw their hard-fought religious idealism of the New World diluted by a rapidly growing Massachusetts Bay colony to the north, and back in England the country was in the early throws of a civil war. It was in this climate that this group of colonists were inspired by the story of Isaac and his wells. God had “made room” for them and, like Isaac and the subsequent Israelites, they could be “fruitful” (Genesis 26:22) in the land. Today, this town is known as Rehoboth, Massachusetts.

Throughout history, the story of Isaac finding room has resonated by settlers of all stripes. In 1845, mixed Protestant missionaries founded a town of Rehoboth in pre-colonial Namibia. In 1873, a group of Methodists founded a resort town of Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. There are other towns with similar stories in New Mexico, Ohio, Alabama, and Maryland. It was also the name for a US Navy ship during World War I, historic buildings in New York and Maryland, and there’s even an asteroid. This is a story that has resonated down through the generations.

These stories had meaning which we carry to this day. But what ever happened to those wells? Read on for more.

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Abraham’s and Isaac’s Wells

500px-Well_of_Isaac_in_BeershebaIn the television show Survivor, fire means life. But in the Book of Genesis, water is the element that saves your life. Wells found in the wilderness save the lives of Hagar and Ishmael, wells are the community meeting place where both Isaac’s and Jacob’s wives were found, and wells mark a territorial claim to a plot of land. To have a well demonstrates that the land is capable of sustaining life; you can live there.

One of the lesser-known stories of the bible, one of the very few where Isaac is more than a passive actor, is the story of Abraham’s wells. This is a story of Isaac’s success against all odds, of a compromise with the Philistines, and setting one of the borders of the future land of Israel. It also happens to involve quite a lot of wells.

Let’s grab some shovels and dig in!

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Who Was the Serpent in the Garden of Eden?

IndiancobraThe temptation of Eve is one of the most well-known stories of the bible. Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, she shares a bite with Adam, and they realize their nakedness. God discovers their futile efforts to cover their private parts and curses them to a hard life of toil and pain outside the Garden. If the bible is the story of mankind’s tumultuous relationship with God, then that tumult starts right here with mankind’s first ever exercise of free will and the first time that he defied his maker.

But who was that mysterious serpent that started the wheels of rebellion turning? Jews and Christians approach this bible story differently. Christians at least have a clear answer to this question: the serpent was Satan who has snuck into the Garden to lead God’s new creation astray. But for Jews, the answer is less easy. Was the serpent a metaphor? A talking animal? Something else?

This post will explore the ways that Jews and Christians have come to understand the bible’s first antagonist. The serpent is a slippery beast so read on for more!

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Esau’s Stolen Birthright

It was the heist of a millennium: Rebekah and her second-born son Jacob conspired to rob her first-born, Esau, of his birthright. At stake wasn’t just gold or silver, servants or sheep, but rather the patriarchy for the whole future nation of Israel. To complete the theft, they would have to manipulate a blind and crippled Isaac, husband and father, into confusing his children and blessing the wrong one. It was an inauspicious start to the tribe of Israel, to say the least.

Rightly or wrongly, Rebekah was persuaded to do this by a vision from God given to her in pregnancy. But what led Jacob down this dark path? Was it greed? Did he, too, have a vision from God? The bible is mostly silent, but for me it comes down to one bowl of delicious soup. Read on for more.

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The Demoness Lillith in the Bible

As we celebrate the increasingly “secular” holiday of Halloween, young and old embrace the spooky and the macabre and perhaps score some candy in the process. Since Halloween is about as far from the Bible as you can get, I want to turn instead to something that is both biblical and spooky: demons. Although demons are only directly mentioned in the New Testament, Jewish legends had demons playing a greater part in the Old Testament/Hebrew bible than our received text would indicate. The first and most well known of these demons is actually a demoness, Lillith.

If pop culture is any judge, Lillith is one of the most famous biblical figures to never actually appear in the bible. Whether she’s Adam’s first wife, a demon, a feminist symbol, or a combination of all three; she is a force to be reckoned with. She has been the namesake of a music festival, at least three comic book characters, several songs and films, the subject of paintings, astrology, and even a villainess on Doctor Who. There’s even an early personal computer named for her, though I’m not quite sure I see her appeal as a company mascot.

Who was Lillith? And where did this legend begin? Those questions are tough, but the answer starts in the bible– not with a capital-L Lillith, but with a type of demon, lowercase-L lilliths. In this post, I’ll follow the story of Lillith as it appears in the bible, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and eventually blossoms into her first incarnation as a feminist symbol in the Talmud. The full legend of Lillith as Adam’s wife is an 8th century invention of Jewish mysticism and outside the scope of this blog, but all of her roots are here. Read on… if you dare.

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Same-sex Marriage in Classical Biblical Commentary

As I researched an upcoming post on Enoch, I stumbled upon this passage in Genesis Rabbah:

“The generation of the Flood was not blotted out of the world until they had begun writing nuptial hymns for marriages between males or between man and beast.”
Genesis Rabbah 26:5:4

That does say what you think it says: Fifth century Jews, at least some of them, thought that Noah’s flood was caused by gay marriage. I was shocked by this, but more because I didn’t think of same-sex marriage as a social issue until the modern era. The very fact that it was condemned fifteen-hundred years ago means that the practice must have existed in some form. I subsequently learned that there was a controversy about it in the Roman Empire and was banned right around the time the commentary was written. It is a small world!

This isn’t a post in favor of gay marriage or against it, but rather I want to look at the two (that I found) references in early Jewish sources which talk about the practice– and if you know of early Christian sources, please share them with me. It should go without saying that while the bible doesn’t mention the practice directly, the prohibitions against same-sex relations are clear and as I strive for the “plain meaning” of the text in my blog, I won’t apologize for that. I support same-sex marriage, but this post isn’t a biblical defense of that practice.

I hope too many people don’t unfriend me for posting this. Read on for more!

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Timeline of Genesis From Adam to Joseph

According to the story in Genesis, there were around 2,300 years from the creation of Adam in the Garden of Eden to the exodus of the Israelites in Egypt. Along the way, there were 23 generations, a flood, several famines, and generation after generation of lost stories. Many readers skim over these sections for the narrative portions of the book, but if we look carefully at these “begats” we can not only seeing biblical man becoming more like us, but there is also plenty of room for surprise. Did you know that Abraham could have met Noah? Or that Eber, for whom the Hebrew tribe is named, outlived his great-great-great-great grandson?

Come, take a look! There will be graphs!

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One Abimelech or Two?

'King_Abimelech_Restores_Sarah_to_her_Husband,_Abraham',_Flemish_tapestry_by_Frans_Geubels,_DaytonTry to put yourself in King Abimelech’s shoes: He was eighty years young, having held sway over his kingdom for more than half a century through war and peace. He’s a Philistine, who the Egyptians called the “Sea People”, and a descendant of a tribe of seafarers and raiders that were not unlike the Vikings of their day. We might say that his olive complexion looks a bit Greek, but it’s hundreds of years before Homer composed his first stanza. At this time, the Philistines controlled a coastal area of Israel from what today would be Gaza to just south of Tel Aviv. Abimelech is ruling from a town called Gerar, though it’s not one of the principal Philistine cities. In the time since the Philistines had come to Canaan, the local customs had rubbed off on them: they still spoke a separate language, but were increasingly worshipping Canaanite gods.

One day, Abimelech’s kingdom was greeted by two wanderers, a brother and sister from Canaan who had fallen upon hard times. Something was familiar about them, but he couldn’t quite place it– they both had just the hint of a Mesopotamian accent. Where had he heard that accent before? But the young lady was attractive and even though Abimelech was too old for those kinds of thoughts, he didn’t see the harm in letting them stay in Gerar.

But Abimelech didn’t live to his eighth decade by taking chances: he kept a close watch on the couple. After all, they could have been spies or worse. Not that it was too much of a chore to keep tabs on the young lady, after all. But a few weeks later, as he watched from afar, he caught the supposed siblings in a lover’s embrace. Realization dawned: they weren’t siblings! He stormed out of his hiding place to confront the young man. “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” The king fumed. He paused for a second, his brow creased, “Wait a second… have we done this before?”

That narrative is a fabrication, a mix of details from historical and biblical sources. But Abimelech is undoubtedly one of the most unusual figures in Genesis: a polytheist who nonetheless talked with God and may have been rewarded by Him. But was the Abimelech who met Abraham the same man who met Isaac? The bible isn’t clear and there is some disagreement. Read on for a look at what the early Jews and Christians thought.

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