Thursday, March 8, 2012

Peace of Mind (Isaiah 26:3)

Complete: “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace ____________________________.” Whose mind is stayed on Thee (Isaiah 26:3)

Isaiah 26 includes a comforting song that calls for trust in God for deliverance. Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) specifies:

Usually the unit is divided into two parts, Isaiah 26:1-6 and Isaiah 26:7-21...although different schemes of subdivision have also been suggested. In terms of genre, Isaiah 26:1-6 is classified as a psalm of trust or as a victory song, whereas the last section [Isaiah 26:7-21] is analyzed as a communal complaint. (Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 188)
Unlike much of the material that precedes it, the song deals with Israel’s present situation though scholars debate exactly what crisis is being endured. Hans Wildberger (1910-1986) deciphers:
It has been explained...that the enemy city cannot be identified. There is also virtually nothing in the specific vocabulary that would help to set the piece in any particular epoch; generally it uses the relatively timeless vocabulary of cultic lyric. (Wildberger, Isaiah 13-27: A Continental Commentary, 545)
Proximity to the Babylonian invasion is the usual suspect though it cannot be stated with any certainty. What can be established is that times were not good when the song was penned. Even so, the lyric assures that one can find peace amidst chaos (Isaiah 26:3).
“The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, Because he trusts in You.” (Isaiah 26:3 NASB)
The song promises “perfect peace” (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, RSV) or being “completely whole” (MSG). The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the promise literally “in peace—in peace”. Peace (shalowm, as used in the standard Jewish greeting) is listed twice in succession, “peace, peace”. Unlike English, where this redundancy would represent poor grammar, in Hebrew the repetition indicates accent, like underlining or bolding would in English.

Robert J. Morgan (b. 1952) explains:

The original Hebrew says that God will keep in shâlom, shâlom those whose minds are stayed on Him. The word shâlom means more than a cessation of conflict. It conveys the idea of wholeness, quietness of spirit, safety, blessing, happiness of heart. The double use of the word multiplies its intensity. (Morgan, 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know by Heart, 98)
This doublet is the rationale for the translation “perfect” or “complete” peace. In regards to the other prominent noun in the text, John N. Oswalt (b. 1940) writes:
“mind,” comes from the root idea “to form.” Thus as a noun it frequently refers to that which is formed (Isaiah 29:16; Psalm 103:14; Habakkuk 2:18), often thoughts, purposes, or intentions (cf. Genesis 6:5, 8:21; Deuteronomy 31:21; I Chronicles 28:9, 29:18). As reflected in the present translation, the Hebrew seems to place “the steadfast mind” in an emphatic position in an independent clause at the beginning of the sentence. (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 468)
Gary V. Smith (b. 1943) clarifies:
The song confidently states that certain people will have perfect peace. Two factors characterize these people...they have a “frame of mind, perspective, constitution” (yēser) that is “steadfast” (sāmak), which implies an undeviating commitment to a purpose, conviction, or person. The root meaning of the translation “steadfast” is “to support” but the Hebrew passive participle carries the idea of “leaning on, depending on, resting on” something...Thus the prophet confidently confesses that the people who have a “despondent perspective” (as opposed to a proud self-confident demeanor) will have complete peace because they trust in God. (Smith, The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, Vol. 15A, 442)
Where do you find comfort in times of peril? When times are bad, do you lean on God? If one is not in perfect peace does it imply that her mind is not fixed upon the divine? How often is your mind focused on God?

Isaiah does not promise that strife will not come, only that one can find peace amidst it. Terry Briley (b. 1956) summarizes:

The song stresses confidence in God as the one who strengthens his people and enables them to accomplish his purpose for them. This confidence does not deny the difficulties and frustrations along the way, but it does encourage the faithful to wait patiently for God. (Briley, Isaiah, Volume 1 (College Press NIV Commentary), 243)
As noted, there is no specific context for this song, making its message all the more timeless. It assures that faith in God is the way to peace. There is always hope for internal peace even amidst the most challenging of trials.

In fact, peace is listed among the “fruits of the Spirit”, Paul’s catalog of nine tangible attributes that characterize the Christian life (Galatians 5:22-23).

Does peace come from an external or internal source? Have you experienced the perfect peace of which Isaiah spoke? Are you experiencing it now?

“We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” - Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Six-Fingered Giant (II Samuel 21:20)

How many fingers and toes did Goliath have? 24 (II Samuel 21:20)

II Samuel includes a list of four Israelite warriors who defeated Philistine giants during David’s reign (II Samuel 21:15-22). At the outset, the king is said to be “weary” (II Samuel 21:15 NASB) so it is perhaps not surprising that the Bible’s most famous giant killer does not square off against these giants. Instead, the king’s men, Abishai (II Samuel 21:15-17), Sibbecai (II Samuel 21:18), Elhanan (II Samuel 21:19) and David’s nephew Jonathan (II Samuel 21:20-21) are each credited with felling Philistines.

Giants were rare even in biblical times. The word translated “giant” is rapha. It is used only eight times in the Bible, seven appearing in this chapter and its parallel in I Chronicles (II Samuel 21:16, 18, 20, 22; I Chronicles 20:4, 6, 8). The last occurrence is a proper name (I Chronicles 8:2).

The passage is merely a recap and as such details of the battles are scarce. Though hailing from Gath, the last giant is most likely not Goliath as the question and some tradition presumes. The final adversary, defeated by David’s nephew Jonathan, does, however, stand out, even amongst giants. Unlike the first three giants, he is unnamed and is instead identified by a curious digital structure.

There was war at Gath again, where there was a man of great stature who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; and he also had been born to the giant. When he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David’s brother, struck him down. (II Samuel 21:20-21 NASB)
Like a pulp villain, the final foe is a six-fingered giant (II Samuel 21:20; I Chronicles 20:6).

Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) summarizes:

The fourth Philistine was killed in “another battle, which took place at Gath” (II Samuel 21:20), in the heart of Philistine territory. At that location David’s nephew, “Jonathan son of Shimea” (II Samuel 21:21) slew “a hug man with sin fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot” (II Samuel 21:20). This individual, who had the unusual condition known as hexadigitation, was killed when “he taunted Israel.” He too was one of the descendants of Rapha. (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7), 450)
Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg (1895-1965) adds:
The last-named giant, whose name is unknown, is described as an abnormal and therefore uncanny man who is also apparently particularly large. His conqueror is a nephew of David’s, unknown elsewhere (II Samuel 13:3, 32). It is hardly possible to identify him with Jonathan the son of Shammah from the list of the thirty in II Samuel 23:33, as the latter is not a Bethlehemite. It is remarkable that all those named here should come from Bethlehem (or its neighbourhood), so that the whole passage seems to be a page from the honours list of Bethlehem, which is added here to give higher praise to David of Bethlehem. (Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 388)
The giant has sexdactyly (also known hexadactyly or more generically as polydactyly), a genetic condition in which a person has six fingers on one or both hands or six toes on one or both feet. Possessing a supernumerary finger or toe is not particularly uncommon, occurring one in every 500 to 1000 births. In fact, this genetically inheritable condition is actually autosomal-dominant though the trait has obviously not become predominant. Some populations feature a larger proportion of six-fingered people. In most cases, the extra digit has limited or no mobility and is therefore surgically removed shortly after birth. Having 24 working digits is extremely rare. Former Major League pitcher Antonio Alfonseca (b. 1972) is one such case, though he asserted that his extra fingers had little affect on his pitching as they seldom contacted the ball. In 2011, the New York Daily News profiled a Cuban named Yoandri Hernandez Garrido, nicknamed “Twenty-four”, who parlayed his extra digits into cash by using his enhanced grip to easily scale palm trees to acquire coconuts and posing for photographs with tourists in Baracoa.

Have you ever met a giant? Has someone ever fought a battle for you when you were too weary to fight yourself? What is your most distinguishing physical feature? Would having additional digits be a benefit or a detriment? Why was this detail about the giant included? How would the original audience have perceived the adversary’s appearance?

Superstitiously, polydactyly has been associated with proof of good (kings, divine blessing, quasi-divine attributes), evil (witches, the offspring of the watchers in I Enoch) and more recently inbreeding (some Appalachian towns are known “Six Finger [insert town here]”).

The original audience likely saw the giant polydactyly as the ultimate in intimidation. Stephen J. Andrews (b. 1954) explains, “A person with four extra digits was very unusual, and this would have made him seem especially formidable (Andrews, I & II Samuel (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 348).”

Renowned composer Dennis Jernigan (b. 1959) adds:

The..last giant, unlike his kinsmen Goliath, Ishbi-Benob, Saph, and Lahmi, is given no name in the Bible. Instead, he is identified by an unusual physical characteristic that today is known as polydactyly: Rather than having five fingers or five toes, he had six. This trait must have made him seem more extraordinary and more fearsome to others of his day than even his great height did. (Jernigan, Giant Killers: Crushing Strongholds, Securing Freedom in Your Life)
Peter R. Ackroyd (1917-2005) writes bluntly, “The giant mentioned here is also a monster in having excess fingers and toes (Ackroyd, The Second Book of Samuel (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the New English Bible), 203).”

Though writing in the days before political correctness, Ackroyd hits the nail on the head - to his enemies, the man was perceived as a monster. And yet somehow, presumably through divine intervention, the monster was defeated.

What was more intimidating: the man’s size or his extra fingers and toes? (In Princess Bride terms, would you rather battle Fezzik or Count Rugen?) Why is the giant unnamed? Can you name your most imposing adversary? What is the fight of your life? Do you have faith that ,with God’s help, you can defeat it?

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” - Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Beyond Good and Evil, p. 146

Monday, March 5, 2012

Vashti: Heroine of Villainess? (Esther 1)

Who was queen before Esther? Vashti

The first female character named in the book of Esther is not its name sake but rather her royal predecessor, Vashti (Esther 1:9). In fact, the book begins with the end of Vashti. Though it spans only a chapter in the narrative, four years lapse between the fall of Vashti (Esther 1:3) and the rise of Esther (Esther 2:16).

At the story’s outset, Persia’s reigning couple is Ahasuerus, long associated with Xerxes (though contemporary scholars debate that point), and Vashti. Unfortunately, the historical record has evidence of neither Vashti nor Esther. In regards to wives of Xerxes, Herodotus speaks only of Amestris (Herodotus 7.61). Wesley J. Fuerst (1930-2007) summarizes, “Herodotus, the Greek traveller and historian, says that the name of Xerxes’ queen was Amestris. Whether there was such a Vashti, or for that matter an Esther, cannot be proved from extra-biblical sources (Fuerst, The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the Old Testament), 46).”

Karen H. Jobes (b. 1952) reasons:

Some have claimed the name Vashti sounds similar to the Old Persian for beautiful woman. If so, the name simply may be a literary device used to characterize the woman otherwise known to history as Amestris...Perhaps Herodotus mentions only Amestris, whether or not she was Vashti, because he was interested only in the royal wives who bore the successors to the throne. (Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary), 66-67)
The story commences with a glimpse into ancient Persian revelry, going to great lengths to detail the extravagance. Within the book’s first nine verses, the royal family hosts three lavish parties (Esther 1:4-9)! The first bash persists for 180 days (Esther 1:4) and when this half year of partying concludes, Ahasuerus is not ready to halt the festivities so he holds a seven-day banquet for the men of the royal citadel, Susa (Esther 1:5). Meanwhile Vashti hosts a feast for the women (Esther 1:9). Those who connect Ahasuerus to Xerxes have deduced that the parties are fundraisers for a military campaign against the Greeks that ultimately failed at Hellespont.

Mark Mangano (b. 1958) writes:

The king’s power, wealth, majesty, and generosity are highlighted by the description of the banquets held in Susa, where the king is gathering support for his campaign against Greece. The original readers would have known that Xerxes returned from Greece four years later after a defeat that depleted his royal wealth. (Mangano, Esther & Daniel (College Press NIV Commentary), 43)
After displaying his many royal possessions, on the final day of his final party, Ahasuerus decides it is time to flaunt his most lovely prize and summons queen Vashti to parade her beauty before his guests (Esther 1:11).
On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful. (Esther 1:10-11 NASB)
All expectations point to Vashti following orders as everyone else in the story has done so, taking part in the drunken revelry at the king’s whim. Thus far, Vashti has acted only once in the text, to host a royal party (Esther 1:9). Her second act is far more eventful. Apparently the palace is not exempt from marital strife as Vashti does the unthinkable: she flatly refuses the king (Esther 1:12)! In choosing dignity over royalty, Vashti violates a litany of cultural expectations she is supposed to fulfill.

Most assume that given the heavy drinking involved (Esther 1:7-8, 10) and the queen’s refusal (Esther 1:12), the king’s request entailed denigrating Vashti. Joseph Telushkin (b. 1948) concludes, “The text does not state whether the king intends to display Vashti in the nude, but its emphasis on Ahasuerus’s drunkenness when he summons Vashti suggests that his intentions might well be less than honorable (Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible).”

Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) speculates:

It is unclear but certainly intimated that the king orders Vashti to come wearing perhaps only the crown and nothing else. The Targum assumes such an interpretation and attributes it to Vashti’s moral breakdown. According to the Targum, “The king ordered seven courtiers to bring Vashti the Queen naked. This was [punishment] for her having made Jewish girls work naked cording wool and flax on the Sabbath. Because of this, it was decreed against her to be brought naked, dressed only in her royal crown on her head.” (Olitzy, Esther: A Modern Commentary, 10)
Vashti is a dangerous figure to those who wish to maintain order. Ahasuerus’ advisors conclude that the queen has not only wronged the king, but the princes and people as well (Esther 1:16). In response, the guardians of the status quo revoke her royal title (Esther 1:19).

Jon D. Levenson (b. 1949) summarizes:

The result is a further escalation of the crisis, for the domestic difficulties of the royal couple become the occasion for an imperial edict deposing Vashti and ordering every man to be master of his household, a task at which the king who issues the edict has proven a conspicuous failure (Esther 1:16-22). (Levenson, Esther: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 2)
Vashti’s stand has dramatic consequences for the queen as she is expelled from the kingdom (Esther 1:13-22).

The rationale behind Vashti’s refusal is not stated. Interpretations range from Vashti being a dignified and virtuous queen to a rebellious woman who refuses to obey her husband. As evidenced by the Targum, traditionally, the spirit of patriarchy has strongly influenced the interpretation with the queen often playing the villain. There is simply not enough information to decide with any certainty. What is undeniable is that Vashti’s choice represents a revolutionary and defiant act.

Carol M. Bechtel (b. 1959) writes:

In one bold stroke, Vashti single-handedly exposes the mighty Ahasuerus for the weak, ineffectual man that he is (at least by ancient standards). He may command the entire army of Persia and Media and rule over “one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1), but he cannot control his own wife. (Bechtel, Esther (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 8)
The natural comparison between Vashti and Esther has long been discussed. Catherine Clark Kroeger (1925-2011) writes:
The book of Esther has been interpreted as a classic stereotyping of how women shoulder their way to power. Straightforward women like Vashti lose their position, while Esther gets her way through recourse to feminine charm and cunning artifice. (Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, 268)
What cultural expectations do modern women face? When have you seen dire consequences for a respectable choice? Do you think the loss of her crown made Vashti regret her decision? Why did Vashti refuse her husband’s request? What would have happened had Vashti consented to the king’s demands?

From a narrative perspective, if Vashti consents, neither she nor Esther would have been remembered. The cost to her might have been greater than even her legacy and her crown. Carol Lakey Hess (b. 1957) holds that complying would have cost Vashti her very identity.

The loss of self for women is a quiet thing. Had Queen Vashti disregarded her own feelings and submitted to the will of King Ahasuerus, the resulting loss of herself would have occurred ever so quietly. No one would have noticed…obedience to husband, social convention, and other authorities is often thought more important than woman’s obedience to her inner call to integrity. (Hess, Caretakers of Our Common House: Women’s Development in Communities of Faith,14)
Not surprisingly, feminists have long been taken with the defiant queen. Carol M. Bechtel (b. 1959) notes:
The character of Vashti has long fascinated feminists and frightened misogynists. Although she makes only a brief appearance in the first chapter, it is long enough to be instructive. She may be queen, but she is still a woman in the midst of a patriarchal culture, and thus has limited control over her situation...It is hard not to admire her courage, even while one recognizes that it costs her dearly. (Bechtel, Esther (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 11)
Early feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) viewed Vashti as an exemplary woman:
Vashti is conspicuous as the first woman recorded whose self-respect and courage enabled her to act contrary to the will of her husband. She was the first “woman who dared”...Except Deborah as judge, no example had been given of a woman who formed her own judgment and acted upon it. There had been no exhibition of a self-respecting womanhood which might stand for a higher type of social life than was customary among men. (Stanton, The Woman's Bible, Part I & II, 255)
Athalya Brenner (b. 1943) reminds:
A number of modern feminist writers have, in fact, found their heroine in Vashti, their empathy with her, while regarding Esther as a weak collaborator with tyranny, an antifeminist...For the writer of Esther, however, Vashti’s foolishness is the foil for Esther’s wisdom, her dismissal justified and, indeed, from a narrative point of view, the sparks that commences the story. (Brenner, A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna, 33-34)
Esther is not an overtly religious book. As God is not mentioned by name in the course of the narrative, one of the challenges for the reader is placing God in the story.

Is God with Vashti? How is the reader intended to view the fallen queen? Does the writer intend for Esther to be compared to her predecessor? Does Esther represent the upgrade that Ahasuerus had hoped for (Esther 1:19)?

“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves -- there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.” - Joan Didion (b. 1934), Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p. 148