May 21, 2013

Esther's Outstanding Literary Characteristic and Preaching

Robert Gordis suggests that,

"The outstanding literary characteristic of the author of Esther is his interest in the swift flow of the action. He, therefore, strips the plot of all non-essentials, concentrating on events rather than on motivations, on incidents rather than on descriptions of character. Thus, he does not inform us as to the reasons for the king's two banquets, or Vashti’s disobedience, or the grounds for Bigthan and Teresh’s conspiracy. We are not told why Mordecai instructs Esther not to reveal her origin, nor why he himself refuses to bow down to Haman.

"Because of the same over-riding consideration, the author does not concern himself with filling in the background against which the incidents take place. The structure of government and administration in Persia, the relations subsisting between the Jews and the general population, the religious practices and ethnic customs of the people—all these are passed over in silence, so as not to impede the swift pace of the narrative."

Robert Gordis, “Studies in the Esther Narrative,” Journal of Biblical Literature 95 (1976): 45.

If Gordis is correct concerning the author's intention, then this has important implications for how the story might be preached. That is, too much historical background might not help but actually hinder "hearing" the story as the author intended. Furthermore, if the author does indeed show little interest in the character's motivations, then the preacher might be wise to tread lightly here as well. A number of messages that I have heard on Esther have been prime examples of the so-called "sanctified imagination" where the preacher has waxed eloquently on why a character acts as he/she does or even what he/she might have been thinking. While such forays into the white space around the text might be occasionally beneficial, one should recognize that it might actually draw attention away from what the text actually states. Or in other words, spending too much time on what the a text does not say means that we have less time to spend on what a text actually states. This is something, but it is not really exposition.