And so what we have learned applies to our lives today
And God has a lot to say in His book
—Veggie Tales, “What We Have Learned”
“Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish,” the lector proclaimed last month, “had recourse to the LORD.” I grabbed the missalette from the rack, thumbed through it to the right date, and scanned the rubric with a grin: Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25. That’s no typo – the reference really does include a letter “C” instead of a chapter number.
That’s because our translated Catholic version of the Book of Esther relies on a bifurcated organizational scheme that reflects its hybrid Greek and Hebrew sources. The most ancient surviving Hebrew version of the tale is shorter than the later Greek version found in the Septuagint, and it’s the Greek version that embedded itself in our liturgy and hence in the Catholic canon of Sacred Scripture – an historical embrace made formal by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.
Nevertheless, even St. Jerome recognized that the Greek-alone sections of Esther were superadded to the Hebrew version at a later date – part of what he called the “deutero-” or second canon – so the father of Bible translation decided to keep the two parts separate in his Vulgate: Latin versions of the Hebrew parts first, followed by the translated Greek parts. Modern Catholic Bibles abide Jerome’s differentiation, but with a literary adjustment: Instead of tacking on the Greek-alone parts at the end of the book, they’re woven in throughout the Hebrew version of the story and identified by letter headings instead of the usual chapter numbers.
I found all this fascinating as a Catholic convert. Having grown up in an evangelical family, I was well familiar with the story of Esther – and I’d read it at least a couple times in my Protestant New International Version translation. It’s a compelling tale of a Jewish heroine who saves her people by bravely taking advantage of fortunate circumstances. The historical basis for the tale is murky, but it ostensibly takes place in 5th-century B.C. Persia when Xerxes was king and the Jews an inconsequential minority in his kingdom. When the comely Esther is consigned to the royal harem, her foster father, Mordecai, insists that she conceal her Jewish identity, and eventually Esther is crowned Queen.
Meanwhile, Haman, a high ranking court official, is seeking to rid the kingdom of his enemy Mordecai and all Jews, and he tricks Xerxes into approving his plan – which includes a one-day genocide that is scheduled by drawing lots (or pur). Queen Esther, prompted by Mordecai, pulls a clever bait-and-switch that results in the exact reversal of the sinister plot: Haman hangs on the gallows, Mordecai takes over Haman’s position, and the Jewish people survive and flourish. To mark this epic deliverance, the Jews establish a perpetual memorial in honor of Esther’s valiant intervention: the annual observance of Purim (which happens to coincide with Holy Thursday this year).
The funny thing is, unlike those opening lines of the Esther reading at Mass, the version I read growing up made no mention of having recourse to the Lord, nor any reference to God at all – not a peep. It’s one of the things that we discovered in junior high somehow – and no doubt junior high boys in evangelical churches are still making hay with this factoid today. God is simply absent in the Protestant Book of Esther. He makes zero appearances – no miracles, no divine utterances, no allusions to the Almighty whatsoever.
Interestingly, the same goes for the sensuous Song of Solomon, although this book has no alternative Greek edition – no “God version” that makes plain the theological associations between the Song’s groom wooing the bride on the one hand, and the Lord enticing Israel (and the Church – you and me, in other words) on the other. I suppose it’s simply unnecessary, particularly in light of all the New Testament comparisons between human marriage and God’s permanent bond with his people. Esther, on the other hand, survives in two forms, and it’s the Septuagint version that includes prayers to God and direct references to God’s interventions – the same version that Jerome included in his Vulgate and which the Council of Trent solemnly re-affirmed as Sacred Scripture in the 16th century.
The textual criticism and the history of all this stuff is unquestionably more complex than I’m making it out here. Still, the fact remains that Protestant Bibles include a God-less Esther while Catholic Bibles – like the New American Bible that we use in our liturgy – put God at the very center of Esther’s tale of heroism and redemption. Ever since Martin Luther declared for the Masoretic Hebrew version of the Old Testament, devoid of Septuagint Greek “additions,” there has been a natural tension between Catholic and Protestant over what constitutes the written Word of God. There are implications for theology, ecumenism, apologetics, worship, prayer – virtually every dimension of Christian identity is affected by this canonical discrepancy.
Is there a way out of this mess? Any common ground on the Esther and canonical debates? You bet: Veggie Tales.
Did your kids grow up on Veggie Tales? Ours did. At the time, there weren’t many Catholic alternatives, and the geniuses at Big Idea Productions put out some mighty entertaining stuff that just so happened to include powerful lessons in faith and morals. It was undeniably Protestant, but it was relatively easy to supplement the ideas presented in the videos with Catholic frames of reference and vocabulary.
Then the Veggie Tales version of Esther came out – surprise! Somebody at Big Idea Productions must’ve recognized that it was a Bible story worth re-telling to kids, yet one that was a bit too subtle (in its Protestant form) when it came to connecting the faith to the morals. Consequently, it seems that the Veggie Tales crew decided to rely on a Catholic version of the Book of Esther, and God has an unambiguous role in the show. Mordecai (Pa Grape) urges Esther to ask the Lord for his assistance, while Esther, accordingly, implores God to rescue her and all the Jewish people from the nefarious plotting of Haman (Mr. Lunt). “We look to God above,” she sings at one point, “for he will guide us safely through.” This God does, and the narrative’s tables are neatly turned. As the narrator states at the show’s conclusion, “Sometimes God has plans so big only he can see them.”
One could argue that the Protestant biblical canon alone provides adequate theological context for the Veggie Tales Esther. After all, the book appears smack dab in the middle of the Old Testament, which is itself a literary mosaic that unmistakably depicts the Lord’s intimate entanglements with obstinate dependents.
That might be true, but even so, I think the Veggie Tales folks chose wisely when they made explicit that which is implicit in the Protestant Esther chronicle – namely God himself. Without the arguably Greek-inspired additions, the Esther story is a straightforward celebration of human ingenuity and nationalism, and the religious dimension of the protagonists’ Jewishness is totally sidelined. Indeed, the Jewish people themselves treated the Hebrew version of Esther with “considerable hesitation,” writes Scripture scholar Demetrius Dumm, “probably because of the lack of religious elements in the story.” In effect, the Veggie Tales producers followed the lead of both St. Jerome and the Septuagint’s assemblers by integrating a divine presence, which, according to Dumm, changes “radically the focus of the original story by giving the heroic role to God rather than to Mordecai and Esther.”
Let’s face it: We don’t live an age given over to subtleties, especially when it comes to spiritual matters. I think that’s why the Church allows for congregational participation in the Palm Sunday liturgy, wherein some of us were invited to voice the part of “The Crowd” in the dramatized reading of the Passion. “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us,” we insisted, and when Pilate pled for the God-man – our Savior – we shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Plain as day: God’s role; our role – the Redeemer and those being redeemed…and why. In a world of distractions, I’m grateful that both liturgy and the Scriptures compel me to focus on what really matters.