Dr. Bell on Esther

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Just a quick note that when I first touted Dr. Bob Bell’s OT book, I made no claim to have read it, only that I appreciated the author. Now I’ve read more of it, and I just recently read the chapter on Esther. I’ll say just three targeted things about this chapter, two mildly negative and one very positive:

1. Far be it from me to disagree with a man who’s been teaching Hebrew since before I was born… but I’m just not sure of the value of the word-count tables. The book of Esther shows why: the king’s name (including both Ahasuerus and king) occurs far more often than anyone else’s, but he’s not the hero, Bell says (and I agree!). Bell concludes that a character who is not even named in the book is the hero: God, of course. This suggests that real human communication doesn’t submit very readily to word-counting techniques. (I haven’t evaluated any of the many other word-count tables in the book, but my training [in his program!] leads me to be more than a little suspicious. Don’t invest more in these stats than they can really pay back out.)

2. There’s no redemptive history here. No seed of the serpent, no seed of the woman. No contrast between God’s ways with Israel and God’s New Covenant promises. But neither was Bell a moralizer: Mordecai and Esther are not held up as perfect heroes. Bell is not unaware that redemptive history is important and yields valuable insights; he just didn’t choose to focus on that approach (see p. 7). Realize that, and you won’t be disappointed when Bell doesn’t sound like Dempster. I still feel a little bit antsy about this, however, especially when Dr. Bell’s conclusion takes us to application. Recognizing that the story of redemption has progressed is such a necessary safeguard in application. But Dr. Bell does recognize this implicitly—he leads the reader to Christ, and I profited from his applications. I think I’m in good hands with Bell despite this little uncertainty.

3. Dr. Bell’s comments on Esther were—and I know how hackneyed this sounds—just very, very helpful. They were straightforward, clearheaded, appropriately simple and yet insightful. I found myself in complete accord with his views after having done a good bit of study and thinking of my own. He was technical enough to prove he’d done his own homework but practical enough that a preacher of God’s word gets good assistance. He was also admirably brief! Perhaps the best praise I can give is that his words caused me to change some of my own—and add others—in the lesson I was writing. That’s what I look for in a book. I’m excited about using this resource as I continue to write a textbook on the Old Testament for eighth graders.

If you want another brief, provocative, insightful treatment of Esther, try this neat little book, Five Festal Garments.

Also, I just checked out another new BJU Press book on Esther, Pete Steveson’s commentary. It was also quite good.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

11 thoughts on “Dr. Bell on Esther”

  1. I got Dr. Bell’s book at Christmas, and have only read a bit of the intro. I picked it up this morning to read his section on Job and am finding it interesting and helpful in beginning my prep to preach a series on Job. As you say, there is enough technicality to show he has done the homework, and enough practicality to be helpful. And I love the fact that he uses the Hebrew script because I find the transliteration very difficult.

    I too don’t find the word tables that helpful. The exception, though, is his table of interrogatives. It helps to underline his comments that “Job is a book of questions, where wise men dialogue in search of wisdom and God Himself enters the dialogue that challenge their wisdom with question of His own” (p. 204).

  2. Mark, could you perhaps follow up on point 2 about the connection between redemptive history and application in a subsequent post?

    I ask because even though I recently graduated from Dr. Bell’s program too, I feel somewhat lost to explain this connection myself. I was trying to use your other post about “A Helpful Grid for Application in Preaching” the other day, but didn’t actually find it helpful because I don’t quite understand the jargon heading for the first column.
    http://www.byfaithweunderstand.com/2011/07/22/a-helpful-grid-for-application-in-preaching/

    I’m not really sure what I’m missing. This sounds like something I already know about, but why am I not recalling an explanation in these particular terms?

  3. That’s a great question, Duncan. The answer may be that you’ve just got to read a book or two: God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts is one Dr. Casillas uses in class and recommended to me. It really is a great introduction. Another one I’ve really profited from is Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty.

    Perhaps, though, you just need to connect what you know as “biblical theology” to “redemptive history.” The idea is that God’s plan to redeem the world progressed through unfolding stages, starting from His promise to Adam that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15) and narrowing to Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Judah, then David, then focusing on Jesus.

    It took a while for this to make sense to me. I encourage you to jump in and research it till it does! It’s not the only legitimate way to look at the Old Testament, but any way that ignores it is illegitimate, in my opinion.

  4. Duncan, maybe a concrete example will help. I’m teaching through Samuel right now. We’re moving through Samuel chapter by chapter, so my lesson is primarily an exposition of a single chapter.

    But I want the students not to come away with a series of disjointed chapter by chapter lessons. I want them to see how the chapters fit together to tell a story with major themes. Bell’s approach helps me see what the themes are for a given book.

    I also want the students to see that the books of the Bible are not simply a set of disjointed books with their own lessons. The books all fit into the redemptive historical storyline. I’ll often begin my lesson with a review of where Samuel is in the Bible’s storyline: God created a good world; there’s a big problem: sin; God called Abraham as the person through whom he would work out his plan of redemption; Israel was tasked with obeying God’s Law so that all the nations would come worship the true God; Israel has the same heart problem as the rest of the world: they do what is right in there own eyes and thus need a king; David is chosen by God to be a righteous king–but he too is a sinner–pointing to the need for a greater king.

    The redemptive-historical approach provides the broader context for the passage. It also ensures that the passage is understood in the context of the gospel.

  5. To chime in… I am somewhat suspicious of the term ‘redemptive history’. It sounds like a term that doesn’t have a conservative origin and history, but I could be mistaken.

    I tend to be against the use of jargon like this because it tends towards an elitism or intellectual Gnosticism, but I realize that in certain environs technical terms are inevitable as shorthand for larger concepts.

    I’m not sure if this is the place to ask, but perhaps someone could give me a short answer (a paragraph or two) of the source and use of the term?

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  6. Thanks so much, this conversation has helped. Now I’d like to attempt two things:
    1. define and defend the term “redemptive history,”
    2. pose a further question.

    I don’t know the ultimate derivation of the term, but my guess is that it is actually one used by scholars with conservative tendencies rather than liberal ones. Perhaps it sounds suspicious because it sounds like the term “history of religions” which refers to something else (theories about Israel’s religion developing from a more or less pagan religion that was heavily influenced by ANE religious practice into the allegedly post-Exilic Temple-centred Yahwism that we find in the OT). For me, if I were to refer to a redemptive-historical concept in preaching I would probably translate the term into a synonymous phrase, like “the story of Bible,” “biblical history,” or “biblical theology.” The term I would use in speaking would depend on my audience, and by any of those I would mean the exact same thing.

    Now, I think I understand my own question better. Mark, thanks for pointing me back to sources. I’ve read Roberts, but haven’t seen Dempster. Now, if I understand you and Brian rightly, you’re saying that the function of redemptive history in contemporary application is to prevent illegitimate applications (“be a king just like David”) and create a context for useful ones (“turn to Christ, a better king than David”).

    Here’s my question at this point. How does redemptive history help me apply the “edge cases” in OT narrative? In other words, what do I do when the biblical theological principle is unclear? For example, how in the world do I apply stories like Nehemiah 5, where Nehemiah calls out the wealthy citizens of Jerusalem for extracting usury from the poor?

  7. A very intelligent question, Duncan, and I think you answered your father’s questions very well, too—of course, he kind of answered himself by noting that people working in a given field are free to have technical terms). But let me weigh in right away on something you said that I think you’ll want to fix—because it’s something I’ve felt the need to fix in the last year or two.

    There are illegitimate applications of OT stories. We’ve certainly heard them: You ought to be faithful in the tasks God gives you as a young person because David sure did and look what it got him: it was while he was shepherding that God called him to be king. If that’s even in any way legitimate, it still leaves you going, “Eh… But that’s surely not the point to bring out.”

    So I, at least, was tempted to throw out the moral application baby with the moralistic bathwater. We do get “revelation through persons,” as John Frame puts it. Elijah is an example of prayer for James even though prayer was not the major point of the passage James cites. OT characters ARE moral examples for us. Our sermons and Bible lessons can’t all sound like, “Elijah was a pretty good prophet, but not a perfect one; Jesus was that prophet.” We’ll be swinging the pendulum too far the other way, I think.

    So… I tend to think of it this way: God is ultimate, not man, so the indicatives (“David is part of God’s plan to redeem the world, and here’s the part he plays…”) are always logically prior to the imperatives (“You ought to love and trust God the way David did”).

    And the New Covenant radically changes how we get from David’s or Gideon’s or Moses’ faith to personal application for today. Not only are many of the law’s requirements simply no longer applicable because the church is not a theocratic nation (this article really helped me see that in practical detail), but we have spiritual resources God did not give to everyone who was a member of the Old Covenant (depending on your view of the indwelling of the Spirit in OT saints, we seem to have Spiritual resources that none of them had).

    That’s why moral application of Gideon’s faith is both simple (have faith like Gideon) and complex (Gideon turned out to be an overall failure, part of a pattern of failure in Israel’s leadership to which Christ is the ultimate answer).

    Ok… So on to Nehemiah 5 and your other question. It’s not always easy to peg the right biblical-theological application. It’s part art. But the science of it comes in first getting the big picture clear. I think you got that. Then you fill in the details by repeated reading and prayer—including reading what good teachers have said about a given book.

    I think a pretty direct moral application serves Nehemiah 5 well: oppressing the poor is a moral fault to avoid, and that would be especially true among members of the covenant community. We are not bound today to other Christians by quite the same political ties that bound Jews in Nehemiah’s day (they were reestablishing another theocratic state), but 1 Cor 6 certainly calls on us to treat brothers with extra care. In this passage in Nehemiah, then, the overall redemptive-historical story fades a bit into the background and a moral application comes to the fore.

    But all the teaching I’ve ever heard from Nehemiah focuses exclusively on that kind of moral application, and there’s a major contribution the overall book makes to the story of Scripture: namely that God is bringing His exiled people back into the land from which the Messiah will later come—and yet they still haven’t learned their lessons. Something is deeply, deeply wrong inside them, and even 70-plus years of exile won’t cure it. You’d think that former slaves in God’s chosen, returning people would have a camaraderie and love that would keep them from oppressing each other. But no, something more drastic than exile has to take place if these people (and all humanity!) are going to be fixed.

    It’s hard to give that last paragraph, though, if you’re teaching slowly through Nehemiah. I can’t say it’s illegitimate to do so, not at all. But I’m thinking that we generally need to teach OT narrative in bigger chunks. Trying to teach all of Nehemiah in one lesson is what I mean.

    Does that help?

  8. Well, as I say to all who attempt to have fun at my name’s expense, “I’m the good looking one!”

    Now, back to ‘redemptive historical’…

    Maybe it just ‘sounds’ like something Barth would say. Maybe that’s what bugs me about it.

    If the term is related to the idea of turning every passage to Christ, etc… well, I think this is a good bit overdone. My understanding of Biblical Theology is different than that, so I have a hard time seeing ‘redemptive historical’ as synonymous with ‘Biblical Theology’. I don’t think every passage in the Bible is directly related to redemption and attempts to make it so generally miss the point of some passages.

    And if ‘redemptive historical’ = ‘Biblical theology’, with both being fairly technical jargon like terms, wouldn’t one of them be redundant?

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    P. S. Interesting discussion anyway!

  9. Mr. Johnson,

    I think the origins of “redemptive-historical” and “salvation-history” are actually conservative. It originated with a conservative reaction to the modernist history of religions approach to BT.

    I believe the terminology “salvation history” originated with J. C. K. von Hoffman (1810-1877) who connected theology and history by approaching biblical theology as the record of God’s redemptive acts on behalf of mankind. For Hoffman, biblical theology was not merely a recital of doctrines; nor was it a history of religious development. His method of biblical theology involved placing the books of Scripture in their proper location in salvation history, so that the development of God’s work could be seen.

    Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) critiqued von Hoffman. Vos said Hoffman’s approach reduced revelation to God’s acts and neglected God’s speech. In contrast, Vos argued that God’s redemptive acts are always accompanied by his Word and that the purpose of Scripture is not to serve as “abstract truth” but is to explain God’s redemptive acts. It is for this reason that revelation clustered around the times of Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ. Vos defined biblical theology as “the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.”

    So, Vos adopted the salvation-history/redemptive-history approach of von Hoffman (and Oehler), but he improved on it by focusing on the progress of revelation rather than the development of religion.

    So, I think redemptive-historical has a conservative pedigree–even more so than biblical theology (not that it matters much if the ideas are orthodox).

    I agree with you, however, that BT should not be reduced to redemptive history. I think Vos does this, and I think that is a weakness. Dr. Bell notes five methods for biblical theology: (1) The redemptive-historical method, (2) the analytical method, “(3) theological commentary verse by verse, (4) theological summaries of biblical books section by section, and (5) book theologies.” Robert D. Bell, The Theological Messages of the Old Testament Books, 7-9

    So redemptive history is still a method, but BT should not be reduced to it.

  10. Thanks, Brian.

    Now that is reassuring and the history helps some. I tend to be suspicious of evangelical commentators who pander so much to liberal theologians (examples can be found in almost every contemporary evangelical commentary I have). So I have been suspicious of the terms ‘salvation history’ and ‘redemptive-historical’ and such like. It is good to know that they have a conservative pedigree.

    I have Vos, have read a bit of it. It is currently packed away with most of my library in anticipation of a move. Hopefully once the move is over I can tackle such subjects again.

    Anyway, thanks for that bit of info. It helps a good deal.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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