God and Politics in Esther

God and Politics in Esther by Yoram Hazony is Cambridge University Press.  Dr. Hazony’s website is found HERE.

The author is a Jewish scholar who researches and writes about philosophy and theology, political theory and intellectual history. Hazony’s previous books are The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (Basic Books, 2000).  His next book is and will be completed with My next book is The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018).

This book on Esther is one I fear will not get enough attention from many of the circles I am in.  I am a Protestant Christian with Reformed and Evangelical ties.  I have lots of close connections with Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and Christians of other and non-denominational affiliations.  Hazony fits into none of those categories, nor is he Catholic or Orthodox, but is a Jewish scholar living in Israel with his wife and nine children.  He is highly recognized and respected in many circles, but, as indicated, overlooked in my world.

About the same time that I became aware of this book, a church in my town was having a Bible study for women on the Book of Esther.  I did not attend that study for obvious reasons, but was curious as to how it would differ from this book.  I think that Esther is capable of being taught from different angles to different audiences, so my point is not contentious.

Again, I would like to see Christians reading this book.  Here are the drawbacks, however:

  1.  It is published by Cambridge University Press.  For me, that is a major plus.  I am constantly amazed at the outpouring of books from university presses.  Certainly, there are plenty of astoundingly obscure topics that grow into books interesting to very small circles.  Such books will line the shelves mainly of university libraries.  But there are also a multitude of books for less specialized readers, but such books rarely appear on the bookshelves of our local book stores.
  2.  University Press publications tend to be highly priced.  I am usually dependent on review copies or used copies or university press sales for such books.
  3. It is not a conventional commentary and is not a Christian-directed book.  As noted, the author is Jewish.
  4.  This book is not all that easy to classify.  Does it go in the religion section?  Perhaps, since it is about the Old Testament.  Or does it belong in the political science area?  The word Politics is not just in the title, but is a vital part of the content.  The field of politics is itself an area of philosophy, so maybe the book should be wedged into the philosophy shelves.

Very rarely do Christian pastors preach from the Book of Esther.  It is relatively easy to construct a topical sermon or two from the book.  There are two key texts that “preach.”

One is Esther 4:14:  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

And the other is a phrase from Esther 4:16, which is her response to the verse above.  Esther says, “If I perish, I perish.”

But how would a pastor preach a series on this book which never directly mentions the name of God and that deals with so many intricate political problems?  My answer:  Read Hazony’s book.

Chapter 5, which is titled “Idolatry,” is worth the time and effort and cost of the book itself.  This is a book about bad leadership, false beliefs, and survival of faith amidst evil people.  Idolatry, while not overtly apparent as in the case of the Golden Calf, is nevertheless the great evil in this book.

Another key theme is that of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  This is a favorite Calvinist Sunday afternoon topic of thought or discussion.  J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is still a classic favorite.  Hazony does not take a view that is totally compatible to my Reformed disposition.  But he does offer some ideas–both acceptable and debatable–about the role that people must take without depending upon a Deus ex machina.

For years, Christians shied away from politics.  It is easy to imagine a church full of people in 1960 who were evenly divided over whether to vote for Nixon or Kennedy.  Some of the choices or races in recent years are harder for conservative Christians to grapple with.  Conservative theology and liberal politics are difficult to reconcile.  But so are conservative theology and conservative politics (at least in the popular sense of “conservative”).  Since Hazony is not American, his perspective is not directly connected to Democrats and Republicans, the American left and right, or to the issues confronting us.  That is a strength of the book.  He is not one of “us,” nor is he one of “them.”

We Christians believe in both the presence of God and the intervention of God in human events.  Yet, we too face a world and circumstances that causes us to question where God was when certain events happened or why God allowed (and/or purposed) such.  The easy answers are not found in this book, but it is a help along the way.

I hope someone out there buys and reads this book.  I hope some pastor preaches through Esther or someone teaches a Sunday school series through this.  (And I hope it is not just a women’s study.)

Thanks to my friend Paul David Robinson, a philosopher in the making and a brilliant fellow, for recommending Hazony’s book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture in a Facebook post.  That discovery led to this book.

yh about

Yoram Hazony of the Herzyl Institute

My copy of this book is autographed! Thanks again to Paul David Robinson for commending this book.

Used copies of this book (and mine is a used copy) are very affordable.

More Quick Looks at Books–American History, mostly

 

One of the classic Stanley Brothers’ songs has these words:

“Daylight till dark my work’s never done
Lord have mercy on this sharecropper’s son.”

I know my jobs are not anything compared to what a sharecropper or his son or daughter or wife would have faced.  My workload usually involves a dangerously high stack of books that I am bound by duty or need to read and review.  It is a labor of love, but don’t forget that it is a labor.

I am happily plowing my way through a stack of books that includes the volumes pictured above.  Most of my reading energies this year are focused on American history, government, and literature.  This is because I am teaching my course called Humanities: The American Story.  With more than thirty years of classroom experience (some of it being helpful), I find that I need to read continually to refresh, enlarge, correct, and direct my understanding of the United States.

Let’s look at some of these books.

Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution is by David Benner.   Mr. Benner’s website can be found HERE,  and the book can be ordered through Amazon.  He is a long-time and serious student of the Constitution, and he writes and speaks on historical topics, particularly in the Minnesota area.  Benner is a self-professed Jeffersonian.  Lest we think that species is extinct, take note that the tradition is alive and well.

Most approaches to American government, the Constitution, and history presuppose that a national, centralized State was the design and intent from the beginning.  One can easily assume that history “proves” that the tree planted at the Constitutional Convention was purposed to grow, expand, and engulf the states that created it.  We are so far removed from limited government that it is hard to even start the discussion.  But it is a necessary discussion.  President Bill Clinton once said, “The era of big government is over.”  Whatever he meant by that (whatever the meaning of “is” is), Clinton, like other Presidents, was helpless in stemming the tide of Leviathan.

The battle has to be won on the grounds of history and serious study first.  It will jolt us loose from some of our preconceived or overly indoctrinated ideas about the role of the states and the purpose of a central government.  I think we are several generations away from even the possibility of reviving any sense of Jeffersonian politics.  But that is not a pessimistic statement.  It is a call for teachers and students of America to read books like this one.

The Strategy of Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution

Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution by Thomas Fleming was released on October 10 of this year.  This book fills me with both happiness and sadness.  I corresponded off and on with the prolific Thomas Fleming over the past several years.  I was always amazed at how gracious he was in taking time to answer my questions or suggest which of his books I might enjoy.  When he didn’t answer an email last spring, I became concerned.  Then I learned that he had died back in July.

That he wrote and finished this book prior to his 90th birthday and death is amazing.  He certainly had a large stock of knowledge and writing experience preceding this work.  He never did a full biography of Washington, but by my count, he wrote eight or more books dealing in large part with Washington, besides books indirectly dealing with him or fictional works that included historical events about Washington.

Fleming was a master story-teller.  He writes solid history, but his style is focused on the narrative.  I have sought to collect and read all of his books.  No easy task since he wrote more than fifty books, but this one will be special because it is the last.

How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution is by Tom Shachtman.  This promises to be a good book.  Although the author has written quite a few works, he and I will get to first meet when I can get started on this book.  I used to spend lots of time and energy studying the American Civil War Between the States.  At some point, I began turning more attention over to the American War for Independence.  I still feel a mental deficit when trying to piece the entire War for Independence together in my mind.

The American Continental Army and George Washington changed the world by their victory.  But would it have happened without the French?  It is hard to think through a path to victory without the French fleet and armed forces that both blocked Cornwallis’s path to retreat and ensured his surrender at Yorktown.  This promises to be a fun and interesting read.

Image result for reading the bible with the founding fathers

I read a reviewed Daniel Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers during the summer.  I was able to briefly correspond with Dr. Dreisbach and I am not opposed to reading everything he writes (given time and opportunity).  But if I only stick to this book, I will be well served.  This is an outstanding study.  I read it as history, as spiritual devotional, and as a practical guide to godly living.  This is a book to read and heavily quote from.

I also recently read and reviewed Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Dr. Robert M. S. McDonald.  This book is published by the University of Virginia Press.

Confounding Father is an excellent second or third biography to read about Jefferson.  By that I mean that this book has a particular focus that includes many of the events and details of Jefferson’s life, but it is not a biography in the sense that the six volumes of Dumas Malone or the one volume of Jon Mecham are.  This book focuses on how Jefferson used and was abused by the media, meaning newspapers, and by his political advocates and enemies.

OUPress.Data.Entities.Image

A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison by Jack N. Rakove is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.I began reading this book with the idea that it was a short easily accessible biography of the man who was our fourth President and is called “the Father of the Constitution.”  Characteristic of Madison’s short stature is the small notice that is usually accorded him.  He was quite literally overshadowed by his neighbor and peer Thomas Jefferson.  His co-authorship of The Federalist Papers results in him being one of a list of three.  He appears to be the bookish, policy wonk of the Constitutional Convention.  He was large in knowledge and background information, but small in his verbal or leadership activities.

This book is not a simple biography, but a study of Madison’s political labors.  As a political thinker, he deserves to be ranked right up there with men like Machiavelli, Burke, Locke, or Hobbes.  But there is no key book from Madison that contains his political philosophy.  The closest thing we have is Federalists numbers 10 and 51.  And those two essays are “God’s plenty,” in my opinion.

Early impressions are that this is a worthwhile, although weighty study.

OUPress.Data.Entities.Image

For the second or third time, I have read the introduction to The French and Indian War and the Conquest of New France by William R. Nester.  It is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Each time I read the introduction, I find myself thinking that this lengthy book seems to be really inviting.  It is a time problem that has hindered me.  I am fascinated by the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), and I have collected numerous volumes on the war for what Voltaire called “a few acres of snow.”  Usually, however, my teaching on the war gets lost between using James Fenimore Cooper’s delightful Last of the Mohicans and the subsequent history chapters emphasizing that war as a cause of the American War for Independence.

Just maybe this time I will plow ahead into this book.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America by Rebecca Fraser will be out and on the shelves.  This book is published by St. Martins Press.

My copy is an uncorrected proof.  Having started it, I am finding it quite enjoyable.  This book gives a good background on the religious beliefs of the Separatists who came to the New World.  Hopefully, I can say more later as I get into this book.

Oxford University Press is a favorite source for good books of all sorts.  I recently learned of this book–Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography by Michael R. Licona.  Dr. Licona, a professor at Houston Baptist University, is a rising force in the Christian world of scholarship and apologetics.

“From daylight to dark, my readings are never done.”

Glancing Back at Antiquity–Quick Looks Books

In college, my focus was mainly on American history. I did take courses on British history (which is fundamental background for American history) and on Modern Europe (meaning Europe since the 1500s).  Outside of my course work and interest was the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  Years of teaching world history did better acquaint me with fields outside of my preferences.  But the focal point was always on American and Modern European history.

My entrance into classical Christian education began with a horrifying jolt in the summer of 1995.  I attended some lectures by Wes Callihan and Chris Schlect (both of whom were then teachers at Logos School in Moscow, Idaho) and found myself confronting a near total illiterate–myself.  That began what is now year 24 in a quest to read all the classical works from Genesis and Gilgamesh to Faulkner and Ishiguro.  I am still behind on my readings, by the way.  But I have made progress.

This post–which promises to be brief–will focus on three recent books that are helps or friends in the journey through Antiquity.  They all deserve longer, more detailed, more persuading reviews.  For now, let me assure you that they are all worthy candidates for a space on your bookshelf if you are reading, teaching, or exploring the worlds of Greece and Rome.

OUPress.Data.Entities.Image

Communication, Love, and Death in Homer and Virgil by Stephen Ridd is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  It is Volume 54 in the Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture.  As Victor Davis Hanson and others have lamented, studies in the Classical Culture of Antiquity or studies in the Greek and Roman languages and literature are much diminished in our day and time.  College educated people from past centuries read the classics in the original languages.  My college experiences did not even include reading translations.

This is not the book to start with.  Even though it is called “An Introduction” to certain aspects of Homer and Virgil, don’t begin here.  Read Homer and Virgil.  Read them several times.  Read them with a group.  Read a couple of translations.  Homer’s works are simple enough:  The Iliad and The Odyssey.  (I recommend Richmond Lattimore for the first and Robert Fagles for the second.)  For Virgil, read The Aeneid.  Virgil’s Georgics can also be fun.

It was Louise Cowan and some of her students who first opened my eyes to the richness of these works.  Through the years, I have taught Homer and Virgil’s books to many innocent students.  Each reading and teaching experience challenges me to better understand and enjoy the epics.  My preliminary reading from Dr. Ridd’s book convinces me that this is a worthy resource to be dipped in to or read from cover to cover.

Image result for brian phillips meditations of marcus aurelius

Worldview Guide: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Dr. Brian Phillips is published by Canon Press.  Brian Phillips is a friend of mine (although we have only met once) and a brother in Christ.  He is also the pastor of a family of friends–Wade, Jody, and Caleb Choate.  Brian jokingly wrote in the inscription of my copy “Rave about it publicly.”

This makes my task and burden difficult.  But I will be brave and launch in with this major criticism of this book:  At 41 pages, it is WAY TOO SHORT.  I was just getting into the enjoyment of this book when poof, it was over.

Now, let me put a better spin on all this.  When reading and teaching classics, we often need help.  The tendency is to go pull a dozen volumes off the shelf that provide helps and hints to understanding some older work.  The book–even if it is War and Peace–looks small compared to the towering stack of commentaries and serious studies.  The book described above about Homer and Virgil is that type of helpful reading.  But the key to reading classics is reading classics.  

My belief is that the reader/teacher needs to find a few short, simple (as in simplistic), readable guides for the classic.  Read the Wikipedia article on the classic.  Read an encyclopedia article, a summary, or a brief (5 pages or less) introduction.  But let nothing stop you from reading the classic.  Upon reading the work itself, keep plowing back through the brief helps.  Only after your classical permanent teeth come in can you or should you read the experts.

Brian’s book is a part of a series of Worldview Guides.  The Christian reader can easily succomb to either rejecting a book totally because the author is a pagan  or embracing it totally because it mentions things compatible with Biblical truths.  Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian; in fact and almost unexplainably, he was a Roman emperor who persecuted believers.  But before we shout, “Unclean, unclean,” we have to recognize the sheer brilliance and beauty–via God’s common grace–of his Meditations.

I read and loved the Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations, pictured above and published by The Modern Library.  Phillips uses the older George Long translation (1862).

Image result for larry w. hurtado

Destoyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado is published by Baylor University Press.  This book is a blockbuster of a work.  It can be asserted that the Christian battle royal against the Roman world is the greatest epic battle of history.  Many of us Christians read the New Testament with far too much ease.  But the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles are battle reports and tactical training manuals for warfare.  And, pragmatic folks notice, it worked.

This book will preach, to use the old preacher term.  It is a scholarly, historical, and theological work.  But it is affordable (not all that common for university press publications) and practical and devotional.

My only lament in this post is that this is my American Story year for Humanities.  Most of my reading and all of my teaching will be devoted to things American.  But books can still be scanned, dipped into, and coveted (in terms of content) even when they are not on the reading stacks.

Confounding Founding Father: Thomas Jefferson

I frequently come across people today who say, “Have you ever seen a President being attacked like this one is being attacked?”  These people are usually supporters of President Trump who have been angered by the government, politicians, and the media for years.  Pres. Trump, better than any politician in the last 36 years, was able to tap into that anger and surprise everyone in November of 2016.  The President’s actions, words, attitudes, and tweets have continued to create a firestorm of protests, complaints, and anguish.  The election results shocked the nation and embarrassed the pollsters.  Efforts to calm the raging storm for the past eleven months have been few.

But let’s go back to the question:  Has any President ever been so viciously attacked? The answer is yes.  The President to start with is George Washington.  The first President is iconic and marble-like that it is hard to fathom how mean-spirited and cruel some of the attacks were on him.  The short, unhappy presidency of John Adams was a time of immense criticism for the chief executive.  Adams’ support of the Alien and Sedition Acts didn’t do much to deflect such criticism.  He could, on occasion, be his own worst enemy, but he had no lack of other enemies snapping at him.

Thomas Jefferson also endured a long string of attacks over the course of his career.  A survey of attacks on presidents could cover the whole gamut of men who served in the Oval Office, but we will focus on Jefferson.  The book Confounding Father:  Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Robert M. S. McDonald is about Jefferson’s dealings with the press, his image, and the spin give on his actions on the American political scene.

On the one hand, Jefferson was statesman like in his bearing, his labors, and his overall contributions to America.  It was his pen that produced the Declaration of Independence.  He served in a number of political posts, both elected and appointed.  Just dwell over his resume:  Member of the Continental Congress, member of the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence,  governor of Virginia, foreign ambassador to France, first Secretary of State, Vice President, President, and founder of the University of Virginia.  Most of these posts are associated with great accomplishments.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are .”

“We are all Federalists.  We are all Republicans.”

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

These quotes, and many more could be added, testify to Jefferson the statesman, Jefferson the scholar,  Jefferson the philosopher/king.  He truly had some real nobility in his actions and devotions to the things he believed.

Image result for two sides of thomas jefferson

One the other hand, Jefferson was one canny politician.  In the legendary Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler,” it says, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run….”  That wisdom has its own application in the political world.  Jefferson could cut an enemy without ever weilding a weapon himself.  He used newspapers, friends, and circumstances to advance himself and detract from his opponents.

One of the more unusual traits of our politically ambitious founding fathers was their ability to appear totally disinterested in political office, such as the presidency.  Presidents Washington and Jefferson were both masters at that ploy.  Maybe they would have been perfectly happy never to have been the President, but one suspects they wanted the job as much as candidates do today who seek the office.  But mouthing about ambition was not acceptable in their time.

Jefferson ably presented his better side to the voters.  There were troubling issues, largely personal.  Frequently, Jefferson was attacking for cowardice (fleeing from the British during the War for Independence), for having a slave mistress, and for not being an orthodox Christian.  He did, in fact, flee from the approaching British army (led by Benedict Arnold) while he was governor of Virginia.  It was perhaps more prudence than cowardly.  The question of a slave mistress (namely Sally Hemings) was not broached by the man himself.  Due to a tendency among southern plantation owners to be involved with slave women, it was not a touchy issue in the southern states.  Jefferson was not the raging atheist who threatened the Christian religion, but he was not orthodox either.  To a large degree, he let his enemies vent on these matters without engaging in what we call “gutter politics.”

Comparing the past with the present is always a risky matter.  Putting Jefferson side by side with the four most recent Presidents creates some weird mental vibes.  At the same time, Jefferson–for all his indisputable brilliance–was a man of his time.  He owned slaves; he very likely had an adulterous relationship with one of his slaves;  he naively fell for much of the rhetoric of the French Revolution;  he was not at all loyal to President Washington; and he played political hardball.  In terms of wily political maneuvering, he was the equal to or superior to either Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.  In terms of being a man of distinction, he deserves all the honors that have come his way through the decades.

Perhaps what was most stunning to me as I started reading this book was the fact that Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence was not widely known for years.  Can you imagine any modern politician–or his campaign managers–missing out on such a “photo and media op”?  It was a different world, a different playing field.

Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time is a wonderful way to enter that world so much like our own and so different from our own.

Shaking and Shifting the Paradigms–The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser

Image result for unseen realm book

Good Bible teaching takes us down familiar paths and shows us new things.  That is not an original thought or sentence, but rather one that I heard years ago and have often repeated.  It is for me a very good way of defining what I have experienced in reading The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser and published by Lexham Press.

I am on my second reading of the book. The first reading was slow and the second one may be slower.  This is a path breaking book.  It is challenging because it addresses issues that are not usually tackled and has some approaches that are far from conventional.

Notice the subtitle to the book:  Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible.  Worldview is a recurring theme of many Christian discussions in our time.  As a Christian educator, I have been drenched with books, lectures, and information regarding having, developing, detecting, fine tuning, and defending a Christian worldview.   Debates about how and how much aside, the question is “Do we really have a supernatural worldview of the Bible?”

What other kind of view could we have as Christians?  It is possible to read the Bible for years and typically overlook or sidestep certain passages, details, and content.  In many cases, this is because there are things mentioned that just don’t open up to easy answers.  For example, consider the Nephilim of Genesis 6:1-4.

“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4 ESV)

Or consider Psalm 82:1:  God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.  (KJV)

These passages and others create challenges in that the usual method of comparing text with text doesn’t easily yield answers.  But Heiser believes and supports the idea that these passages are not just weird quirks in an otherwise sensible story.

Much of his book concerns God’s council with spiritual, even divine beings, who serve God, confer with God, listen to God, interject their own comments, but who ultimately are under God’s total providence and power.  This is not polytheism, for God alone is God, as the Scripture consistently affirms.

This book is neither brief nor easy.  I recommend it, but warn the reader to take time, think carefully, have the Bible handy, and be ready to do some brain changing thinking.