A traditional definition of theology is; the study of God. For years I accepted this definition before I was exposed to Dr. John Frame’s definition of theology. He defines theology as; the application of God’s Word by person’s in every area of life. Of course this includes but is not limited to, the study of God. As Dr. Carl Ellis has said ( I will reference him one more time in this blog), the problem with the traditional definition is that it leaves out the cultural and historical contexts in Scripture from which we study God. So it can lead us to have tunnel vision for what can be revealed of God, and we may ignore revelatory cultural and historical insights in the text. Cultural and historical contexts within Scripture must be taken seriously because it affects our interpretation and application of Scripture. I want to demonstrate in this blog what the later definition of theology looks like.
A Study of Esther Chapter 3
My church has been preaching through the book of Esther this summer. Some of us are also studying along through the book with suggested materials from the church to aid us. Here is some of that material below. Please read Esther Chapter 3 and follow along my answers to each question.
7 Arrows for Bible Reading
- What does the text say?- Hamon the Agagite is honored and lifted up by King Ahasuerus. All are commanded to give him honor & bow before him but Mordecai refused. Hamon reacts to this with much anger, and upon learning Mordecai was a jew, he crafts a plan to kill him and all Jewish people within the Persian empire. He cunningly presents his plan to be systemically announced before the whole kingdom.
- What does this passage mean to its original audience? –For the Persian empire, it meant that there was to be a set date for the destruction of all Jewish people, rather they were on board or not. However, at least in the City of Susa, many were in confusion over the issue (v.15). For the Jewish people, this meant that they were going to be killed and destroyed by the surrounding dominant culture. There was a set date for their annihilation.
- What does this passage tell us about God?- Even though He is not even mentioned in the whole book, this passage is screaming for a redeeming God, a God who cares about what happens to His people, and this is written here as a record for His people to read and remember. Also, this passage ultimately reveals that God Himself set the “Pur”, the lot which ended up being Adar the 12th month (v.7). However, what Hamon had planned that day would be reversed by God’s miraculous grace (8:12).
- What does this passage tell us about man?- We are evil self-glory seekers who are capable of the most wicked actions if provoked or threatened. We are prideful, sin-sick, and full of self- praise. I had to confess to God that apart from His grace, even I may be willing to murder in order to ensure that I get the glory I seek so earnestly. This made me think of Cain & Abel (Gen 4).
- What does this passage demand of me?- I need to seek Christ in my fallen condition as a self-glory seeker. I need to take that particular sin seriously. It has murderous characteristics and dangerous to people around me if it goes unchecked.
- How does this passage change the way I relate to people?- I need to humble myself, and live to lift others up instead of myself.
Going Further In Our Theology
After using this resource, I asked questions of the text that went a bit further, questions that consider the cultural and historical context more seriously.
- What does this passage tell me about the culture? – The Persian Empire were the dominant culture, the Jews lived among them as the sub-dominant culture. The book of Esther makes it clear that Jewish people within the Persian empire experienced hostility and suffering from their Persian neighbors (8:11, 9:21-22), just because they were Jewish. The Persians had a culture of self-praise, and were used to lifting up people of their own. Jewish contributions to the empire are overlooked, this is seen well in Chapter 6 when God causes King Ahasuerus to see nothing was done for the Jewish man who saved his life!(6:3). Because Jewish people within the dominant Persian culture have no power or influence, and since it is clear that they already have existing enemies who would be glad to annihilate them (9:21-22), then it should be no surprise how Hamon was able to get systematic backing for his plan to destroy them.
Considering the context, this text seems to have much to say about dominant cultures. Therefore I was lead to ask:
2. What does this passage teach about dominant cultures?- Principle: Dominant cultures can easily silence and destroy sub-dominant cultures. How?
- There are reactionaries in every dominant culture
Hamon was a “reactionary” (3:5), a term I have borrowed from Dr. Carl Ellis. Reactionaries don’t like objections from the sub-dominant culture. Reactionaries within the dominant culture sometimes have access to higher leadership in their culture and could influence this leadership if desired. They can feed lies and hide significant pieces of info, shielding their reactionary characteristics (3:8-9).
- Dominant cultures are able to oppress and disadvantage sub-dominant cultures systematically through key authoritative positions in their culture (3:12)
- Many in the dominant culture may not always understand what is happening to the sub-dominant culture among them. They also may not know the real reasons why they are being disadvantaged (3:15). Unless there is change systematically in key positions, unfortunately many in the dominant culture will be complicit in disadvantages to the sub-dominant culture.
Do These Principles Sound Familiar?
In The United States, White Americans are the dominant culture. I don’t expect those Americans to catch the principles I observed in this text. Most minorities from my context would have seen these realities immediately. They are all too familiar to us in our historical and present days lives, and here they are in the pages of Holy Scripture! It is possbile for two Gospel-centered preacher’s, one African-American, and another White, to look at a text like Esther 3 and choose to focus on different things. American Christians of the dominant culture fail to realize that cultural sin is even possible. Minorities don’t breeze over the cultural and historical weight of these stories, we feel the pain of it and see the reality of it historically and now in the present. We are not against preaching the depraved human condition, we just believe God is not limited to that theme in Scripture. We believe He is speaking to our reality within our culture as well.
Will You Study Scripture For The Sake Of The Culture?
Is it really that hard to believe that God speaks to both man’s sinful condition and the culture in which he lives? Is the cause of God’s wrath limited to man’s individual sin alone? Is it not the sin of the culture that makes Him angry as well? The only thing White Evangelical Christians (the Christians in my circles) seem to care about in the culture is abortion, same-sex marriage, and our precious Christian Liberty. But is that all God is concerned of in American culture? Although White American Christianity has always been able to point out individual people sin, historically White American Christianity couldn’t see the cultural sin of slavery, Jim-Crow, and segregation. How is it that highly respected Christians like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield could be fully complicit in the cultural sin of slavery? It’s because they were operating off a traditional method of theology, and never looked to see what God was saying about their culture. Even today well-meaning White brothers and sisters in Christ have a hard time seeing anything wrong with the murder of unarmed minorities by police officers, gentrification, and much of the “urban” redevelopment that is happening in cities around the country. But does God care about that?
There is a belief among White American Evangelicals (and especially reformed Christians) that all the theology that can be done, has been done. This is not true. God cares about how cultures function. He cares about how they affect the sub-dominant among them. I believe this is “one of” the reasons the Holy Spirit inspired the author to write the book of Esther. If we don’t do theology for the culture, it’s sins will continue to go unchecked. This approach to theology does not mean we cease looking for God revealed in that text. What we are actually doing is looking to see what more He may be revealing from Scripture. It’s an extra step that goes further than the traditional method of theology.
Are we looking to see what God is saying about our culture? Are we willing to ask Him? Are we willing to disciple our culture with God’s Word? Are we willing to start with our own families?