Team Daniel or Team Esther

Yesterday, I paired the Books of Daniel and Esther. Both are post-exilic writings set in the exile/diaspora. Both feature Jews who have found their way into the royal courts of Babylon and/or Persia. Both address the question of how true one must remain to their Jewishness to show fidelity to their god. In the Book of Daniel, characters such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t compromise. They are willing to die/suffer rather than break their dietary laws, or worship other gods, or even take a break from worshipping their god. Esther and Mordecai hide Esther’s Jewish identity which includes eating Persian foods, having sex and marrying a Gentile, and who knows what else. Mordecai might be a little more like Daniel and friends when he refuses to bow to Haman but overall the ethics of the Book of Esther are less black-and-white than the Book of Daniel.

I ended class by having my students get together in a Google Meet and record their discussion where they argued for either the quasi-deontological (or divine command) approach of the Book of Daniel or the more consequentialist approach of the Book of Esther. One of my student leaders begun the conversation by asking who was ‘Team Esther’ or ‘Team Daniel’. So far, as I watch/grade the recordings, team Esther is winning (though there were a few pro-Daniel students).

What’s fascinating is to observe their reasoning. Some students say they’d be like Daniel depending on the context though if the context was that your life was at risk, they’d be more like Esther. One student pointed out that Esther never explicitly said she wasn’t a Jew (though it could be argued many would have accused her of not living like one), so she didn’t technically lie about this.

Another topic that caught my ear was the difference between how God’s presence is narrated in Daniel contrast with Esther. Famously, God speaks to Daniel in dream and visions. He intervenes miraculously. Esther is ambiguous about God’s presence. God is never named or directly mentioned. Some of the key turning points suggest to some readers that God’s in the background but God is never mentioned. I think that’s key. For some students, if God was performing the deeds like we read in Daniel, sure, they’d adopt his approach, but life seems to be more Esther-ish: whatever we might say about divine activity, it’s not clear when and where God acts.

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Google Meeting the Bible Again for the First Time: Day 11 of Summer School

The final week of summer school begins today! Today, we juxtapose the ways the Books of Daniel and Esther respond to exile and occupation. The first has a major role for God, angels, and other forms of divine intervention; the latter never mentions God. The first consistently advocates for living faithfully even if it means losing your life; the latter is a mixed bag (begins with Esther being secretive; ends with Esther risking her life). The first has a male protagonist; the latter a female. I’m sure there are more interesting contrasts between these two post-exilic works set during in Babylonian and Persian Empires. They’re fun to teach together.

While I’m exhausted and ready for my summer break to begin, I’m also really glad I taught this course. The class has been great. And I’ve been able to test different approaches to teaching online, you know, just in case wave 2, or wave 1.2, of the pandemic wipes out in person instruction again.

The Hebrew Prophets as Philosophers

Last year I noticed that by the time I got to November, many of my Hebrew Bible students needed a hermeneutical change of pace. So, when I got to the Prophetic Literature, I decided to approach these texts through a philosophical lens. It revived the attention spans of many of my students. This year I planned ahead for this part of the semester and I think last year’s experiment was a success.

While discussions on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant or Daniel’s Son of Man may interest religion majors and seminarians, I didn’t get much back from my students when I covered these topics. Instead, I’ve shifted to using the Prophets as a springboard into moral philosophy.

I was inspired by Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture where he sets divine revelation aside to ask what philosophical underpinning can be found in the message of the Hebrew Bible. I took the same approach with the Prophets specifically. My students have discussed:

  • Utopianism in the Book of Isaiah: can we create a world where the wolf grazes with the lamb? do we want to try or does the pursuit of utopia turn into the creation of dystopia?
  • Divine Command Theory in the Book of Hosea: Was Hosea right to marry who he married, and treat her how he treated her, and name his kids what he named them, just because God said (I teased out this idea with the Akedah earlier in the semester)?
  • Deontology in the Book of Daniel: While Divine Command Theory fits better, if we evaluate the stories of the ‘Three Hebrews and the Fiery Furnace’ or ‘Daniel and the Lion’s Den’ then we can ask whether one’s moral commitments should be static, like categorical imperatives, or should we be less dogmatic with our ethics?
  • Consequentialism and the Book of Esther: It could be argued that Queen Vashti was the deontologist. She wasn’t going to be objectified by the king and his friends no matter the consequence. Esther seems a bit more relativistic. She hides her identity. She does what it takes to please the king. It isn’t until the end that she takes a great risk but that risk wouldn’t be possible without her previous, calculated actions. It isn’t until the existence of her people is threatened that she becomes a little more like Vashti.

I use the Crash Course Philosophy videos linked above to explain the paradigm within moral philosophy that I want to discuss and then use the Prophetic Literature to illustrate. Maybe it’s a stretch to connect deontology to Daniel and his friends? Maybe. But if we bracket divine revelation (not saying reject…just bracket) then we must ask what makes this text valuable to students across religious traditions and for non-religious students. I think this sort of philosophical reading is a step in a useful direction.