Moments of Crisis show us what we’re made of…. In every hero story there is a moment when the crisis is seen and the choices are clear…
FIRST: We must see the current reality clearly. Only then can we see possibilities.
SECOND: There is a choice to make. Every choice bears a risk…
I. Literature of Resistance. The Book of Esther is a novella, a work of fiction that carries a heavy purpose. It is a story about a country torn by prejudices, where ethnic difference can mean loss of life. Although Xerxes/Aheseureus was real – his actual queen all of his life was Amestris. He couldn’t have married a woman named Esther because Persian kings were limited by law to marriage with one of 7 noble Persian families. This is a story – not a history.
NOT just to entertain, although it does. Rich irony and adventure. Ironic reversal plus.
Not just to explain the celebration of Purim, although it does – transforming what was originally a pagan holiday into a Jewish context.
This story reminds the Jews of who they are: the people of God, followers of Yahweh. A people set apart – even if persecuted, protected by God in some way.
Elements of the story are hugely significant:
Attempt by a Gentile to exterminate the Jewish people — that is turned upside down and the Jews survive and their persecutor is put to death. Western Christianity is rife with anti-Semitism…a pattern of denial of personhood that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. But before it ever reached the rise of the Third Reich, this story had been told again and again. Power wreaks havoc on the lives of the powerless. Jews run out of England, torture in Spain, forced in ghettos, concentration camps, internment camps for Japanese Americans, exterminated or forced onto reservations, prisons for profit…. Power wreaks havoc on the lives of the powerless.
Even as far back as the 4th century BC when this story was written, Jews understood that there were people who wanted to exterminate them…and Esther’s story has resonated with Jewish people and oppressed people ever since . Survival of the marginalized in the face of a threat by those in power – it is an old – and a new story.
A marginalized and oppressed woman, a Jewish orphan without public power. She took care of her household for her uncle Mordecia, visiting stall at the market for food, cooking and cleaning. All she has at the beginning of the story is her virtue. And then – she is one of 400 girls ripped away from their families and forced into the king’s harem. Like child brides around the world and victims of sex trafficking, Esther knows the story. And she uses the male power structure around her to make a change. Esther is a human heroine in an all too common situation for women – for powerless women. She is one of the oppressed people and she speaks for the oppressed, through the centuries. Esther is the voice of the minorities fighting for their survival in a majority culture. Esther is the voice of women captured and trafficked for men’s pleasure. Or the women through millennia who have been forced into marriages, prohibited from careers, and traded as property.
The story of Esther is part of resistance literature – telling the story of the saving of the Jews, even against powerful kings and leaders – and the instrument used by God to save the people is an unlikely person: a woman, an orphan, of an oppressed people who was taken into the king’s harem, and elevated to be queen. But she is beautiful…and clever in survival. And therein lies the tale.
II. NAMING GOD IN THE STORY. Where is God in this story?
“What is called chance is the instrument of Providence.” (Horace Walpole, 1777) There are a lot of quotations with this idea – that God remains anonymous in what we call chance or coincidence. Walpole’s is the earliest. Scholars have said that although God is never names in the Book of Esther, God’s fingerprints are all over the story. That is likely why it is included in the Bible – despite no mention of God by name, no prayers or directions for sacrifices.
Mordecai tells Esther that is SHE doesn’t act, that there will be some other means of deliverance for the Jews (implying God will save them.)
Esther FASTS – which implied “and prayed,” in the Jewish tradition — and asked her people to fast with her. (Explain fasting – way to focus on God’s will, to turn attention to God.)
God behind the scenes. God in partnership with the human actors in the story who are free agents – not pawns. God works through human action. Unlike so many of the stories in the Bible, in this one there are no miracles. There are no incidences of the VOICE of God speaking, giving instructions. There are no clearly designated religious leaders. In this story we have people without God-given authority doing the best they can and God uses THEM – uses their mostly well-intentioned efforts – to save a people. But God is not named, and isn’t seen in the story.
STORY: 4 year old Jordan was playing on a wooden picnic table. He got a splinter in his finger. He ran to his mother and told her of his hurt. Mom volunteered to take the splinter out, but Jordan didn’t want her to. “I want God to take the splinter out,” he announced. And hour later, the splinter was still there – and the finger hurt even more. His father removed the splinter, explaining that God MOST OFTEN uses other to do the things God would like done. We work together as a part of a team with God.
Raises a question about the moral basis of law.
Odd requirement that the only way to reverse the law is to create another law, even if the first law was immoral. It is as if the moral ground for law is not significant – only the law itself. A more recent example of this was seen during the Holocaust. The Nazis passed more and more stringent laws regulating the rights of Jews from second class citizens, and then death. And during all this, most Germans, even those who would say that they were not racist or prejudiced against Jews, continued to obey the law and cooperate with the authorities. Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the Holocaust, argued in his trial that he was just “following orders” and obeying the law of the land. The immorality of the law which resulted in the deaths of millions of people was not his responsibility. We now have a similar question about following the letter of the law regarding those seeking asylum at our borders. And similarly, the matter may be as simple as the ethnic purity grounds during World War II. If the person at the border is a person of color, they may be described as animals, separated from their children and thrown in cages.
In contrast, in Judaism the law is not considered good in and of itself. It is good because God gave the law. And Jewish law emphasizes caring for the widow, orphan, and alien in their midst.
The second issue dealt with head-on is Esther is racial hostility. Haman decides to wipe out the Jewish people, in part because he feels that Mordecai isn’t honoring him sufficiently. Haman demanded respect, whether or not he deserved it. And if Mordecai wouldn’t honor him – well, he would deal with him! A 50 foot high gallows ought to do it! And his people – those Jews were different – they just couldn’t be trusted! Let’s wipe them out – it’s not as if they are human!
Similar: Apartheid in South Africa was a system of caste based solely on race. People with darker complexions were considered inferior to those of lighter complexions. Archbishop Desmond Tutu denounced that argument with these words in The Rainbow People of God:
“The Bible declares right at the beginning that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. I showed why this fact endows each person with a unique and infinite value, a person whose very hairs are numbered. And what makes any human being valuable therefore is not any logical characteristic. No, it is the fact that he or she is created in the image and likeness of God. Apartheid exalts a biological quality, which is a total irrelevancy, to the status of what determines the value, the world of a human being. Why should skin color or race be any more useful as a criterion than, say, the size of one’s nose? What has the size of my nose to do with whether I am intelligent? It has no more to do with my worth as a human being than the color of my eyes.”[i]
Difference seen as a threat or dangerous by people in power leads to systematized oppression. Bigotry (like Haman) or indifference by the king) destroys human beings. God challenges us. The oppression of people based on a racial or ethnic group is evil. People so oppressed have God’s presence and protection – so says the book of Esther.
And that is where God shows up in the story. God calls people who were not expecting that call, who no one would expect God to call, and expects them to do something that is risky and stretches their abilities. It is a pattern through the biblical story. Miriam, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, David, Abigail, Isaiah, Elizabeth, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul……story after story. God calls unlikely partners to be heroes. And God remains behind the scenes.
III. A matter of choice. Esther is included among our heroes because she took the risk to stand up for her people, even though this meant that her own life was at risk.
Consider: The king in this story is more of a buffoon than a wise leader. He seems to be ruled by the whims of the moment. He turns over authority to his courtiers and doesn’t even seem to know what he has signed when he has signed over a whole people to death. He banished the first queen for refusing to show off her beauty for his friends. He could easily let this queen die – after all, he hadn’t sent for her in a month. Perhaps his roving eye was moving in a different direction than his queen. This king seem to value his own self-importance, love drink and beautiful women, and he listened to his sycophantic advisors. Within the confines of the story, Esther took a risk.
And perhaps even more of a risk than we see at face value. In telling the king of Haman’s treachery, she put herself at risk again. She exposed the king’s vanity and lack of attention to the business of his kingdom. And Haman was in his inner circle. This king might have kept Haman and let her die. It was a real risk within the story. Only Haman’s stupidity in throwing himself on her lounge gives the king a different reason to dispose of Haman – not his plot against the Jews, for in that the king was complicit, even having received a large amount of money – but Haman was condemned for accosting the queen.
US. And so the story challenges us. What choice will we make at our moment in history? Will we dare to stand up to the powerful leaders who seek the destruction of our vulnerable brothers and sisters? God is at work in the world today largely to the degree that we allow God to work through US.
Esther has done a lot of marching lately. Esther has been seen as marches for families separated at the border, immigration reform, women’s equality, and gun violence.
At the Women’s March, one child asked his parents why they were there. His father told him that the boy’s grandparents hadn’t gone to the March on Washington, even though they supported Civil Rights. It seemed so far and not very practical. “But son,” he continued, “we have to stand up for what we believe. Even when it is inconvenient. Even when it costs us something.”
Last weekend, Esther walked down the Dan Ryan. Father Michael Pfleger organized a march down the Dan Ryan a week ago Saturday to express frustration and protest the problems in the city of Chicago. More than just a protest against violence, they pointed to the underlying causes of violence: people are out of work, public schools are blatantly unequal in offering a quality education, politicians don’t listen, police violence and young people without hope . “Now is the time for both immediate and serious action… Now comes the solution.” Father Pfleger. Violence, poverty and education…NOW.
Very few of us are in positions of power. We would find it hard to get an audience with a world leader. And yet, this book suggests that we are still a part of God’s plan. God works through us – invisibly more often than not – to make a difference right where we are.
WE can keep our eyes open to see what may be a “pivot point.” Where there is a high potential for change.
WE can pray and open ourselves up to God for wisdom and strength.
WE can become a community and advocacy and resistance. ACTION and ADVOCACY go together.
WE can plan very carefully to develop strategies to lift the cause of the oppressed in ways that leaders can hear.
WE can. God wants to use US to change the world. And this is our moment. All we have is now. As Professor John Keating told his students in Dead Poet’s Society – all we have is NOW. NOW is OUR moment to be a part of God’s team to make a difference.
When we read the story of Esther, we hear the message whispered, “Carpe Diem – Seize the Day.” This story of resistance and partnering with God for justice haunts us with possibilities. After all, Haman the Agagite is not the only character seeking the destruction or elimination of a racial group. Our world seems eerily similar to that of Persia in 5 centuries BC – with racial prejudice and power struggles against the backdrop of a palace more concerned with rules than right and favoring sycophants over leaders. What will our choice be IN THIS MOMENT? “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to this place in life for such a time as this?”
The moment is ours….
[i] Desmond Tutu, The Rainbow People of God (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 64. (Quoted in NIB, vol. III, p 895)