Saturday, October 21, 2006

Certainity, in our circumstances (2)


Esther is a peculiar book in the Bible. It makes no mention of God though it deals with his people. It is only as it is tied into the rest of the Bible, and read within that context that it can be understood at all as anything more than a compelling, comic tale, certified 18 for scenes of sex and violence.

The key to the book of Esther seems to be that God's promises stand even if the circumstances say otherwise. The promises are hidden and only revealed in the confidence of some of the characters - chiefly Mordecai and Zeresh, and to a lesser extent Esther. The book is very pertinent for our age. A time where the church looks finished. Where the Amazon bestseller is Dawkins new book that preaches that God is a dellusion. A world where people fear global warming and North Korean nukes rather than the judgement of God because God's promises seem distant and most people aren't even aware of them.

Getting to grips with Esther 1-3.

Xerxes the Muppet?
On the face of it these pages look like they should be the story of Xerxes (ESV: Ahasuerus). The story starts with him and we're told he rules the world from Ethiopia to India - 127 provinces. By any estimate he was the King of the World. But as we see what happens our estimation of him falls somewhat.

Firstly he holds a lavish party but he is refused by his wife. He wants to parade her before his friends - he calls her to come wearing her crown. Some suggest this means "come wearing only your crown". Either way she refuses to entertain them. Xerxes counsellors fear that their wives and all the women of the kingdom will refuse their husbands if this is tolerated. The king is advised to irrevocably banish his wife and he complies. He acts in anger with great power. Too much power for his own good. And so his adored wife will never come before him again. The man was a muppet, a puppet on the strings of his advisors and ruled by his own authority and anger.

In scene two he is seduced by sizzling Esther. He knows nothing about her but she wins the Xerxes-Factor to become his new beautiful wife. Next up his people are plotting to kill him. And then next up we see his Prime Minister Haman defied and it's taken as defiance of Xerxes. He rashly agreed to sanction a holocaust - every Jew must die because Mordecai defied Haman. It's hugely out of proportion. He's a muppet. This man is not the hero of this story. He's a muppet. We're told he has his own book. And Esther is part of the Bible. And Biblical books begin with Jewish kings reigning when things are going well. Furthermore, God is the hero of his books.

Esther the dubious beauty queen?
The book carries her name. She's an orphan of the Jewish exile. God judged his people and sent them into Exile in Iraq. That exile carried the promise of full restoration of God's people to God's place. She is adopted by her uncle who keeps her ethnicity a secret. Then oddly she volunteers to join Xerxes harem. She's pretty hot but then allows herself to spend a year becoming the most beautiful woman in the world. Then one night she goes into the king's room and seduces him and becomes his wife. This young Jewish girl seduces the most powerful foreigner in the world. This is not advisable. Worryingly some view Esther as a role model. She does some good later, but this is no example - should young Christian girls make themselves gorgeous and then go and sleep with the most powerful non-Christian they can find, whilst keeping it secret that they're Christians? Please no! Esther seems to be slightly-dodgy eye-candy, and in the first three chapters she is no hero.

Mordecai the twit?
This man is a Son of Kish and a Son of Benjamin. This means he's part of the family line that includes King Saul of Israel. He adopts his orphaned niece but then lets her join the royal harem without revealing her background. He saves the king and his name can be found in the Book of Xerxes because of this. He then defies the Prime Minister and because he has gone public about being a Jew he ultimately sentences every Jew in the world to death. He appears to be little more than a fool - something of a hero one day, but then lands himself in deep trouble.

Haman the villan?
This man is the Prime Minister. He is vain. An Agagite he is part of the family of King Agag, the Amalekite King. This makes him an enemy of the Jews, and when a Jew defies him he doesn't pass up the opportunity to pour own the full force of his King's wrath upon the Jews. It's hard to see him as anything but the villan.
So, what's the story?
Xerxes is defied by his wife so he banishes her. He holds a contest to find a new wife, the only qualification is beauty. He uncovers Esther and gives her a lifetime contract. Meanwhile Xerxes is defied by some subjects, Mordecai saves him but then defies the prime minister. Therefore Xerxes sentences Mordecai's people to annihilation at the end of the year. And chapters 1-3 end on this cliff-hanger.

Why is this happening? Why didn't Mordecai bow? Why did Mordecai allow his adopted daughter to marry the king but wont bow to an official? Why didn't he keep quiet about a Jew? How will the Jews survive - they survived Nebuchadnezzar's exile but this looks like too big an ask? What about God's promise that his people would fill the earth?

Why doesn't Mordecai bow?
This is obvious to any Jew reading it, but we probably miss it. Genealogy is everything for a Jew. It matters less for us today. My Brazilian relay is married and her name includes the surnames of both her parents, and her husband. My English relay carries both of his parents surnames, which isn't all that normal in our culture. The fight in Esther is not really Mordecai vs. Xerxes. It is Mordecai vs. Haman. More significantly it is Mordecai Son of Kish, Benjamite and Jew vs. Haman the Son of Agag, the Amalekite. Which clarifies things doesn't it?

Step back a bit.
Exodus 17. Israel are fresh out of Egypt. Rescued by Yahweh. Then King Amalek comes up against them to stop them. This was the moment where Moses prayed from the hilltop - when he prayed they won, when he stopped praying they would lose. After the battle, the LORD declares a war forever between the Jews and Amalekites.

1 Samuel 15. King Saul is up against Agag the Amalekite. The LORD says wipe him out. Saul doesn't and so Saul is deposed by the LORD, he fails to kill of the Amalekites.
And now Mordecai finds himself back in that old battle. The old war is revived. He cannot bow to an Amalekite. And Haman knows it. Haman has the power and takes his advantage, but Mordecai could not let it pass. He wont submit to an Amalekite. He knows that God has promised the survival and restoratiom of his people. But it's a conundrum.

What's the solution? What hope?
1. Mordecai is a hero with his name in the book of Xerxes.
2. One Jew will survive this holocaust, the secret Jew who is sleeping with the King.

Haman appears to have the advantage but our questionable heroes have some angles available - but they're tiny opportunities. But, more than that this book is in the Bible. This book sits among God's promises. Promises through Jeremiah of a restoration. Promises to Abraham of a globally blessed people.

Esther 1-3 force us to believe those promises against the might of the United States of Ahasuerus and the venom of Haman. They ask us to believe that when everything else says God's promises have failed that they do stand irrevocably. Esther is a book that asks us to believe God's promises, against the circumstances. Circumstances say that the story is over for God's people. But the promises disagree.

As we look back at these events through the cross of Christ we see God's yes. God did save them. It all looked to be over but God keeps his people. The cross shows us God's great unlikely YES to his promises. God will make good on his promises. The church will flourish, even if opposed. God's promises stand firm. They are YES and Amen in Jesus Christ.... we trust in our circumstances, or God's promises?
to be continued in Esther 4-7, where confidence in God's promises leads God's people to say "risk is right"


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