Reading Esther In the Shadow of ISIS


A Jewish philosopher’s perspective on how God delivers his people from radical evil.

Where is God when his people suffer oppression? Why does he seem hidden as ISIS and Boko Haram murder Christians? Does God ever approve of war?

God and Politics in Esther, a new book by Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony, addresses questions no less urgent today than in biblical times. Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, might be called the Jewish version of Reinhold Niebuhr or Richard John Neuhaus, two 20th-century thinkers who wrote extensively about how Christians can participate in the cities of this world while belonging ultimately to the City of God.

Hazony zeroes in on the Book of Esther, where God is never mentioned by name. In fact, he seems hidden. His people lived in an alien society (ancient Persia, today’s Iran) under despotic rulers. They often felt social and political pressure to betray their faith.

Yet God is present, if only in the shadows. Esther is the Jewish queen (formerly Hadassah) of the Persian king Ahashverosh, traditionally identified as Xerxes I. Her cousin, Mordecai, “had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives” of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. (Esther 2:6). He had adopted and helped raise Esther after she was orphaned. When Esther learned from Mordecai that Haman, the prime minister to the Persian king, was planning to annihilate all the Jews in the land, she urged the Jews in the capital to begin fasting, so as to strengthen her prayers for help. Mordecai wanted her to see God’s challenge: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (4:14)?

The challenge was formidable. Both Mordecai and Esther had to break the laws of the empire, and the penalty was death. Mordecai had refused to bow down to Haman, who, according to the rabbis, had set himself up as a god. Esther dared to enter the king’s throne room without being summoned, another capital offense.

‘God Does All and Man Does All’

God’s plan to deliver his people, Hazony argues, depended on the choices Mordecai and Esther would make. But what if they chose wrongly? Would God’s plan be scuttled and God himself frustrated? Or would he simply use others?

Hazony suggests the latter, pointing to Mordecai’s warning to Esther, “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” (4:14, emphasis added). But he also argues that if God were required to wait for others, it might have taken a long time, and thousands of Jewish lives would have been sacrificed.

This is the classic question of causation in a world of human actors under God. Does God need humans in order to realize his purposes? Or is he in such control that he can cause every human will to do whatever he pleases? If the latter, then human freedom seems jeopardized. If the former, God seems less than sovereign and omnipotent.

We know from the story that God’s plan to deliver the Jews from annihilation succeeded. But was it an act of God that overruled human freedom? Or was it an act of human courage and political genius that God observed from a distance?

Hazony argues that too often Jews (and, I would add, Christians) have treated this as an either-or question. They think that if God were in control, then humans would be mere pawns; or if humans make the right decisions, then God is merely the observer and not the cause. (Hazony maintains that this is a “God of the gaps” theory that thinks of God “intervening” occasionally to change things that otherwise go on without him.)

The biblical authors, he counters, would have none of this. Their principal metaphor for the human-divine relationship was brit, the Hebrew word for “covenant,” where God acts through human choices. Both are totally involved. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “God does all and man does all.” Edwards was paraphrasing the apostle Paul: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Cosmic Wrongs

Mordecai and Esther chose civil disobedience. What helps make this book so original is Hazony’s contention that civil disobedience is at the heart of Judaism. The Jewish religion was the ancient world’s only fundamental rejection of idolatry. At the heart of idolatry is moral relativism. Every idol is a local system of “truth” that acknowledges other idols for other peoples with their own systems of “truth.” Only Judaism proclaimed a universal standard of true belief and righteousness: “You shall have no other gods before Me,” says the first commandment. Murder, adultery, theft, and deceit were cosmic—not just local—wrongs. “Evil,” writes Hazony, “is everywhere a consequence of the fact that mankind ignore these principles, doing what appears right in their own eyes according to their own local perspective.”

The Jews have always been hated, according to Hazony, precisely because they reject every local system of truth. They challenge the laws of every system by insisting on their own law and their own sovereign. Hazony reminds readers that when the Jews first came into being as a people, they faced anti-Semitism. As soon as the family of Jacob in Egypt became numerous, a new Pharaoh planned to annihilate them.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today – Gerald McDermott