Those Who Stayed (The Book of Esther)

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Look, I admit it – I have a degree in history but I’m useless with dates. I don’t remember who ruled when, I can’t keep in my head whether various empires coexisted or if they succeeded each other, or… Well, let’s just say I’m more reliant on Wikipedia than I should be.

So when I read a post from Covered In His Dust this morning, I was shocked. I’ve always lumped together the books talking about the Jewish exile into Babylon as one cataclysmic event followed by a difficult but triumphant homecoming. And that’s entirely my fault because I don’t read books like Ezra and Nehemiah enough.

In reality, the deportations to Babylon took place in waves, as did the return home. And then there were Jewish communities that decided to stay in Babylon and Persia, less exiles and more immigrant communities; long-established communities at that. After all, the Book of Esther is set almost a century after the final wave of deportations and around fifty years after the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem.

So Esther’s story is set among an established Jewish community, where her uncle Mordecai is a respected member of the local elite. For whatever reason, their great grandparents chose to never return to Jerusalem, and so suddenly this changes from the story of a group of exiles to an exposé of the cracks in a community.

I guess we should see that coming: the heroes of the text are from the Tribe of Benjamin and descents of Saul; Haman, the antagonist, is descended from Agag. The central conflict is almost a replay of 1 Samuel 15. Mordecai, Esther and Haman may be a long way from their ancestral homelands but history never really goes away. And those historical tensions threaten to explode into genocide in Esther’s present.

But we see things from the perspective of those being threatened, those with their neighbours turning against them due to the machinations of a power-broker with an axe to grind. Mordecai may be respected, but he’s still a part of a minority community threatened with violence, and while we call Esther ‘queen’, let’s not romanticise that – she’s drafted into a harem because she’s a hot virgin. It’s difficult to fully read the Bible from a position of power because so much of it is written from the perspective of the oppressed, and because God is on the side of the oppressed.

Now, I’m writing this blog as a white guy in a nice house in the UK. Stories like Esther’s help remind me that I’m not exactly first in line when oppression is being dished out.

But things like immigration and race relations are hot button topics at the moment, and you don’t have to read or watch the media for long before the scapegoating and the stereotyping become evident. And in the midst of this, we need to ask ourselves whether we’re listening to the voices of immigrants, of minority’s communities, of those lacking in the privilege of those controlling public discourse?

Because even if we’re not, God is..

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