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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For a Time Like This: Purim and doing the right thing (Esther 4)

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There was a time recently when I should have helped someone in need but didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I was totally polite and friendly, not arrogant, and so I was able to delegate the situation to someone else without looking like a complete swinebag. It’s always easier when you can do that.

But the moment has lived with me ever since. It exposed my hypocrisy and excuses and tendency to take the easy option. I can rationalise it – other people are often better placed to help, I don’t know the full situation and therefore don’t want to risk opening a can of worms, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing – but the fact remains, someone needed my help and I didn’t give it.

Today is Purim, the Jewish commemoration of events told in the Book of Esther. Long story short – Queen Esther, at great personal risk, rescues the Jewish exiles in Persia from genocide. It’s a raucous celebration, full of noise, gift-giving, dressing up and, in some case, getting incredibly drunk.

But the story of Esther has got mixed up with my failure to help, and so Esther 4 has become the most convicting part of the narrative. Here Esther is revealed to be the one person in the Jewish community in a position to prevent mass murder. She’s scared, sure, because one wrong move means her execution, but nevertheless she does what she’s got to do. Because, as her uncle reminds her, “Maybe a time like this is the reason you became queen in the first place.”

I have no idea if, in another time and place, I’d’ve supported Martin Luther King or insisted on having the front seat of the bus reserved for me; if I’d’ve supported an abhorrent dictatorship or been swept along with it. In one sense it doesn’t matter; the here and now is what counts, not some authoritarian parallel universe.

“Maybe this is why you’re here.” Not necessarily to save a nation but to redeem a moment. To take a stand, to say the right words, to say no words at all but to weep and embrace and be present. To refuse to participate in cultures that wound and demean. To lend a mobile phone or to make sure your mates all get in a cab at the end of the night. To try to make the world better and promote hope and holiness, even in the smallest ways.

Recently I failed. But I’m not Esther; the fate of a nation is not in my hands. And there are many more days on which to get things right.