In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I mentioned last week that we were embarking on a bit of an adventure as far as our Sunday Bible readings are concerned. We are using a new system of readings for each Sunday. Such a table of readings is called a lectionary, and for the first time in many years I’ve decided to change the lectionary I use from week to week.
The Narrative Lectionary seeks to take us through the broad sweep of the biblical story, but as we get into Advent you may feel you are missing some of the familiar characters we tend to come across at this time of the year. Don’t worry- Mary and Joseph and the angels and shepherds are coming soon. But as we prepare for Christmas this year, we’re mostly in the world of the Old Testament. Last week, the prophet Habakkuk encouraged us to look around and have faith that God will come and save his people. This Sunday, we are in a different time, and again we hear a story of salvation.
This week, I was reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (not for the first time). It’s set in eighteen century Scotland, following the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. There various settings which are colourfully described- Edinburgh, Queensferry, Mull, Appin and other parts of the Highlands. And at its heart is an actual event, the ‘Appin Murder’, of 1752. Many of the characters are real people, but although it is, essentially, a fictitious adventure story- an historical novel, a story weaved around historical events.
The Book of Esther tells a story which is set in the Persian Empire, at the time when the people of Israel, defeated in war, are mostly living in exile. It begins by mentioning that it all takes place in the reign of King Xerxes (486BC- 465 BC). Yet although it has an historical setting, the tale hangs on a number of improbable coincidences which have led many scholars to think of it as almost like an historical novel (eg DJA Clines, Harper’s Bible Commentary, p387; SAW Crawford, Women’s Bible Commentary p132).
Historical or not, is certainly a good tale. We all enjoy stories about intrigue among the rich and powerful, and this tale has all that in bucketloads. It is a tale of intrigue at the court of the most powerful empire of its time. But it is also a story about salvation.
Esther, a Jewish woman, as become Queen of Persia, after Xerxes, in a drunken fit, dismissed his previous queen. When he chooses a new queen, Mordecai, who is Esther’s guardian, connives to get Esther chosen (it’s a complicated story- you don’t need all the details!). With Esther’s promotion to Queen, Mordecai becomes an important royal official, and becomes even more respected when he uncovers a plot to assassinate the king. But as Mordecai rises in royal favour, he makes an enemy- a new prime minister, Haman. We hear that,
The king ordered all the officials in his service to show their respect for Haman by kneeling and bowing to him. They all did so, except for Mordecai, who refused to do it. The other officials in the royal service asked him why he was disobeying the king’s command; day after day they urged him to give in, but he would not listen to them. “I am a Jew,” he explained, “and I cannot bow to Haman” ‘
This is all a bit reminiscent of the Book of Daniel, in which Daniel is thrown into a lion’s den for refusing to kneel to a statue of a foreign king. Mordecai will not bow to anyone, because, as a Jew, he can bow down only to God.
This story is set in a time when there is clearly much toleration of the Jews in the Persian Empire- Mordecai, after all, has been promoted to a senior post in the government, although he is Jewish. Yet when he plots to make is niece Queen, he suggests to her that she keeps secret about being Jewish. The gentile rulers may sometimes be tolerant, but Mordecai knows that there is always the danger that someone might, for political reasons, decide to scapegoat the Jews. And that is exactly what Haman does. Furious at Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him, he poisons the mind of the king: there’s a race throughout the Empire who refuse to keep the laws of the Medes and the Persians. You ought to get rid of them. Decide on a date for them all- men, women and children- to be killed, and proclaim it throughout the Empire. And the king agrees.
For us, this may be an obscure book. Yet at its heart here is something very modern, something very unsettling. The Jewish people read this book and it reminds them of more recent times when they have been victims of genocide- right up to the Nazi Holocaust of the twentieth century. Jews in Germany felt more and more assimilated and secure, until Hitler’s ideas became government policy. Just as in ancient Persia, the plan was to kill everyone, regardless of age or gender, simply for being Jews- and also to steal all their property (Haman tells the king of Persia that he will make a fortune by confiscating the Jews’ property, which reminds me of the gold extracted from the teeth of the concentration camp victims).
And if it can happen to the Jews, it can happen to minorities in any nation. One of the joys of humanity is our differences- of race, culture, faith, outlook. But when someone decides that a minority’s race or culture or faith or outlook represent a threat, and convinces the population of that, then trouble follows. We don’t have to go back far in history for examples- Rwanda genocide of 1994, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or conflicts today in Ukraine or Syria. Yes, there can be tensions between different groups in a society. But so often it is exacerbated by political manoeuvring- like prime minister Haman persuading the king to end his traditional policy of tolerance of the Jews.
So as our reading began, Mordecai was in a panic. His defiance had put his entire people at risk, for Haman now plans a terrible revenge against Mordecai’s people. So Mordecai repents, literally in sackcloth and ashes- and the rest of the Jews join in his mourning. And he sends a message to his niece, Queen Esther, pleading that she should go to the king to put in a good word for the Jews.
But the ways of these old eastern despots were harsh. It turns out that you can’t just walk up to the king and talk to him- if you attempt to do so, the punishment is death. Esther points out that it has been a month since she last saw the king (doesn’t sound like a very happy marriage!). When Mordecai receives this message, he replies to Esther in words which are perhaps the key to the book (I quote here from the New Revised Standard Version):
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews? For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this”.
Mordecai puts it on the line to Esther. She cannot be silent, even although it might put her life in the line. And so she makes plans, and replies to Mordecai: ‘I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish’. She will eventually work out at way of speaking to the king, and after more adventures she manages to stop the genocide.
But first Esther has to stand up and be counted. She cannot remain silent any longer. And, even although she risks her life, she does so. The Book of Esther is one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible which is named after a woman (the other is the Book of Ruth; The Apocrypha includes the Book of Judith. There are no books named after women in the New Testament)
Esther deserves to have her name at the top of the book. For The Book of Esther is a story of a woman of great courage, who spoke up to save lives, even at the risk of her own. She responded positively to Mordecai’s call not to keep silent in the face of injustice. Perhaps she had been placed in the position she was in ‘for such a time as this’?
What do we need to be speaking out about ‘at such a time as this’? As, this year, members of local churches will once again prepare food for those who will not get any, should we also be saying to our politicians that it’s not acceptable that children go to bed hungry? As some politicians see a chance to catch votes by being nasty about immigrants, is it time to speak up against and point out the dangers of such rhetoric? As children lose sight of what Christmas is really about, is it time for us to speak up about who the Christ-child is and what he means to us? Jesus called us to be salt and light in the world- speaking up at the right time is one way to do so.
Esther, and Ruth, and other Biblical women whose names don’t appear in book titles, remind us that God often works through women. At Christmas time, we think especially of Mary, a woman who also could not keep silent. Asked by the angel to bear the Son of God, Mary says yes. When people suggest to me that women have no place in the leadership of the people of God, I wish they would read their Bible properly!
There’s one final, curious fact about the Book of Esther I leave you with. We said it was one of only two books of the Bible named after women. But it is also unique- there is something about this book which makes it unlike all the other books of the Old and New Testaments. This is a Trivial Pursuit-type question- does anyone know what makes the Book of Esther unique in the Bible?
The answer is that it is the only book of the Bible in which God is not mentioned. Imagine- a book of the Bible in which God does not appear once. So does this most secular of the books of the Bible help us to live in our secular world? Perhaps it does, because this reminds us that even if we don’t name God, still God is present in the world and in our lives. Despite God’s absence from this tale, the Book of Esther is still part of the story of God’s people. And Mordecai’s plea to Esther only makes sense if we believe history is being guided somewhere: ‘Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this’- the suggestion is that there is a God, a providence, who has ensured that Esther is in the right place at the right time to be able to speak and make a difference.
An ancient philosopher, writing in what we call the Book of Ecclesiastes, wrote, ‘for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven’ and he listed some of them, and included that there is ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3). Even in a secular world, God is at work- and gives us opportunities to speak up for our faith, and for justice in the world. Let us not be silent at the wrong time!
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo