Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Anatomy of a Genocide

Serious efforts to exterminate Jews have happened more than once, and the word of God assures us they will happen again. The book of Esther is the story of a relatively early attempt.

The Medo-Persian empire was not Nazi Germany, and it is not Armageddon, but there are still a few interesting things to be observed about genocides, how such things can even come about at all, and what a persecuted (or soon-to-be-persecuted) minority can learn from them about how best to conduct itself in the face of overwhelming numerical opposition.

1. Pick Your Battles Prudently

Genocides usually begin with some sort of provocation. It may be minor or major. It may even be unavoidable. But the state must usually produce some justification for mass murder that will make sense to a significant percentage of its citizens. Not the true reason, necessarily, but something which can be sold to the public as a threat to the sovereignty of the state. So, a provocation is needed. In Esther, Mordecai the Jew conveniently provides one.

Haman the Agagite is certainly the villain of the piece, in a classic case of over-responding to a relatively minor provocation (“You won’t acknowledge my greatness? Fine, I’ll kill your entire people.”). But we would be remiss if we did not take at least a cursory look at the provocation itself.

At the risk of playing blame-the-victim, let’s at least consider: Was Mordecai’s unwillingness to pay public homage to Haman solely a product of his devotion to God? Might it not suggest: (i) a contrary personality; or perhaps (ii) some form of wrong-thinking about his relationship to foreign authorities? In short, was it morally obligatory for Mordecai to resist the king’s edict concerning Haman? Was it even prudent?

Paying “Homage”

The Hebrew word shachah, translated “reverenced” in the KJV and “paid homage” in the ESV, does not necessarily mean “worship”. It can mean that, and is often translated that way. But it is also used regularly in scripture to describe the customary obeisance granted to a dignitary, with no suggestion of idolatry at all. For example, Joseph’s brothers paid homage to him in Egypt in precisely this language, and while they may not have liked the idea of bowing before a “foreign” ruler, what they were doing was not immoral. Again, in Jacob’s blessing of Judah, he prophesies that “your father’s sons shall pay homage [shachah] to you”. Surely he was not contemplating or encouraging an idolatrous act. Moses paid homage to his foreign father-in-law. Perfectly fine, expected even, though he himself had been a dignitary in Egypt. David paid homage to Saul and Abigail to David. Mephibosheth, Joab, Absalom, Bathsheba and even Nathan the prophet paid homage to the kings of Israel at various times.

In Hebrew culture, paying homage seems to have been a pretty ordinary gesture in the presence of domestic and foreign rulers, and even older relatives.

Ethnic Pride?

There is next to no evidence King Ahasuerus’s edict was intended to make Haman an object of worship, or was generally understood that way. The claim has been made that Haman offered himself as an object of religious veneration or wore an idolatrous figure on his body, but evidence for this is nowhere to be found in the text itself. In fact, when even greater honor than Haman had already received is conferred upon Mordecai in chapter 6, he receives it without complaint, strongly suggesting there was no religious issue at stake. Prof. Rachel Adelman considers Mordecai’s motivation in this article, suggesting that while religious concerns were certainly possible, the vendetta between Jews and Amalekites may have played a big part as well. Ethnic pride was at stake.

Certainly, there is little unequivocal evidence God’s glory was the primary issue. Even Mordecai does not make that claim, simply telling puzzled onlookers that he was a Jew. On the face of it, that sounds more ethnic than religious. It is not at all obvious that Mordecai was facing the same quandary as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were commanded to kneel before a false god. Rather, it would seem he was being asked to do something other Israelites had done many times, and against which God had made no law.

Conscience and Consequences

Now, when we make a choice about how to behave on the basis of conscience rather than an undebatable command from God, we are not necessarily wrong. If Mordecai sincerely believed his God required him to stand up to Haman (and the king’s edict in the bargain), it would have been wrong for him to do otherwise. But we must also remember that when we follow our consciences, we may have to pay a price for it, and God is not obligated to make things come out favorably for us in this life. There is often great personal cost for standing on principle.

Was this particular hill worth dying on? Try answering that question without anticipating the end of the story, which you surely already know. Not everyone would reach the same conclusion, just as not all Christian churches in the U.S. have been willing to lock down in obedience to local government directives. Our consciences may tell each of us different things.

At very least, we should consider the slim possibility that Mordecai simply ... miscalculated.

2. Alarmists are Often Unheeded or Disbelieved

When Mordecai learned of the king’s edict, he put on sackcloth and ashes and cried out in public, as did other Jews who had heard it. Meanwhile, in the king’s palace, Esther seems, at least initially, to have been unaware of what was going on.

This sort of thing happens when there is a sudden shift in government policy toward some subgroup of its citizens. People don’t tend to recognize there is a potential problem until it impacts them personally. Where politics are concerned, there are always those who are paying attention to the times, and those who are quietly living their lives in blissful disregard of the trends around them. Those who are not following the news breathlessly tend to think the alarmists are over-reacting. This is not surprising when the issue is genocide or even severe persecution. It is hard to believe your own regime could be that hard-hearted, especially when ethnic minorities have lived alongside other citizens of the empire for years without obvious tensions. Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, understood this general public reluctance to believe the evidence of their eyes and ears in Nazi Germany: “Common sense could not understand that it was possible to exterminate tens and hundreds of thousands of Jews,” he wrote.

Knowing the Romans would shortly destroy Jerusalem and kill up to a million of its people, Jesus warned his disciples to remain alert: “Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak.” Why? Because our natural inclination is not to believe any new and terrible crisis can really be happening.

When the next attempted holocaust comes in Jerusalem, there will be plenty who will not believe it either. Paul says that period will be characterized by people saying, “There is peace and security.” Ezekiel says Gog will bring his armies against “the land of unwalled villages”, the “quiet people who dwell securely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having no bars or gates.”

3. When You Defy the Majority, You Can’t Dictate the Outcome

There is another potential complication with following conscience, and that is that the consequences of our choices do not always fall only on us. Mordecai didn’t see that coming. In Esther, we read that “Haman was filled with fury. But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, as they had made known to him the people of Mordecai, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.”

If he had the opportunity, I wonder if that might have made Mordecai rethink his position. He made a choice personally. His friends, relatives and countrymen had done nothing wrong. They might not have made the same choice themselves. Yet here they were, condemned to death because one of their number had disobeyed the king’s edict. It’s a reminder that when you defy powerful political forces, you don’t get to control the outcome. Roll the dice, and you may get numbers that don’t work for you ... or anyone else.

If this seems an unlikely outcome in countries where rule of law is held to be important, bear in mind that theoretical rights granted to us on paper decades or centuries ago may not be respected by any particular judge, jury or ad hoc gathering of Antifa. The wife of FOX TV’s talking head Tucker Carlson found this out in 2018, when an angry mob broke down her front door to protest her husband’s TV op-ed about immigration, though the expression of his opinion is protected by the American Constitution. Apparently the FBI also has no problem using family against principled dissenters: it has been widely reported that General Flynn’s notorious guilty plea, since withdrawn, was obtained by threatening his son.

When you take a principled stand for whatever reason, bear in mind that other people will probably get hurt. Sometimes that’s worthwhile, and sometimes it isn’t.

4. The Law is Whatever the King Says It Is

Esther 3 is a reminder of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The bureaucratic machine that was the Medo-Persian government grinds away from verses 12 to 15, all set in motion by a king who simply wasn’t paying very much attention to what was going on around him. Haman approached him with a genocidal proposition, offered only a semi-plausible reason for it (“it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them”), and decades of relative peace and safety for the Jews under Medo-Persian law went poof! Gone, just like that.

That’s how these things happen. All it takes is a Haman or a Hitler: one powerful man with an agenda that appeals to some broad demographic, and who is either too persuasive or too terrifying to resist.

But the law is whatever the king says it is, and the law can change overnight, even in a democracy. As is often the case, even Ahasuerus didn’t begin to understand the full implications of the document he was sealing with his signet ring.

A Favorable Conclusion

Now the story of Esther does not reach a favorable conclusion for the Jews because of Mordecai’s astuteness and foresight. He doesn’t appear to have had a lot of that. And it doesn’t end well because the plucky Jews were unusually alert to their peril, or turned out to be surprisingly powerful. It doesn’t even end well because the famous Law of the Medes and Persians protected the Jews against annihilation. In fact, it was the Law that was working against them. No, the story of Esther ends with celebration, joy and victory because of the providential care of God for his people.

God is all but invisible in Esther. He is not even mentioned. But he is there in the background, arranging all the details to work out for his ultimate glory and for the preservation of his people against all odds. Vashti defies Ahasuerus, and finds herself replaced by a young Jewish girl who never set out to be Queen of Persia. No clever, forward-thinking Jew engineered that. Esther was essentially drafted: “taken into the king’s palace”. “Poor thing,” we might say, “forced to be part of a pagan harem.” Agreed, but God was working away in the background.

Then Mordecai stumbles across a conspiracy and does the right thing, putting the king in his debt. Then Haman builds his own gallows, saving everyone else the trouble. Then the king cannot sleep, and the random chronicle he has read to him turns out to be about Mordecai’s gesture of loyalty and the debt he is owed. Then Esther finds favor in the king’s sight and Haman’s wicked plot is turned against him, and the Jews end up in a far better position than they were before Haman plotted to destroy them.

Highly Unlikely Coincidences

You may have noticed there are a great number of highly unlikely “coincidences” in Esther. Sometimes that’s the way God works. If the church is ever persecuted in the West the way the Jews were nearly exterminated in the Medo-Persian empire, our delivery will surely be just as unlikely and miraculous. I can think of one particular way things might play out, though my Post-Millennial friends will probably not agree.

One thing the COVID-19 experience has made clear is that evangelical Christians are not all on the same page about the circumstances under which we are to submit to authority, and when it is appropriate to take a principled stand against governmental overreach. I’m not offering an opinion one way or another. I am simply observing that we are not going to be able to get all our brothers and sisters to respond the way we think they should. Ain’t gonna happen. They will take their own positions, wisely or unwisely, according to their maturity, the promptings of their consciences, and their understanding of the word of God. And what they do, if it is rash, prideful or ill-conceived, will probably impact the rest of us in some way.

Equally, if we are cowardly, self-serving or disloyal to our fellow believers, that too will impact others.

What we can say with confidence from Esther is that whether Mordecai was prudent or imprudent about in his defiance of the state, and even though he could not possibly anticipate the results of his actions or rely on Medo-Persian justice to work in his favor, Mordecai’s God stood with him and brought about a set of circumstances nobody, especially Haman, could ever have anticipated. Sometimes God rewards wise people for behaving wisely, and sometimes he protects us from unintended harm we might easily have brought on ourselves. But he is always there working in the background, whether we can see him or not.

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