Sunday, May 10, 2020

Semi-Random Musings (20)

I have always wondered about the purpose of the book of Esther.

Of all the books in the Bible, Esther seems to have the least to do with 21st century Christianity. It is basically a book of Jewish-centric history which tells how the nation of Israel (for the umpteenth time) survived extermination at the hands of its enemies. God is not even mentioned in its pages. The national feast inspired by the events in Esther (Purim) is nothing like the God-ordained celebrations of Leviticus 23. Purim commemorates the “days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies”, and is (or at least originally was) more like today’s secularized Christmas celebrations than any of the seven feasts of Jehovah, all of which were rife with rich spiritual symbolism, speaking to generations about the meaning of the death of Christ and its consequences for mankind.

So why is Esther in our Bibles?

Well, one small reason might be that the story of Esther provides a plausible motive for the enormous goodwill Artaxerxes king of Persia showed toward Jews in general and Ezra in particular, without which the events described from Ezra 7 on could never have taken place.

The first six chapters of Ezra are mostly there to set the scene. Our title character, after all, doesn’t even appear until the beginning of chapter 7. When he does, he is on his way to Jerusalem from Babylon with a letter from the Persian king authorizing him to make sacrifices in Jerusalem on behalf of the king and his sons, and directing the treasurers of Judea’s province to make sure Ezra has everything he needs for the ongoing service of the house of God, for the appointment of magistrates and judges, and to ensure God’s law is taught throughout the province. It also included provisions exempting priests, Levites and temple workers from Persian taxation. This edict is a marvelously generous, unlikely and unnecessary gesture, and a stunning turnaround from the hostility directed toward the Jews in previous Persian administrations.

It is also evidence that, if not a believer himself, Artaxerxes genuinely acknowledged and respected the God of Israel, and was determined to honor him publicly. This is not in itself all that surprising. The Persians had bucketloads of their own gods, including gods of wind, fire, storms, earth, sunlight and even intoxication. Adding one more just in case doesn’t seem an unreasonable strategy.

Still, Artaxerxes’ deference toward the God of Israel appears to be on a higher level than mere superstition. As he says in the letter, “Whatever is decreed by the God of heaven, let it be done in full for the house of the God of heaven, lest his wrath be against the realm of the king and his sons.” That’s a God-fearing man in the most literal sense of the expression.

And yet all this generosity and favorable disposition toward the God of Israel and all things Jewish is perfectly explicable when we come to understand that Artaxerxes was the son of the fourth emperor of the Achaemenid Empire, the Persian king who was married to Queen Esther and whose love for her changed the fate of a nation.

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A blogger named Kim is so disturbed that there aren’t clear rules for everyone to follow during the COVID-19 lockdowns that she has decided not to go outside anymore. My neighbor had a meltdown in public about a masked landscaper cleaning up the backyard next door, yards away from anyone. A popular video on YouTube shows a woman in a grocery store lecturing medical professionals on their way home because she believed wearing scrubs in public is “against the law”. No less than sixty complaints about dog-walkers glimpsed in otherwise-empty city parks were lodged in a single day by locals unhappy to see anyone “not following the rules”, even if the dog-walkers were acting consistently with the spirit in which the distancing directives (and they are temporary directives, not “law”, as some people insist) were conceived.

There are a lot of confused and unhappy people out there.

Confused is fine. Wanting a few clear rules is fine too, though it seems unlikely we’re going to get any at this point. What’s not fine is the sort of person who is obsessed with imposing their own will on others and uses appeals to amenable authorities to get it done.

Back to the book of Ezra, which I’m enjoying currently. People with a desire to throw their weight around can cause an awful lot of trouble. Their meddling can have long-term consequences. In Ezra, three men named Bishlam, Mithredath and Tabeel wrote to the king of Persia hoping to prevent the city of Jerusalem and its temple from being rebuilt. Their letter was full of flattery, fawning, manipulation and outright lies, and it was surprisingly effective. The work of rebuilding was shut down for the foreseeable future.

These people were not genuinely concerned for the king’s honor as they claimed, nor did they truly believe the Jews were any threat to it. In fact, they had eagerly tried (and failed) to insert themselves front and center in the rebuilding project, claiming to worship the same God as Zerubbabel and Jeshua and their fellow Jews in the same way, and citing their own piety and good works as evidence of their sincerity.

Know anybody like that? I sure do.

The obvious symptom of this mindset is meddling, which the New Testament condemns. If you are not the police, someone’s boss, or someone’s mother, you are well advised to keep your opinion to yourself in public. But more often than not envy is what drives people to interfere in the business of others. That is the real spiritual hazard.

Bishlam, Mithredath and Tabeel were left out of the building project, so they hatched a scheme to ruin it. If I can’t play in that sandbox, then nobody can. They were far from the first to get carried away by the obsessive desire that nobody else should ever enjoy anything they haven’t got. Joseph’s brothers, moved with envy, sold him into Egypt. The Jewish religious authorities delivered up Jesus to Pilate “for envy”. The Jews in Pisidian Antioch who contradicted the apostle Paul were “filled with envy”. The Jews in Thessalonica set the whole city in an uproar for exactly the same reason. Paul told the Philippians that envy may even be the driving motivation of some who preach Christ.

As the proverb goes, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” Christians stuck at home and getting a little tired of it need to work on our tranquility, not chafe at the better circumstances of others.

The alternative is not pretty. Before you open your mouth, check your motive first.

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