Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Superstition, Unbelief and Pattern Recognition

“On that night the king could not sleep.”

It has been pointed out that Esther is unique among the books of the Bible in that it contains no direct reference to God or religion. There are several indirect references to what appears to be divine providence or at least the potential for it, but nothing explicit.

For example, Mordecai tells Esther, “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place [Hmm, what place might that be?], but you and your father's house will perish” [I wonder how he could be so sure about that]. Esther responds by telling him to have the Jews fast on her behalf for three days. In scripture, a fast is not a fad diet, but rather an appeal to God.

A Sleepless Night

Then there is the first verse of chapter six: “On that night [the night of the day on which Haman had a seventy-five foot gallows constructed to hang Mordecai] the king could not sleep.”

Sleeplessness is a persistent feature of my adult life. People often wonder how I can work a full-time job and produce four to five reasonably lengthy and researched biblical blog posts a week. The answer is that I don’t sleep a whole lot. I am often awake by 2:30 a.m. and banging the keys by 4:00. As useful as it may have been to my own spiritual state over the last decade, I don’t generally attribute my insomnia to divine providence.

Maybe I should. In Esther, King Ahasuerus could not sleep. What a fortunate coincidence, we might say. How interesting that the greatest monarch of his day becomes inexplicably restive on the very night when Haman has prepared the means of ending Mordecai’s life, and is busily cantering away on his genocidal hobbyhorse. How interesting that instead of calling for entertainment, alcohol or one of his harem girls, the sleepless king — conveniently — gives orders to bring before him the book of memorable deeds in which Mordecai’s service to the kingdom has — conveniently — been recorded. Surely in all the kingdom of Persia there were memorable deeds aplenty to be rehearsed, so how is that Mordecai’s warning of impending assassination happens to be the portion read to the king? Moreover, how unlikely is it that the would-be assassins would have — conveniently — discussed their plot within Mordecai’s hearing in the first place?

Fortunate Coincidences

There are a whole lot of “fortunate coincidences” occurring throughout Esther, notwithstanding that its writer, carried on by the Holy Spirit, has not stopped to confirm unequivocally that God is at work here, as the writers of other books of the Bible from the same time period [Kings, Chronicles] frequently do.

If, as you go through life, you acquire the habit of confidently attributing every turn of fate to God, you will often encounter the occasional wet blanket who points out that sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence, or that when Christians attribute fortunate turns of events to God, they are just exhibiting their own confirmation biases. Who knows? In certain situations, it may be that the wet blankets are correct. Sometimes Christians presumptuously blame or credit God for something he is alleged to have done in the absence of even the slightest biblical evidence or, worse, credit him for doing things he couldn’t possibly have done because they go directly against his expressed will. So we have to be a little careful about reading into scripture things we aren’t told. Superstition is not a good look.

However, I can’t help but think Haman’s wife Zeresh and his wise men had the right of it when they assessed the sudden downturn of Haman’s fortunes in the wake of the king’s sleepless night. They concluded, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.” That may sound like superstition, but it’s really just pattern recognition. God had such an established record of going to bat for the Jewish people that even the wife of an Agagite* knew her husband had sealed his own fate by choosing to make their God his enemy.

Two Extremes to Avoid

There are two extremes to be avoided when asking ourselves the question “Did God do that?” One is to conclude that God actively does every single thing that happens to us, as some Christians believe. That is not just superstitious but often ends up in attributing evil to God. The other extreme — that everything that occurs comes about naturally — is far too close to unbelief for my liking. When Christians are saying exactly the same thing the world is, it’s time to reassess our position.

In between those two errors lies the reality: that there are times when God does not perform recognizable miracles, yet his will gets accomplished all the same, and his people’s prayers are answered with a risk taken, a timely change of heart, a word in season, a conversation overheard, an appropriate reading ... or a sleepless night.

And sometimes a bunch of “coincidences” long enough to make for a good movie plot.

* The significance of that little detail is a story of its own, which you can find here.

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