Esther & Political Advocacy by God’s People| Es4.3,8 [DOUBLE-HEADER]

esther_mordechai-arent-de-gelderUpdate (3/8): This little seemingly inconsequential post caused quite the comment thread on Facebook and represented every reason I’ve started this series. I got challenged and my view of the book of Esther got broadened more than I ever could have imagine. I’ve reproduced those comments below.

In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. —Esther 4.3

Notice here that when the Jews are faced with political persecution, and an actual existential threat from the political authority, their response is not activism,  nor violence, nor lobbying, it is instead to pray, weep, lament, fast, and cry out to God, their true king and political leader.

Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. —Esther 4.8

Well…Okay, okay. I see that only a few versus later, Mordecai does try to appeal to Esther, the political insider, to lobby on behalf of her people. So, that sort of goes against what I just said above.

But, notice that they still did not use violence or mass political demonstrations or mobilization. They peacefully engaged those from their community who were specifically equipped to engage politically. They didn’t see themselves as primarily political creatures,  nor their problems primarily as political problems,  nor the answers primarily as political solutions. The political piece was merely one facet in the kaleidoscope of human experience through which God works his will,  and not even the main one.

My not-so-subtle point: the Evangelical obsession with political activism and using politics to accomplish (what they view as) the goals of the Kingdom are anti-biblical and find no basis in Scripture.

See other Marginalia here. Read more about the series here.

[image credit: “Esther and Mordechai write the Second Letter of Purim” by Arent de Gelder]


5 thoughts on “Esther & Political Advocacy by God’s People| Es4.3,8 [DOUBLE-HEADER]

  1. Okay, this is exactly why I started this series: to grow, to challenge, and discuss our Scriptures all the more deeply. These comments were originally found on Facebook.

    Paul (different than the Paul who runs this blog): being a citizen of a democratic republic means that christian citizen ARE some of the authorities in the government. We’re not subject groups of a larger empire, we have citizenship. I’m not sure esther is a great counterpoint for how we are to behave when we ARE granted fundamental political rights like assembly, free speech, self-defense, and petitioning govt for redress of grievances

    Also, the lawful self defense of the jews and defeat of their enemies is very likely approved in the text 1) because “they put no hand on the spoil” is a hint that they used the very spoil to build the second temple (following the victory VERSUS AGAG/housebuilding pattern in exodus)

    2) its symbolized in the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel. the words Hamon Gog in ezekiel code for Haman the Agagite. another victory/housebuilding picture.

    Now this might mean nothing for political discussions nowadays, and probably doesn’t but i think it works better than speculating that the jews were falling into some horrible crime in defending themselves.

    Paul Burkhart: Paul, I’ll do something that’s hard for me and admit that I have no idea what your talking about. I get literary analysis patterns and chiasmic structures, but I’ve never heard it applied to Esther, much less Esther being connected to the exodus tabernacle/housebuilding pattern (not touching spoils means they used it for the temple? My understanding is that the supposed place in time the story takes place was around the time the second temple was almost done or already done). Also, my impression from the text is that the slaughter by the Jews was not “self-defense”; the law that would have killed them had been rescinded and Haman executed. It was entirely unnecessary.

    And that Ezekiel stuff went right over my head. Are you dating Ezekiel very late or taking some futurist-prophetic angle on it?

    Long story short, do you have any articles or resources that unpack that stuff? It sounds fascinating and potentially very illuminating to the text.

    Also, lastly, full disclosure: you all should know that when approaching these devotional readings, I’m not necessarily using a historical-critical hermeneutic. I’m not saying the original writer(s) were trying to make this political point. Rather, I think in Christ we (as the apostle’s and early Church clearly felt) have a freedom to milk texts for lots of different meaning as long as we feel it is still in line with the rest of how God has revealed Himself, especially in Christ.

    Paul: From a commentary: “The only Agag mentioned in the OT is the king of Amalek [Num. 24:7; 1 Sam. 15:9]. . . . [A]ll Jewish, and many Christian comm[entators] think that Haman is meant to be a descendant of this Agag. This view is probably correct, because Mordecai, his rival, is a descendant of Saul ben Kish, who overthrew Agag [1 Sam.17:8–16], and is specially cursed in the law [Deut. 25:17]. It is, therefore, probably the author’s intention to represent Haman as descended from this race that was characterized by an ancient and unquenchable hatred of Israel (cf. 3:10, “the enemy of the Jews”).

    A cursive Hebrew manuscript identifies Haman as “a Gogite.” Paul Haupt sees a relationship between Haman’s descriptions as an Agagite and “the Gogite.”

    There is another link between Haman the Agagite in Esther and Gog in Ezekiel 38–39. “According to Ezekiel 39:11 and 15, the place where the army of Gog is buried will be known as the Valley of Hamon-Gog, and according to verse 16, the nearby city will become known as Hamonah.” The word Hamon in Ezekiel “is spelled in Hebrew almost exactly like the name Haman. . . . In Hebrew, both words have the same ‘triliteral root’ (hmn). Only the vowels are different.”

    – See more at:

    Paul Duggan yes, hes a crazy rightwinger, but he references other exegesis.

    Paul Burkhart: Fascinating. I still don’t know if I buy it (it seems really speculative and still uses the same methods as those that think Russia is in biblical prophecy, it just substitutes Haman for Russia. I would take a much more eschatological/Messianic-age-inauguration angle to that part of Ezekiel), but it’s definitely something to look into, especially if this view is shared by many others. You got anything on the housing literary pattern stuff?

    Paul: i think that goes back to Meredeith Kline.

    And here’s a general ref for the bible + ANE:

    Paul Burkhart: Man, I love this stuff. Thanks!

    Paul: i thought you’d have fun being prodded in new directions…

    Chris: I thought about commenting earlier when you first posted this, because I happened to write my senior thesis on the book of Esther (specifically how Esther has been understood throughout history [which, if your curious, is as follows: everyone revered her until contemporary times. Seriously.]) and so I did a lot of research on the book in general, and 4 of my classmates also did their senior theses on the book of Esther but with slightly different emphases (such as the importance of Haman being an Agagite, the chiastic structure of the book, etc.). I haven’t read all the above comments in detail, but let me add my somewhat-specialized knowledge to the mix: In my estimation, the book of Esther is about 1) The Jews’ victory over their enemies, namely Haman who is in the lineage of the Amalekites, who are the enemies of the Jews (that is how Haman is introduced in Esther 3:1, and this is also why the death and hangings of his sons are so important, and in fact in the Hebrew text that part of the text is indented, ie. highlighted as *very significant*) 2) Mordecai, more so than Esther, I’ll just leave it at that, and 3) the sovereign hand of God to protect his people even while they are under the rule of a foreign king: the chiastic structure of the book places the emphasis on 6:1, where the king cannot sleep. This is the only “uncaused cause” in the book, or the only thing that is not explained, which is used to show the sovereign hand of God in the story. And as far as the prevalence of Esther, if I recall correctly, the book of Esther was the most widely distributed/ had the most copies or manuscripts of any OT book…I’d have to go back and look at all my sources for that, but that cuts against what you’re saying about the relative importance of Esther, Paul. For example, the Jewish people thought that Esther was one of the four most important women in their history, and in the rabbinical writings they claim she was eternally youthful, exceedingly beautiful, etc. So they definitely thought this book was important.

    For example, a quick glance at my paper yields this paragraph: “On the importance of Esther to the Jewish people, Maimonides, a famous Jewish Philosopher of the 13th century, wrote that when all the rest of the sacred writings passed away in the time of the Messiah, the Law and Esther will remain.” And for the source for that see: Bernhard W. Anderson, “Esther.” Pages 823-874 in Volume III. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick. Vol. 3 of The Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick. Nashville: Abingdon, 1954. If you’re really curious, I could always just send over the paper, haha.

    Paul Burkhart: So, I’ve pulled out some commentaries of mine on Esther to look through. I’ve started, but I can already tell this is going to be a deep rabbit trail. Today is the last day of my classes, and my final exams and papers are all due tonight at midnight, so I can’t really go through it right now.

    I really appreciate the knowledgeable comments here, and the book of Esther has been blown open for me by this. This is exactly the kind of pushback and refining I wanted by starting this series of random meditations on little bits of Scripture. Thank you.

    Paul, thank you for taking this into a biblical studies direction. I thought I had somewhat of a good grasp on Esther, and you showed me that I didn’t now hardly anything about the scholarship and criticism of this book.

    Chris, I will say that my impression of Esther’s lack of popularity was more influenced by the fact that it’s the only OT book not represented at all in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early church didn’t like it, and the Reformers hated it (namely Calvin and Luther). I had the impression that, though it may have been popular early on, around the time the process of canonization kicked in, it wasn’t so much. I don’t know that that’s correct now, and I’m still looking to see what it’s reputation was in the first couple centuries CE. It’s popularity has certainly fluctuated throughout its history, it seems. But I could be wrong.

    So I’ll keep reading tomorrow and such and keep refining my views on the book. And seriously, Chris, send me your thesis. I’d really love to read it. I’m not joking at all. Thank you all (even you, Mike, haha)


  2. Mike: Uh… did you read Chapter 9?

    Paul Burkhart: Uh… You mean after God had already answered their prayer? There’s nothing in the text that commends what the Jews did after that. They weren’t trying to “accomplish” anything. According to the text, Purim, the observance that is established after this is (a) not said to be a happy or joyful one, but is lumped in with “fasts and laments” and (b) centers around their deliverance from Haman, not their murder of all those others. What I talk about above IS what the text seems to commend and God seems to answer and be moved to action by. I’m referring to how the people of God are to work for God’s purposes in this earth, especially when they don’t seem to be evident in society. That is not in any way what is happening at the end.

    Mike: They were not condemned by God for what they did. While I’m not saying that the premise of your article is wrong, I’m just saying that the book of Esther is an choice to illustrate it. Not only did they go on a government-approved killing spree, Esther said that was so fun, let’s do it another day, and the King said Okay.

    Paul Burkhart: Everything in the Bible that is done by God ‘s people is perfectly fine unless it is explicitly condemned by God, even if it goes against his explicit nature and character as seen elsewhere, especially in Jesus?

    Throughout the book, Esther is shown to be a bad Jew. She gets her position through being really good at sex, she doesn’t seem to keep the dietary laws nor Sabbath, there is nothing distinctively Jewish about her, and she doesn’t care about her people getting killed until Mordechai tells her that she’ll get killed too. This is morally ambiguous literature at BEST. We need to be much more careful than you’re being about what lessons we draw and what we think God smiles upon.

    Mike: My reading of the OT is that when God is displeased with something His people did, He at least reprimands them if not outright punishes them. Here He did neither. What other conclusion is there?

    But you’re right that our FIRST reaction should be to cry out to God. I’m not arguing your topic, merely saying that this text doesn’t really fit your point.

    You introduce the link with “Y’all are doing it all wrong.” Then inside you say the story does not contain activism or violence. The truth is, you cut out a tiny sliver of the story and bent it into a pretext.

    “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”
    -D.A. Carson

    The real reason your article hit me as strange is that the last part of Esther has always made me feel uncomfortable. It’s TOO much activism and violence, to the point of making me queasy. I’ve pretty much only given thought to the first 2/3’s of the book, and have tried to ignore the last part. I know that God always has a reason, and as Supreme Sovereign, He always has the right to do whatever He sees fit. I do not question that one bit. I guess this part of the Bible gives me the same feeling as watching someone gut a deer. I know hunting is good and right, and I benefit from the meat that others have killed. But I’ve never done it and part of it makes me uncomfortable to watch.

    Does that make sense?

    Paul Burkhart: I didn’t say the story in general didn’t have violence. I said when faced with a political and societal situation that didn’t match what God’s intention for his people is, they didn’t FIRST resort to viewing the whole thing through a political lens and simplistically reducing it to an “issue”, as most Evangelicals do. And your wrong about how God views his people and then evil they do. Does God reprimand you for every little wicked thing you do? Also, the prophets condemn Israel and others for lots of things that (a) their ancestors did, not them, and (b) were not reprimanded at the time.

    In the story, God does not do that stuff. The Israelites do. Another problem evangelicals have is assuming that whatever they do is God doing it through them.

    Mike: Does God reprimand me for every little thing wrong that I do? No, obviously. But neither does He publish it in the most widely read book in history. Why would He tell a story without commentary if it’s something He didn’t approve of?

    But, again, I think your point is valid, but it seems to me you used a bad example. So, we’re basically agreeing on content, but disagreeing on form….

    Paul Burkhart: Again, God didn’t write nor publish nor tell the story of the Bible. His people did.

    As I’m sure you know, he is noticeably absent from Esther.

    Mike: What? What??! God didn’t write it???

    2 Timothy 3:16
    “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God….”

    2 Peter 1:20-21
    “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation, for the prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

    Galatians 1:11-12
    “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I RECEIVED IT BY REVELATION…”

    I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know…

    Paul Burkhart: I don’t mean to get in the weeds here, but Esther was probably one of, if not THE, last book of the OT to be written. The Jews didn’t have a set canon of books until the Christians started making one in the early 100-200s CE and they decided they needed to figure out which books were in and out before the Christians co-opted their writings (which we did anyway).

    But anyway, the books that were considered “Scripture” by the Jews was still very much in flux during the time that Christianity appeared, and it looks like the book of Esther was on the way out. In both the Jewish faith and the Christian Church, it has by far been the one most skeptically treated.

    Mike: But you’re not saying that the book is so insignificant that you shouldn’t have used it for your article, right? I mean, if it’s worthwhile at all, the whole thing is worthwhile.

    Again, I’m just saying that if you look at the WHOLE book, one is not pressed with the overwhelming sense of pacifism.

    Paul Burkhart: Really?

    2Tim3:16 is not just only talking about the OT, but it’s specifically talking about the OT Scriptures that Timothy’s Greek grandmother used to convert him. This means that the Scripture Paul is referencing is particularly the Septuagint, a terrible translation of bad copies of the OT. He’s not referring to the “original manuscripts” (not that there ever was such a thing most of the time) or the original writing. So whatever “inspiration” is, it’s a lot more of a flexible idea to Paul than you’re giving credit to. Also, the word “inspiration” in that translation is a modern translator imposing a modern theological term. Paul simply says that in those words are the breath of God, not that he literally “breathed out” those words.

    2pet. Again, nowhere does the Bible say that GOD writes Scripture. He moves certain inspired people to write things, and some of those writings have “staying power” in the community. Paul wrote plenty of other things that weren’t “let in”. So again, my point remains, GOD did not write the Bible or tell the story. His inspired people did.

    Gal. Paul is talking about the Gospel he received that he was to give to the Gentiles after going away to “Arabia” to study on his own for three years. He came, presented this articulation of this Gospel to Peter, who then”approved it” and sent him off to the Gentiles. This “Gospel” he’s referring to is a very specific thing that he goes on to spell out in the rest of the book. This has NOTHING to do with Scripture, and everything to do with the emphasis of Paul’s preaching.

    Again, your parroting a very modern, very Western, very reactive and overly-simplistic doctrine of the Bible that most of Church History would not recognize.

    And I wasn’t commenting necessarily on “pacifism”. I was speaking to the primary emphasis that Evangelicals place on political solutions to Kingdom problems, because they equate the political entity called “America” with the “Kingdom of God”. Maybe not consciously or verbally, but in their actions, obsessions, activism, and their presence in society, they seem to. When they so breathlessly and loudly fight for political goals, they seem to be fighting to maintain some sort of “Christian-ness” to this country that is a myth. Maybe they don’t even think the country IS the Kingdom of God now, but they at least thing that it can politically accomplish Kingdom things IF ONLY they could get some political stuff passed.

    And as for Esther, I’ll take what lessons there seem to be in the book and leave it at that. Few in church history have thought the book should carry much significance in Scripture or the lives of God’s people. So neither will I.

    Daniel: Mike, With re to the “proof texts” you mentioned above, 2 Tim., 2 Peter, how could the authors of those texts claim a property or attribute for texts that had not yet been written and for texts they had no clue would one day accompany their own? Hmmm…

    NB: No part of the “inspired, infallible word of God” says which books should be included in the Bible or which books fall under said ‘word of God’. The authors of these texts had no conception of a ‘New Testament’ as Scripture. Paul had no idea or foresight that he was writing (what was later to become known as) “Scripture” or imagined that his letters would one day be canonized.

    As Paul Burkhart noted clearly, “proof-texting” to support a theological doctrine is way, way too simplistic, not least because you are using the words of one author to interpret the words of another, while papering over the local context within the epistle itself (i.e., the specific needs, concerns, and issues Paul/the author is addressing), while also, again, ignoring the complex, arduous and interesting history of the formation of the biblical canon (which was the product of a long line of human decisions).


  3. Pingback: #Marginalia Weekly Round-Up #2 [3/3-7/14] | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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