Friday, December 23, 2011

Purim and the Power of God

The book of Esther is a remarkable book for many reasons. Not the least of which is how different it seems compared to much else in the Old Testament. There are no great prophets. There are no miracles. There is no direct revelation or manifestation of God like we see in so many other historical narratives in the Bible. In fact, even the name of God is not mentioned in the book. There are only a few scant references to prayer and worship. Despite this the hand of God is obvious throughout the entire story. It is the record of God working providentially, through secondary causes, to protect and preserve His people. The closest thing to any kind of supernatural intervention comes through the insomnia of the king and a particularly well timed reading from an official record book (it seems even in those days reading a government publication was useful for putting people to sleep).

Because of these unique traits Esther is a particularly helpful book for the people of God in our time. After all, God most often works through and in His church using these kinds of means today. We are guided by the Word God has already delivered through the prophets just like the faithful in the book of Esther. He also works through the incidental connections and relationships that we have just as He did with Esther. It is therefore a great testimony to the power of God in working to preserve His people through the exercise of His providential control of secondary causes, including human decisions and experiences.

If this is all we see in the book, however, we overlook something that I think is very significant. The purpose of the book of Esther is to record the origin of and reason for the Purim celebration. Esther 9:26 tells us “they called these days Purim, after the term Pur.” This is a reference to the enemy Haman casting lots to determine the opportune time to destroy the Jews. The word Pur means “casting lots.” It might seem curious that the celebration of the events in this book would be named after what appears to be a minor detail in the narrative. As the story moves along and Haman begins plotting to destroy his enemies we are tempted to quickly read past this detail in 3:7

“In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, they cast lots) before Haman”     (Esther 3:7 ESV)

The story then continues on as Haman approaches the king to set his plot in motion. In addition to the feast being named after this “detail” we notice that near the end of book Haman’s casting of lots is mentioned again.

For Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, cast lots), to crush and to destroy them.”   (Esther 9:24 ESV)

The repetition of this detail in the text plus the reminder of it included in the name of the feast indicates that it is something we are intended to take notice of. While this may initially appear to be a minor detail, if we consider it in light of the way the narrative ends as well as the broader themes of the Old Testament its importance becomes profound. We have woven into this narrative a most remarkable truth. It is the demonstration of the supreme power of Yahweh over all false gods. It is an assertion that He alone is the one true God, whose Word will not fail to come to pass because there is none who can oppose Him.

When we tend to think of God demonstrating His supremacy over all pretending deities our minds are drawn to the Exodus story where each plague specifically exposed the impotence of the Egyptian pantheon. Or perhaps Elijah taunting the prophets of Baal as his offering is consumed in fire (though drenched) while theirs remains untouched. But, in Esther we have the same kind of demonstration of the power of Yahweh over lesser deities. Haman had consulted the gods through the use of the casting of lots to determine the best time to move against God’s people. He sought divine guidance to ensure that He would be successful and yet God demonstrated His superior power and the futility of Haman’s efforts by bringing him to ruin.

Haman’s casting of lots may not have been just a devotional practice. It may very well have been a conscious attempt to restrain the power of the God of the Jews specifically. I say this because the text repeatedly tells us that Haman was an Agagite. Agag was the Amalekite king whom Saul failed to kill. The prophet Samuel eventually kills Agag but some of the family survived. The Amalekites were traditional enemies of the Jews and as a descendent of Agag Haman would certainly have been aware of the power of the Jewish God and the history of their deliverance from Egypt and conquest of Canaan.

Some who have studied the casting of lots in ancient near eastern cultures have pointed out that the lots are often thought to point to a power greater than any of the gods themselves. In some Hittite legends the gods themselves cast lots for direction and are under the fatalistic power of “the lot”. If Haman was under the impression that Yahweh was a regional god or a god of the hill country as some of Israel’s enemies assumed then his behavior might have been an attempt to specifically overcome the power of Yahweh on whose protection the Jews relied.

The amazing thing about this narrative is that unlike the Exodus story or the Elijah story God does not intervene miraculously. The demonstration of the power of God in this story is such that His sovereignty is seen to be all encompassing. It is not a matter of Yahweh simply being more powerful than another deity. His power is not limited to the hill country or the region of Palestine. His Power extends even to the falling of the lot and is such that he moves people and even kings as He wishes through their own choices. His providence is sufficient to accomplish His will because His providence is all encompassing.

Because the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is all powerful and totally sovereign His promises to protect His people can be accepted with complete confidence even outside of Israel and even in the face of hopeless odds. Esther’s cousin and caretaker, Mordecai understood this and alluded to this confidence when he said:

“For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”     (Esther 4:14 ESV)

He knew that God’s promises (Word) could be trusted because of who God is and he recognized that God often works through His people to bring about His purposes. I pray that each of us would see this same truth in our own lives. Every time a person repents of their sins and accepts Christ and every time that the Lord delivers us we see this truth confirmed in our own lives. I pray that God in His grace would overcome our own weak faith so that we may live in the full confidence of those who are children of the Living God. Let us never forget who it is that keeps watch over us. 

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