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The message is: Act now

01 July 2016

Anthony Phillips looks at the book of Esther

God and Politics in Esther

Yoram Hazony

Cambridge University Press £18.99


Church Times Bookshop £17.10

YORAM HAZONY has revised and expanded his study of Esther originally published in 1995 as The Dawn. Chief interest, therefore, lies in the additional Afterwords, three chapters that criticise the erroneous distinction between natural and divine causation leading to a “God of the gaps” theology and ultimately to “perfect atheism”.

Esther is viewed by many scholars as a strange book to appear in the canon of scripture. Nowhere is God mentioned by name, which probably explains why no fragment has been found at Qumran, and its little interest to the church Fathers. Yet for the rabbis of the Talmud, it was of great significance.

Central to the book is the issue of Jewish survival threatened, on the one hand, physically and, on the other, by assimilation. In delivering their compatriots, Mordecai and Esther provide that kind of political leadership which Jews should hope for in every generation. Indeed, it is the failure to recognise the political importance of the book which, in Hazony’s view, has led to its devaluation.

Accordingly, the author subjects the narrative to sharp political analysis, imaging in detail the reasoning and motives of the participants. For Mordecai, Haman has made himself a god. He notes that, in sharp contrast to Christian thinkers, the Hebrew scriptures constantly advocate civil disobedience.

Hazony has no time for weakness, arguing that it is the natural law of politics that strength attracts strength and power attracts power. Christians contemplating the powerlessness of the cross will think differently. Yet it is worth remembering that, for most of Christian history, it is Christians who have wielded power at the expense of the Jews. And what has all this to say about the current political situation of the state of Israel?

What, though, is clear from the popularity of the Feast of Purim, associated with Esther, is that it is worth fighting to be a Jew. While Hazony emphasises Mordecai’s faith in asserting that, should Esther fail to act, “help will come from elsewhere,” he notes, none the less, that failure to act means untold suffering in the mean time.

The purpose of the Afterwords is to establish that, despite the apparent absence of God in the narrative of Esther (though Hazony argues that there are hints that point to him), he is in fact present in the actions of men. We can pray for the coming of the Kingdom, but it needs men and women to inaugurate it. As Hazony puts it: “It is not too far from the mark to read all of Scripture as one great cry, calling upon man to rise from his stupor and offer God what assistance we have to offer.”

The author rightly concludes that, while the narrative of Esther records the successful exercise of “human political intrigue” without recourse to “supernatural” events, this does not mean it happens in a world without God. This explains why the Talmud can assert that it is to the book of Esther that one can turn to learn about miracles. These Afterwords are greatly to be savoured.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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