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Jesu, Juva

Metábasis eis állo génos (3-7)

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For a long time I’ve been convinced by James Jordan that Mordecai was wrong to require Esther to hide her Jewish identity, and wrong to refuse to bow to Haman. Jordan points out that the Jews were specifically charged to witness to the nations, and he also points out that it is quite appropriate for humans to bow to human authorities (e.g., Abraham in Genesis 23). Thus, the only kind of witness that Mordecai is successfully conducting is completely upside down—”God’s people are insubordinate schemers,” just like rebellious Vashti and just like Simeon and Levi in Shechem. My friend Nathaniel quotes Paul in favor of this: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.” (Titus 3:1-2)

Doing a little digging this week thanks to Bible reading, I’ve changed my mind. I’m still convinced that Jordan is right in his principles and applications, but I now believe that the typology of the text is wanting to highlight different principles, ones which are not in fundamental conflict with Jordan’s. Within Scripture, it is not unusual to be in a place where we want to say something is praiseworthy from one vantage point and isn’t from another vantage point, or perhaps that it is praiseworthy under specific conditions. For example, we see that Kings and Chronicles do not always agree whether a king is praiseworthy, because they are interested in highlighting different principles. And we have a very similar situation in Jacob and Rebekah’s deceiving Isaac; as a general principle, we maintain that it is wrong to deceive your superior for your advancement or benefit. But the text shows us that Jacob and Rebekah are taking a great risk on themselves and seeking something quite different from Jacob’s benefit: the preservation of God’s promises and covenant, and the repentance of Isaac. Similarly, the Hebrew midwives disobey and deceive Pharaoh, but we would never charge them with a failure to be appropriately subject to rulers and authorities.

So, I take as my starting point Jordan’s view, but let’s see if there is enough evidence to lead us to believe that the text is highlighting a different principle.

One of the echoes in the book is to Genesis and the story of Joseph in exile. Some of these echoes land on Esther (she and Joseph both have a beautiful appearance) and others on Mordecai (becoming second in command to the king), and others on both of them (they are in exile like Joseph, and together God uses them for the salvation not only of his people but of the entire world). I want to focus on the echoes with Mordecai: (1) Mordecai is in exile, as Joseph. (2) Two other men suffer the king’s displeasure (baker and cupbearer vs. Bigthan and Teresh) and have their heads lifted up. (3) The Hebrew ought to have been remembered by the king because of this but is forgotten. (4) The Hebrew is eventually elevated to a place of authority second only to the king. (5) This reversal and deliverance takes place because the king’s sleep is disturbed. (6) The Hebrew receives garments and a signet ring from the king. (7) In both stories, there is another (Judah vs. Haman) who gives up his signet. (8) The Hebrew becomes responsible for saving both his people and the world. (9) In both cases there is bowing involved; in the one, the bowing of Joseph’s family; and in the other, Mordecai’s failure to bow.

This seems compelling, and leads me to lend weight to this parallel: (10) Both Mordecai and Joseph “day by day do not heed” someone (Genesis 39:10, Esther 3:4). Subtly but strikingly, Mordecai’s refusal to bow is portrayed in a righteous light by comparison to Joseph’s temptation. How could this be? How is Mordecai being tempted to compromise or sin? And what good reason could he possibly have for refusing to be subject to rulers and authorities?

For this we have to look at another connection, that between Mordecai and King Saul. Consider: (1) Both are Benjaminites. (2) Both are descended from a man named Kish. (3) Both are associated with a man named Shimei. (4) Both of them wrestle with Amalekites: Saul faithlessly preserves King Agag and the spoils of battle (1 Samuel 15); while under Mordecai, Haman the descendent of Agag is destroyed and the Hebrews do not take the plunder (Esther 9; Jordan suggests that the plunder went to the building of God’s house in Ezra-Nehemiah and that the queen in Nehemiah is Esther). (5) Rather than destroying the Amalekites, Saul goes on to attack God’s house (1 Sam 22). By contrast, if Jordan is right, Mordecai is partly responsible for the building of God’s house (not laying hands on the plunder is always a significant signal that the plunder is devoted to God and his house), but Mordecai is at least responsible for the preservation of God’s people and the nations.

Why did God want Saul to conduct herem warfare against the Amalekites—and does this indicate why Mordecai resisted temptation (so to speak, putting it in Joseph’s terms) and refused to bow? Some evidence:

Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called its name, Yahweh-Is-My-Banner; for he said, “Because Yahweh has sworn: Yahweh will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:14-16)

Then [Balaam] looked on Amalek, and he took up his oracle and said:
“Amalek was first among the nations,
​​But shall be last until he perishes.” (Numbers 24:20)

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt, how he met you on the way and attacked your rear ranks, all the stragglers at your rear, when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when Yahweh your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land which Yahweh your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-19)

Samuel also said to Saul, “Yahweh sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of Yahweh. Thus says Yahweh of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ” (1 Samuel 15:1-3)

It seems clear to me from this that Mordecai conceives of the situation as one where he is responsible, as a Jew and especially as Saul’s heir in some sense, to complete the work of herem warfare that God both prophesied and commanded. Although he is tempted (by Haman’s great power? Haman apparently has the means to put Mordecai to death) to “forget” God’s command and submit to Haman, Mordecai does not fear Haman and is concerned only for his people. Mordecai’s explanation that he “is a Jew” fits with this interpretation. Because of God’s commands, it does not seem necessary in this interpretation for Mordecai to have any particular belief about Haman’s motives, such as whether he is a usurper. In a way, perhaps Mordecai is saying to Haman that “you can be saved if you are subject to Yahweh, but until then Yahweh has declared that he will defend his people from being subject to you.” This is how the book ends, as well; salvation is found only in the church.

We are bound to read Amalek and Agag as a kind of Satan and it seems this requires us to read Haman in the same way. Thus the bowing takes on a larger significance; especially because of what we have learned from the connection to Joseph, it should, I think, remind us of Satan’s tempting Jesus.

Esther seems to be a bridge between the herem warfare of the old covenants and the evangelistic warfare of the sword of the Spirit in the new covenant. There is prayer as always, but there is much more subtlety and deception and persuasion and timing in conducting the warfare, though there are still actual swords.

This has implications for us in our mode of dealing with Satanic government. At times we should bow, but at other times we should not. For this, much wisdom is required even if you believe someone has taken office legitimately. But, as a practical example, I think we can agree that being subject to someone does not include using zxqeir preferred pronouns. You might also choose to honor your superiors in how you dress in their presence, yet without needing to submit to their own demands over how you dress your face.

There are a few loose ends:

First, how should we understand Esther’s hiding her identity? If Mordecai is in the right, then this deception echoes Sarai/Sarah and Rebekah hiding their identities from kings while in exile. The result this time is a blessing to both God’s people and the king. We are not told how Mordecai knew in advance that righteous bridal deception would be required. But in terms of the typology, it seems he had faith that, when the king takes the Hebrew exile into his house, plunder and vindication and release from exile are soon to follow, although in this case it was necessary for faith to persevere for a number of years. The typology seems not to be concerned with the question of “how should a typical person behave in a typical situation.” Instead the text seems to be concerned with “how should the church-bride dance with emperors and defeat satans.” Of course, the emperor to whom we make our appeal today knows everything about us. But maybe he has some secret Obadiahs and Daniels up his sleeve, kept in preparation for a few bad dreams and sleepless nights.

Second, it’s worth noting that Esther remains submitted to her adoptive father in ways that a married daughter normally wouldn’t. This seems to cast him in the role of pastor to a church-bride, though it doesn’t necessarily prove that his advice to her is right. Interestingly, though, he does not hide his own identity even when he asks her to do so.

Third, we have hardly scratched the surface of the typological allusions. A significant one is the presence of an emperor-king, with wine, in a house, with an inner room, and feasting, and a garden, with a bride, and a serpent (Haman). The feasts are all closely associated with judgment; either the occasion for judgment, or else a celebratory conclusion to judgment. And as I mentioned previously, there is a tremendous and significant use of face.

Finally, the presence of a garden-temple raises another insight into Haman. The death of Bigthan and Teresh, doorkeepers, reminds us of two other stewards: Nadab and Abihu, among those who go “out from the door.” The only other death in Leviticus is that of the Israelite-Egyptian man who blasphemed and was stoned (Leviticus 24). If this parallel holds, we should read Esther expecting to find a blasphemer, who “shall surely be put to death”—Haman is a blasphemer.

Written by Scott Moonen

February 11, 2022 at 5:03 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology

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