Saturday, February 6, 2010

Esther and us, Sep 27, 2009

Texts: Psalm 124, Esther 7:1-6, 9:10; 9:20-22

The book of Esther, from which our second reading was taken, is an unusual one. It is one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman. (The other one is Ruth). And it is the only book in the entire Bible that doesn't mention God, not even once. For both these reasons, many religious leaders in the ancient past, both Jews and Christians, argued that Esther should not be included in the Bible. But due to popular pressure, a Jewish council in the 3rd Century finally agreed to include Esther in the Hebrew Bible. By the end of the fourth century, Roman Catholic councils in the West accepted that decision by the rabbis. And at the end of the eight century, Eastern Orthodox councils in Constantinople (now the city of Istanbul in Turkey) also agreed to include Esther in their Hebrew Bible.

The popular pressure to include Esther in the Bible came from ordinary Jewish people. Esther is said to be the most popular book in the Bible for many Jews. It is a short, skillfully written drama about how Esther and her cousin Mordecai foil a plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire. The Persian empire was centered in what is now Iran, but it also included modern-day Iraq and much of the Middle East.

Not only does the book of Esther not mention God, it also doesn't mention the Law, the Prophets, or any religious rituals. Instead, it describes how the Jews were saved from destruction through the courage of Esther, the Queen of Persia, who -- unknown to her husband, the King -- was also a Jewish woman. Esther is the basis for the joyous holiday of Purim, which usually falls in February or March. Purim is the only Jewish holiday that doesn't link back to Moses.

Until this week, I admit that I had never read Esther. Like many people of my generation, I grew up without a deep biblical education, even though my father was a minister. It has only been during the past two years while taking courses at Toronto's Emmanuel College that I have applied myself to reading and studying the Bible. And now that I am preparing sermons almost every week, my biblical education is racing ahead, for which I am grateful.

The fact that I didn't read Esther until this week leads to another confession. To be accepted as an Intern in the United Church of Canada and to come and work at a congregation like Knox you have to be both a Candidate for Ordination in the Church -- which is a complex process in and of itself -- and you have to have completed at least 20 but no more than 24 of the 30 half courses required for a Masters of Divinity Degree. I have now completed 23 of those 30 courses. The extra ones resulted from being unemployed this past summer, which gave me space to take more credits. Of those 20-24 courses, most are required for internship: courses such as Introduction to Worship, Preaching, Christian Education, and so on. The required ones also include four Bible courses; and my second confession is that I have only taken three of those four Bible courses. The one that I am still missing is Old Testament II, in which Esther is covered. Having made this confession, I hope that word doesn't get back to the powers-that-be in the church, and they revoke my internship! But I suspect things will be OK.

Despite my ignorance, I decided to tackle Esther this week, and for a number of reasons: to fill a gap in my education, because tomorrow is Yom Kippur, because I had ignored the Old Testament and focused on the New Testament readings from James and Mark in my first three Sundays, because I was puzzled by this week's assigned readings from James and Mark (a third confession!), and finally because the themes of Esther resonate with today's conflict between Israel and Palestine.

But I begin with a story from my life in Toronto. Three years ago, the community information agency in which I worked hired a woman as an IT manager; and there was a lot about this new employee which intrigued me. She had an unusual name -- Reema. She had just come from San Francisco but had a British accent; and she looked Middle Eastern except that she had red hair. Reema and I had lunch one day, and I asked her about her background. It turned out that she had been born in Iraq in Baghdad and had lived there till she was five years old. But when she was five, her family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein, and she had grown up in London. I asked her if her family had been Iraqi Muslim, Iraqi Christian, or Iraqi Jewish; and to my surprise it was the latter. Though Reema herself was not religious, her family was Jewish. And like most of Iraq's 150,000 Jews, her family had fled Iraq in the early 1970s when the government of Saddam began to discriminate again Jews as part of its opposition to Israel.

Reema's story reminded me of something that I had forgotten -- that until the past few generations, the Middle East was not an exclusively Muslim territory. Although Islam has been the main religion there -- first in Arabia, and then throughout the Middle East and North Africa -- since the time of Mohammad in the 7th Century, the region continued to have big communities of Christians and Jews as well. Some people say that the safety of Jews in Iraq and Iran began with Esther's story. More likely, it was the policy of the Prophet Mohammad who founded Islam. Mohammad decreed that the so-called People of the Book or Bible -- the Jews and Christians -- be tolerated under Islam. The policy exists with good reason since much of Islam and the Koran is based on the stories of the Hebrew and Christian Bible. And until recently, most Muslim governments have followed Mohammad's commandment to tolerate Jewish and Christian communities as long as they do not threaten Islam.

Unfortunately, this toleration has collapsed in the the last 60 years. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, its expansion into Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria in the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973,and with the massive military support for Israel by the United States, despite Israel's defiance of 40 years of United Nations' resolutions on illegal occupation, tensions between Muslim and Jewish and Muslim and Christian communities have grown.

There used to be large Jewish communities in countries like Iraq and Iran. But over the last 40 years, they have almost completely disappeared. The same thing, to a lesser extent, is true of the region's Christians. It is a sad tale told in many parts of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries -- ethnic cleansing.

Thank goodness, then, for countries like Canada where people like Reema can come and build a new life after time spent in Iraq, and England, and the U.S.

Alberta seems like a particularly great place for people to start over. I have been struck by the diversity of Didsbury in my first month here. I have met people from Holland and Switzerland and people with Mennonite roots, who might have ancestors who fled the Low Countries, to the Ukraine, to South America, to Ontario, and finally here. In fact, everybody in Alberta seems to be from someplace else. I find this quite freeing.

But back to Esther. The book tells of the dangers of being Jewish in ancient Persia; and it tells of a thrilling victory over that danger. Unlike much of the rest of the Bible, it treats the Jews more as an ethnic group than as the chosen people of God. These factors may explain the popularity of Esther, but they also some point to some problems. Yes, the Jewish people have often been threatened with genocide, as in Esther -- most notably and horribly during the Holocaust of World War II in Europe. But the reaction to such attempts at genocide can itself lead to problems.

In Esther, when the Jews received the support of King Xerxes, they went on a rampage against their enemies and supposedly killed 75,000 people. After World War II, one of the main reactions to the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust was the establishment of the state of Israel, which seems just and understandable. But Israel's development, in turn, has led to the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, many wars, much loss of life, and ongoing problems. While violent reactions and counter-reactions might be understandable, they are hardly the way forward for either Israeli Jews or Muslim and Christian Palestinians. And as news reports this week again highlight, conflicts in the Middle East continue to unfold in very scary ways.

At the Red Deer Presbytery meeting at Kasota Camp on Lake Sylvan this past Thursday, three people who had been commissioners from the United Church's 40th General Council meeting last month in Kelowna talked about their experience. One of them read the final text of the church's proposal on Israel and Palestine; and contrary to media reports, I found it to be a balanced, encouraging, and grace-filled statement. You can find it on the church's web sites, and I recommend it to interested people. But useful statements are only the smallest beginning; and the problems often seem insoluble.

The other Old Testament reading assigned for this week points in a more hopeful direction, I think. Psalm 124, like Esther, deals with violent threats to Israel. But unlike Esther, the Psalm is all about God. My guess is that the creators of the Lectionary reading lists put Psalm 124 and Esther together this week to balance each other.

This morning we are not going to solve the problems of genocide, or of nationalism, or of helping different peoples live together in peace and harmony. But as with the overall message of the Bible, we can remember that we are all beloved children of God no matter what our roots and our religion, which is a very good place to begin. And with the Psalmist, we can say "Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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