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Theology, Paradox, and Purim
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B"H  Adar 10, 5770

Theology, Paradox and Purim

Further thoughts on Purim

THE THEME OF THE HOLIDAY OF PURIM (פּוּרִים) is the providential survival of the Jewish people despite various attempts by their enemies to destroy them.  As such, Purim (like Passover) is a celebration of the deliverance and faithfulness of the LORD God of Israel.  The terrible irony of the anti-Semite is that he hangs himself using his own rope. The tragic character of Haman, then, represents the Biblical archetype of all those who refuse to acknowledge God's faithful love for the Jewish people....

On the Torah's calendar, both the last month of the year (Adar) and the first month (Nisan) center on the theme of God's salvation.  In Adar we celebrate Purim, and 30 days later we celebrate Passover... However Purim, unlike Passover, celebrates the "hiddenness" of God's actions. There is no dramatic power encounter; no parting of the Red Sea, no cataclysmic judgments with Purim.  This is suggested by the name of the Book of Esther itself, Megillat Ester (מְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר), since the word megillah ("scroll") is related to the word giluy (גִּלּוּי), "revelation," and the name Esther is related to the word hester (הֶסְתֵר), meaning "hiddenness."  The phrase hester panim (הֶסְתֵר פָּנִים) means "hiding of face" and is often used when discussing the role of God in the Book of Esther.  God's plan is being fulfilled, step-by-step, even if it is hidden within the "natural" world of human beings and their choices (Jer. 10:23; Prov. 21:1).

Though the Name of God is not explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, the story is essentially about revelation, that is, the disclosure of God's Presence despite His apparent concealment (this is implied in the life of Esther herself, who lived an "assimilated life" but later revealed her identity to the king). Throughout the story what initially appears to be the result of mere "chance" or human contrivance is later revealed to be an integral part of God's plan of deliverance. God's unseen hand overrules the decisions of each of the characters of the story, as can be seen in some of the following examples:
 

  1. By "chance" Queen Vashti inexplicably defied King Ahashuerus, which set off the search for a new queen of Persia (Esther 1:10-22; Prov. 21:1).
  2. By "chance" a beautiful Jewish girl named Hadasah (הֲדַסָּה), whose Persian name was Esther (אֶסְתֵּר), was the niece of Mordechai, a leader of the Jews of Persia who served in the king's palace in Shushan (Esther 2:5)
  3. By "chance," of the countless young women in Persia, Esther was ultimately chosen to be Persia's new queen during the month of Tevet (Esther 2:4,9, 16-17).
  4. By "chance" Mordechai overheard the conspiracy against King Ahashuerus, and Esther's presence in the palace allowed him to warn the king about the assassination plot (Esther 2:21-23).
  5. By "chance" king Ahashuerus promoted Haman, a descendant of Amalek, to be vizier of Persia (Esther 3:1), a man Mordechai could not honor based on the Torah's explicit commandments (Exod. 17:8-16, Deut. 25:17-19).
  6. By "chance" the king's servants provoked Haman to see whether Mordechai's commitment to his Jewish faith would overrule the king's decree (Esther 3:3-6). This confrontation set in motion Haman's evil plan to destroy the Jews of Persia according to the outcome of the pur (lot) cast by the king's magicians (Esther 3:7).
  7. By "chance" king Ahashuerus agreed to Haman's plan to exterminate the Jews on Adar 13th, the result of the magician's dice (Esther 3:8-15, Prov. 16:33).
  8. By "chance" Esther was the only one able to directly thwart Haman's plot.  As Mordechai said: "And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).
  9. By "chance" the king was in a receptive mood when Esther came to appeal to him to repeal the evil decree and agreed to attend her banquet (Esther 4:11,16, 5:2-8).
  10. By "chance" Haman's wife Zeresh suggested that a gallows be built to hang Mordechai - the very gallows from which Haman would later hang (Esther 5:14).
  11. By "chance" the king slept badly one night so that he ordered the royal chronicle to be read to him (Esther 6:1).
  12. By "chance" the king came across the record of Mordechai's meritorious service (Esther 6:2).
  13. By "chance" Haman entered to request that Mordechai be hanged upon the gallows precisely when the king was thinking about how to reward Mordechai (Esther 6:3-5).
  14. By "chance" Zeresh foretold Haman's fall at the hands of the Jews just before Haman was called to attend the second banquet (Esther 6:13-14).
  15. By "chance" Haman fell on the bed with Esther just as the king returned to the banquet room (Esther 7:8).
  16. By "chance" the king decreed that Haman be hanged on the gallows he erected to hang Mordechai and bequeathed all of Haman's property to Esther (Esther 7:9-10; 8:1). Mordechai was promoted to be the new vizier of Persia (Esther 8:15, 10:3).
  17. By "chance" the new decree of the king caused fear to spread among all of Persia so that Haman's plan was routed (Esther 8:17; 9:1-2). The Jewish people furthermore were able to exterminate thousands of anti-Semites throughout the empire, including the ten sons of Haman (Esther 9:6-16).
  18. By "chance" the Jews of Persia rested on the 14th of Adar and declared it a holiday for celebrating and rejoicing (though the Jews of Shushan rested on the 15th of Adar (Esther 9:17-22). This holiday is called Purim, the plural form of pur, meaning "lot" or dice (Esther 9:26-28). "And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed" (Esther 9:28).


The term hashgachah pratit (הַשְׁגָּחָה פְּרָטִית) refers to God's personal supervision of our lives (hashgachah means "supervision," and pratit means "individual" or "particular").  Since He is the Master of the Universe, God's supervision and providence reaches to the smallest of details of creation - from subatomic particles to the great motions of the cosmos. God not only calls each star by its own name (Psalm 147:4), but knows each particular lily and sparrow (Matt. 6:28-30, 10:29). Each person created in the likeness of God is therefore under the direct, personal supervision of God Himself -- whether that soul is conscious of that fact or not. As Yeshua said, even the hairs on your head are all numbered (Matt. 10:30). The God of Israel is called אלהֵי הָרוּחת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר / Elohei ha-ruchot lekhol-basar: "The God of the spirits of all flesh" (Num. 16:22), and that means He is LORD even over those who vainly attempt to suppress His Presence and reality.
 

"Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?
declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth?"
(Jer. 23:24)

 
A midrash says, "God appoints an angel and tells it to cause a blade of grass to grow. Only then does that tiny blade flourish" (Bereshit Rabbah). There are no coincidences in God's universe; no "chaos theory," no "butterfly effect" apart from His hand.  Often seemingly senseless or difficult circumstances disguise a hidden good. Therefore the person of faith affirms gam zu le'tova ("this too, is for the best") and acknowledges that everything that happens to us comes from heaven (see Rom. 8:28). For more on this, see the meditation entitled "Paradox and Presence."

Hashgachah pratit refers to God's overarching rule and sovereign purposes over all the details of the universe -- including the details of human agency.  There is elaborate discussion about how God's decrees (gezerah merosh) do not contradict free will (bechirah chofshit) in rabbinic literature. In general, the sages decided that hashgachah refers to events we can't control, whereas it's our responsibility to make godly choices. This compatibilism became enshrined in the maxim: "Everything is foreseen by God, yet free will is granted to man" (Pirkei Avot 3:19).

In the Brit Chadashah (New Testament), the concept of hashgachah pratit goes even further, into the murky realm of "predestination."  The word Greek word translated as "predestination" is proorizo (προορίζω), a compound comprised of προ- (before) and oριζω (appoint, decree, limit [as in a horizon]). This word occurs in Rom. 8:29,30; Eph. 1:5,11, Acts 4:28 and 1 Cor. 2:7 (note that this word is different than the word used for divine foreknowledge (προγινωσκω)). Predestination denotes that God has determined certain things to occur ahead of (our current) time -- for example, the facts surrounding prophecies, though more personally, the decision that God sovereignly chooses (elects) certain individuals to be recipients of His deliverance and salvation.

Regarding the idea of God's election, Yeshua told us that we must be "born again" in order to "see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). This spiritual rebirth is a divine act, "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). Yeshua also told his followers: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you" (John 15:16). He also said, "No one can come to me (δυναται ελθειν προς με) unless the Father who sent me drags [ἑλκύσῃ] him" (John 6:44, 6:65). We are not chosen by God (eklektos) because we chose Him, but rather because He chose us. God is always preeminent.  Plainly put, a person is "saved" by being drawn by God's sovereign design and love (John 6:44). God is the initiator of the relationship; He is the Master and Ruler over all flesh. If there is revelation from heaven, it is Heaven's prerogative to bestow it on Heaven's own terms...

The state of soul before spiritual rebirth is described as a sort of "living death." We were dead to things of the Holy Spirit, unable to respond to the truth of God, incapable of gaining access to life.  Our carnal minds were at war with God. We were powerless to impart spiritual life to ourselves since this life comes from God alone.  Spiritual life is ontological -- a real "mode" of existence -- that given to us solely by God Himself. Spiritual rebirth is not an exercise in moral reformation or self-improvement. We don't get to "elect ourselves" into the Kingdom of Heaven or become a child of God by raising our hand at a prayer meeting or performing various meritorious acts... No. New life is given through the exclusive agency of God Himself. God alone gives salvation to the soul...  God alone is the Master of the Universe and everything belongs to Him -- now and forever -- and that most especially concerns those for whom He came to redeem (John 6:44, 65).

The Apostle Paul taught that God "chose us [εκλεγομαι] in the Messiah before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4). God called you by name -- before He created the very universe itself. "God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth" (2 Thess. 2:13). God loves you with an "everlasting love" (אַהֲבַת עוֹלָם) and with lovingkindness (i.e., chesed, חֶסֶד) draws you to Himself (Jer. 31:3). There is no fear in God's sovereign and irresistible love for your soul (1 John 4:18). "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31).

There is great comfort when we understand that God has complete authority over everything in the universe -- including our ultimate welfare (John 10:27-28). When we pray to the LORD God of Israel, we intuitively understand that He is completely sovereign and Lord over all things...  All power, glory, authority, and dominion is His alone, and all that is in the heaven and in the earth is His (1 Chron. 29:11-12). We do not worry that He is incapable of handling our troubles or that He is unable to help us. No, we acknowledge that the God most High (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) sustains all things by the Word of His power (Col. 1:17). He is "the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings (מֶלֶךְ הַמְּלָכִים) and the Lord of lords" (1 Tim. 6:15). Whenever we think clearly in light of the revelation of Scripture, we apprehend the truth about God's sovereign glory and power...
 

לְךָ יְהוָה הַגְּדֻלָּה וְהַגְּבוּרָה וְהַתִּפְאֶרֶת וְהַנֵּצַח וְהַהוֹד
כִּי־כל בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ לְךָ יְהוָה הַמַּמְלָכָה
וְהַמִּתְנַשֵּׂא לְכל לְראשׁ

le·kha · Adonai · ha-ge·du·lah · ve'ha-gevurah · ve'ha-tiferet · ve'hanetzach · ve'ha-hod,
ki-khol · ba-sha·ma·yim · u'va'a·retz · lekha · Adonai · ha-mamelakhah
ve'hamitnaseh · lekhol · le'rosh

 

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the beauty and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. (1 Chron. 29:11)



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In speaking of the remnant of Israel (she'arit Yisrael) that kept covenant with God, the Apostle Paul contrasts the "children of the flesh" with the "children of the promise." Paul used the case of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob to demonstrate God's sovereign election. "Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad - in order that God's purpose of election might stand (ἵνα ἡ κατ᾽ ἐκλογὴν πρόθεσις τοῦ θεοῦ μένῃ) - not because of works but because of His call - she (Rebecca) was told, 'The older will serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'" (Rom. 9:11-12). Paul anticipated the objection that God's election of Jacob over Esau seems arbitrary -- perhaps even unfair -- by reminding us of God's words to Moses: "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" / וְחַנּתִי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אָחן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם (Rom. 9:15). He then follows this up with the statement: "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy" (Rom. 9:15-16). Paul then applies this principle to the case of Pharaoh by quoting Exodus 9:16, "For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth" (cp. Rom. 9:17). Paul concludes: "So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." (For more, see "Hardening of Heart" in the Torah section.)

In the end, we are left with paradox.  On the one hand, God alone is the sole agent for salvation, but on the other hand we are responsible (at least from the phenomenological point of view) for genuinely responding to God's call... God elects and predestines who will be saved and we must personally choose to receive the Mashiach and follow Him with all our hearts. We are sovereignly chosen to freely choose to live for God... (Phil. 2:12-13).

Reflection on the doctrine of God's omniscience (like other essential doctrines of our faith) leads to paradox and tension within our human understanding (by means of which we are deepened in our surrender to the LORD and His will for our lives). This paradox is restated in Philippians 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (your part), for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (God's part).  As the prophet Isaiah wrote:  "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9).

Many people think of "freedom" as the ability to do what they want, when they want to, and according to their own immediate gratification. "Doing your own thing" is the catch phrase of those who want to be able to pursue their own desires (i.e., lusts) without resorting to any source of moral or spiritual authority...

This worldly freedom is not true freedom, however. Yeshua told us that "whoever commits sin is the slave (δουλος) of sin" and went on to say that "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:34-36). True freedom is moral and spiritual rather than physical. Freedom has to do with the ability of the will to choose according to the light of moral and spiritual truth. This freedom, however, is further constrained by the nature or quality of being itself.  In other words, freedom is a product of heart that acts according to its particular nature.... When we are born from above, God gives us a new nature and makes us into new creations (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15). We are able to please God through the love He gives us through our union with Yeshua.

Purim is all about God's irrepressible, undefeatable, insuperable and sovereign love for His people.  Though the wicked seem to sometimes have the upper hand in olam ha-zeh (this present hour), we need not fret or become anxious (Psalm 37:1, Prov. 24:19, Phil. 4:6). God is in control and His love and purposes overrule the counsel of the wicked.  He will one day speak to the princes of this dark world in His wrath and terrify them in His fury (Psalm 2:5). God's great vision for Zion, the "City of the Great King," will never fail, chaverim, nor will His love for those who are trusting in Him. God's sovereign love is our great hope. As King David said, בָּרְכוּ־נָא אֶת־יהוה אֱלהֵיכֶם / Barekhu-na et-Adonai Elohekhem: "Now bless the LORD your God" (1 Chron. 29:20). פּוּרִים שָׂמֵחַ / Purim Sameach: "Happy Purim!"


 

"And these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed" (Esther 9:28)

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