Where is God when his people suffer oppression? Why does he seem hidden as ISIS and Boko Haram murder Christians? Does God ever approve of war?
God and Politics in Esther, a new book by Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony, addresses questions no less urgent today than in biblical times. Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, might be called the Jewish version of Reinhold Niebuhr or Richard John Neuhaus, two 20th-century thinkers who wrote extensively about how Christians can participate in the cities of this world while belonging ultimately to the City of God.
Hazony zeroes in on the Book of Esther, where God is never mentioned by name. In fact, he seems hidden. His people lived in an alien society (ancient Persia, today’s Iran) under despotic rulers. They often felt social and political pressure to betray their faith.
Yet God is present, if only in the shadows. Esther is the Jewish queen (formerly Hadassah) of the Persian king Ahashverosh, traditionally identified as Xerxes I. Her cousin, Mordecai, “had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives” of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. (Esther 2:6). He had adopted and helped raise Esther after she was orphaned. When Esther learned from Mordecai that Haman, the prime minister to the Persian king, was planning to annihilate all the Jews in the land, she urged the Jews in the capital to begin fasting, so as to strengthen her prayers for help. Mordecai wanted her to see God’s challenge: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (4:14)?
The challenge was formidable. Both Mordecai and Esther had to break the laws of the empire, and the penalty was death. Mordechai had refused to bow down to Haman, who, according to the rabbis, had set himself up as a god. Esther dared to enter the king’s throne room without being summoned, another capital offense.
‘God Does All and Man Does All’
God’s plan to deliver his people, Hazony argues, depended on the choices Mordecai and Esther would make. But what if they chose wrongly? Would God’s plan be scuttled and God himself frustrated? Or would he simply use others?
Hazony suggests the latter, pointing to Mordecai’s warning to Esther, “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” (4:14, emphasis added). But he also argues that if God were required to wait for others, it might have taken a long time, and thousands of Jewish lives would have been sacrificed.
This is the classic question of causation in a world of human actors under God. Does God need humans in order to realize his purposes? Or is he in such control that he can cause every human will to do whatever he pleases? If the latter, then human freedom seems jeopardized. If the former, God seems less than sovereign and omnipotent.
We know from the story that God’s plan to deliver the Jews from annihilation succeeded. But was it an act of God that overruled human freedom? Or was it an act of human courage and political genius that God observed from a distance?
Hazony argues that too often Jews (and, I would add, Christians) have treated this as an either-or question. They think that if God were in control, then humans would be mere pawns; or if humans make the right decisions, then God is merely the observer and not the cause. (Hazony maintains that this is a “God of the gaps” theory that thinks of God “intervening” occasionally to change things that otherwise go on without him.)
The biblical authors, he counters, would have none of this. Their principal metaphor for the human-divine relationship was brit, the Hebrew word for “covenant,” where God acts through human choices. Both are totally involved. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “God does all and man does all.” Edwards was paraphrasing the apostle Paul: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12-13).
Mordecai and Esther chose civil disobedience. What helps make this book so original is Hazony’s contention that civil disobedience is at the heart of Judaism. The Jewish religion was the ancient world’s only fundamental rejection of idolatry. At the heart of idolatry is moral relativism. Every idol is a local system of “truth” that acknowledges other idols for other peoples with their own systems of “truth.” Only Judaism proclaimed a universal standard of true belief and righteousness: “You shall have no other gods before Me,” says the first commandment. Murder, adultery, theft, and deceit were cosmic—not just local—wrongs. “Evil,” writes Hazony, “is everywhere a consequence of the fact that mankind ignore these principles, doing what appears right in their own eyes according to their own local perspective.”
The Jews have always been hated, according to Hazony, precisely because they reject every local system of truth. They challenge the laws of every system by insisting on their own law and their own sovereign. Hazony reminds readers that when the Jews first came into being as a people, they faced anti-Semitism. As soon as the family of Jacob in Egypt became numerous, a new Pharaoh planned to annihilate them.
Hazony suggests that this is why Muslim nations cannot abide the presence of tiny Israel in a corner of what was once the Ottoman Empire: it challenges the desire of Muslims to control their neighborhood. The Jewish state is 1/640th the size of the surrounding Arab-Islamic countries and contains 1/60th of their population. After World War I, Israel received only 17 percent of the land originally set aside for the “Jewish national home” mandated by the League of Nations in 1920. Eighty percent of that set-aside became an Arab-only state, now the country of Jordan.
Of course, Jordan and Egypt signed treaties with Israel after the Camp David Accords of 1978, and there has been an uneasy peace ever since. Yet deep hatred for Israel remains within these countries and their neighbors. Iran’s rulers have declared their determination to destroy Israel. Israel has been attacked by her neighbors every few years in its brief, 70-year existence as a modern state. Hazony says this is why Jews must always be prepared for war.
But he also points to a helpful Jewish distinction between impurity and immorality. Politics and war are both dirty. Each is necessary, usually in every generation, because of the messy business of life and the phenomenon of radical evil. To participate in either is required of some Jews (and, I would add, of some Christians). But those involved feel soiled, even when they try to do the right thing. Difficult choices are sometimes required between two bad things, one worse than the other.
Christians in those cases often think they have committed sin because of the (less) bad choices they had to make. But Hazony offers a solution from the Jewish tradition: purification, not just atonement. Only sins need to be atoned. But impurities can be purified through religious ritual. When life’s necessities make us feel dirty, it is not necessarily time to confess sin. Instead, we might need religious cleansing of what has rendered us impure. For Christians, cleansing can come by baring one’s soul to a spiritual director or a trusted friend. As Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light” (Eph. 5:13).
God Is Calling
As a Christian, I question some of Hazony’s conclusions, such as his generalization that God’s action always emerges from human choices and nature’s laws. What about God’s creation of the cosmos? Or Moses’s burning bush? Or the sun standing still when Joshua was fighting the Amorites (Josh. 10:12–13)?
And what of Hazony’s suggestion that God’s ultimate purposes can be delayed by human passivity? This would seem to imply that God’s will is sometimes frustrated. Yet Psalm 2 claims that God laughs as the kings of the earth plot against the Lord’s anointed people. He is neither threatened nor frustrated.
But of course I am a Gentile whose Christian community was not reduced by six million in just a few years. I did not have family members incinerated while millions of people did nothing to stop the Holocaust, despite God’s challenge.
Today, as ISIS and Boko Haram rampage, Christians are starting to ask Hazony’s questions. What if God calls and too few listen—and genocide ensues?
In the meantime, Hazony can help us answer the questions with which we started. God is calling men and women to speak up and not be passive. He might seem hidden, but he is calling his people, in ways often invisible to outsiders, to act. And yes, he might be calling governments to use force to stop radical evil.
Gerald McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. He is the editor of a forthcoming book, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (IVP Academic).