Esther: Speaking Truth To Power

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, songs and poetry and letters and law and histories.  The Book of Esther is a history in the sense that it records events that actually happened, but it is told in the form of a story.  The book is a short narrative of events that occurred in Persia (modern day Iran) and it features character and plot development, suspense and climax.

One of the marks of a good story writer is that he or she will “show, not tell.”  That is, rather than simply dictating conclusions about events or characters, e.g., “the king was a thoughtless man,” the good story writer will unfold the drama before the readers eyes by describing action and will let the reader form his own conclusions.  I think the writer of the Book of Esther was on to this.

Never in the story are we directly told anything about the character of King Xerxes, but as we read the story and see his actions and decisions, we may come to some pretty definite conclusions about him.

We see him first at a drunken party – one that he has put on to show off his wealth and power.  The writer gives us very particular details about the opulence of the setting and the extravagance of the event.  This party went on for days and there were servants with trays of drinks at the elbow of every guest.   From this we may get some inkling that Xerxes was a vain man – impressed with himself and intent on impressing others.

The first decision we see the king make involves his relationship with his wife

 

 

 

 

 

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Cain and Abel

So many of the stories in the Book of Genesis leave me wondering.

What is wrong, for example, with humanity gaining the knowledge of good and evil?  Isn’t that the very thing that separates us from all of the rest of creation?  We know good and evil.  We can tell right from wrong.  Seems like half of the Bible is about refining that sense and putting that knowledge into practice.  Why is that a curse?  I think I may have a better sense about this now, after having read Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I may blog on that story later.

Today I want to talk about the story of Cain and Abel.  Everybody knows this one – the first murder story.  No doubt there are many lessons that can be drawn from the story and no doubt there have been thousands of sermons preached on this text, but the thing that always struck me about this story – that left me kind of cold and unsatisfied – is that the text gives us no explanation of why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God.  It always seemed to me that such a story in such a book should at least tell us why God acted as He did in rejecting Cain’s offering.  I’m sure that preachers and scholars along the way have come up with a thousand theories in answer to that question, but I think it is fair to say that the text itself does not give us an answer and, it seems to me, is deliberately obscure or dismissive of the issue.   Here is the text:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

The omission of any mention of God’s motive or reason for rejecting Cain’s offering bothered me till now.  It bothered me because it made it seem that God was acting arbitrarily and capriciously.  Unjustly, even.  It seemed to me that there must have been some just motive or reason and that the story would have been much better as a moral lesson if we had known that reason.

But now I believe just the opposite.  I now believe that the story is more true to life and better as a moral lesson because it does not explain why Cain’s offering was rejected.  Again, I have Mr. Peterson to thank for this.

In 12 Rules, Peterson spends quite a bit of ink talking about sacrifice.  At the most profound and fundamental level, writes Peterson, sacrifice is the forgoing of some immediate pleasure or gain in the hope of a greater, future benefit.   Under such a definition, work is sacrifice!

That brings the whole matter a lot closer to home for me.  I have always viewed the sacrifice rituals in the Old Testament as a forerunner or foreshadowing to the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, I still believe exactly that.  But the idea that sacrifice – other than ritual sacrifice – is a fundamental part of every human life, including mine, made me think harder about that dynamic and gave me a different slant on the Cain and Able story.

When we go to work we are giving up immediate freedom and pleasure and involving ourselves in something that, although it may be meaningful, takes something out of us.  It absorbs our time and energy and strength and in doing work a part of us gets used up.

We do this because we have an aim or goal in mind.  Cain, ostensibly, had the goal of directly pleasing God.  This would have led to his own good – the blessing of his efforts on the farm; the growth of his family; that kind of thing is what he probably hoped for.

By the same token, we hope that our efforts – our sacrifices – will lead to God’s blessing, too.  We may have a very specific kind of blessing in mind.  We may meet and fall in love with someone and accordingly make sacrifices for them.  Our time and our effort are focused on pleasing them with the goal of winning their love.  We may have vocational goals.  And so we practice and plan and study and make decisions in favor of the pursuit of that goal that take us away from other avenues that might have led to pleasure or gain.

We may have such goals and we may work toward them and yet so often we find that our sacrifices are not accepted.  We are not blessed.  The person we fell in love with and made sacrifices for rejects us.  The medical school that we sacrificed our youth to get into rejects our application.

And when these things happen it is more common than not that we really don’t know why we have been rejected.  At least it is not obvious at first.  If the reason for our rejection had been obvious, then we would have made a different kind of sacrifice.  The common experience is that we’ve laid what we thought was our best on the line and it has simply not been enough.  The blessing we so desired is denied us.  Our sacrifice was rejected and we, like Cain in the story, are not told why.

That makes the Cain and Abel story seem true to life and something that we moderns can relate to, but what is the moral?  So Cain is rejected – no reason given – and we are often rejected in the same way.  Interesting.  But what instruction or insight for living does the story give us?

I think it is this: faith is patience in the very face of what appears to be unfair and unexplained frustration and disappointment. Faith is that which does not rebel or give up when rejected but instead waits in the humility that says that maybe I don’t know everything I thought I knew.  Maybe there is something else; something more.

This is extremely difficult, particularly when your brother’s sacrifice – which did not seem all that different from your own – was accepted.  He gets the girl.  He gets into med school.  And here you are with nowhere to go and no one to run to.  But accepting such a judgement – such a verdict – and continuing to listen and to wait and to work, that is faith.

“I Will Search Jerusalem With Candles”

 

Zephaniah 1:12

And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

 

 

We’ve spent the last two class sessions considering three passages from the Old Testament prophets that employ the metaphor of wine being “left on the lees.”  The “lees” are the dregs, that is, the sediment that drops out of the grape juice during the fermentation of the wine.   It is tempting to me to simply view the lees as something that embitters the wine and that ought to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.  But the picture is more complicated than that.  In fact, in the passage in Isaiah, it seems clear that the wine that is “on the lees” is the best wine, worthy to be served, in that instance, at the Lord’s great feast.

Leaving wine on the lees was/is a normal and beneficial part of the wine-making process.  The lees impart flavor and body to the wine.   So the idea in these passages is not so much that the wine – or the peoples for whom the wine is a symbol – has become bitter.  It is more that they have settled on their own strength.  Their own culture of security and prosperity.  They have become so strong and confident in themselves that they see no need of God.  In the passage in Zephaniah, that idea is explicit.  Then in Jerusalem, the people were so secure in their own ways that they said “in their hearts” that God will do nothing.  He will not intervene in their affairs; there will be no divine judgement.

Yesterday we talked about how this attitude – that men can walk in their own strength and way without regard to the holiness of God and without regard for His rule in the affairs of humanity – has become manifest in today’s news; news that not only powerfully demonstrates the pervasiveness of that very cavalier attitude in the high places of American culture, but the falsity of it, as well.  We may see today’s news as evidence of God’s judgement.  Evidence of the holiness of God and the righteousness of His moral law and the inevitable judgement on those who flout it.

There are too many names to list.  And any list we’d try to make here would be outdated tomorrow.  But it is safe to say that the rich and famous from almost every walk of life – broadcasting, movie- making, politics, sports and religion – are being brought to justice for their exploitation of those who are weaker and subservient to them; for their abuse of the immense power that society had invested them with.

Next week we’ll move away from the sensational sins of the rich and famous and talk instead about us regular Joes and how it may be that we settle on our own lees and what we might do to turn thing around in our own lives.

Just to be ready for next week’s class, take a look at this blog post by Rod Dreher, commenting on the philosophy of the novelist, Walker Percy.

 

Meditation on Psalm 63

 

Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice. . .

Psalm 63: 7

 

In his very helpful book Reflections on The Psalms, CS Lewis makes some allusion to the fact that many of the psalms are “attributed to David” and that some of them, particularly Psalm 18, are actually from David’s pen.  This, of course, suggests that many of the psalms that are attributed to David were actually written by someone else, perhaps long after David lived, and are aimed at capturing the drama of David’s life and the essence of his spirit.

I owe CS Lewis a great deal.  I don’t know of any other writer quite like him.  He seems to have read everything ever written and he can explain complex things clearly and precisely.  His book, Mere Christianity, found me at the right time, answered many of my questions, and changed my life.  I know that Lewis would not have made a statement like the one about the authorship of the Psalms unless he had scoured sources.  He may be right, but this is one time I don’t want to believe him.  I want to believe that the Psalms attributed to David are actually the work of his hand; his imagination; his heart.

That is particularly true of the Psalm I read this morning:  number 63.

David is a great romantic figure whose life is marked by fantastic acts of heroism and courage and horrible, deliberate actions that plagued his house down to and even after David’s own dying day.  We might think of him as a kind of rock star.  Not only was he a great military man, he was a poet (while scholars may debate which of the psalms now in the canon were actually written by David, no one denies that he did write poetry) and a musician.  Kind of a mixture of General Patton or Lee or Grant and Jackson Browne.

Psalm 63 is an intensely personal psalm, full of emotion. If we think of it as something written about David and not by David, it loses some of its punch.

This Psalm is the confession of a man who has known God personally.  So personally, in fact, that he “remembers” God as he lies awake at night.  So personally that he speaks of communion with God as the deepest satisfaction.  In worship, David’s “soul shall be satisfied as with the richest of foods.”  And this Psalm suggests that David’s knowledge of God is not based on what someone else told him about God, but rather on immediate, personal experience.  David the warrior has, time and again, acted on God’s command in the face of great odds and has been saved from his enemies, even when surrounded.

Time and again in the psalms we see reference to the protection of “the shadow of [God’s] wings.”  One is tempted to imagine how David looked at the desert landscape before him as he traveled with his band of troops.  How David may have “seen” the shadow of God’s wings covering him, protecting him, allowing him rest.

Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

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I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

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Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

Image result for whittaker chambers

 

 

He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.

Meditation on Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a poem about the heart.

 

Authorship is attributed to David, and David was a warrior and we can imagine the struggles that this psalm speaks of as being quite literal.  That is, when David speaks of his enemies, he means literal, flesh-and-blood enemies – guys who are wearing the other uniform and who are really out to kill him.

 

For most of you reading this blog –and certainly for the writer of this blog –  the enemy is not so solid and well defined.  In this leveled and paved and air- conditioned world that you and I inhabit, we may even think that the idea that we have enemies who are out to get us and who have “made us to dwell in darkness” to be a bit over dramatic, a bit exaggerated, maybe even ridiculous.

But if we give any attention to the New Testament, we must admit that we do have enemies and that they very much do want to “smite” our lives “down to the ground,” and to “make us dwell in darkness.”  Again, listen to what St. Paul says to the church in Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   Ephesians 6: 12

Likewise, the expression of desire in this psalm should not be strange to us.  David is sure of  the object of his desire.  That object is God: “my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.”   We may not be so sure of the object of our desire, but if we are honest with ourselves and if we have not hidden it beneath some wall of self-deception, we must admit that we want and want very badly something that nothing in this world can satisfy.

That is why this psalm continues to resonate with men and women even in this modern age.  Even among those of us who are privileged to live in secure democracies and in peaceful neighborhoods where we are not threatened physically; even those of us who have every convenience and entertainment.   Even we desire; even we hunger and thirst, like a thirsty land.  Here is C. S. Lewis:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

 

When David writes that “my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate” we should have little trouble relating to him.  We should know.  If we have attempted anything at all – a career, a marriage, the raising of children – we know that we are opposed and powerfully so.  We know that we can be defeated; we can be crushed; we can be depressed.  We know that our desires always outstrip the satisfactions that this earthly life affords.

And so, this psalm is our psalm, and we pray with David, the warrior:

Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You.

Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
In You I take shelter

God As Initiator

Oh Lord, thou hast searched me and known me . . .

Psalm 139: 1

I’ve been posting lately about self-deception, how it obstructs our relationship with God, our knowledge of God.  And I have emphasized how deep and involved these deceptions often are and I have at last said that our way out of these prisons we make for ourselves does not lie in ourselves.  That is to say, once we make our own trap, we can’t get out of it by ourselves.

Then this morning, in my devotional reading, I ran across this old poem that says the same thing.  The poet, Francis Thompson, says it much better than I have.  But, it is comforting to me to see the same theme expressed by a great writer.  Makes me more confident that what I am saying is true.  Here is the quote from the poem “The Hound of Heaven:”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him