Sheila and I are getting ready to do a quick series in Esther this summer, and – as usual – I’m busy soaking up the text in preparation.
Interpreting this book, it turns out, requires some serious reflection on an issue that has been the subject of a lot of discussion in my world lately. The question is this: when is an event only chance or coincidence and when does it reflect an act of God?
Esther is a book that celebrates purim, a Jewish festival that is named after the pur. Pur were clay cubes (virtually identical to modern dice) that were used by ancient pagans to discover the will of the gods. Pur were also called lots. Thus, to this day, we still refer to casting lots when we talk about taking chances and we refer to our lot in life when we want to describe the seemingly random circumstances in which we find ourselves.
At the heart of Esther is a reversal of fortune. Haaman, the bad guy in the book, uses the pur to determine the date on which the Jewish people will be destroyed. However, in the end of the story, it becomes the day on which Haaman himself (and, contextually, a long-running fued between the Jews and a race known as the Aggites) is brought to an end.
The very curious thing about Esther is that it is a celebration of events that are seemingly the result of nothing more than chance. The purportedly random events are wonderfully ironic, but – on the surface at least – they are presented only as happy coincidence.
No one prays. No one expresses trust in God. God never speaks. We are never told that God comes into the story to do anything. No one thanks or credits God for anything. Instead, a potential tradgedy is suddenly transformed into a cause for celebration as a result of seemingly ordinary, though unlikely, events.
My questions about what happens in Esther mirror my questions about the day-to-day life of myself and the people I know and love. Good, unlikely things sometimes happen. Why? How? Is God there? Is it all chance? How can we know? Why do we feel like we need to know? Why do we seem to thrive on these stories? Does it matter?
Is there also a danger in this line of thought? What about seemingly bad, random things? Is God deserving of equal credit for those as well? If God is responsible for one person getting a great parking space for a day of shopping at the mall, should we also credit God with a fatal tire-failure, which kills an infant and three children on a nearby freeway?
These are the questions I’m asking myself lately.