Where is God in this crazy political season? Why does he seem hidden as ISIS and Boko Haram murder Christians? Does God ever approve of war?
Christians can help themselves answer these questions by reading a new book by Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. Hazony might be called the Jewish version of Reinhold Niebuhr or Richard John Neuhaus, two thinkers who in the past century helped millions of Christians understand how to participate in the cities of this world while also being citizens in the City of God.
In God and Politics in Esther (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Hazony suggests compelling answers to these questions by a reading of the Old Testament that will be new for most Christians. At the same time it will provoke and intrigue them. He zeroes in on the book of Esther, which the rabbis said is one of the two parts of the Old Testament that should never be abolished (the other is the Pentateuch) and is the key to understanding miracles.
Most Christians know that in Esther the word “God” is never mentioned. In fact, God seems hidden. His people lived in an alien society (ancient Persia, today’s Iran) ruled by a despotic government. They often felt social and political pressure to comply with norms that were inimical to their faith.
Yet the presence of God in this story is in the shadows, as it were. Esther is the Jewish queen (formerly Hadassah) of the Persian king Ahashverosh, traditionally identified as Xerxes I (6th century BC). Mordechai her cousin “had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives” of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC (Esther 2:6). He had adopted and helped raise Esther after she had been 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 sent word to the Jews in the capital to fast for her. Readers of the Bible know that the purpose of the fast was to strengthen her prayers for help to the God of Israel. Her cousin exhorted her to realize that God was challenging her to help her people: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14b)
The challenge was formidable. Both Mordechai and Esther had to break the laws of the empire, and the penalty was death. Mordechai had dared to refuse to bow down to Haman, who, according to the rabbis, had set himself up as a god. Esther dared to enter the the king’s throne room without being summoned, another capital offense.
God’s plan to deliver his people, Hazony argues, depended on the choices Mordechai and Esther would make. But what if they were to make the wrong choices? Would God’s plan be scuttled and God himself frustrated? Or would he simply use others?
Hazony suggests the latter, pointing to Mordechai’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” (4:14a). But Hazony also argues that if God were required to wait for others from another place, it might have taken a long time, and thousands of Jewish lives would have been sacrificed in the meantime.
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 of every human will that he can cause it to do whatever he pleases? If it is the latter, then human freedom seems jeopardized. If it is 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, as it were?
Hazony argues that too often Jews (and I would add, Christians) have treated this as a zero-sum game. They think that if God were in control, then humans would be mere pawns. Conversely, they reason, 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 in causation was brit, the Hebrew word for “covenant,” where God emerges from human choices. Another way of putting this is to say that God acts through human choices. God and his human creatures are partners. Both are totally involved in human action. 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 [here is human freedom], for God is at work in you both to create desire and then enable you to carry out the desire [here are God and humans both acting in freedom]” (Phil 2:12-13, my translation).
Mordechai 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, for 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 system of belief and behavior that rejected local truths in principle: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Murder, adultery, theft and deceit were cosmic—not just local—wrongs: “Evil 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” (43).
This rejection of every local system of truth is why Jews have always been hated, according to Hazony. They challenge the laws of every totalizing system by insisting on their own Law and their own sovereign. Hazony reminds his 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 in the first attempted Final Solution.
Hazony suggests that this is why Muslim nations cannot abide the presence of the tiny state of Israel in a corner of what was once the Ottoman Empire: she challenges the desire of Muslims to control their neighborhood. The Jewish state is 1/640th the size of the surrounding Arab-Islamic countries, and she has 1/60th of their population. After World War I she was awarded only 17% of the land originally set aside for the “Jewish national home” mandated by the League of Nations in 1920.[i] Eighty percent of that set-aside was given to Arabs as 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 below the surface in 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 the seventy years of her short 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, we would add, of some Christians), and will make those involved feel soiled, even when they try to do the right thing. For 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. Impurities need to be purified through religious ritual. But only sins need to be atoned. 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.
My Christian perspective makes me question some of Hazony’s conclusions, such as the generalization that God’s action always emerges from human choices and nature’s laws. What about God’s creation of the cosmos? Or Moses’ 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? The implication seems to be that God is sometimes frustrated. Yet Psalm 2 claims that God laughs as the kings of the earth plot against the Lord’s anointed and his people. This seems to be a God who is neither threatened or 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 God was presumably challenging millions of people to stop the Holocaust and too many of them did nothing.
Today Christians are starting to ask Hazony’s questions. What if God calls and too few listen, so that a Christian genocide ensues?
In the meantime Hazony can help us answer the questions with which we started. God is calling men and women in this crazy political season to speak up and not be passive. He might seem hidden while ISIS and Boko Haram rampage, but he is calling his people, in ways that are often invisible to outsiders, to act. And yes, he might be calling some to use force to stop radical evil.
[i] The Mandate consisted of what is today’s Jordan (approximately 35,640 square miles), Israel (8,019 square miles), Gaza (139 square miles) and the West Bank (2,263 square miles).