Here’s a little exercise in advanced level hermeneutics for some of you theological thinkers out there. I came across this passage the other day, and although I have read it various times in the past, the implications of what it said struck me like never before, and quite frankly, left me a bit perplexed. The passage, in case you want to know right up front, is Esther chapters 9 and 10, though I want to set the stage a bit before diving into it.
In order to help you understand what it is about this passage that causes me such consternation, let me go over a few of my interpretational presuppositions.
1. God does not change. He is, as the Bible teaches us in various places, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8; 1:12; 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalm 102:12, 25–28; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17, etc.).
2. His ways of dealing with his children, and with mankind in general, however, sometimes change in accordance with the circumstances. The clearest and most significant example of this I can think of is the difference in God’s dealings with Israel in the Old Testament and with the Church in the New Testament (independently of the view one takes on the level of continuity or discontinuity of OT Israel and the NT Church as God’s people). Though, as I understand it, both OT saints and NT disciples are ultimately saved by grace through faith in Christ (with differing levels of understanding of the details), there is a real way in which OT Israel was under the law, and we as NT believers are under grace.
3. The differences between God’s dealings with his people in the OT and in the NT have important implications for the way we as NT Christians relate to earthly structures of government. OT Israel lived under a theocracy, in which the laws of the land were dictated to a large degree by God himself. As the NT people of God, though, we live as aliens and exiles in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11; Hebrews 11:9–10; 13:13–14, etc.). As a result, we are called to live under earthly rulers and structures of government which, though ultimately receiving their authority from God (Romans 13:1), do not receive and heed God’s instructions for the way they govern in a direct way such as Moses and the OT rulers of Israel did (or at least, were expected to do). Nevertheless, as Christians, we are to be subject to the authorities that govern us and obey them, except in those cases in which what they command directly contradicts God’s commands for us (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Timothy 2:1–2; Acts 4:18–20, etc.).
4. While our circumstances in this world as NT Christians are somewhat different with regard to our relationship to earthly government from those of OT Israel, there are, nevertheless, some models in the OT of how we as NT Christians are to relate to the earthly structures of government around us. The best examples are found in those instances in which Israel found itself living as exiles in a land other than the Promised Land. This includes the 400 years of slavery in Egypt, but especially the 70 years of Judah’s captivity in Babylon, as well as the situations of those Jews who continued to live as a diaspora scattered throughout the earth following the return of others to the Promised Land. It seems to me the words of Jeremiah to the captives of Judah in Babylon are particularly apropos to us as NT believers living as aliens and exiles in a land that is not ultimately our own:
Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. (Jeremiah 29:5–7).
5. In the midst of exile, God raised up some special individuals from among the midst of his people Israel as civil servants in a regime that was not their own, and was not a theocracy, in order to have an impact for good, and to carry out in tangible and strategic ways the implications of Jeremiah’s admonition to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah are examples that readily come to mind. Based on everything up to this point, it seems reasonable to infer that Joseph, Daniel, and to some degree Nehemiah, serve as models for us as NT Christians in regard to our relationship with the governmental structures of the lands in which we live.
But what about Mordecai?
On a first read, it seems that Mordecai in many ways follows in the tradition of Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah. He is presented throughout the book of Esther as an admirable character, raised up by God as an influence for good in the midst of an ungodly society with a corrupt government. Just like Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah, as a result of his godly character, faithfulness, and the working of divine sovereignty, he came to occupy a position of considerable influence in the court of the king of a people that was not his own (Esther 10:3).
But as I read through Esther chapter 9, there are a few things that stand out to me. It seems quite clear that Mordecai, together with his niece Esther, used their newly gained influence within the court of Ahasuerus in order to exact revenge in a bloody and violent manner upon the enemies of the Jews. In some ways, the execution of Haman and of his 10 sons seems pretty much par for the course, at least from an OT perspective. They had, after all, been direct accomplices in a conspiracy to wipe out the Jews from the land. If the Bible teaches capital punishment as a general principle (and to me, it seems that it does), it appears that these men were guilty of crimes worthy of capital punishment (though this assumes some degree of co-responsibility of Haman’s sons for the deeds of their father).
What is even more troubling to me, however, is that, in addition to Haman and his sons, Esther chapter 9 narrates in an apparently approving manner the slaughter of 500 men in the palace of Shushan (v. 12), of another 300 also in Shushan (v. 15), and of another 75,000 in other provinces (v. 16), all at the hands of the Jews. Though the text does not directly state that Mordecai and Esther were directly involved in these last incidents, it is fairly clearly implied that they were in approval of what happened, and that their influence in the court was a contributing factor to what happened.
In other instances in the OT, God clearly commanded to leaders he had raised up the slaughter of other groups of people, such as the Amalekites, Canaanites, Philistines, etc. Though this has been a perennial thorn in the side for us as Christians in our apologetic efforts with our non-believing friends, I have always assumed that the specifically theocratic context in which these particular instances occurred helps to a large degree to explain what happened. God is sovereign. God is holy. God knew these pagan peoples were utterly and incorrigibly corrupt, and his purpose of establishing his holy people of Israel in the land he was giving to them demanded a cleansing of the land. It was not God’s people taking the initiative to exact vengeance upon their foes, but rather God’s servants obediently carrying out the direct command of a sovereign, holy, good, loving, all-knowing God.
Just as OT Israel, we as Christians today must in faith accept God’s commands as pure and righteous, and not argue with God, because he knows better than we do. Since we live in a different context now, though, we may rest assured that he does not intend for us to slaughter our earthly enemies in the same we he intended that OT Israel slaughter theirs. Under the NT covenant of grace, Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek. Vengeance is not ours, but the Lord’s. For similar reasons, we as Christians do not stone our rebellious teenagers to death, nor exterminate the homosexuals among us.
But where does this leave us with regard to our old friend Mordecai? Is he really such a good example for us as Christians with regard to our relationship to the state? Just like us, he wasn’t living under a theocracy, but as an exile in a land that was not his own. And if we can’t take Mordecai as a model, what basis do we have to take Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah as models with regard to how we should relate to the state?
Now I have titled this post “The Mordecai Dilemma” because I have not yet come to a satisfactory solution to the problems everything I have written up to this point present. I am hoping some of you may be able to contribute some insights as I (and any of the rest of you who share my questions regarding all this) continue to wrestle with all this.
As I see it, here are a few of the hermeneutical options we have:
1. We are not meant to take what is narrated in Esther 9 and 10 as in any way prescriptive, but merely descriptive. Though it seems as if what happened is looked upon as a good thing overall by the biblical narrator (presumably representing the perspective of God), the text itself does not absolutely demand that this is the case.
2. Mordecai is a good model for us. The 300, 500, and 75,000 enemies of the Jews who were slaughtered may be presumed to have been just as guilty of capital crimes as Haman and his 10 sons. This option, however, requires a bit of reading between the lines, and still leaves us with some troubling implications regarding how we as Christians should respond in similar circumstances today. Even if we were to find ourselves in a situation where we had the full authority of the government of the land in which we live to act in such a manner, would there ever be a time when it would be a good thing for us as Christians to round up 75,000 enemies of God’s people, even if they were guilty of capital crimes, and to have them executed en masse?
3. Though there are some positive lessons we can learn from people like Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah, and Mordecai, the situations in which they lived, although analogous to ours as NT Christians in some respects, are not the same as the situations in which we live in the NT dispensation. The message of grace that was brought to us by Jesus changes everything, and we cannot look to the OT for models with regard to how we are to live our lives in the world today, unless we also have clear NT confirmation that these models remain in force for us as Christians today.
Perhaps you see some other options. I would be interested to hear what you think. I believe how we deal with this particular passage may have some pretty significant implications for us as Christians with relation to how we deal with the authorities and authority structures of the lands in which we live.