Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Esther, Star of the OT: Part 10: The Providential Aspect

At this point, the task before us can be outlined:

(1)  We must show that Esther is not merely secular or non-religious literature (in the best inclusive sense of religious), but is actually profoundly religious in character. 

(2) We must demonstrate that the kind of theology presented in Esther is not foreign to Jewish literature as found in the rest of the Bible, but wholly compatible and consistent with it.

(3)  We must show that the book is authentic Jewish historical literature, and not merely an imitation or forgery of the same.

Lets look at number 1.   The very subtlety of Esther makes revealing its religious character a challenge.  But thankfully, many have labored in this area, and made quite a clear case that Esther as story utterly depends upon what we call God's Providence, His unseen hand working invisibly in the turn of events.
"The whole book could be taken as nothing more than chance and luck. It can be seen as a literary tale of how a young Jewish orphan just happened to become queen and be in the right place at the right time to save her people. Or is there more to it than that?"  - S. Atteberry, "God Uses Harem Girls: Esther"

A Series of Coincidences

What is a coincidence?   An unlikely coordination of circumstance.  The key word, the essence, is "unlikely".  The improbable, the unusual, the strikingly odd, and out of the ordinary, is what is meant, and what will be recognizable in a legitimate and significant 'coincidence'.

Those who understand the science of Probability Theory know that probabilities can be estimated, and calculated from other probabilities by strict rules of combination:  Probabilities are expressed as fractions between 0 and 1, and the probability of two different events happening is calculated by simply multiplying the probability of each event together.   The probability of a string of events happening is calculated by multiplying the fractional probability of each event together.

It becomes apparent that the chances of ALL the events in a long sequence happening becomes very small, even if the chances of each individual event are reasonably probable.  For instance, the chances of "heads" in a fair coin toss is 50% or as a fraction, 1/2.   The chances of flipping "heads" twice in a row however, is (1/2 x 1/2) or 1/4 (25%).   The chances of 3 in a row are (1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2) = 1/8 (12.5%), that is the overall chance is halved again.  Consequently, you have only about a 1 in 1000 chance of throwing 10 "heads" in a row!

Now look at the story of Esther:
"The book begins on a whim of a king. King Ahasuerus had given a great banquet for all the leading officials and dignitaries of his kingdom. After much revelry, the king ordered for his queen, Vashti, to be brought before everyone, so he could show her off. Vashti refused. In a fit of drunken rage Ahasuerus for all intents and purposes divorced her to set an example that wives are to obey their husbands. After he sobered up and cooled down, he realized that he had no queen. The decree could not be changed so the search began for a new queen.  All the beautiful young virgins were brought in, and one of the virgins was Esther." (ibid.

The probability of the first event happening is unknown.  We might even posit that it was inevitable, bound to happen sooner or later, given the propensities of the characters.   Technically, the probability of the event could be set to 100% (i.e., certain).  This means the first factor in our probability equation is simply 1.  This would not really yet be a 'coincidence'.  Nothing particularly unlikely here.

But Atteberry goes on to list the sequence of following events:

(1) Out of "a harem that likely numbered in the 1000s", in the first coincidence of the book she won the contest!   She found favour and was crowned queen.  It would be fair to say, since such choices are fickle, that even if beautiful or intelligent, Esther had less than a 1/100 shot in such a contest, and that may be too generous.

(2) "Mordecai found out about an assassination plot and warned Esther who told the king."  Another fortunate, but honestly unlikely occurance.  Even supposing the discovery was probable, give it less than 50-50 that it would be Mordecai who chanced to do it: 49/100.  Again we 'err' on the conservative side.

(3)  Haman rises to power, and Mordecai foolishly refuses to bow to him.  A rash act, even predictable in the sense that at least one Jew among tens of thousands might openly act in such a way (cf. Daniel).   But since it is but one person, how is it Haman determines to exterminate every Jew in the Babylonian Empire?  Even granting the first event likely, we must view the second unlikely.  Give the cause 99/100, and the effect 49/100.   Again we estimate odds cautiously.

(4)  Esther risks appearing to the King unsummoned.  Anyone who goes to the king without being called risks being killed, and the king had not sent for her for thirty days.
"This was the king who commanded the engineers of a bridge he was building be thrown off the end of the bridge when they fell behind due to a horrible storm. When a father requested this king not to send his last son off to war (he had lost his 3 other sons to this king’s war), the king commanded the last son be killed in front of the father, then had the father blinded so that was the last thing he saw. This was the king to which Esther was going, without an invitation."  (ibid)
Beautiful or not, Esther is dealing with a psycho, she's going against his second in command, and the subject matter is hardly pleasing.   We have to assess the risk negatively, even if close to 50-50, so set it again at 49/100.

(5)  "Now another coincidence happens: the king had insomnia. He commanded the book of the annals be brought to him and heard the re-telling of how Mordecai saved his life."    The reader will pardon me if I again set the probability for this event below 50-50.   The insomnia is an independent event; the narrow window for the nick of time, the luck of the reading selection, all conspire to call for a significantly negative probability for this set of events: Call it a one in three chance, again too generous, at 1/3.

What now is our estimated probability for this series of events?

1/100 x 49/100 x 99/100 x 49/100 x 49/100 x 1/3 = .0004 or 4 in 10,000!

That is, by the most generous estimate, a 0.004 % chance of occurring.

"...It is truly a book of coincidences. That is why we need Esther. Too often we think that just because there is no obvious working of God in the world that God is not working. Esther’s discreet witness says otherwise.
And we need these reminders. We need reminders that God working in our world is not always obvious—even to those in the church. We also need reminders that God uses harem girls to accomplish His purposes. Sometimes God uses the small things, the little things, the things that could be easily overlooked to accomplish His purposes.
Paul reflects this truth in 1 Cor. 1:25-29:
 'For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.   Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,   so that no one might boast in the presence of God.'
There are always those times in life when we wonder where God is. Esther reminds us that there are times that God is firmly behind the scenes, and we may not see how He has been working till well after what is taking place now. Part of our walk with God is realizing that God is with us regardless of circumstances or how we feel. The Jews had to have felt abandoned as they saw the decree that would take all of their lives. But seven years before they even realized they were going to need a deliverer, a Jewish queen came to the palace. ... God used those events to deliver his people. Even in the worst the world can throw at us, God continues to walk with us and provide ways of deliverance for His people. He walks with us through the messes as well as the celebrations.

The book of Esther seems to be driven by whims, accidents, and coincidence. But is it? The underlying, almost invisible, current running through Esther is that God is working in the world to accomplish his purposes. He can even use a harem girl and an arrogant, pagan king to do this. The book of coincidences is really a book of grace. In one of the most pagan places possible—the palace of a pagan king who does not even know that he has married a Jew, nor does he know that a decree has went out in his name to destroy his wife and her people, God is working."
Many have claimed that the content of Esther is 'unlikely'.  There is no point in denying this.  Because that actually is the point of the book.  With God nothing is impossible.  This is a theme that runs throughout all Holy Scripture, especially the O.T.   Esther goes out of its way to show the hidden hand of God in the Providential and unlikely events surrounding the Jewish people.

This is not a flaw of the book, but rather its central theme.

(to be continued)

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