Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Bible Isn't An Escapist Book

We've already read Ezra and Nehemiah, two books occupied with human worries, concerns, and stresses.  The book of Esther is no different.  It's a book about survival and politics.  It is probably most famous for being the only book in the Bible that doesn't mention God a single time.  King Ahasuerus, Haman, Mordecai, and Esther are constant presences, but you have to read between the lines to find God.  To many, the absence of direct statements concerning God makes Esther a book about how God works through and in real people's lives, and I would agree.  That is the theological take away from the book of Esther, but I think there is a secondary take away too.

Many who ridicule religion in general, and Christianity in specific, point to the fact that religion acts as a psychological narcotic, and I'm not going to waste time arguing that it can't be used that way.  With people who are Christians for this reason, their religion becomes a form of emotional, psychological, or intellectual escapism.  It provides them with an alternative universe in which to hide.  The Bible then becomes a book that provides them with the stories they need to escape.  But (and this is an emphatic but), not all Christians are escapists, and you can't read the book of Esther and think that Christianity (or the Judaism we were born from) is a religion about escape.  However, it's not the lack of a direct discussion about God that makes me think this.  It's actually a little blip in Esther's story that takes place in chapter two.

In chapter two, Esther is one of many pretty virgins collected from around the world to possibly replace Queen Vashti, who lost her crown by upsetting the king.  She spends a year learning how to play the part of a future queen, both in look and behavior, but toward the middle of chapter two the king decides to begin auditioning the virgins.  Here's how that goes.  The virgins have all been living together in the harem.  At night, one of the women from the king's harem would be brought to the king's palace.  In the morning, she was picked up by a different servant, named Shaashgaz, who was in charge of the kings concubines.  Here's the kicker...there is a significant difference between a woman in the harem and a woman in the concubines.  You can go ahead and toss the PG version of an answer you might be thinking.

Sexual prowess, I don't know how you can interpret the king's auditioning method any other way.  That is not an escapist story.  That's a raw story, a real story, a story not suited for young ears.  God is present and active even in that.  I can imagine quite a few religious people having a problem with that, yet here is the book of Esther saying that God works through all people and in all situations.  God is not a prude.  God is a realist, and if his people are going to live in this world, if they are going to survive, sticking our heads in the sand and playing make believe is not going to get us very far.  Not everything in the world is as it should be.  God is here anyway.

The Bible isn't an escapist's friend.  The Bible makes us look life straight in the face and ask hard questions about what is valuable and good.  The Bible makes us look at each other with all the complexities that entails.  The Bible would be much easier if it weren't for stories like Esther, but if it were easier I wouldn't waste my time by taking it seriously.

Stopping point: Esther 10

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