Biblical Justice, Let's Talk About...
Esther and the 2nd Amendment
March 22, 2018
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The story of Esther in the Bible has it all. An exotic location. A powerful king. A sinister villain. And a breathtakingly beautiful heroine.
It's a rags-to-riches love story about an orphaned girl who becomes queen of the most powerful empire on earth.
It's a political thriller filled with palace intrigue, assassination attempts, whispered conspiracies, jealousy, revenge, and unpredictable plot twists.
It's the story of God's chosen people, marginalized, oppressed, and facing literal genocide. In their darkest hour, all hope is lost. Then, they are unexpectedly SAVED...just in the nick of time!
The Book of Esther truly reads like a Hollywood movie script.
If you haven't read the book in a while, I encourage you to do so, as I did for the first time in a long time just a few days ago. And you will find something absolutely astounding.
GOD DOES NOT SUPERNATURALLY SAVE HIS PEOPLE
In Genesis, God spoke directly to Noah, told him how to build the ark, brought the animals to him, and miraculously saved His people. During the life of Joseph, God miraculously saved His people from starvation by giving Joseph the supernatural ability to see the future in dreams. When the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, God Himself bombarded Pharaoh with plagues, then literally split the Red Sea in half to save His people. In the wilderness, in the conquest of the Promised Land, in the time of the judges and kings, again and again God miraculously intervened to save His chosen people from destruction.
And yet, in the time of Esther, God did not act. (Fun trivia fact: God is not even mentioned in the entire Book of Esther.) The King of Persia was tricked into signing a law giving the enemies of the Jews the legal authority to murder every single Jew in the world and steal their property. Murder. Every. Single. Jew. Dead. If there was ever a time for God to arrive on the scene with powerful miracles to save His people...this would have been the time!
ESTHER DID NOT SAVE HER PEOPLE EITHER
"But," you might be saying, "God raised up Esther for such a time as this to save the Jews." I respond by pointing out that Esther did not save them either. She had to be prodded into action by her uncle Mordecai. Sure, Esther took a risk by approaching the king to plead for her people. But in the end, she was the adored wife of the king. He was not likely to order her death simply because she visited him unannounced. In reading the story, King Xerxes actually seems pleased to see Esther approach him. Why wouldn't he be pleased to see the most beautiful woman in his empire! Furthermore, we shouldn't be surprised that the king heard Esther's plea, since he had been swindled into signing the genocidal law in the first place.
No, we really can't credit Esther (or even Mordecai) with saving the Jewish people. They played their part. But considering all the other facts presented in the story, we shouldn't be surprised that King Xerxes receives Esther warmly and agrees to act on her behalf.
KING XERXES DID NOT SAVE THE JEWISH PEOPLE
By now you've guessed that we also cannot give the credit for saving God's people to King Xerxes either. Certainly, there are many bold actions he could have taken. He could have tried to revoke his previous law permitting the genocide of the Jews; although the Book of Esther makes it pretty clear that a Persian law, once passed, could not be revoked. In that case, the king could have dispatched his soldiers, governors, and law-enforcement officials to protect the Jews. But he didn't do that either. Alternatively, the King could have signed a new law, making it illegal for a private citizen to carry a sword, spear, or weapon of any kind within the Persian empire, creating the world's first (and biggest) "Weapon Free Zone." But that didn't happen either.
In fact, King Xerxes actually handed over the decision of what to do to Esther and Mordecai. He gave them his official ring and said, "You guys can write whatever law seems best to you." No, King Xerxes does not get the credit.
What then saved the Jews? What kind of law did Esther and Mordecai write to save God's people from annihilation? To what principle did they turn for salvation?
THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS...
In case you don't believe me, read it for yourself. Esther 8:9-13. Esther and Mordecai turned to the fundamental principle of self-defense, the right of human beings to protect their families, their neighbors, and their property from attack. The right to use force, even deadly force, if necessary. Obviously, in order to do so, the people would have to be armed at least as well as their attackers. Esther and Mordecai wrote the Persian equivalent of the 2nd Amendment. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Numerous Scripture passages make it clear that self-defense is permitted, in proportion to the danger. Exodus 22:2-3 and Luke 22:36-38 are examples. The Sixth Commandment, in its prohibition of murder, also carries with it the affirmative command to protect the weak, the marginalized, and the innocent. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 107 enlightens us by stating that when our neighbor faces harm from an attacker, "God wants us...to protect them from harm as much as we can." This natural law of self-defense (and even more importantly, the defense of our neighbor) is strongly supported by Scripture and by our Reformed teachings.
REPLACE FEAR WITH KNOWLEDGE
Gun control and the 2nd Amendment are controversial topics, but we should not be afraid to discuss them. I wrote this blog knowing that many Christian Reformed readers probably oppose guns, and favor gun control. I get that. If you're in that place, I encourage you to seek out a family member, friend, or member of your church who is a responsible hunter or concealed-carry holder. Be honest with them. Tell them you would like to learn more about guns. Ask them to attend a "Hunters' Safety Class" with you, an essential start to learning firearms safety, even if you never plan on hunting. After completing the safety course, ask this person to take you to a shooting range or their favorite target shooting site for an hour. Actually fire a few guns. Ask questions. You might find that you enjoy it. And the knowledge you gain about firearms will begin to replace your fear of them.
In the end, people who personally oppose guns may not change their minds. That's OK. But those people should not unfairly attempt to bind the consciences of others, or restrict their neighbors' God-given ability to defend themselves and others. Likewise, those of us who read Scripture and see a clear endorsement of the right to keep and bear arms should not think less of our brothers and sisters whose consciences are not comfortable with weapons, and should be sensitive to their viewpoint.
Scripture is clear. We are called to love our neighbors. That means being prepared to protect them.
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What a delightful article.
That Scripture, examined in context and as a whole, does not condemn what we today might call the rights of "self-defense" or "defense of others" (legal concepts having their basis, as US law does, in the worldview of Christianity) is not an automatic conclusion drawn by Christians these days, even CRC ones, even if it once was.
This article should be posted on the Do Justice site.
But then there is Jesus' response to "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth" and "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy" in Matthew 5:38-48. I would prefer to take my direction from Jesus who fulfilled the law rather than trying to argue that the Persian law described in Esther is normative for our context.
Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. To pretend that we can pit one part of Scripture against another and "take" the parts we "prefer" is to deny the Truth of the wholeness of the Word of God, correct?
Eye for eye was about vengeance, and had been perverted by the Pharisees. Jesus was not speaking of self defense in that passage. Loving your enemy is not a universal command to allow wicked men to take innocent life. Such a reading is not consistent with the rest of scripture. Should we allow a stranger to attack and kill a child while we stand by idly under the guise of loving our enemy?
I also don't think that Dan was arguing that a Persian law was normative, per se, but that the law recognized a normative principle based on the protection of innocent human life and was also in keeping with the testimony of scripture in other places.
Wow, this is quite something. I have no idea how you were able to draw this conclusion from reading the book of Esther.
When reading it in its entirety, I see in chapter 3 what Haman's decree was:
8 Then Haman approached King Xerxes and said, “There is a certain race of people scattered through all the provinces of your empire who keep themselves separate from everyone else. Their laws are different from those of any other people, and they refuse to obey the laws of the king. So it is not in the king’s interest to let them live. 9 If it please the king, issue a decree that they be destroyed, and I will give 10,000 large sacks[c] of silver to the government administrators to be deposited in the royal treasury.” (NLT)
In short, Haman ordered a genocide of the Jewish people living at that time. This is pretty serious stuff and did require some pretty serious actions to be taken in order to prevent this. So yes, when we read Mordecai's 'response' to this decree, we understand why it says: "11 The king’s decree gave the Jews in every city authority to unite to defend their lives. They were allowed to kill, slaughter, and annihilate anyone of any nationality or province who might attack them or their children and wives, and to take the property of their enemies." Later on in chapter 8 we read "16 The Jews were filled with joy and gladness and were honored everywhere. 17 In every province and city, wherever the king’s decree arrived, the Jews rejoiced and had a great celebration and declared a public festival and holiday. And many of the people of the land became Jews themselves, for they feared what the Jews might do to them."
So, does this book/bible story make a good argument for the 2nd Amendment, as Dan puts forth? I really can't see how. Does this make a good argument for countries to 'arm' themselves, via the military, in order to protect their nation and its people? Yes, I could agree with this. Perhaps this sounds like the same thing but to me, they are different. I'd also tend to agree that IF we see this text as Dan sees it, we need to also look at Jesus' words as Terry points out. What does it look like today to truly love our enemies? To turn the other cheek? When are these responses applicable and when are they not? When is it okay to take another man's life? These are the questions I wrestle with as a follower of Christ. I have not found any simplistic answers for these, and I likely never will.
Now I'm the one who is asking, "How could you arrive at your idea from reading the Book of Esther?"
You say the principles found in Esther "make a good argument for countries to arm themselves," but not for the ordinary, every day citizens to also keep and bear arms. So...is that what happened in the story? Did the army of Persia protect the Jews? King Xerxes certainly could have ordered his soldiers to protect the Jews. But he didn't.
Getting back to the fundamental question I posed: Does Scripture contain the principle found in our 2nd Amendment, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms"?
You may not personally agree with that principle. That is a matter of your own personal conscience. But you don't get to ignore the fact that the principle exists within Scripture, nor can your own personal preference bind the consciences of your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Hello Dan, a wise person once said to me, " The Bible was written FOR you, for TO you". When I reflected on this for a long time (over 2 years!), I understood what he meant. I fear the path that leads any of us who try to interpret the Bible to bolster our argument on a certain topic and to help us rally other Christians to agree with us. It almost puts our ways before God's ways. We know and have been taught OVER and OVER again that all of Scripture needs to be read and studied in the proper context.
An article I read yesterday said, "Many of us want simple black-and-white bumper-sticker-worthy statements from the Bible. We want them because they’re clear. They sound final and authoritative. Mostly, we want them because we don’t want to do the hard work of living with the Bible, and letting God to teach us, through an ongoing engagement with this powerful book." (http://www.marcalanschelske.com/use-the-bible-wrong/). I tend to agree with the author.
If we begin to apply every verse in the Bible to the way we live our lives today, this would make for chaos, inside and outside the church! I don't even need to go into the thousands of examples, particularly ones from the OT. So when using the Book of Esther to bolster a "2nd Amendment" argument, I wonder if this is another time when using Scripture to back up our own thoughts and views is inappropriate.
I'll continue to wrestle with this and thanks for your input and thoughts on this Dan! God's blessings to you as you grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,
I don't like bumper sticker theology either, that is, drawing simplistic truths from out of context "proof texts." But then there is the opposite problem too, refusing to extract any truth at all from scripture (except that we "must all love each other," ironically an example of simplistic proof texting).
Take the year of jubilee. Some want to simplistically apply that to 21st century politics (maybe theonomists, or opposite that some social justice fans). Others ignore it as the OT (just not applicable anymore). I think the principle in the year of jubilee should inform us (whether as to how we do government or personal living), but not be a particular formula.
I think this article hits the sweet spot of interpreting OT rather well. It extracts a generalized principle (self-defense and defense of others is allowed, good and proper), without getting too specific (e.g., that we should adopt Persian law or that we may arm ourselves only with swords and spears but not guns).
I do understand why some would fail to see the principle translation of the Esther story to the 2nd Amendment, but if they do, I think it is because they don't (or won't) understand the argument dominantly made by 2nd Amendment fans. Other than using guns for extracurriculars like hunting or sport (which many also abhor), 2nd Amendment fans want the right to have guns to defend themselves and (usually more important to them) their families. If we assume the latter motivation, Esther provides an pretty spot on scriptural principle for extraction.
Of course, if you assume 2nd Amendment fans are bullies or tough guys that like to swagger by their armament display ...... well, Esther doesn't help at all, and doesn't seem to apply to today.
I don't own a gun, never have. But my sense of the many people who do -- that sense gained from my living with them -- is that they don't want guns to be bullies or show swagger. In fact, I find gun owners to be, statistically speaking, a group that has perhaps an extra dose of feeling responsible to live with personal integrity and to be responsible, including to others.
I don't get all this 2nd Amendment stuff. Maybe because I lived outside the US for too long. Honestly, when scripture says that swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks I figure that will be the end of every Smith and Wesson and every AR-15. I'm not too interested in getting attached to the stuff built and made for killing.
As for the Esther story. That certainly seems to be a 2nd Amendment situation. The government was seeking to overcome a certain segment of the population. The 2nd Amendment insured citizens the right to keep and bear arms in the event of a hostile and overbearing government. States did not want the Federal government to usurp its authority.
What I don't understand is the connection between the 2nd Amendment and general self-defense. I do not have the "right" to kill my neighbor - that's the way scripture refers to anyone who is not me. (For example, love your neighbor.) Rather, says Jesus, I have the obligation to turn the other cheek, to pray for them, and so forth. The "sword" is in the hands of the governing authorities to keep all in line with the law (Rom 13:4).
Further, the Luke 22 passage you site seems removed from its context. Jesus is warning of the days that are to come and, it seems to me, speaks in hyperbole. "You better get yourself a gun." The disciples say, "Well we've got a few AR-15's in our stock pile, is that enough." Jesus says that's enough. Really. If the days are coming that Jesus is warning against and he really wants us to "defend" ourselves then 2 swords and any number of AR-15s will never be enough. In fact, when the authorities come to arrest Jesus (just a few verses later) and Peter whips out his sword to defend Jesus, Jesus says, "No more!" Huh? I thought Jesus just told his disciples to get a sword to resist just such tyranny? And now he says desist! Which is it going to be? What is the way of Jesus?
I know how I understand the way of Jesus. As Terry Woodnorth said, it's the way of love and praying, even for enemies who want to break into my house or attack the people I love. Even when my enemies nail me to a cross I pray, "Father, forgive them." Nobody said living the way of Jesus would be easy. Neither have I understood that living the way of Jesus gave me a "right" to have a gun to kill someone else. That's why the way of Jesus for me and my house has nothing to do with any form of gun. Because, after all, they will all end up in the same place. Shaped into John Deere tractors and garden hoes.
I can understand Christians who take the position that they ought not avail themselves of any kind of "self defense" right (or permission).
The tougher case is "defense of others." If your home was burglarized and the invaders were inclined to kill your wife and four kids, would those who say "no thank you" to self defense choose to decline their power to kill the invaders if that was the only way to keep their family alive? I doubt it. Nor should they.
Keep in mind too that if if a psychopath kills me, just cuz he can, and I don't resist, I've allowed him to kill my wife's husband, my children's father, and my grandchildren's grandpa (saying nothing about other relationships). It may be easy to say "I'm willing to die," but it's not nearly as easy to allow a husband, father, grandfather, etc, die -- so that I can be noble in literally turning my cheek.
Frankly, I think "turn the other cheek" is as problematic to interpret literally as the Esther story, perhaps more so. Esther was a real story about something that actually happened in a real world context while turn the other cheek a short wisdom like statement. Hmmm. Kind of like Peter having the sword in the Garden in the first place.
In real life, I might choose not to kill in self defense. I have defended a client against a murder prosecution where my client shot and killed his crazed attacker. I and my family have been threatened by someone who ordered a contract killing in Mexico (of my client, failed). I've thought about this in the real. And when I have, deciding to die myself wasn't so problematic, but then there was my family, my children's father, my wife's husband. Sorry but I would defend them, especially from evil people, as I would their husband and father (even if that's me). That's an easy decision for me.
What you describe, Doug, is an experience far from any I have known. During my 62 years I've never been threatened by a crazed attacker nor had anyone order a contract killing against me or the ones I love. I live in a community where we keep doors unlocked and where a well-functioning society with an empowered police force provides more than sufficient protection for daily living.
My prayer is that the dystopian world you describe doesn't become the mental framework for conversations about guns and gun control. I fear a devolving society in which every person becomes a law unto themselves and every person, by necessity, carries a side arm to protect themselves and those they love. That certainly is not God's intended society of shalom but a society of chaos and upheaval. I believe that it is the duty of every Christian to invest every effort to create communities where people can live at peace and without fear. When we give into our worst fears and embrace violence in response to violence we promote the very brokenness we are called to confront.
I'm with you on your wish for a certain kind of society Keith, and where I grew up (NW Iowa) it was -- probably is still -- much more like that. Greater population density tends to degrade society I think, for a variety of reasons (anonymity being a big one). Too, my occupation results in my seeing "things in society" that others not in my occupation don't.
But still, notice that all communities have police, our proxies, who carry guns that can kill no less. And we probably all vote to fund police forces. Granted, where folks feel less "secure," and doubt that police could arrive within a moment's notice (also more the case in cities vs towns), the more they will -- and should in my view -- think about their own ability to defend. No, this doesn't mean we should obsess about weapons. (Hey, in my case it only means a baseball bat). But it is true that if I still lived in NW Iowa, my "Yaz" (bat) might be in the attic and not in bedroom closet, even if it is true that on the east side of Salem, Oregon, it should be in my bedroom closet.
I'm getting a little weary of all of the 2nd Amendment talk but I think the book of Esther is terrific, so I decided to take a chance and see what Dan had to say. I had to smile at his initial description of the book and the more I read the bigger my smile became. I wasn't sure where he was headed, but this was the sweetest, kindest gotcha (for some) I've ever seen anyone give out.
The issue of self-defense is a touchy one, and this blog reminds me of an experience I had with a young CRC pastor back in the early 1960s. He was an absolute pacifist and insisted he would not lift a finger against another person. Someone in the group asked him what he would do if he and his wife were walking down the sidewalk and a man attacked his wife. I don't recall what he said but he seemed to think he should do whatever he could without hurting the attacker. How much restraint should we show in such a situation?
It has been pointed out that many of the gun-control folks have armed security people and Saturday's marchers had police officers with guns. Clearly a collision of the theoretical and the practical. It may be easy for us to be theoretical Christians in church and at home, but we get hit by practicality on the street.
Thanks for a very interesting piece, Dan.
This is an interesting application of this Bible story.
Why doesn't your "talk with the other side" suggestion work both ways? Maybe talking with your friend who prefers not to own a killing tool will replace your fear and increase your understanding of them, too? And you are assuming, as many 2nd amendment advocates do, that folks who favor some kind of gun control or otherwise choose not to participate in gun ownership or use, haven't ever used a gun or learned about them.
Creating equivalency between Esther and today’s gun debate has its challenge. For example, the passage that allows for self-defense also advocates for plundering the property of enemies. Still, if the argument is for self-protection then advocate against guns not for them. In the U.S. a person is ten times more likely to die by gunshot than in any other developed country precisely because of the proliferation of guns. Additionally, homes with guns are statistically less safe than homes without.
My real concern, however, is the choice of buying a gun for the purpose of meeting violence with violence. To be a Jesus follower is to embrace an ethic of non-violence. This is not absolute, of course. Leaving the upper room Jesus permitted his disciples to take a couple swords with them. But the night ended with Jesus repairing an aggressor’s ear severed by one of those swords. And the following day Jesus prayed for those violently taking his life with the words, “Father forgiven them for they know not what they do.”
Of the disciples carrying those swords for self-protection John Calvin wrote: “It was truly shameful and stupid ignorance that the disciples, after having been so often informed about bearing the cross, imagine that they must fight with swords of iron.” Today, I suppose, John Calvin would speak against carrying guns of iron.
Like most Americans I can live with guns for sport, built for sport. I cannot, however, figure out how Christians can advocate for guns built for self-defense or, worst, acts of assault or aggression. Somehow the American ethic of gun ownership has overcome the Christian ethic of non-violence.
I don't own a gun, but I do have a baseball bat in my bedroom closet (my 34 inch Carl Yastremski model Louisville Slugger from my college days). I have it there for the same reason I might have a gun in the bedroom. I'm sure some gun owners might think my method is deficient but the point is I have it there to defend my family. And yes, I could kill with that bat -- no question.
I don't think an article about Esther and self-defense is about guns per se but about the right to defend (one's self or others) with force, even lethal force in extreme and uncommon circumstances. It is in fact about whether I should have my "Yaz" in my bedroom closet.
Put another way, the appropriate and meaningful discussion we might have is not about "gun culture" (as our Banner editor suggests in his recent submission) but about Christians and the use of force, whether via a gun, a 34" baseball bat, or just arms and a fist -- or even via proxies like police and soldiers.
Which is why OSJ should have published this article on their Do Justice site. :-)
Your essay is quite winsome a clever. Thank you for your efforts in the sphere of this network, your voice is reasoned and more typical of the average CRCNA pew-sitter than we often see in denominational media.
Regarding the firearms issue; as a pastor, I am grateful for the knowledge that a couple of fellow under-shepherds have a rod with them when we gather corporately. It is a reality of fallenness that wolves seek to devour sheep, and part of the reality of shepherding a flock, is the defense of those precious, albeit oblivious sheep.
It is wonderful that some of the respondents to this article have never incurred violence, thanks be to God, may that peace ever increase! Until eternal shalom is ushered in and consummated, we will toil in our respective contexts, some of them placid, some of them vulnerable, we trust the magistrates as the first line of defense that the Lord Himself has established to combat evil, we pray for peace and protection, and, we use the heads, hands and tools that the Lord has provided to respond to any and every situation that He providentially leads us into, knowing that His own Spirit will guide that response.
Just curious: how many of our worship facilities across the CRCNA are not "gun-free-zones" on Sundays? My hunch is that many if not a majority of them, at least in the USA are not. Ours certainly isn't.
As citizens of 2 kingdoms,we have an admittedly uneasy relationship with the 2nd amendment since its the one that protects all the rest. I"m especially fond of the 1st since it protect the right to worship with out the fearing the government. Plus, holding the government accountable to the consent of the governed is what the 2nd is all about.
I, too, never thought of the message of Esther as having anything to do with the right to self-preservation against the vagaries of the state, but since the book says what it says about just how it was the Jews survived the king's edict, I think its a point well taken.
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