I just listened to a Mark Driscoll sermon, and, much to my surprise, I actually liked it. That doesn’t mean that I agreed with everything that he said or how he said it, but overall, I found it encouraging, for he was presenting Jesus as a loving king, and God as one who walks with us, even when we are not walking with him. Driscoll also projected an attitude of humility, as he admitted that there were areas in which he couldn’t be dogmatic on account of the lack of explicit details in the Book of Esther, and as he also acknowledged that he himself had moral flaws, just like all of us. Click here to listen to the sermon.
The sermon is part of Driscoll’s series on the Book of Esther. I learned about it from a post on Rachel Held Evans’ site, where she links to it (see here) and offers her critique and evaluation. As I read Rachel’s characterization of what Driscoll said in that sermon, I was angry at Driscoll, for I thought that he was being the judgmental, authoritarian jerk I believed him to be (based on things I have read and heard from him and others—-not personally, but through online sources such as YouTube, Driscoll’s web-site, people who once went to Driscoll’s church, etc.). I was thinking of writing an anti-Driscoll post, but I decided to listen to his sermon so that my criticisms could be fair. But, to my surprised, my reaction was not entirely negative.
In his sermon, Driscoll portrayed Esther as worldly and hypocritical because she did not refuse to enter Xerxes’ harem, she ate unclean foods in violation of the Torah, she and Mordechai were not among the returnees to Jerusalem (thereby violating God’s command through Isaiah for the Jews to go back to Israel), and she (like Mordechai) had a pagan name and concealed her Jewish identity. But Rachel’s response was that Esther and Mordechai were not able to refuse Xerxes’ command because they’d be killed if they did so, and also that Esther displayed piety when she called for a fast.
Who is right? To his credit, Driscoll used arguments to justify his position that Esther and Mordecai could have said no to the king. He said that there are other characters in the Bible who say no to the king. Sometimes, they’re arrested, and sometimes they’re not. But saying no to a king is not unheard of in the Bible. Driscoll also noted that, in the Book of Esther itself, Vashti said no to the king and was merely expelled from his presence, not killed.
Driscoll’s point that Esther and Mordecai compromised with their foreign surroundings and should have returned to the land of Israel is understandable, at least from the standpoint of how he as a conservative Christian sees the Bible. In the Bible that is before us, God in Second Isaiah exhorted the exiled Israelites to return to their land, a lot of Israelites stayed behind in exile, and thus (when you juxtapose these things together) the Israelites who stayed behind were disobeying the will of God. From a historical-critical standpoint, I have doubts that the situation was that simple. How easy was it in those days to uproot oneself and one’s family and go to a faraway land, especially when (in the case of Esther) we’re talking about some time after Cyrus’ decree of return? And, just because a prophet was proclaiming what he thought was God’s will, that doesn’t mean that everyone was on the same page and regarded his words as what God wanted. But Driscoll does well to highlight that the issue of assimilation was pressing in the Diaspora, and a number of scholars have maintained that most Jews stayed behind in exile because they had prospered there and made lives for themselves. If Driscoll wants to make that into a sermon point for a conservative Christian audience, then that’s understandable. I don’t fault him for that.
But I can also see Rachel’s point. Granted, Esther and Mordechai could have refused the king’s command, but what good would they have done to themselves or others if the king executed them for that? There are times to take bold moral stands, and there are times when it’s not worth it at a given time, and it’s perhaps more prudent to wait for another day. After I listened to Driscoll, I read through the comments under Rachel’s post, and I especially appreciated the comment by Skyler-Daniel, which took into consideration Driscoll’s points, yet took them in a different direction. Skyler-Daniel said:
“Esther, in my mind, is a story about compromise and negotiating religious boundaries. This is why folks like Mark Driscoll simply cannot read it without screwing up the story fundamentally–compromise is a dirty word, especially if it[‘]s a woman. In a sense, Esther is a terrible Jew… she doesn’t pray, hides her religious identity, and marries a Gentile… she does nothing to separate herself as a Jew. But the story shows how…the complicated situation in which she (and story’s Jewish audience) found herself…necessitates compromise and a careful shifting of religious values for the greater good. Which is more important? Not eating kosher meat or saving hundreds of thousands of Jews? Esther is our heroine who shows us a way in a messy world!”
In any case, I found it edifying to think about the story of Esther today, as I read and heard a variety of perspectives.