Purim is all about survival—the survival of the Jewish people. It is as relevant today as is was in the sixth century b.c. when the story of Purim (recorded in the book of Esther) first unfolded. It remains relevant because, as a people, we’ve faced continual threats to our survival. In ancient Egypt it was survival under a Pharoah. In inter-testamental times it was survival under the Syrian tyrant Antiochus. In the last century it was survival under Hitler. And today? Demographers say that one of the greatest threats to Jewish survival is assimilation.
The story of Purim is doubly relevant because it not only tells the story of a man who wanted do away with all Jews—namely Haman—but it also gives some insight into assimilation as a threat to survival.
The Jews living in Persia at that time had chosen not to return to their homeland after the decree of Cyrus that ended their Babylonian captivity.
They had become acculturated to Persian ways, even taking on non-Jewish names like Esther (which was a derivative of Ishtar) and Mordecai (taken from Marduk). Most Jews at the time were content to live their faith in a very understated way at best. After all, what kind of Jewish lifestyle could someone like Esther have, married to a Persian king? And how overt a Jew can one like Mordecai have been as an advisor to a king who was used to people bowing down to him? Had Esther not begged for an opportunity for her people to defend themselves, her husband might never have known that she (or Mordecai) was a Jew.
Fast forward to the 2st century. Mark is a middle-class Jew who grew up in a Jewish home with respect for family customs and traditions but not fully committed to living them out. Married to a good Christian woman (she’d been far from her faith when they married, but later surrendered her life to Jesus), Mark approached me after a presentation I gave in a local church:
I have three questions for you. If you can answer them, I’m willing to consider more seriously what this [belief in Jesus as personally relevant] is all about.”
I smiled and said, “Okay, go for it.”
“First,” Mark said, “Why a need for a Messiah?” Next, “If we do need a Messiah, what makes you think that it is Jesus?” And third, “If it is Jesus, then what?”
His questions were excellent, but I told him that I needed to know one thing. I was confident I could demonstrate the need for a Messiah and how Jesus fit the picture from the Bible, but I didn’t know if he gave any credence to the Book. Now, one might think that would be a given for “people of the Book,” but most Jews today are more familiar with the culture around them than with the content of the Scriptures. Many view the Scriptures as little more than a collection of quaint stories to help us lead a more ethical and moral life.
Mark explained to me that he thought the Bible was written by people, not God, but he could assent to it being “inspired.” “After all,” he went on, “I have found myself inspired at times, so why not the writers of the Bible?” I told him that was a good start for our discussions. (Often it’s not until people begin reading the Bible that they come to realize God is speaking to them through it.)
I’m excited about following up with Mark. But the answer to his third question, “What then?” will be the hardest one for him to accept. His family will not take well to his becoming a believer. Jewish people commonly misunderstand believing in Jesus as assimilation and a threat to Jewish survival. That’s why those of us who believe are often branded as traitors, self-hating Jews, or worse. Our job is to show that Jesus is not a threat, but the fulfillment of our Jewish destiny.
When it comes to destiny, I’m encouraged by the heroes of the Purim account. They had lived in relative comfort as part of a larger Persian culture, yet Mordecai refused to bow down to anyone but God. And Esther risked her life to stand up for the truth. When it came down to survival, Esther and Mordecai were tested and they passed with flying colors. Well, Mark’s eternal destiny is at stake here, and it’s my prayer that God will give him the courage to take that step of faith. I hope you’ll join me.
Susan Perlman is one of the founders of Jews for Jesus. In addition to assisting David Brickner, she is the director of our publications and media departments… among many other things!