Let all who fear the Lord repeat: “His faithful love endures forever.” In my distress I prayed to the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me free. The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? [Psalm 118:4-6 (NLT)]
When writing about mimicry yesterday, I thought of Esther and her cousin Mordecai. The book of Esther takes place between 483 and 473 BC but the story began about 120 years earlier when Mordecai’s great-grandfather was in the second group of Jews deported from Jerusalem to Babylon. Rather than treating these deportees as captives or slaves, they were more like immigrants. Although they were given new Babylonian names, the were allowed to keep their God as long as they also worshipped the Babylonian ones. After Babylon fell to Persia in 539 BC, the first Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem the following year. Perhaps because they’d become comfortable in their new homeland or feared the challenge of rebuilding Jerusalem, like many others, Mordecai and Esther’s family did not return.
Going by their pagan names, Mordecai and Esther blended in with their neighbors. His name was a version of Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, and Esther’s was a derivative of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of war and sexual love. Although most Jews lived away from the Persian capital of Susa, they lived in the city where Mordecai served as a government official.
When King Ahasuerus (better known as Xerxes) sent out the casting call for his new queen, Esther was one of several hundred women selected for this ancient version of “The Bachelor.” Mordecai’s motive for telling Esther to conceal her Jewish lineage is unknown. While he may have feared anti-Semitism, he also may have thought having his cousin share the king’s bed would further his career. Even though she would break Jewish law by sleeping with a man not her husband, marrying a pagan uncircumcised Gentile, and eating unclean food, Esther followed her cousin’s direction and did not reveal her heritage. Having integrated into Persian society and no longer observing Jewish law, Mordecai and Esther had become chameleons.
Esther pleased the king; she was made queen and her cousin became a palace official who served at the king’s gate. Since both commercial and judicial business took place at the city gates, Mordecai’s position was an important one, possibly that of judge. It was at the gate that he overheard a plan to assassinate the king but Mordecai intervened and the king’s life was saved. The new queen and her cousin, however, continued to conceal their ancestry until the king appointed Haman the Agagite as prime minister and second-in-command.
The proud Haman demanded that all of the king’s officials bow down to him. Although Jewish law did not prohibit bowing as a sign of respect, Haman wanted more. The word used was shachah which meant prostrating oneself by lying down flat, extending hands and feet, and placing one’s face in the dirt. Haman was demanding the sort of reverence that belongs only to God and Mordecai refused to do it. When officials asked why he wouldn’t bow, Mordecai simply replied that he was a Jew. While he may not have kept a kosher home or worn tassels on his robe, Mordecai drew the line at prostrating himself before anyone but God. The Jew’s refusal enraged Haman and set in motion his desire to exterminate the entire Jewish population in the empire. It was when Esther revealed both her heritage along with Haman’s evil plan, that the massacre was thwarted.
Unlike Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who continued to remain true to Jehovah while in captivity, both Mordecai and Esther chose to be pragmatic by compromising their faith and disguising their heritage. It was only when they stopped being chameleons and revealed their true identities that they served the one true God.
While we probably won’t be asked to save a nation, there will be times when God expects us to risk our status and security and step out in faith to serve Him. Real security, however, is not found in people, position, wealth, or power; it is found in God. When the time comes, will we be chameleons or show our true colors?