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A Note on Purim

At the risk of sounding a brief religious note and therefore inviting from ID critics the usual (and so extremely logical!) inference that the Discovery Institute supports theocratic rule, let's consider for a moment the message of Purim. That Jewish festival is upon us today and, with its themes of randomness versus a guiding providence at work in history, it happens to be an excellent time for reflecting on themes relevant to ENV.

Celebrated with lots of eating, drinking, and charitable and other gift-giving, Purim recalls the events told in the Bible's book of Esther. In the story, which is very much screenplay-ready, a conniving minister to the king of Persia uses his influence on the monarch to plot the destruction of the Jewish people. This fascinating villain, Haman, is no mere mindless anti-Semite. He is motivated by his own views about life's ultimate meaning, or the lack thereof -- a secular theology, a religion of a kind that's precisely opposite to Biblical faith.

According to Scriptural tradition, Haman was a descendant of the Bible's personification of wickedness, the mysterious tribe called Amalek. As recounted in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, Amalek, seemingly without reason, fell upon and slaughtered many Jews. That was back when the children of Israel were living in the desert, following their exodus from Egypt.

Actually, Amalek's attack was not without reason. The Hebrew text associates Amalek with the word "keri," which means a chance or random event: "Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; How he happened upon thee (karecha) by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God" (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). The same Hebrew verbal root can mean to "cool" someone's ardor, put a chill in his faith.

All these meanings are given by the classical medieval commentator Rashi in his notes. He in turn drew on midrashic works a thousand years older. The word "Amalek" also, according to Hebrew numerology, has a concealed meaning linking it with another Hebrew word, safek, or "doubt."

As Biblical tradition clarifies, just as the Jews are intended to stand for certain ideas that remain controversial -- ideas about God's guiding providence, about faith -- so the Amalekites stand for other, opposite ideas: randomness, chance, chilly rationalism, the spreading of doubt. So it comes as little surprise when, in planning his hoped for genocide against the Jews, Haman employs a system of casting lots, or "purim" (hence the name of the festival), with the purpose of randomly selecting the date of his assault

Seeing existence as random, unguided, and meaningless -- that is the frosty faith of Amalek. It explains Haman's hatred of the Jews and their God.

The book of Esther is not an overtly theological story. In fact, unique among the books of the Hebrew Bible, it includes God nowhere at all as a character in the story -- not directly or by allusion. It is secular in that sense. Yet it's nevertheless shot through with hints of a guiding hand behind events. When the story has reached its climax -- at the moment when the secretly Jewish queen, Esther, has succeeded in saving her people from Haman's plot though a series of highly unlikely "coincidences" -- we look back and realize that for all that God's hand works subtly, the evidence of its influence is still overwhelmingly powerful.

It would be Haman's, and Amalek's, main purpose in life to deny that this retrospective view possesses any validity. In the book of Esther, and at Purim, we are invited to reflect on the choice we all face between seeing existence as unguided or guided, meaningless or meaningful.

There is no need to belabor the significance here. In the debate about Darwinian evolution versus intelligent design, this is exactly the question with which we are all confronted.

Of course, some religiously committed individuals seek to abstract themselves from the debate, claiming it is all a waste of time, a distraction from more important issues. These "theistic evolutionists" argue that in the great debate, there is no need to take sides or take action. They figure that if only they solemnly maintain their neutral stance, then aggressive Darwinists, including Dawkinsesque atheist activists, will leave them alone. Their social prestige, as sophisticated and enlightened religious folk, remains intact.

The story of Esther has something to say to these theistic evolutions as well. It becomes clear that there were Jews in Persia who thought they, too, could get on the right side of the king and his Amalekite councilor, thereby escaping persecution. The opening chapter of Esther tells of how the king, Ahasuerus, conducted a great, months-long party for his loyal subjects and other flatterers and toadies. Tradition adds that the party's attendants included many Jews, who were even served kosher food in conformity with their religious dietary needs. How thoughtful!

Yet when Haman proposed his scheme to rid the kingdom of Jews, Ahasuerus didn't hesitate to condemn all his Jewish subjects to destruction, with no exception granted for the toadies (3:6). The latter, the theistic evolutionists of their day, were distraught to find that their long efforts to keep above the fray, to offend no one in the party of Haman, had been of no avail.

Even Esther herself was in doubt about what her own role should be in averting the planned destruction of her fellow Jews. Her own husband, the king, did not know that she was a Jew. She entertained the thought that perhaps the best plan was to keep her own head low and at least save herself.

Her uncle, the other hero of the Purim story, Mordecai, convinced her otherwise, saying: "Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (4:13-14).

In that last sentence, Mordecai hinted at the guiding role of providence. In the heat of the action, you can't know where events are heading. But be sure we are indeed being lead, to a destination that will become evident later.

Even then, the Hamans and the Amalekites will deny that this is the case. They're with us still today. So we have Purim, to remind us that for all that things seems to change, the dynamics at work in human belief and unbelief stay fundamentally the same.