Today’s OT lesson from the Daily Office (Nehemiah 1:1-11) the author reflects on an encounter he had in Susa—the fortified city in the Kingdom of Persia. One day he was approached by a group of fellow Jews, and he asked them how things had fared with their kindred back in Jerusalem. “Did they escape the captivity? How are they doing? How is the Holy City?” The answer he received was disheartening: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”
It’s one of those Planet-of-the-Apes moments when the reality of the destruction of one’s homeland sinks in. Overcome with sadness, guilt, and despair, Nehemiah falls down and mourns for days, weeping and fasting and praying on behalf of his people. His cry to God is explicit: “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you.”
It just so happens that over the past few months I’ve been participating in a men’s bible study on the Book of Esther. That story also takes place in Susa, and, when I read the word in the opening line of today’s lesson, I began to look for comparisons. But that’s where the similarities end. In Esther, no mention of God is ever made. No prayers are recorded in the whole book. Although there is fasting, no explicit direction is ever attached to the pious act. Instead, the reader is left to wonder, “Where is God in all of this? How does God’s salvation work in a secular setting?”
Other students of the bible have made these kinds of observations long before I am, but it’s amazing to me how two different books that are set in the same place at roughly the same time can be so different. Nehemiah is utterly devoted to the reestablishment of the Jerusalem Temple and the specific religious apparatus that goes with it. Esther makes no mention of God at all, and the reader is left to ask how faith is supposed to be practiced in the diaspora. One is a book about going home to God, and the other is about finding God far from home.
Where is God in our lives? Do we need to rebuild the apparatus of our faith to make our relationship with him more real to us? Should we instead continue on in our journey with God even though the world around us might not notice? What should the place of religion be in the 21st century? What’s the relationship between religion and faith?