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Forget Esther and Moses

Forget Esther and Moses
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to win reelection (which he's currently losing) by speaking before (most of) the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. Breaking with protocol, Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Netanyahu to give the speech without first notifying the White House or even Democrats in Congress. More than 50 Democrats - including Vice President Joe Biden - skipped the speech as political protest.

More interesting and important than the partisan politics is the content of Netanyahu's speech. Netanyahu warned that Iran was just about to get nuclear weapons. Of course, he also made that claim in 1992, 1995, 2002, 2009, and 2012. We shouldn't make policy decisions based on the boy crying wolf. While Obama and other international leaders engage in peaceful talks, Netanyahu seems to yearn for war.

Screen shot from C-Span's coverage of Netanyahu's speech.

Netanyahu invoked two biblical metaphors during his speech, both of which offer critical insights into his worldview. He seemed to cast himself as a modern Queen Esther, and then later as a modern Moses. He developed both examples incorrectly, and both show a sense of divine privilege that can be deadly in international relations.

"Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we'll read the Book of Esther," Netanyahu announced. "We'll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved. Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us."

Netanyahu's analogy quickly breaks down. He left out that it was the Persian ruler (or potentate) who saved the people after Esther's intervention. By Netanyahu's own interpretation of Iran today, the analogy of Esther doesn't work. His biblical analogy is forced onto today's context to sanctify his arguments, which could lead some to ignore important nuances and inaccuracies in his claims. 

Additionally, Netanyahu ignores the role Esther played. She spoke out to save those who were oppressed. He instead plays the part of oppressor, such as last summer when he bombed and killed civilians in Gaza. Just because the historical Haman was Persian and the historical Esther was Jewish does not mean Persians are always bad and Jews are always good.

Later in his speech, Netanyahu shifted from casting himself as Esther to claiming the mantel of Moses.

Sculpture of Moses in U.S. Capitol
(photo from Architect of the Capitol)

"Facing me right up there in the gallery, overlooking all of us in this chamber is the image of Moses," Netanyahu said as he closed his speech. "Moses led our people from slavery to the gates of the Promised Land. And before the people of Israel entered the land of Israel, Moses gave us a message that has steeled our resolve for thousands of years. I leave you with his message today, 'Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them.'"

Netanyahu ended the biblical exhortation in mid-sentence. Moses explained why the people were not to fear: "for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." Perhaps the statement undercuts Netanyahu's plea. He's telling Congress to be strong and not fear because they have lots of weapons. The god being trusted is Mars, not the Lord.

Like the Esther analogy, the quotation from Moses also doesn't fit with the context Netanyahu described. What he wants is not for his people to enter the "promised land," but for the U.S. to help him fight another nation elsewhere. He apparently hopes that we won't think too carefully about that incongruity and just admire him as he rhetorical dons Moses's robe.

There are serious issues at stake in the current negotiations between Iran, the U.S., and other nations. We must avoid attempts to short circuit the process with poor biblical exegesis. We must carefully read our current context in hopes of finding a more peaceful answer to international conflicts. So let's leave Esther and Moses out of the debate and instead focus on the people actually involved.

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