Purim and the Hidden Messiah
Purim—the festival of Esther—is the most light-hearted of the Jewish holidays. Perhaps that’s what leads the sages of the Talmud to ask, “Where is there an allusion to Esther in the Torah?” (Chullin 139b). They answer with a reference to Deuteronomy 31:18, where God warns Israel of exile to come: V’anochi haster asteer panai, “And I will hide, yes hide my face.” Asteer – “hide” – sounds like Esther. So does the term hester panim, to hide the face, which describes the conditions of Israel’s long exile. Rashi wrote, “In the days of Esther there will be hester panim, hiding of the divine countenance.” Accordingly, there is no mention of God in the whole book of Esther.
Purim, then, is the festival of exile, a time when God seems hidden, which extends even to this day. Believers in Messiah, however, might not think of themselves as being in exile. If Messiah is risen and present among us, how can we say that God’s face is hidden?
Isaiah 53:1 provides a vital clue:
Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
Ironically, the phrase “arm of the Lord” normally describes the mighty and undeniable acts of God. “Arm of the Lord” reminds us of Passover, which comes just a month after Purim, when God revealed himself openly both to Israel and to Egypt by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. “Arm of the Lord” is almost a synonym for revelation of the Lord, but Isaiah asks whether there is anyone who has seen it. We again confront hester panim, God alive and well, but hidden.
The Gospel of Mark sounds this same theme. It opens announcing, this is “the Good News of Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God,” (1:1) and goes on to record the testimony of Yochanan the Immerser (1:7–8), and a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; I am well pleased with you” (1:11). Even the demons recognize that Yeshua is the Son of God (1:24, 3:11, 5:7), but Yeshua silences them. Indeed, he repeatedly instructs those who experience his healing power to tell no one about it (1:44, 3:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26). When Yeshua visits his own hometown, the people ask, “Where did this man get all this?” (6:2-3). Rather than recognizing him as Messiah the Son of God, they take offense at him. His own disciples, when Yeshua performs the great miracle of calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee, ask “Who can this be, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” (4:41).
Mark has announced who Yeshua is, but there’s still something hidden about him, and we, the readers, get drawn into the question, “Who can this be?” If we answer too quickly, we’re bound to get it wrong, because Yeshua hides that he is Messiah to reveal what kind of Messiah he will be. He turns the normal expectations of his day, and our day, on their head. As Purim reminds us, things are not as they appear. Those who seem powerful and in control will be put in their place by outsiders, including a God who is hiding.
The turning-point in Mark comes when Yeshua takes his disciples off to a retreat, and asks them on the way, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter nails it: “You are the Messiah,” but Yeshua orders them not to tell anyone else (8:27-30).
The secret is out, but now Yeshua focuses on the suffering and crucifixion he must endure to fulfill it. Furthermore, Yeshua reveals that even after he rises from the dead there will be continuing exile and persecution—the hidden face of God—until he returns (13:33-37).
Yeshua hides his Messianic identity to ensure that his followers understand what kind of Messiah he is. But he has another purpose in remaining hidden; to prepare them for the long period between his resurrection and his return in glory, when he will often seem hidden, and his followers may be tempted to lose hope and become complacent. Instead, Yeshua warns us to stay alert, to believe actively, and to serve him before all else as we watch for his return. The way of loyalty to a hidden Messiah is different from what we might choose for ourselves. And it’s definitely different from the way carved out by the religious consumerism of our day.
Purim reminds us of Isaiah’s question, “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” And Purim provides the answer: it will be revealed to those who actively rely on him, despite the delays and disappointments of exile. In the same way Yeshua, who seems hidden to many, who fails to meet the expectations that this world cherishes, is the source of deliverance to Israel and the nations. Purim reminds us to remain faithful to Yeshua’s words and example during this time of hester panim, the hiding of God’s face.
Rabbi Russ Resnik