Mordecai, Esther and President Trump
By the Rev. John Burns
Since Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States, Christian leaders have labeled him everything from “Messiah” to the “Anti-Christ.” Looking to Scripture, various evangelical and mainline voices have found similarities between the president and Samson, King David, King Ahab and Herod, to name only a few.
These comparisons influence our reactions to the president. If we see him as a divinely-appointed instrument of God’s will, then we conclude that we must support him, no matter what he does. However, if we associate him purely with the work of evil, then we are left with no choice but to oppose his every act. Neither choice seems wise.
I have a better Biblical comparison — one that elicits much concern but also offers hope. There is a ruler in the Bible with whom President Trump shares no less than five major characteristics. Some of the traits are negative, but one holds out the possibility that Trump might yet rise to accomplish a mighty act of compassion and justice in his limited time upon the stage of history.
President Trump’s Biblical twin is Ahasuerus the Great, the leader of Persia from 484–464 BCE. He is the king at the heart of the story of Esther. Protestants might not know that the Book of Esther is much longer in the Septuagint (written in Greek) than in the Hebrew text. This later translation incorporates additions to the book that sometimes duplicate the Hebrew text and, in other instances, expand it. Passages from both the Hebrew and Greek texts relate to our 45th president.
The first characteristic embodied by both Ahasuerus and Trump is the tendency to put their wealth on exhibition. In the third year of his reign, the Persian king displayed his opulence for 180 days with the “splendor and pomp of his majesty” (Esther 1:4). His ostentatious style was revealed in purple tapestries, marble pillars and couches of gold and silver perched upon mother of pearl floors.
Anyone who has passed through the lobby of a Trump Hotel, heard the president extoll the proportions of his massive fortune or seen pictures of the interior of his many mansions recognizes his propensity toward “splendor and pomp.”
A second common trait is found in both men’s proprietary view of women. Esther was brought to Ahasuerus’ palace because the Persian king had his wife Vashti banished. Her offense was that she would not come before the king and his drunken cronies to “show the peoples and the officials her beauty” (Esther 1:11). When she refused to appear before the king, the counselors to the Persian potentate urged him to expel her from the palace so that news of her conduct would not inspire other wives to defy their husbands’ demands (Esther 1:17).
With Vashti dismissed, Ahasuerus held something akin to a beauty contest to bring “beautiful young virgins” (Esther 2:2) to the palace to be considered as the next queen. Esther eventually came before the king and “Ahasuerus liked Esther more than all the others . . . and proclaimed her to be queen in place of Vashti” (Esther 2:17, The Inclusive Bible [TIB]).
Before the president chose his current wife, there were two previous “Mrs. Trumps.” For whatever reason, they were dismissed. In addition, the women who claim to have had affairs with Trump before his presidency and those who are charging him with past sexual improprieties all tell accounts of being summoned and dismissed (sometimes with alleged monetary “gifts”), according to the whims of the now-president. When these women no longer suited him or, in the case of more recent reports, presented a threat to his power, Trump simply replaced them.
Trump also shares with the “Great King” a willingness to blame his nation’s problems on people from other lands living within his country’s borders. In both cases of Trump and Ahasuerus, it is difficult to discern whether their determination to rid their nation of specific foreign-born groups came from their own values or from the values of those who counseled them. Ahauserus was guided by his right-hand man, Haman, to take punitive action toward the Jewish captives in Persia.
“These are a people who remain unassimilated into our ways . . . they disregard the imperial decrees. It is not in your interest therefore to tolerate them,” Haman said (Esther 3:8b TIB).
In response to his trusted advisor’s direction, the king replied, “You may deal with those people any way you want,” and signed letters drafted by Haman “ordering the destruction, slaughter and annihilation of the Jewish people — old and young, women, men and children” (Esther 3:13 TIB).
The Greek text is even more vituperative. Ahauserus decreed that he must wipe out a people who “are in complete opposition to the rest of humanity by virtue of their barbaric system of laws, of their hostility to our interests and to their propensity to commit the most unspeakable crimes” (Esther 13:1–7 TIB, Greek text). The king claimed he must eradicate the nation of “these people” to insure the “perpetual stability and peace” of the realm. (Esther 13:1–7 TIB, Greek text).
Whether the notion came from campaign officials or his own perspective, as a candidate, Trump ran on the premise that it was not in his interest or the interest of the nation to tolerate large numbers of immigrants. In his short time in office, Trump has blamed the problems of our nation on immigrants and refugees from Mexico, Nigeria, Guatemala, Haiti and at least seven other nations in which Islam is the primary religion. To be fair, Trump never suggested that immigrants or refugees should be annihilated, but he clearly stated they should be blocked from coming into the United States and deported if they were already here. This prohibition and expulsion applied equally to the “old and young, women, men and children.”
A fourth characteristic shared by our current president and the king of ancient Persia is the tendency to scapegoat others for the mistakes they make. When Ahauserus recognized that Haman had led him to make a decree that was calloused, bigoted and genocidal, the king became livid. He decreed that Haman, a man the king had commended for his wisdom, loyalty and unshakable trustworthiness (Esther 13:3 TIB, Greek text), a man whose policy on immigration the king had endorsed with his own hand, should be hanged on newly constructed gallows.
Again, to be clear, Trump has not hanged anyone. But in his 16 months of service in the Oval Office, Trump has blamed and then fired or forced the resignation of many of his top aides and cabinet members. Preferring tweets to gallows, the president has often destroyed the careers, if not the lives, of those he once heralded because their actions made him look bad.
As alarming as these shortcomings are, however, Trump has one additional attribute shared by Ahauserus the Great that could lead him to demonstrate compassion and justice in the days to come. Both leaders have shown the capacity to be moved to do the right thing by people they love. When Esther, whom Ahauserus loved, approached the throne, revealed the evil plot of Haman, and explained what his decree would do to her and her family, Ahauserus was moved to change the law and protect the vulnerable of the realm.
Although the evidence is inconclusive, Trump has shown a soft spot for his family’s perspectives. The one positive comment Hillary Clinton made about then-candidate Trump was that his children were devoted to him and, as she put it, “that says a lot about Donald.”
There are encouraging signs that if Ivanka braved the possibility of her father’s displeasure, she might be able to call forth his better angels on immigration, school safety and the plight of those living with mental illness. Possibly the president’s daughter has been brought into the kingdom for such a time as this.
Of course, Esther would not have risked making a plea to her husband if her Uncle Mordecai had not encouraged her to do so. The Greek text of the Book of Esther states that Mordecai was not “motivated by impertinence, conceit or show” (Esther 13:12 TIB, Greek text). Because he was unfazed by Ahauserus’ wealth, charm or power, Mordecai was able to develop an effective strategy to influence the king to do the right thing.
Currently it seems the leaders of the church of Jesus Christ have either been swept off their feet by Trump’s favor and flirtation or have decided that all attempts at influence are futile. Possibly, if we who claim to follow Jesus develop the singleness of purpose demonstrated by Mordecai and reach out to the people Trump loves, our president also might be persuaded to act with compassion and justice on behalf of the most vulnerable among us.
The Rev. John Burns is pastor of University Baptist Church, College Park, Md.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.