About 25 years ago, not long after my family and I had moved to Israel, I had an opportunity to travel to Seoul, Korea to speak at a Bible school graduation. On the flight back to Israel I stopped for several hours in Bangkok, Thailand.
After getting off the plane, knowing that I had a lot of time, I decided to go into Bangkok. One of the exits from the modern airport is a pedestrian bridge that crosses over a highway. At the end of the bridge is a staircase hat takes you into another world, downtown Bangkok. Leaving the airport, I ran into a fellow Israeli who had been on the same plane as me. His name was Shlomi Alon, a kibbutznik from somewhere in the Galilee. He was a few years older than me, probably born in Israel or brought here as a child by parents who immigrated before the founding of the State. Shlomi was divorced, traveling alone around the Far East with a video camera, seeing and filming whatever unique things he could find.
He was very Israeli, bold and brash, aggressive and inquisitive.
We crossed the bridge together and ran into another man about the same age as Shlomi, standing by the stairs. His name was Sol Alonowitz, an accountant from Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a very typical American Jew of Ashkenazi (Eastern Europe) descent. He was also single, or soon-to-be divorced and he too was doing some traveling in the Far East. He also had wanted to see downtown Bangkok.
The ironic thing was, in spite of the vast cultural gap between these two Jewish men, here they were in the same unlikely little spot in the universe at the same time (and me there with them to chronicle the whole thing and build a biblical lesson around it). Even their names were almost identical. Shlomi is a nickname for Shlomo, which is Hebrew for Solomon – Sol’s full name. Alon is Hebrew for oak and is very much the type of Israeli name an immigrant would take, shedding their Eastern European diaspora name that was probably much like Alonowitz. By a simple providential stroke of the divine pen, either one could have been the other. But as it was, they could barely connect with each other.
However, I had no problem relating to both of them. Sol and I share the same background. He could easily have been my cousin or uncle. And I knew enough Israelis to understand Shlomi. At one point as we walked and talked together, Shlomi whispered in my ear, gesturing towards Sol and asked, “Is this guy a Jew?” I’m pretty sure Sol wondered the same about Shlomi.
Our adventures together at a Buddhist temple cremation and funeral service are beyond the scope of this article, other than to say that they served to point out all the more starkly the shaping of our consciousness by the many different roads our people have wandered through the centuries.
So you may ask, just what is the message found in this unique encounter? In a word, I would answer, “Purim.” You may ask again, “Why Purim?” Hopefully I can make some sense of it. Five weeks or so ago, we celebrated the holiday of Purim. Traditionally, the holiday is observed with much joyfulness with a large dose of silliness mixed in. There are wild costume parties, as well as plays portraying (with much playwright’s poetic license) the story of Mordechi and Esther in their battle against the wicked Haman. In all this, there is a giddiness born out of great relief because God has again preserved us from destruction.
While Purim is not a Torah commanded holiday, to my mind the verses that most fully illustrate its essence are found in the Torah: “And yet for all that, though they be in the land of their enemies, will I not cast them away, neither will I loathe them, to destroy them completely, to break My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. But I will remember for their sakes, the covenant of their ancestors, that I brought forth out of the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, that I might be to them a God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 26:44,45).
The Purim story takes place in exile. The Jewish people were driven from their land and held captive in the land of Babylon. It was a fulfillment of the warnings found in the previous verses of Leviticus 26: if we persisted in disobedience to God’s instructions then foreign invaders would conquer us. We would be carried off into exile to the conquering nation where we would live in a subservient condition until God’s judgment upon us was finished. The good news is that the end of the judgment was not total destruction; God’s covenant promise to us was that he would both preserve us and restore us back to the land of Israel.
G-d uses any circumstances that are needed to assure His word will be fulfilled. Often His methods are not perceived or understood by men, especially if what is happening is not seen as “spiritual” or “religious.” The circumstances that were used in order to bring about the preservation of our people seemed to be quite outside what “religious” people might quickly identify as God at work.
Even the prophetically gifted among us would hesitate to proclaim that a pagan king’s ostentatious weeklong drinking party was laying the groundwork for our deliverance. Queen Vashti’s rebellion against her drunken husband’s demands might have garnered some sympathy but hardly would be thought to be God preparing the way for a “savior.”
And of course, what religious Jewish man raising his young cousin wouldn’t have done all he could to find a way to avoid the fate that awaited her at the palace? But instead he encouraged her to go along with the decree, knowing that her future at best would be lived out as one of hundreds of unknown women in the harem of the king.
And yet even after (miracle of miracles) Esther was chosen to be queen, her range of influence was still greatly limited. She could not even approach the king without being summoned. In contrast, the one appointed to the position of the king’s closest adviser was an anti-Semitic, egotistical maniac. The odds didn’t look so good, but that brings us back to Leviticus 26:44,45.
And that brings me back to Shlomi and Sol in Bangkok. God has a vested interest in keeping His word. It’s His nature. He promised to keep a remnant alive, even in exile. In the days of Mordechai and Esther, God pulled it off working behind the scenes. Shlomi and Sol are a symbol of our centuries long trail of preservation. So much is hidden that they didn’t even recognize each other, but they are part of a preserved people for whom God cares and is still working. Sol, the Jew still in exile; Shlomi, the exile restored to the land, but not yet to the Lord; and me, the symbol of what is still yet to be, a remnant returned to Israel from the Diaspora and walking in the salvation of Messiah Yeshua.