Billy Graham and the topsy-turvy holiday of Purim

Billy Graham's role as an influential adviser who made an enormous impact on Israel is reminiscent of the story we will read on Purim.

 A Garland sits under a large bronze statue of evangelist Billy Graham on the grounds of a Christian conference center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Garland sits under a large bronze statue of evangelist Billy Graham on the grounds of a Christian conference center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Cissie Graham-Lynch heard about the passing of her grandfather Billy Graham while she was visiting Israel last week. At a meeting in Jerusalem last Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally extended his condolences to Cissie and expressed his admiration and appreciation for the 99-year-old “pastor to the presidents” who had died just hours earlier.
Graham’s role as an influential adviser who made an enormous impact on Israel is reminiscent of the story we will read on Purim.
More than half a century ago, as a friend and counselor to president Dwight Eisenhower, Billy Graham went on his first visit to Israel.
Graham’s description of his 1960 trip is significant: “When I first took a preaching tour of Israel, I stayed with Mrs. Golda Meir, who was then foreign secretary, and promised her that I was not there to proselytize. Rather, I was there to thank the Jewish people for proselytizing me.” Graham was one of the first Christian leaders to publicly acknowledge the debt of gratitude owed toward Judaism and to move Evangelicals away from evangelizing Jews.
It was his close relationship with president Richard Nixon, however, that was most pivotal with regard to Graham’s polarizing legacy within the Jewish community.
In 1973, when a coalition of Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, Israel found itself in a state of shock and in desperate need of weapons. Graham picked up the phone and convinced his friend Nixon to assist his other friend prime minister Golda Meir. Graham’s call helped persuade the United States to provide an emergency airlift of essential arms that rescued the Jewish state from the overwhelming Arab onslaught.
Nevertheless, it was that very closeness with Nixon that allowed Graham to let his guard down. In a 1972 conversation in the White House, Nixon complained about Jewish influence in politics and media and Graham agreed that, “The Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.” When the secret recording of the 30-year-old conversation was released in 2002, Graham immediately apologized for his antisemitic remarks. “If it wasn’t on tape, I would not have believed it,” he said. “I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”
Graham’s heroic highs and hurtful lows as a trusted presidential adviser are similar in some ways to the Purim story described in the Book of Esther.
In the 5th century BCE, the Jews were living in Persia following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Toward the end of their 70 years of exile, the Jewish community once again found itself threatened with annihilation. An antisemitic advisor to King Achashverosh concocted a plot to destroy the Jews, yet God subverted the evil plan. Achashverosh married a woman named Esther, who was secretly Jewish. The new queen managed to replace the evil adviser Haman with a righteous one, Mordechai, thus saving her people.
The central lesson of the Book of Esther is that God orchestrates events behind the scenes – His name does not appear even once throughout Esther’s 10 chapters – to deliver His people from danger to deliverance. The Purim story is famous for its drama and palace intrigue that only makes sense in retrospect and hindsight. Jews celebrate on Purim to this day by wearing costumes and drinking wine to acknowledge the topsy-turvy nature of our complex world. Especially when it comes to politics and the fate of the Jewish people, current events often appear chaotic and frightening, yet God’s reassuring hand guides us through life’s ups and downs.
There is a curious line toward the end of the Book of Esther. After the main narrative is over and the Jews are no longer in grave danger, it says, “And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews (‘yehudim’), a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land were ‘mityahadim’ for the fear of the Jews had fallen on them.” (Esther 8:17)
Bible commentators debate the meaning of “mityahadim,” which comes from the same Hebrew word “yehudim,” referring to the Jews. The simple context implies that many of the locals became Jewish in response to the dramatic events they had just witnessed. Others explain that the local gentiles did not actually convert, rather they developed fondness toward the Jews.
Mordechai went from being an outcast to a respected leader and those who were antisemites earlier became our allies at the end of the story.
In rabbinic thought, Purim and the Book of Esther have a unique and surprising position. After the arrival of the Messiah, says the Midrash, Purim will be the only holiday celebrated and the Book of Esther the only book of the Hebrew Bible that will still be studied. Some rabbinic commentators, both ancient and modern, (Rabbenu Bechaye 1255-1340, Sfat Emet 1847-1905) connect these dots and explain that just like the gentiles were “mityahadim” at the time of the Purim story, so too in the future days, the nations of the world will turn toward the Jewish people.
Over the course of Billy Graham’s long life, he topped lists of admired men and became America’s most influential religious leader. Despite growing up in a deeply antisemitic environment, Graham used his tremendous influence as pastor to presidents and preacher to millions to assist Israel and the Jewish people. Graham shifted Evangelical Christianity to become more philo-Semitic and influenced US policy toward greater support for Israel and we are seeing the positive results of his efforts today.
Graham will be buried on Friday, on the same day Jerusalem celebrates Purim. Whatever “mityahadim” precisely means in the Book of Esther, we know that the Hebrew word “yehudim” means to give thanks. As such, Israel and the Jewish people must show appreciation for today’s “mityahadim,” those who God sends to support Israel and assist the Jewish people, starting with Billy Graham.
The author is the director of Israel365, which connects Christian Zionists with Israel and strives to be a light unto the nations. Israel365 is publishing The Israel Bible, the first edition of the Hebrew Bible to highlight the relationship between the land and the people of Israel, to be released in the spring by Menorah Books.