Scripture Reading: Esther 1-9
Key Moments in The Story:
Esther chosen by King Ahasuerus to be the new queen – Esther 2
Haman hatches a plan to kill all the Jews – Esther 3
Mordecai warns Esther of Haman’s plan – Esther 4
Esther reveals Haman’s plot to the king – Esther 7
Inauguration of the Feast of Purim – Esther 9
Esther is unusual in the Bible because the name of God appears nowhere in the entire book. As a matter of fact, there is little dealing directly with religion and faith in the entire book. However, the entire story is centered around the theme that circumstances align to insure that the right people are in the right places at the right time to insure the well-being of the Jewish people. One could argue that, though God is absent on the surface, the story details the working out of God’s covenant of blessing upon Israel in the face of a tremendous threat.
At the same time, though, we can also perhaps hear in the book of Esther a warning against reading the hand of God into every act. Chapters 8-9 detail an almost farcical situation. Even though Haman, the originator of the plot against the Jews, has been killed, the king’s order to all the cities in his kingdom to kill all the Jews is still out there. However, a king’s edict cannot be revoked. The solution? The king allows Mordecai to issue an edict in the king’s name permitting the Jews in every city to take up arms and kill any who try to kill them, including their wives and children, and to plunder all of their goods. Esther 9:16 says that the Jews killed 75,000 people on that day.
We return to the first statement in this section: nowhere in this book does the name of God appear. The question we are left to ask is: is this really the only response that was available? What does it say that an all-powerful king can’t change his own order? Again, nowhere in the book is God given any credit for any of what takes place. Perhaps, the story of Esther is a story of warning: to believe in a God who can do anything does not mean that God does everything. Perhaps we should be hesitant about reading God’s will and God’s action into every moment and event.
The Feast of Purim
There are many who believe that the story of Esther was originally told to explain the origins of the Feast of Purim, a Jewish festival which, though still celebrated today, has no root in the Mosaic law as the other feasts and celebrations do. The festival, even as it is described in Esther 9, has no overt connection to the action or purposes of God. Instead, it was intended to be a festival celebrating the Jews deliverance from Haman’s plot by the actions of Esther and Mordecai. The term Purim comes from a Babylonian root word meaning “lot”, as in the lot of chance that Haman cast to determine what day would be the day when all the Jews would be slaughtered. As in several cases in the book of Esther, there is an irony here – the day of the Jews’ destruction becomes the day of the Jews’ victory and deliverance.
Jews and Gentiles
The story of Esther is a very interesting story to read in light of the history of the Jewish people and the anti-Semitism that they would face throughout their history, even until today. Though we most often think of the Holocaust in relation to anti-Semitism, history tells us that the Jewish people have been targeted for violence and persecution throughout the centuries. Esther’s story points to an ongoing historical reality, even though many believe that the story of Esther is more legendary than historical fact. The question that Esther’s story raises is what relationship the Jews should have with Gentiles and, perhaps, a word of warning about future persecution by Gentiles. Interestingly, the Apocrypha preserves a later Greek translation of the book of Esther which contains 107 additional verses. In these additional texts, there is a very strong sentiment which some take to be a sense that God has chosen for Israel and against the nations. The belief is that these later additions may represent a response to a particular time of persecution by neighboring Gentiles. In any case, the story of Esther invites us to consider the often dark history of Jewish-Gentile relations and ask where we need to address misunderstandings and stereotypes that can lead to violence and hatred.
Irony and contrast
The book of Esther is ripe with all kinds of ironic and contrasting ideas. For example, the king dismisses Queen Vashti as a warning that “every man should be master in his own house.” However, the story of Esther is about the king gives in to the wishes of Haman, then Esther and Mordecai. Vashti was to be an example of a woman’s “rightful place”, yet it is Haman’s wife who tells Haman to hang Mordecai from the gallows and it is Esther who is the lone spokesperson for her people. Other such notable ironies will be pointed out in other places in this post.
Ahasuerus – Esther 1:1
This is another name for King Xerxes I, who ruled a portion of the Persian Empire spanning from India to Ethiopia beginning in 485 B.C. until 464 B.C.
Susa – Esther 1:2
Susa was not the capital of Xerxes empire. Instead, Susa was the king’s winter home, located about 200 miles northeast of Babylon.
Mordecai the Benjaminite and Haman the Agagite – Esther 2-3
It is not trivial information that we are told the tribal associations of Mordecai and Haman. The term “Agagite” was probably a reference to King Agag, the Amalekite king that King Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, defeats in 1 Samuel 14:7-9. The fact that Saul does not kill Agag after Samuel has told Saul that he must utterly destroy all of the Amalekites is one of the reasons why Saul ultimately loses the throne. So perhaps the text is giving some justification why Mordecai will not honor Haman when he comes by.
Fasting – Esther 4:16
Fasting is the only seemingly religious activity mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, though it was certainly not exclusive to the Jewish people. In the story, the call to fasting provides an ironic counterpoint to the elaborate feasts of the Persians, who in some cases got drunk to make decisions because they believed drunkeness allowed them to connect with a higher spiritual state. The call to fast also stands in contrast to Mordecai’s call to feast in Esther 9 when the pogrom, or program of persecution against the Jews, has been put down. In the Old Testament, fasting is often associated with prayer, though no such obvious connection is made in this situation.
Some Questions That Might Come Up
Why could Esther be killed for going to see the king without being invited?
The answer is relatively simple: security. If someone came to see the king without being invited by the king, it was assumed they represented a risk to the king and intended to do him harm.
“One Night with the King” – the movie based on the story of Esther