The Story of Esther: Déjà Vu All Over Again

In nine days time the Jewish community will celebrate the festival of Purim.  As part of the festivities, the Book of Esther will be read in synagogues worldwide. The Book of Esther is a curious one, unlike any other book in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament canon.  The name of God appears nowhere on the pages, the hero of the story is a woman, and the action takes place in the winter palace of a Persian king.

Not having read the Book of Esther in quite a while, I had forgotten what a captivating story it is. The Book of Esther has been described as a “gem of a little story,” and rightly so.  The story goes roughly thus:  King Ahasuerus, probably Xerxes I (who reigned from 486-465 BC and is best known for his failed attempt to invade Greece), gives a magnificent banquet for his nobles and officials.  In high spirits from all the wine he has been drinking, Xerxes commands his eunuchs to bring his beautiful queen, Vashti, to the banquet hall so he can show her off to his guests.  She refuses to come.  (We’re never told why she doesn’t come.) An enraged Xerxes, acting on the advice of his wise men, decrees that Vashti is never again to enter his presence and that her position is to be given to another. 

When the fairest young virgins in the land are brought to the king’s harem for his assessment, it is Esther, “beautiful in form and features,” who wins the king’s favour and replaces Vashti as queen. An orphan, Esther has been raised by her cousin Mordecai as his own daughter.  Mordecai has forbidden his charge to reveal her Jewish identity. Xerxes is thus unaware that his new queen is a Jew. 

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Some time after this, Xerxes elevates Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, to the highest position among his nobility, and orders all others to kneel down and pay Haman honour.  Mordecai refuses. When Mordecai’s Jewish identity is revealed to Haman, he scorns the idea of killing only Mordecai and looks for a way to annihilate all the Jews within the Persian Empire.  A pur, ‘lot’ (a four-sided die), is cast in Haman’s presence to determine the day to carry out his nefarious plan. The date selected is the 13th day of the 12th month of Adar.  Haman asks that a decree be issued in the king’s name to have all the Jews in the land–young and old, women and children–destroyed on the 13th of Adar and all their goods plundered. Xerxes consents.

A distraught Mordecai urges Esther to go to the king to petition him to spare her people. To go into the presence of the Persian king unsummoned could result in death, even for a queen, but Esther courageously agrees to intervene. When the king sees Esther standing in the royal court, he is pleased with her and extends his golden scepter to her, thus indicating that she may safely approach.  When Esther reveals what Haman has in mind, Xerxes understands that he has in fact sentenced his own wife to death along with all her people.  Enraged, he orders Haman to be hanged on the very gallows that Haman had had constructed for Mordecai’s execution.  Unable by law to overturn Haman’s earlier genocidal decree, Xerxes orders Mordecai to write another decree in the king’s name, granting the Jews the right to arm themselves and resist their attackers.  When the 13th of Adar arrives, the Jews strike down all their enemies. To celebrate their great victory, Mordecai sends letter to all the Jews throughout the Persian Empire commanding them to celebrate annually the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar with feasting and joy, with gift giving to one another and to the poor.  The two days of celebration are to be known as Purim, a name derived from the lots, or dice, rolled by Haman to determine on what day the Jews would die.

The Book of Esther with its inspiring tale of Jewish triumph over Haman and his genocidal scheme has been read largely as an historical narrative. Some question such a reading, however, and see the story more as a piece of historical fiction. Only King Ahasuerus appears to be connected to an actual historical figure, namely, Xerxes I. Were Esther, Mordecai, and Haman, then, mere fictional creations?  I would say not, particularly in the case of Haman.  If only Haman were a fictional character!  Haman was all-too-human–and his evil-minded progeny lives on.  All one has to do is listen to the threatening rants of the current President of Iran (formerly known as Persia) to hear echoes of Haman.  Some of the Iranian President’s most recent statements are: “Any freedom lover and justice seeker in the world must do its best for the annihilation of the Zionist regime [the Jewish state]….” Again, “The ultimate objective of world forces must be the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” And again, “The Zionists are goners and the world will be freed from their existence.” Of the world’s 13.75 million Jews, 43% live in Israel.  The threat to the Jews living in Israel today is every bit as dire as it was to the Jews in Esther’s time.

When Mordecai urges Esther to intervene on behalf of her people, he expresses the confidence that relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from elsewhere, should she fail to act.  In a book devoid of any mention of God, such confidence on Mordecai’s part can only derive from a belief that God in His sovereignty will intervene to fulfill his promises to His people, in some way or another.  But Esther does intervene on behalf of her people, at great personal risk to herself.  And it is this combination of Divine Sovereignty and individual responsibility that overcomes Haman and his wicked plan.  The Book of Esther is a book that should both comfort–and challenge–those who read it.      

 

 

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