Last Sunday two global pageants took place. The Academy Awards Ceremony captured the eyes of the world on Sunday evening, but as the Oscars were starting, the Jewish festival of Purim was ending. Between sunset on Saturday and nightfall on Sunday, Purim was celebrated with carnivals and processions, fancy dress and feasting, as Jewish people remember the Old Testament story of Queen Esther and the deliverance of God’s people.
This is a belated post for Purim, not just because the festival has passed, but also because it’s a post I said would be ‘my next post’ way back in December 2011. You can read the first two parts of my discussion about Esther here and here. Since I wrote this a long time ago, there is some repetition in what I’ve written below, and I’m still trying to home in on the answer to the question I posed back then “Do we need to put God back into Esther?”
In my former posts I was trying to clear the ground of unhelpful approaches to Esther and, having done that, we now need to look at the story. It’s in this colourful narrative that we begin to see that God was right there all the time.
We might have seen it as a vegi-tale, where Esther is an aubergine or something, but I imagine that a retelling for children left out some of the more sordid details of this book. And there are some fairly questionable things going on here.
We start in chapter one by being introduced to King Xerxes I, who is also know as Ahasuerus. This places the story between 485 and 465 BC, so some years after the exile, and in keeping with what we know about the geo-political situation of the time, Xerxes rules over the mighty Persian empire, 127 provinces stretching from India in the east to Libya and Greece in the West.
So at this time there had been a remnant return to Jerusalem, but Jewish people lived throughout the empire, some of them even in the citadel of Suza, which is where the action in Esther takes place.
So how do you treat the most powerful man in the world? Well, there is an expectation of obedience, not just from his armies, or his government, but also from his household. So one day during a lavish banquet King Xerxes and the visiting dignitaries and the nobles are beginning to behave in some fairly unpleasant laddish behaviour. After a few drinks too many, the men begin to boast about their sexual conquests and the king begins to boast about his queen. After all, the purpose of the banquet was the display the might and prowess of the empire, and what better way of doing so than to parade the king’s greatest trophy to the world.
Now this was well before the days of political correctness, and so the king summons his attendants to go and get queen Vashti. We read in chapter one verse 11: that she was to be brought “wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.”
Now chaps might expect the same response if we tried to get away with this sort of thing. Vashti is often dismissed as a small bit-player in the Esther narrative but, like many of the more interesting women in the Old Testament, Vashti is something of a proto-feminist. As Queen, the eyes of the empire will be on her and her actions will be noticed and copied by the women of the realm, and Vashti won’t come and be treated as a sex-object, something to be ogled at and fantasised about. So the King has something of a problem – here is someone in the very heart of his household who will not obey him.
The King’s advisors say to him, if you let her get away with this, then people the notice and the same problem will spread. Wives will say to their husbands “If even the wife of Xerxes does not obey him, why should we obey you?” So Xerxes makes an example of Vashti and kicks her out. This leave a vacancy, not in the kings bed, it seems, there are still plenty of young women in the harem for that purpose, but there is no queen, and so the king decides to do what any self respecting monarch would do, he decided to choose his next queen by holding a beauty pageant.
So it’s a case that whoever is the most beautiful wins. Or at least that’s the vegi-tales version. The real criteria seems to be whoever most satisfies the king sexually would be the winner. This is not just a beauty pageant, this is about how good you are in bed.
And just in case we are a bit squeamish about admitting what was actually involved, what happened at this point is that the women went from one part of the harem, where the women were virgins, into the king’s bedroom and then on to another section of the palace where the women were wives or concubines. Verses 13 and 14 of chapter 2 spell it out for us”
“And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.”
And presumably if you were called, you learnt the lesson of Vashti, and you came.
Now Esther is the heroine, she has received a little help, and undergone months of beauty treatments, and at the end of the day she is brought to the king.
And Esther pleases the king and she is made queen, and the citadel celebrates by having another lavish banquet in her honour, decreeing a public holiday and showing the provinces with gifts from the royal treasury.
While all this is going on, the camera shifts. We are still in the citadel of Susa, but now Mordecai is the focus. Mordecai is a Jew, and the Uncle of Esther, and we read that he has raised Esther like a daughter. Now Mordecai is a fairly shrewd operator, and he keeps a low profile and we realise that it was on his instructions that Esther has kept quiet about the fact that she is a Jew.
One thing, however, brings Mordecai to the attention of the king – from where he sits at the kings gate, he is able to hear a lot of gossip, and one day he stumbles upon a plot among the royal officials to assassinate the king himself. Mordecai reports this, the culprits are captured and executed and Mordecai’s name is written down in the annals as someone worth honouring. This is a little like having your name on the Queen’s new year’s honours list, it’s symbolic rather than of any material value.
Chapter three introduces us to another character, Haman the Agagite. Haman is a senior official in the government of Xerxes and, like the king, he is a man who expects to be obeyed. He expects people to recognise his importance and to do as he says.
Now Haman thinks that a good way to show respect is by bowing down, and so he issues an order that whenever he rides past, everyone must bow down and worship him.
This is a man with delusions of grandeur on the scale of a Kim Jong-Il or a Saddam Hussein, and if you refused to play along, you would find yourself in real trouble.
And just in case we think that Haman is an historical anomaly, take a look at the luxury motorcade which carries Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe around his poverty stricken country. Since 2002, motorist have been required by law to pull off the road of they see the president’s entourage coming. It’s also an offence to gesticulate at the vehicles, and pedestrians who don’t get out of the way run the risk of being mown down or shot as terrorists.
But one person in Susa won’t obey the order. Mordecai won’t bow down and so Haman is enraged. Every time he enters the king’s gate, there is this man who will not show reverence. One thorn in his flesh, reminding him that he is not as powerful as he would like to be. Haman can command men’s actions, but he cannot command their will.
We don’t know if Mordecai is simply standing while those around him bow. We don’t know if he turns his back or if he makes rude hand gestures as Haman rides past, but his defiance causes Haman to hate this man and to hate his people. He might be saying to himself, “this is typical of this weak king and his tolerance of these people. These Jews are a threat and a danger”, and so he plans to get revenge on the Jews, and he arranges for the king to sign a death warrant for this people.
So the day is set, the command is signed, sealed and delivered, and we’ll remember from Daniel that the laws of the Meads and the Persians cannot be repealed. Once they are written then must be carried out.
So the Jews are sentenced to death, at the hands of Haman, with the authority of the king.
Now this leaves Mordecai with a serious problem, and unbeknown to the king, it also leaves Esther with a problem. And so Mordecai begin to fast and pray. He tears his clothes, he sits in sackcloth and ashes and he talks to queen Esther.
Mordecai says to Esther, you have the ear of the king. You are his queen and with him when no-one else is, can’t you whisper something in his ear during your pillow talk and do something to stop this. Esther’s reply is to remind her uncle what happened to queen Vashti. Chapter 4 verse 11, Esther says:
“All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold sceptre to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”
But Mordecai has faith that there is more going on than meets the eye. And so he replies with this well known phrase, which is at the heart of the book and at the centre of our understanding of Esther. Chapter 4 Verse 13:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”
And so reflecting on this Esther realised that she has no choice. This is not just about doing the right thing, but about survival and so she resolves to do something very risky.
Esther puts on her best clothes, and goes to the palace, and stands before the king. And, he is pleased to see her – which is good news and Esther and great news for the Jews.
But it is not enough for her to just go in and argue about politics, the law cannot be repealed, and so instead Esther begins to put in motion a plan to save the Jews.
Esther asks the King to come to a private banquet, and to bring Haman with her. Which makes Haman think even more of himself. He thinks, what a privilege to be invited to dinner at the royal table, what a recognition of my status, what an accolade!
But there is still someone who can dent Haman’s mood, and as he leave the palace, again he sees Mordecai in the gate, and this time he resolves to destroy him utterly, and so builds high gallows in his back garden, with the intention of stringing Mordecai up on them, publicly humiliating him as he has done by refusing to bow down.
What happens next is nothing short of divine intervention. Seemingly by co-incidence that night the King cannot sleep. And to help him nod off he begins to read through the annals until he comes to the part which records Mordecai’s involvement is uncovering the assassination plot. He also realises that he has done nothing to recognise this.
At that moment Haman comes into the court, with the death warrant ready for signing, but instead the king asks him “What should be done for the man the king delights to honour?” Haman cannot think of anyone who could possibly be more worthy of honour than himself, and so he thinks ‘what would I really like’ and so he says, verse 7 of chapter 6:
“For the man the king delights to honour, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honour, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!’”
“Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.”
Don’t you just love that bit? The tables are turned and the hero is exalted. This man who has humiliated Haman, will now humiliate him once again, and Haman is no fool, he goes out and obeys the king. We might see the forces smile on his face, but we know than inside his heart is seething with impotent rage at his powerlessness to destroy this man who keeps on defying him.
After this Haman attends the Banquet arranged by Esther. And at this feast, as is often the way, the drama is paced out. So on the first night they have a great time, they have the best food and the best wine and Esther asks if they can do it all again tomorrow.
The next night the scene is the same, but during the second feast, Esther begins to reveal her hand. At the start of chapter seven, the king again asks Esther what she wants and she says this:
“If I have found favour with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.’”
King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
Esther said, “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman.”
Brilliant! Esther is a Jew, and Haman has signed her death warrant with the King’s own signet ring, and here he is cowering at the dinner table, fully aware of what is about to happen.
Well, this where the story turns from Drama to Farce, at the king storms out Haman falls down before Esther and begin to plead for his life. At this point the king returns and sees Haman with his hands all over the queen and thinks “if this wasn’t bad enough, now Haman is trying to molest the queen as well, and so he has a bag put over his head, and he is let out to the very gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai.
After that Ester and Mordecai put together this plan to save the Jews. As we said, these laws cannot be repealed, so a new law is passed, that gives the Jews permission to arm themselves and to kill anyone who is planning to kill them.
And so this threat of destruction to both sides means that a truce descends and the feared ethnic cleansing does not take place. There is some fighting, but those who are the enemies of the Jews are frustrated and themselves killed.
Finally, Haman’s family are hung on the gallows they had intended for the Jews, a very public demonstrations of the triumph of the Jews and the destruction of their enemies.
This is a story which records God’s deliverance. That’s why it is read at the festival of Purim as a reminder of the rescue of the Jews.
At the end of the story the tables are turned completely, The final verses of the canonical Esther say this:
Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. Here is a godly prayerful man in a powerful position.
It’s a great story isn’t it? A riveting read with high drama, great irony, black humour, and captivating suspense. But we are still left with the question we started with.
Where is God is all of this?
- We can infer that he is behind the scenes, but can we prove it?
- Can a book which makes no reference to the divine names be rejected as lying outside the interest of Old Testament scholars?
- Is this book in the wrong place, does it belong in the apocrypha as a ‘useful’ book, rather then in the Bible as scripture?
As we read and reflect on the story of Esther, we cannot help but see that it belongs in the canon. The book highlights the Jewish people, scattered and exiled throughout the immense territory of King Xerxes, which the opening verses record, covered North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Asia. The story recalls how the enemies of the Jewish people contrive against them but through a combination of providence, bravery and cunning, the eponymous heroine secures the safety of her people and the destruction of those who oppose them.
The book of Esther reads as if it is has been written by a secular chronicler, anxious to convey the details accurately and favourably (especially the splendour of the king and his kingdom), but unwilling to attribute the outcome to a mere tribal deity. The story has the hallmarks of a ‘romance’ or a ‘historical novella’ and has assonances with the Arabian folk tale ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ . In Esther the king is powerful but benevolent, the heroine beautiful and brave and the enemy is ruthless and devious. There is a rags-to-riches transformation and justice is seen to be done, but there is more here than pure entertainment.
There is also the air of a moral fable to the story. Proverbs 3:34 teaches that YHWH “mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble” (NIV) and the story reinforces such a reversal of fortunes as the proud Haman is humbled and the lowly Mordecai is exalted.
In fact those Jewish scholars who were so keen to add to the book of Esther make this point explicitly in the Apocryphal chapter 11 where we read of the Jews
“Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water; light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour.” Esther 11:10-11 (DC)
But this story is much more than a cautionary tale. Although it is not explicit in the text, the story is one of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness to those who are faithful to Him. In a world of cultural and religious relativism, Esther and her uncle Mordecai refuse to abandon their absolute faith in the God of the covenant and instead of being destroyed, they are elevated to great power.
The main characters in Esther are portrayed as flawed but faithful. Esther finds favour from the king as a result of her performance in his bed (2:17), she became concubine to the uncircumcised pagan king and is defiled as she eats the food from his table. On the advice of her Uncle she also conceals here true identity (2:20) and presumably as a result is required to participate in the pagan worship of the Persian court.
Again, in their attempt to make the Jewish characters in the book into better role models the LXX attempts to explain away these defilements with prayers from Mordecai and Esther justifying their actions. But the Hebrew text, which is bereft of these excuses, presents more believable and more credible characters. These flawed characters are more true to the Hebrew scriptures taking their places alongside Samson, Gideon, David and other flawed people who are, nevertheless, used by YHWH.
It is not perfection, then, which is the defining characteristics of the Jewish characters. Rather it faithfulness and trust. Mordecai’s response to the news of Haman’s plot is to put on sackcloth and ashes (4:1), as is the response of the scattered Jewish communities throughout Persia (4:3). In the Jewish scriptures, wearing sackcloth and ashes was synonymous with calling out to YHWH in repentance or supplication and there is no reason to suggest that the action has any other meaning on this occasion. Even the King of Nineveh, on hearing Jonah’s warning exchanges his royal robes for these garments of repentance (Jonah 3:6) and exhorts his city to “cry mightily to God” (3:8).
As we look for signs of God’s activity in the book of Esther, we realise that it is Mordecai’s Jewish identity and faith in God’s promises to His people that lead to the planned holocaust. Verses 3 and 4 of chapter 3 tell us as much:
“Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behaviour would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.”
(Esther 3:3–4 NIV11)
‘He had told them that he was a Jew.’ These are the only words of explanation about Mordecai’s motivation for his refusal to bow down.
I an attempt to find some deeper connection, some commentators have suggested that it was his family history that prevented him from showing respect in this way. In 2:5 Mordecai’s family is traced back to Kish and in 3:1 Haman is identified as an Agagite. The connection that is drawn is that in 1 Sam. 15:20-33 Saul, the son of Kish fails to put to death all the Amalekites and especially their King Agag. Knowing who Haman was, how could Mordecai then bow before him?
This theory, although providing a speculative insight into the background of these two men, does not seem to advance an understanding of the theology of the book of Esther. In addition it contains a further problem in that in 2:6 the text records that “Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away.” This can hardly be the same Kish, appearing both in the deportation of 597 B.C. and the genealogy of King Saul some 400 years previously.
It is, maybe, more reasonable to give to Mordecai’s actions the force the texts suggest. Mordecai refused to bow or do obeisance to Haman, and although some commentators attribute this to arrogance and the Rabinic sources suggest that Haman had “a divine image embroidered on the chest of sleeve of his garment” , it is taken for granted by the author of the text that the reason why Mordecai will not bow is simply because he is Jewish. Surely, as the book hints and the LXX additions (13:14) make plain, this is because to bow to anything other than YHWH himself is to break the most important commandments, it is to deny the very thing that underpins the Jewish identity.
If his motivation is not to dishonour God, what of the explanation of his actions to those who were also at the King’s gate? When the King’s servants saw that Mordecai did not obey the king and bow before Haman the text records that they asked him why this was (3:3).
Mordecai’s response is not recorded (except that he would not listen to them, 3:4) and when he is reported to Haman it is “in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew” (3:4). The reader is left to imagine what these words of Mordecai might have been, but there are very clear parallels elsewhere in the genre of wisdom literature where these words of explanation are make explicit.
When Daniel’s companions are faced with the rage of King Nebuchadnezzar for their refusal to bow down and worship his image, their response is simple and displays the same trust the Mordecai has that relief will come for the faithful Jews. They reply to the king saying:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
In Esther, the King’s servants want to test Mordecai’s words, and the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego seem to fit the mouth of Mordecai perfectly. There is trust, challenge and the simple refusal to compromise the worship of YHWH with the relativism of Babylon and Persia.
Joseph is in a similar situation in Egypt when he is asked to interpret the King’s dream. Having learnt humility in the disgrace of Pharoah’s dungeon, now Joseph is not coy about who it is he worships. Joseph says “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer” (Genesis 43:16). These short confessions are charged with meaning and again point to the source of Jewish identity – God himself.
One final example, again in the broader category of wisdom literature is that of Jonah. Again, a Jew finds himself among pagans and out of their favour, but as Jonah explains who he is and who he worships, the response from the pagan sailors is not anger, or incredulity, but blind panic. Jonah tells them
“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship [YHWH], the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
Among these men there is a realisation that YHWH is more then a tribal deity, he is the cause of their calamity and must become the object of their worship (Jonah 1:16).
The proving of the words of Mordecai is synonymous, then, with testing the faithfulness of YHWH. Mordecai firmly believes that deliverance will come and he recognises that he and Queen Esther may be YHWH’s instruments in obtaining that deliverance, but that whether or not they act in accordance with His will, YHWH will deliver the Jews from their enemies and from the ethnic cleansing orchestrated by Haman. That one possible circumlocution which I mentioned earlier is the word ‘place’ in 4:14– “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.”
As the text plays out the story becomes one of role reversal. The powerless Jews are elevated by the king while the powerful enemies of the Jews are overcome. Mordecai is promoted from sitting at the king’s gate to riding on the king’s horse while Haman and his sons are hanged from the very gallows upon which they had intended to humiliate Mordecai.
From a human point of view, the bravery and courage of Esther brought about the liberation of her people. But the book of Esther stands firmly within the canon of scripture as it tells the story of YHWH’s providence and his faithfulness to those who follow Him. Although these people are morally compromised, such is YHWH’s grace to them that they can become His agents for deliverance in a foreign court. This is the reason for celebration. This is why this scroll would be read both morning and evening at the festival of Purim to remind the Jews that as they participated in Purim, just a month before Passover, they were remembering YHWH’s deliverance, his grace and his covenantal faithfulness.
So Estehr book is not just a Jewish book, and Purim is not just a Jewish festival. The theology of Esther is the theology of Purim, faith in a foreign land. YHWH’s faithfulness to those who were faithful to Him.
So where is God in the book of Esther – He is there, we just need to look a little closer to see him at work.