Sept 30, 2018
If for some reason you happened to miss church on this particular Sunday, you would have missed the only reading from the book of Esther we have in our three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. Since the reading today is a portion from the middle of the book, without any immediate context, it may be a bit hard to understand. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, I’ll briefly try to give you an overview of what the book of Esther is all about.
Esther was a Jewish orphan adopted by her cousin Mordecai, who was taken to exile in Babylon at the fall of Jerusalem. Esther came to prominence when Vashti, queen of Persia, refused to be paraded around for the drunken king’s party guests (morally compromised leaders are not limited to the 21st C apparently) King Xerxes (Ahashuerus in Hebrew). As a result, Vashti was deposed from her position, and a search for a new queen began. As one might guess with such a leader, the primary qualification for the new queen was physical beauty, and Esther had this in spades. As such, this young Jewish orphan beauty was catapulted to the position of Queen of Persia… and the plot thickens.
In what seems to be a throw-away fact, Queen Esther’s cousin Mordecai once thwarted a plot to assassinate the King, and as such he was written up in the king’s annals of notable deeds. Another dubious character enters the story at this point by the name of Haman the Agagite (named after Agag, King of the Amalekites, and ancient foes of the people of Israel). I have read that even to this day during the Jewish feast of Purim that celebrates this story, when Haman’s name is mentioned, noise-makers sound, and all present all boo and hiss (and conversely cheer at the name of Esther). For reasons unknown, Haman was elevated to the position of prime minister, and other nobles would bow down in his presence (except for one, Mordecai). As one might imagine, Haman was not overly impressed with such insurrection, and as such, approached the king with a bribe of 10 thousand talents of silver (or in our measurements, approximately 375 tons) to not only kill Mordecai, but to destroy all those from the Jewish race (Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s were not the first to attempt such a Holocaust). The King not overly concerned with the genocide of an entire race of people (for he had important matters at hand, like drinking and debauchery), so he issued the degree, and for simply being Jewish, one became an enemy of the state worthy of death (note to self, not all laws made by the state are either good nor righteous).
Upon news of the upcoming genocide of the Jewish people, Mordecai entreats Queen Esther to intercede before the king on their behalf (remembering Esther herself was a Jew). There was one small hitch however for the queen, that being if she should go to the king without being summoned, she ran the very real risk of losing her life. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. There is no indication in the Bible that King Xerxes knew that Esther was of Jewish decent, so her decision was to risk her own life to save her nation, or to let her adoptive father Mordecai and the rest of her people die and hope to spare her own life. Perhaps the key passage in the entire book comes at this point in chapter four when Mordecai says, “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 your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:13,14
As it turned out, Queen Esther garnered the courage to approach the King, and he entertained her request to invite Haman to a dinner party. At this point the story takes a surprising twist (not so unlike some of the Shakespeare plays I remember from my high school days) when because of the king’s insomnia, he picks up a random book off the shelf, and discovers that Mordecai at one time foiled a plot to assassinate the king. Summoning his prime minister Haman, he invited him to imagine a way to honour the most beloved man in
the kingdom. Haman thinking this man to be himself, suggested a parade fitting for a king, complete with royal regalia, and riding a noble steed through the city streets. Just when Haman’s chest is about to explode with pride, the King gives the name of this most beloved servant…Mordecai. In that one moment, Haman’s “bubble burst”, for not only was his most dreaded enemy, Mordecai, to be led around town in the king’s apparel led by no less than his royal self, but as they were parading a 75-foot tower of death was being constructed for this very dignitary. Should the king find this out…one can only imagine Haman’s fate.
Well, at the queen’s banquet that was to be Haman’s finest and most glorious hour, Esther springs the news about the plot to kill Mordecai and his entire race, and names Haman as the culprit. Haman makes one last desperate plea throwing himself before the queen (which the king mistakes as an attempt at molestation), and Haman’s fate is quick and final (and at this point in the celebration of Purim, apparently everyone cheers at Haman’s demise).
And so, all the wealth of the estate of Haman was deeded to Esther and Mordecai, and the decree against the nation of Israel was overturned, and would now read, “The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Xerxes was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so that the Jews would be ready on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.” Esther 8: 11-13
Chapter 9 then tells of the feast of Purim (pur is Hebrew for lots, the casting of which was the method by which the day of their destruction was to be decided) and how it was to be celebrated. These celebrations continue to this very day (the next to be on Mar 20 and 21, 2019). The story is one of the most epic narratives in the Bible, but one not readily understood theologically. Even though the name of God is never to be found, the story of Esther does reveal some moral truths regarding ancestral hatred, weak and immoral political leaders, hasty legislation, and the “power of one” (both for good and for ill). Even as we speak we have many of these same issues before us in our own lands. Even today we need people of courage to risk honor and personal safety to speak out for the truth.
To some degree the book of Esther tells the story of redemption and is a type or shadow of what our Lord Jesus did for us. As stated earlier, in Mordecai’s speech when he states that should Esther fail in her resolve to intercede on behalf of her people, “relief and deliverance would come from another place”, perhaps the Holy Spirit is alluding here to the one from this “other place” who would come not only to bring deliverance to the Jews, but to the Gentiles as well.
Whatever the case, today is the only day in our three-year lectionary where we will read from the book of Esther. Now at least you know a bit about the contents of this book. As with all books in the Bible we regard this book as inspired, and trust that God will speak His truth through it (even if He is never mentioned by name). I would encourage all of you to give it a read this week (or sometime soon). It’s only 10 chapters and can be easily read in one sitting. As we well know, the decrees of King Xerxes were not binding, as the Jewish people have been threatened to extinction on several occasions throughout history since (and continue to be threatened today). Let’s pray for and speak in their defense, and for all who are threatened and oppressed. And let’s never forget the One who came from that “other place”, to be our ultimate Savior and Redeemer. Amen