Saturday, April 19, 2008

An Introduction to the Book of Esther

Despite being a lifelong Christian, one raised in a family that was in Church three times a week, and despite having heard literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of sermons in my life and attended countless Sunday school classes, I do not think that I have ever heard a teaching from the Old Testament book of Esther. Recently, however, I read a short synopsis of what the book was about, and found it intriguing, so I decided to sit down and read it for myself.

Esther is a short book, comprising only nine chapters, and it is unique in the Bible as being the only book that never, either implicitly or explicitly, mentions God in any form. There are no references at all to God or the Lord, and no common reference found in other Old Testament books to prominent figures and events like Moses, Elijah, Abraham, the Exodus, the Temple, Jerusalem, or the Mosaic Law. In fact, the whole story takes place not in the Promised Land, but entirely in the kingdom of Persia, specifically the capital city of Susa, and centers around the court of King Xerxes. Rather than reading like a religious text, it reads instead like a work of ancient creative writing, similar in style to The Odyssey or The Iliad. Like a work of good fiction, it has all the elements of a captivating ancient drama: a lovely na├»ve virgin from the fringe of society who wins the heart of the king and is made queen, thwarted assassination attempts, revenge-fueled genocidal pogroms against an entire race of people, impalings on ancient gallows, a vicious antagonist with a vendetta, and a climatic battle where the “good guys” are ultimately the victors.

The story begins in the early days of Xerxes’ reign, historically set during the 5th century B.C.E. He throws an elaborate banquet, and when it is over, he sends word to the queen – who like most wives of ancient rulers lived in a separate part of the palace – that she should come to him. She spurns his request, however, and refuses to come. The text does not elaborate on her reasons, leaving it open to creative interpretation. Perhaps she had a lover and no longer wanted to provide sexual favors to the king; perhaps she was secretly conspiring against him. Whatever her reason, she refuses to see him. Naturally, this raises Xerxes’ ire, and he sends her away, effectively divorcing her and excommunicating her from his court.

Following this, the king sends out a proclamation to all his lands that he is in the market for a new wife, and he commands all the people to send him their most available virgins for him choose from. At this point we are introduced to the character of Mordecai. Mordecai was a Jew, working in some unnamed manner in the court of the king. The Jews, as a race of people, had come to be in the Persian kingdom about one hundred years earlier, when they were deported there by the then ruling Babylonians. The Babylonians had subsequently been overthrown by the invading Persians, and the Persians had permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. However, since most of the Jews who were living by that time had been born and raised in Babylon and not Judea, many were not interested in returning to an unfamiliar homeland, and preferred instead to stay in the place that was familiar. This was further encouraged by the Persian propensity to allow freedom of religion and to even allow non-Persians to hold important positions in society. For this reason, Mordecai the Jew was able to work in the capital city, in the court of the king himself.

Mordecai, the text tells us, had adopted his female cousin Esther, after her parents – Mordecai’s uncle and aunt – had died. Esther was, apparently, quite a bit younger than her cousin Mordecai, and Mordecai had essentially raised her as his own daughter. She was a beautiful and charming young virgin, and Mordecai brought her to the king’s court to be considered by Xerxes. Xerxes, in turn, was immediately taken in by her beauty and charm, and subsequently chose her as his new wife. Suddenly Esther, a non-Persian from ignoble origins, had become the most powerful woman in the kingdom.

Sometime after Esther’s ascendancy, Mordecai, as an employee at the king’s court, got word of a secret plot by two of the palace guards to assassinate Xerxes. Mordecai, who was still in touch with Esther, told her about the plot, and Esther in turn revealed it to the king. Xerxes arrested the conspirators and had them publicly impaled on the gallows, and his commitment to his new queen was further deepened, as Esther had been the one who had revealed the plot to him. At this point in time, Xerxes did not apparently know that Mordecai had actually been the revealer of the conspiracy.

After the thwarted assassination attempt, the text tells us that one of the king’s chief advisors, a man named Haman who is described as an Agagite, won special favor with the king and was elevated to second in command in the kingdom. The text does not tell us what Haman did to win the king’s favor. Perhaps he won a decisive military victory – again, the lack of information leaves it open to creative interpretation. Either way, the king ordered all of his advisors, counselors, and officials to bow down in respect to Haman whenever they were in his presence, much the same way that they would be required to show obeisance in the king’s presence. Mordecai, however, refused to do this. As an Agagite, Haman was descended from a group of people who were one of Israel’s ancient enemies, and as such, Mordecai apparently could not bring himself to bow before Haman.

Naturally, Haman did not respond well to Mordecai’s insubordination. However, instead of simply taking revenge on Mordecai personally, Haman is depicted as deciding that the entire Jewish population of the Persian kingdom needed to be eradicated. Throughout the text, Haman is referred to as “the enemy of the Jews.”

In order to carry out his dastardly scheme, Haman went to the king and informed him that there was a group of people within the kingdom who were a threat to the king and to the stability of his lands, and that they should therefore be gotten rid of. Not having any clue just who this race of people consisted of (Xerxes is routinely depicted throughout the story as a sort of absent-minded but loveable despot), Xerxes approves Haman’s request, and gives him his signet ring, permitting him to draw up a proclamation, seal it with the royal ring, and send it out to all the lands of the kingdom. At this point, Haman draws lots to determine the day upon which the slaughter should take place, and it comes to pass that the day is chosen for some eight or nine months down the road. Subsequently, Haman draws up a proclamation in the king’s name, ordering all able-bodied men to form armies and slaughter all the Jews – elderly, women, and children included – on the appointed day. Since Persian law and tradition held that any proclamation by the king was binding for all time, the order to slaughter the Jews could not ever be rescinded, even by the king himself.

Needless to say, Mordecai very quickly became aware of Haman’s plot to eradicate the Jewish people. He felt that the only way to subvert this plot was to go to Esther and ask her to appeal on behalf of the Jewish people to the king. When she learns of the plot, Esther is horrified by what Haman is planning, but is also hesitant to approach the king about the subject. If she seeks an audience with the king, and the king is not pleased, the punishment is death. She asks Mordecai to tell the Jews to fast three days for her, while she makes her decision as to whether or not she will risk the king’s displeasure and her own demise by approaching him with this issue. This request for fasting is the only passage in the entire text that either implicitly or explicitly refers to any sort of religious ritual or practice.

In the end, Esther decides to approach the king, but decides that trying to charm him is the smartest route. Therefore, instead of entering his chambers and asking him to save the Jews, she first approaches him and asks him to attend a banquet that she is throwing in his honor. In his meeting with Esther, Xerxes is depicted as still being smitten with her, promising her that he will give her anything she asks, “even up to half my kingdom.” He attends the banquet and it is a great success. However, when the banquet is over and he again asks her what she wants from him, she again declines to bring up the issue of the Jews, and instead asks him to attend yet another banquet that she is throwing for him. He consents.

About this point in the text, the story returns to the machinations of Haman in ridding Persia of the Jews. Haman has decided that he cannot wait until the appointed day to slaughter all the Jews, and instead wants to go ahead and whet his appetite by putting Mordecai to death. To this end, he erects a gallows in his own front yard, upon which he intends to impale Mordecai. But before he can do this, the time for the second banquet arrives, and Haman accompanies the king to Esther’s elaborate feast.

Again the king is depicted as being utterly smitten with Esther, and when the banquet is over, he again asks her to tell him what she wants, promising to give her anything, up to half his kingdom. Esther delicately begins to tell him what has been transpiring under his nose. She reveals, apparently for the first time, that she is a Jew, and she tells him that someone in his court has been conspiring to eradicate her people from the empire. Xerxes (again the bumbling, absent-minded but loveable despot) is outraged that this has been going on, and he begs Esther to tell him who is behind the nefarious scheme. Esther points to Haman, who has been present throughout the entire discussion. Xerxes wastes no time in sentencing Haman to death. Without much pomp or ceremony described in the text, Haman is summarily impaled, executed upon the very gallows he had set up for Mordecai.

At this point, Esther also reveals to Xerxes that it had been Mordecai who had actually revealed the assassination plot by the palace guards. Xerxes asks if Mordecai was ever rewarded for this. When he finds out that Mordecai was overlooked, he dresses Mordecai up in royal garb, and parades him around the city, ordering all those who encounter him to bow down. Suddenly Mordecai has replaced Haman as second in command beneath the king, and the one for whom the king has intense favor.

There is still the issue of the impending slaughter of the Jews, however. As noted already, the king’s royal decree – the one penned by Haman – could not be rescinded, even by the king himself. So Mordecai and the king decide to draft another proclamation, this one allowing the Jews to defend themselves against the coming attacks. The text tells us that the people of Persia stood in fear of the Jews, and by and large began to rally around their cause. However, when the appointed day finally arrived, armies of Persian warriors set out to slaughter the Jews. The Jews, however, were ready, and were bolstered by popular support, and they soundly defeated their enemies. The text tells us that they put 75,000 people to death throughout the kingdom, not counting those they slaughtered in the capital city of Susa.

This victory over their enemies was cause for great celebration for Jews throughout the kingdom. Since the original date of the extermination had been chosen by drawing lots, they enacted a new holiday called Purim, which is simply the Hebrew word for “lots.” The text tells us that from that time forward, the holiday of Purim was to be celebrated by Jews, to remember and honor and celebrate the victory they won over their enemies, with the help of their beloved Queen Esther. The story ends by telling us, in essence, that Esther and Mordecai and all the others lived happily ever after.

The Book of Esther is a fantastic story with all the elements of a great drama, and while it may or may not contain any factual historical information, it stands as a testament to the perseverance of the Jews in the face of adversity, and it provides the basis for which the Jewish holiday of Purim is celebrated to this day. It further functions as a story of encouragement to modern Jews – one can imagine how it may have inspired Jews throughout history when they were faced with various pogroms against them, such as during the Inquisition and World War II. It illustrates in a creative way how the Jews have managed to maintain their unique identity, and how they have managed to survive even when so many different groups, throughout so many eras of history, have tried to wipe them from the face of the planet.

Despite being the only book in the Bible that never mentions God in any fashion, this is an extremely important and fascinating book, and rightfully belongs in the canon we call scripture.

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