Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia.
Key words: Persian history. Ahasuerus (Xerxes). Vashti and feminism. Mordecai's inside track. Amalek against Saul. Purim. Courage in despair. Anti-semitism. God in the shadows. Two people save a captive nation.
Esther is the last of the historical Old Testament books, and covers the story of a Jewish woman who was chosen to be queen of the Persians. We will see how Gods power is evident, even when not mentioned directly, and how God's judgment of the Jews throughout history has led to them to be an even closer-knit community.
There are 12 books of history, starting with Joshua, Judges and Ruth and the conquest of Canaan before the monarchy, and ending with Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther after the Exile in Babylon. [We hasten to add that Genesis and Exodus are historical, as well as parts of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But for classification peurposes, they are called the Pentateuch, the five books for Moses.] There are also apocryphal (hidden) historical Old Testament books, notably the Maccabees, which contain some reliable history but lack biblical authority. Esther has always been controversial because the name of God is not mentioned and there are no clearly religious references, not even to prayer.
Some have thought it was mainly an apology for the festival of Purim, a kind of nationalistic tract. Esther is found by some to be vengeful and devious; she did not hesitate to marry a Gentile. Mordecai was arrogant enough to be a risk to his own people. Xerxes was cruel and capricious. Altogether it is the stuff of an exciting romance, some think it is without a spiritual application. Others, notably Charles Swindoll, find abundant material to inspire and we also will find it profitable for evidence of God’s hand in human affairs, and more specifically, His protection of Israel.
1:1–8 Ahasuerus was the third king of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus, the first king and his grandfather, was called “my shepherd” by Isaiah. (44:28). He made the decree which allowed Jews to return from exile. (Ezra 1:1–4). He was considered wise and benevolent. His son Darius was a skilful warrior. His grandson, Xerxes I (Ahasuerus), had neither the humanity nor the military ability of his fathers.
The story begins in 483BC, in Susa, capital of the Empire. Ahasuerus was on the eve of foolish battles with the Greeks (Thermopylae and Salamis) in which he would be defeated. He decreed a six month celebration in advance of war, probably rotating the elite from his 127 provinces so that it would be less of a debauch than it might appear. The palace grounds were decorated with marble pillars, drapes, and beautifully inlaid pavement.
At the end of the six months, he had a seven-day party for the people of Susa. Drinking was liberal but not commanded.
1:9–22 Queen Vashti was also having a banquet for the women. Xerxes called on her, his trophy wife, to appear before his drunken lords, wearing her crown. She flatly refused. He was the absolute king of the Persians, but thwarted in the presence of his nobles by none other than his own wife. Rage got him nowhere. If the king could not manage his household, women all over the Empire would likewise be contemptuous of their husbands. The wise men of Persia feared for all the marriages in the Empire. A feminist revolt was brewing, the first in history. They advised the king to depose Vashti and give her crown to another.
2:1–11 Four years passed. (2:16). His anger cooled --and probably his pride was deflated in war. The king’s advisors arranged to have a beauty contest for a new queen. Mordecai was a Jew in Susa with an orphaned female cousin whom he had adopted. He was a Benjaminite, of the family of Kish, from whom came Saul, Israel's first king hundreds of years before. (ISam.9:1–3). Esther was beautiful and she was among those chosen. She did not disclose her Jewish identity. Her Jewish name is Hadassah (the myrtle , symbol of God’s blessing); her Persian name, Esther ("star") is probably related to Ishtar, the goddess.
There were Jews in Mesopotamia who had not returned to Israel with Ezra. Fifty thousand men had returned with Ezra (4:6) but many had remained behind. Two generations had passed in exile, so that the number may have quadrupled. They were scattered over the Persian Empire.
2:12–18 The preparation of the women required a year of skin treatments. After their night with the king, they went to the harem of the concubines for the rest of their lives (perhaps with a child). It was a dead end for all but one. Esther took only what her advisor recommended. The king chose her and made her queen instead of Vashti. What did she have that the other girls did not have? From the family of Kish, she may have had some of Saul's regal bearing. (2:5). She was uncorrupted by Babylonian culture, beautiful and lovely. In celebration of their new queen, the people of the provinces were given a tax-break and many received presents from the king.
2;19–23. Mordecai maintained a a listening post usually at the king’s gate as well as checking the harem through Esther. He heard of a plot against the king and reported it to Esther who informed the king. The official records acknowledged Mordecai’s contribution, but he received no personal recognition—a simple oversight--but one that will become important.
3:1–6 The king advanced Haman, one of his nobles, and commanded all his servants to bow before him. Mordecai would not, but he was not a servant of the King either. When Haman found that Mordecai was a Jew, he decided to avenge himself not only on Mordecai, but on all the Jews of the Empire. Haman is called an Agagite, possibly related to king Agag of the Amalekites that Saul failed to destroy. (ISam. 15). Amalek was the grandson of Esau. If this connection is correct, we have another example of the animosity between Jacob and Esau, which goes back to the Exodus (17:8–16) when the Amalekites harassed Israel in the wilderness, attacking the stragglers.
3:7–15 Five years later, Haman had the sooth-sayers throw dice (pur) for a year until they hit on the lucky day for his plan to wipe out the Jews. Haman told the king that
“there is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces…their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s law, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them”.
The king casually decreed their destruction, and Haman agreed to donate ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury. (A talent is about 83 pounds. This is an enormous amount of money and tells us that Haman was very rich.) The decree was to “destroy, slay and annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day….” The day of the decree to destroy (3:12) was the thirteenth day of the first month, the day before Israel's traditional Passover. Ex.12:1–6
4:1–17 The decree threw all the Jews into deep mourning, wailing and going about dressed in burlap with ashes on their heads. Esther, unaware of the threat, could not persuade Mordecai to stop mourning. Hathach, the eunuch assigned to her, was the go-between, giving Esther the details of the plot and getting the word from Mordecai that the fate of the Jews was in her hands. Esther had not been invited to see the king for a month and was not sure of her status. She had been queen for five years. Perhaps the king was tired of her. To venture into the throne room unbidden was to risk death. Mordecai was insistent:
“And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”
Esther asked for a three day fast for the Jews in Susa before she went to the king.
“…and if I perish, I perish.”
5:1–14 Esther in her queen’s robes stood just outside the king’s hall and waited. The king invited her to the throne. She invited the king and Haman to a banquet. Haman was ignored by Mordecai again and he prepared a high gallows to execute Mordecai. (A gallows 75 ft. high is an announcement, a big political bill-board.) Then he went off to the banquet. Esther did not make a petition except to ask for another banquet the next night.
6:1–14 A sleepless night for the king suddenly changed the direction of the story. Mordecai’s detection of the two would-be assassins came up in a reading of the king’s chronicles and also the fact that no reward had been given. The king’s attendants brought in Haman to reward Mordecai. The king was subtle and did not tell Haman who would receive the reward. Haman assumed it would be himself. Putting royal robes on Mordecai, a crown on his head and a royal horse for him to ride on was bad enough, but then he had to parade him through the streets, proclaiming his fame. Haman went home in anguish. His wife and friends made the situation worse by warning him that Mordecai was going to win and he would surely lose. A son of Amalek was pitted against a son of Saul.
7:1–10 After the second banquet was concluding, the king again asked Esther for her request. She begged for the life of her people—not enslavement, but annihilation was decreed by Haman. Haman sealed his fate by falling on Esther’s couch, pleading for his life. Coming back into the room, the king thought Haman was assaulting the queen. Haman was hanged on the high gallows instead of Mordecai.
8:1–17 Mordecai was given the king’s signet ring and was put over the house of Haman, but the decree (the Law of the Medes and the Persians) to destroy, slay and annihilate the Jews could not be reversed. However, the Jews could be authorized to defend themselves and it was so ordered by Mordecai. They were entitled "to destroy, slay and annihilate" any that might attack them. Mordecai left the king with royal garments, a crown and a beautiful mantle. Susa rejoiced; there must have been many Jews in the capital.
9:1–32 The Jews were turned from a despised people to a politically privileged society with the politicians taking their part. The Jews killed 75,000 in the provinces, and 800 in Susa over two days. Purim (from “pur”, the dice Haman used) became a permanent holiday for the Jews and it is celebrated to this day.
When God is silent….
God was at work in providential ways. We see this in the small view of two Jews moving into power in Persia, the struggle with Haman's hatred, the discovery of Mordecai's saving intervention (at night) and Haman's fatal last move.
We see this in the large view that Daniel gives us through the vision of a Theophany or Chrstophany. Christ and Michael, the arch-angel, were in contention with the prince of Persia (Dan.10:14) and Christ would go back to join the contest after His message to Daniel. (Dan.10:20). This prince of Persia was apparently Cyrus (Dan.10:1), who served God’s purposes in the liberation of Israel. Isa.44:28.
From the human side, we see only the despairing resistance of two people, the queen and her her uncle Mordecai. In the Screwtape Letters, C.S.Lewis writes
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no long desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished , and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. “ (The Screwtape Letters. C.S.Lewis; Macmillan,’44; p.47).
“Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne--
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
(The Present Crisis. Stanza 8. J.R.Lowell)
Many see Esther as the beginning of the history of anti-semitism. But there are other clues in the Bible that it was not a new antipathy.
“I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse.” (Gen.12:2)
“You have made us a taunt of our neighbors;
the derision and scorn of those about us.
You have made us a byword among the nations,
A laughingstock among the peoples.” (Psa.44:13–14)
Other references in the Psalms include Psa.74,79; 80:6, 119:31.
Jeremiah prophesied that trouble would pursue the exiles.
“I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt and a curse in all the places where I drive them.” Jer.24:9) Other references are Jer.29:18; 42:18; 44:8,12.
God’s judgment isolated the Jews from their neighbors and paradoxically assured their survival. They were forced to stick together, and lean on God.
*The next major historical event was the suppression of Judaism by the notorious Greek Antiochus Ephiphanes. He denounced Sabbath idleness and superstitious dietary laws and tried to force the Jews into Greek culture. The Jews eventually were victorious over the Greeks under the leadership of the Maccabees.
*Claudius, Emperor of Rome, expelled all the Jews from Rome. Acts‘:1
*Hadrian, another Emperor of Rome, (117–138AD) forbade Jewish practices. Rabbi Akiba died under torture.
*Constantine, the first Christianized emperor (320AD) forbade the Jews from making converts or holding high political office.
*The early Church fathers were not sympathetic with the Jews. Chrysostome said “the synagogue is a brothel and a theater.”
*Medieval Jews in Europe could not own property and had to wear a patch. They were harassed as “”Christ-killers.” They were accused of spreading the Black Plague. Many became homeless—“the wandering Jew”.
*The First Crusade led to forced conversions and suicides.
*The Inquisition in Spain (1492) used torture, burning and expulsion to get rid of Jews.
*Luther (1520) wanted them driven out of Germany
*Under the Russian Cossacks, half a million Jews died.
*Czarist Russia had six million Jews. Following the pogroms the number fell to two million.
*The Nazis killed six million Jews. Hitler said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord. “--from the C.S.Lewis anthology. (The Quotable Lewis. W.Martindale, J.Root, edit; Tyndale,’63. p. 347).
* Iran’s declaration of Israel’s extinction and Hamas’ insistence that the Jews vacate Jerusalem gives some dimension to current anti-Semitism. The harassment seems endless.
Since God curses those who curse the children of Abraham, we are advised to bless and curse not—for our own good as well as theirs. Moreover, Paul says the Gospel is to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Rom.1:16).
We must be wise, thoughtful and caring with respect to the Jews.
“…do not boast over the branches. If you boast, remember that it is not you that support the root but the root supports you.” (Rom.11:18)
“Do not become proud, but stand in awe.” (Rom.11:20)
“Lest you become wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery that a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved.” (Rom.11:25)
“As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake, but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” (Rom.11:28)