The Story of Esther

by Glenn on September 30, 2018

I know someone who was given the assignment to read through the Bible and summarize each chapter. I decided this would be a great project to co-opt to increase my own understanding in a disciplined way. So far, I’ve completed the Old Testament. My plan is to type up my notes and do some reflecting on what I’ve learned. When the lectionary for the Book of Common Prayer recently took me to the book of Esther, I thought this would be a good place to start—a shorter book, easier to get my arms around*.

For the book of Esther, I had already written a sentence to summarize each chapter. As I re-read, I wrote a haiku to explain each chapter.

Chapter 1

Vashti won’t obey
could be trendy for women
so she is deposed

Queen Vashti refuses to model for the guests of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) so she is banned from the king’s presence as a lesson to all women on how to behave.

Chapter 2

Miss Persia pageant
to find Xerxes a new queen
Esther, a Jew, wins

Cousin Mordecai
reports a conspiracy
to kill King Xerxes

A beauty camp for virgins is created to find Vashti’s replacement. Esther, who keeps her Jewish identity secret, is the king’s favorite, becomes queen, and reports a plot on the king’s life overheard by her cousin, Mordecai. (Esther is an orphan raised by her cousin, Mordecai.)

Chapter 3

Haman convinces
King Xerxes to kill all Jews
13th of Adar

Haman is promoted to chief official. When Mordecai, a Jew, won’t bow, Haman decides to kill all the Jews and receives the king’s permission to do so.

Chapter 4

Mordecai fasts, asks
Esther to approach the king
“such a time as this”

As the Jews mourn, Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes and asks Esther to help. Esther agrees to talk to the king and asks the Jews to fast.

Chapter 5

Esther accepted
prepares banquets for the king
and Haman who plots

Esther is granted a wish by the king. She has a banquet for the king and Haman and invites them to another banquet. Haman creates a gallows for Mordecai.

Chapter 6

Xerxes’ sleepless night
brings Mordecai to mind
Haman unaware

The king is reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty and, without telling him why, asks Haman how to honor someone. Haman assumes it’s he who is to be honored and inadvertently elevates Mordecai.

Chapter 7

Esther’s prayer answered
Xerxes has Haman impaled
stunning reversal

Esther asks for the life of her people. In a stunning reversal, Haman is executed on the gallows he had built.

Chapter 8

one more petition
Mordecai elevated
Jewish people saved

The king empowers Esther to revoke the order to kill the Jews and there is great rejoicing.

Chapter 9
turned tables revenge
Jews strike down their enemies
Haman’s sons impaled

the feast of Purim
established to remember
sorrow into joy

A second reversal: Those who intended to kill the Jews are killed by the Jews. Haman’s sons are executed.

10
Mordecai the Jew
second in rank to Xerxes
spoke up for all Jews

The 14th–15th of Adar is a holiday. Pur = “lots”. Festival of Purim.

*   *   *

Without having done really any formal study of the book of Esther, here are some first thoughts:

—This is an intriguing, compelling story. It’s a page-turner. Things are a matter of life and death. Actions have consequences.

—It’s also a disturbing story. There are aspects that are quite uncomfortable for me to think about: Life is cheap; racism is rampant; women don’t have it so good.

—In addition to the dark moments, there are some funny ones, too.

—Isn’t it a little odd that in this book of the Bible there is no mention of God?

—Interesting to think of this story in the context of the larger story of God’s purposes. In a way, this is a story of revenge: “What you intended for evil, we gave right back to you.

*   *   *

The story opens with a crisis in the court of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus in the ESV). Xerxes had a large kingdom (127 provinces) and decides to throw a giant party to show off “the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty.” As a kind of finale to these extended festivities, Xerxes decides to have a seven-day-long banquet complete with open bar and no limits (obviously not worried about drinking and driving).

At the end of seven days, Xerxes decides a great thing would be to have his attractive wife, Queen Vashti, come in “wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.” There is something more than a little creepy about this, in what I think we can agree today is a misogynistic command. Perhaps Vashti thought so, too, as she refuses to do it.

This is a problem. When the king commands, you obey. It doesn’t really matter who you are. The king doesn’t know what to do, so he decides to consult “experts in matters of law and justice . . . wise men who understood the times.” These guys conclude that Vashti’s behavior is a big problem on two levels. One is the basic disobedience to the king. More importantly, is what happens when other women around the kingdom get word that Vashti didn’t obey her husband? What if they take her lead and don’t obey their husbands? Their conclusion: “There will be no end of disrespect and discord.” And so a law is created “which cannot be repealed” deposing Vashti who can never again enter the king’s presence. This law is circulated around the kingdom just to make it clear to everyone in the kingdom (mostly the women) who’s in charge around here (the men).

Eventually Xerxes calms down and his personal aids decide it’s time to have a Miss Persia contest to find a replacement for Vashti. If what was asked of Vashti was a little creepy, this contest is on another level entirely. A search is made throughout the kingdom “for beautiful young virgins for the king.” They are to be given beauty treatments and the one who “pleases” the king will get to be the new queen.

One of the young women found was a Jewish girl named Hadassah (also known as Esther). She was an orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai. The text says she “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” But the text suggests she was not just beautiful, but savvy as well. Esther and these other women are brought to the palace and placed “under the care of Hegai.” Esther, for reasons not explained, “pleased” Hegai who “provided her with her beauty treatments and special food.” She was also “moved … into the best place in the harem.”

By a prior agreement with her adoptive guardian, Mordecai, Esther doesn’t tell anyone she is Jewish. For twelve months each girl is given beauty treatments and then “she would go to the king,” which I assume is euphemistic for a sexual encounter. (The Miss Persia contest feels a lot like a prostitution ring for one client, King Xerxes, with the proviso that the winner gets to become king. No explanation what happens to the runners up.) The end result is that Esther won the king’s favor, was named Queen, and a big banquet was held in her honor.

Meanwhile, Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, has been hanging around the king’s gates to stay in touch with Esther. He overhears a plot by two of the king’s officers to assassinate King Xerxes. He tells Esther who reports it to the king. An investigation ensues and when the truth is discovered the two men “were impaled on poles.” Best not to think about that too much.

The story shifts. King Xerxes decides for unknown reasons to honor Naman, one of his officials. He is elevated above everyone else and, by command of the king, everyone else in the kingdom has to bow down to him. Mordecai refuses. And when people ask him about it, it comes out that he is a Jew. The text says Haman was “enraged” and decides that he wants to figure out a way to destroy not just Mordecai, but all of the Jews in the kingdom. A lot was cast and a date was determined for this annihilation—in the twelfth month, Adar.

Haman goes to King Xerxes with his complaint:

“There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8)

And then Haman throws in a bribe. If Xerxes will issue a decree to destroy the Jews, Haman will put ten thousand talents into the royal treasury. This is a staggering sum. The NIV note says this is 375 tons, which my math says is an eye-watering $176,640,000 (375 tons x 2,000 pounds per ton x 16 ounces per pound x $14.72).

The king agrees but says Haman can keep his money. He gives Haman his signet ring, which gives him the power to create laws. Notices are created which are sent around the kingdom: On the 13th day of the 12th month (Adar), all the Jews are to be killed. This is horrifying, to say the least, especially with our knowledge of the Holocaust of the last century.

Mordecai goes into mourning. He “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.” And not just Mordecai. As Jews around the kingdom hear about this decree announcing their demise, each engage in similar practices. They have a death sentence and there’s seemingly nothing that can be done.

Esther, living inside the palace apparently doesn’t know anything about this decree. When she hears that Mordecai is “in great distress” she sends him clothes, but he refuses to take them.

Finally, Esther sends Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs (now there’s a job), out to ask Mordecai what’s going on. Mordecai explains the situation and passes on the message that Esther should go see the king. Esther explains that this may not go well for her. Anyone who approaches the king without being summoned runs into a law that says you will be “put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives.” Esther further explains that it had been thirty days since she had been in the king’s presence. It feels risky.

Mordecai responds to her:

“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)

Esther replies:

“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)

After three days, Esther went in to see King Xerxes. When he saw her, he extended his scepter, sparing her life. Phew. But it went better than mere acceptance. Xerxes then asked her what she wanted and because she pleased him so much said he was willing to give her up to half of his kingdom. (I’d call this hyperbole, but he will repeat this statement.) Esther simply asks that the king and Haman come to a banquet she had prepared. At the banquet, Xerxes asks Esther again to tell him what she wants. She says that if he and Haman come to a banquet the next day, she will tell him.

A couple of things happen now that make things very interesting. First, Haman goes home bragging that he is so favored in the kingdom that the Queen wanted he alone to attend these banquets with the king. But he can’t enjoy his status because he can’t get “that Jew Mordecai” out of his mind. Haman’s wife has a great idea to set up a 75-foot tall pole to impale Mordecai on. That made Haman feel better.

Meanwhile, back in the palace, the king can’t sleep and asks that the records of his reign be read aloud to him. (Is that so he will go back to sleep? Or is this one of those tasks he engages in on sleepless nights? Answer unknown.) In those records is the story of how Mordecai had once prevented his assassination. Xerxes asked what had been to honor Mordecai. When the answer came back, “Nothing,” Xerxes decides to call in his highest official Haman to figure out what should be done.

Coincidentally, Haman is already coming to the king with the idea of asking permission to impale Mordecai. But before Haman can ask about Mordecai, Xerxes asks Haman, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor.” It’s too soon to talk about “the moral of the story,” but I think we can at least observe at this point that’s it’s bad to assume. In the case of Haman, bad is going to mean deadly. Haman assumes, incorrectly, that when the king is wondering how he can honor someone, that he is referring to him, so he decides he better not hold back—if the king really wants to honor him, then here are some things he could do:

—let him wear a robe the king has worn once
—let him ride a horse the king has ridden once
—let the horse have a royal crest on its head
—let the man with the robe on the horse with the crest be led through the streets with somone proclaiming, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”

The next moment is hilarious. The king says, “That’s great. Go and grab Mordecai, the Jew, and do this for him.” It’s not recorded in the Bible, but I can imagine Haman saying, “Wait. What?” And so Haman leads Mordecai through the streets of the city shouting, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”

Haman later goes home in a panic. He tells his wife, friends, and advisers what has happened. Haman’s wife, Zeresh, states the obvious that since Mordecai is Jewish, he can’t oppose him. Not recorded in the text, but somehow I think Mordecai at least thought, if not said aloud, “That much I know.” Before they can get any plan together, Haman is taken by the king’s eunuchs to the banquet Esther has arranged.

The king reminds Esther that she can ask for up to half of the kingdom. She asks that her people be spared. She says that she and her people are going to be “killed and annihilated.” Xerxes, apparently unable to put two and two together demands to know who has “dared to do such a thing.”

Esther holds nothing back: “This vile Haman.”

The king in a rage leaves the room. The second funniest moment comes next as Haman, realizing that he is in a world of hurt, goes to Esther to beg for his life. The king returns to the room and sees Haman with Esther and concludes that Haman is trying to molest her.

In a stunning reversal of near ultimate proportions, Haman was impaled “on the pole that he had set up for Mordecai.” When Xerxes calmed down, he gave Esther Haman’s estate. Esther approached the king again, and after the scepter was for a second time extend to her, now pleaded, with tears, for Xerxes to save her people. She asked that an order be sent out to countermand the one calling for the death of the Jews. Mordecai was also promoted to second-in-command in the kingdom and given the king’s signet ring.

On the 13th of Adar, instead of death for the Jews, the Jews attacked their enemies. In the city of Susa, 500 men were killed along with Haman’s 10 sons, who were also impaled on poles. Around the kingdom, the Jews killed 75,000 of their enemies, though they didn’t take any of their property.

The Festival of Purim was establish “as a day of and feasting” to celebrate “when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration.”

 

 

*Easier as compared to some other books of the Hebrew Scriptures, but not in any way easy. The Bible is an incredibly complicated book.

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