In my right hand is an ice cold bottle of Fentiman’s Cherrytree Cola. In my left hand is a bible. Let’s do a show about… boy, this is a tough one… mmm… OK, the bible.
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Today we continue our examination of the literature that emerged out of Israel’s experiences in exile. In fact these next two podcasts will explore a pair of very different texts from the later period of the exile, when the Persian Empire supplanted Babylon as the “rulers of the world.” Next time we’ll look at Daniel, a wild combination of exile tales and apocalyptic visions which look forward to the vindication and restoration of Israel. Today’s text is a different sort of story about the survival and success of the children of Israel in the often hostile lands where they found themselves living. This is the book of Esther, unique and somewhat controversial for reasons we’ll explore as we move along.
The first verse of Esther provides the historical setting: “in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces…” It goes on to describe the “armies of Persia and Media.” This is, then, most likely the king we know as Xerxes I, the ruler of the Persian Empire in the middle of the fifth century BCE. The passing of power from one regime to the next, the rise and fall of empires, is something we know well from history and is actually one of the controlling themes of the rest of the bible (the Hebrew Bible and then the New Testament).
Remember when we talked about the evolution of imperial politics from the “kill everything” philosophy of Assyria, to the more shrewd and exploitative ways of Babylon? Persia represents another sea change in the world domination racket. While Assyria left only smoldering ruins in its wake, and Babylon figured out how to steal the good stuff and kidnap the important people, Persia’s approach left even more of a conquered culture intact. They would allow their acquired “provinces” to retain their identity and their land, and would deposit a satrap, a Persian governor or overseer, to manage the territory. Compared with the previous empires, Persia was downright progressive. They minted the world’s first coins, they established the first “international” language, and they fostered economic growth in their conquered lands. This is the the backdrop to the story of Esther. The people of Judah, displaced by the Babylonian destruction of their homeland, find themselves living in foreign places which have now become provinces of Persia. The central theme of the story is the place and identity of these Judahites, who are simultaneously subjects in the eyes of the empire AND foreign interlopers in the eyes of their neighbors.
The main action centers around the throne room of King Ahasuerus. Queen Vashti, his bride, has publicly insulted and displeased him, and so the search begins for a new queen. Chapter two verse two: “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.” And so the plot is set in motion, and it’s time to meet the cast. Verse 5:
5 In the citadel of Susa lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. 6 Kish had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been driven into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. 7 He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The girl was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.
Now, did you notice something remarkable in that passage? A word we haven’t heard before? This is the very first biblical reference to the children of Israel as “Jews.” It was in fact during the Persian dispersal that the “Judah” people were first known as “Jews.” And It was most likely used as a sort of slur, not unlike the ancient origins of the label “Hebrew.” Mordecai is a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin – the descendents of King Saul – who happens to have a gorgeous young niece named Esther. We could probably guess what happens next, but that won’t be necessary. Esther (the Persian name of the Jewish Hadassah) is one of the “beautiful young virgins” rounded up for the king’s selection, and she so impresses her handlers that she is fast-tracked to the head of the harem. All the while her Jewish heritage is kept a secret, which will be very important later in the story.
Mordecai camps out in front of the royal compound in Susa to keep an eye on his niece and to track her progress. One day, while hanging about, he overhears two of the royal guards – eunuchs, we’re told – plotting to kill the king. He reports them and they are hanged, while Mordecai is commended for his loyalty to the throne. This too will become very important later in the story. Like most tales of Hebrew identity and survival, this is a story of providence disguised as happenstance. In chapter three the major conflict of the story presents itself:
1 Some time later King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and set him higher than any of the other officials. 2 All the king’s servants in the palace gate knelt and bowed down to Haman, for that was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow down. 3 Then the king’s servants who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” 4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. 5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow down to him, Haman was filled with rage. 6 But he had no desire to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
And so we meet our bad guy, and not just any bad guy – he is a descendant of Agag, the king of Israel’s old enemies the Amalekites, who were defeated by Mordecai’s ancestor Saul in events recorded in the first book of Samuel chapter 15. The prophet Samuel killed Agag, but now here is his heir – many miles away from Israel in Susa. The exile upheaved the lives and beliefs of the Jews, and in this story it even had the power to reopen old wounds and rekindle old conflicts.
Haman bides his time for five years, and the text says that he and his advisors cast “purim,” or lots to discover when the moment was right. When the omen says go, Haman presents his plan to the king. There is a people, he says, living among our subjects, who follow a different law, who dishonor the king. He asks Ahasuerus for permission to pass harsh new laws to punish them, should they step out of line. The king grants his request, and Haman sends the decree out to all corners of the empire, that all Jews are to be “annihilated.”
Mordecai hears the news and goes into mourning, and sends word to Esther through a sympathetic eunuch. Chapter four verse seven:
7 …and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and all about the money that Haman had offered to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. 8 He also gave him the written text of the law that had been proclaimed in Susa for their destruction. He bade him show it to Esther and inform her, and charge her to go to the king and to appeal to him and to plead with him for her people.
Esther is in a unique position – a secret Jew and a member of the king’s inner circle. But she’s afraid of upsetting the king, and she tells Mordecai as much through the eunuch. Mordecai’s response is a rousing speech, starting in verse thirteen:
13 “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. 14 On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.”
So Esther agrees to make an appeal to Ahasuerus. She invites the king – and Haman also – to a feast, where she wines them and dines them, and the king offers to grant any request she might have. But Esther doesn’t pounce on the opportunity, she plays it cool, gets them drunk, and invites them to another banquet the next day. This has the effect of keeping the king happy and inflating Haman’s ego. He leaves the palace smiling, only to encounter Mordecai, the Jew whose refusal to bow to Haman sparked the whole plot in the first place. He storms home and hatches a new plot: constructing a fifty foot gallows from which to hang Mordecai for all the local Jews to see. Things look grim. Did Esther miss her chance? Did she drop the ball? Calm down, I’m trying to tell you the story!
That night, King Ahasuerus can’t sleep, so he orders his attendants to read to him from his chronicles, the written records of his reign. And what chapter do they just happen to read for the king? The one where a subject named Mordecai foiled a plot on the king’s life. “Whatever happened to that guy?” Just then, Haman arrives at the palace to ask for permission to hang Mordecai. The awkward scene begins in chapter six, verse six:
6 Haman entered, and the king asked him, “What should be done for a man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman thought to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” 7 So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, 8 let royal robes be brought, which the king himself has worn, and a horse on which the king has ridden and on whose head a royal crown is set; 9 and let the attire and the horse be put in the charge of one of the king’s noble officials. And let the man whom the king wishes to honor be dressed up and paraded on the horse through the city square, while they proclaim before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king wishes to honor!” 10 “Quick, then!” said the king to Haman. “Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate. Don’t leave out anything that you have proposed!”
Shocked, embarrassed and angry, Haman has no choice but to carry out the king’s decree. Mordecai is dolled up and paraded around the city in a royal procession, while Haman himself calls out words of praise. With the sting of this fresh humiliation still on his backside, Haman returns to the palace to attend Esther’s second banquet. After dinner, when the king is good and drunk once more, Hadassah makes her pitch. Chapter seven, verse three:
3 … “If you will do me the favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. 4 For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as slaves, both men and women, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” 5 Thereupon King Ahasuerus demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” 6 “The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen.
Haman’s bad day gets worse, and the king has him hanged from the very gallows the villain had built for Mordecai. And speaking of Mordecai, the old man is summoned to the palace, and given all of Haman’s property and power, including the king’s signet, by which he is able to repeal Haman’s decree and save the Jews. Chapter eight, verse fifteen:
15 Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Susa rang with joyous cries. 16 The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, joy and honor. 17 And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land professed themselves to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.
Unfortunately, it seems that this fear and Haman’s anti-Jewish rhetoric have spread throughout the empire. The next chapter tells of the violent clashes between Jews and other Persian subjects, with 500 men killed in one day in the capital city alone. In every corner of the empire, the Jews prevail and secure their freedom (freedom to continue being subjects of the Persian Empire, but still…). The book ends with the establishment of a new holiday, a feast called Purim – named after the lots cast by Haman and his cronies – which is still celebrated today by Jews worldwide.
And that’s the book of Esther, a tale not just of survival, but of retaliation and prevalence. And this is part of the reason that the book has been something of a hot potato throughout both Jewish and (especially) Christian history. The apparently gleeful vengeance exacted by the Jews in the story, coupled with the surprising fact that God is never mentioned in the entire text, has led some to question its place as a book of the bible. Martin Luther famously insulted the book, stating that it contained no “gospel content.” What to make of all that?
While a case might be made that the book is little more than a violent revenge story, with the enemies of Israel being massacred and destroyed with their own weapons, the historical setting and the machinations of the plot pretty much necessitate the violence. It’s only a real problem if you insist that every corner of the bible must conform to a certain moral or theological standard. Is this a “bible lesson” or an historical witness to the horrors of exile? I’m afraid most religious readers and teachers have felt obligated to see it as the former.
Regarding the “godlessness” of the book, to claim – as many have – that this is a secular intruder in an otherwise religious collection of books is to deeply misunderstand this and many other Jewish texts. The book may not mention Israel’s God, but His presence and His intervention are assumed at every turn. Remember: this is a story of providence disguising itself as happenstance. Hadassah “happens” to be chosen by the king, and Haman “happens” to be an Amalekite, and Mordecai “happens” to save the king’s life, and on and on and on. Every coincidence in the story is – to the right kind of ears – a loud and proud proclamation that the God of the Jews is with them in this strange foreign place. We’ll trace these themes and tensions – God’s providence for the Jews in exile AND their violent confrontations with pagan enemies – throughout the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible and right on into the New Testament, which is more fundamentally about these issues than most of us in the Western world have ever imagined.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kreep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, crackle, frackle, spackle and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.