Esther Overview

I love Esther herself.  Its a confusing book though, not just because it famously doesn’t mention God, but also you really aren’t sure to what extent God is at work in the circumstances described here.  On a personal level the story of Esther is beautiful, and her struggle to step up loyally to her appointed task is very real and brave, a great example for me to learn from.

But the larger political scene gets a bit revenge-y.  There is a plot to kill the Jews, but when the tables turn, I feel in other parts of the Bible I would expect to see mercy and instead there is return treatment just as harsh.  The Jews kill the people who don’t like them instead of vice versa.  It is justified to an extent because of the legal situation of the kings decrees.

He is basically a fool in this book.  He’s issued a decree that all Jews must be killed that he comes to regret, but can’t rescind it, by royal tradition. So he sets up a kill or be killed scenario that works ultimately in the Jews’ favour.

But there is no guidance about how to feel about it.  I don’t know if I can ask “why is this OK God” because I maybe God doesn’t think its OK. How can you tell?

The bible project summary on youtube speaks of the moral ambiguity of the book. The jewish festival, purim, that comes from it, literally roll of the dice, sounds crazy, you are encouraged to drink to excess.

The events occur about 100 years after the return from exile. Maybe the sense that the Jewish religion has become more about nationalism than God, at least at an explicit level, is simply reflecting history.

So you are left with a message of providence in a messy world. It is a great reminder and window into how God works his purpose out, and how he works through history.  Esther is a counter intuitive hero, getting access because of her beauty and using her hostess skills to defeat the enemy with a series of feasts.  She is as brave and loyal as the bravest biblical hero.

And Haman is one of the bible’s best villains.  He has arrogance, nastiness and pride and he gets his comeuppance brilliantly. His enemy gets the honour he designed for himself, and he gets the ignominious death he designed for his enemy. I mention a commentator at one point who said that it conforms to a genre narrative of the day, and that is totally plausible.  She probably was a real person though, there are apparently almost too many Jewish queens that could be her.

I actually do believe in detailed daily providence far more than is probably fashionable. 20th century existentialism and post modernism has made everyone OK with random, and attributing life events to God’s hands publicly seems a bit fortune teller-y. But in my head, I do it quite a bit, like a guilty secret. So maybe Esther is telling me to be more comfortable with neatness.  We won’t be told for sure if its God, but just maybe it is…

I think I had an example of this at the indigenous spirituality day I went to earlier this year. Speakers had talked about how Christianity was not such a surprise to aboriginals, because their existing belief system had much of its revelations about God already in there.

Someone asked how they knew their old religion was not evil. Why is it not a false God? It seemed like a rational question, but really I think it was disrespectful, because you know. The answer was “by their fruit you shall know them”, and Esther reminds us that in life you don’t get a clear purity test on whether something is from God, like a pregnancy test. Evil or not evil.

And you can be deceived. But we have the Spirit. Mostly, you do know.

Esther replaces Queen Vashti… its a perilous job
1 Starts with the King of Persia, during Jewish exile, needing a new Queen after his queen Vashti goes all feminist on him and his mates wanting to oggle her while drunk
2 Esther, a displaced jew becomes the new girl in the Kings harem, and furthermore her uncle Mordecai foils a plot to kill the king. Their stakes go sky high

Enter Haman, anti semite and King manipulator
3 Haman a jealous official engineers a loyalty test for Mordecai which he fails, and goads the king to allow him to kill all jews. I contemplate the point at which you compromise
4 Esther must be bold, and is though she finds is almost impossible, a true mark of heroism. She will raise the edit to kill the jews with the King
5 Esther invites the King and Haman to a feast. Feeling honoured, Haman builds a gigantic gallows on which to hang Mordecai, Esther’s secret uncle.
6 The king independently decides that Haman should honour Mordecai, which fuels his hatred to operatic proportions. 
7 Haman’s downfall, the low raised up and the high bought low, he is hung on the gallows he build for Mordecai. Esther has saved her people.

Mordecai’s career as adviser to the King and secret pro-Jew influence
8 The plot now follows Mordecai’s career, he becomes a trusted adviser and boosts the jews.
9 The victory of Mordecai and Esther is mirrored across the empire, with Jewish people routing opposition of other peoples. I wonder about the godliness of this triumphalism
10 Wrap up of Mordecai’s life, I take the challenge to be a bold and effective witness

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Esther 10

A three verse wrap up of the career of Mordecai. He stayed in his position, was the premier Jew and greatly respected as number two to the king. Presumably he had less ego than Haman.

He and Esther are both great examples of serving God in your life, knowing your opportunities.

I’m feeling miserable before God today, like a fraud and a sinner. I need to humbly claim his forgiveness yet again and seek to live a useful self disciplined but effective life for him.

Esther 9

This chapter details the triumph of the Jews and the establishment of the feast of Purim to remember the day.

The story of the tables being turned, of Esther/Mordecai and Haman, is repeated throughout the empire, enemies who thought they would destroy the Jews are in fact themselves destroyed.

It’s a dog eat dog world I suppose, this makes political sense. A lot of outright enemies died. Jesus would say love your enemies. Repeatedly they say they refused to take plunder, which differentiates it. It supports the idea that they were doing what they had to to survive, not seeking to personally benefit from their attacker’s destruction, despite the edict saying they could.

Matthew Henry the commentator resorts to contemporary Jewish history to give a sense of justification. A king’s edict was hard to revoke, so Haman’s sons and some ethnic groups (amelikites) formed a war front to enforce the first edict, which only hardened as Mordecai became more and more successful. The Jews were acting in self defence by this account, which doesn’t come out in this text so clearly.

Though also the bible is a book where you can’t assume the “goodies” are necessarily doing God’s work. It is also observational, I think. People often behave in a second best way: god chose Moses to speak to Pharaoh, but he said he was too shy, and Aaron did the talking. God’s choice wasn’t wrong. But Moses refusal didn’t block his plans. I don’t doubt that if the Jews had decided on a path of passive resistance, Jesus would have still been a Jew who died in Jerusalem, not a Persian living in Susa.

And the victory is absolute. Their enemies are routed.

The feast of Purim became the only Jewish feast where people were expected to drink to excess, mirroring that open bar at the Kings feast which opened the book which I admired. It really is a book of feasts !

Esther 8

The story is over but there are three more chapters. It becomes the story of Mordecai’s career. Esther is given Haman’s estate, but she hands it to Mordecai, and he essentially gets Haman’s job. Esther pleas for the King to favor the Jews and Mordecai writes as the king a new edict that protects the Jews.

They have the right to avenge themselves on their enemies. There is great rejoicing around the cities, it’s a great day like the end of star wars.

It’s a very satisfying wrap up to the story.

It goes just that bit far for me, and I’ve read ahead and I know it goes further still. Non Jews start to fear the Jews and start to convert to Judaism.

I want to see a contrast, mercy in Mordecai where there was ruthlessness in Haman. There is only triumphalism as far as I can see.

Esther had a fairytale life, but showed bravery and selflessness to throw it all away to save her people. That is easier to admire.

And still no God, not explicitly. The thrust of the post exile bible books is god’s extraordinary power to ensure his people are restored from their punishment. But they are still not perfect. Its not enough. And of course, Jerusalem itself was not the Messiah, it wasn’t enough.

Esther 7

Haman’s downfall is completed. Esther, offered the Kings request up to half the kingdom asks merely for her life along with her people. She has tied her fate to theirs. Haman is exposed, and then the story turns to high farce as Haman’s desperate pleas to the Queen for mercy are mistaken by the king for molestation.

The reversal of fortunes is completed: after Mordecai got the honor designed by Haman for himself, Haman got the ghastly death he designed for Mordecai: impaled on his own ridiculously huge stick.

Too neat? Too literary? Some scholars argue this book conforms to a literary genre of narrative history that dressed up history to make a good story. Herodotus uses similar devices.

On this theory, it’s like we are watching the Hollywood bio pic of Esther’s life. The basic outline is real, but the facts have been edited and organised to tell a good story.

Historically a few Kings and queens around the time fit the facts.  It’s not so much an issue of could this story have been true, is a matter of which influential Jewish Queen was it?

There is certainly no doubt that the Jewish people went from the verge of destruction to being restored in a rebuilt Jerusalem because of the good favor of successive Persian Kings. I sure think God had a hand!

And I just love the story of Esther, the woman who was heroic and saved the nation.

 

Esther 6

An interesting turn, Esther has no influence in this chapter, god works through the insomnia of the King who has his chronicles read to him when he can’t sleep and independently comes up with a plan to honor Mordecai for foiling the assassination plot.

Far from impaling Mordecai, the plot has Haman planning his day of honor, in the assumption that it is his own. So we have the hilarious reversal of Haman leading the man he most hates through the streets on a horse in a fine robe shouting about how honoured he is.

Apoplectic with rage later in the evening, Haman’s family identify the Jewish God as behind the events and freak out – Haman’s offended a God of power. Before he can think what to do he’s spirited off to Esther’s second feast.

It’s amazing what a large and obvious role good has without being identified. It’s just referred to as a power in the ethnicity “because he is Jewish…”

This chapter reinforces the warning Mordecai said to Esther, that help for the Jews could come anyway even if she was silent. How easy it was for God to engineer the reversal of fortunes.

This book is read during the Jewish feast of Purim, a holiday to celebrate these events and it’s easy to see why. The messages about faithfulness to your people and to God are woven in so strongly.

God, father, resistance is futile. You have shown me your truth though your grace, use me, left me grab the opportunities you offer.

 

Esther 5

Esther sees the king, her fear that he won’t see her is unfounded, he advances the sceptre. She invites Haman and the king to banquets on two successive nights. I expected her to raise the Jewish issue straight away, but she’s got a crafty plan. She’s a politician, Esther.

Is it too post modern to view her as a feminist hero?  Certainly there are lots of feasts in Esther, and they have their own story to tell. Commentators note that this is Esther’s feast, in contrast to the Kings feast which was Vashti’s downfall. Esther has taken control.

After the first Haman sees Mordecai and is all the more enraged at Mordecai’s disrespect because he has been favored by Esther’s banquet. He thinks his stocks are ever on the rise because of the exclusive King/Queen time.

He is persuaded by his family to kill Mordecai more spectacularly than the rest of the Jews, on an impaling stick as big as his ego. A 75 foot pole is set up for the purpose.

Haman is built up to get the most spectacular schadenfreude in the Bible. You will almost feel sorry for how his fate will turn over the next few chapters. Unless that is, you forget he was planning arbitrary genocide.

Esther was almost fully assimilated into Persian culture. But the pull of her ethnicity and her god are stronger. Once you believe God is behind history its hard, in the crunch, to unbelieve. 

Esther 4

Esther’s path to hero.

Her first reaction to her distress at hearing her cousin Mordecai is in sackcloth is to send him some nice clothes. Nice try, he sends them back.

She sends a slave and finds out what’s really going on, and Mordecai sends back a copy of the edict and everything, including telling her the price Haman was willing to pay to destroy the Jews.

Her response to that is to say that she would quite likely get killed for trying to do anything. The protocol is that she waits for the king to call for her. If she initiates face time, he may refuse to offer the gold sceptre, meaning he isn’t interested, and she is put to death.  It’s been a month since he called her, her influence may be on the wane.

The narrative has deftly painted the background for her fears because we know she only got the her position because Queen Vashti got proud and was deposed.

Nice try. He sends a message via her servant. She shouldn’t think that her rank will protect her alone from the wave of anti semitism. He has faith that deliverance for the Jews will come despite her, and she will regret being silent as much as speaking out. And maybe that is why she’s there in the first place? He believes this is her god given moment. Esther has to choose who she will trust, god or king. Who is really in charge here?

It’s the old bible one two three. Peter denied Jesus three times. Gideon and Moses needed three proofs before they had the courage to act, on the third day Jesus rose.

Esther send back instructions: she, her servants and the Jewish people outside the palace will have a three day simultaneous fast. Then she will break the law and go to the king, and perish if she will.

I think her need to fast and take time to summon up courage, and her need to feel the people were behind her shows how extremely hard she found it to do this, to face death in this way.

She has accepted that this is her god given moment, and she is utterly terrified of it. Of course Jesus wept when his came, too.

The conclusion of this chapter makes me shiver, and tear up. When you do something you find literally impossible, your worst nightmare, how profound is that heroism.

 

 

Esther 3

Things take a dark turn. Haman enters the story, a high ranking trusted but ruthless official, close to the king. He demands Mordecai bow to him but he won’t, presumably because of the second commandment: there is only one God. Daniel was the same.

Haman decides to destroy all the Jews.  The king seems to accept his advice that they are a danger, and gives him his signet ring which enables Haman to issue a kill edict in the Kings name. The King must have connived at that, because he said “do with the people as you will” as he handed the ring over.

An interesting detail is that Haman was willing to pay the King for the destruction of the Jews. The king refuses the money… I dunt know if that is to his credit or not!

The chapter ends with a bitterly poignant picture, the king and Haman having a drink together but the city “bewildered”. Perhaps in sympathy, also partly perhaps they thought “there but for the grace of (an uncaring…) God go we”?

There is a moment as you read, me at least, where you blame Mordecai. You think, OK, don’t acknowledge Haman, get yourself killed, but your stubbornness has signed a death warrant for all your countrymen.

If course Haman is a nasty piece of work, vindictive, proud and arbitrarily cruel, but why not just bow to him and be done with it?

Where does one draw the line and blindly obey God, even though it will most likely provoke unjust violence not only toward yourself but collateral damage for other believers?

There is also the monstrous unfairness of it, Mordecai to be killed for not honoring the Kings representative, the King whose life he just saved in an act of abundant loyalty. Perhaps he should have let the plot to kill the king go through!

The place where you draw the line is where you sell God short. Where you betray him by acting like he means less to you than he really does. Without that, the Jews are not the Jews, and we believers today are ineffective.

And one does act for all. Mordecai had to do what he did.

Esther 2

The search is on for a beautiful young virgin for the king of Persia. Scene moves to Mordecai’s house, and his notably beautiful cousin Esther. They are both displaced Jews.

Esther is taken into the King’s harem. Turns out she is really good at what you need to learn… She takes the eunuch’s advice as to what to say and how to behave. After a year of beauty school, she is the King’s chosen.

I find this a wonderfully mind blowing story about serving your purpose on earth by doing what you do do well. Esther is a born beauty queen.

Meanwhile Mordecai is all ears, obviously concerned about Esther he becomes a palace obsessive, hanging round and hearing what he can. In addition to scraps of info about Esther, he uncovers a plot to kill the king, which Esther brings to the King. The plot is foiled and Esther’s stakes go sky high.

There is still a sense of “where is god going with this?” It’s in the Bible so you bring to it the expectation that it must be about him. So god is at work in the petty and relatively unholy daily activities of those who never give him a second thought? I love it. Like the old hymn says, god is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.