Friday, June 24, 2016

A Different Look at the Book of Esther


We don’t know who wrote the book of Esther, but it is generally thought to be written by Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, who plays a major role in the story.
Esther becomes queen and saves the Jews from extermination. Though the name of God does not occur even once in this book, His providence is evident as well as His protection of His people. Esther is spelled in Hebrew with the same letters as “I will be hid”. Isn’t that cool? It seems like God loves anagrams, codes and puzzles. Me, too. God is hidden in the book of Esther.
The events of Esther fit chronologically between chapters 6 and 7 of Ezra and tell us that anti-Jewish hostility is intolerable to God. First there is the story of queen Vashti. Esther 1: 10-12, and 19 give the highlights:
 10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she.
Look again at verse 11. The implication is that she was summoned to appear wearing nothing but the crown! Yes, sir, naked. No wonder she refused to come.

Nevertheless, Vashti is out, banished, and now this Persian king needs a new queen. It took a while to round up the “many virgins” who would receive special baths, beauty treatments, clothing and accessories. Chapter 2 tells us that they completed 12 months of beauty treatments before spending a night with the king. Each girl was then one of his concubines, but would not get another night with him unless she pleased him. Then Esther (whose Hebrew name was Hadassah, meaning myrtle or joy) gets a turn. Her Jewish heritage is hidden from the king (2:10) who is very much attracted to her. She wins his favor and he crowns her as his queen.
Meanwhile, there is a conspiracy by a man named Haman to annihilate the Jews (3: 1- 7).
We need to clarify some things here. King Xerxes may be identified as King Ahasuerus in your translation. Actually, Ahasuerus is the Hebrew translation for his Persian name and Xerxes is the Greek translation, the one he is better known by in history. Do you want to know his Persian name? Don’t ask me how to pronounce this: Khshayarsha. He was the Persian king who ruled an empire that ran from India to Ethiopia. Haman was one of his counselors, a wicked one at that. In fact, since he is identified in verse 1 as the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, some scholars think this implies that he was a contemptible, hateful man because Agagite literally means “fiery one.” We see in the passage above that Haman really got ticked when Mordecai (who had raised Esther) refused to kowtow to him. Hence he seeks revenge.
Haman cast the lot—pur is the Persian word for "lot"—to determine the day most favorable to wipe out the Jews. (3:7-11) In the pagan world of the time it was unimaginable to make such big plans without astrological guidance. The lot was supposed to disclose the most favorable day for this act. The official casting of lots happened during the first month of each year to determine the most suitable days for important events. Haman cast lots in the first month and the lot fell on the 12th month, hence there was almost a year for preparation. God controlled the lot-casting (Prov. 16:33). Archaeologists have found quadrangular prism type dice at Susa which may be what they used. It is also thought that they may have used broken pieces of pottery.
Meanwhile, lots of stuff happens: Mordecai learns of the evil plan and asks Esther for her help. Haman, still ticked at Mordecai, builds a gallows to hang him. The king, sleepless, reads the chronicles and discovers that Mordecai had done a great service to the king and had not been rewarded. Esther plots to set Haman up by inviting him and the King to her own banquet.
Results? Esther thwarts Haman’s plans. (See chapter 7.)

The Jews are saved and the feast of Purim is instituted (remember, pur means “lot”, so purim is the plural, essentially the feast is named for the lots cast that never came to fruition). (9:17-22). Modern Jews celebrate Purim on the evening of Adar 14 (in March). It is their most festive and popular holiday.