Only once in about 157 Sundays are we encouraged to take a look at the Old Testament Book of Esther. Interpreting the book has been a constant theological and cultural battle ground. It is the only book in the whole Bible in which God is not mentioned. Which, by the way carries an important lesson in itself. Just because we fail to acknowledge God’s presence and activity doesn’t mean that God is not a work.
The Book comes from a pivotal moment in the future shape of Judaism. The three books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther come out of the same period of Israel’s history, just as those who had been carried off into Babylonian captivity are freed to return to their homeland. Ezra and Nehemiah are written for those who return to Jerusalem to rebuild their homes, their businesses and finally, under much urging and despite conditions under which they lived, they began to rebuild the temple and re-establish Temple service. Esther, on the other hand, was written for those who chose to stay in Persia. In the book of Esther there is no mention of Jerusalem.
Because to the Judaism of ‘the Holy Land’ is integral our Christian heritage it’s easy for us to overlook the reality that many more Jews stayed in the places to which they had been dispersed than those who returned to Palestine. For Judaism this makes for an enormous foundational shift. The Judaism of the Diaspora adopted the Oral Torah and the rabbinic interpretation of the commandments, as their law. Thus when exilic Jews had a legal decision, they didn’t go to Exodus or Leviticus for guidance, they turned to the vast body of rabbinic scholarship. That’s important to us. The religious tradition that was normative to Jesus was solidly grounded in the Pentateuch despite the ongoing battle between the temple Priests, the legalistic Pharisees and the wealthy and scholarly Sadducees. The Apostle Paul was schooled in Rabbinic Judaism. His form of Judaism argued that the Law was only a school master.
Contemporary Jews celebrate the festival of Purim based on the book Esther. It is the only Jewish holiday not authorized in the Pentateuch, a clear example of this shift in religious authority. Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.
As they tell it, Esther, an extraordinarily beautiful young Jewish woman, adopted by her cousin Mordecai, was living in the capital city of the Persian Empire. As part of a year long pageant to select the next Queen, Esther, along with handpicked maidens from around the Empire, was taken to the house of the King. Not knowing she was a Jew, the King chose her over the other maidens and made her his queen.
An arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king, Haman, hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to him. He hatched a plot to exterminate all the Jews in all the provinces of the Persian Empire. In a speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Hamen told the king, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people’s, and they do not observe the king’s laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.” Convinced, the weak minded king put the fate of the Jewish people in Haman’s hands.
Learning of the genocidal plan Mordecai persuades Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king’s presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. All the Jews fasted for three days before she went into the king. He welcomed her. She told the King of Haman’s plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman and his ten sons were hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai.
For simplicity’s sake there is a great deal they choose to leave out. It is a much richer story and delightfully written. The first of the book tells of the Queen Vashti, queen before Esther, who was deposed for refusing to obey the King’s command. All the men knew that such disobedience had to be stopped in it’s tracks because if the King’s Queen could get away with not following orders, women would stop obeying their husbands. She was barred from the king’s presence. It was after four years without a Queen that the beauty contest was won hands down by the young and beautiful Jewess, Esther.
The end of the book tells of how the Jews retaliated against those who were planning on exterminating them. It is a gruesome bit of vengeance. I went looking how Rabbis read the Book of Esther, given they’ve had it about six hundred years longer than have we. One said that there two lessons to be learned from the little book: “Obey your rabbinic authority and kill the enemy.”
Jewish women have redeemed the story somewhat, arguing that Esther went into hiding to avoid being forcibly enlisted in the King’s beauty contest, once taken against her will to the King’s house she refuses the cosmetic preparations for the King’s harem. To be wife to a Jew hating non-Jew beyond her imagining and yet, this is what happened. She keeps Kosher yet conceals her identity.
There are many important lessons in the book for us. One is that God often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck. The name of the Festival, Purim is actually from the word Pur which is a word for casting lots.
The question of Esther’s ethnicity posed the question of an alternative loyalty to the King. We already know the result of Vashti’s decision to value her personal dignity over compliance. It was Esther’s cousin who counseled silence about her racial identity. He hoped that conflict between the two loyalties could be avoided. The author of this wonderful story tells us that loyalty need not conflict with good citizenship. An example from the story is Mordecai, on learning that two henchmen and Vashti were planning on murdering the King, he tells Esther who tells the King who deals with the threat. This puts Mordecai in good standing with the King. Being a Jew in the Empire does not imply subversive intentions. This was of particular importance for Jews learning to live as Jews in foreign countries. It is a call to being good citizens. The lesson is important to Christians as well. People who live with convictions can do so until an irresolvable conflict arises. The biblical basis is the instruction the Jeremiah gave to people living in exile “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” (Jer.29:7).
Of course, step two in that dance of citizenship requires of us, as it did of Mordecai, to stand up for our convictions when they are challenged. We need to go back to the fateful four point sentence of the evil man Hamen: First he says: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. That was true. Then he says “Their laws are different from those of every other people’s” and, of course, that was true as far as it went actually the Jews kept to a much more ethical set of laws than those of the Empire but his accusation does serve to raise suspicions. Next he says: “and they do not observe the king’s laws; which was an outright lie. The story teller told us of how Mordecai acted in the interest of the welfare of the nation and of the king. The king doesn’t put the pieces together and the lie gains plausibility. Hamen’s summation was that “therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.” Every minority community every where can fall victim to this kind of persecution by lies and innuendo. We hear it every day. We, too, need to take the lesson from the Book of Esther and be seen and counted for what and who we are, and when necessary be prepared to take the consequences.