The Book of Esther
Esther is not a very popular book.
Not many people preach on Esther. Indeed, the lectionary, if you know how that works, only encourages us to read it once every three years. Unlike the gospel of Mark, for instance, from which we will read something like 50 times over the course of this year, we get only this one reading from Esther this year, after which the book retires to its quiet canonical spot until 2003.
It is an unpopular book. More – it is a controversial book. More – it is a book about which no less a character than Martin Luther said that he ‘hated’ it. That it was ‘perverse’ – ‘filled with much pagan impropriety’.
Esther is one of only two books in the Bible that never mentions the name of God. It shares this singular honour with the Song of Songs, which is also a controversial book.
It’s not just that the book doesn’t mention God by name. It’s that there is so little that is ‘godly’ going on in the book. There is no worship, no reading of the Bible, no persons of outstanding godly character in the book of Esther. There is no mention of the great Biblical themes of covenant and grace. There doesn’t even seem to be any love in Esther! Sex, yes, there’s plenty of sex in Esther – another point of similarity with the Song of Songs. Yet Esther goes one step beyond Songs by bringing in that other great Hollywood theme – violence.
Esther is a violent book. There is a lot of bloodshed in Esther. There seem to be a good hundred thousand people killed in the story of Esther – men, women, and children – and Esther herself does much of the killing.
This raises two questions:
Why hasn’t somebody made a major motion picture based on the story of Esther?
Why is this book in the Bible?
I’m going to shelve both of these questions until we’ve looked at the story, so that you might be in a better position to make up your own minds.
Chapter 1 introduces us to both the environment of the story and to one of the main characters. We are in Persia in the late 5th Century B.C. The Jews are living in exile, and a king by the name of Ahasuerus is on the throne.
Ahasuerus is better-known elsewhere in history by another name – Xerxes – and is best known for his complete failure to conquer the Greeks in the earlier years of his reign.
Yesterday I watched some of a marathon being run. Many of you will know that the first marathon was run after the battle of Marathon – where one poor Greek guy ran so hard and fast after the battle to tell the good news of victory to his king that he died as soon as he had given the message!
Marathon was a victory to the Greeks over the Persians who were then led by Darius, Xerxes’ father. Xerxes returned to Greece to avenge his father’s defeat in 480 B.C. with an army that Herodutus numbered at 2.5 million! He defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae, but was then thoroughly destroyed by the Greeks in the naval battle of Salamis. He returned to his capital beaten but, like his father, and like his modern counterpart, Saddam Hussein, he managed initially to hang on to absolute power in his own region.
The other story I remember about Xerxes was that story about his friend who held a banquet for a great part of his army on the night before they headed off to battle. In the morning, the friend asked Xerxes if his youngest son might stay with him on the farm to help him look after it. He had three other sons in the army and wondered whether the youngest one might stay at home. Xerxes had the young lad brought forward, had the boy cut in half down the middle, had his army march between the two halves, and said to his friend ‘enjoy your son’s company’ or something like that.
Xerxes/Ahasuerus is not a godly man. Yet he is the absolute ruler of many nations and peoples in this story, including many Jews.
Chapter 1 also deals with Vashti, Xerxes’ wife, the first woman in the Bible to demonstrate feminine assertiveness. Xerxes and his mates are drunk and they invite Vashti in to come and join the fun. Vashti tells them to get stuffed. Xerxes responds with something as chauvinistic as Vashti’s action was feminist – he holds a beauty contest to find a fitting replacement for Vashti.
Xerxes pulls in girls from across the empire, has them dressed up and perfumed up, gives each of them a trial run in bed, and promises to the one who tickles his fancy most, that she will become the new queen of Persia. Enter Esther.
Chapter 2 outlines Esther’s rise to power. She pleases the king more than any of her contemporaries, and is much encouraged by her uncle Mordechai – himself a loyal servant of the king who helps to uncover a plot to assassinate Xerxes, and so earns the king’s favour.
Both Esther and Mordechai are Jews, but Mordechai seems to prefer to remain quiet about his Jewishness, and encourages Esther to do the same. Why? Because there seems to be a fair degree of anti-Semitism spreading through the empire, as becomes clear in Chapter 3 when we meet Haman – the enemy of the Jews.
Why was Haman ‘the enemy of the Jews’? Because he was an Amalekite, and because Amalekites and Jews had always hated each other. The problem actually starts with Mordechai. Haman is appointed Prime Minister, and everybody bows and shows respect to him – everybody except Mordechai. Mordechai shows no respect to this man, despite his office. Why? Because he is a damned Amalekite.
This is a helpful reflection, I think, of the piety of Mordechai. What did it mean to him to be a Jew? Did it mean a personal devotion to the God of the Hebrews? Did it mean praying each day while facing Jerusalem? Did it mean a strict adherence to the 10 commandments? No! None of these things, but it did mean hating the Amalekites. Mordechai was not a model Jew.
Haman decides to punish Mordechai for his insolence by killing off all the Jews, and he convinces the king that this is a good idea. He sets a date for his holocaust 11 months hence.
In Chapter 4, Mordechai appeals to Esther for help. Esther says that she’d like to help but that she can’t really do anything at the moment because the king, it seems, has already grown sick of her. She’s not allowed to just waltz in for a chat with the king uninvited. The king is quite entitled to have her cut in half for showing that sort of insolence.
Mordechai tells her that she shouldn’t live under the illusion that she will be safe in the palace while others suffer. She will end up getting it in the neck too. Esther relents and in chapter 5 she takes her chances with Xerxes and wanders into his throne-room to invite him to dinner. Esther catches Xerxes in a good mood. He doesn’t kill her, but accepts the dinner invitation.
The king and Haman dine with Esther that night, which gets Haman so excited that he decides to accelerate his plans to murder Mordechai, and he builds a scaffold in his back yard to do the job.
Chapter 6 is a sort of comic relief, where the king can’t sleep one night and gets it in his head that he’s being troubled because he never gave Mordechai his proper reward for warning him about the assassination plot.
Xerxes calls in Haman to ask for some advice as to how he should reward Mordechai. Haman meanwhile has completed his gallows and was about to go and lynch Mordechai. When Xerxes asks Haman what he should do to reward one of his most loyal servants, Haman assumes that Xerxes is talking about him, and he recommends very lavish treatment. So it is that Haman ends up having to walk around ahead of Mordechai, singing the praises of the man he wants to kill.
In chapter 7 everything comes unstuck for Haman at another dinner party with the queen. Esther tells Xerxes that Haman is trying to kill her and all her people. Haman is promptly hoisted on his own petard.
Chapters 8 & 9 outline Esther’s revenge. With the cooperation of Xerxes, she manages to not only have Haman hanged, but also all his children, with their bodies hung up on display afterwards. She then asks the king if her people might not go on their own killing spree against their enemies, and indeed, she manages to have the best part of 100,000 people killed over the space of only a couple of days, which is an enormous amount of bloodshed.
Chapter 10 concludes by telling us that this story is remembered each year at the feast of Purim, as indeed it is still remembered by Jews around the world today. And the tradition is, and it’s an ancient tradition, that at the feast of Purim, you are allowed to drink so much wine that eventually you can’t tell the difference between the cries of ‘blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘cursed be Haman’.
This is related to one of the theories as to why the name of ‘God’ isn’t in the book. People were regularly so drunk when they read it, they might accidentally take the name in vain.
And so let us leave this tale of drunkenness, sex, and so much violence, and let us return to our original questions:
Why hasn’t somebody made a major motion picture based on the story of Esther?
Why is this book in the Bible?
The first question I’m not sure I can answer. The second question, I’m wanting to have a go at.
What’s this book doing in the Bible? It’s such a violent story. The characters all seem so ungodly. What sort of role models for our children to these Biblical figures make! It all seems so immoral, so violent, and so damn irreligious!
Maybe that’s the point we can get from this book. It points to the fact that there is an irreligious dimension to the Bible, as indeed, we might say, there is a very irreligious dimension to God!
It has been traditional of course to think of God as inhabiting a world of religion. God is present in His holy temple. God is present with his people gathered. God is at work through the prayers of those who serve him bringing miracles and healings and salvation and life. And all this is true.
And yet we know too that God who is present in His holy temple is also present in the palace of pagan king Xerxes at Susa. We know that God who meets us with His presence when we come to worship will also be present with us when we get home. We know that the God who works through the prayers of his faithful people will still be at work when nobody is praying and when there are no faithful people to be found!
In the book of Esther, nobody is faithfully praying to God, nobody is talking about God, nobody even seems to be thinking about God. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. Indeed we, who can look at the story in the context of the larger body of the Scriptures, know full well what is going on. God is protecting His ancient people. God is fulfilling His promise made originally to Abraham that he would preserve these people. God is being true to the prophecies of hope given by the prophet Jeremiah to these people in exile. God is acting in amazing and mysterious ways to see that His will is done at this point in human history. It’s just that nobody in the story really recognises what is going on.
It seems like a series of happy coincidences for the Jews – Esther getting into a position of great influence, Mordechai being saved by the fact that the king had a bad night’s sleep one night, the fact that the king was in a good mood when Esther took her life into her hands by going to see him uninvited, the fact that Mordechai fortuitously overhead the plot against the king. To the person of no faith, these guys just seem to be lucky. A person of faith calls this ‘providence’.
Providence is that great reality that St Paul was pointing to when he said ‘all things work together for good for those who love and serve Him’. Providence doesn’t deny that God can work in wonderful and miraculous ways. It just asserts that God can also work through very human and very ordinary ways to ‘bring things together for good’. Providence doesn’t deny that God will work through the prayers and through the lives of those who serve him. It just asserts that where there is no one praying or serving, God is still capable of bringing all things together for good.
This is a great truth, though it can be a little disturbing, as it suggests that we might not be as essential to the plans of God as we might have thought.
You know what I mean? I like to think that the whole spiritual future of Dulwich Hill is entirely dependant on us. I believe that God has called us together in this place, and I believe that God has given us a mission in this area, and that it involves working with people on the periphery of our society, and that it involves building a Christian community that makes no distinctions between black and white people, between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated, between male and female, between righteous and less-than-righteous. I do believe that this is God’s will for us, that it is our calling, and that if we are faithful to God and can open our hearts and our homes to one another, then we will see this happen and God’s will will be done.
And yet, if I read rightly the book of Esther, it would suggest to me that, even if we don’t get our acts together, even if we stuff things up, and close our minds, and close our hearts and close our homes to one another, then God’s will will still be done!
This all seems a bit mysterious, but it is something that is addressed directly in the book of Esther itself. I want to turn to the text of the book of Esther again one more time, for there is a passage there that speaks very directly to this precise concern.
In Esher chapter 4, Mordecai says to to Esther:
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:13-14)
Mordechai is appealing to Esther’s self-interest. Perhaps Esther was planning on dealing with the destruction of her people by minding her own business, Mordechai tells her in no uncertain terms that she will certainly get it in the neck too. But there is more to Mordechai’s threat:
If she fails to do what is required of her, Mordechai seems to be convinced that ‘deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter’. We’re not told why he was so convinced of this. Had he had a dream about it? Had he read about God’s promises to the Jews in the Bible? Did his parents tell him about these things when he was younger? We don’t know. But he certainly lets on that he sees some greater destiny controlling the future of his people than the royal decree of Xerxes.
He also wonders if Esther might not have been put in this position for just such a purpose. He doesn’t call it God and he doesn’t even call it ‘providence’. But he seems to believe that things happen for a reason, and he wonders if this might be Esther’s destiny?
Now Mordechai might not have got his theology all worked out, and Mordechai might not have read his Bible well enough to be able to articulate exactly what he intuits to be true, but I think we can fill in the blanks for him. Mordechai is right. It is no coincidence that Esther has been put in this position where she is able to save her people from destruction. God’s hand is in this. This is indeed God’s calling upon her. God has been working in His own mysterious ways as to so order events such that Esther is now given this divine opportunity for service.
And yet? if she doesn’t do it. If she fails her calling. If she keeps her mouth shut and consigns her people to destruction, yet (Mordechai is right) the promises of the Lord will prove true. God will not abandon his people. We can be confidant indeed that, as Mordechai says, ‘deliverance will arise from another quarter.’ God will find somebody else to do it!
Isn’t that a great analysis of the place of Esther in the plan of God – she is an important player, but she is not vital. She is significant, but not essential. Isn’t this a good framework within which to understand the part that we all play in the work of God?
We are all called by God to be servants of God and soldiers in the army of Christ – called to do His will in the various different roles to which he calls us. And if we follow Christ and we do as we have been called to do, then God’s will will be done and His work will be accomplished. And if we don’t genuinely follow Christ and we don’t do what we’re called to do, then God’s will will still be done and His work will still be accomplished – ‘deliverance will rise from another quarter’ – God will find somebody else will do it!
We are important players on God’s team, but we are not vital to the team. We play a significant role in the plans of God for this world, but not an essential role. Every good work we do in the name of Christ contributes to the final coming of His Kingdom. And yet, even if we fail completely in the works to which God has called us, His Kingdom will come anyway.
I find this strangely comforting when I think about our situation here in Dulwich Hill. God has called us together here to be his witnesses in this community. He has brought us together, I believe, to play that special role in caring for people on the periphery of our society. He has called us together to build us into that all-inclusive Christian community. And if we are willing to make the sacrifices and follow Christ and open our hearts and open our homes, then we will see God’s deliverance come to this place. And if we fail to do it, then, I guess ‘deliverance will come from another quarter’. God will choose some other group to do it. We’ll miss out on the privilege of being involved in that wonderful work. The work of the Kingdom of God will go on.
There is a beautiful perspective there in the book of Esther, I think, that takes seriously the ordinary secular human world in which we live in, and which recognises the validity of human decision making, and yet which, at the same time, recognises that this world is God’s world first and last, and that our decisions and actions, while significant, cannot ultimately over-rule God’s decisions about the future of this world.
We are real players in the divine drama, but ultimately He is the Alpha and Omega. He is the beginning and the end. He is the creator and He is the saviour. His is the future and His is the Kingdom. And if we can serve Him then we must serve Him. And if we fail, then we fail. And ‘If we perish, we perish’. And yet we can say in faith ‘Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Thy Kingdom come. Amen.’