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Esther (Day 427-436)

Day 427: Esther 1

            The Book of Esther is shrouded in mystery. It does not seem to be intended as a serious historical account but rather a folk tale around which the Jewish people could rally after the Maccabean rebellion gave them a tenuous freedom in the second century B. C. It has numerous Babylonian elements, giving rise to speculation that it dates from that city during the period of the Exile, or perhaps a bit later. After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, the only historical records that survived were those carried into exile to Babylon, or before the destruction of Jerusalem to Egypt by migrating Jews. That helps explain why Babylonian and Egyptian references are so plenteous throughout the Old Testament.

            1-4: Esther begins. The King, Ahasuerus, is mentioned only once in the Bible outside of Esther, and that is in Ezra 4:6, where he precedes Artaxerxes. The name is unknown elsewhere, and scholars generally think it is an alternate name for Xerxes I, who reigned over the Persian Empire from 486-465 B. C. prior to Artaxerxes. The third year of his reign would thus have been 484-483 B. C. It is therefore a time of the greatest expansion of the empire, although its decline is already beginning. Xerxes I is best known for his abortive attempt to conquer Greece.

By the way, verse 1 and 8:9 are the only places in the Bible that mention India.

The setting of the story as it begins is a tremendous party in Susa, a party that lasts six months.

            5-8: After the national bash another gala is thrown by the king for the people of Susa which lasts a full week. These verses could have been written by your local gossip columnist.

            9: We meet Queen Vashti, who is unknown outside the book of Esther. The first wife of Xerxes I was Amestris, according to the historian Herodotus. However, her name is well known in ancient literature: Vashti is the name of a Babylonian goddess.

            10-12: So, all the guys are drunk, and the king thinks it a good idea to tell his eunuchs to bring the beautiful Queen Vashti to the party wearing her royal crown. Some commentators think the text hints that she is to wear only the royal crown. Vashti, having a better sense of decorum than her husband, declines the invitation. Besides, she is having a roaring good time with the other ladies in another part of the palace (see verse 9). She has better things to do than parade herself around to be ogled by a bunch of inebriated party goers.

            13-20: The king is stunned and stumped. What can one do if the queen refuses the king’s invitation? Well, he is surrounded by seven lawyers (to provide some balance for the seven eunuchs, I suppose), and he puts the question to them. One of them, Memucan, points out that Queen Vashti hasn’t merely insulted the king, she has insulted husbands everywhere. Why, this could be the start of a regular feminist movement! He advises the king to issue a decree that Queen Vashti is to be deposed. That, he says, will send a message to all the women in the kingdom that such behavior will not be tolerated.

            21-22: King Ahasuerus likes the idea and sends the letter out immediately, declaring that a man’s house is his castle, and the crisis is averted.

Day 428: Esther 2

            1-4: The king is bereft of a queen, so the guys get together to decide what can be done. Somebody comes up with a brilliant idea: “Let’s have a beauty contest! Let’s bring in the prettiest girls from all over the empire and the king can pick the one he likes best!” The king likes the idea. They seem to have no doubt that the girls will all just love the opportunity to be in the king’s harem and get the chance to please the king, but make no mistake about it; this is a sexual contest to find the one who most pleases His Highness in the bedroom. A note: we know from ancient records that by law the king of Persia was limited in marriage to the seven noble families of Persia.

            5-11: We meet Mordecai and Esther. The name Mordecai is not Jewish, but is related to the name of the primary god in the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk. Mordecai himself, however, is decidedly Jewish, a Benjaminite descended from one Kish, who was among the initial exiles to Babylon during the time of Nebuchanezzar. He is “in the citadel,” which means that he is some sort of government official. He has raised his orphaned cousin Hadassah (her Jewish name, which means “myrtle”), a.k.a. Esther (a Persian name meaning “star,” but also related to the primary Babylonian goddess Ishtar). Esther is a real knockout, so she gets taken to the king’s harem and put under the supervision of Hegai, the royal hairdresser and cosmetologist. Hegai is a eunuch; you just can’t trust a regular fellow to be attending all the beautiful girls in the king’s harem. Hegai and Esther hit it off, and pretty soon she is his favorite, which puts her in a good position with regards to the contest. She has been instructed not to tell anybody she is Jewish, and Mordecai comes by every day on his way to work to ask how she’s doing.

            12-14: After a year of pampering the girls, the contest begins. It is arranged so that each girl is led to the king’s bedroom, does her best to please him, and the next morning is escorted to a second harem of concubines. There she will stay for the rest of her natural life unless the king summons her again by name. The eunuch in charge of the concubines is Shaashgaz, a strange name; it is perhaps what he exclaimed when they made him a eunuch.

            15-18: Finally Esther gets her turn, and that’s all it takes. The king is smitten and immediately declares the contest over. Esther is the one. He gives her Vashti’s crown – verse 17 is the last time Vashti will ever be mentioned – and throws a big banquet in Esther’s honor. Their wedding day is set aside as a national holiday, a day of amnesty in which taxes are remitted and the labor force can party.

            19-23: So it was that one day when Mordecai had dropped by as the girls were being rounded up at the gate to the palace grounds, he overheard two of the eunuchs plotting to do away with the king. Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells King Ahasuerus. The eunuchs are arrested, tried, found guilty and hanged. The whole affair is recorded in the official court records. This is an important detail that will come up again later in the story.

Day 429: Esther 3

            1-6: A fellow named Haman is promoted to second-in-command of the Persian government. He is identified as an “Agagite,” which immediately signals trouble. Remember that Mordecai is a Benjaminite, of the tribe of King Saul of Israel. “Agagite” refers to King Agag of the Amalekites. The Amalekites are ancient enemies of the Jews (see Exodus 17:8-16, Numbers 24:20, Deuteronomy 25:17-19), and Agag specifically is the cause of Saul’s fall from grace (see 1 Samuel 15:8-33). The implication is that Mordecai and Haman are natural enemies to begin with. This would explain Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him like everybody else. There is no law that forbids Jews to bow to foreign authorities, so Mordecai’s refusal has to be a personal one. Perhaps it is also because, since he saved the king’s life in the last chapter, Mordecai thinks it unnecessary to bow to anyone else. In any case, when Haman is told that Mordecai the Jew refuses to do obeisance, he determines to destroy not only Mordecai, but the entire Jewish race.

            7-11: Esther has been Queen for about five years when Haman finally decides to act on his genocidal inclinations. Persian officials use diviners to advise them on courses of action. One method of divination is to cast “Pur.” We think this is a reference to stones that are cast to determine the will of the gods, in much the same way as the Hebrew high priests cast Urim and Thummim to determine God’s will. In this case the stones point to a certain day as having particular promise for action against the Jews; the casting takes place in the Persian month of Nisan which corresponds to the Jewish month of Abib and the Passover. Haman seizes on this as a sign that it is time to act against the Jews. He approaches the king and essentially offers 10,000 talents of silver for permission to commit genocide against an unnamed race of people who cause trouble in the land. Notice that he does not ask the king to personally issue the decree, but only that a decree be issued, thus absolving the king of any direct personal guilt. The king is frighteningly apathetic, asks no questions at all, and gives Haman his signet ring and permission to proceed.

            12-15: Royal secretaries are summoned to fashion the decree in all the languages of the vast empire. Haman uses the king’s signet ring to stamp the wax that seals each copy, and copies are carried by courier throughout the kingdom on the 13th day of the first month. The decree orders the extermination of the Jews on the 13th day of the twelfth month. The king and Haman are having a drink together when the decree arrives at the citadel of Susa where Mordecai’s office is located.

Day 430: Esther 4

            1-3: Mordecai is mortified, as are all the Jews all over the country.

            4-8: Esther hears that her cousin Mordecai is in sackcloth and ashes. Her response is to send him some descent clothes. When he refuses to wear them she sends her attendant Hathach to find out what’s going on. Mordecai gives Hathach a copy of the decree and asks him to deliver it to Esther that she might go to the king and try to set things right.

            9-17: Esther sends Hathach back to Mordecai to explain to him that she can’t just drop in on the king. Such arrogance is a capital crime unless the king pardons the trespass by holding out his scepter to prevent the guards from killing the intruder on the spot. Mordecai’s response is famous and historic. “If you keep silence at such a time as this,” he says, “deliverance will come from elsewhere, but you will perish.” Those words serve as a reminder to every generation that turning a deaf ear to injustice and oppression is itself as great a sin. He also suggests to Esther that her rise to royal status may have occurred “for such a time as this.” God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, but certainly stands behind the scenery looking on and directing the cast; or at least part of the cast. Esther is persuaded and offers to risk her life, asking only that the Jews undergird her mission with three days of fasting and prayer. Mordecai promises to get the word out to all the Jewish communities in the Persian Empire. This would normally take weeks to accomplish with runners carrying the letter to every corner of the empire, but to continue advancing the action as every story must, we’ll pretend he faxed it, and the fast begins right away.

Day 431: Esther 5

            1-8: The tense moment has arrived. Great stage directions are here: Esther nervously dressing in her royal gowns; making her appearance in the vestibule of the king’s hall; the king holding out the golden scepter; Esther approaching and touching the top of the scepter, a curious gesture that nevertheless seems to add an element of authenticity to the scene. The king graciously offers to grant her request before she makes it, and to our surprise her request is that the king and Haman come to her quarters for dinner. They do, and the king repeats his offer. To heighten our suspense, Esther puts him off until the morrow.

            9-14: Haman is thrilled to be in what he believes to be the Queen’s favor, but his mood is dashed when he sees that uppity Mordecai ignoring him as he passes the king’s gate. Haman decides to have a late night party, and calls his friends over to celebrate with him. That is to say, he calls them over to celebrate him, for he is after all such a marvelous fellow, rich and important and quite a stud to boot with lots of sons to prove it. Even the Queen has recognized how special he is by inviting him, and only him, to a banquet with the king in her private quarters that very day, and not only that, but the next day also. Still, seeing that blasted Mordecai, that Jew, sitting high and mighty at the king’s gate is enough to dampen all the successes he enjoys. His wife and friends have a great idea, though. They tell Haman that he ought to have a gallows erected, 75 feet high, on which to hang Mordecai. Just tell the king to have Mordecai hanged on it and then go to the Queen’s banquet in a happy mood, they say. Haman thinks it is a grand idea.

            We, the audience, are alarmed. Mordecai will be hanged before Esther can make her request!

Day 432: Esther 6

            1-11: Ahasuerus can’t sleep. What does a king do when he can’t sleep? Why, bring in some scribes to read from the book of records; that ought to knock him out pretty quickly. However, before he slips into subliminal bliss they get to the part about Mordecai saving the king’s life by uncovering an assassination plot, and he jerks wide awake. What has been done to honor Mordecai, he asks, and is told that Mordecai has so far gone unrewarded for the good deed – no surprise in an administration run by this Ahasuerus guy. Casting about for ideas on what to do, he is told that Haman has arrived in the outer court, so the king invites him in and asks him what the king should do to honor someone he wishes to honor. If anyone should know such a thing, you would think it would be the king. Nevertheless, Haman naturally thinks he is the one the king wants to honor, so he lays out an elaborate scenario of parading the lucky fellow around the city wearing some of the king’s hand-me-down garments. Ahasuerus tells Haman to make it so – for Mordecai the Jew! Haman has to lead Mordecai around the city shouting, “This is how the king honors a man!”

            You know, if I save the king’s life and in return the king dresses me up in some fancy old clothes of his, plants me on top of a horse and trots me around the city with some idiot hollering about how honored I am, I’m not at all sure I would feel all that honored. But how do you say “no” to a king?

            12-14: Haman goes home humiliated, and his wife and friends correctly see the event as a bad omen for Haman. With those concerns ringing in his ears, Haman is led away to the Queen’s private chambers – not knowing, by the way, that she is Jewish, too.

Day 433: Esther 7

            1-10: Zeresh (Haman’s wife) was right; the elevation of Mordecai in the king’s eyes could not be a good thing for Haman. He arrives at the queen’s banquet with the king, and after a suitable time of courtesy has passed the king presses Esther to say what’s on her mind. It is, of course, unthinkable that Ahasuerus would have married anyone without knowing as much about them and their background as can be known, so we must assume that he knows Esther is Jewish. The problem is that he didn’t bother to ask Haman what race of people Haman wanted to do away with. When Esther reveals that her people have been condemned to death, he asks her who would do such a thing, and Haman is surely devastated to learn that Queen Esther is a Jew. Ahasuerus is so enraged that he finds it necessary to leave the room, and when he returns he finds Haman on the couch with the queen. Haman, of course, is begging for his life, but Ahasuerus assumes he is trying to take advantage of her. Haman is taken into custody, and when the king hears that he has constructed a gallows on which to hang Mordecai, he orders his guards to hang Haman on it. So ends the mercurial career of Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite.

Day 434: Esther 8

            1-2: Esther reveals her relationship to Mordecai and the king promotes Mordecai to Haman’s vacated spot in his administration. Esther puts Mordecai in charge of Haman’s house.

            3-8: Esther asks Ahasuerus to revoke Haman’s earlier decree, and as he had done with Haman, the king himself refrains from doing so but gives his signet ring to Mordecai and tells him he can write anything he wants with regard to the Jews. Why the king simply doesn’t revoke Haman’s decree is not explained.

            9-14: Instead of revoking Haman’s decree Mordecai’s decree, carried all through the empire by couriers on horseback, gives the Jews permission to defend themselves on the 13th day of the 12th month of Adar. The description of the distribution of the decree is identical to the description of Haman’s decree, even down to the last line about it begin delivered to the citadel of Susa where Mordecai used to work.

            15-17: All of a sudden it is good to be a Jew in Persia. The Jews rejoice all over the empire and their celebration is joined by lots of Jewish wannabes.

Day 435: Esther 9

            1-10: By the time the 13th of Adar arrives the enemies of the Jews are at a distinct disadvantage. The Jews are now a favored race claiming both the queen and the top official in the capital city of Susa. Mordecai’s star has risen dramatically making the other state officials suddenly become fans of everything Jewish. The Jews slaughter their enemies on the assigned day. In particular they kill the ten sons of Haman.

            11-15: Ahasuerus is cheering from the sidelines, happily reporting the body count to Esther. She asks for the Jews in Susa to be allowed to continue their “defense” into the next day as well, and that the bodies of Haman’s sons be hung on the gallows (the gallows built by Haman, do you suppose?) and the king agrees.

            16-19: The total body count comes to 75,800. The Jews in the rest of the country celebrate on the 14th of Adar, but the Jews in Susa don’t celebrate until the         15th of Adar. The author explains that this is the reason rural Jews originally celebrated Purim on Adar 14 while city Jews celebrated it on Adar 15.

            20-23: Mordecai orders that the day of their deliverance be made an annual observance on the 14th and 15th of Adar (it is a different day each year in our calendar, but falls in February/March). It is to be a time of festival and the giving of food and presents to the poor. (Google “Judaism 101” to find a recipe for “hamentaschen” cookies, known as “Haman hats” or “Haman ears.”)

            24-32: And so the story has a happy ending – for the Jews, that is – and the Jewish people are encouraged to celebrate Purim every year in perpetuity, as commanded by Queen Esther herself.

Day 436: Esther 10

            1-3: Now, you might wonder if things happened just the way it is told in this tale, but take the author’s word for it, the story of Esther and Mordecai is well documented.

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