Purim is a Jewish Holiday. This year it begins on March 4 and ends on March 5. It’s a holiday of fun and silliness – and having a drink or two – so I’m going to start with a Jewish joke. What do you get when you eat undercooked chicken? Shabbat-ulism.
The origins of Purim lie in the story of Esther. It is a novella – a fictional story set in a historical timeframe. It is a story of conspiracy, intrigue, and secret identities; of genocidal commanders and beautiful young women; of coincidence, fate and unexpected reversals of fortune. Esther is creative literature that interlaces comedy and tragedy in a way that is meant to entertain its listeners while proving that what goes around comes around and leaving us with a powerful point to ponder. This is the story of Esther…
We begin in the household of King Ahasuerus, which refers to King Xerxes I who ruled the Persian Empire from India to Ethiopia from 486 to 465 BCE. The King ends a 180-day banquet with a lavish 7-day party. On the seventh day “when the king was merry with wine,” he commanded that Queen Vashti be brought before him so he could show off her beauty to everyone. But she refused to come. The king was enraged.
He consulted his sages and lawyers who blow this little domestic dispute into a full-blown national crisis. First they tell him he can forbid Queen Vashti from ever coming into his presence again – in fact, they suggest that anyone who approaches the king without first being invited should be put to death. Then they go on to suggest that this would be an excellent time to issue a decree that all woman give honor to their husbands. So letters were sent to every province “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”
The King’s anger lessens and he starts missing Vashti so his servants suggest that beautiful young virgins be sought out and brought to the harem so that the King can choose a replacement.
Hadassah is an orphaned Jewish girl being raised by her cousin Mordecai. Where are the Jews at this time in history? This story takes place one hundred years after the first temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered and dispersed. There is no common homeland for them and they seek to survive in small communities amongst the gentiles. It is a dark time in Jewish history in which events seem arbitrary and their God seems to be absent.
When Hadassah is brought to the harem she is given the name Esther and she is warned by Mordecai not to let anyone know she’s a Jew. When the King finally sees her, he likes her more than all the other virgins and makes her queen.
The King has yet another banquet during which Mordecai coincidentally overhears a plot to kill the king. He tells Esther who warns the King. The accusation turns out to be true and the King has the men responsible impaled. Then he asks for the whole incident to be written down in the permanent record.
The King promotes Haman to be his prime minister. Haman is the Bad Guy in this story so by Jewish tradition each time his name is mentioned, those who are listening to the story are supposed to boo, hiss, stamp your feet and generally try to “blot out the name of Haman.”
Haman had given orders that everyone was to bow before him. But Mordecai refused and won’t even say why. This insult infuriates Haman, but he thinks it below him to strangle Mordecai himself so he begins to plot have all the Jews killed – and another private affair is turned into a full-scale national crisis.
Haman convinces the king to give him authority to do whatever he wishes with the Jews. Wanting to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire, he cast lots to decide the day for this genocide. The Hebrew word for lots is ‘pur’ from which comes the name of the holiday Purim. Letters are then sent from the king to all provinces giving orders to “destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day and to plunder their goods.” Then the king and Haman sit down to drink.
Mordecai gets word to Esther about this plan and charges her to go to the king and ask him to save her people. She replies that anyone who goes to the king without being invited is to be put to death. So Mordecai replies, ‘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 is moved beyond her fears by Mordecai’s words and tells him to gather all the Jews and hold a 3-day fast on her behalf. She tells him that she and her maids will fast, too, and then she will approach the king. And if she dies, she dies.
Fortunately, the king is delighted to see Esther and welcomes her into his presence. He asks what she wants and she starts by inviting him and Haman to come to a banquet – obviously she knows how to appeal to this guy. So they’re at this banquet, drinking wine and he asks her again what she wants. So she invites him to another banquet the next day. Again he asks what she wants and promises her she can have whatever it is. So she invites them to another banquet the next day.
Haman leaves the party that night in good spirits looking forward to another party. But on the way home, he sees Mordecai who still refuses to tremble or bow before him, and who spoils his happiness. Complaining about this insult at home, his wife and friends suggest he build a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. He happily has the gallows made.
This chapter is a masterpiece of ironic narrative.
That night the king could not sleep. He gave orders read the book of records to him. When they got to the story about Mordecai telling about the plot to assassinate the king, he asked,
K: ‘What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?’
N: The king’s servants said,
S: ‘Nothing has been done for him.’
N: At that moment Haman entered the outer court wanting to talk to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows he had built. The king’s servants told him,
S:‘Haman is there, standing in the court’
N: and the king said,
K: ‘Let him come in.’
N: So Haman came in, and the king said to him,
K: ‘What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?’
N: Haman said to himself,
H: ‘Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?’
N: So he said to the king,
H: ‘For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.”
N: The King said,
K: ‘Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sites at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.’
N: So Haman took the robes and the horse and led him through the open square of the city, proclaiming,
H: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.’
N: After the parade, Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. He was telling his wife and all his friends everything that had happened when the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried him off to the banquet that Esther had prepared.
The king and Haman went to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther,
K: ‘What is it you want, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. Even if it is half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’
N: Then Queen Esther answered,
Q: ‘If I have won your favor, O king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request. For we have been sold, me and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’
N: The King asked:
K: ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’
N: Esther replied:
Q: ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’
N: Then Haman was terrified. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther. When the king returned to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; leading the king to say,
K: ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’
N: Then one of the eunuchs said,
S: ‘Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.’
N: Said the King,
K: ‘Hang him on that.’
N: So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
The king replaced Haman with Mordecai who became the new Prime Minister and Esther approached the king once more to ask him to revoke the order to destroy the Jews. But the king says once an edict is written there is no way to revoke it. So the secretaries are called and another batch of letters are written. This time the king gives orders allowing the Jews to defend themselves, to destroy, kill and annihilate anyone who might attack them. Mordecai and all the Jewish people are very happy.
In chapter 9 comes the bloodbath. The Jews attack those who would have attacked them. 500 people are killed in the capital alone along with all 10 of Haman’s sons. The King asks Esther what else she wants and she asks for a second day. 300 more are killed in the capital and 75,000 are killed throughout all the provinces. The next day there is feasting and gladness and Mordecai sends letters declaring that this day is to be celebrated with feasting and by sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. This is the day celebrated every year even until today as Purim.
The book of Esther ends by declaring the greatness of the King and celebrating Mordecai as the ideal portrait of a successful Jew living harmoniously in a Gentile world.
So ends the Book of Esther
But let’s back up a minute because there are clearly some things in this story that warrant our further attention. First, let’s talk about that bloodbath. How can we not be disturbed by the enthusiastic account of the violence of the Jewish community against their enemies, which far exceeded any notion of self-defense? I’ll tell you how. By remembering that this is a fictional story. And it is one that uses symmetries and reversals as a way to weave together the comic and the tragic. The bloodshed was only extreme because the order to shed the blood of the Jews was so extreme.
Another unique aspect of this story is its heroine. Most of the characters in the story are stereotypes and caricatures. But Esther changes over time. Beginning as a passive figure, she is notable only for her beauty and obedience. But once challenged by Mordecai to do something only she can do, she embraces her Jewish identity and decides to risk her life for the sake of her people. Ultimately it is on Esther’s authority that Purim is established, making it the only Jewish religious tradition authorized by a woman.
The final thing that makes Esther unique and even controversial (in fact Martin Luther said he wished it had never been written) is the distinct absence of any mention or reference to the God of Israel. Not even once. The book doesn’t even set forth any important moral or religious ideals. This obvious omission makes sense given the reality of the Jewish people who at that time had been scattered and were trying to survive in small numbers living among the gentiles. With the Temple destroyed and no homeland, they certainly must have felt the absence of the anything Divine in their communities or their individual lives.
People have drawn two different conclusions about the absence of the Divine in this story. One is that God was behind the scenes the whole time, orchestrating each event. It was God who placed Mordecai in a position to hear the plot to kill the king. It was God who had Esther chosen to replace the queen. There are no coincidences, only the hidden hand of God at work.
Another conclusion that can be drawn is that human beings shape their own future. That it is our responsibility to act when we are called to act. In the face of crisis it is not enough to cry out for someone else to deliver us. Instead, we must exercise courage, wisdom and resolve knowing we have the responsibility to work out our own fates. We need to take ownership of our own role in creating a world that is being shaped day by day and whose future is uncertain to us all.
We don’t believe that we are animated puppets being led around by cosmic strings. But if it is up to us to be actively engaged in shaping this world and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us, there is an important question to answer:
What shall we do?
In the face of climate change, war, genocide, AIDS orphans, hunger and homelessness – what are we supposed to do? And what if we don’t do anything? Will help surely come from another quarter if you and I turn away out of disinterest or despair? If we don’t do it, who will?
Esther demonstrates the importance of responding to and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us rather than throwing them away in the glib hope that somebody else will do what we are unwilling to do ourselves. Living a good life means that we have responsibilities. We are not meant to passively exist, but to actively participate in our own lives and in the lives of others. Ultimately, it is up to us to “work out our own salvation.”