Queen Esther Bible Purim

Part one, Setting the Scene (introduction and notes on Esther chapter 1) is here.
Part two, For such a time as this (notes on Esther chapters 2-4) is here.

A Table for Three (Esther 5-7)

Chapter 4 of Esther closed with all the Jews in the city of Susa fasting at Esther’s request. When the fast is completed, Esther puts on her royal robes and appears before the king. Queen Vashti had defied Xerxes by not appearing in his presence when summoned. Queen Esther defies Xerxes by appearing in his presence without being summoned.

The risk of a death sentence is apparently real, even if the Hebrew text doesn’t dwell on it. The Greek text, on the other hand, includes a melodramatic scene where the king is initially angry but then softens when Esther swoons (Greek Esther D). Josephus also draws on this soppy account (Antiquities 11.6.9 §234-239).

In the Hebrew text, the king is pleased as soon as he sees Esther. Her gift for winning favour continues and her ability for shrewdness is now on display. She organises one banquet and then another where the only guests are Xerxes and the villain Haman who is delighted with this honour.

Esther has not seen the king for 30 days (Esth. 4:11), and we can imagine that she may have been unsure of the king’s affections for her. She would have been greatly relieved at the end of the first banquet when Xerxes tells her, “Whatever you ask will be given to you. Whatever you want, even to half the kingdom, will be done” (Esth. 5:6 CSB).[1]

For the sake of the story, the two banquets function to highlight and contrast Haman’s sense of exultation after the first and his utter devastation after the second. Moreover, between the banquets, Haman is humiliated when, in Esther chapter 6, Xerxes orders him to dress Mordecai in clothes that had been worn by the king, seat him on a horse that had been ridden by the king, and parade him through the streets of the city as a hero. This was Mordecai’s belated reward for reporting a plot to assassinate the king (see Esth. 2:21-23).

While Haman is still reeling from the events of the day, Esther makes her move during the second banquet. When the time is right, she traps Haman. Esther reveals to Xerxes she is a Jew and that, because Haman wants to kill the Jews, he wants to kill her.

Esther pleads with the king using self-effacing language that was typical when addressing a powerful person in ancient times.

“If I have found favor in your eyes, Your Majesty, and if the king is pleased, spare my life; this is my request. And spare my people; this is my desire. For my people and I have been sold to destruction, death, and extermination. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept silent. Indeed, the trouble wouldn’t be worth burdening the king. . . . The adversary and enemy is this evil Haman.” Esther 7:3-4, 6 CSB

The king is furious and (conveniently for the story) he steps out into the garden which gives Haman the opportunity to beg Esther for mercy. When Xerxes steps back inside it looks as though Haman is molesting the queen which makes the king even more furious. Xerxes orders that Haman be impaled on a pole that Haman had previously set up to murder Mordecai.

Within twenty-four hours, and within the space of three chapters, Haman’s life has undergone a drastic reversal of fortune. Haman went from “joy and good spirits” (Esth. 5:9) to being “mournful and with his head covered” (Esth. 6:12), and then went on to a grisly death (Esth. 7:9-10). It is one of the eunuchs who suggests to Xerxes that Haman be executed on a pole—the very same pole that Haman had erected to impale Mordecai.[2] It seems that Haman, unlike Esther, had not endeared himself to the palace staff. Haman’s arrogant manner and methods led to his ruin.

The escalating tension in the story subsides with Haman’s death. But it is not over yet.

Making New Laws and Purim (Esther 8-9)

The king gives Haman’s estate to Queen Esther and she puts Mordecai in charge of it. She tells Xerxes that Mordecai is her family and the king elevates him to Haman’s position: “The king removed his signet ring he had recovered from Haman and gave it to Mordecai” (Esth. 8:2 CSB).

Esther and Mordecai prosper, they have wealth and they have power, but the Jews are still in danger. Haman’s plot had been made law, a law that cannot be overturned. So, after a short period of time, Esther appears before the king’s throne and pleads with him.

The first time Esther came in unbidden, “she waited silently until the king extended his sceptre to her. This time, perhaps spurred on by the peril of her people, and reassured by the king’s generous treatment of her and Mordecai, she petitions him for redress of the evil Haman had devised, even before the king extends his sceptre.”[3]

Xerxes listens to his wife’s plan to remedy the situation caused by Haman, and he authorises Esther and Mordecai to deal with the problem as they see fit. (Not once in the story does the king display leadership skills or effective initiative. He relies on others.) Xerxes tells them, “Write in the king’s name whatever pleases you concerning the Jews, and seal it with the royal signet ring” (Esth. 8:8 CSB).

So the pair write an edict, as Haman had done, but which allows the Jews the use of deadly force to defend themselves. And chapter eight ends on a high note.

Mordecai went from the king’s presence clothed in royal purple and white, with a great gold crown and a purple robe of fine linen. The city of Susa shouted and rejoiced, and the Jews celebrated with gladness, joy, and honor. In every province and every city, wherever the king’s command and his law reached, joy and rejoicing took place among the Jews. There was a celebration and a holiday. . . Esther 8:15-17a CSB.

When the other people in Xerxes’ realm saw the Jews gaining power they were afraid and seem to have thought “If you can’t beat them, join them.” So “many of the ethnic groups of the land professed themselves to be Jews . . .” (Esth. 8:17b CSB).

On the 13th of Adar, the day of the planned massacre, the Jews defend themselves. Their cause is aided by provincial officials and royal administrators who fear Mordecai and his elevated position. And the Jews overpower their attackers.

Much blood is shed and Haman’s ten sons are among the fallen. Esther asks Xerxes that the bodies of the ten sons be hung up publicly, perhaps to make a strong statement, “This is what happens when you mess with the Jews.” She also asks that the Jews is the city of Susa be given another day to kill their enemies. Esther seems to be gaining easier access to the king and communicating with him more readily.

When the bloodbath is over, Mordecai writes an account of the events and sends it in a letter to all the Jews in the empire. The letter also gives information of a new rule he has made: the Jews are to celebrate a festival to commemorate their victory over their enemy. The festival is called Purim named after the pur, the dice, that Haman had used to decide on which day the Jews were to be slaughtered (Esth. 3:7).

Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar. (Adar is the last month of the Hebrew year and coincides with February-March.) This is the day many of the Jews, except those in Susa, rested after defending themselves. (In 2020, Purim celebrations begin on Monday night, the 9th of March, and continue during Tuesday the 10th. In Jerusalem the holiday is on the 11th.)

A second letter is then sent. In this letter, Esther uses her full authority as queen to confirm the law that Mordecai has put in place.

Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, along with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with her full royal power to show that this second letter about Purim was correct. Letters conveying good wishes and words of friendship were sent to all the Jews throughout the one hundred twenty-seven provinces in the kingdom of Ahasuerus [i.e. Xerxes]. Their aim was to make sure that the Jews kept these days of Purim at the proper time, following the rule that Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had made. . . . Esther’s order made these features of Purim part of the law, so it was written down. Esther 9:29-32 CEB

The Book of Esther closes with a short chapter that seems tagged on; chapter 10 focusses on Xerxes and Mordecai, and does not mention Esther at all.

Conclusion

In the early chapters of the book that bears her name, Esther appears to have no agency of her own and is silent. We know nothing of her thoughts or feelings or capabilities. However, she acts decisively, and carefully, when she learns of Haman’s plan to kill the Jews. From then onwards, we hear her speak several times to the men in her life, including her immensely powerful husband, Xerxes. She risked her life and acted shrewdly to deliver her people. The result is that the Jews are saved and there is a complete reversal of Haman’s career. The corpses of his sons are even hung on public display at the request of Esther. She then authorises new legislation about Purim. She can no longer be mistaken for a sweet and passive young woman

But what about the book of Esther as a whole? What is its purpose? While it explains the origins of the Jewish festival of Purim, this may not have been the author’s primary intention. The festival is mentioned only briefly. The major themes of the book seem to be God’s providential care of his people and the reversal of fortunes which he orchestrates.[4]

In Esther, God performs from behind the scenes. It is Esther and her uncle Mordecai who are front and centre and were devoted to the cause of God’s people.[5] They are the ones who God worked through for such a time. Furthermore, Esther and Mordecai worked together and supported each other. Through their combined efforts, as well as providence, the time that was set for the destruction of the Jews became a time of celebration.

Robert Gordis writes of the enduring legacy of the Book of Esther.

In the dark days before their deaths, Jewish inmates of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, and Bergen-Belsen wrote the Book of Esther from memory and read it in secret on Purim. Both they and their brutal foes understood its message. This unforgettable book teaches that Jewish resistance to annihilation, then as now, represents the service of God and devotion to His cause.[6]


Footnotes

[1] This statement is not to be taken literally, but it denotes generosity and liberality (cf. Mark 6:22-23).

[2] Erecting a pole to kill Mordecai had been the idea of Haman’s wife Zeresh and his friends (Esth. 5:14). Zeresh and friends had celebrated Haman’s success in Esther 5:10-14 but they quickly changed their tune when they sensed Haman’s downfall (Esth. 6:13). Their turnaround is part of the comedy of Esther.

[3] Ed Dickerson, For Such a Time: Chosen Women of the Bible (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2017), 110.

[4] The feast of Purim celebrates a major reversal. Instead of annihilation and grief, there is victory and joy: “their sorrow was turned into rejoicing and their mourning into a holiday” (Esth. 9:22 CSB cf. Esth 9:1).

[5] Esther is listed in the Talmud as one of seven prophetesses. The seven are Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther (Megillah 14a). The Rabbis also taught that there have been four women of surpassing beauty in the world: Sarah, Rahab, Abigail and Esther (Megillah 15a).

[6] Robert Gordis, Megillat Esther: Introduction, New Translation and Commentary (New York: Ktav, 1974), 13–14. Quoted by Karen Jobes, Esther, Kindle Location 733.

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Further Reading

Christine Woolgar, Esther in the Bible: Surprisingly Political WorktheGreyMatter.com 
What is Purim? Chabad.org

Esther’s Story

(1) Setting the Scene (Introduction and Chapter 1)
(2) For such a time as this (Esther Chapters 2-4)
(3) Esther in Action (Esther Chapters 5-10)

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