Esther - Irony and Providence
Esther is a popular book. It contains many winning story elements: a common girl who becomes queen; a dastardly villain and his wicked plot; a clever resolution; and justice served. It could almost be trite were it not for the seriousness of its underlying message. The story is masterfully told, and the literary composition of Esther is one of the most sophisticated in the Scriptures. Whether it is history cast in pedagogy or pedagogy cast in history, Esther has lessons to teach everyone and depths to interest the serious student.
Most people are familiar with this story, and if you are not, it is a quick and entertaining read. Much of this lesson assumes a basic knowledge of the story and focuses on the book’s dynamics. The sections of this lesson are:
- The Characters
- Structural Elements
- The Story
- The Lord’s Name in Esther
- Esther and Anti-Semitism
- Closing Thoughts
Ahasuerus: He was the king of Persia and one of the dominant characters, appearing by name or reference in every chapter except chapter 4. He is usually identified in secular history as Xerxes who ruled in Persia from 486-464 B.C. You might wonder how one gets Xerxes from Ahasuerus. The name, Xerxes, in secular history comes from the Greek version of his name. Moving from the Greek to the Persian to the Hebrew to the English shows that the derivation is not as strange as might first appear: Xerxes – Xshayarshan – Achashverosh – Ahasuerus.
Herodotus, clearly no fan of a king that invaded his country, reported that Ahaseurus had a very bad temper. Here are two stories from his history.
A Failed Bridge
They then began to build bridges across the Hellespont from Abydos to that headland between Sestus and Madytus, the Phoenicians building one of ropes made from flax, and the Egyptians building a second one out of papyrus. From Abydos to the opposite shore it is a distance of almost two-thirds of a mile. But no sooner had the strait been bridged than a great storm came on and cut apart and scattered all their work.
Xerxes flew into a rage at this, and he commanded that the Hellespont be struck with three hundred strokes of the whip and that a pair of foot-chains be thrown into the sea. It's even been said that he sent off a rank of branders along with the rest to the Hellespont! He also commanded the scourgers to speak outlandish and arrogant words: “You hateful water, our master lays his judgement on you thus, for you have unjustly punished him even though he's done you no wrong! Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you wish it or not! It is fitting that no man offer you sacrifices, for you're a muddy and salty river!” In these ways he commanded that the sea be punished and also that the heads be severed from all those who directed the bridging of the Hellespont.
A Father’s Request
As he marched out the army, Pythias the Lydian, dreading the heavenly omen and encouraged by the gifts given to him by Xerxes, came up to Xerxes and said, “Master, I wish to ask a favor of you, which would be a small favor for you to render, but would be a great favor for me to receive.” Xerxes, thinking that he knew everything Pythias could ask for, answered that he would grant the favor and asked him to proclaim what it was he wished. “Master, it happens that I have five sons, and they are all bound to soldier for you against the Greeks. I pray you, king, that you have pity on one who has reached my age and that you set free one of my sons, even the oldest, from your army, so that he may provide for me and my possessions. Take the other four with you, and may you return having accomplished all you intended.”
Xerxes flew into a horrible rage and replied, “You villainous man, you have the effrontery, seeing me marching with my army against the Greeks, with my sons and brothers and relatives and friends, to remind me of your son, you, my slave, who should rather come with me with your entire household, including your wife! You may now be certain of this, that since the spirit lives in a man's ears, hearing good words it fills the body with delight, when it hears the opposite it swells up. When you at one time performed well and promised more, you had no reason to boast that you outperformed your king in benefits; and now that you have turned most shameless, you shall receive less than what you deserve. You and four of your sons are saved because of your hospitality; but one of your sons, the one you most desire to hold your arms around, will lose his life!” Having answered thus, he commanded those charged to accomplish this to find the eldest of Pythias's sons and cut him in half, and having cut him in two to set one half of his corpse on the right side of the road and the other on the left side, and between these the army moved forth.339
The rage exhibited in this account of Herodotus is worth remembering as you read Esther. Ahasuerus’ anger is a critical dynamic.
Vashti: She was the queen of Ahasuerus, but she was quickly deposed for disobeying his wishes and incurring his anger. Some identify her with Amestris, who is the only wife of Ahasuerus known to secular sources. Other than that, there is no record of her outside the Bible. Of course, there is no record of Esther or Mordecai in secular writings either. Since you cannot really argue from absence, especially with the scant historical material we have from the time, such omissions should not be especially troubling.
Esther/Hadassah: She was the non-practicing Jewish heroine of the story and an orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai. Hadassah was her given Jewish name, but she went by Esther. We cannot tell from the Book of Esther when she took on this name. It is probable that it was part of hiding her Jewish identity at the command of Mordecai.
There are four possible derivations of the name Esther.340
- From Ishtar, the Akkadian goddess of love. If this is true, then Mordecai’s name was likely derived from Marduk, the Akkadian god of war. If this is the case, then Mordecai was also working to keep his national identity secret. It is strange and troubling to have two characters hiding behind the names of pagan gods.
- From Satar, the Hebrew word meaning hidden. The Hebrew for this word, rt^s, is very close to Esther, rT^s=a. Thus, Esther hides her Jewish identity with a name that means “hidden.” This plays into the author’s propensity to hide information needed to fully understand the spiritual dynamics of the story. Perhaps the name’s meaning drove the author to compose the book as he did. Even if Esther’s name was derived from one of the other four in this list, its association with rt^s should be considered.
- From Stara, the Persian word for star. This name makes good sense from a historical perspective, since the story takes place in Persia.
- From Astra, the Median word meaning “myrtle.” Since Hadassah, in Hebrew, means myrtle, Esther chose a name that means the same as her given name.
Mordecai: He was the non-practicing Jewish cousin and protector of Hadassah a.k.a. Esther. His name was possibly derived from Marduk, the Akkadian god of war.
He was also a possible descendant of King Saul. Here is the connection. Esther tells us that he was a descendant of Benjamin. The names of Mordecai’s grandfather, Kish, and great-grandfather, Shimei, suggest that he descended from Kish, the father of King Saul, and Shimei (2 Samuel 16:5) of the house of Saul. These data provide clues to the deep conflict that arises between Mordecai and Haman, which I will discuss later.
Haman: Ahasuerus’s anti-Semitic chief advisor and the story’s villain. He is identified as an Agagite. Thus he was possibly a descendant of King Agag, an Amalekite, whom King Saul failed to destroy when commanded by God to do so. Although Samuel killed Agag shortly after Saul failed to, it seems that a descendant may have gotten away. The Saul/Mordecai and Agag/Haman connection should now be clear. They were parties to a family hatred that went back centuries. If this seems extreme, look at the Middle East today, where the feuds go back for millenniums.
The Eunuchs: It is amazing where these guys pop up. They operated behind the scenes, but were somehow instrumental in just about every decision anyone made. Hegai helped Esther become a queen. Hathach relayed messages between Esther and Mordecai. Harbonah suggested that Haman be hung on his own gallows.
Zeresh: She was the wife of Haman. Her allegiances shifted as soon as the direction of the winds of fortune changed for her husband.
Haman’s Ten Sons: They are named on the day that Jews killed them along with the rest of their enemies.
With the characters in place, we can turn our attention to the structural elements of the book.
Nearly every event in Esther happens twice, the second time being a variation of the first. In the first chapter, there is a long banquet and a short banquet. In the second chapter, there is a “virgin pageant” that leads to the queening of Esther, followed by a second “virgin pageant.” Esther holds two banquets that lead to the downfall of Haman, which is paired with the two banquets that led to the fall of Vashti. There is a decree that zips through the empire calling for the destruction of the Jews, and then later there is a decree sent calling for the destruction of their enemies. Esther comes twice unannounced to King Ahasuerus. Haman goes home with his head covered after giving honor to Mordecai, and his head is covered before he is hung. The Jewish defense in Susa lasts for an extra day. Paired events are one of the motifs in this book. This will become an important point later on, when I examine the Name of the Lord in Esther.
Related to the paired events are a series of ironic reversals in Esther. Ahasuerus commands Vashti to come before him, she refuses, and loses her position; Esther comes before him uncommanded and at the peril of her life, but gains position. In chapter 1, a decree is sent to the empire that wives are to obey their husbands, but the end of Esther shows her to be obeyed (Esther 9:32). Mordecai, a Jew, refuses to bow to Haman, and later Haman bows before Esther, a Jew. Haman is lifted up by Ahasuerus and then humbled. The Jews fast and then the Jews feast. There is the casting of lots to choose a day, and providential events that foil the day. As with the paired events, the ironic reversals come into play with the Name of the Lord in Esther.
You cannot read Esther without asking questions. Why is there no reference to God or religious activities? Why does Esther hide her Jewish identity? Why is there no reference to the Feast of Passover even though the date for that feast may be inferred? Why did Vashti not appear before the king? Why did Mordecai refuse to bow to Haman, and why does Haman react so out of proportion? Did Ahasuerus ever have an original thought? Did anyone ever eat at the banquets or only drink? Why did Esther not just come out and accuse Haman instead of doing the two banquets?
You can see that Esther is a deeper book than meets the eye, but what purpose do these literary devices serve? The answer is that they underpin the central message in this book, which is the providential care of God for His people. Both Mordecai and Esther are non-practicing Jews. Even more so, Mordecai’s behavior places all Jews in Persia under a death sentence. In the telling of the history, the central characters do not appeal to their God; they do not make the connection between Passover and the crisis crashing on them. Mordecai and Esther seek a human solution with a foreign king. By highlighting the paired events, ironic reversals, and puzzles, the author of Esther begs us to see God behind the scenes. We see that God rescued His people because He cares for them. We are also challenged to see the hand of God in the events surrounding our lives.
Early in his reign, King Ahasuerus held two banquets. The first one lasted 180 days and involved the regional rulers. The second lasted for seven days and included everyone. At the end of this second feast, a “domino tipping” event occurred.
On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him (Esther 1:10-12).
“The heart of the king was merry with wine,” and “the king became very angry.” Although somewhat separated in this passage, these two events are linked. Ahasuerus was a mean drunk. Herodotus reported that Ahasuerus had a severe temper. Mix that with drink, and you have cause for fear.
Why did Vashti not come at the king’s command? What seems most reasonable is a combination of: 1) her having responsibilities at the feast she was giving for the women; and 2) her not wanting to appear before a drunk king and a drunk crowd. In the first case, it is obvious that separate feasts for men and women were being held. This suggests a custom of separating men and women. King Ahasuerus may have asked Vashti to cross a cultural line. Add to this the unpredictable consequences of a drunken husband who was prone to anger. I suspect that Vashti considered staying put to be the safest course. Who knows, she may have been right.
Nevertheless, Vashti’s decision cost her position in the court.
This day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s conduct will speak in the same way to all the king’s princes, and there will be plenty of contempt and anger. “If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti may no longer come into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is more worthy than she. And when the king’s edict which he will make is heard throughout all his kingdom, great as it is, then all women will give honor to their husbands, great and small” (Esther 1:18-20).
Vashti was deposed via a royal edict that could not be repealed. Certainly, this is essential information for what lies ahead. Once the law concerning Vashti was on the books, Ahasuerus was not able to see her again. All the decrees in Esther had this quality of being permanent.
Because the principle of wives respecting their husbands exists in other Scriptures, one might be tempted to use this edict for a proof text of this doctrine. However, we need only look at Ahasuerus’s action to see the folly of this. The Scriptures also speak of husbands loving their wives and laying down their lives for them. Ahasuerus certainly did not model this behavior. Rather, he sought to humiliate his wife. For the roles of men and women in the home, church, and society, this passage is bad case law, and we are better served by treating it as an interesting bit of history.
The Virgin Pageant
Some have romanticized the process by which Esther became queen. There was nothing romantic in the reality at all.
Let the king appoint overseers in all the provinces of his kingdom that they may gather every beautiful young virgin to the citadel of Susa, to the harem, into the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the women; and let their cosmetics be given them. “Then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti.” And the matter pleased the king, and he did accordingly (Esther 2:3-4).
This gathering of “every beautiful” virgin has no indication of being a voluntary program. If it were, what father or daughter would find desirable the prospect of a year’s preparation for one night, with a stud king, whose outcome was likely to be isolation in the concubine harem. Here is the description of this process:
Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women—for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women— the young lady would go in to the king in this way: anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name (Esther 2:12-14).
With a new virgin every night, how likely was Ahasuerus to remember any concubine’s name? All that remained for the girl was to mourn the loss of having a real husband and a family of her own. There is a similarity here between Ahasuerus’ actions and the tale of Shaharazade. There, a king, who was scorned by a former wife, took vengeance by taking a new bride each night and having her executed the next day. At least in the history of Ahasuerus, the young women’s lives were spared.
Esther Becomes Queen
One of the eunuchs in charge of the virgin pageant showed favor to Esther and helped her to become the queen.
Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai who had taken her as his daughter, came to go in to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favor and kindness with him more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti (Esther 2:15-17).
If you read through Esther with a view towards how King Ahasuerus made decisions, you will notice that he never made a decision on his own, except maybe here. On the other hand, what was it that Hegai, the eunuch, gave to Esther? Could it have been a signal to the king to choose this woman? Perhaps not, but why bother to tell us that Esther took anything in at all, much less that she took what Hegai advised? This, of course, is not to diminish the charm and grace that Esther possessed. She did, after all, find the favor of Hegai and the rest of the court. Perhaps the object that Hegai gave her was something to tell Ahasuerus that this one was special.
Mordecai Saves the King
When the virgins were gathered together the second time, then Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. Esther had not yet made known her kindred or her people, even as Mordecai had commanded her; for Esther did what Mordecai told her as she had done when under his care. In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s officials from those who guarded the door, became angry and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. But the plot became known to Mordecai, and he told Queen Esther, and Esther informed the king in Mordecai’s name (Esther 2:19-22).
The first thing to note is that soon after Esther became queen, a new virgin pageant began. Besides being an example of the paired events that proliferate in Esther, it speaks of the sensuality of Ahasuerus.
With such a king, it is small wonder that Mordecai stuck close to her quarters. It also seems as if Mordecai had some official position or business as his sitting at the king’s gate implies. While sitting there, he heard news of a plot against the king. To protect Esther, he informed her of the plot and she, in turn, told the king. There was an investigation, and the conspirators were apprehended and executed. As we learn later, Mordecai received no honor for having saved the king’s life.
Mordecai Disobeys the King
In the first chapter, Vashti disobeyed King Ahasuerus. As a paired event, Mordecai also disobeyed the king by refusing to bow before Haman:
All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman; for so the king had commanded concerning him. But Mordecai neither bowed down nor paid homage. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why are you transgressing the king’s command?” Now it was when they had spoken daily to him and he would not listen to them, that they told Haman to see whether Mordecai’s reason would stand; for he had told them that he was a Jew (Esther 3:2-4).
It is worth noting that it was not Haman, but the king’s servants, who noticed that Mordecai refused to bow. When they questioned Mordecai about his behavior, he seems to have told them, in effect, “I do not bow down to Haman, because I am a Jew.” This is one of the puzzles in the Book of Esther. Why does Mordecai not bow down to Haman, and why does Haman overreact? Since the author of Esther makes a point of identifying Haman as an Agagite and that Mordecai was possibly of the family of Saul, the issue seems to be one of long-past grievances. After all, Saul lost his dynasty, because he failed to destroy King Agag along with the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15).
This may also explain why Haman was not content to have Mordecai arrested and executed. Mordecai’s offense was really against King Ahasuerus. Getting the king to hang him would have been an easy thing to do. Instead, Haman reacted to “who the people of Mordecai were.” He decided, on account of Mordecai, to eliminate all the Jews. Haman is, thus, the first recorded anti-Semite.
When Haman saw that Mordecai neither bowed down nor paid homage to him, Haman was filled with rage. But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had told him who the people of Mordecai were; therefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus. In the first month, which is the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, Pur, that is the lot, was cast before Haman from day to day and from month to month, until the twelfth month, that is the month Adar (Esther 3:5-7).
It says that the Pur “was cast before Haman from day to day and from month to month.” Did Haman begin by casting a Pur for tomorrow and then the day after and so forth through the months? The language seems to say so. If this was the case, the Pur came up negative day after day until the middle of the last month in the year. In other words, Haman almost cycled through an entire year before arriving at the date. The providential significance of this will be revealed later.
Armed with the chosen date, Haman persuaded King Ahasuerus to declare as law a day for the destruction of the Jews.
Then the king’s scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and it was written just as Haman commanded to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province and to the princes of each people, each province according to its script, each people according to its language, being written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet ring. And letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces to destroy, to kill and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to seize their possessions as plunder
A copy of the edict to be issued as law in every province was published to all the peoples so that they should be ready for this day. The couriers went out impelled by the king’s command while the decree was issued at the citadel in Susa the capital; and while the king and Haman sat down to drink, the city of Susa was in confusion (Esther 3:12-15).
Mordecai Seeks Esther’s Help
Note the date in Esther 3:12, “the thirteenth day of the first month.” The decree to annihilate the Jews went out on the 13th of Nisan. Among observant religious Jews, here is what should have been going on:
Now the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household. Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb. Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight’” (Exodus 12:1-6, emphasis mine).
Haman’s decree went out on the eve of the slaughter of the Passover lambs. But Mordecai the Jew made no reference to this holiday of national deliverance at a time when the Jews needed deliverance! Not only does the Book of Esther make no mention of God, it does not do so even when it would be the most natural. Instead of seeking the God of Moses, Mordecai appealed to Esther to seek King Ahasuerus’ favor:
Mordecai told him [the eunuch shuttling messages between Mordecai and Esther] all that had happened to him, and the exact amount of money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict which had been issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show Esther and inform her, and to order her to go in to the king to implore his favor and to plead with him for her people (Esther 4:7-8).
This marks the beginning of the author’s pedagogy. From this point on, Mordecai and Esther contrived and played out their schemes, but who was really engineering events?
One of the laws of King Ahasuerus was that anyone who came into the throne room without an appointment was subject to death. Esther had not been called to the king for some thirty days.
All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that for any man or woman who comes to the king to the inner court who is not summoned, he has but one law, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter so that he may live. And I have not been summoned to come to the king for these thirty days (Esther 4:11).
In the one statement that borders on any faith, Mordecai told Esther that her becoming a queen might have been for this day.
Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:13-16).
Esther then called upon all the Jews in Susa to fast for three days. That period covered the time during which the Passover lamb was to have been slaughtered and eaten. It is ironic that the Jews fasted when the calendar called for feasting. It would seem as if these Jews of the early Diaspora were disconnected from the spiritual life in Jerusalem and the second temple.
Esther’s First Banquet
Esther passed the “golden scepter” test, and King Ahasuerus was ready to hear her petition. The last time Esther had brought an issue to King Ahasuerus’ attention was to inform him of the plot against his life. What was he to think of Esther’s petition for he and Haman to have dinner?
Esther said, “If it pleases the king, may the king and Haman come this day to the banquet that I have prepared for him.”
Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the banquet which Esther had prepared.
As they drank their wine at the banquet, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition, for it shall be granted to you. And what is your request? Even to half of the kingdom it shall be done.” So Esther replied, “My petition and my request is: if I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and do what I request, may the king and Haman come to the banquet which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king says” (Esther 5:4-8)
Haman was thrilled with his good fortune. He believed the queen was marking him for special consideration, and it went to his head. He was so overjoyed and overconfident that he decided it was a good day to rid himself of that nuisance Mordecai:
Then Haman recounted to them the glory of his riches, and the number of his sons, and every instance where the king had magnified him and how he had promoted him above the princes and servants of the king. Haman also said, “Even Esther the queen let no one but me come with the king to the banquet which she had prepared; and tomorrow also I am invited by her with the king. Yet all of this does not satisfy me every time I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”
Then Zeresh his wife and all his friends said to him, “Have a gallows fifty cubits high made and in the morning ask the king to have Mordecai hanged on it; then go joyfully with the king to the banquet.” And the advice pleased Haman, so he had the gallows made (Esther 5:11-14).
It’s worth noting that these gallows were more for skewering than for hanging a man by the neck with a rope. This was how making them “fifty cubits” high was not such a big construction project. Haman wanted Mordecai skewered 75 feet high on a pole for all to see.
The King’s Reaction
If Haman was overjoyed, the king was worried. He was likely asking himself, “Why did Esther risk her life to see me and what does Haman have to do with it?” and “What was that incident that Esther told me about earlier?” It takes little imagination to see that the king was beginning to think less of Haman.
During that night the king could not sleep so he gave an order to bring the book of records, the chronicles, and they were read before the king. It was found written what Mordecai had reported concerning Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who were doorkeepers, that they had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. And the king said, “What honor or dignity has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” Then the king’s servants who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him” (Esther 6:1-3).
At this point we have:
- An overconfident Haman who wanted Mordecai executed.
- A concerned king who wanted to honor Mordecai and was worried about Haman.
What would happen when these two met?
Haman Comes Down a Notch
The next morning Haman arrived to request Mordecai’s hanging, but Ahasuerus gave him no time to make his request, but rather chose him to give honor to Mordecai.
So Haman took the robe and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city square, and proclaimed before him, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor.”
Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate. But Haman hurried home, mourning, with his head covered. And Haman recounted to Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Then his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but will surely fall before him” (Esther 6-11-13).
This passage marks the first time Haman’s head is covered.341 Haman’s wife, quick to read the winds of political fortune, provided no comfort to her falling husband.
Esther Pleads Her Case
Remember the poor father who dared ask Ahasuerus to exempt one of his five sons from military service? At that time, Ahasuerus flew into a rage and had the son cut in half and then marched his army between the halves. This gives some insight into why Esther phrased her request in terms of avoiding inconveniencing the king with anything but a life or death issue:
Then Queen Esther replied, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me as my petition, and my people as my request; for we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated. Now if we had only been sold as slaves, men and women, I would have remained silent, for the trouble would not be commensurate with the annoyance to the king.”
Then King Ahasuerus asked Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who would presume to do thus?”
Esther said, “A foe and an enemy is this wicked Haman!” Then Haman became terrified before the king and queen. And the king arose in his anger from drinking wine and went into the palace garden; but Haman stayed to beg for his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that harm had been determined against him by the king (Esther 7:3-7).
“The king arose in his anger from drinking wine.” Note the cause of King Ahasuerus’ anger. It was not that Esther and her people had been betrayed to death. Rather, he had been drinking. I am of the opinion that Esther used the banquet as the venue for her request precisely to add the drink element to the equation. Ahasuerus and drinking are linked three times in Esther. The first is during the second banquet of the first chapter (1:7, 8 and 1:10). The second tells us that Ahasuerus and Haman sat down to drink when the decree went out (3:15). And here in this chapter drinking dominates (7:1, 8, 7). Indeed, Esther 7:1 tells us that, “the king and Haman came to drink wine with Esther the queen.” Not a word about food.
In his rage, and at the suggestion of a eunuch, Ahasuerus had Haman hung on his own gallows and elevated Mordecai to Haman’s position.
A drinking rage does not last forever, and this one was only good for removing Haman, but the effects of the decree to destroy the Jews remained in force while Esther waited and waited for Ahasuerus to act.
Three Months Later
Haman’s decree and Esther’s banquets occurred during the month of Nisan. By the month of Sivan, three months later, Esther again risked her life – and giving us another paired event.
Then Esther spoke again to the king, fell at his feet, wept and implored him to avert the evil scheme of Haman the Agagite and his plot which he had devised against the Jews. And the king extended the golden scepter to Esther. So Esther arose and stood before the king. Then she said, “If it pleases the king and if I have found favor before him and the matter seems proper to the king and I am pleasing in his sight, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the king’s provinces. For how can I endure to see the calamity which will befall my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” (Esther 8:3-6)
King Ahasuerus gave Queen Esther and Mordecai the freedom to issue another decree that the Jews may defend themselves against their enemies.
The Destruction of the Jews Enemies
On the day when the enemies of the Jews thought they could destroy them all, the Jews gained the upper hand and defeated them.
The king said to Queen Esther, “The Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men and the ten sons of Haman at the citadel in Susa. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall even be granted you. And what is your further request? It shall also be done.”
Then said Esther, “If it pleases the king, let tomorrow also be granted to the Jews who are in Susa to do according to the edict of today; and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on the gallows.”
So the king commanded that it should be done so; and an edict was issued in Susa, and Haman’s ten sons were hanged.
The Jews who were in Susa assembled also on the fourteenth day of the month Adar and killed three hundred men in Susa, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder. Now the rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces assembled, to defend their lives and rid themselves of their enemies, and kill 75,000 of those who hated them; but they did not lay their hands on the plunder (Esther 9:12-16).
It should be noted that Haman’s ten sons had already been killed. Esther was asking that their bodies be skewered and set on display.
Today the Jews celebrate the events recorded in Esther as a holiday named Purim, after the Pur that Haman cast to determine the date for the Jew’s destruction.
Thus the Jews undertook what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them. For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the adversary of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews to destroy them and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to disturb them and destroy them.
But when it came to the king’s attention, he commanded by letter that his wicked scheme which he had devised against the Jews, should return on his own head and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. Therefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur. And because of the instructions in this letter, both what they had seen in this regard and what had happened to them (Esther 9:23-26).
The celebration typically includes a Purim play or a Purim reading. Everyone will have some form of noisemaker, called a grogger,342 with which to express displeasure at hearing Haman’s name. There is also a
not-so-well-celebrated custom of becoming so drunk as to not be able to tell the difference between hearing, “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman.”343 The drinking motif in the Book of Esther is probably behind this custom.
A slight shift in the events recorded in Esther would have doomed the Jews, except as Mordecai said, “help would come from someplace else.” Nevertheless, success in the small details mattered. As an Agagite, Haman may well have used his position against the Jews at the first provocation, whether it came from Mordecai or not. And so we have a web of God’s providence weaved into the fabric of the story:
- Vasthi was removed as queen.
- Esther was the young woman among hundreds to find favor with the king to become queen.
- Mordecai was there to hear the plot against the king.
- The king was lazy about rewarding Mordecai.
- There was time granted in the casting of the Pur - nearly a year between the decree and the date of its execution – to allow for King Ahasuerus’ procrastination and for the Jews to prepare for their defense.
- Esther was twice extended the golden scepter that spared her life.
- King Ahasuerus agreed to attend the two banquets.
- King Ahasuerus happened to read about Mordecai’s service between the two banquets.
- There happened to have been a gallows, built by Haman, on which to hang him. Once the king’s anger subsided, he may have had second thoughts. After all, he did nothing about the Jew’s situation until Esther risked her life a second time.
- The Jews prevailed over their enemies. It must be remembered that both decrees were in force. One can presume that there were battles fought.
And so the one who knows his God can see His hand even if Mordecai and Esther did not. This is grace and mercy. Unlike Daniel, who would not eat Nebuchadnezzar’s non-kosher food, and who publicly prayed even when it carried a death sentence, Esther concealed her identity and, therefore, ate whatever was placed before her. Neither she nor Mordecai appealed to Passover as a celebration of the Lord’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, even though the celebration of Passover was at hand.
In short, Mordecai and Esther were not people of faith.
But the Lord God proved faithful to His people, and one of the grand purposes of the Book of Esther is to show the Lord’s preserving hand. We are led to see the Lord moving behind the scenes for the discerning eye to see.
It seems, however, that the author of Esther does reference the name of the Lord with sufficient signposts as to leave his intention clear. As mentioned previously, the Book of Esther is full of pairs, ironies, and reversals, and the hidden name of the Lord shows all three characteristics.
The name YHWH appears in acrostic form four times in the Book of Esther. All four acrostics appear in four consecutive words, and to my knowledge, no other such acrostics exist in the Old Testament. The following chart provides the essential aspects of these acrostics.
WnT=y] <yv!N`h^-lk*w+ ayh!
<oYh^ /m*h*w+ El#m#h^ aoby`
yl! ho#V WNnya^ hz#
hu*r`h* wyl*a@ ht*l=k*-yK!
Whenever a Jew speaks, the name of the Lord appears in correct sequence. Whenever a Gentile speaks, the name of the Lord is reversed. You can see the pairings: two acrostics on the initial letters and two acrostics on the final letters; two acrostics by Gentiles and two acrostics by Jews. The reversed names tie in with the reversals that make up the book. The irony lies in the fact that both Esther and Haman spoke on their own initiative about their own schemes, but, in their speaking, the Lord was really acting to promote Esther’s success and Haman’s failure.
By this literary device, the author tells us, in a hidden way, how the Lord God worked, in a hidden way, to save His people.
How to React to the Slaughter
Why could there not have been peace made between the Jews and their enemies? Why did the Jews find it necessary to kill their enemies, even if they left the spoils alone? Are the Jews any better for having done this than other peoples that we accuse of genocide? The key to answering these questions is to discern why Haman’s plot found such success. Think about this. Imagine yourself going to your mailbox tomorrow and finding an official government-issued document giving you permission to kill your Jewish neighbor on Adar 13th next year. There is no compulsion here – nor was there compulsion in Haman’s decree, but it put the Jews in great danger. How would you react? How would a member of the Aryan Nation react?
The reality is that there are those throughout the world and through the centuries who passionately hate or have hated the Jews. Do you know that nearly every country in Europe has expelled its Jews at some point: England in 1290, France 1306, Spain 1492, Portugal 1497, Germany 1348, Austria 1421, and so on. Often the expulsions meant the loss of property and sometimes life. The expulsion of the Jews by Spain was part of the Inquisition led by Torquemeda and helped provide the funds for Columbus’ voyage. Those in government at the time of these expulsions showed the same spirit that drove Haman and the others in Persia. Again, the musical Fiddler on the Roof is about a pogrom in Russia that evacuated a Jewish community. Over 30 similar pogroms have occurred in Russia and the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany had about nine death camps for the Jews. It is well known that the Nazi regime led to the slaughter of six million Jews.
The spirit of Haman also exists in Islam:
“The Hour (the Day of Judgment) will not begin until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. A Jew will hide behind a rock or a tree, and the rock or tree will say, ‘O Muslim, O Slave of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’ – except for the gharaqad (box thorn), for it is one of the trees of the Jews” (al_Bukhari 2926; Muslim, 2921-2).
Anti-Semitism is alive and well in the world, and part of the life of a Jew is the knowledge that he is never safe. Esther gives us a picture of it and lets us know that God is still there with His people.
Anti-Semitism will remain a force in the world until its fullest expression triggers the return of the Messiah to establish His kingdom in Israel and His dominion over the world. How many times have we seen the member nations of the United Nations stand up one after another to condemn some action of Israel? In our day, it would seem that Jerusalem is “a cup that causes reeling to all the peoples around; and when the siege is against Jerusalem, it will also be against Judah” (Zechariah 12:2). How strange that such a small piece of earth could compel such interest and consternation in the world.
Moses told the children of Israel that such things would be while they are dispersed over the earth:
Moreover, the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. Among those nations you shall find no rest, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul.
So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you will be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, ‘Would that it were evening!’ And at evening you shall say, ‘Would that it were morning!’ because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you will see (Deuteronomy 28:64-67).
Since the days of Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews have had no rest and do live in fear of the next expulsion or death camp. But such days will surely come to an end. The reason I have hope that it will be soon is the rise of Messianic Judaism in the mid-1970’s.
It is ironic to read the New Testament and see how Paul found a place for the Gentiles to enter the kingdom of God without becoming Jews. If you read carefully, however, he never asked the Jews to stop being Jews, nor did he stop behaving like a Jew, himself. Many years after Paul, the Gentile church began to require of the Jews what Paul never required of the Gentiles. It required the Jews to convert to Christianity. We must see this conversion as distinct from having saving faith in Yeshua the Messiah and Son of God. The Gentile church required the Jews to become non-Jews. The Jews have rediscovered in our day the truth of the gospel for the Jews.
Here is why this is important. In Israel today, there are thousands of Messianic Jews worshiping in Messianic Jewish synagogues. This does not mean that their non-Messianic brothers and sisters are opened arms about this, but the Messianic Jews are there and their presence is known. A day is coming when the world will once more surround Jerusalem to destroy it. When Jerusalem “causes reeling to the peoples around,” the Lord will “will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it will be severely injured. And all the nations of the earth will be gathered against it” (Zechariah 12:3). It is my conviction that the crisis of that day will cause the voice of the Messianic Jews in Jerusalem to be heard with this result:
And in that day I will set about to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn (Zechariah 12:9-10).
Two things happen when the nations come against Jerusalem. First, the Lord will destroy their armies. Second, Israel, as a nation, will look upon Him “whom they have pierced” and will “mourn” in their recognition of Him as their Messiah. What a day that will be:
Behold, a day is coming for the Lord when the spoil taken from you will be divided among you. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city.
Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. You will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him!
In that day there will be no light; the luminaries will dwindle. For it will be a unique day which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but it will come about that at evening time there will be light. And in that day living waters will flow out of Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and the other half toward the western sea; it will be in summer as well as in winter.
And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be one, and His name one (Zechariah 14:1-9).
Until these events come, we must realize that the Lord watches over His chosen people even, as in the case of Esther and Mordecai, when they are non-practicing.
The Lord still works today. I would hope that, after this study of Esther, you would look at events in your life from the perspective that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Behind friends, families, enemies, leaders, events, and so forth, He moves and directs to bring about His purposes on the earth. The interesting thing about Esther is that it offers the hope that every once in awhile, we may be able to see His hidden hand.
338 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Donald E. Curtis at Community Bible Chapel, on November 18, 2001. Don is an elder at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, Georgia. You can e-mail comments and questions to email Don Curtis.
339 Richard Hooker, “Herodotus: The Histories: Xerxes at the Hellespont (mid 5th Century BCE),” No pages. Cited January 4, 2002. Online: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_1/herodotus.html.
341 There is a Jewish tradition that Haman’s daughter, thinking that Mordecai was leading Haman on a horse, dumped the contents of a chamber pot on Haman’s head.
342 Israel has a long-standing history of not playing the music of Richard Wagner, because of its associations with Nazi Germany and the death camps. However, on October 27, 2000, after winning an Israeli supreme court battle, the silence was broken, and the Rishon L’Zion Symphony Orchestra performed Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. During the performance of the work, a man in the audience used a grogger to disrupt the performance until the audience shouted him down. Many news accounts referred to it as a rattle or noisemaker, but it was a good old-fashioned Purim grogger. A write up of the concert and association of Wagner and Nazism can be found at: