Purim in the Bible – Part 2: Esther’s Bravery

Esther_haramThe Jews were less than a year away from being wiped out. Haman, a Persian noble, sought revenge against a Jewish man who refused to show him deference by conspiring to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Haman played his close relationship with King Ahasuerus and the order was quickly given that nearly all the Jews in the world would be destroyed. But all was not lost! Esther, a secret Jew and now Queen of Persia, and her adopted father Mordecai were hatching a plan to save the Jews once again.

This is part two of the story of Esther and the Jewish holiday of Purim. If you have not read it already, you probably want to read part one first. When you are ready to hear the exciting next chapter, read on for more!

The World Reacts

Tri-lingual inscription from Persia featuring Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. Although not carved in stone, the multi-lingual message to destroy the Jews may have resembled this one. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Tri-lingual inscription from Persia featuring Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. Although not carved in stone, the multi-lingual message to destroy the Jews may have resembled this one. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

News of the command to kill all the Jews spread rapidly through the Persian Empire. The command was simple: on the 13th of Adar– eleven months away– the Jews were to be destroyed and their properly seized.

 Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day.
Esther 3:13-14

It was the law: for one day only, everyone must kill Jews and every Jew must be killed. The carrot for the people of Persia to obey this law was almost certainly the thought that they could take the Jewish goods as plunder. For eleven months, every Jew with a nice house or a nice vase must have like they were being sized up. Were their neighbors  asking themselves, “Could I kill that Jew before anyone else so I can have his stuff?” I like to think that most Persians were not so evil– and we know at least some were “bewildered” by the message (3:15) — but greed is a very strong motivator. Say what you will about Ahasuerus (or Haman), he understood greed.

Is it important that we are given the dates in the Hebrew calendar instead of the Persian one? Jews in Persia certainly still used their old calendar. The writer of the Book of Esther might also have felt that it made the text more approachable, especially as he or she may have been writing after the Persians were conquered by the Greeks. Alternatively, we can imagine that Haman used the Hebrew calendar as a deliberate and mocking slight against the Jews he was about to kill.

The Jews, when they received the new law, were naturally in a state of shock.

In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
Esther 4:3

Across the Persian Empire, Jews everywhere were in open mourning. They fasted, hoping that God would send a miracle. The wailed and weeped, in anger and misery. The end of their world was coming in only eleven months.

Esther Risks Death

An emperor of Persia holding his golden scepter.
An emperor of Persia holding his golden scepter.

Wrapped in the luxury of the palace, Esther was unaware of the fate which would befall her people. She had never told anyone that she was a Jew, and the mobs would not come for her. Only when she was told by one of her servants that Mordecai was in morning did she come to know that something was wrong. Using intermediaries, Esther learned the horrible truth from Mordecai. But what could she do?

It’s worth stopping for a moment and look at Mordecai’s message to Esther.

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:13-14

In this brief request, Mordecai plays to Esther’s fear that she will be discovered as well as her fear for her family. But he does something remarkable. God will save the Jews, of that Mordecai has no doubt. Esther can choose to be a part of the solution and save herself and her family along the way, or she can hide and possibly die. In either case, the Jews will survive– but wouldn’t she rather be on the side saving them than to hide from her responsibilities?

There was one big problem: Esther had no way of interceding with the king, or even speaking with him.

“All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”
Esther 4:11

Even though she was the Queen of Persia, even she could not seek the king without permission. We know how “trigger happy” the king was when it came to punishing his last wife! It had been more than a month since the last time Esther had seen her husband. Would he call for her in time or should she risk death by going to him.

After three days of planning, praying, and fasting, Esther decided to brave a visit. She may have been thinking that she was a dead woman already, so why does it matter? Her fateful visit to the king’s court must have been terrifying:

On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
Esther 5:1-2

And, just like that, the pressure was off. Ahasuerus was happy to see her! She would not die, but up next was the most difficult part: saving her people. And she had a plan.

Coincidences in the Night

"Esther and Mordecai" by Aelbert van Der School (17th Century) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Esther and Mordecai” by Aelbert van Der School (17th Century) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Although Esther had a goal in mind, her first steps are a little challenging to understand now. Rather than trying to convince the king to spare the Jews right away, Esther led him and Haman in something of a tease– or perhaps a delaying tactic. Her first step was to invite the pair to a banquet that she would host that day. But rather than make her request then, she delayed it further:

So the king and Haman went to the banquet Esther had prepared. As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, “Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
Esther replied, “My petition and my request is this: If the king regards me with favor and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question.”
Esther 5:5-8

The next part of the story is challenging. Two events happen overnight between the two banquets: one to Haman and one to King Ahasuerus, however nether of the events are caused by Ether or Mordecai. Since the rest of the story relies on these two events happening, I wonder whether Esther’s plan would have worked. Many commentators see these two key events as revealing the very subtle hand of God in the story, but I will leave you to judge that.

Haman’s Excitement

Haman, for all his evil, did a fairly understandable thing: he went home and bragged about his banquet invitation to his family and friends. But along the way, he was reminded of Mordecai, who he felt still did not pay him the proper respects. Sure, he would die with all of the Jews in a few months anyway, but Haman suddenly did not feel that was fast enough.

Haman added, “[…]  all this gives me no satisfaction as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate.”
His wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Have a pole set up, reaching to a height of fifty cubits, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai impaled on it. Then go with the king to the banquet and enjoy yourself.” This suggestion delighted Haman, and he had the pole set up.
Esther 5:12-14

Haman would ask the king the next day to let him kill Mordecai. He would even supply the pole of death! With his new found influence over the crown, Haman must have went to sleep a happy man.

Ahasuerus’s Boredom

"Triumph of Mordecai" by Pieter Lastman (1764) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Triumph of Mordecai” by Pieter Lastman (1764) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Across the city, King Ahasuerus could not sleep. Rather than counting sheep or doing any of the normal things that someone does when he cannot sleep, he was studying the records of his empire.

That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. “What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?” the king asked. “Nothing has been done for him,” his attendants answered.
Esther 6-1:3

By accident, Ahasuerus happened upon the story of his near-assassination and his rescue by Mordecai. How could he even have forgotten? When he realized that Mordecai, a Jew, had saved his life, did the king have a conscience? Did he regret wanting to kill all the Jews? The text does not say, but he was serious about honoring the man who saved his life.

This must have been going on all night because when Ahasuerus asks if anyone is in the court that he can consult for advice, it is already morning. Haman had come, bright and early, to ask to kill Mordecai. He would be in for a bit of a surprise.

The king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him. His attendants answered, “Haman is standing in the court.”
Esther 6:4-5

The king is either completely oblivious or an utter ass, but he calls in Haman and asks him how he should honor a man who did a great service to the empire. Haman, naturally assuming that he is the one being honored, provides a beautiful picture of how he wishes he were treated:

 “For the man the king delights to honor, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’”
Esther 6:7-9

The king thought that over for a second and agreed. If there is one skill the king has in this story, it is agreeing with his advisors. Here’s what he told Haman; try to imagine his face falling as he understood what was being asked of him:

“Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.”
Esther 6:10

Mordecai knows that he has lost control of the situation. Once the honor is done, he flees home to be with his wife– but it is too late. Eunuchs, sent by the king, lead Haman back to the palace where Esther’s request awaited. He could not have been feeling very confident now.

And with that cliff hanger, the curtain rises– to be continued in part three in a few more days.

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