Purim in the Bible – Part 4: Esther’s Victory

queen esther

The Hebrew Bible never gives us paragons, flawless humans that we are called to emulate. Instead, all biblical heroes are deepened by tragic flaws, blemishes that remind us that even imperfect people can do great things and inspire great things in others. Esther is one of the greatest women of the Hebrew Bible, after all: she saved the Jews! But does she make all the right choices? As we close up our look at the book of Esther, we look at a decision that Esther made that seems to prolong the violence. If that really what this passage says? If so, would this make her less of a heroic figure? Perhaps, but perhaps not. We will also look at the human cost of Haman’s stupidity and a bit on when Purim is celebrated today.

If you are just joining us, you probably want to catch up on Esther’s story before proceeding:

So how did Esther prolong the violence? And did she? Read on for the conclusion of the story of Esther.

Esther in stained glass,  Saint Germain's cathedral in Paris.
Esther in stained glass, Saint Germain’s cathedral in Paris.

A Second Day of Fighting

A we concluded last time, the one-day battle against the Jews had begun with Persians all over the empire taking up arms against their neighbors– not because they despised the Jews, but rather because their king (acting on Haman’s suggestion) had ordered it. But Esther’s new order permitted the Jews to defend themselves and the massacre became a rout as Jewish forces gained the upper hand. Even Haman’s ten sons were captured and killed, and the Jewish citizens of the Persian empire were saved. It was a triumph!

But the story does not end there: Esther still had the king’s ear and made one further request:

“If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews in Susa permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on poles.” So the king commanded that this be done. An edict was issued in Susa, and they impaled the ten sons of Haman. The Jews in Susa came together on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and they put to death in Susa three hundred men, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Esther 9:13-15

This one little paragraph– three verses!– has torn me (and others) into knots trying to understand it. I am still not sure that I get it, so let’s take it piece by piece. When Esther refers to “this day’s edict”, she was referring to the counter-order that she and Mordecai sent out in the previous chapter. Here it is:

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King [Ahasuerus] was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar.
Esther 8:11-12

Esther requested that the Jews in Susa be able to protect themselves for a second day. Did she also intend for the order against the Jews to be extended again? Probably not, so what would be the effect of this renewal? I have three guesses:

  1. Esther knew that violence in Susa was going to continue, king’s order or not. By issuing this order, she was assured that Jews would remain on the right side of the law and could defend themselves against the lawless. But in that case, why extend it only for one day? And only in Susa?
  2. Esther knew that all of the antagonists in the previous day’s fighting had not been captured or killed. By extending it to a second day, the Jewish forces could complete their work and make the city safe for them. This would ensure a victory that would last. But the letter of the law said defense-only and if the Persians were not permitted to fight back on that day, it could easily have been abused.
  3. Perhaps least likely, Esther knew that the Jews were winning. By allowing a second day of fighting (Persian and Jewish), it would further cement the Jewish victory in the capital.

I want to believe that the answer is the first, but I suspect it is the second. The key line for me is that they  “[…] put to death in Susa three hundred men” (Esther 9:15). That phrasing sounds more offensive than just the Jews in Susa defending themselves for a second day; it seems like a rounding up and killing of enemies. One more thing that makes me suspect the worst is that Haman’s ten sons were to be impaled on poles. The sons had already been killed the previous day– this says that their dead bodies were to be strung up on poles for everyone to see. This makes me uncomfortable. I am not saying that I think that these were wrong decisions, but there is something that concerns me about this text.

Esther and Mordecai (Arent de Gelder, 1685)
Esther and Mordecai (Arent de Gelder, 1685)

These questions aside, Esther’s victory was assured and the Jews were safe again in their Persian homes. And how can we be sure they would remain safe? Because one of them was in charge: not only was Esther queen, but now Mordecai was the king’s second-in-command, his chief advisor.

King [Ahasuerus] imposed tribute throughout the empire, to its distant shores. And all his acts of power and might, together with a full account of the greatness of Mordecai, whom the king had promoted, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King [Ahasuerus], preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.
Esther 10:1-3

With Mordecai at the helm, things were looking up for the Jews in Persia! But for Jews in the diaspora today, this passage has a second meaning. This is a story about Jews living, loving, and being successful outside of Israel. Mordecai is praiseworthy because he rose to prominence in Susa, far from the cities of his homeland. Judaism had become an international religion and the story of Esther shows us that you can be great Jews without being great Jews in Israel.

A Purim celebration in modern Israel.
A Purim celebration in modern Israel.

Purim is Established

After the two days of fighting, normality returned to the Persian Empire. Mordecai remained as a trusted advisor to Ahasuerus, replacing Haman, and Esther remained the queen. But for the Jews, it was essential to remember the events and to celebrate their victory over intolerance. And thus, Purim was born.

The Book of Esther provides two explanations for the origin of the holiday and for the way that it should be celebrated. The first describes the holiday as being celebrated over two days, depending on whether you live in the city or the country:

[The fighting] happened on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth they rested and made it a day of feasting and joy. The Jews in Susa, however, had assembled on the thirteenth and fourteenth, and then on the fifteenth they rested and made it a day of feasting and joy. That is why rural Jews—those living in villages—observe the fourteenth of the month of Adar as a day of joy and feasting, a day for giving presents to each other.
Esther 9:17-19

But immediately after, we get a second explanation: Mordecai established the holiday and communicated it to all of the provinces using his authority of the king’s right hand:

Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King [Ahasuerus], near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
Esther 9:20-22

Neither of these approaches match the way Purim is celebrated today. In modern Judaism, Purim is always celebrated on the fourteenth of Adar, except in the city of Jerusalem which celebrates it on the following day. The tradition behind this is complex and there is not universal agreement, but the early rabbis decreed that to be a city by the standard required for the second day’s celebration, you had to have a city wall that has stood since the era of Joshua– around 1300 BCE. The only city in Israel that meets this criteria is Jerusalem and thus it is only Jerusalem that gets the second day’s celebrations. As Esther is a powerful story of diaspora Jews, this centrality of Jerusalem rings a bit false in my ears– but this is the tradition as it is currently followed.

And with that, we end our look at the Book of Esther and the celebration of Purim. There may yet be one more followup (a look at the mysterious absence of Esther from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the text known as “Proto-Esther”), but that will have to wait for another time.

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One thought on “Purim in the Bible – Part 4: Esther’s Victory”

  1. I find this relative to today. The day and hour had come as a surprise to Esther coming to attack for being a Jew. Mordecai had to tell her that the posts were up all over. Thus the bride of Jesus is surprised to know it is her personal Armageddon coming to attack her. Her day and hour is so close that she too must go to the king Jesus before Armageddon, and it could kill her. NEXT who chose this day and hour? God chose it by the scientific laws of wher ethe casted lot falls. This is the enemy not the genius of the righteous who find this day and hour. It is the governments, it is the astronomers, the telescopes, the computers who find the asteroid day and hour. In this way the real ark is all a question not of who found the day and hour, but who is right how to survive it. Even Jesus has no indication that he was positive and totally assurred that Passover 33AD must be his personal Armageddon to die. Even the 70 weeks of Daniel did not have the same Persian timeline by all the schools greek and Jew of his day. John Baptizer and Jesus were easily on a different timeline for all Persian kings Cyrus Darius Xerxes Artaxerxes with many jews already claiming their 70 weeks have come and gone, and others claiming the 70 weeks would be centuries from then. In this way Jesus was not sure 33AD Passover should be his death but it isthe day he chose to find out if he gets raised up at the correct open window. This is the window, now 2016. Whose right? Obama? Islam? Jews? Catholics? the campaign election circus? Xisuthros is not Noah, he is the alternative Noah, the anti-Christ, anti-Noah, anti-Flood saying he will save the world not Noah by his stupid ark. Thus now we have four ways to save us; the true church Christ, the governments as Christ, the religions as Christ, or the science-commercialism as Christ. All are anti-Christ that are not the correect way to survive asteroid impact and what that asteroid will do. BUT whatever! that day and hour is the date the casted lot says HEY this thing is gonna hit us, no matter what variance. My Esther is the last of 144,000 who are not listened to whenthey say defy martial law, so she must gather her last ones to a trial that kills her. This is her feet being bitten by the serpent so her feet go to heaven and she can stand up. AND how does she stand up. Does she destroy? No she defends, she protects now that she is with the king, God is proven true that he does see which humans are perfect enough so that totally complete he shows Satan that they are all alive in heaven when he sends them 40 days to earth like he did JESUS to say behold i am not dead, now go to the mountains because Obama will not stop you. He cannot stop you.

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