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:
- Part 1: Esther becomes Queen of Persia while Haman conspires against the Jews
- Part 2: Esther risks her life to intercede for the Jews
- Part 3: The war against the Jews begins and Haman is killed
So how did Esther prolong the violence? And did she? Read on for the conclusion of the story of Esther.
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.
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 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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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