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:
Thanks to the bravery of Esther and Mordecai, the tide was beginning to turn against Haman and the Babylonians who stood against the Jews. Haman had been publicly shamed and paraded through the city to pronounce the greatness of a man who he desperately wanted to see dead. But Esther was not done yet– it was time for her to make her request to the king and begin the process of saving the Jews from destruction. The clock was still ticking.
This is the third part of the story of Purim. I recommend reading part one and part two first, but if you are the type of person who enjoys reading the last page first, by all means. There will be at least one more part after this one! Read on for more.
The 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.
A friend once told me that all the good holidays in Judaism fall into the same mold: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” And while that may be true for a few holidays, it is never truer than on Purim, the holiday which celebrates the Jews’s escape from a Persian genocide thanks to the attractiveness and intelligence of a secret Jew, Esther, the queen of Persia. Esther’s story is told in the Book of Esther, one of the last books to be added to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.
Especially in Israel, Purim has become something like Halloween mixed with Saint Patrick’s Day. Children wear costumes and eat special cookies– my wife makes amazing hamentaschen– while religiously observant men are commanded to get so drunk that they cannot even “distinguish between ‘[…] Haman’ and ‘[…] Mordecai.'”, the antagonist and protagonist of the Esther story. I did not believe that when I was told, but yes– it’s in the Talmud (Tractate Megillah, Ch. 1, 7b).
In this post, we will be introduced to the world of the Persian Jews, a competition to become queen, and finally the decree of the king of Persia to massacre all of the Jews in his kingdom. Spoiler alert: the Jews survive. Read on for this fantastic story.
A work trip has derailed my summer posting schedule, but I hope to be back on track in two weeks. In the meantime, I am in India, a country with beautiful and varied history. It’s a place like no other in the world and I’m very glad to be here. Despite its great distance, India is not unknown in the bible. In fact, the bible reports that there were ancient Jews in India! Read on for more.
For Roman Catholics, today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent. In 43 more days, it will be Easter. When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, this was an exciting time: though it was still cold and snowy, springtime was coming soon. For others, Ash Wednesday is the day after Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi gras. The partying is over, time to get to the serious business of repenting and fasting.
Like most Christian holidays, Ash Wednesday isn’t a biblical holiday in quite the same way as, for example, Passover. To the best of my recollection, nothing particularly interesting happened to Jesus 43 days before his resurrection. The number forty was considered special, and perhaps holy, in Judaism and recurs in many stories from Noah’s flood, to Moses’ asking of repentance after the golden calf incident, and even to the amount of time Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert.
But while the holiday itself isn’t biblical, the key tradition of the holiday is: Catholics will be given ashes on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday services. This sign of mourning and repentance may be one of the oldest (and oddest) artifact of early Jewish culture that survives in modern Christianity.