Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22
Our passage today centers around a two-day Jewish holiday called Purim. This event commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people during days of the Persian Empire. It seems that Germany’s attempt to annihilate the Jews during WWII was not the first time that the extinction of the Jewish people was threatened. It seems that God’s people find themselves at odds with others without provocation. And, this story is an acute example of God’s providential hand in the midst of what was seen as an unprovoked conflict.
Unfortunately, the conflict was not something new. The conflict goes back to the lifetime of the prophet Samuel, whom we discussed only a few weeks ago. The man Haman who brings about the unprovoked conflict has a history with the Jewish community. Haman was an Agagite. King Saul was commanded by God to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). Note that this event ripped the Israelite Kingdom from Saul’s hands and placed it into David’s. So ultimately Haman had a history with the Jewish people, and he was acting on his own accord for vengence.
Purim is a festival that does not necessarily celebrate the great victory in battle – the defeat of some 75,000 people (9.16). But it does celebrate that God was with them in the midst of their conflict. God’s providence would prevail on behalf of the Jewish nation even in exile in Persia.
Let’s dig deeper into the story. There are several characters we can study here: Esther, Haman, Mordecia, Queen Vashti, and King Ahasuarus.
Esther served as Queen of Persia in 5th Century B.C. over 2500 years ago. The Book of Esther is considered by some scholars to be a historical fiction account or an allegory that teaches about God’s providence. Other scholars see Esther as a heroic figure from the Jewish culture that truly did exist, and from her royal position as Queen of Persia she was able to save the Jewish people who remained in exile from genocide, the annihilation of her people.
Esther was born (492 B.C. – 460 B.C.) during the Jewish exile in Persia, which is modern day Iran. We have been learning about the various people groups in the Old Testament stories over the course of the last several months, and Persia is one of three empires in the Ancient Near East.
When we studied the prophetic passages in Isaiah during Christmas, we learned that Babylon was the powerhouse who captured Israel and took them captive for about 100 years. Last week we learned that the prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh to preach repentance to the Assyrian Empire. And, today we learn a little more about the Jewish people in exile in Persia.
At this time in history Persia had conquered Babylon during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Esther and Mordecai’s descendents were among the Jewish exiles of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah in Babylon. When Persia conquered Babylon, the exiled tribes had the opportunity to return to Jerusalem, but some remained in the land of exile. And, that’s were we find Mordecai and Esther.
Esther’s parents died, and she was raised by her father’s brother, Mordecai. She was originally named Hadassah, a Jewish-Babylonian name meaning myrtle tree. Hadassah was the daughter of Abihail and the tribe of Benjamin. This story of Hadassah reflects the humble origins of an orphan who rises from a family of exiles to become queen.
Hadassah was adopted and raised by her uncle, Mordecai, as if she was his own daughter, and they became residents of the city of Susa (the former capital of Elam). Hadassah took the name Esther most likely when she entered the harem court of the king to help her integrate into the palace. Esther means star and happiness. She most likely became queen at a very young age, possibly as young as 14. Her uncle, Mordecai, remained constantly near the palace, so that he would be able advise Esther in all matters. His first bit of advice Mordecai gave Esther was to conceal the fact that she was a Jew.
While Esther was queen, Mordecai was a scribe to King Ahasuerus. We know from the biblical story that Mordecai was positioned at the gateway to the King’s palace, which provided him the opportunity to over hear an important conversation between two royal guards.
These two guards planned to kill the King, and Mordecai quickly reported the plot to secretly kill the king to Queen Esther. Mordecai is an important person in the story, and proves to provided Esther with timely words of wisdom that protects not only her but her people, the Jews. Mordecai served as a mediator between the Jewish people and the Queen.
Another character of note in this story is King Ahasuerus, who was not the wisest ruler. He ruled the greatest empire of his time from India to Israel – 127 provinces – from his palace in Susa in modern day Iran. In the third year of his reign he gave a great party for his officials and staff. The party lasted six months; as it seems he enjoyed drinking and partying.
It is during the time of the party that he invited Queen Vashti to come before the men, yet she refused to be part of the party festivities. Some say that Vashti was asked to come before the men in only her crown with nothing else on so King Ahasuerus could show her off to the men. Whether or not she was defend her rights as a woman or as a queen is uncertain, but what is certain is that she stood her ground and did not follow the request of the king – a decision that could have ended her life. The king banished Vashti, and used her as an example to all wives living in his empire. Further, he sent an edict throughout his kingdom that gave men the right to rule over their wives in all matters.
A fourth character in the story is the evil man Haman. It seems in every story that is intends to convey a moral outcome: there is evil lurking in the midst of the people. Throughout the story Mordecai and Haman are at odds with one another. You can almost feel the tension rising in the story, anticipating something dreadful coming as the conflict continues. Soon the plan to destroy the entire Jewish population across all of Persia was made known through written orders commanding the annihilation of the Jews in every province – all 127 – right down to every man, woman, and child, even taking all their belongings.
And, it is from the position of queen that Esther is able to speak up and save her people from this scheming political figure, Haman, and his plan of genocide for the Jewish people. In 473 B.C., Esther managed to save the Jewish people of the Persian kingdom from a massacre, and it was a life–risking accomplishment that made her famous.
But when Mordecai originally sends a letter to Esther that explains Haman’s plan, she is afraid. She responded negatively to Mordecai, basically saying, I haven’t been invited to speak to the king in the last 30 days – how can I speak to him about this matter? She doesn’t feel that she has any authority to go before the king to discuss this matter.
But Mordecai doesn’t let Esther off so easily, and pushes the point home. He replies in another letter to Esther, saying, “Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family (Esther 4.14).” Esther responded, “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating and drinking to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it is against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will (Esther 4.16).”
Three days later, Esther put on royal clothes and stood in the inner courtyard of the palace, facing the throne. When the king saw Esther, he was pleased to see her. He extended his scepter to her, and she accepted his kindness. The king invited Esther to make her request, and he offers her up to half his kingdom. In turn Esther invites the king, and his prime minister Haman, to a private banquet.
At this initial banquet the king invites Esther to make her request, and he offers her up to half his kingdom. In turn Esther invites the king, and his prime minister Haman, to a second private banquet.
At the second banquet, the king offers Esther up to half his kingdom. And, it is at this time that Esther reveals her petition for her very own people to be spared from death. Esther uncovered Haman’s plot, and the king is enraged. Haman pleads for his life, and the king orders Haman and his sons to be executed.
Once more Mordecai is highlighted to the king. Twice in this story Mordecai the Jew has come to the king’s rescue regarding evil plots. But the decree sent out regarding the annihilation of the Jews could not be rescinded. However, Esther convinced the king to give the Jews all the weapons and military authority they needed to defend themselves against their enemies.
And, so Mordecai then wrote a counter-edict, which was dispatched across all 127 provinces on the king’s behalf informing the Jews of their rights to defend themselves and their property. The king signed the new decree. At the time of the original decree, the Jews drove back their enemies and 75,000 Persians lost their lives in the two-day war against the Jews, and in the capital city of Susa 300 people lost their lives (Esther 9.15-16). To commemorate the event a festival was started to remember what God had done for his people, saving them from annihilation.
Esther is seen from tradition as a great woman of faith. Her Uncle Mordecai was a man of vision. And, although we do not have a report of Queen Esther having children in this story, it is believed that she had one son who became King Darius II, the Persian who made it possible for the Jews in Jerusalem to rebuild the Second Temple. King Darius is mentioned in several biblical texts including Ezra 6, Daniel 6, Haggai 1, and Zechariah 7. Esther’s death date is unknown to us, but tradition indicates that Esther’s tomb is in western Iran in the Kurdish colony.
When we look at Esther, we realize she believed herself to be powerless in her culture. She was an orphan of a past-enslaved people. She was gathered up to be one of the many women in the king’s harem. She was not of noble birth or rank or circumstance. Yet, the God had chosen her to weld his purposes for his people. Even the king could not deny her, and choose her to become his queen. God makes himself known through this providential plan to protect his people from harm.
Providence. The story of Esther offers us an opportunity to think about God’s providence. Thomas Oden explains providence as “the express of the divine will, power, and goodness through which the Creator preserves creatures, cooperates with what is coming to pass through their actions, and guides creatures in their long-range purposes (Oden, The Living God, 270-315). God’s providence is not the same as determinism or predestination as espoused by some denominations. Oden explains, “Providence is not a strict or unqualified determinism, which posits a control so absolute that it destroys human responsibility, freedom, and accountability, viewing all events only in terms of their natural causal determination.”
As Queen she is still bound by the king’s laws, no one may approach the king without being summoned. Although given a title she has no way of exercising her authority in the palace. From Hadassah to Esther to Queen Esther the shift in identity takes time for her. God gently brings Esther into the place of a paradigm shift.
Because of the circumstances, her uncle Mordecai commands her to take courage to face the situation and bring it resolve. Queen Esther requests prayer and fasting as a way to gain favor with God and king. Queen Esther faces the surety of death, and death is denied.
A paradigm shift is much different from change. A paradigm shift is term used in the writings of Thomas S. Kuhn (1922–96), philosopher of science. It means a fundamental approach to doing life has come, and underlying assumptions have been challenged. A paradigm shift for Esther is to see herself as a woman with power and authority, someone who could successfully speak into existence change at the heart of the problem with the king.
Identity Crisis. The paradigm shift happens in her identity, particularly in her self-absorption, introspection, and preservation. If we start to have any one of the three qualities in our lives, we can bet you are going through an identity crisis. My friend Bob Tuttle would call this kind of crisis “navel gazing.” Esther was struggling to lead because she knew who she had been. But she didn’t know who she was becoming. It was essential for Esther to walk through this experience of a paradigm, and it took her great courage. Self-absorption can stall you out. When you are in a crisis, it’s easy to fixate on your own opinions and decision-making skills. When you are in a crisis, you loose sight of the truth. When you are in a crisis, you often feel like you are on a little raft in the middle of a great big ocean, and God is inviting you to get out of the boat and walk on water. It’s frightening to think about walking on water, even if it is Jesus holding your hand.
Joyce Meyer does a great imitation of the self-absorbed leader with a robot repeating itself over and over, “What about me?” The truth of the matter is that God wants to break that “what about me?” attitude in Esther. He’s got a bigger plan than she can imagine, and she’s got to be willing to die for it. She’s got to die to self-preservation!
Prayer and Fasting. Now there’s another point to Esther’s behavior here. Esther if feeling fearful of what man can do to her. Esther had to learn to fear God more than man, even a king. She understands the consequences of her actions if she is to go before her king. Esther clearly points out to Mordecai, and subsequently, the entire Jewish population in Susa that she felt inadequate. She calls for a three-day prayer and fast. She calls for everyone to join her in this three-day event. Then she would make the trip to the throne room of King Ahasuerus even though it was against tradition. Esther knew it could mean sudden death for her to go before the king – and she had to face her fears.
Feasting. Esther’s initial response was one of insecurity. Insecurity causes Esther to focus on her own needs, and putting those ahead of the whole Jewish population. Esther was wise in how she handle the situation. But how does she face her fears? She develops a strategy that fits within her own abilities. She very cleverly invites the king to dine with her. She knew the king enjoyed feasting, what a brilliant way to discuss the situation. And, it seems fitting for the feast to last longer than one day, so she invites the king to a second dinner to win him over in a culturally sensitive way. The whole book suggests an important emphasizes on feasting together. And, Esther in all her wisdom offers the king a feast along with his prime minister, Haman, to win the kings favor.
Dreaming. Esther had to let go of her dreams for her life. She was put in a place where she needed to speak up for the Jewish people. She had to let go of her very life to take up the concern of the community. Letting go of your past dreams can be painful, especially when you have so much invested of yourself. Author and woman of prayer, Stormie Omartian, once said, “Even if the dreams you have in your heart are from God, [God] will still call you to surrender them. That’s because God wants you to cling to him, and not your dreams. He doesn’t want you to try to make them happen.” God wants to build trust in your heart that he can take care of things better than you or I ever could.
Are you experiencing a paradigm shift in your live like Esther? You may not be asked to go before a king to plead for the lives of your family and friends, but you may have walked through life events such as an illness, a grief, a job change, a new home, the birth of a child, or even a birthday. Each time we experience change God invites us into a paradigm shift.
The paradigm shift might even begin with a wondering statement… why? how? what’s going on? You feel caught off guard because you thought you were going in one direction and now you are somewhere unfamiliar. You begin to be self-reflective… You might even become a little self-absorbed, and that’s okay. If you linger too long in this stage of the paradigm shift you will miss your growth opportunity.
Next, you experience a real sense of fear… what will others think? how will they perceive this? And, you might begin to dig your heels in because change is hard work. If you miss the opportunity to grow past the sense of fear, you won’t get to the spiritual growth God has for you. You’ll stay stuck in the past while God keeps moving the rest of the people are you going forward. And, that’s a difficult place to be. The best way to combat this sense of fear is through prayer and fasting.
Once you have made it past the fear, you will discover a sense of insecurity – this is when you are walking on water. Living into your faith in God is essential for this stage of spiritual growth. One way you can feast is through the partaking of communion. This gives you the opportunity to come before God and honor your relationship with him.
And, the final step of this paradigm shift is relinquishing your dreams to God. I wonder how many of us can honestly say we dream dreams with God. Most of us are too busy running our own agendas, instead of letting God direct our every step. But here it is. We’ve come to the end of the paradigm shift. We’ve traded in our dreams for God’s dreams. And, then the real work begins.
Legacy. If Esther had only known that her dreams weren’t even close to the dreams God had for her! Esther had no idea that God had a child in mind. If Esther had known that her son, Darius II, would one day rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, it might have been easier for her to go to King Ahasuerus and ask for mercy for herself and her people. But God doesn’t work like that.
God guides our footsteps and we make the choices. For Esther God gave her the opportunity to speak to the king and change the outcomes. She saved her people from genocide, and her son was chosen as ruler who would one day rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Now that’s a legacy worth fighting for! I’ll leave you with this parting question, what legacy are you fighting for – is it God’s dream or yours?