Bible by Request: Esther
Pentecost XIII (O. T. 20)
This week I found myself wishing that there were more stories in the Bible of folks who just tried to get through life quietly, raising their children and paying their bills, doing their best to serve God and to love their neighbors. All these folks in the Bible are such heroes; flawed heroes, but heroes. Esther didn't start out to be a hero, but when the need came, she responded heroically.
Esther, a Jew who was part of the refugee community in Persia, became part of the harem of the King of Persia. In the Bible his name is Ahasuerus; history remembers him as Xerxes. The story begins when Ahasuerus is throwing a big party for all his officials. At the same time his wife, Queen Vashti, was throwing a party for their wives. By the seventh day the King was feeling no pain, and he decided it would be a good idea to order Queen Vashti to put on her robes and jewels and strut her stuff in front of the men he was entertaining. The Queen refused; it may have been 500 B. C., but even then she was not going to be treated as mere eye candy. The King was furious and his officials advised him not to take it; if the King can't make his wife do what he wants, maybe all the women of the Empire will get uppity notions. So he divorced her and decided to pick a new queen out of the harem.
And so Esther came to his attention; he chose her from all the young women in the palace, was married to her, and she became Queen of Persia. Another important character in this story, who I will introduce now, is her older cousin Mordecai. Esther was an orphan and Mordecai had raised her as his own daughter; he used to hang around the palace in order to keep an eye on her. One day Mordecai overheard two palace officials plotting to assassinate the King; he told Queen Esther and she told the King, who launched an investigation. When it turned out there was a real plot against him, the two were arrested and executed, and the whole business was recorded, including Mordecai's name as the informant who had saved the King's life.
Now one more character, the villain in the story. His name is Haman. And when I say "villain," I mean that if this were a melodrama then you would hiss every time he comes on stage. Well, actually, when Jews celebrate the Feast of Purim, which commemorates the events in this story, they make loud noises whenever Haman's name is said, in order to blot it out. So go ahead and hiss, if you like (Note: Throughout the rest of the sermon, there was hissing every time I said his name!). Haman was the King's Prime Minister, and he enjoyed the fact that everybody else (well, except the King and Queen) had to bow to him whenever he passed by. Mordecai didn't bow either, because Mordecai was a Jew and, well, he wasn't going to give honor to a mere human, honor that belongs only to God.
So Haman hated Mordecai and wanted to destroy him. Just getting Mordecai alone wasn't enough to satisfy his hatred; Haman decided it was necessary to exterminate the Jews. So he went to King Ahasuerus and said, "Your Majesty, there is a certain people in your Empire who have their own laws, quite apart from the King's laws. They are foreigners in our borders and should not be tolerated, and so Your Majesty should give the order to exterminate them all." Now whatever good you can say about King Ahasuerus – and there is a lot of good we can say – we should also note that he was easily led. Haman told him it was a good idea to kill all the Jews, and so he went along with it. The order went out that all the Jews were to be killed on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar – Adar is the twelfth month of the Jewish liturgical year and the next thirteenth of Adar will be March 20, 2019 (I think; I'm willing to be corrected on this).
Well, Mordecai learned of Haman's plot and he told Queen Esther that she should do something about this. She replied, "What can I do? I'm allowed to go to the King only when he sends for me, and he hasn't sent for me in a month. Anyone who goes to the King without being summoned is put to death." Mordecai said that if nothing was done about this plot, she would lose her life anyway: "Don't think you can hide out in the palace." Besides, he said, perhaps she had come to royal power for "just such a time as this."
Here's an opportunity for a comment: the Book of Esther has a peculiarity which makes it odd in the Bible. Not once, directly or indirectly, is God mentioned. Yet Mordecai's words are as blunt a confession of faith that God is ultimately in charge of life as any you will find. He doesn't say, "God," but who else could arrange for an obscure refugee Jew to become Queen of the Persian Empire just in time to save the Jews from extermination?
Okay, back to the story. The Queen asked for all the Jews in the city to hold a three day fast for her, and then after that she would go to the King; "if I perish, I perish." As it turned out, King Ahasuerus was so happy to see her, that when she went in he held out the golden scepter to show his favor, and asked what she wanted. She said, "I would like the King to come to dinner in my chambers today, and I would like you to bring Haman with you." They were pleased to accept. And at the dinner, she made another request: "I would like you both to come to dinner tomorrow, and then I will tell you what is on my mind."
Well, Haman was full of himself. He went home and boasted to his family about how important he was, including, "Do you know that the Queen had a private party, and the only royal official she invited is me?" But then he was sad, because it bugged him that Mordecai refused to bow to him. He took some comfort in knowing that in several months Mordecai and all the other Jews would be killed, but it still hurt in the meantime. His wife suggested that he build a huge gallows and ask the King to have Mordecai hanged on it; so he ordered the gallows to be built.
But the King slept badly that night, and it wasn't from the dinner. It was his conscience. He remembered that there had been a plot against his life, and someone had saved him, but he hadn't done anything to reward that someone. So he checked the record books and discovered that his savior was Mordecai. When Haman showed up for work the next day, the King asked him, "What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?" Haman thought, "Well, who else could he want to honor but me?" So he advised the King to put a royal robe on the man, and a crown, and have one of the King's chief officials parade the man on horseback throughout the city, proclaiming, "This is how the King shows his honor!" The King thought that was a great idea, and told Haman to get the Jew Mordecai all fixed up just as he said, and that Haman himself should carry it out. So, Haman spent much of that day parading Mordecai, whom he hated, around the city, shouting, "This is how the King shows his honor!"
He felt humiliated, but took some comfort in knowing he would have dinner with the King and Queen. While they were enjoying the wine after the meal, the King said, "What do you want of me, my Queen?" And Esther took a deep breath and said, "I want my life to be spared and the lives of my people. For we are the victims of a terrible plot to annihilate us, and nothing can compensate the King for the terrible damage that would do." And the King, shocked, said, "Who could have planned such a thing?" She said, "This wicked Haman!"
The King was furious; he stalked out into the palace garden to consider what he should do. Meanwhile, Haman knew he was in big trouble, and he threw himself at the Queen's feet to beg for mercy. When the King returned to the dining room, he saw Haman throwing himself at the Queen, and so he bellowed, "Will you assault the Queen herself in my presence? In my house?" One of the servants whispered to the King that Haman had just built a tall gallows on which he intended to hang Mordecai; the King ordered that Haman be hanged on it. So Haman's story ends with him dying on his own gallows.
There's more to the story, but the upshot is that Mordecai becomes Prime Minister and he and Esther, together with the King, figure out a way to get around Haman's plot and to save the lives of the Jews. And the Jewish festival of Purim commemorates this story; it is another example of how one rabbi summarized all Jewish holidays: "They tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat."
Meanwhile, we are left with the memory of a fascinating cast of characters:
King Ahasuerus, who ought to learn to listen to his better nature, and not just do whatever his closest advisor happens to suggest;
Haman, who ought to be a warning to everybody who wants to have power just for the sake of having power and has no good idea how to use it well;
Mordecai, who said what needed to be said when it needed to be said, and otherwise kept his mouth shut and stayed in the shadows;
Queen Esther, who rose bravely to the occasion, and shows all of us that the time may come that you or I may be where we are when we are "for just such a time as this;"
And Ex-Queen Vashti, who lost her robes and her crown and her servants and her huge expense account, but who kept her self-respect.
I think Queen Vashti is my favorite.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master