As most of you know, my past three sermons are a part of a series about Old Testament women. To this point, I have been rescuing them from the bad rap they have received by some biblical scholars and commentators down through the ages. We have heard of Eve, Sarah and Hagar, and Tamar. Today I will jump way ahead in scripture and talk about Esther as it is also in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday.
While there are no known documents of a historical nature concerning Esther, she is very important to the Jewish faith story and consequently our faith too. This story tells of the salvation of the Jewish people, residing as refugees in Persia, from certain death. The King in the story is Ahasuerus. His Persian name was thought to be Xerxes who reigned from 479 to 465 B.C.
The king’s first Queen is called Vashti in this story. Her real name was Amestris, historically speaking. Unfortunately, like many women in the Bible, with the exception of a very few, Vashti has been ill-treated by commentators down through the ages. The King threw a great banquet for his many officials and political ministers. On the seventh day of his banquet —and …WOW! 7 days of partying— scripture tells us he was merry with wine, meaning he was quite drunk. He called for his servants to bring his wife who was elsewhere. He wanted to parade her in front of his guests to show them her great beauty, something of which he was obviously proud. However, the servants come back without her and the king was incensed!
I’m sure this is a very American thing to say; however, I truly don’t know how people tolerated royalty even a couple centuries ago let alone dozens of centuries ago because many of them often seemed to have extraordinarily volatile behaviors. Before our passage, in verse 9 of chapter 7, we find out that Queen Vashti was giving her own banquet for the women of the palace. Likely they were either King Ahasuerus’ harem or the officials’ wives. She would have been busy with that banquet and not available at his whim. Because of this, some commentators call her disobedient and she is perceived as such in the story. Soon, we will find out that Esther too is disobedient and necessarily so.
Impetuously, and at the urging of those who advise him, the King deposes his Queen. We don’t know what happens to her but she likely became an underling in the King’s harem if she wasn’t cast out of the palace altogether. The king was advised to remove Vashti since she was disobedient to his rather unrequired and selfish request, for the word would get out and soon all sorts of wives would be disobeying their husbands. Such a scandal! He declares “every man shall be master of his own house,” a saying with which most of us are familiar.
Soon he seems to show some regret for his hasty decision and decides he needs a woman’s touch around the palace. So virgins from all over the kingdom are brought into his harem to be prepared and trained, usually over a lengthy process, to have a night with the king so he may decide among them. Now, we can be sure that these virginal young women would have had no say in the matter of whether they wanted to be taken to the King for this reason. Finally, he decides on Esther. She is said to be very beautiful and is obviously charming so as to capture his attention.
Esther was a Jew, born of Abihail, a Jewish man in exile in Persia. The baby girl was named Hadassah which means myrtle. Myrtle is an aromatic bush with very beautiful white flowers and purple-black berries. It was an appropriate name for the beautiful Esther. Somewhere along the way, her name becomes Esther that seems to be an extrapolation of Babylonian names of the time, pointing to the one who is beautiful.
During the time the king is choosing a queen, another character, necessary to the story, is introduced. Mordecai is a cousin of Esther’s and he adopts her after her parents die. He learns of a plot to kill the king and tells Queen Esther who then informs the King. He has the assassins killed by hanging them on the gallows. In gratitude, he promotes Mordecai to an official position.
Next we learn of another pivotal character, Haman, (bum, pa, pa, bum!) who seems to be the king’s vizier, a high ranking executive officer in the king’s court. We soon find out that Haman is very arrogant and expects everyone’s respect. Mordecai refuses to bow to him. Normally, since Mordecai was a Jew, I would say it is because he would only bow to God but God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. Nothing of the Jewish religion is mentioned, interestingly enough.
At this point, it is critical to note that Haman is thought to be the descendent of a king of the Amalekites. The Hebrew people had annihilated the Amalekites as a nation centuries before, according to Scripture, so there is obviously bad blood between a descendant of a royal Amalekite and a Jew. Haman has a short fuse, much like the king, and is extremely indignant about Mordecai’s behavior toward him. He decides to punish him by punishing the Jewish people, refugees in Persia, where they are living in peace. He convinces the king that the Jews are too different and are disloyal therefore advising the king to have them destroyed. Really, the king needed to get out more to have believed Haman because that simply wasn’t true and yet, the gullible King Ahasuerus decrees the destruction of all Jews in Persia to happen a year later. The smug Haman and the not very critical thinker, Ahasuerus, sit down to drink together oblivious to the chaos they cause when Esther tells Mordecai, who then tells the Jews of this decree. Her adopted father, Mordecai, tells Queen Esther she must speak to the king on the Jews’ behalf. Esther hesitates to do what he requests saying, quite legitimately, that she couldn’t go to the king without an invitation. She could be killed for such a thing in those times. Yet, Mordecai persists and eventually Esther prepares to go to the king with her petition on behalf of the Jews.
Over the years, critical commentators have concluded that Esther was weak and spineless. Abraham Kuyper, I mentioned in a previous sermon, wrote that Esther “does not impress us favorably” because she did not love her people- he concluded. Another commentator [Carey Moore] argued that Mordecai was the real hero of the story because he was the brains behind the plot to change the king’s mind. So not true! Esther has reason to be cautious because Ahasuerus is observably a volatile man. And, she is trying to observe the law that requires one be invited to come before the king. Mordecai convinces her and then she has to figure out the best way to prepare what she will say and how to approach the king.
We could surmise she, with bravery and a definite dose of recklessness, resignedly states, “if I perish, I perish.” Esther does end up going to the king over a couple visits, without an invitation, and eventually, effectively pleads for the lives of the Jews. She puts on a successful dinner for the king and for Haman, who becomes even more arrogant with such a special invitation, so that the king offers her anything she wants even to half his kingdom. Instead, Esther invites them to another dinner. That night the king, evidently in the absence of Tylenol PM, simply could not sleep and asked his servant to read to him from the book of government records. That would be sure to put anyone to sleep! During the reading, the king is reminded that Mordecai saved his life and so he wants to honor him. Ironically, he tells Haman that he wishes to honor someone and the ever-egotistical Haman believes such an honor is coming to him. When the king asks him how he should honor this favored person, Haman responds: “He should wear a robe that the king has worn and ride a horse that the king has ridden.” When the king reveals that it is Mordecai who is the favored one, he tells Haman to honor Mordecai this way. As you can well imagine, Haman is livid and find this honor unspeakable and therefore plots to have Mordecai killed on gallows he will have built.
Esther gives a second dinner for the king, again inviting Haman, and again the king is so pleased he asks what he can give her. This time Esther dramatically, I’m sure, bursts out: “We have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated!” Evidently the king forgets the decree or has never found out that Esther is a Jew because he wants to know who has done this. She replies, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman.” Uh Oh! Haman is right there and the king turns away from him in anger and strides into the palace gardens. Haman throws himself on the mercy of the Queen on her seat. Unfortunately, Haman’s timing has been extremely poor throughout this whole story, and the king chooses that moment to come back in. He thinks Haman is sexually abusing his wife. He has Haman put to death on the gallows Haman built himself.
Esther goes back to the king a third time and asks him to remove the decree on the royal books but that king says he can’t. He invites Mordecai, likely with Esther’s help, to develop a counter-edict which ends up being that the Jews were allowed to defend themselves and kill anyone who attacked them. Esther confronted this injustice head-on in this exceptionally violent story, as many stories in the Old Testament are. The Persians are now afraid of the Jews and leave them alone. Yet the Jews decide to retaliate anyway and kill 75,000, of them, according to the author of the book of Esther. While there are a couple more parts to this story, it ends with the salvation of the refugee Jews in Persia.
This story makes many take-away points, of which I will mention three. One is that genocide is wrong. Many times people ask how mass killings or genocide occurs. Esther gives us insight into those who call for genocide or commit mass murder. They are often not stable emotionally, or are blinded by dangerous hatred or an all-consuming need to control and to stay in control. According to Rev. Dr. Lynn Japinga, the author of the book I’m basing my sermon series on: “People are often tempted to use the passive voice to excuse their behavior (of this kind). ‘It was ordered.’ ‘It is the law.’ ‘I only did what I was told.’ These kinds of excuses were given by German soldiers in World War II. However, their excuses didn’t absolve them of their moral responsibility. Esther’s example is to stand up to those kinds of excuses and take the opportunity to stop such horrendous events or at least, speak out against them.
The second point of the story is that the Jews in Persia were refugees who had to flee their homes and their nation due to tremendous violence. Ancient Persia took them in and there they settled, peaceably it seems, until they could go back to their homeland. There have always been refugees fleeing violence, and likely always will be because we humans can easily be a vicious lot. Like the Jews of Esther’s time, they try to find safe havens in which to start over or at least avoid the bloodshed that pursues them for any number of reasons. If we had to leave our nation due to unspeakable violence, we would hope and pray for a safe place to live like the ancient Jews found in Persia.
The third point is that we ought to be indignant when an injustice is mitigated upon people due to race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age or whatever prejudice is enacted. Mordecai and Esther were not only afraid of the king’s edict to kill the refugees in his land, they were indignant and did something about it, even at the threat to their own lives. “An ancient philosopher was asked, ‘When will justice come to Athens?’ He replied, ‘Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.’ People of God, that reply is just as true for us now as it was for those to whom the philosopher spoke to back then. Justice will not come to our world unless those of us who are not very impacted by the injustices speak up for those who are. By doing this we will speak of the peace for which our PC(USA) special offering will go next Sunday. See what I did there- segueing into next week?
May God’s holy name be blessed by the Word read and preached here today. Amen.