Title: For such a time as this…
Date: Sept 27, 2009
Text: Esther 7
Author: Catherine Lee
Tonight we are looking at the story of Esther. We’re not going to do justice to the whole story. If you hear nothing else, hear my suggestion that you go home and give it a read yourselves this week. It’s a good story, a much better story than my summary is going to be. And the point of a story is not to be explained, but to be read and mulled over and probed and questioned and then read again.
I asked my friend what she remembered about Esther. She answered, “She became queen and saved her people.” Which is true. I think it is the summary most Christians know, if they remember the story at all.
But today I have two questions: is that the whole story? And, how does the story end?
It begins with a party. Xerxes, the king of the Persian empire, throws a 180 day celebration to show off the wealth and finery of his kingdom. Persia controlled most of the known world at the time: its wealth and power were vast. Xerxes then throws another party in the capital city of Susa. He orders his guests to drink all they want, however they want, and the wine keeps pouring. After seven days of drinking, he calls for his queen Vashti, away from her own party for the women, to show her off to his crowd of men. And Vashti does the unthinkable. She says “no.”
Thus it begins. It is a wild, over-the-top, ridiculous sort of story. Commentators call it a farce, for the narrator loves exaggerations (like a 6 month party?), none-too-subtle characters, and lots of irony.
Well, the king flies into a rage (he’ll do that again) and asks his advisors what to do. Which is a habit of his—in the whole book he never really initiates anything, and never says no to anyone. He’s a sort of parody of a king. He issues an edict saying Vashti can not come into his presence (which is, by the way, what she wanted…) so that husbands throughout the empire won’t be under the impression that it is OK to say no to a man.
And now, Xerxes needs a new queen.
Women are gathered (forcibly the text suggests) from all over the kingdom to enter the king’s harem, and after undergoing a full year of beauty treatments he will pick his favorite to be his new queen. Here, we meet Esther. She is Jew, an orphan whose guardian is her cousin Mordecai. Mordecai instructs her to keep her Jewish identity a secret. Esther wins the favor of everyone in the harem, and eventually of the king. The orphan Jewess becomes Queen of the known world.
Meanwhile, Mordecai uncovers a plot against the king’s life, saves him, and it is all written in the king’s annuls (but more about that later).
Enter Haman. One of the king’s courtiers, Xerxes promotes Haman to the highest position. All the other royal officials bow down to Haman and honor him. All except Mordecai.
Haman is furious. He decides that it will not be enough to kill just Mordecai. He promises a huge sum of money to the king (equal to 2/3 of the empire’s annual income) for the right to destroy “a certain people” (3: 8). The king agrees, though he never even asks who these people are, but we know it is Mordecai’s people, the Jews. He gives his signet ring to Haman, the equivalent of handing over all his authority in the kingdom. Haman issues an edict in the king’s name which orders people in the all the provinces of the empire on a certain day to “destroy, kill, and annihilate” all the Jews, young and old, women and children, and to plunder their goods.
When Mordecai hears the news he tears his clothes, dons sackcloth and ashes, and cries out bitterly through the city. Mordecai commands Esther to reveal her Jewish identity to the king and beg for mercy for her people. He tells her:
If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place…[but] who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (4:14)
So Esther agrees. She risks her life by going to the king unannounced, but he accepts her and offers her anything, up to half his kingdom. She asks only that he and Haman come to a banquet prepared in their honor. While at the banquet, the king again offers her anything she requests. She replies that she will make her request known to the king if only he and Haman will come again tomorrow to another banquet.
That night Haman goes home full of pride that he has been invited to private parties with the king and queen, but is enraged again when Mordecai shows no fear as he passes. He plans with his friends to have Mordecai executed the next day. But during the night the king cannot sleep, and has his annuls read aloud to him, where he learns of the plot against his life which Mordecai has thwarted. When Haman comes in he asks him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” Haman thinks the king is talking about, well, Haman of course (who else would he want to honor?), and so rattles off a detailed account of a public spectacle of royal recognition. The king then commands Haman to lead the spectacle, honoring Mordecai, Haman’s enemy. Haman’s plan to kill Mordecai that day is humiliatingly foiled.
Later Haman and Xerxes go to dine again with Esther. Finally Esther makes her request. With a string of formalities and subservient gestures (“if I have found favor with you… if it pleases you…”) she begs for her life and that of her people and names “the adversary and enemy…this vile Haman!” The king, enraged, has Haman taken away and executed.
Xerxes gives Haman’s estate to Esther and his signet ring to Mordecai. But the problem is far from solved: Haman’s edict still stands and Esther, Mordecai, and all the Jews are still in danger. So Esther speaks to the king again, begging him to revoke Haman’s edict that she and her people might be spared.
But edicts of the king cannot be revoked. The king, however, gives Esther and Mordecai permission to write a new edict “as they please” in the king’s name to counteract the one already in place. The new edict written by Mordecai allows the Jews on the same day to “assemble and defend their lives.” It parallels the old edict almost exactly, even to the unsettling inclusion of permission to “destroy, kill, and annihilate” women and children.
The day of the edicts arrives and the Jews destroy their enemies. The scene is chaotic, violent, and bloody. Commentators go back and forth here: is it a vengeful bloodbath meant to leave us questioning the righteousness of this “holy war,” or are the Jews justly defending themselves from decimation? The narrator doesn’t say, but neither does he go to great pains to describe the scene in a way that rouses sympathy for the Jews. The text fails to mention the deaths of any Jews, though surely some must have died too, nor any attack from the Persians. If anything, it appears in places that the Jews are the ones attacking. The narrator’s choice of words is inconsistent and perhaps intentionally confusing. Though they take no plunder, they leave fields strewn with over 75,000 bodies throughout the empire, 800 in the city of Susa alone.
In the aftermath the king comes to Esther, asking what her request is, and she skips most of the formulaic, courtly language of her earlier requests. Esther gets right to the point: she asks the king for another day for the Jews in Susa to enact the king’s edict and to impale the bodies of Haman’s ten dead sons on high poles visible to all throughout the city.
The book ends with celebrations which later become the annual celebrations of Purim, a Jewish festival commemorating their deliverance. The Jewish Queen of the world has the ear of the king and Mordecai retains his position of power and all ends well.
Or does it?
Two pictures have stayed with me as I have been reading Esther, and I feel like I need to be true to both of them. The first comes from when I sat down last week and read this story. I kept imagining stories of the home of my friend Emmanuel. Emmanuel is a refugee from Burundi, a tiny country in Central Africa bordering Rwanda. Burundi experienced the same genocide in 1994 as its more famous neighbor. Emmanuel is Hutu, married to a Tutsi wife over the strident objections of their families and communities. He is a pastor, who was involved in reconciliation after the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis. His personal life, his professional life, the entirety of his story is steeped the turmoil that haunts his country. We learned the story of Burundi through him, how colonialists came into the country and placed power in the hands of the minority tribe, how that tribe wielded power and privilege over the other, how the ruled, oppressed tribe rose up to destroy their enemies in the genocide. As I read Esther, I couldn’t shake the modern image of my friend’s home: the ethnic tensions, the shifts of power, the plots of genocide. The miracles of Burundi and Rwanda, of course, are the stories of reconciliation in the aftermath of so much death.
I wonder to myself, what happens next in Esther? Does the power, and the violence, just shift back? When and how will the pendulum swing? If we look at the history of the Jews in following centuries we see that it does…Is that one of the questions the narrator is trying to pose: can anyone wield power without succumbing to its temptations?
But there is another picture that tempers my confusion and keeps in check any “scholarly” impulse to deconstruct the text. During WWII Jews in concentration camps would gather secretly and write down the entire book of Esther from memory. During Purim, in whispered voices they would recite it to each other. For Esther is the story of the salvation of a people. An unexpected, twisted, miraculous salvation. The festival of Purim is a wild party featuring the reading of the entire book. Ancient rabbis write that everyone should drink until they cannot distinguish “cursed be Haman” from “blessed be Mordecai,” and often they do. The story of Esther tells of deliverance from the greatest threat Israel faced since Pharoah’s plot to kill all their sons—it is no wonder that it features largely in their imaginations. Salvation deserves celebration.
So I can’t discount the good news of this book. It would be absurd, it would miss the point. But I also can’t discount the uneasiness I have about the story, not only from my suspicion that the violence of the book’s ending is out of bounds, but also from the narrator’s dark satirical clues he strews throughout the story.
There are shadows of darkness throughout the narration. The word “destroy” appears 25 times in 10 chapters, lending an ever-present sense of the threat of violence. Vashti is banished when she decides not to be displayed to a hoard of drunken men. Women from all over the empire are gathered to satisfy the whims of the king, so that he can have a thorough sampling of the most beautiful. The passive verbs here suggest that the women are taken, rather than coming on their own, and it contrasts the story in 1 Kings where Israeli men freely bring their daughters to King David; here Persian officers are appointed and sent out—perhaps because these fathers hid their daughters.
Rage is a primary motivator for action throughout the story. Mercy and compassion fail to make an appearance in any of the characters, aside from Xerxes, the one who continues to authorize all of the violence. And retribution in Esther is severe: Haman seeks destruction of an entire race over a personal slight. Esther sits by as Xerxes executes her nemesis, despite Haman’s pleas to her for his life (the narrator’s irony here is plain: minutes earlier Esther was pleading for her own life). In the end the Jews slaughter over 75,000 men in one day.
And the book ends with a theological shadow which is perhaps more subtle. In the Hebrew Bible God makes a covenant with Israel, promising to bless and protect her as his people. But the purpose of the covenant is never only to bless Israel. From the beginning, Israel is to be a channel of blessing to all people, to all of creation. Theologically, Israel is only truly being Israel when she blesses the nations.
One of the oddities of the book of Esther is that it never directly mentions God—anywhere. Yet many readers see and sense the hand of God at work in the story, especially in the many seeming coincidences that lead to the Jews’ salvation: Esther’s presence in the royal court, Xerxes’ sleepless night that derails Haman’s plan to kill Mordecai, etc. Though he never intervenes directly, Esther appears to many to be a story of God’s providence and deliverance. If this is true, God is upholding his end of the covenant with Israel, not abandoning her to genocide. But Israel isn’t exactly blessing the nations. She is wielding violence, perhaps understandable?? but nonetheless horrific and over-the-top. And even the fairy tale picture of Mordecai ruling with great power speaks only of him seeking the good of his own people. Not “the peace of the city where I have carried you into exile” as in Jeremiah, not the good of all creation promised in the covenant. At the end of Esther, Israel is not acting like Israel.
So, it’s not a happy ending. And you’re saying, “thanks Catherine. Where’s the hope in that?”
Well, there is hope. Amidst darkness, light shines through. In Mordecai’s understated yet bold confidence that “relief and deliverance…will come from another place” if necessary. Even Mordecai’s bitter cries, wailing in the streets. The word used for “cry” is a technical term for the poor’s cry of distress and protest. Cries are offered in anguish, but also in the faith of one who wills that someone is listening and can and will act on those cries.
And in this story Israel, though in exile, though doomed to death and complete destruction, is saved. They are not abandoned. And if this is true, then perhaps it will be true again. Even if Esther and Mordecai do not end the story as great, unblemished heroes, even if Israel isn’t acting like Israel as the book closes, we can hope that again, when it is needed, they will not be abandoned.
And God does not abandon us. He hears our cries, hears the cries of his people in the streets of our world. And he will come, not always in ways that we can see and point to with complete certainty and clarity. But Scripture tells us, over and over again, no matter how far his people may stray from his will, no matter how we fail to incarnate the vision of his kingdom—he will not abandon. He will come.
That is the longing that this book leaves me with. Not a sense of victory, that the story has ended and all is right with the world. But, as one author put it, “with a knot in my stomach.” A knot that only loosens when it gives way to longing.
Longing: God, do you see? God, do you love? God…will you act?
This is a story that, for all its elements of the fantastic, fits well with the way I see the real world today. Because I go through my weeks with lots of knots in my stomach. The guy panhandling on Franklin Street, news of drug cartel oppression in Mexico, faltered steps of reconciliation and abuses of power in Burundi (because it isn’t a fairy tale ending there either…), war and destruction and power pendulums swinging and knocking people down all through the Middle East.
But the God of Israel, the God of Esther and Mordecai, he does not abandon.
We can chose to read our own stories and the stories of our world triumphantly, assume that our actions—and our defenses—are righteous, and live to seek the good of our people. And we should celebrate the victories and joys that we find. Salvation is a good and gracious gift.
But we must also confront the darkness we know inhabits the world. We must confront the darkness of our own nation, community, and (perhaps most frightening) the darkness that dwells inside each of us. We can chose to hear the cries of the poor, the oppressed, and even of our enemies, even as we know God hears them.
For God has not abandoned them. God has not abandoned us. God does not abandon. He is coming. He is here.
At the end of any story—this one, mine, yours—there’s not much else to say.
So the church
“Lord, have mercy.
And come, Lord Jesus. Come.”