Esther chapters 1 & 2 – Setting the scene…

a reflection by Dan Spragg

We’ve just heard a large part of chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Esther. When trying to select verses for us today that would somehow capture the mood, set the scene, and give enough detail to go on it was quite hard work to trim it down any further! Not to worry though, in hearing this large block of scripture we are stepping into a tradition that has been going on for approximately 2500 years. I’ll talk more about that in a moment, it’s a significant point.

What we’ve just heard is the opening to the book of Esther which we’re going to spend the time between now and Easter reflecting on. These opening chapters set the scene for this fascinating story and allow us to see the genre of the story. Most commentators agree that the genre of this story is historical fiction. Which is to say that it contains enough historical fact to allow us to know its time and place and adds some gravity to the situations portrayed, and it contains enough embellishment that it makes for a good read! Historical fiction is also a great way to get a message across. Sometimes we need a good bit of fiction to allow us to truly hear the truth. It is also agreed that the story of Esther contains a large amount of comedy and irony, the author was clever, in other words! One commentator describes the story as ‘burlesque’ in nature – a comedic parody which communicates its meaning through the contrasts found between the main characters. What did you make of the opening scenes of this story? Did you notice the excesses of the King’s feast? Six months of eating and drinking… taking wine by the flagon! And apparently, that wasn’t enough so another 7 days was called for! The detail in describing the furnishings is also extensive – Linen, gold mugs, marble. There’s also the size of the empire – India to Cush which is thought to have been a region near the Red Sea, potentially Ethiopia – a sizable territory! It paints a picture of wealth and power, a picture of domination and control.  Within this picture, we are introduced to a young Jewish girl called Esther or Hadassah who is an orphan adopted by her cousin Mordecai. Esther and Mordecai are Jews living in exile after the King of Babylon had removed the Jews from their homeland around 100 or so years earlier. In the middle of all the wealth and power, they are powerless. The King ruling over this vast territory containing many people and peoples is seen to be very generous in providing all the lavish festivities, but, we do get a hint from the author that he may not be as competent as perhaps he should have been to be in control of such a large and wealthy empire. The King makes two decisions in these opening two chapters. Or at least they are seen to be his decisions. Both of these decisions are made because of Queen Vashti and her refusal to be paraded before the king and all the other drunken men present – fair enough and good on her, we would say! The first is a decree removing Queen Vashti from her position – but we see this wasn’t the King’s idea. He was angry, probably because he was drunk and his ineffectiveness as King was put on display but in the end he had to ask his lawyers what to do. The second decision, to put on a ‘beauty pageant’ in order to find the king another queen was also not his idea. The beauty pageant of course wasn’t really a beauty pageant. All the eligible young girls (12-13 year olds?) from the empire were essentially taken from their homes and prepared to be objectified by the king, raped and then to serve as concubines, presumably until they were no longer fit for service. Do you see the picture that is being painted for us? A work of historical fiction, a comedic parody in which already we don’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Earlier I mentioned that it was ok we read a large portion of the opening chapters because we are sort of stepping into a long-standing tradition that is of some significance. The tradition is the festival of ‘Purim’ which the Jewish community around the world celebrate every year. It is coming up this week actually. At the festival of Purim, the book of Esther is read aloud in its entirety and that is because at the end of the book in Chapter 9 we see the establishment of this festival. During the festival, there is the reading of the story – in which the audience participates – knowing when to ‘boo’ and shout to drown out the name of Haman for example – a character we meet in Chapter 3. The children are given shakers to shake and there is the stamping of feet. It is an interactive re-telling of the story. There is, over the two days feasting and drinking in celebration, costumes are worn, gifts are given and the poor are fed. It is quite the celebration! This festival has been celebrated now for around 2500 years! Every year since the story of Esther was written. The story of Esther in fact is seen as so important to the Jewish people that it is said that when the messiah finally brings liberation to the Jewish people the only scriptures that will remain relevant are the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – and the book of Esther. Not the prophets or the Psalms, but Esther. This story is so important to the Jews that it is held up alongside the writings of Moses as foundational to their sense of who they are as a people. This is potentially because when we consider the size of the Persian empire at the time we can say almost for certain that the entire Jewish people would have been contained within its boundaries. This was a significant moment in their history.

I have three standouts from these first couple of chapters. The first is the excesses of the king. This speaks to me of an inflated ego thinking he was so much more capable than he was! Why the excess? – and it has to be seen as excess rather than generosity, doesn’t it? Was he trying to make up for his apparent inability to rule? His incapability to make decisions in his place as King? Was he trying to prove his worth or value? Was he trying to win over and subdue the empire so that his state as an imposter wouldn’t be found out? In the contrast between the lavish occasions and his political ineptitude, the author mocks this so-called great king of the largest empire in the world at that point in time. Queen Vashti’s refusal to do as the king asks and his subsequent anger and inability to manage the situation show him to be the man he truly is. There is too the flipside of all this excess and flamboyance that has to be recognised by all who hear this story and that is, that this sort of display always comes at a price for someone. Jewish audiences of this text will hear this story and remember the writings of the prophets who always warn of the trappings and effects of wealth and power. We should remember this too. There is always someone at the bottom of the heap who pays a large price for things to appear as if ‘all is well’. True today as it was then – who pays the price for our access to cheap clothes and many consumer goods? Who pays the price for our runaway housing market?

The second thing that stands out to me is the meaning of Esther’s name – especially in contrast to the King’s character. She is introduced to us as Esther, and as Hadassah. Hadassah is the name of the myrtle flower which is sweet and fragrant and delicate but which only releases its perfume when it is crushed. This speaks to us of how the Jewish people have understood themselves in exile, and of course in Esther’s situation of being rounded up in the King’s dragnet of lust and objectification – a position under the boot of oppression. Hadassah is also understood as describing those who are righteous. That under oppression they will not be destroyed. The name Esther is from the Hebrew word ‘hester’ which means ‘hiddenness’ and corresponds to an understanding of hidden Godliness. This is especially interesting I believe when we consider my third standout point – God is not mentioned at all in Chapter 1 and 2. In fact God is not mentioned at all in the entire book of Esther! There is not one mention of God, or prayer, there is nothing identifying the Jews as God’s people in the full ten chapters of this story and yet the book of Esther is held with such significance for the Jewish people – that’s interesting. God, in this story, is hidden from view. I wonder about the connection between Esther’s names and this hiddenness of God. Is it that through the character of Esther we are to see something of God? Perhaps especially in the contrast between the King and Esther?

God’s providence is most certainly upheld as central in most understandings of the story of Esther. Through the actions of Esther and Mordecai it is understood that God is working to achieve God’s intention. I wonder as we move from week to week through this story if the invitation is to see what we can notice of the hiddenness of God being made visible. When it appears on the surface that God is absent, is there in fact a deeper current of God’s activity being communicated? As we saw in the story of Ruth a few weeks ago, when God is not speaking, when God seems absent it is not actually true. We are never abandoned and left outside the presence of God. There is too of course the invitation to take this ‘wondering’ into our own lives. If God seems absent in the current chapter of your life, remember that it is not actually true, or perhaps not even possible, so where can you see the deeper currents of God at work? As the Jewish people take time each year to remember this story, bringing it into their present, what can you see from your own history to remind yourself of God’s presence today? As we sit now and music is played I encourage you to take the opportunity to think about what has stood out to you in this introduction to the story of Esther and why might that be important to you at this time?