Esther 3 & 4 – Things get personal!

a reflection by Dan Spragg

During the season of Lent this year, The Village are spending a bit of time in the book of Esther. Part of the motivation for this is that there are fascinating and meaningful stories tucked away in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that we often don’t spend much time with. In the case of many of these stories we carry around the Sunday School version and may have not yet given them a chance to mature as our faith and lives have. Last week we were introduced to the book’s genre – generally understood as historical fiction with a large amount of comedy and irony – burlesque in nature – highlighting big contrasts in the characters to make its point. We were also introduced to three of the book’s four main characters. The King – who has an overinflated ego and large issues with needing to overcompensate for his lack of Kingly abilities by flaunting his wealth and power in front of the entire empire. Esther – a young Jewish girl who is an orphan and who gets drafted along with many other young girls (12-13 year olds most likely) to become the King’s concubines. Somehow Esther wins the King’s favour and becomes Queen in place of Queen Vashti who decided to refuse the King’s invitation to be paraded in front of and objectified by all his drunk friends (fair enough!). And we met Mordecai – Esther’s cousin who adopted her as his daughter, works in the Palace courts and who managed to save the King’s life by foiling an assasination attempt. It really is shaping up to be an interesting story. We also learnt how the Jewish community to this day hold this book in very high esteem and how this story was the beginning of an annual celebration that the Jewish Community has been celebrating for close to 2500 years. What’s also interesting is that God is not mentioned once, at all, in the entire book. But, if we look closely and pay attention the fingerprints of God’s providence are all over this story and as such we are invited to reflect and open our imaginations to the possibility of God’s presence and providence in our own lives even perhaps when we think God isn’t there.

Today we’ve met the last of the main characters – Haman – an official working for the King who interestingly gets promoted immediately following Mordecai’s actions that saved the King’s life. This seems a bit strange as surely we would expect Mordecai to be rewarded for what he had done. We are introduced to Haman as, ‘Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son.’ When we met Mordecai, he was introduced to us as, ‘Mordecai, Jair’s son. He came from the family line of Shimei and Kish; he was a Benjaminite.’ Any Jewish listeners to this story would notice immediately that these two characters are being set up as against one another because of an event in the days of King Saul that had fused these two peoples against each other for generations to come. In Exodus 17 God promises to protect Israel and always be at war with the ‘Agagite’ in every generation. This goes a little way towards explaining why Haman reacts so viciously to Mordecai’s refusal to bow before him – the feud had been going on for a long time. So in a way these introductions are revealing to us another “episode of the age-old conflict between Israel and the powers that sought to destroy her.”[1] The excesses of the King’s parties, lust and control in chapters 1 and 2 are mirrored here by the excessive nature of Haman’s plan to not just get back at Mordecai but to brutally wipe out and destroy what would have been the majority of the Jewish communities of the day. Haman’s excessiveness is evil, without doubt. It is intentional and well planned and he manipulates the King masterfully into being in a position to demand and require respect. Is his plan for retribution fair? Is it called for? We would be crazy to do anything else but call it out as simply being evil and massively unjust. It is for us simply another side of what greed and power and self-centeredness show us is the face of evil in the world. “when such maniacal need for honour and respect is coupled with absolute power, the result is oppression and injustice.”[2]

There is a massive conflict brewing is there not?! How is this to end well for the Jewish people? As they hear the announcement of this terrible new edict on the 13th day of the first month – which happened to be the eve of the passover festival, the time where they celebrate God’s rescue of them from slavery in Egypt, could they expect God to be faithful once again? Would God still stand on the side of Israel while they were in exile coming under another severe attack on their existence and identity?

I wonder if we can spot the signs of God’s activity here? Try this: Haman cast dice – cast lots – to determine the date of the genocide. This would have been another standout to the Jewish audience. And it may be one of the ironic moments in the story as in Israel they too would cast lots. Usually to determine the will of God – remember the sailors who threw Jonah overboard? In their understanding Yahweh was the one who always directed the dice. In Proverbs 16 it is mentioned that, ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.’[3] Could something else be going on here? Mordecai thinks there might be as he makes a small reference to divine intervention in chapter 4 – “for such a time as this” (4:14) he says to Esther. ‘Perhaps it was for this time that you have ended up where you are?’

It is with this that we see a pivotal moment in the story. Esther goes from being the one who does what Mordecai says to the one who tells Mordecai what he is to do. Five years had gone by at this point since Esther had become the queen and within a few verses in chapter 4 we see Esther now independently considering her options and thinking through a course of action. She is growing in confidence and showing us that she can think for herself. One commentator suggests that “she shows the resolution and self-possession of a true queen. Verse 16 reads like a battle plan, and she is clearly the general.”[4] She is also humble not assuming her position is secure which is a vast contrast to Haman who is instead shown as proud, scheming, arrogant and vengeful. With her self-possessed actions she also identifies completely with her own people while it would have been easy for her to keep her identity as a Jew secret and save her own skin. Instead though she is willing to risk it all in order to prevent Haman’s evil plan from going ahead.

People who choose to follow the way of God have always been seen to be disadvantaged in our world. Early Jews. The early Christian church in a hostile Roman Empire. Christians and especially Jews throughout the last 2000 years have always been on the back foot somewhere, somehow under the threat of some empire or power demanding respect or allegiance. Somehow it always seems as if the words of the prophet Jeremiah are true: “You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jeremiah 12:1). As we will see in the book of Esther as the story unfolds, there is always the mystery of God at play. In the midst of oppression and injustice, will God deliver justice? Will God act to save those who seek to follow God’s way?

We might like to think that we can completely live by ordering and directing our own lives completely. But how often do we look back and see that perhaps there was some serendipity, or perhaps even God’s providence at play. “For such a time as this” is a statement that we often only recognise and can have faith in, in hindsight. Of course no matter how hard we try there will always be others who have plans for us, or bigger powers who dictate, or at least try to dictate the direction of our lives. What is clear for both Mordecai and Esther is that despite being in the situations they are in, they have chosen to remain living, they have chosen to be present in their situations in a particular way. How can they live within the Persian culture and yet remain distinct as individuals and as part of the Jewish community? We can always ask that question of ourselves as well. How do we live in 21st century NZ, blessed with all that is good about where we are, yet remain distinct as individuals and as a community who seeks to live out the way of God in a world which at almost every opportunity, it seems, seeks to reward greed, power and wealth over and above humility, grace, generosity, and love of neighbour? We might be tempted as I am sure Esther and Mordecai were – even though it does not say – to give in and simply live the easy road of following what is being demanded without letting on that we believe in and want to live a different way. But, as Esther shows us sometimes we have to decide to resolutely face the powers head on with courage and choose instead goodness, light and love, trusting indeed that God will be faithful to us and to the promise that at the end of the day, love will win. 

[1] Jobes, Karen H.. Esther (The NIV Application Commentary) (p. 123). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, p125.

[3] Ibid. p127.

[4] Bechtel, Carol M.. Esther (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (p. 73). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.