Esther 9 & 10 – The ending isn’t straightforward…

a reflection by Dan Spragg

And so we’ve reached the end of Esther. This part of the story would definitely ensure, if it was a movie, and if it hadn’t already, that it received an ‘R’ or at least an ‘M’ rating for ‘Mature audiences only’. The fateful day arrives, the Jewish people are allowed to defend themselves in the capital and then out into the provinces as well. There is much fighting, death and even some more impaling on poles thrown in for good measure! Victory is won in a large part due to the fact, it seems, there was a general feeling among the Persians that the Jews were to be feared and to try and defeat them would be futile. Esther acts once more to ensure the survival of her people and celebrations begin as the realisation of victory comes true. Finally there is the directive that this day is to be remembered by every Jew of every generation as a great celebration. The festival is called Purim, named after the ‘Pur’ – the dice – that Haman had used to determine the day of the Jews’ fate that ultimately, perhaps ironically, perhaps as it always was meant to be, became the day of their victory.

I titled this, ‘The ending isn’t straightforward’ and I did this for a few reasons. The amount of bloodshed is quite extravagant – 75,000 killed and the sons of Haman impaled on poles! Esther herself seems to encourage the violence. God continues to be absent amidst the drama. And the events of this story are instructed to be remembered every year, generation after generation – all of the story is to be remembered – all of the drama, manipulation, deceit, violence, courage, human trafficking and objectification of young girls, as well as the victory and rise in status of the Jewish people – all of this is to be remembered!

We, in our day and age, with our sensibilities might say that the violence seems brutal & unnecessary. On the face of it, it is kind of a shame that Haman’s decree to kill all the Jews couldn’t simply be undone with another royal decree saying that the previous one was ‘null and void’ or something similar.  Instead, the Jews are given permission to ‘do unto others what was going to be done unto them’ as opposed to a non-violent solution, something that we and perhaps something that a certain famous Jewish Rabbi that we know quite well might have hoped for. Esther’s role in the violence caught me by surprise. She blatantly asked the King to add another day to the decree in order that the violence could continue. And, to top it off she wanted the bodies of Haman’s sons to be impaled on poles! On the face of it, this seems like it is a surprising move, what did she do that for? Had she become something she wasn’t? Had the power and influence she had over the King and the nation corrupted her and led her to bloodlust? Or, if we look at it a different way, was she being an intelligent and strategic Queen within the world in which she was in? While it is absolutely true that power can corrupt and to occupy a position of power is never a straight and narrow path of moral and spiritual perfection, if we bear in mind the culture of the day I can certainly see how her request in actual fact could be quite normal. This round of fighting bears all the marks of ancient warfare. An agreed time and place, much bloodshed, large numbers of fatalities, the displaying of one’s enemies impaled to instil fear in those who might still think it wise to attack you. Despite all this however we might want to ask whether or not it was right for the Jews to participate in this way. They were, after all, meant to be ‘God’s chosen people’, set apart to be ‘the light of the world’. Is there anything in here that suggests that even though Esther and her people did participate they did so in a way which still held on to something better?

The text mentions three times that the Jews did not plunder or pillage the possessions of those whom they killed. Three times usually suggests a point is being made. Back at the origins of the animosity between the Agagites and the Israelites, King Saul, in 1 Samuel 15, failed in his role as King because he plundered the possessions of Agag for himself and failed to eliminate the Agagite people by keeping some alive. Precedent was set however long before this in Genesis 14 with Abram.  They were not to plunder the possessions of their enemies; this was in order that God alone would be the source of their prosperity rather than the spoils of war. The Jews here in Esther seem finally able to do what King Saul could not and thus be victorious over the Agagites and end an animosity that had been present for hundreds of years. Their lack of pillaging shows they remembered their origins, they remembered that all that was given to them was a gift from God rather than because of their military strength.

Another way to look at the lack of plundering was helpfully suggested at mid-week service on Thursday. If the homes of the dead soldiers were not pillaged then perhaps it would mean the remaining families still would have food and possessions to live by. Perhaps the lack of plundering was in fact an act of mercy. The request of Esther and the mention of self-defence implies also that the Jews are not allowed an extra day of fighting simply to go on the attack against Persia and its people, rather they are allowed to continue defending themselves against what seems like the still present threat of an enemy who had been preparing for this day for almost a year. The Jews are responsible here for thousands of deaths but, there is restraint shown. Benefit of the doubt implies self-defence and that they only attacked those who were out to get them. It also seems as if they did not take pleasure by plundering and pillaging those who came against them. Perhaps there was mercy present on this day, despite the terrible situation it was. 

The festival of Purim as we now know came about out of the context of this story. We hear that the day following the violence and bloodshed was given over to celebration containing feasting and generosity. And every year since it has been celebrated by generation after generation of Jews remembering the time in which they were delievered from genocide. I still find it fascinating that God is not mentioned at all in this entire story. One commentator I read told of how “The medieval Jewish exegete Abraham Saba understood the book of Esther to indicate a maturing of Israel’s faith. He takes this incident in Israel’s history to mark the time when the Jews finally came to accept the Torah wholeheartedly as the basis of their faith. Jewish midrash suggests that until that time God’s people followed him only because of the mighty miracles he did, instead of believing him because of who he is. As miracles ceased, Israel’s heart wandered to other gods, no longer confident in Yahweh’s power. Saba explains that this great deliverance achieved without miracles was the reason the Jewish people finally came to rest their faith on the Torah, the Word of God, rather than miraculous displays of his power.”[1] There is suggestion that the absence of God in this story was a purposeful feature. This story, as well as being a wonderful work of historical fiction, is a story which is instructive, a story which teaches its readers something. 

It is said that during the time of the Jewish concentration camps of World War Two the Jewish prisoners of war would recite together the story of Esther. They did this because they saw themselves in a similar situation to their ancestors – facing annihilation. Reading and reciting together the story of Esther gave them hope that just as their ancestors had been delivered it was possible for them too to be delivered from the hands of evil. Hope of course is a dangerous thing. The Nazi soldiers were ordered to destroy any written copies of Esther that they found and punish those who had it in their possession. God it seemed was absent in the concentration camps too as in the story of Esther. There is a famous tale of a group of Jews in Auschwitz who put God on trial and subsequently found God to be inexcusably guilty and worthy of death.[2] But, just like the Jewish community who despite all that has been and continues to be thrown against them, still celebrate the festival of Purim year after year, those Jews in Auschwitz after finding God guilty proceeded to attend their evening prayers. 

I’ve been asking myself if I have a ‘takeaway’ from the story of Esther and I do keep coming back to this absence of God thing. I quite like that God is absent. I also quite like that the story is morally and spiritually ambiguous. I like these things because so often isn’t this how we too also experience God? Our world, our lives, are a massive mixture of moral and spiritual ups and downs.  Despite this the story of Esther teaches us in the end and through all of the ambiguity that there is a bigger storyline arcing over it all. Deliverance, salvation, healing, freedom… And this of course is the arc of the much bigger story of all life too. The ancient doxology which contains the words ‘as it was in the beginning so it shall be…’ rings true. Goodness, freedom, joy, love, grace, harmony… These things that are the building blocks of life are where the whole thing not only begins but also where it heads and is heading, history is still unfolding, Goodness still has work to do and we are found as post-easter people in and with Christ as we wake up to this reality, caught up in this trajectory towards wholeness – liberation, freedom, fulfillment – however morally and spiritually ambiguous our situations may be from time to time we too can hear this story of Esther and hold on to a larger hope for us and for our world.

[1] Jobes, Karen H.. Esther (The NIV Application Commentary) (p. 212). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, p222.