Purim: The Story of Esther (For such a time as this)
For someone like me whose professional life has revolved around literature, The Book of Esther is an absolute delight. It has everything: characters driven by pride and wealth, hatred and jealousy, intrigue, conspiracy, and bravery; ruthless men, loyal and faithful men, beautiful women; and an intensely DRAMATIC plotline, resolved when annihilation is averted and justice rewarded.
It is so well-constructed one could easily believe it is just a great story, not historical narrative. But, because the tradition of Purim is clearly dated back to this time, and numerous other historical correlations are known, it is generally accepted as Historical Narrative.
In fact, in the Dec. 23/2013 issue of the Times of Israel, Simcha Jacobovici claims that a 5th Century BCE coin from ancient Persia/modern Iran, recently acquired by the Israel Museum, is a coin that was struck to commemorate the story of Esther. It is the earliest known coin with the word “Yehud”/”Jew” on it. On one side is the image of a beautiful woman and on the other a Lion and a Bull-like creature. Ahashverosh, King Xerxes of our story, was known as the “bull-man”. The Lion of Judah, which might represent Mordechai’s final position next to the King, fits the historical narrative well; as does the accepted dating of the coin.
But, back to the story; it is a story of banquets & feasts, chance & coincidence, hidden identities and anti-Semitism in its most irrational form. Although on the surface its theme is the rationale for the feast of Purim, the real theme arises out of what is hidden.
Our narrative begins with a King who, after a full 6 months flaunting his great wealth, throws a 7 day banquet for all his subjects; each being served wine in a unique cup, the text says, “each one different from the other”. Queen Vashti, not to be outdone, creates her own banquet. Then, after removing Queen Vashti for displeasing/disobeying him (if he had been Henry VIII, he would have beheaded her), and choosing Esther to replace her, he prepares another banquet to celebrate his fine choice of a new Queen. Esther, the new Queen, prepares 2 banquets of her own. The story then concludes with 2 feasts celebrating the happy ending; a grand total of 7 banquets/feasts.
This plethora of feasts would suggest that the story is thoroughly celebratory; and this is what Purim is generally thought to be. Ironically, however, the celebrations happen amidst pride, hatred, jealousy and the threat of annihilation.
Speaking of “irony”, our story is full of ironic coincidences; at its very center, it contains what is probably Literature’s most finely crafted scene of Dramatic Irony, which unfolds into an equally finely crafted scene of Poetic Justice.
We know that Haman appears, on that fateful morning, at the King’s gate to request permission to hang Mordecai. The King, after a restless night during which he reviews his official Records and discovers that Mordecai has never been honored for saving his life, looks toward his gate for a man who will carry out this honoring of Mordecai. The coincidence is hilarious. Haman has just built a 75 foot gallows on which to hang Mordecai; and is at the gate to request permission to do so. Instead he is chosen, by the very fact of his being there, to lead Mordecai, dressed in the King’s robes and riding a royal horse, through the streets of Shushan, proclaiming ‘this is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’ Here is intense Dramatic Irony.
That, however, is not all. At Esther’s second banquet for the King and Haman, she finally expresses her request that the King deliver her and her people from the annihilation. A “certain person”, who had managed to convince the King that a “certain people” were not beneficial to his Kingdom and should be exterminated. Since that “certain person” turned out to be Haman, and Esther belonged to the “certain people” he had conspired to annihilate, the King had Haman hung on the very gallows Haman had built to hang the Jew Mordecai.
Perfect Poetic Justice!
Haman had already used chance, the PUR, a game of dice/lots, and the root of the word “Purim”, to determine the 13th of Adar as the annihilation date for all the Jews. This reliance on chance to decide the fateful execution day becomes the seminal event around which the whole story of coincidences is woven. At least 10 of the story’s main events happen by chance. Why does Queen Vashti refuse to obey the King’s command? Why does Mordecai overhear the assassination plot? Why does the King decide to honor Haman? Why had he forgotten to do the same for Mordecai when Mordecai saved his life? Why was the King unable to sleep? And the questions go on.
On this surface reading, although cause and effect does operate, it seems to do so totally at random; there is no overriding purpose. The plot does develop to a climax event and then fall from there in an inexorable way to the conclusion; but not according to the plan of anyone in the story. Haman does have a plan, but none of it comes to fruition; it is, in fact, completely reversed through a set of seemingly coincidental circumstances.
Is it possible that, although the name of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Jew Mordecai, is not mentioned once in the story, in His Hidden Way He uses all those coincidences for His purpose to protect and save his people? The sequence of coincidences is thus not absurd at all. Perhaps, Paul’s claim that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” is the CENTRAL THEME of Esther.
That would certainly be in keeping with the rest of the Biblical narrative.
Perhaps one might even speculate that from this HIDDEN place God gave his people another opportunity to fulfil what they had been commanded to do. Ever since Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands so that Joshua could overcome the Amalekites who had attacked them from behind (Ex 17), the Amalekites were a thorn in their side. God told Moses to “write this on a scroll…and make sure Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” King Saul was commanded to do so, but disobeyed and spared King Agag.
Haman is an Agagite.
Mordecai’s faith tells him that “relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place” if Esther does not step up. But to Esther he says, “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”
Here is “COINCIDENCE” that is, in fact, DIVINE APPOITMENT. Through a sequence of apparent coincidences, in which Esther risks death to perform her role, God, from His HIDDEN Place, orchestrates SALVATION for His people.
Unfortunately, time does not allow development of this “hidden identity” theme, which underlies the tradition of costumes and masks at Purim celebrations.
So, my final point; Haman had decided that he would not just murder Mordecai who had personally offended him, but have all Jews exterminated, just because they were Jews.
This is anti-Semitism; irrational.
Although ongoing periodic persecution and pogroms hounded the Jews in exile, Hitler’s determined attempt to systematically exterminate them made him the insane successor to Haman.
Since Hitler we may have been lulled into thinking that we really meant the vow “never again”; and believe that it is still our position today. But, if we do believe that, then we have been blind and deaf to what is happening in the world around us.
Are you and I here, perhaps, like Esther, “for such a time as this”?
Most certainly, anti-Semitism is rearing up everywhere, and not just in the blatant expression of it by the Arab nations surrounding Israel.
No, but every time the phrase “Occupied Palestinian Territory” is used in the EU, UN or in the classroom; this statement is simply not based on FACT. In International Law, Judea & Samaria belong to Israel.
When St. James Church, Piccadilly, spends thousands of pounds erecting a “Wall” at Christmas time to accuse Israel of Apartheid behavior, without any attempt to give a balanced picture for discussion; is that fair treatment of the Jews?
Is the Presbyterian Church USA’s “Zionism Unsettled”, which they put forward as a discussion/study guide on the Palestinian conflict with Israel, but then, without discussion, accuses Israel as the barrier to peace, anything other than anti-Semitism?
When Amnesty International, at its London headquarters, hosts a book launch in 2014 for a writer whom Simon Plosker calls “Israel-hating extremist Ben White’s” book Israel Apartheid: A beginner’s Guide they are clearly taking a particular side; not exactly supportive of the neutral position such an agency must have; anti-Semitic?
Or look at the UN’s 2013 resolutions regarding Human Rights abuse: 21 against Israel; 4 against all the rest of the world, N. Korea; China; Pakistan; Iran; Syria; Egypt and all the rest.
We could go on and on; the examples are too numerous to list; and that’s just corporate institutions. What about all the graffiti, firebombed synagogues, racial slurs and murders of innocent people, well, innocent of everything but being a Jew; or a Christian for that matter. According to Paul's image of us being grafted into God's olive tree through Christ, we belong, after all, to the same family as the Jews, descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That, however, is another story.
So, are you, am I here “for such a time as this”?
What can we do?
Be informed: organizations like PMW, HonestReporting or Camera can help understand what the media are saying and what the real truth behind their stories is.
Pray: “give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth.” (Isa: 62)
Act: speak up to correct misinformation you hear; write to legislators who have an influence in world affairs; attend, or better yet, organize events that bring forward balanced information.
Finally,to answer my earlier question, I believe we are here "for such a time as this". Like Esther, then, I chose to risk all to do the right thing, and invite you to join me.