“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
“Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
“Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.” – Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 and 9:20-22
This past week our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which is the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar. It’s a time of repentance and celebration of God’s forgiveness.
So it’s kind of a strange time of year to be talking about Purim, because Purim takes place in early spring. But our reading for today is from the book of Esther, and the book of Esther tells the story of how the holiday of Purim got started, so we’ll be looking at Purim today, even though it’s not quite the right time of year.
The name Purim comes from casting lots – which happens in the story, and is a form of gambling sort of like tossing dice. A “lot” in Hebrew is called pur and if you have more than one lot it’s called purim. So the name of the holiday recalls a time when the fate of the Jewish people hung on a roll of the dice.
But before we look at the story of Esther let me backtrack a little. Last week the Old Testament lesson was Proverbs 31. I know most of us here in the Partnership preach on the New Testament most of the time so you probably didn’t get a sermon on Proverbs 31 last week… but it relates to this week’s reading so bear with me and I’ll do a quick review.
Proverbs 31 is that famous chapter at the end of the book of Proverbs that talks about the “good wife” or the “worthy wife”. It describes a woman who gets up before dawn, makes clothing, buys food for her household, gives the servants work to do, buys a vineyard and plants it, and makes goods and sells them in the marketplace. Proverbs 31 often is preached like it’s a to-do list for Christian women… but in fact it was written by the Queen Mother to her son, the King of Israel, as dating advice. In other words, she’s saying ‘here’s what to look for in a queen’. Most women – then and now – don’t have the time or the financial resources to do everything the woman in Proverbs 31 does.
What Proverbs 31 does offer us is a concept of what the Hebrews called the eshet chayil – the woman of valor (and of course the corresponding esh chayil, the man of valor). Men and women of valor are people who seek God’s wisdom and live by it. Two of the greatest examples in the Old Testament are Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a foreigner who gave up everything she had to support her mother-in-law after they both lost their husbands – she was called an eshet chayil by Boaz for the loving care she showed her mother-in-law. And Boaz, an esh chayil, rather than taking advantage of Ruth in her poverty, marries her, and together they become the great-grandparents of King David. Boaz and Ruth are two average, everyday people – a farmer and a housewife – who seek to live life God’s way, in wisdom and honor, and so Scripture calls them ‘man of valor’ and ‘woman of valor’.
Esther is another example of an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. She is orphaned as a child and is raised by her uncle, whose name is Mordecai. The two of them live, not in Israel, but in Babylon. Four generations before Esther was born, Israel was conquered and the people were carried off as captives to Babylon. Two generations before Esther was born, one of the kings of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem, but many chose not to go back. Jerusalem lay in ruins; life there was hard; and they had settled in to their new country and started new lives so they chose to stay.
And so the story of Esther begins in the winter capital of Babylon, the walled city of Susa, where King Xerxes of Babylon is holding a banquet.
King Xerxes was one of the most powerful rulers the world has ever known. We Westerners tend to look back to the Roman Empire, forgetting there was once an empire even greater than that. Xerxes ruled almost half the population of the planet at that time in history. His empire stretched from modern-day India in the east, to Egypt in the west (he was Pharoah of Egypt as well as Emperor of Babylon), and from Rumania and Greece in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south.
To say that King Xerxes was rich and powerful would like saying Pittsburghers think black and gold in an okay color combination. In fact, somewhere in Xerxes’ kingdom – nobody knows exactly where – were the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Xerxes controlled unimaginable wealth. And just to remind people of this, as if they needed reminding, Xerxes held a banquet for his officials and military officers, that lasted for 180 days. They partied for half a year without stopping! And when it was all over, he held another banquet! This one was a only week long but the entire city was invited. The party went on, and the wine flowed…
One of the ancient historians wrote about the Persian empire:
“the Persians drank wine in large quantities and used it even for counsel, deliberating on important affairs when drunk, and deciding the next day, when sober, whether to act on the decision or set it aside.”
What a way to run a country!
But this is pretty much what happens in the book of Esther. At the end of the seven-day banquet, when the king and his friends were drunk, King Xerxes calls the queen to come join them so all his buddies can see how beautiful she is. The queen, who was holding a banquet of her own for all the women, refused to come. So the men started a drunken debate about what should be done to a queen who refuses to come when she’s called.
Long story short, they decided not to kill her for treason but rather to take away her crown and exile her from the king’s presence. She can never see the king again. And what’s more, the king orders all his friends to go out into his great empire and gather up the most beautiful virgins they can find and present them to the king so he can choose a new queen.
This sounds good to all the men, so they go out and start collecting up beautiful women and bringing them to the palace. And Esther, being a very beautiful young woman, is one of the hundreds of women rounded up and brought to the palace. All these women go through a year of living in the palace and being bathed in oils and perfumes before they are presented to the king. And one by one they go and spend a night with the king, and afterwards they’re sent to another part of the palace where they live with the concubines.
When Esther’s turn comes, the king falls in love, and decides to make her his queen.
While all this has been going on, Esther’s uncle Mordecai has been worried about her and has been sitting outside the palace every day talking to the servants to get news about his niece. While he’s doing this he happens to overhear a couple of servants plotting to kill the king. He immediately tells Esther, Esther tells the king giving credit to Mordecai, the king’s life is saved.
Some time later the king appoints an evil man named Haman to be what’s essentially the prime minister of the country. Haman can’t stand Mordecai, because Mordecai (out of all the people in Xerxes’ kingdom) is the only person who refuses to kneel to Haman. Haman hates Mordecai so much that it’s not enough for him to make plans to kill Mordecai. He decides he’s going to wipe out all of Mordecai’s people… all the Jews in the whole Persian Empire.
(Historical side note: Nazi Germany is not the first country in history to attempt to wipe out the Jewish people. What I find interesting is Hitler hated the book of Esther and tried to have it banned. He did not allow it to be read anywhere where the Nazis were in power. I wonder if he saw himself in the character of Haman…? But back to the story…)
So Haman goes to the king and says “these people the Jews don’t obey your laws, they insist on following their own laws and their own God, they’re a trouble to the kingdom, they should be wiped out”. The king gives Haman his signet ring and says “do whatever seems good to you.” So Haman sets a date when all Babylonians are to take up arms and kill the Jews, and he sets the date by casting the purim.
Mordecai hears about this, and tells Queen Esther, and tells her to talk to the king on behalf of her people. He says to her, “who knows but that you have come to the throne for such a time as this?”
There’s just one problem: by Persian law, nobody is allowed into the king’s presence except by the king’s command. To come to the king without being called is punishable by death… unless the king holds out the scepter of mercy. So Esther sends word to Mordecai: tell the people to fast and pray for me for three days and then I will go to the king, and whatever happens, happens.
Turns out the king is very fond of Esther, so he holds out the scepter, and asks her what she wants, and she says, “please come, you and Haman, to a banquet I have prepared.” (What a great move! – she knows what he likes.) The next night, over dinner, the king asks her again, “Esther, what can I do for you?”, she says “the two of you – please come to another banquet tomorrow and then I will tell you”. Then at the second banquet, the king asks a third time, “Esther, what can I do for you? Up to half my kingdom, it’s yours.” – and the rest of the story we heard in today’s reading. Esther reveals that she is Jewish (the king didn’t know that) and that Haman’s plot would kill her as well as her people, and she begs the king for all of their lives. Haman is hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai, the people of God are saved, and Purim becomes a holiday that is still celebrated today.
It’s a fascinating story, but it makes you wonder why it’s included in the Bible. I mean, God is never mentioned, or the Holy Spirit, or faith-hope-and-love, or holiness… where is God in all this?
Two answers I would give to that question:
- The story can be read as an allegory:
- Haman is like Satan: evil personified. His plans are to wipe out God’s people by deceit and deception. Why? Because, like Mordecai, God’s people refuse to kneel to anyone but the true king.
- Some of the things Esther does foreshadow things Jesus will do: she leaves a loving home to enter into the lives of fallen people; Jesus leaves heaven to enter into our world. Esther opens her heart to Gentiles; Jesus opens God’s kingdom to Gentiles. Esther risks her life to save her people; Jesus gives his life to save his people. Esther suffers in silence for three days and three nights while Haman does his evil work; Jesus is in the grave three days and three nights while Satan does his evil work. And in the end Haman is defeated and God’s people are saved by Esther’s courageous actions; and in the end all who believe are saved by Jesus’ courage and sacrifice on the cross.
(I’m not saying that Esther is a messiah, only that her actions parallel some of Jesus’ actions. Parallels like this happen frequently in the Old Testament and should be noted when they do.)
- The other way we can understand God in this story is that God is present, unseen, working behind the scenes to bring about salvation for God’s people. God puts the right people in the right places at the right time. God’s will and God’s plans will not be thwarted, not even by the richest man in the world, or the most evil man in the world.
So what does this story of ancient Babylon have to say to us in the 21st century?
First off, looking at Babylon – is our world really all that different? Do we not live in a culture that obsesses about the body, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, how can we stop eating carbs? Do we not live in a culture that neglects spiritual needs… a world of gossip and intrigue, where false accusations lead to the arrest of the innocent? Is our time really all that different?
Secondly, one Jewish writer said of the story of Esther:
“The hedonism of the prevailing Persian culture was part of the air [the Jewish people] breathed. It dulled our senses…”
We also live in a hedonistic culture, and it dulls our senses. We need to let God wake us up… to open our eyes to perceive and our ears to hear what God would say to us.
Third, Esther and Mordecai were people of valor. They risked their lives to take a stand for what was right. If we ever find ourselves doubting that one or two ordinary, everyday people can make a difference, this story reminds us that every person matters.
Above all, the story of Esther reminds us that God is in control. God can even work through a bunch of partying royals to elevate a woman of God to the throne and bring about salvation for God’s people. No matter what happens in the world, God will save God’s people.
Whenever we see trouble in the world, we need to pray and then act (and it is in that order… pray first then act) putting everything in the trustworthy hands of the King of Kings.
The website beingjewish.com says that “Essentially, Purim is about how G-d is hidden in everything. G-d performs miracles for us, all behind the scenes.” This is the same God we serve and worship and love today. Let us be God’s people – let us be women and men of valor. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/27/15