The Pursuit of God

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Know Your Bible Lesson 40: Esther

KYB 40

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The book of Ezra is ten chapters long. About fifty years pass between Chapters 6 and 7. It is during that gap of time that the story of Esther takes place. Even though Esther feels like a fast paced book, it covers a span of 10-12 years. By Esther’s time, our friendly King Cyrus (SIGH-russ) has been dead for some time. After his death, his son Cambyses II rules for eight years. Now when you’re an emperor, your male siblings become your biggest threat. Cambyses (kam-BYE-seez) was paranoid that his brother Smerdis (SMURR-diss) would somehow get the throne away from him, and after dreaming of Smerdis on the throne, Cambyses secretly murdered him. Only a few people knew about the murder—one of them was a magi named Gaumata (go-MAH-tah). Now Gaumata happened to look a lot like Smerdis, and while King Cambyses was off on a long military campaign, Gaumata decided to change identities and pretend to be Smerdis. Waltzing in one day, he declared that he had a right to rule while his brother Cambyses was off on a military campaign in Egypt. Well, alright, the people agreed. After all, it was common practice for emperors to have their successors run the government in their absence. This was a good safety plan in case the emperor was killed in battle.

Now a certain nobleman named Darius suspects that Gaumata is a fake. He knows about the secret snuffing of Smerdis, and he also knows that Gaumata looks like Smerdis’ identical twin. But how can he expose this traitor? Well, this nobleman knows that the real Guamata doesn’t have ears. King Cambyses chopped them off one time when he and Gaumata had a falling out (ouch). How do you not notice that a man doesn’t have ears? Because the men in these times are all sporting long dos and Gaumata’s making sure his hair never moves out of position. This means that if Darius is going to expose this poser, he has to somehow expose the missing ears. How do you do that? You get the queen to snuggle up to Gaumata one night when he’s sleeping and feel for those missing lobes. This is what she does, and she reports back to Darius that the ears are indeed absent. Aha, gotcha! Darius and his six buddies kill Gaumata (who is also known as Pseudo-Smerdis) and Darius takes over the throne, calling himself Darius the Great. This Darius is on the throne at the time that the second Temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem.

XERXES I, King of Persia

Darius lasts 36 years and he reigns during the empire’s peak. Then he dies of illness and passes the crown to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes (ZERK-seez) is called Ahasuerus (uh-HAS-you-AIR-us) in some translations of the Bible. He is the king who is in power in the book of Esther.

Now even though Darius appointed Xerxes to be his successor, Xerxes had an older brother named Artabazanes who claimed the throne was rightfully his because, hello, he was the oldest. Everyone knew that crowns passed down to the oldest boy. Ah, but now we get into bloodlines.

The Jews aren’t alone in their obsession with ancestry. The Persians care, too, and at this time to descend from a family line known as the Achaemenids (uh-KEY-muh-nids) is big stuff. Cyrus the Great was an Achaemenid. Darius was an Achaemenid. Darius married Cyrus’ daughter Atossa (uh-TOSS-uh) just so he could claim that both he and his wife were Achaemenids. Atossa is Xerxes’ mother, which means he can claim to be a direct descendant of the beloved Cyrus. In the minds of the Persians, Cyrus is a huge hero because he made them into a world power. He was as popular with the Persians as Abraham was with the Jews. Also working in Xerxes’ favor is the fact that his older brother Artabazanes was born back when Darius was just a scheming noble, while Xerxes was born after Darius had stolen the crown. With such superior bloodlines on his side and queen mother Atossa still holding massive clout, Xerxes has a smooth transition to power at the age of 36.

Right away he sets about crushing revolts in Egypt and Babylon—two nations that had broken away the year before. Both of these battles are violent, with Xerxes inflicting massive damage in an effort to reassert his authority. During his rampage in Babylon, he goes so far as to melt down their god Marduk (MARR-duke) —a move which sparks major outrage from the Babylonians. You see, it was the custom that once a year the king of Persia would hold the idol’s hand as a way of obtaining Marduk’s favor. Xerxes’ father Darius had kept that tradition alive, and he had tried to foster peaceful relations by calling himself the King of Babylon and Egypt—a title which gave these nations some sense of recognition. Well, Xerxes is not his father and he’s not going to schmooze anyone. He prefers to call himself the King of Kings, and the King of the World. Clearly the man doesn’t consider humility to be a valuable trait.

But Xerxes isn’t as independent as he sounds. Back during Darius’ reign, a violent clash with the Greeks left the Persian emperor feeling publicly humiliated. Now Darius is dead, but Xerxes’ cousin and brother-in-law are pressuring him to avenge his father’s honor by launching a major assault on the Greeks. It’s a dangerous proposition and Xerxes doesn’t want to do it, but he caves in to the family pressure. But surviving against the Greeks is going to require massive military resources, and Xerxes spends three years building up his army and navy. In 483 BC, he finally launches his assault and, well, it’s a major flop. First of all, Yahweh makes a major storm wipe out some critical sea bridges that Xerxes had built. Xerxes doesn’t believe in Yahweh, so he takes out his anger out on the body of water that betrayed him by commanding it to be whipped. Yeah, that will teach those waves to behave.

After launching several failed attacks on the Greeks, Xerxes is forced to retreat. Little is known about the latter half of his reign except that he spent it mostly at home draining his resources on massive construction projects. A terrace here, a palace there. He also murders his brother and all of his brother’s family because his mother tells him to. Being an emperor is no picnic.

THE BOOK OF ESTHER

Now all the drama we read about in Esther begins before Xerxes takes off to go to war with the Greeks, but then it continues on after he gets back. We’re told that it’s in the third year of Xerxes’ reign when he gets drunk at his own party and then orders Queen Vashti to be brought to him so that he can show off how hot she is to his male guests. Vashti (VASH-tee) shocks everyone by refusing to come—a move which naturally outrages the embarrassed king. This would be after Xerxes has spanked Egypt and Babylon and before he goes to get spanked by the Greeks. Right now he’s feeling like hot stuff and calling himself the King of Kings (a pompous title that has been used by many rulers over the ages). No one tells the King of Kings what to do—especially a woman. When news of Vashti’s defiance spreads throughout the land, how will other women respond? What if all the wives in the empire start defying their husbands?

Now it’s interesting that Xerxes doesn’t just order Vashti to be killed on the spot. For some reason, no one considers that to be a useful option. Instead, Xerxes’ advisers suggest that he publicly dethrone Vashti and replace her with a beautiful woman. The idea is to make Vashti live the rest of her life in shame and humiliation. But for the plan to work, the replacement has to look pretty nice, and of course she has to be a virgin. By now Xerxes is pushing forty and Esther is probably in her teens. So when you watch movie adaptations of this story that turn the whole thing into a love affair between two young people, you now know how fake those adaptions are. Xerxes would have been old enough to be Esther’s father.

In Chapter 2 of Esther, we learn that she is an orphan who is being raised by an uncle named Mordecai (MORE-duh-ki). Mordecai considers Esther to be his daughter and the two have a very close, positive bond. When the hunt for attractive virgins begins and Esther is hauled off to be part of the royal harem, poor Mordecai is just sick with worry. Every day he goes to the place where Esther is being held and paces outside the gate hoping for news.

Meanwhile, inside the harem, compliant Esther soon becomes a favorite of the eunuch who is put in charge of her care. It takes a whole year of beauty treatments before the virgins are considered ready for their overnight with the king. And after he steals their virginity from them, they are transferred on to a second harem of “used” women, where they stay forever unless the king calls them again, which is unlikely. To become part of the king’s harem is to become a piece of property—a sex toy that is used once and then discarded.

Now when Esther’s turn for the overnight with Xerxes comes, she listens to the advice of her kind eunuch about how she should adorn herself for the occasion. After Xerxes has his way with yet another little girl, he decides that Esther is far more attractive to him than any of the other virgins, so she is the one he makes queen in Vashti’s place. We’re told that all this happens in Xerxes’ seventh year of reign. That means he’s now back from getting spanked by the Greeks, and Esther’s been hanging out in harem number one for up to four years.

MORDECAI vs. HAMAN

Now sometime later, Mordecai overhears two of Xerxes’ palace guards plotting against the emperor. It’s tough to be an emperor—someone is always scheming against you. Eventually, Xerxes will be assassinated by a commander of the royal bodyguard who is determined to snuff out the Achaemenid bloodline. But this time, the plot is found out thanks to Mordecai telling Esther what he overheard.

Sometime later, Xerxes promotes a certain noble named Haman (HAY-munn) so that he ends up with major clout in the government. To help Haman gain respect, Xerxes commands that everyone has to bow in Haman’s presence. Well, Mordecai won’t bow, and when he’s grilled as to why not, he simply says it’s because he’s a Jew. So what? It’s not like the Jews don’t butter up their own leaders and constantly bow to elders and authority figures in their own culture. Well, it turns out Haman is an Agagite (A-guh-gite), which means he’s a descendant of King Agag (A-gag) of the Amalekites (uh-MAL-uh-kites). The Jews hate the Amalekites. Mordecai’s beef with Haman is pure bigotry, so let’s not be whitewashing the man like he’s some kind of hero. He has no real justification for hating Haman and for publicly dishonoring him in this way. The kind of bowing that’s been commanded by Xerxes is not worship, it is a cultural sign of respect which the Jews were perfectly fine with in their own culture.

Now when you’re trying to hold a position of authority, you can’t let some punk make a scene like this without retaliating. Mordecai is constantly drawing attention to himself by being the only one in the crowd who refuses to show Haman respect. Everyone’s noticing what he’s doing. Mordecai is eroding the lines of respect. If you were in Haman’s position, you would interpret this as an extremely aggressive attack by a rebellious citizen and you’d feel enormous pressure to retaliate in some major way before more people start defying your authority. So let’s be clear about who starts this fight: Mordecai does. Haman didn’t do anything to him. Mordecai made the first move.

HAMAN’S REVENGE

Well, now that everyone is waiting to see how Haman will respond to this situation, what can he do? Going ballistic on all of the Jews seems like the best option, so he starts making plans for genocide. Is this a bit extreme? Of course it is, but then again, so is Mordecai’s rebellion. You have to understand the extreme difference in rank between high ranking officials like Haman and lowly second class foreigners like Mordecai to appreciate how defiant Mordecai is being. He is seriously asking for it. He is intentionally provoking Haman even though he knows that Haman will have to massively escalate things in order to save face. So we really have Mordecai to thank for the near extermination of the Jews in this story. Don’t let the author’s bias keep you from seeing that the Jews in this story are not just heroes and helpless victims. Some of them are downright obnoxious.

It’s now twelve years into Xerxes’ 21 year reign. We’re in Chapter 3 and Haman is trying to get the king’s permission to start his genocide.

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of all other people and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not in the king’s interest to let them remain. If it is pleasing to the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who carry on the king’s business, to put into the king’s treasuries.” (Esther 3:8-9)

So if you’re a king and your trusted advisor tells you that he’s identified a band of insurgents in your kingdom and then he volunteers to get rid of them for you at his own expense, of course you’re going to agree. And though our author now labels Haman as “the enemy of the Jews” (Esther 3:10), we have to credit him for one thing: Mordecai is refusing to obey the king’s laws, and since he’s identifying himself as a Jew, it seems likely that other Jews might follow his lead. In these times, ethnic groups often stick together and war as one against other ethnic groups. Haman is of course exaggerating the situation, but Xerxes trusts Haman, so he gives the go ahead to start the extermination.

Haman now picks a day when he’s going to mass slaughter all Jews and seize all of their possessions (why let all that wealth go to waste?). He sends out written announcements which basically say, “We’re planning to kill you on this day.” Naturally panic ensues, but Xerxes doesn’t notice because he’s sheltered in the palace with other things on his mind.

Chapter 4 starts out with:

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city and wailed loudly and bitterly. (Esther 4:1)

It would read better if it had said “When Mordecai learned of all that he had done.” After all, if he hadn’t had to defy Haman in public just because he didn’t like the man’s bloodlines, none of this would have happened. We could get behind Mordecai if he had been standing up for a truly noble cause, but this petty pre-judgment of a stranger is garbage. If the situation had been reversed and Haman had hated Mordecai just for being a Jew, then of course we’d all be expected to feel sorry for Mordecai. That’s how it works today in the Christian Church—if a Jew is persecuted, we’re supposed to instantly side with them. Well, no, we shouldn’t. God tells us to listen to both sides of a story before judging. There’s nothing admirable about a man disrespecting his ruler just because he thinks he has superior genetics.

Now of course all the Jews are panicking. What do you do when you’re in distress in these times? Break out the sackcloth of course. And the Jews are a very dramatic people, so they start weeping and wailing and lying down in ashes for all to see. It’s a whole bunch of drama and naturally news reaches the palace. When Esther finds out what’s going on, she’s just sick with distress. She tries to send Mordecai some fresh clothes to get him out of his uncomfortable sackcloth and to allow him to enter the king’s gate (which you couldn’t do if you weren’t properly dressed). But once again, Mordecai picks a dumb time to stand on principle and won’t cooperate with his niece’s efforts to communicate with him. Now as queen, Esther can’t just go waltzing out of the palace, but she sends a eunuch to find out more information from Mordecai. We hear the bias of the Jewish writer again in verse 7:

“Mordecai told the eunuch all that had happened to him…”

Right. Did Mordecai also share how he made a public scene day after day in the courtyard and how he blew off many warnings to stop being so rebellious? No doubt his version of the story was a bit tainted.

MORDECAI INVOLVES ESTHER

Well, now that Mordecai has created a royal mess, he wants Esther to clean it up for him. He orders Esther to go marching up to the king and plead for the salvation of her people. Nice. Mordecai doesn’t obey commands, but he’s great at giving them.

Esther sends word back through her eunuch reminding her uncle that to just go marching in to the king is against the law. (Let’s remember that the eunuch’s trips back and forth between these two is longer than it needs to be because Mordecai refuses to change his clothes.) Esther reminds her uncle that to bust in on the king without an invitation could get her killed. Mordecai tells her to get a spine and do it anyway. After all, the lives of countless Jews are hanging in the balance.

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)

Notice how Mordecai has already decided that the Jews will be saved. How often today do we decide for God that He will fix a mess that we have made in a way that seems best to us? Mordecai is being rather presumptuous here.

What’s a girl going to do? Esther agrees to put her neck on the line. She tells her uncle:

“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)

Now this three day fast is totally unnecessary. God is well aware of the urgency of the situation and if Esther knew God better, she would have not tried to entice Him into paying more attention to her by starving herself. God is not some callous monarch who doesn’t care about the suffering of His creatures until He sees them going around all hungry and parched. When we treat God like this, we’re being manipulative and disrespectful. It is far better to present your request once and believe that God heard you than it is to put on some circus of fasting and getting a bunch of your friends to all nag Him with the same request a billion times as if He has no hearing and no memory. Drama and repetition might work on humans, but it is wasted on God. He doesn’t like being treated like He is some indifferent Ruler who has to be pressured into caring about us.

ESTHER SEES THE KING

After her fast is done, Esther puts on her royal clothes and goes to the king’s court. He sees her and he invites her in. Whew, that was close. He can tell right away that something’s wrong, but it’s been a month since they’ve talked to each other so Esther decides to ease into it. Instead of coming right out with the problem, she asks the king and Haman to dine with her—not once, but twice. After the first banquet, Haman is walking tall and feeling good about the queen showing him such favor. At this point, no one realizes Esther is a Jew. But on his way out of the palace, Haman sees Mordecai, who of course makes a point to stand right at the king’s gate so he’ll be ready to defy Haman when he comes out.

To assess this situation fairly, we have to remember how Mordecai’s actions look from Haman’s perspective. Every time he comes out of the palace, he sees one man publicly mocking his authority. Every single day this is happening to him. Of course there is going to be gossip. Of course there are going to be wisecracks about why Haman is taking so long to confront this rebel. The rest of Haman’s life is going so well—it’s just that darn Mordecai.

Returning home after his dinner with the king and queen, Haman vents to his wife about how much Mordecai is grating on his nerves. To her the solution is simple: build some gallows and hang the little jerk in public. Haman likes the idea, so he has the gallows built at once.

Meanwhile, King Xerxes can’t sleep. Tired of just lying there, he orders a book of records to be brought in and read to him. Perhaps he was hoping to be lulled asleep through sheer boredom. But instead, Yahweh makes sure that the account of Mordecai saving Xerxes’ neck from being assassinated is read and of course this grabs the king’s attention. He can’t recall his savior ever being rewarded. Surely something ought to be done for the man. But what? He asks who is hanging around the court. It turns out Haman has just arrived, all eager to ask permission to hang Mordecai on his new set of gallows. Xerxes sends for Haman and asks:

“What is to be done for the man whom the king desires to honor?”

And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king desire to honor more than me?” (Esther 6:6)

Thinking that he’s ordering his own dessert, Haman says the man ought to be dressed in the king’s own royal robe, mounted on the king’s horse and paraded around with the king’s crown on his head. Xerxes likes the idea, and he orders Haman to do all of it for Mordecai. Xerxes doesn’t know that Mordecai is a Jew and one of the people Haman is hoping to slaughter.

Well, that plan sure backfired, but what can Haman do? He obeys Xerxes’ orders and returns home totally mortified. But when he is still talking with his wife, eunuchs arrive and rush him back to the palace for Esther’s second banquet. For the third time, Xerxes asks his wife what is troubling her and finally Esther explains the situation and points to Haman as the creep who is trying to slaughter her and her people. Filled with rage, Xerxes storms out of the room while Haman stays and pleads with Esther for his life. Talk about having a really bad day—but it’s about to get even worse. For when Xerxes comes back from his cool down walk, he sees Haman prostrating himself on Esther’s couch, pleading for his life. From a distance, the whole scene looks like something other than it is, and Xerxes thinks Haman is trying to rape Esther.

Then the king said, “Will he even assault the queen with me in the house?!” (Esther 7:8)

As soon as he says these words, Haman is jumped by guards, hooded, and hauled out to be hung on his own gallows. Exit Haman. Then Esther tells Xerxes that Mordecai is really her beloved uncle, so Mordecai is brought in and promoted to a position of high honor by Xerxes. Esther now pleads and cries all over Xerxes to reverse the law which is still standing about all Jews being slaughtered in a matter of days. But as we learned in a previous lesson when Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den, these Persians have a rule that laws which are written in the name of the king cannot be revoked. Xerxes won’t take back his law, but he tells Esther she and Mordecai can write some kind of amendment to the law in his name if they can think of something useful. So Mordecai writes up an order which gives Jews permission to assemble, attack, kill and plunder anyone who tries to hurt them—be it man, woman or child. Of course this permission to assault people is only good for the one day that the Jews are scheduled to be exterminated. Great celebration among the Jews fills the empire and at the end of Chapter 8, we come across this interesting statement:

And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them. (Esther 8:17)

How does a non-Jew become a Jew? By dedicating themselves to Yahweh and abiding by the tenants of His Covenant. From the beginning, Yahweh invited all peoples to become part of His chosen nation, and this statement reminds us that many foreigners took Him up on His offer.

THE JEWS SLAUGHTER THOUSANDS

Now when “kill the Jews” day finally arrives, the Jews go ballistic on their enemies. A bloodbath occurs, but the only blood spilt is foreign blood. And of course our Jewish author feels that it is perfectly acceptable for Jews to slaughter anyone they don’t like the look of. After seeing Mordecai in action, we can’t help wondering how many innocent people were killed simply because of the color of their skin or their ancestry. Ah, but it’s never a crime to kill people if you’re Jewish, right? Wrong. Yahweh is certainly using this whole event as an excuse to exterminate people, but it doesn’t mean every Jew’s actions were justified in His sight.

When Xerxes hears that 500 men were killed in the royal city alone, he tells Esther:

“The Jews have killed 500 men in the fortress of Susa alone, as well as Haman’s ten sons. If they have done that here, what has happened in the rest of the provinces? But now, what more do you want? It will be granted to you; tell me and I will do it.” (Esther 9:12)

Esther responds to her generous husband by asking him to let the bloodbath continue one more day. Xerxes agrees, and the next day, another 300 men are killed in the city. We’re told that 75,000 people were killed throughout the other provinces. When they were done killing everyone they didn’t like, the Jews partied. Ever since that time, the holiday of Purim has been celebrated by religious Jews to commemorate the day that their ancestors were saved from extermination. Purim is still celebrated today. Where does the name Purim come from? From the word Pur, which was the name of the lot (or die) which Haman cast to decide which day he would exterminate the Jews.

The book of Esther ends with Mordecai being exalted as a glorious hero.

For Mordecai the Jew was second only to King Xerxes, and great among the Jews and in favor with his many kinsmen, one who sought the good of his people and one who spoke for the welfare of his whole nation. (Esther 10:3)

What do you think? Was Mordecai a hero for refusing to obey the command of his king and show basic respect for a ruler that he didn’t even know? Mordecai ends the book in the position that Haman once held. We can’t help but wonder how Mordecai would react if he was ever riding through town on a horse and saw one citizen refusing to bow in his presence. It probably never happened to him. If it did, it might have changed his view about Haman’s reaction to him. Don’t be too hasty to judge. Haman’s decision to exterminate an entire ethnicity over one man’s rebellion was certainly out of line. But does that mean we should exalt Mordecai as a hero and ignore the fact that he started the whole mess in the first place by needlessly provoking a man who he knew would have to respond with force?

LOOKING AHEAD

Now that we understand the story of Esther, we’re ready to finish the second half of Ezra. After that, we’ll cover the last two books of the Old Testament: Nehemiah and Malachi. It’s just one more lesson and we’ll have made our way through the entire Old Testament. It’s an exciting story, isn’t it?

UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 41: Meaningless Vows (Period 6)

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