The Mysterious and Beautiful Esther
Posted by foryourfaith on July 20, 2011
The story recounted in the Book of Esther differs markedly in content and stone from the rest of the Bible. God’s name does not appear even once in the entire book. Depicting the triumph of the Persian Jews over their enemies some time during the 5th or 4th century BC, it is an account of hatred and revenge, murderous plots and court intrigues, impending catastrophe and last-minute salvation.
The drunken King Ahasuerus (possibly Xerxes I, who reigned from 486 to 465 BC, or Artaxerxes II, who ruled from 404 to 358 BC) capped a half-year of banqueting by calling his queen to appear before the assembled guests. Enraged by her refusal to come and advised by his counselors that her disobedience might damage the authority of husbands throughout Persia and Media, Ahasuerus had her deposed.
When the king’s anger had abated, he took steps to find a new queen. After an empire-wide search among all the beautiful virgins, Esther, a Jewish woman, was chosen queen. Following the advice of her cousin, Mordecai, an official at court, Esther did not tell anyone of her Jewish identity – not even her husband the king.
The scene shifts to a struggle at court. When Ahasuerus elevated Haman the Agagite to be grand vizier, “all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman” – except for Mordecai the Jew. Enraged at this insult, Haman sought to punish not only Mordecai, but all Persian Jews. He convinced the king that the Jews were actually a foreign minority who did not keep the king’s laws, and he obtained royal approval for their extermination. Government officials were informed of the decision and advised to carry it out on the 13th day of the month of Adar, a date Haman chose by lot.
Mordecai enlisted the aid of his cousin, Queen Esther, in averting the anti-Jewish decree. At first she was fearful to intercede because of a rule at the palace that no one was to appear before the king unless specifically summoned. Finally, though, she plucked up her courage, went to the king, and invited him to a banquet – which Haman was also asked to attend. There, Esther requested that both men come back the next night for another banquet.
The very night of the first banquet, however, fate began to turn against Haman. Ahasuerus, suffering from insomnia, had the chronicles of his reign read to him: he learned that Mordecai had never been properly rewarded for uncovering an assassination plot against the king. In the morning, the king asked Haman how to treat a man worthy of royal honor. Thinking that he, himself, was the person to be honored, Haman suggested that the honoree be dressed in the king’s robes, mounted on the king’s horse, and paraded through the city’s open square of the city in splendor. Ahasuerus accepted this advice, and , to Haman’s chagrin, ordered him to prepare this magnificent treatment for his enemy – Mordecai.
Stung by the disappointment, Haman went off to Esther’s second banquet, where an even worse fate awaited him. As they were drinking wine, Esther asked the king to spare her life and that of her people. Ahasuerus, who seemed to have forgotten the whole matter, wanted to know who was responsible for the impending destruction of her people. Learning that Haman was the villain, the fickle king sentenced him to the very gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai. And, making the reversal of fortunes complete, Mordecai was appointed grand vizier in Haman’s place.
Haman’s downfall, however, did not yet ensure the salvation of the Jews. Since Persian law stated that official documents, carrying the seal of the king, could not be revoked, there was not way to avert the attacks on the Jews scheduled for the 13th of Adar. So Mordecai got royal permission to do the next best thing: a new edict, written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring, was sent to all government officials, allowing the Jews to fight back against their enemies.
On the 13th of Adar, the Jews of Persia defeated those who were bent on their destruction. And “on the fourteenth day they rested an made that a day of feasting an gladness.” In the capital city of Susa, however, the Jews were allowed to inflict further losses on their opponents for an additional day. The Jews in Susa “rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness.”
According to the Book of Esther, to commemorate this deliverance, the feast of Purim was instituted as an annual two-day festival on the authority of letters sent out by Mordecai and Esther. To this day, Jews celebrate Purim with the public reading of the Scroll of Esther.
The Book of Esther has several puzzling aspects. For example, there is as yet no extra-biblical evidence, either literary or archaeological, to corroborate the events it describes. And while the author does demonstrate knowledge of Persian society an manners known to us from other sources, certain elements of the account – the possibility, for instance, that a Persian king would marry a woman of unknown lineage – contradict historical evidence.
Subsequent Jewish tradition nevertheless canonized the Scroll of Esther and made Purim a central event in the Jewish calendar. This is because the story of Mordecai and Esther reflects the realities of Jewish life after the exile.
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