Esther 1-4

Good morning! Today in Esther (chapters 1-4) we discover a lovely book that acts as a hinge between the previous “history” books, and that of the “wisdom” genre coming up. There is a historical connection to Esther, since it is set in the time of the Persian king Ahasuerus, after his predecessor Darius let those Jews who wanted start returning to Judah. But there is wisdom here also about what “the good life” looks like. It celebrates the power of Jews, women and eunuchs to shape their circumstances even in a deeply patriarchal, non-Jewish culture. The book also offers wisdom on the importance of individual commitment, and reveals a temptation to over-react when seeking to right wrongs—more on that at the end of Esther.

This book’s first chapter serves as a prelude to the book by setting up the situation of Esther and revealing the kind of king Ahasuerus was—easily influenced, foolish, and fearful of feminine power. He throws a magnificent banquet in celebration of his own success. It sounds like the equivalent of a state dinner—except it goes on for a hundred and eighty days! (That’s the first “larger than life” clue not to take this book as literal history.) Another banquet follows the six-month parade of Persian excellence, and everything in the king’s dinner is excessive. Queen Vashti hosts her own celebration for women in the same week. Ahasuerus summons Vashti to entertain his guests but she refuses, and Ahasuerus flies off the handle. (Tradition speculates that perhaps she was summoned to appear in ONLY the royal crown, and that’s why she refused.) The king solicits counsel for what to do. In a textbook case of making a mountain out of a molehill, one official suggests that Vashti’s disobedience will spread like wildfire throughout all the realm, and no woman will ever obey a man again! More concerned about sating his anger and appearing well in the eyes of his officials rather than keeping faith with his wife, Ahasuerus banishes Vashti from his sight and seeks someone else to take her place. The “moral” of this story seems to come in the last verse, communicated via letters throughout the enormous realm, in all languages, that “every man should be master in his own house”.

With such a hearty appetizer, it’s difficult to go on to the main course of this book! Nevertheless, in chapter 2 we meet Mordecai, the descendant of one of the Jewish prisoners taken from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Mordecai has adopted beautiful Esther as his daughter, though she is in truth his orphaned younger cousin. Esther is taken with the other virgins of Susa to join the king’s harem, receive cosmetic treatments, and be made ready for a night with the king. Esther earns the regard of the eunuch in charge, who treats her with favor. (Note that the eunuchs throughout this book are named, a sign of their importance to the author.) Esther keeps her nationality a secret, and Mordecai comes to check on her each day. At the end of a year’s preparation (!) Esther goes in to the king, delights him, and receives the crown of queen. Her regular meetings with Mordecai continue, and he warns her about a plot on the king’s life. The would-be assassins are executed and the deed is written in the annals of the king (another example of this book’s—and time period’s—emphasis on the written word).

Esther 3 starts to introduce the core conflict in the book, between Mordecai and Haman (the king’s second-in-command). Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman because of his Jewish faith, and the offended Haman decides that he’s going to wipe out all the Jews. He gets the king’s permission and sends out the order to attack the Jews on a certain date a month later. Mordecai makes public lament in chapter 4 when he finds out about this, and goes to the palace to speak with Esther. He’s unable to enter clothed as he is, so Esther sends one of the faithful eunuchs to learn what is the matter. This man Hathach brings back the decree to attack Jews, with Mordecai’s encouragement to plead for her people with the king. But Esther responds that it’s risking certain death to approach the king without being summoned. Mordecai responds with a famous line, declaring that God would find a way to deliver the people, and perhaps Esther has come to become queen “for just such a time as this”. Mordecai encourages Esther to see her position as part of a divine opportunity. Esther asks for prayer and fasting, then determines to break the royal law and risk death (or banishment as happened to Vashti). She hopes and prays that civil disobedience will lead to a righteous response. Happy reading!

Read Esther 1-4.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Esther 5-8. Thanks for reading!

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