Esther 5-8

Good morning! Much of the Esther narrative is told in the Hebrew festival of Purim, which celebrates deliverance from genocidal enemies like Haman. Purim parties often use child-friendly means to engage readers in acting the story out, inviting responses such as cheers (for Mordecai), hisses (Haman) and love-sighs (Esther). Today in Esther 5-8 we read the most familiar and dramatic part of this provocative book.

Presumably encouraged by the fasting and prayer of her people in Susa, Esther enters the king’s presence at the beginning of chapter 5. She receives his welcome, but doesn’t plead for her people’s liberty at once. Instead she elicits promises of the king regarding his favor. He promises her up to “half of my kingdom” multiple times over the course of these chapters, each time underscoring (in the presence of others) how highly he thinks of her. This makes it more difficult to deny her wish later on, even if he were inclined to do so. Haman interprets her inclusion of him at a private banquet as a sign of his own ascendant influence. Yet Mordecai continues to maddeningly defy Haman and pay no attention to his position, so Haman determines to use his royal access, get the king’s permission, and hang Mordecai.

Esther 6 uses wonderful irony and dramatic reversal to tell what happens next. As it happens, that very night the king couldn’t sleep. As it happens, the section of court history that was read to him involved Mordecai’s act of valor for the king. As it happens, Haman was just entering the court when Ahasuerus determines to belatedly honor Mordecai. All these might appear as happy literary coincidences, but the person of faith reads these as the workings of divine will, even though God is never explicitly mentioned throughout the entire book. Mordecai is honored and Haman mortified. Haman’s wife and friends read the signs of the times more easily than he can—this turn of events makes Mordecai all but impossible to vanquish.

We see in chapter 7 what befalls Haman when Esther reveals her identity and request to Ahasuerus. The plea for her life and that of her people is filled with dramatic excess, but she’s talking to a king for whom over-the-top is a way of life. Haman recognizes the peril of his situation and pleads with Esther after the king has left in wrath. But the final nail in his coffin is when the king returns to see Haman kneeling by Esther, and presumes that Haman is trying to rape her. One of the most evocative sentences in the Hebrew Bible comes in verse 8: “As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” Two verses later, Haman has been killed on the very gallows he intended for Mordecai.

The tables turn immediately as we start Esther 8. Mordecai moves into Haman’s position as close counselor to the king, yet there remains the matter of Haman’s earlier actions commanding the extermination of Jews throughout the realm. Before the appointed date can arrive, Esther wins the king’s permission for overriding letters to be sent out. These again go to every corner of Persia in the king’s name, this time allowing the Jews to defend themselves, retaliating against those who would try to attack them. Mordecai sends out the letters, and he appears at the end of the chapter with all the finery (we imagine) that Haman used to wear. The role reversal is complete. Sadly, the spirit of Haman’s vengefulness isn’t far behind either, but we’ll finish the rest of the story tomorrow. Happy reading!

Read Esther 5-8.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Esther 9-10. Thanks for reading!

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