Good morning! Oh how I wish that the book of Esther had ended with chapter 8! However, after the turn of events yesterday that lead to Haman’s death and Mordecai’s ascension to the king’s closest advisor, we have a little more than a chapter of “epilogue” to this book. It shows the victorious Jews under Mordecai pressing their advantage against their neighbors, wreaking vengeance on anybody they feel threatened by. As a consequence, this lovely book about triumph over enemies leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.
The edicts of Mordecai, sent out under the authority of King Ahasuerus, make possible the violence throughout Persia and its capitol Susa. Under those orders, Jews turn what would have been a day of defense against anti-Semitic assault into a day of offense against anyone they choose. Well-placed fear pervades all those around the Jews. On the appointed day, Jews kill hundreds in the capitol, and seventy-five thousand people throughout the realm. We read repeatedly that they don’t touch the plunder, which implicitly resists the criticism that their violence is for material gain. Those in Susa execute the sons of Haman as well. The king reports all these casualties to Esther, and asks HER what she wishes for next, promising that it will be done. (My, how things have changed since Vashti’s day!) Esther asks for an additional day of violence in Susa, and for the corpses of Haman’s sons to be hung on the gallows where their father died. When this is done, the next day is one of “feasting and gladness”. By Mordecai’s official decree, this becomes the annual celebration of Purim. Esther and Mordecai are heroes among the Jews, yet we get no sense that they care for the well-being of anyone else in the realm.
What are we to make of this unsavory conclusion to Esther? It defies our human desire for clear guilt and innocence when those on the “good team” turn “bad” instead when given the opportunity. What strikes me most is the lack of proportion in Mordecai and Esther’s response. Once provoked and then in a place of power, they unleash a barrage of offense that far outdoes the actual harm caused by Haman’s edict. Even the “good people” are guilty of war crimes, as any careful study of military history will reveal. Perhaps we might find in this ending to Esther a reminder that all leaders have clay feet and situations that reveal their blindness. Consider not only Esther and Mordecai in this light, but Ahasuerus as well. If the king had taken responsibility for protecting all his people and thinking for himself rather than outsourcing even life-and-death policy decisions, this violence could have been avoided altogether.
In the end, maybe it’s actually a blessing to not have God mentioned explicitly in this text. It might lead to the perverse suggestion that God sanctions violent (pre-)retribution. Such genocide receives divine sanction elsewhere in the Bible, but at least here we can preserve the sense that the God who creates all people to “have life and have it abundantly” (according to Jesus in John’s gospel) stands in silent rebuke of what happens when fear and power combine to destroy life. “Happy” reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Job 1-3. Thanks for reading!