This week we’re looking at the OT story of Esther. You really need to start from Monday’s post.
Xerxes is now missing his wife. After all, she was ‘pleasing to look at’. But the irrevocable law of the Persians meant that he couldn’t go back on what he’d decreed. ‘What will I do?’ he thought. ‘If only I were an Australian politician, this would be an easy barnacle to scrape off.’ But he was stuck.
One of his attendants – who later went on to be a reality TV producer – suggested a contest: ‘Let’s search throughout the empire for the best-looking young virgins in each province. And bring the best here to Susa. Let’s give each of them 12 months’ of beauty treatment, and at the end of it, each gets to spend one night with the king. Whoever gets the most SMS votes becomes queen.’
Not surprisingly, this advice, the Bible says, ‘appealed to the king’. 483BC and we already have the plot-line for The Bachelor.
And so, the contest begins. And here, we’re introduced to the two key characters in the book, both of whom were already living, as it turns out, in the citadel of Susa. There’s Mordecai, a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s tribe; and there’s his orphaned niece, Esther, whom he’s adopted as his own daughter. And Esther, by the way, says the narrator, is also smoking hot. At last, we have the faint sniff of a plot developing.
Now I don’t know if the royal officials went around glass-slipper-style to every house, or whether Esther queued up to audition. All we know is that she turned everyone’s chair, and she’s into the battle rounds.
At this point, Mordecai advises Esther to remain silent about her Jewish background. We’re not told why. But Esther takes his advice. In fact, she seems to be not only beautiful, but wise – in that she listens to advice from the right places.
So she, along with all of the other Little Miss Sunshines, gets her year of beauty treatment. And this also meant they got to eat the king’s special food, making them the healthiest women in the empire.
During this time, she wins the favour of the chief eunuch, whose job it was to look after the harem. And the chief eunuch was so impressed by Esther, he gave her the best place in the harem, and assigned her seven maids. In fact, the Bible says, Esther quickly won the favour of everyone who saw her. One of many things that’s reminiscent of the Joseph story – except the narrator doesn’t point that out either.
Anyway, a year goes by and it’s now time for Esther’s night with the king. Now each young woman was allowed to take whatever she wanted with her when she went to see the king. Esther, showing great wisdom, asks the chief eunuch: if you were me, what would you take? And she takes only what he advises her.
What it was, we’re not told. Wine, maybe? Anyway, it works. The king thinks she’s a touchdown, she wins Persian Idol, or So you think you can concubine or whatever they called it. And she’s made queen.
Notice at this point the narrator makes no comment on her eating the food of the Persians, which according to Jewish food laws is unclean. Something Daniel refused to do. The narrator makes no comment on the complete immorality of this reality TV series. And the narrator makes no judgement on the fact that Esther, a Jew, has just married a Gentile. And furthermore, we’re given no idea as to why all this might be happening to her. We’ve got to wait 5 years until we get the next part of the story.
But during this time a brief, yet significant event occurs. Mordecai finds out about a plot to assassinate Xerxes. Two of the king’s guards were planning to kill him. They were called Bigthana and Teresh. So I suspect Bigthana was sick of the king making fun of his name. What Teresh’s problem was, we’re not told. Anyway, Mordecai tells Esther about the plot. Esther tells Xerxes, giving Mordecai the credit. The two treasonous guards get hanged, and the event is duly recorded in the king’s year book.
Five years later, the king decides – probably because someone suggested it to him – he decides to appoint someone as his second-in-command. His name was Haman (remember to boo each time you read that) the Agagite. He issues an edict that all the other royal officials and palace personnel kneel before Haman. But, like Daniel, Mordecai refuses to do this.
Why? Maybe we’re meant to read something into their backgrounds. Mordecai is a Jew; the narrator tells us he’s a Benjamite, a descendant of Kish, who was the father of King Saul. One of Saul’s great failings as king was to disobey God’s command to kill Agag, the king of the Amalekites. Agag, presumably, went on to have a whole family of little Agagites. One of whom, centuries later, is this guy – Haman. Nothing like a long-running ethnic feud to drive a story along, is there?
Anyway, Haman is told that Mordecai refuses to kneel before him. This infuriates him. And so he responds in the perfectly calm and proportional manner that we’ve come to expect from long-running ethnic feuds. He plans genocide. He wants to kill Mordecai and his entire race.
But to do this, he has to get the king’s permission. And it’s not all that easy to get the king to decide something about which he’s not interested. If it involved wine and attractive women, he’d be interested. But genocide? Yawn. He’ll have to approach it carefully.
3:8-9a Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them”
Notice how negatively he paints the Jews – they’re weirdos who ain’t from around here. They aren’t like us. They don’t obey your laws. And it seems that he plays with the king’s disinterest. You see, in the original language, the word for ‘enslave’ sounds pretty much the same as the word for ‘destroy’. They’re virtually homophones.
So it’s possible he was being deliberately ambiguous. ‘Let a decree be issued to <mumble> enslave them’. Trusting that the king wouldn’t bother reading the text, which read destroy.
And finally, for good measure he offers to fund it himself:
3:9b-10 “and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.” So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews.
So a proclamation is sent out to all the provinces of the empire. It ordered the annihilation of all Jews – men, women and children – on a certain date at the end of the year. And the edict itself was sent out on the 13th day of the first month. Which is, interestingly enough, the day before the lambs are slaughtered for the Jewish Passover feast. A very poignant co-incidence. But, the narrator doesn’t mention that.
To be continued…
Read the full text of Esther 2 and 3 now.