Welcome to Esther – a story right out of Hollywood! King Xerxes (known as Ahasuerus in Hebrew) reigned the Persian Empire from 486-465 BCE. He hosts a 6 month celebration of the magnificence of his empire, ending with an opulent week-long feast which featured an open bar. He orders his seven eunuchs to parade out Queen Vashti so that the male guests can ogle her. But she refuses! The king quickly consults his advisers about how to handle this, and they all agree that she must be swiftly banished, to set an example. Otherwise, word is sure to spread that a woman has gotten away with disobeying her husband’s orders. Heaven forbid!
A contest is held to replace the queen with a beautiful young virgin (what else?). Girls are brought to the palace and enticed with beauty treatments. One of them is Esther, the cousin of a Benjaminite named Mordecai. But she hides her Jewish identity to avoid discrimination. You gotta read verses 12-14, about the harem, for yourself; I can’t stomach even writing about it. But anyway, she is chosen as the next queen. Before long, she reports an assassination plot, overheard by Mordecai , and as a result the culprits are executed. This is described as though she did a good deed, protecting the king. But think about it – two guys were executed on hearsay. Not exactly a fair trial there.
Xerxes promotes Haman to chief official, and everyone but Mordecai bows in respect. It doesn’t say why Mordecai refuses – maybe some religious thing about not recognizing any authority except Yahweh? or perhaps he knows something about the guy? But when Haman learns that Mordecai is a Jew, he is filled with rage. He looks for a way to exterminate all Jews in revenge. He chooses a ‘kill all the Jews’ date by lot, and then persuades (with the help of a large bribe) the king that the Jews should be annihilated because they will refuse to honor the laws of the land. (The lots are called ‘purim’, which gives us the name of the holiday celebrating Esther.) The decree is dispatched.
When Mordecai and his fellow Jews hear the decree of their impending doom, they tear their clothes, don burlap and ashes, fast, and wail. (This is a pretty common way for biblical characters to express distress.) Mordecai begs Esther to appeal to the king, but she refuses, citing a rule that “anyone who appears before the king in his inner court without being invited is doomed to die unless the king holds out his gold scepter” (v 11). Mordecai warns her that if she doesn’t at least try, she’ll likely be killed anyway. At that, she advises him to “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.” (v 16), and then she will try. I know I’m reading this as a 21st century skeptic, but I just don’t get how fasting is gonna help anything.
On the third day of the fast, Esther enters the throne room and Xerxes holds out his scepter for the win! He promises to grant her any favor, but she asks only that he invite Haman to a banquet. At the banquet, when pressed to tell the king what she REALLY wants, she suggests a second banquet. I sense a devious plot in the offing … Leaving the first banquet, Haman’s good mood fades when he runs into Mordecai. He sulks, until his friends suggest that he set up a 25 meter pole to impale Mordecai on. That oughtta cheer him up!
Come back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of this drama. Or just sit up and watch the film.