ESTHER THEOLOGICAL THEMES

Carol Bechtel identifies three Theological Themes in the Book of Esther.

  1. The Importance of Proportion.

In the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, certain Psalms – it is a healthy sense of proportion that distinguishes the wise from the foolish. Shemarayahu Talmon has argued that Esther is a Wisdom tale. This is to take the argument too far. However, the importance of proportion is reflected prominently throughout the book. Ahasuerus and Haman often display a shocking lack of proportion. There are stupendous feasts and displays of pomp, decisions that affect the whole empire are made in an off-hand way and the royal signet ring is passed around without due recognition of the power it gives the wearer. But if Ahasuerus acts because he does not think deeply about things, Haman has a gift for disproportion worthy of a scheming despot. In contrast to these, Esther emerges as the epitome of proportion. Mordecai, although viewed by Jews as the hero, is less easy to grade.

Esther and Haman are clear counterparts. Mordecai and Ahasuerus are a less easy match but there are similarities. Ahasuerus does not mean any real evil but he leaves himself open to be manipulated by Haman. Mordecai does not intend to doom his own people to death but because of his relationship with Haman, this is the result.

Carey Moore represents a long tradition of commentators when he claims “between Mordecai and Esther the greater hero in the Hebrew is Mordecai who supplied the brains while Esther simply followed his instructions.”

Carol Bechtel strongly disagrees with this: “it is Mordecai who – however unwittingly – gets the people of God into this mess. It is left to Esther – with a lot of help from God and a little help from Mordecai – to get them out.”

  1. The Challenge of Living a Faithful Life in an Unfaithful Culture.

It is one thing to live a life faithful to God when one is surrounded by a culture that supports such efforts. It is quite different to live a faithful life in an indifferent or hostile situation. Sidnie Ann White writes: “the tale clearly is meant to entertain… it has a didactic purpose as well,” namely, “to teach Jews how to live a productive life in the Diaspora”.

The one unalterable fact of life for the Jews in the Book of Esther is limited power.

But the Jews are not the only ones with limited power.

There is Queen Vashti. She is a fascinating character. Ahasuerus and Vashti are like two immovable forces that clash – and there can be only one winner. Her resistance to Ahasuerus is an important foil for Esther’s progress. Esther opts, in contrast, for critical compromise. Mordecai’s actions can veer between those of Vashti and Esther.

The Eunuchs are often overlooked in Esther. Most of the interventions by eunuchs are positive such as Hegai’s favour and advice or Harbona’s timely suggestion. There is one negative intervention and that is Bigthan and Teresh’s foiled assassination attempt. Bigthan and Teresh, choose open rebellion and, like Vashti, pay dearly for it. Hegai and Harbona get what they want by being patient and waiting for the right moment.

And then there is God. His name is never mentioned. This fact as Carey Moore notes caused Esther some difficulty in being accepted into the Christian Canon of Scripture. Carol Bechtel writes: “In a manner quite similar to the stories of Joseph and Ruth, God’s presence also is felt in the book’s ‘coincidences’.” “All of this is to say that God is very much a character in this book, though one who evidently prefers to remain anonymous”.

Like the Jews, the women, and the eunuchs in the Book of Esther, we must make difficult decisions about whether to adopt, reject or adapt to our situation.
Yet God is with us in the midst of that struggle. We may wish at times God’s presence and power were a little more obvious. Carol Bechtel.
  1. The Power of the Written Word.

Seen from a slightly different angle, the Book of Esther could also be considered an extended meditation on the power of the written word.

There are, at least, sixty-three references to writing or written texts.

Haman’s whole strategy revolves around the relationship between the written and the oral word. He is often ambiguous when he speaks with Ahasuerus but there is no ambiguity in the decrees he drafts.

The King keeps his own book of days and he has his royal annals read out to him when he cannot sleep. He was “sleepless in Susa” when Mordecai’ part in the foiled assassination is read out. Written texts lose their power when they remain unread.

That is why Jews take the Book of Esther to heart at Purim in accordance with the two sets of letters sent out in Chapter 9.

That an extended meditation on the power of the written word – and the importance of reading it – should arise at this this period is not surprising. This was a time when the people of God sought to collect and edit what would become Scripture, and to redefine themselves as “a people of the book”.

What is surprising is that Christians should be so little interested and engaged. R. Plunkett in a private communication wrote: “every text is a dead letter unless the writer and the reader collaborate to keep it alive”. As long as Esther’s word goes unread, its truth will lie buried.

Patricia Tull makes the interesting point that in the Old Testament, “heroes” are usually presented as complex and morally ambiguous personalities. We just have to consider David to appreciate this. Mordecai, I suggest, may be rather similar to these complex “heroes”.

THE BOOK OF ESTHER 5

By Rev Christopher Cooke

WEEK 5

Chapters 8,9 and 10

8:1-2: King Ahasuerus Makes Some Changes.

Is this poetic justice?
Is this what we expected to happen earlier in the story?

“There is a kind of ‘all’s well that ends well’ feeling at the end of verse 2. Perhaps Ahasuerus thinks he has done enough for one day, or indeed, has done all that needs to be done. Esther has Haman’s house, after all, and Mordecai has the king’s own signet ring. What more could they want”. Carol Bechtel.
Esther and Mordechai-Aert de Gelder (1645-1727

8:3-8: Queen Esther Pleads for Her People.

What is the unfinished business?

“Mordecai and Esther are being heaped with rewards, but their lives are still in danger”. Patricia Tull.

“More striking even than Ahasuerus’s lack of imagination is his lack of power. One cannot help but compare the ‘Mighty Man’ of the book’s introduction with the weak and ineffectual monarch pictured here… One thing, at least, is clear. Esther and Mordecai cannot rely on Ahasuerus for much help. The words of a dead traitor have proven more powerful than the commands of a living king. Their only option is to fight fire with fire – edict with edict”. Carol Bechtel.

Esther throws herself on the King’s mercy once again to show him the seriousness of the situation. Have you ever had to throw yourself on someone’s mercy to open their eyes to a case of injustice?

8:9-17: Mordecai Sends Out Another Edict.

What do you make of Mordecai’s Edict?
How does it compare with Haman’s?

The decree gives the Jews permission to defend themselves; that right may seem self-evident to modern readers but in the world of the Persian court in Esther, where everything is done according to the law, even self-defence must be legislated. The parallelism with the previous decrees emphasizes the wisdom doctrine of retributive justice, but Mordecai’s inclusion of women and children in his counter decree has made him vulnerable to a charge of ‘bloodthirstiness’”. Sidnie Ann White.

Patricia Tull believes the Book of Esther could end here with hardly any damage to its substance. Do you agree?

9:1-19: The Battles.

Does the violence that occurs in this chapter trouble you, given that some of it is requested by Esther? Why or why not?
Would it have troubled you less if Mordecai had been the one to make the request? Why or why not?

“Esther is true to real life as it is lived messily with loose ends and threads coming undone”. Johanna Van Wijk-Bos.

“The conclusion of Esther causes many people uneasiness. Its style and vision are so different from the rest of the book that many scholars think it may have been added by someone other than the author of the previous chapters. The earlier chapters’ keen sense of justice and aesthetics are not so distinct in the book’s conclusion. Yet theological gold can be mined from its very complexity”. Patricia Tull.

9:20-32: The Letters of Purim.

Should the Jews celebrate Purim?
Should Christians read the Book of Esther?

“The purpose of these letters is to give official sanction to the non-Mosaic festival of Purim. Purim, an essentially secular festival originating in the diaspora…” Sidnie Ann White.
“[Christians] would do well to remember, however, the main event of that celebration [Purim]; namely the reading of the book of Esther. Surely, we can manage that much. Indeed, we should more than ‘manage’ it, because there is a sense in which this book may have come into our canon ‘for just a time as this’. It is a book, after all, about the struggle to be faithful in the midst of an increasingly unfaithful culture.” Carol Bechtel.

10:1-3: Where has Esther Gone?

“But like Esther, rather than remaining children, rather than ignoring what is overwhelming to us, each of us had a God-given grace within us to step forward on behalf of people we care for, to engage in small acts of courage, even when we can hardly see what good they will do. And very often, when we do step forward, forces beyond our power will help us, as they helped Esther, in carrying out God’s good purposes”. Patricia Tull.

Reverend Christopher’s comments are shown below

8:1-2: King Ahasuerus Makes Some Changes.

Is this poetic justice?
Is this what we expected to happen earlier in the story?

The multiple silences of the story are brought to an end. Haman is revealed as the enemy of the Jews. Esther is revealed as a Jewess. Mordecai is revealed as Esther’s cousin. Esther is rewarded with Haman’s house (but how will she use it as she is in the harem?) King Ahasuerus remains much the same and hands over his signet ring which he took from Haman, and gives it to his new favourite: Mordecai. The signet ring is like a hot potato (Patricia Tull).

“There is a kind of ‘all’s well that ends well’ feeling at the end of verse 2. Perhaps Ahasuerus thinks he has done enough for one day, or indeed, has done all that needs to be done. Esther has Haman’s house, after all, and Mordecai has the king’s own signet ring. What more could they want”. Carol Bechtel.

8:3-8: Queen Esther Pleads for Her People.

What is the unfinished business?

“Mordecai and Esther are being heaped with rewards, but their lives are still in danger”. Patricia Tull.

Haman’s edict still stands and it cannot be revoked. Esther and Mordecai have to find a way to neutralize Haman’s edict. Esther must first, by her charms, obtain the king’s permission to circumvent the decree. Esther has never been as dramatic or melodramatic as this before. Her appeal is based on her personal favour with the King and not about the ethics of mass murder. We notice that Esther puts all the blame on Haman. She also argues that the loss of the Jews would result in a loss of property for the King. Nevertheless, Esther’s ploy works and Ahasuerus, characteristically, gives her carte blanche. He avoids responsibility once again by putting things in her hands. Ahasuerus displays a basic indifference to the fate of the Jews. Esther absolutely identifies with her people the Jews. Ahasuerus absolutely refuses to take any initiative. It is up to Esther and Mordecai to try and set things right.

“More striking even than Ahasuerus’s lack of imagination is his lack of power. One cannot help but compare the ‘Mighty Man’ of the book’s introduction with the weak and ineffectual monarch pictured here… One thing, at least, is clear. Esther and Mordecai cannot rely on Ahasuerus for much help. The words of a dead traitor have proven more powerful than the commands of a living king. Their only option is to fight fire with fire – edict with edict”. Carol Bechtel.

Esther throws herself on the King’s mercy once again to show him the seriousness of the situation. Have you ever had to throw yourself on someone’s mercy to open their eyes to a case of injustice?

8:9-17: Mordecai Sends Out Another Edict.

What do you make of Mordecai’s Edict?
How does it compare with Haman’s?

Esther calls on Mordecai to help draw up this important document. We have had an edict following Vashti’s rebellion and we have had Haman’s edict. Not surprisingly, Mordecai’s edict follows Haman’s in form quite closely. There are considerable parallels with Haman’s edict in chapter 3. Mordecai does not see this as a case for creative writing. It is very much modelled on Haman’s so that this counter-edict can be as effective as possible. Then there are the differences. Mordecai’s edict gives permission to destroy, kill, annihilate and plunder whereas Haman’s gives orders for the same. Mordecai’s is framed to allow self-defence while Haman’s was undisguised aggression.

“The decree gives the Jews permission to defend themselves; that right may seem self-evident to modern readers but in the world of the Persian court in Esther, where everything is done according to the law, even self-defence must be legislated. The parallelism with the previous decrees emphasizes the wisdom doctrine of retributive justice, but Mordecai’s inclusion of women and children in his counter decree has made him vulnerable to a charge of ‘bloodthirstiness’”. Sidnie Ann White.

This may well fit in with the concept of ‘holy war’ as this is what got King Saul in trouble when he did not carry this out against Agag. However, the verse ending is different in the Hebrew version. In that case, as Carol Bechtel argues, it would be Jewish women and children who are liable to be attacked. (In what follows, the Jews do not take plunder and there is no indication that anyone other than the attackers were harmed). There are two more contrasts between the edicts. Mordecai’s is also sent to the Jews who were excluded from Haman’s circulation list even though they were the victims. Haman’s edict was sent by couriers probably because there was no great urgency. Mordecai’s is sent by express mounted couriers – the pony express. After Haman’s edict, the King and Haman sat down to eat and drink. Mordecai leaves the King alone and appears in splendour in Susa. Now it is the Jews who eat and drink. It is a long way from the sackcloth and ashes and the fasting.

Patricia Tull believes the Book of Esther could end here with hardly any damage to its substance. Do you agree?

9:1-19: The Battles.

Does the violence that occurs in this chapter trouble you, given that some of it is requested by Esther? Why or why not?
Would it have troubled you less if Mordecai had been the one to make the request? Why or why not?

“Esther is true to real life as it is lived messily with loose ends and threads coming undone”. Johanna Van Wijk-Bos.
“The conclusion of Esther causes many people uneasiness. Its style and vision are so different from the rest of the book that many scholars think it may have been added by someone other than the author of the previous chapters. The earlier chapters’ keen sense of justice and aesthetics are not so distinct in the book’s conclusion. Yet theological gold can be mined from its very complexity”. Patricia Tull.

This chapter is full of inconsistences and redundancies. Esther’s appeal to the King seems more routine and less heartfelt than earlier. She is definitely more bloodthirsty than we have seen her earlier. Carol Bechtel would just say that Esther has become more determined. It is not clear why a second day of fighting was necessary other than that the feast of Purim as celebrated is a two-day festival. Haman’s ten sons were killed in the melee, and not executed, which suggests that they were among the attackers. There dead bodies are to be displayed on the gallows. The Jews take no plunder and spare women and children. What happens here is sometimes compared with the Warsaw ghetto in the Second World War when Polish Jews rose up to defend themselves from the Nazis. The battles at the end of Esther remind us that violence can be rooted in the desire for peace and security. The celebration is not in the slaughter itself but in the deliverance of the Jewish people.

9:20-32: The Letters of Purim.

Should the Jews celebrate Purim?
Should Christians read the Book of Esther?

“The purpose of these letters is to give official sanction to the non-Mosaic festival of Purim. Purim, an essentially secular festival originating in the diaspora…” Sidnie Ann White.

Mordecai’s letter is not a royal decree but a request to the Jews that they mark this annual celebration. We notice that are to be presents for the poor. Verses 24 to 26 give a synopsis of the book, severely telescoped, and in some cases in disagreement with the main plot. For instance, Ahasuerus is seen in a better light than elsewhere in the book. It reads as if he were the saviour of the Jews. Despite the author’s best attempts, the connection between Purim the pur (Haman’s casting of lots) remains tenuous and murky. There follows a letter from Queen Esther giving it all royal sanction. Although, Purim was not universally celebrated (the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest it wasn’t at Qumran), it soon became a very important festival. At the heart of this festival is the reading of the Book of Esther.

“[Christians] would do well to remember, however, the main event of that celebration [Purim]; namely the reading of the book of Esther. Surely, we can manage that much. Indeed, we should more than ‘manage’ it, because there is a sense in which this book may have come into our canon ‘for just a time as this’. It is a book, after all, about the struggle to be faithful in the midst of an increasingly unfaithful culture.” Carol Bechtel.

10:1-3: Where has Esther Gone?

These verses glory in the greatness of Ahasuerus and Mordecai. What a great king! Mordecai is said to have governed well, looked after the Jews but benefitted the whole of that great kingdom. In this way he is compared to Joseph in the Book of Genesis. This contrasts with the descriptions of Ahasuerus and Mordecai in the main part of the book. And Esther is written out of the story.

“But like Esther, rather than remaining children, rather than ignoring what is overwhelming to us, each of us had a God-given grace within us to step forward on behalf of people we care for, to engage in small acts of courage, even when we can hardly see what good they will do. And very often, when we do step forward, forces beyond our power will help us, as they helped Esther, in carrying out God’s good purposes”. Patricia Tull.

THE BOOK OF ESTHER 4

By Rev Christopher Cooke.

Week 4

Chapters 6 & 7

6:1-3: King Ahasuerus is Sleepless in Susa.

Was this just coincidence? Or is this divine providence? Who chooses the section to be read?

6:4-11: King Ahasuerus and Haman Talk at Cross Purposes!

What is on Ahasuerus’ mind and who is he talking about?
What is on Haman’s mind and who is he talking about?
What do you think Haman is feeling?
What do you think Mordecai is feeling?

“Whether Haman has finished with his fantasy or not, dream soon turns to waking nightmare as Ahasuerus interrupts with the words Haman never expected to hear”. Carol Bechtel. ——
“Haman confirms his position as king’s chief lackey by following to the letter of his own advice to the king, his mood could not have been hospitable”. Patricia Tull.
The Triumph of Mordecai- Pieter Lastman (1624).

6:12-14: Haman’s Support Network Collapses.

What do you think of the predictions of Zeresh and Haman’s advisors?
Do you think Haman is looking forward to this as much as he was before?

“Circumstances seem to have conspired against Haman, and for once, we get the impression he is completely unprepared. Esther, however, is not”. Carol Bechtel
“Actions seem to come out of nowhere in this tale, but they gradually link together to form an immensely positive and meaningful pattern of Jewish deliverance: if the term ‘theology’ means anything in reference to the book of Esther, that is its theology.” Jon Levenson.

7:1-6: Queen Esther Argues Her Case.

What do you make of Esther’s petition when it finally comes?
Do you agree with Patricia Tull that verse 4 is masterfully ambiguous?
What do you make of Ahasuerus’ confusion?
Who is he angry with?

“[Esther] is patient in implementing her plan of attack. She is brilliant in her analysis of her enemy’s methods. And finally, she is every bit his equal in her power to persuade. Esther’s character is so strong by the end of the chapter that we almost begin to feel sorry for Haman. But not quite. In the words of Jane Austen – another author famous for strong female characters – Haman has ‘delighted us long enough’ (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 18). We are glad to see him go.” Carol Bechtel.

7:7-10: Haman Pleads before Esther and the King Comes to a Decision.

What do you make of Haman’s pleading?
What do you think of Ahasuerus?
Should Esther have shown mercy towards Haman?

“In the end, the man who attempted to kill a people for a crime they did not commit will himself die for a crime he did not commit. Haman’s lust was for power, not pleasure, but that is probably not the story his poor wife will hear”. Patricia Tull.
“Whether Haman has finished with his fantasy or not, dream soon turns to waking nightmare as Ahasuerus interrupts with the words Haman never expected to hear”. Carol Bechtel. ——

Reverend Christopher’s comments are shown below:

6:1-3: King Ahasuerus is Sleepless in Susa.

Was this just coincidence? Or is this divine providence?
Who chooses the section to be read?

Ahasuerus has been portrayed as a rather frivolous King but he has a diary kept for him and this is read out when he cannot sleep. And this informs future actions. This seems to me a more serious side of Ahasuerus. The King is unaware that Haman and Mordecai are enemies. He is also unaware of the plight of the Jews because of the machinations of Haman. It is possible that the servants are more sympathetic to the Jews and Mordecai then Haman. So they read this passage and the King is startled from sleep altogether as he asks how was Mordecai thanked for his endeavours. Ahasuerus is deeply shocked to learn that Mordecai has not been rewarded for his faithful service. If these coincidences or providences had not happened, we can guess that it would have been a much more tragic story.

6:4-11: King Ahasuerus and Haman Talk at Cross Purposes!

What is on Ahasuerus’ mind and who is he talking about?
What is on Haman’s mind and who is he talking about?

This is a delicious, if toe-curling, section and my favourite in the book. Haman is already in the court. Perhaps he cannot sleep well until he hatches his plan and gets the King to agree to the execution of Mordecai. Ahasuerus calls Haman in. We know they both have Mordecai on their minds but with diametrically opposed intentions. Ahasuerus asks “What shall be done for the man whom the King wishes to honour?” Haman in his vainglory thinks the King can only be thinking of him, Haman! The honours Haman requests are based on those given to Joseph in Genesis 41. Joseph’s honour is fully deserved but Haman’s supposed honour is not!The crown on the horse is probably not a king’s crown but an elaborate headdress. Then follows the climax and it is a horrific one for Haman. We notice that Haman proposes a rather empty honour which is all pomp and show. The man to be honoured is not Haman but Mordecai who the King describes as “the Jew”.

What do you think Haman is feeling?
What do you think Mordecai is feeling?

“Whether Haman has finished with his fantasy or not, dream soon turns to waking nightmare as Ahasuerus interrupts with the words Haman never expected to hear”. Carol Bechtel. ——
“Haman confirms his position as king’s chief lackey by following to the letter of his own advice to the king, his mood could not have been hospitable”. Patricia Tull.

6:12-14: Haman’s Support Network Collapses.

What do you think of the predictions of Zeresh and Haman’s advisors?

Haman arrives home despondent and, his wife, Zeresh and his advisors offer no comfort. They agree that Haman is doomed. However, Haman’s edict still stands. Haman still holds office as the highest of the King’s officials. The Jews are still condemned. The King has not heard Esther’s petition. But then the eunuchs arrive with Esther’s summons to come to her second banquet.

Do you think Haman is looking forward to this as much as he was before?

“Circumstances seem to have conspired against Haman, and for once, we get the impression he is completely unprepared. Esther, however, is not”. Carol Bechtel.
“Actions seem to come out of nowhere in this tale, but they gradually link together to form an immensely positive and meaningful pattern of Jewish deliverance: if the term ‘theology’ means anything in reference to the book of Esther, that is its theology.” Jon Levenson.

7:1-6: Queen Esther Argues Her Case.

What do you make of Esther’s petition when it finally comes?
Do you agree with Patricia Tull that verse 4 is masterfully ambiguous?

Esther may well not be aware of the events of the previous section. She may not know of Mordecai’s honouring and Haman’s humiliation. However, the ubiquitous eunuchs may have informed Esther of events. As far as Esther is concerned, the situation is still very dangerous and a lot will depend on the King’s reactions – and he is hardly predictable! Finally, we get to the climax. The wine is flowing again. Ahasuerus repeats his extravagant offer. He has had a day to water this down but he does not. Esther knows exactly what she will say when Ahasuerus asks. She uses “petition” and “my life” and “request” and “my people” and fully identifies with her people. In 7:4 does Esther hint at the bribe offered when she says her people have been sold. She cleverly brings up the oral confusion. If they had been enslaved, she would not have said anything but as they are to be destroyed, she must speak out. A less accomplished plea might have named Haman earlier on in the argument. Finally, Esther argues that this all an affront to the King. Esther has done her homework and the universal eunuchs may have been the conduits.

What do you make of Ahasuerus’ confusion? Who is he angry with?

Ahasuerus is completely bewildered and he does not connect her petition with Haman’s edict. He asks who is the man involved? Right at the end, Esther names Haman as the enemy within. The enraged King storms from the room and we are not sure where his anger is going to be directed. Does he go into the garden to cool off? But as Adele Berlin notes, his absence from the room permits what happens next!

“[Esther] is patient in implementing her plan of attack. She is brilliant in her analysis of her enemy’s methods. And finally, she is every bit his equal in her power to persuade. Esther’s character is so strong by the end of the chapter that we almost begin to feel sorry for Haman. But not quite. In the words of Jane Austen – another author famous for strong female characters – Haman has ‘delighted us long enough’ (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 18). We are glad to see him go.” Carol Bechtel.

7:7-10: Haman Pleads before Esther and the King Comes to a Decision.

What do you make of Haman’s pleading?
What do you think of Ahasuerus?
Should Esther have shown mercy towards Haman?

We now have a black comedy. We might have expected Haman to plead to his friend the King but Haman approaches Queen Esther to beg for his life instead. Ahasuerus re-enters and construes it as an attempted assault, even rape, on the Queen. This allows the King to do whatever he wants to Haman. It would be difficult to punish Haman for a plan that he has given the nod to.

“In the end, the man who attempted to kill a people for a crime they did not commit will himself die for a crime he did not commit. Haman’s lust was for power, not pleasure, but that is probably not the story his poor wife will hear”. Patricia Tull.

One of the eunuchs, Harbona, knows something that the King apparently does not.

Harbona says there are gallows Haman has prepared for Mordecai. Ahasuerus commands that Haman is executed there. This is Ahasuerus’ first direct order in the whole book. An evil genius has met his match in Esther and meets his end. In the Biblical Wisdom tradition, this is an example of “just deserts” and that the wicked who devise snares may fall in them themselves.

Some have argued that Esther should have shown mercy towards Haman but that is a rather stereotypical view of women which does not allow for strong women. Would we have asked the same of Mordecai? Esther is locked into a life-and-death struggle on behalf of the Jews. Haman is not an innocent victim and he does not express any real remorse. 1 Samuel 15 is also instructive. King Saul (Mordecai and Esther’s ancestor) spared Agag (Haman’s ancestor) and lost the crown. Esther was not going to make the same mistake.

THE BOOK OF ESTHER 3

By Reverend Christopher Cooke

WEEK 3 – THE BOOK OF ESTHER

Chapters 4 & 5

4:1-5: Mordecai and the Jews Grieve.

Why does Esther send clothing to Mordecai? Why did he refuse it?
Mordecai is at the gate “woefully out of compliance with the palace dress code”. Carol Bechtel.

4:6-14: Mordecai Turns to Esther for Help.

What do you make of this crucial interchange between Mordecai and Esther?
Why does Mordecai approach Esther? Why does she hesitate?
Though God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, does 4:14 suggest an element of divine intervention? Do you think the writer intended this?

Mordecai “raises the possibility that even before events began sliding towards disaster, some force was preparing the way for deliverance… He is confident that the Jewish people will survive but uncertain about how this will come about.” Michael Fox.

“His modesty on the subject of divine providence, along with his faith in the effectiveness of timely action, could be very instructive to any believer attempting to interpret the ways of God”. Patricia Tull.

4:16-17: Esther Prepares to Meet the King.

What do you make of the sudden change in Esther’s attitude to the world around her, as she prepares to go against the prevailing forces and norms?
“From being a pliant and obedient beauty queen, she becomes a figure of authority, an active risk taker”. Sidnie Ann White.
Have you had to make such a sudden change in your life? Why did you do it? What was the outcome?

5:1-8: Esther Goes to the King and Gives a Banquet.

How nervous do you think Esther was and how brave was she?
Can you remember times when you had to take courage to make a visit or approach someone?
Sometimes this may have gone easier than expected and at other times less well.
Does Esther start to get cold feet?
“Esther has backed her husband into a corner, and he has allowed it. The silent Haman has become the pawn of the clever queen”. Sidnie Ann White.

5:9-14: Haman Builds a Place of Execution.

Are there Hamans around today?
Have you met anyone rather like Haman with “an ego so fragile it cannot survive any challenge, real or imagined?”
What strategies do you have for interactions with such people?

“The real irony here is that Mordecai is already a condemned man. All Haman has to do is to wait for the edict to take effect, and Mordecai (along with the rest of the Jews) will be out of his hair forever. But patience is not one of Haman’s virtues (if indeed he has any). A year, evidently, is too long to wait when one’s ego is being assailed. Only a special public humiliation on an accelerated schedule will do.” Carol Bechtel.

“Yes indeed. There’s nothing like anticipating a good impalement to whet one’s appetite…” Carol Bechtel.

Reverend Christopher’s comments are shown below:

4:1-5: Mordecai and the Jews Grieve.

Why does Esther send clothing to Mordecai? Why did he refuse it?
Mordecai’s immediate response to the news of Haman’s edict is to enact the typical gestures of mourning: sackcloth, ashes and lamentation. The Jews mourn ritually but significantly do not mention God! Mordecai cannot enter through the gate because of his condition. Mordecai seems to being drawing attention to himself and his grief.
However, Esther in the Queen’s quarters is unaware of what has happened.
Mordecai is at the gate “woefully out of compliance with the palace dress code”. Carol Bechtel.
Esther sends clothing perhaps so Mordecai can enter the palace and meet her. Perhaps there is also the teenage complaint: Why are you embarrassing me! Turning to Mordecai, is his grief heightened because he has brought this upon his people? Esther is in a quandary. Up to now, Mordecai has played down their Jewishness but now he is at the gate proclaiming it!

4:6-14: Mordecai Turns to Esther for Help.

What do you make of this crucial interchange between Mordecai and Esther?
Why does Mordecai approach Esther? Why does she hesitate?
Mordecai turns to Esther rather than to God. The conversation is conducted through a third party, Hathach, a trusted eunuch. But what if Hathach garbles the message!
Up to now, Mordecai has protected Esther. How does Mordecai know about the sum of money Haman has promised the King? He is well-connected but perhaps information leaks out of the palace easier than it penetrates inside! Mordecai even produces a copy of the edict. This is vital because of the confusion between enslavement and destruction in speech. Mordecai gives a copy to Hathach and he gives it to Esther.
Mordecai instructs Esther to go to the King and he expects to be obeyed. Her initial refusal is unexpected. Or perhaps it is more like a reality-check. Esther explains that she risks death if she appears before the King unsummoned. Furthermore, she has not been summoned by the king for thirty days. This serves to underline the precariousness of her position. Her position in a male court is similar to the Jews in a Gentile world.
Mordecai will not accept Esther’s refusal. The ensuing dialogue reveals a little of the author’s theology. Esther cannot escape the danger of the situation just because she is in the palace. She remains a Jew – even if a hidden one.
Though God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, does 4:14 suggest an element of divine intervention? Do you think the writer intended this?
Hathach shuffles back with Mordecai’s reply. This is Mordecai’s only direct speech in the book. Mordecai makes the claim that if Esther does not intervene, the Jews will still be delivered but she and he family will perish. Mordecai is certain that Esther must act and this may be why she has become Queen. This implies belief in divine providence but in order for the divine plan to work, humans must respond and act. Mordecai seems to see Esther’s caution as cowardice and/or selfishness. However his argument about royal dignity and the right time seems to connect and Esther understands the situation.

Mordecai “raises the possibility that even before events began sliding towards disaster, some force was preparing the way for deliverance… He is confident that the Jewish people will survive but uncertain about how this will come about.” Michael Fox.

“His modesty on the subject of divine providence, along with his faith in the effectiveness of timely action, could be very instructive to any believer attempting to interpret the ways of God”. Patricia Tull.

4:16-17: Esther Prepares to Meet the King.

What do you make of the sudden change in Esther’s attitude to the world around her, as she prepares to go against the prevailing forces and norms?
Esther’s response in 4:16 reveals an astonishing change in her character.
“From being a pliant and obedient beauty queen, she becomes a figure of authority, an active risk taker”. Sidnie Ann White.
Esther devises a plan, delivers a command to Mordecai and expects him to obey her. And Mordecai does obey her! Roles are reversed. The fact that Esther orders a fast is the only overtly religious action in the book but again God is not mentioned! She is aware of the risk she is taking but she is humble and pious enough not to assume that she can do this on her own. She is certainly brave. She also fully identifies with the Jewish people which she did not have to do.
Have you had to make such a sudden change in your life? Why did you do it? What was the outcome?

5:1-8: Esther Goes to the King and Gives a Banquet.

How nervous do you think Esther was and how brave was she?
Can you remember times when you had to take courage to make a visit or approach someone?
Sometimes this may have gone easier than expected and at other times less well.
For three days, Esther and her maids – along with the Jews in Susa – have fasted. In the event, Esther’s approach to the King is rather anti-climactic (and two of the additions strengthen the story here). We notice that Esther cleverly dons “royalty” to remind the King who she is and to distinguish her from Vashti who refused to appear wearing the crown when ordered. Nevertheless, it underlines how dependent she is on the King. She stands in the court, where she was not meant to be either, but she does not barge into the royal presence. She catches his eye and Ahasuerus realizes that something important must have caused Esther to act in this way. He invites her in to his presence and he expresses his wish to do what she requires. Esther first request is not about the proposed genocide but an invitation to dinner. This seems a bit wasteful but it gives Esther a number of advantages. In the play of courtesies, it puts the King further in her favour. Further, it means Ahasuerus and Haman are on her territory in the harem. And the King never turns down a banquet. Indeed, her rushes to fulfil her request and get Haman there presto. As Patricia Tull notes this is a delicious reversal of the decree that wives should obey their husbands. Haman too is happy to be a guest of a woman and, unknowingly, a Jew as well. Now we expect Esther to make her bid but again she just asks them to another banquet!
Does Esther start to get cold feet?
Another way of looking at it is suggested by David Clines. If the King comes to the second banquet, where she will make her real petition, he has almost already promised to grant whatever she wants. She has almost got Ahasuerus ready to sign a blank cheque.
“Esther has backed her husband into a corner, and he has allowed it. The silent Haman has become the pawn of the clever queen”. Sidnie Ann White.
Some commentators are a little uneasy about Esther’s diplomatic skills. But unlike Haman, she has not misled the King with half-truths and lies. Esther is certainly the right person at the right time.

5:9-14: Haman Builds a Place of Execution.

Are there Hamans around today?
Have you met anyone rather like Haman with “an ego so fragile it cannot survive any challenge, real or imagined?”
What strategies do you have for interactions with such people?
Although Esther may have his measure, Haman is still a very dangerous man. Haman has enjoyed the Queen’s banquet and is full of himself until he bumps into Mordecai again. Mordecai refuses to do obeisance again and this sends Haman into a rage. Haman goes home and holds a “pity party”. Zeresh, his wife, suggests a course of action. Zeresh is the third powerful woman to appear in the book. Sidnie Ann White suggests here is another pairing where the woman is stronger than the man.
“The real irony here is that Mordecai is already a condemned man. All Haman has to do is to wait for the edict to take effect, and Mordecai (along with the rest of the Jews) will be out of his hair forever. But patience is not one of Haman’s virtues (if indeed he has any). A year, evidently, is too long to wait when one’s ego is being assailed. Only a special public humiliation on an accelerated schedule will do.” Carol Bechtel.
But if Haman gets his own way, Esther’s intervention the next day will be too late to save her cousin. Zeresh and Haman’s supporters suggest he builds a massive gallows (some eighty feet high!) Carol Bechtel argues that it was a pole for impalement. Impalement involved extra levels of disgrace. We notice Zeresh and his friends suggest he builds it before he gets the King’s permission to deal with Mordecai. We have seen this presumption before. Now Haman is ready to enjoy the next banquet.
“Yes indeed. There’s nothing like anticipating a good impalement to whet one’s appetite…” Carol Bechtel.

THE BOOK OF ESTHER 2

By Reverend Christopher Cooke

Week 2

2:5-3:15

2:5-11: Esther is Caught in the Royal Dragnet.

We are introduced to Mordecai and Esther.

Esther and Mordecai” by Aert de Gelder, 1674

Can you think of other exiles living in foreign countries today?

What do you think Esther felt?

Why didn’t Esther admit she was a Jewess?

Does it bother you that Esther seemed to be trying to gain the king’s favour, even during the forced conscription of young women by the king?

2:12-18: Esther is Chosen as Queen.

Esther Is Introduced to Ahasuerus c1615
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

Twelve months is a long time to be in a beauty parlour!

What is the importance of this banquet?

2:19-23: Mordecai Discovers the Eunuchs’ Plot.

Was Mordecai in the right place at the right time?

Should he have been rewarded?

3:1-6: Haman’s Rise to Power.

Another foreigner is promoted.

Why did Mordecai refuse to bow down to Haman?

What about Haman’s reaction?

Mordecai faced the consequences. Can you name others who have done this? How were their circumstances similar or different from Mordecai’s?

3:7-15: Haman’s Plot to Destroy the Jews.

Why did Haman cast lots?

Which God responds to the lots?

What do you make of Haman’s argument before Ahasuerus?

What do you make of the edict drafted by Haman?

Esther with the Decree of Destruction
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1637

Throughout history there is a long record of persecution of the Jewish people, from ancient times to the Holocaust of the 1940s. Is anti-Semitism still around today? Do we find it in our community and/or church?

Note the last verse: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion”.

Is Haman right to think that everyone hates the Jews as he does?

THE BOOK OF ESTHER 1

By Reverend Christopher Cooke

Week 1

Patricia Tull points out that of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, 38 have names of men.
How many have names of women?

Esther and Ruth are not only distinguished by the names of the books but also by being free-standing narratives springing from Judean history.

The characters, Esther and Ruth, are “women in alien lands”.

Carol Bechtel relates this story:
Soon after historian Deborah Lipstadt won a court victory over holocaust denier, David Irving, she went to Purim at her local synagogue. Then the Book of Esther, as ever, is read out. The words of Esther 4:14 struck home: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Carol Bechtel argues that God has given us the Book of Esther “for just such a time as this.”

Which Version of Esther?
The Jews and Protestants have the ten chapters found in our Old Testaments. The Catholics recognize six additions which can be found in our Apocryphas. I shall concentrate on our canonical version.

Esther By Edwin Long

How should we read Esther?
There is a total variance between Jewish and Christian practice here.
How often have you read the Book of Esther?
How often have you heard it read in Church?
Martin Luther did not know what to do with the book. One passage appears in our three-year cycle and then, of course, it is optional whether it used. Its messages are over-looked.
In complete contrast, the Book of Esther is central to the celebration of the Jewish Festival of Purim. It is read with great excitement and alcohol. It is the Jewish pantomime but with a critical storyline that has become all too relevant time and again, Whenever Haman’s name is mentioned there are jeers and hisses.

The Triumph of Mordecai – Pieter Lastman (1624).

Whenever Mordecai or Esther are mentioned there are cheers and hurrahs. When it is read aloud, then humour bubbles up. Hamans are constantly turning up in history.

What sort of literature is the Book of Esther?
Ahasuerus is also known as Xerxes. On the one hand, the writer is very well aware of the customs of the Persian court. On the other, King Xerxes/Ahasuerus was often at battle during the period of the Book of Esther. In addition, his listed wife does not tally with either Queen Vashti or Queen Esther. The book is also full of exaggeration.

Vashti By Edwin Long


There may not have been a definable Oliver Twist, but that does not mean there isn’t great truth in that novel by Charles Dickens. Carol Bechtel makes the same point about “A Christmas Carol” and its surreal moments.
The Book of Esther is a story with deep truths. As Carol Bechtel says, fiction is not the absence of truth but the vehicle for it.
God is very much in the background.
In this, the Book of Esther shares a number of features with the story of Joseph and the Books of Ruth and Jonah.
Sidnie Ann White describes Esther as a novella or short story. It is meant to be entertaining and the author maintains a tone of comic irony or even satire. Adele Berlin describes it as a “burlesque” (comic lampoon) and that ties in well with how Jews celebrate it.
The Book of Esther is full of feasts and banquets. Michael Fox drew attention to the ten banquets in two halves. It is surely no accident that Purim is a two-day festival. Jon Levenson argues that the banquets can be summed up by the Hebrew phrase: “the reverse occurred”. This is because the second half of banquets reverses the intention of the first half.

Xerxes I sculpted on his tomb

Dates and history.
The book of Esther is set during the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus or Xerxes I who ruled from 486 to 465 BCE.

597 and 587/6 BCE– The Kingdom of Judah is defeated by the Babylonian Empire and the Exile and prison camps take place as well as the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
C546 BCE – The Babylonian Empire is defeated and subsumed by the Persian Empire. The Persians tended to allow subject peoples to develop a certain limited autonomy and local religions were tolerated and encouraged (Books of Ezra and Nehemiah).
334-323 BCE – The whole region is conquered by the Macedonian Alexander the Great.

The opening words of the Book of Esther, “This happened in the days of Ahasuerus”, suggest the writer is looking back to a previous time. The author uses several Persian loan words and many authentic Persian names. The book is written in late Biblical Hebrew and the language is akin to the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles which are usually dated around 400-300 BCE i.e. eighty years after the action.
However, it probably cannot be later than the rise of the Seleucids during the Greek period around 200 BCE. Then the Greek rulers took an increasingly antagonistic policy towards their subject peoples. The Book of Esther talks about accommodation with the ruling powers and after 200 BCE, this was less possible. There is also an absence of Hellenistic vocabulary or colouring. So the Book of Esther is generally considered to have been written between 4oo BCE and 200 BCE.

Because the Book of Esther shows no interest in Palestine or Jerusalem whatever, it is generally thought to be written from the Jewish diaspora/dispersion.

A set of questions to aid reading the Book of Esther

1:1-2:4

The story takes place in Susa, one of the four capital cities of the Persian Empire during the reign of King Ahasuerus in the early fifth century BCE. The Kingdom extended from India to Ethiopia. The number of provinces varied but they were usually around thirty. Esther and her older cousin Mordecai are Jews living in Persia as a result of the Babylonian exile a century before. Patricia Tull, Sidnie Ann White.

1:1-9: Pomp and Circumstance.

What do you make of the number of provinces?

What do you make of 180 days of feasting?

What do you make of the surroundings and the furnishings?

“The absence of women at Ahasuerus’ banquets enhance the perception that these were really just overdone ‘stag parties’, with all the licentiousness and disrespect the term implies”. Jon Levenson.

1:10-21: Queen Vashti Sparks a State Crisis.

Why does Queen Vashti refuse to appear?

“One woman pulls the rug out from under the most powerful man in the world… and she does so while his whole world is watching”. Carol Bechtel.

What do you make of the judgement after the consultation of the sages and with reference to the laws?

How does King Ahasuerus shape up?

Is there a fear of contagion?

There is some doubt about whether Persian laws were unalterable but can you think of anything similar?

Does Ahasuerus remind you of anyone today?

“Jewish listeners, brought up on the prophets, were sure to be making their own observations, and slightly assessing the injustice of the system that created so great a gulf between rich and poor”. Joyce Baldwin.
2:1-4: Roundup of the Contestants.

The king needs a new Queen. What do you think of the advisors’ suggestion?
Is this a modern equivalent to a beauty contest?
What else does it remind you of?
What does it say about the position of women in Persia?