ESTHER: THE STORY OF PURIM

By Karen Thompson
Second in a Five-Part Series

This is a continuation of a five-part series on the law of measure for measure as seen in the book of Esther. In the first post, we left off talking about the wicked Haman being promoted to the highest position in the Persian kingdom, just under the king. Haman was the Adolf Hitler of his time in that he masterminded a plot to have all the Jews throughout the Persian Empire “exterminated” in one day. It was his “final solution.” The story of Esther is filled with irony and events where God turned everything upside down. In this post, we will review the events in the book of Esther.

King Ahasuerus’ Banquet

The first chapter of Esther tells us that after King Ahasuerus consolidated his kingdom, he decided to celebrate in the third year of his reign. For the first 180 days, he threw a banquet for “all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces” (Est. 1:3). During this banquet of 180 days, King Ahasuerus showed off “the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days” (v. 4). After this banquet was completed, he gave another banquet that lasted seven days for all the common people in the citadel in Susa, from the greatest to the least (v. 5).

The décor for the banquet was elaborate. Verse six describes it as hangings of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen on silver rings and marble columns, couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry (a very hard rock, anciently quarried in Egypt, having a dark, purplish-red groundmass containing small crystals of feldspar), marble, mother-of-pearls, and precious stones. And in verse seven it says, “They gave them drink in vessels of gold, (the vessels being diverse one from another,) and royal wine in abundance, according to the state of the king.”

Queen Vashti

On the last day of the seven-day banquet when the king was really drunk, or “merry with wine,” he commanded his seven eunuchs to go and “bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on” (Est. 1:11). Vashti refused to come.

The king was furious with Vashti. So furious that he spoke with seven of his princes who were familiar with law and justice saying, “What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, because she hath not performed the commandment of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?” (v. 15). They came to the conclusion that Vashti had not only wronged the king but she had wronged all the princes, and in fact, she had wronged all the people in the kingdom. Verse 19 tells us what they decided Vashti’s judgment should be: “If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she” (Est. 1:19).

 Tradition says Vashti was actually put to death! Why such severe punishment? They feared that when word got out how Vashti spoke and behaved toward the king, her husband, there would be an epidemic of wives who, “Likewise shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king’s princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath” (v. 18). They didn’t want the women in the kingdom to feel they could speak disrespectfully to their husbands the way Vashti spoke to hers. But the official Old Testament version in Esther doesn’t tell us what Vashti said that outraged the king. We have to consult the story behind the story to get the details.

But first, let’s talk a little bit about Vashti and her background. Reading the official version, you can’t help but admire Vashti for having the integrity to not allow herself to be treated as a sex object to be leered at by drunken men. She seems to be the perfect role model, someone who had made a difficult stand and refused to compromise her moral character. However, the sages tell a different story about Vashti.

Vashti was the daughter of the Babylonian King Belshazzar and great granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar. Ahasuerus married her to legitimize his rulership. This was a common practice in ancient kingdoms. In fact, Alexander the Great would do the same thing himself when he conquered the Persian Empire later on. So the marriage between the Persian king and Vashti was not a marriage of love, or even respect for that matter.

Oral tradition tells us that Vashti had contempt for her husband and wasn’t shy about expressing it. Refusing to come to the king when he called her was not the first time she disrespected him. It was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Disrespect toward the king was a habit with Vashti. Vashti’s constant disrespectful behavior toward the king was what the men were afraid the women in the kingdom would emulate.

Proud of her royal heritage, Vashti often chose to flaunt it in the king’s face. When the king demanded her presence, she is said to have retorted, “Am I a servant to the king?” She scoffed at his inability to hold his liquor and blamed it on his lack of class. After all, she wasn’t one of his harlots that he had paraded in front of him. “Are you going back to where you came from?” she said, referring to his days before he was king.

Esther, the Hidden One

The king disposed of Vashti in the third year of his reign. In that same year, the king’s attendants came up with the suggestion of holding what would be the equivalent of a beauty contest among all the young ladies of his kingdom. His attendants then suggested that he appoint an overseer in each of the provinces to search for and gather up all the beautiful young women to bring before the king. They said, “Let the maiden which pleaseth the king be queen instead of Vashti. And the thing pleased the king; and he did so” (2:4).

This is where Esther enters the story. Esther was orphaned at a young age and was raised by her cousin, Mordecai. Esther was one of the women brought before the king. She, however, was not a willing participant. The overseers searched their provinces and “took” young women to become part of the king’s harem. It clearly says that “Esther also was taken to the king’s palace, into the care of Hegai the custodian of the women” (2:8 NKJV). Right away, Esther found favor with Hegai, the man in charge of the women. It says, “He speedily gave her, her things for purification, with such things as belonged to her, and seven maidens, which were meet to be given her, out of the king’s house: and he preferred her and her maids unto the best place of the house of the women” (2:9).

When Esther was taken by the overseers, Mordecai instructed Esther not to let anyone know she was a Jewess. Esther obeyed. Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah. Tradition tells us Esther was the Persian name given to her and it meant “star.” But what is interesting, is that the name Esther (spelled Ester) in Hebrew means “hidden.” In light of the fact that Mordecai’s instruction to Esther was to hide her nationality, the name Esther seems to be an act of fate.

It took a full year before Esther would even be presented to the king for his consideration, because each woman had to undergo beautification treatments of “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics” (2:12). During that time, Mordecai walked back and forth in the courtyard of the harem every day to make sure Esther was okay.

When it was Esther’s turn to be presented to the king, it says, “The king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti” (2:17). In the seventh year of his reign and four years after Vashti’s demise, the king found his queen. Even as queen, Esther continued to hide her nationality as Mordecai instructed her to do.

Mordecai, the Righteous

The next event in the book of Esther doesn’t seem to be connected to what we’ve read about so far, but it is, in fact, an event that was key to turning events upside down. As we just read, Mordecai came to the king’s gate every day to check up on Esther. One day when he was there, he happened to overhear two of the king’s officers plotting his assassination. They didn’t seem to be concerned with talking quietly, because they were speaking in a language from a province at the far end of the empire, from Tarsis. It was an unfamiliar language for that area. Mordecai understood the language they were speaking and heard their plans to poison the king. He went to Esther and reported to her what he had overheard. Esther reported it to the king, in Mordecai’s name. The plotters were apprehended and hung on the gallows. The details of the plot were recorded in the chronicles of the king.

Haman, the Amalekite

Next, the villain of the story is introduced: “After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him” (Est. 3:1). After this promotion, Haman was the most powerful man in the Medo/Persian Empire under the king. The king commanded all the servants who were at the king’s gate to bow down and pay homage to Haman. All the king’s servants obeyed the command. All except one—Mordecai. This made Haman livid!

The other servants asked Mordecai, “Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment?” (3:3). His fellow servants asked him daily, yet he wouldn’t listen and refused to bow to Haman. Verse four says when they couldn’t convince Mordecai to bow down to Haman, “They told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew” (3:4). They explained to Haman the reason Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him was because he was a Jew. Essentially, they were asking if Mordecai could get a “pass” on bowing, because his religious laws forbid it. Tradition tells us that Haman wore an idol around his neck. Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman was a refusal to bow down before that idol.

It didn’t appease Haman when he learned the reason Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him was because he was Jewish. In fact, it outraged him. You see, Haman was a descendant of King Agag the Amalekite. Earlier in history, God had instructed King Saul to wipe out the entire group of people known as the Amalekites. Saul did not follow to the letter God’s command. Instead, he had mercy on King Agag and spared him from death. It was this act of disobedience that caused King Saul to fall out of God’s favor.

Centuries later, here was a direct descendant of King Agag, Haman, and a direct descendant of King Saul, Mordecai, on a collision course with one another. As far as Haman was concerned, Mordecai’s death was certain. But Haman wasn’t going to be satisfied with just Mordecai’s death. The Bible tells us in Esther 3:6, “But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had told him of the people of Mordecai. Instead, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus—the people of Mordecai” (NKJV).

Haman wanted all the Jews in the kingdom to die, so he made a proposal to the king. In the 12th year of King Ahasuerus’ reign, five years after Esther was made queen, Haman said to the King, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries” (3:8–9).

When Haman presented to the king his plan to kill the Jewish people, his motive for killing an entire group of people was because they didn’t obey the king’s laws. This was a purely selfish motive, based on Mordecai’s refusal to bow down before him. Haman was willing to pay the king ten thousand talents of silver of his own money for the task of killing all the Jews! Sadly, the next two verses tell us, “The king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy. And the king said unto Haman, The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee” (3:10–11). Essentially, the king said, “Keep your money. Here’s my ring, do whatever you wish to these people.”

Haman chose a day by lot (or “pur”) to decide which day the Jews would all perish. This day would come to be known by the Jews as “Purim.” Once the day was selected, “letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey. The copy of the writing for a commandment to be given in every province was published unto all people, that they should be ready against that day” (3:13–14).

When the letters issuing the decree were sent out, “the king and Haman sat down to drink” and the “city of Susa was perplexed” (3:15). You can imagine how perplexed all the people were when they received news of this decree. And while everyone was in confusion, the king and Haman had a feast!

To be continued in the next post!

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The email begged for his life: “Please don’t let me die! I’m begging you to just please move me forward.”

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