Sermon: Why is Esther in the Bible?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
26th of September 2021

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

As a congregation that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, we do not spend a lot of time with Queen Esther, and sadly we never hear the story of Queen Vashti read out in church. Today is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle that we hear a reading from the Book of Esther, and that reading is only eleven verses long. This may be because Esther is such a puzzling and problematic book, one that raises all sorts of questions. Esther offers neither neat morals for the preacher to expound, nor moral examples for hearers to follow, and today’s ‘Reflection’ is very much an exploration without conclusion.

The Book of Esther makes no mention of God, or of the Law, the covenant between the Lord and Moses, prayer, or any of the dietary restrictions that distinguish Jews from the rest of the world. The early Jewish translators were so worried by all these gaps that when they translated the book from Hebrew into Greek they added prayers into the Greek version. Commentators think that Esther was written in the fourth century BCE, and would have been translated into Greek, with the religious additions, in the second or first century BCE, but it did not officially become part of the Jewish canon until the third century CE. The Western Church decided that it was part of the Christian canon in the fourth century and the Eastern Church finally agreed in the eighth century. Esther puzzled Jews and Christians for centuries.

The Book of Esther is a comedy, a farce. It begins with a drunken king, Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, ‘one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia’, who holds a seven-day feast, and on the seventh day demands, while ‘merry with wine’, that his wife, Queen Vashti, display her beauty before the party of drunken men. When Vashti understandably says ‘no’ the sages who know the law warn the king that she has put not only the king’s authority, but the authority of every man in the kingdom at risk: ‘For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands’. (Esther 1:17)  For the sake of poor husbands everywhere, the king puts the disobedient Vashti aside.

The king then has all the beautiful young virgins in the land gathered into his harem. Among these is the book’s acknowledged heroine, Esther, a Jewish orphan who has been raised by her cousin, Mordecai. As a woman she is at the mercy of the decisions of men: her guardian-cousin; the eunuch in charge of concubines; the king himself. Esther spends a year in the harem, winning the favour of the eunuch who provides her with the best cosmetic treatments. When she attends Ahasuerus, Esther also wins his favour and becomes queen. On Mordecai’s orders Esther had not told anyone that they are cousins or that she is Jewish. Thus when the king’s highest official, Haman, decides to punish all Mordecai’s people because Mordecai refuses to bow to him, he does not know that he is also targeting the queen.

Haman’s argument is the anti-Semitic rhetoric that has been heard again and again throughout history: ‘There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.’ (Esther 3:8) The Jews are not like us; they should be destroyed. We have heard similar rhetoric in Australia about Muslims ever since 9/11, although rather than demanding their destruction people usually demand their deportation, and the current pandemic has led to a resurgence in anti-Semitism as people have become isolated and afraid and have spent more time online. The Book of Esther has continuing relevance.

The king agrees, and Haman writes an edict giving orders to the governors and officials of every province in the empire to destroy all Jews on one day, Haman deciding on the date by casting a lot, or Pur, hence the name Purim. After this, we’re told: ‘The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.’ (Esther 3:15)

Mordecai sends word to Esther, asking her to intervene with the king. Esther knows that she risks death by doing this, but she bravely imitates Vashti. Vashti refused to appear before the king when he commanded; Esther appears before him without being commanded. The king forgives her bad behaviour, and Esther asks that he and Haman come to a banquet she has prepared. They agree, and at that banquet Esther asks them to return the next day for a second one. Again, they agree, and Haman leaves the first banquet ‘happy and in good spirits’. But when leaving he sees Mordecai and when Mordecai again refuses to bow to him Haman is so enraged that on advice of his wife Zeresh and all his friends he has some gallows fifty cubits high made, on which he plans to later hang Mordecai.

On the second day Haman and the king again attend Esther’s banquet and this time when the king tells her that he will grant her any request, even up to half of his kingdom, Esther says:

‘If I have won your favour, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’ Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ (Esther 7:3-6)

The infuriated king grants her request and punishes Haman by hanging him on the gallows that Haman himself had built.

But the edict has been made, the Persians have been told that they can kill all the Jews, and that cannot be revoked. So rather than rescinding it, the king allows Esther to make another edict, by which the Jews are permitted to defend themselves against any armed force attacking them. Ultimately, the Jews kill more than 75,000 people throughout the king’s provinces. To celebrate this slaughter of their enemies, Mordecai writes to the Jews telling them to keep these days as a holiday. And so, the Feast of Purim is born..

Obviously, the book of Esther is not a work of history. One of its purposes seems to be to explain why the Jews celebrate Purim, which was probably originally a Persian or Babylonian holiday and was known for its frivolity. But its other messages are open to debate. What exactly is this story meant to be telling us?

Mosaic picture of a woman with a sceptre in her hand

Mosaic of Esther from the Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

The characters in the story are not meant to be taken seriously. The king is a buffoon; the villain, Haman, is an idiot, unaware that his new queen is related to Mordecai, despite all the messages that go between Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai precipitates the crisis because he refuses to bow to Haman. In the Greek additions to the story this refusal is given a noble reason; Mordecai says that it was because he did not want to put the glory of man before the glory of God. But in the original no reason is given. Mordecai is just rude. Esther is a more positive character, who saves her people, but she seems to have had no objections to becoming part of the Persian king’s harem, and she does not follow any Jewish religious rites while there. Esther and Mordecai save their people by becoming part of the dominant culture, Esther as queen, Mordecai dressed in ‘royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple’, and then turning the tables on their enemies in an act of violent revenge. This is not a story of Jews remaining notably Jewish in exile, as the Prophet Daniel did. None of these characters is a reliable role models. Why are they part of our Scripture?

One commentator, Timothy Beal, writes of this book:

What kind of Scripture is this? God hiding and a royal buffoon filling the space of divine retreat, no sign of religion or religious practice, no sacred space, Mount Sinai lost behind smoke and ashes, the law of the Father illegible: what does this have to do with anything we commonly assume to be “biblical”? Everything. But not as an affirmation of those assumptions.[1]

Another commentator, Michael Fox, agrees that ‘the book of Esther is doing something unprecedented, and its theological message should not be assimilated to the expected ones’.[2] Esther is a puzzling and problematic book, and we should not try to force it into a shape the suits the rest of the biblical canon.

One of the things that we learn from reading the Book of Esther, a message particularly relevant in this time of pandemic, is that there are times when God does not appear to be present and when things do not make sense. Today’s psalm praises God because ‘if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive,’ (Psalm 124:2-3) but there are times when the trap is not broken, and we are caught like prey in the teeth of our enemies. Perhaps the Jews know this better than anyone. How can any sense be made of purges and pogroms, of the expelling of all the Jews from England in the thirteenth century by Edward the First or of the Holocaust, the Shoah, of the twentieth century? Esther is a comedy, but it is also an example of survival literature, and ‘one of the strongest themes in the literature of survival is that pain is senseless; that a suffering so vast is without value as suffering’.[3] We take pain seriously when we do not seek to explain it away by saying that it is not as bad as it seems, or seek to make premature sense of it by saying that we deserve it or that we have learned something from it.

Most of scripture talks of a God who is present and who cares for God’s people; ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’. (Psalm 124:8) The Book of Esther is a counter-narrative to that. Life is complicated, and while our religion and our scriptures can provide us with some explanations, there are times when our questions remain unanswered. The Book of Esther tells us that this lack of certainty is part of our religious heritage too.

We began our worship with a version of Psalm 124, which gave thanks to the Lord for saving his people, and with Martin Luther’s strong assertion that though our foes may cause us distress, even kill us, we will remain victorious because we are citizens of the kingdom of God. We will end the service by singing the affirmation that: ‘All my hope on God is founded; all my trust he will renew, through all change and chance he guides me, only good and only true’. The wealth of our tradition is seen in the way the psalm, these hymns, and the reading of the Book of Esther as survival literature challenge and confront each other. Life is infinitely complex, and our faith recognizes that. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Richard Treloar, Esther and the End of ‘Final Solutions’ (2008), p. 153.

[2] Quoted in Richard Treloar, Esther and the End of ‘Final Solutions’ (2008), p. 239.

[3] Terence Des Pres quoted in Treloar, p. 121.

This entry was posted in Sermons and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s