Thursday, March 4, 2010


Last Sunday we celebrated Purim.  Each year my family tries to celebrate a Jewish feast (Seder, Hannukah, Sukkoth coming soon, ...)  and this year was Purim.  That involves the reading of the whole Megillah (source of that expression, the scroll of Esther), and a celebratory feast.  My students had had some questions about Jews the week before, and one of them said Esther was her favorite book, so the timing was fortuitous.

I adapted a study I had piloted for the Men's group, and used in family as we prepared for Esther.  The scripture quotes are from the Message transliteration.

Esther and Purim
There are several interesting things about the book of Esther.  The most famous is that it is the only book in the Bible which does not mention God.  Another is that it is the first use of the word Jew.  The book of Esther records the start of its own holiday, celebrated to this day by Jews the world over as Purim.  Depending on your translation, the Persian king may have the name Ahasuerus (in Hebrew) or be translated to Xerxes (his Persian name).  Cush is Ethiopia.  Persia is where the modern-day country of Iran is.  The story starts at the end of a half year celebration by the king.  A week long drunken party is capped by a demand for the appearance of Queen Vashti, whose name means beautiful, to display herself for the guests.  She refuses.

Esther 1:15-20. But Queen Vashti refused to come, refused the summons delivered by the eunuchs. The king lost his temper and called in his counselors, all experts in legal matters. It was the king's practice to consult his expert advisors. … He asked them for their advice.  Memucan spoke up in the council of the king and princes: “It's not only the king Queen Vashti has insulted, it's all of us, leaders and people alike in every last one of King Xerxes' provinces. The word's going to get out: 'Did you hear the latest about Queen Vashti? King Xerxes ordered her to be brought before him and she wouldn't do it!' When the women hear it, they'll start treating their husbands with contempt. The day the wives of the Persian and Mede officials get wind of the queen's insolence, they'll be out of control. Is that what we want, a country of angry women who don't know their place?  So, if the king agrees, let him pronounce a royal ruling and have it recorded in the laws of the Persians and Medes so that it cannot be revoked, that Vashti is permanently banned from King Xerxes' presence. And then let the king give her royal position to a woman who knows her place.” The king did what Memucan proposed. He sent bulletins to every part of the kingdom in their own language: “Every man is master of his own house; whatever he says, goes.”

1)    What would you have advised the king?  What effect will this advice have on other families?

So the King started a search for the most beautiful young women to find a replacement for Vashti.  There was a Jew named Mordecai living in Susa, the capital city, whose family had been taken from Israel.  His brother died, and he adopted his niece, named Esther.  She was beautiful in face and figure, and was selected for the palace.  Out of all the women selected, one would be picked to replace Vashti.  Esther becomes a part of the harem, receives a year of beauty treatments, and is sent finally to the king.  A wife only appears when summoned, so if the first appearance to the king doesn’t go well, that might be the last time you see him.

Read Esther 2:15-23. When it was Esther's turn to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king's eunuch in charge of the harem, had recommended. Esther, just as she was, won the admiration of everyone who saw her.  The king fell in love with Esther far more than with any of his other women. He placed a royal crown on her head and made her queen in place of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet for all his nobles and officials – “Esther's Banquet.” He proclaimed a holiday for all the provinces and handed out gifts with royal generosity.

2)    Sounds like a fairy tale.  But what would it be like in real life?

All this time Mordecai had been hanging out by the gates of the palace.  One day he overheard two bodyguards plotting to kill Xerxes.  He reported them, saved the king’s life, and they were executed.  It was recorded in the official history, but he didn’t receive any reward for it.

3)    Have you ever done a good deed that seemed to go unnoticed?

Enter the villain.  Read Esther 3:1-10. Some time later, King Xerxes promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, making him the highest-ranking official in the government. All the king's servants at the King's Gate used to honor him by bowing down and kneeling before Haman—that's what the king had commanded.  Except Mordecai. Mordecai wouldn't do it, wouldn't bow down and kneel. The king's servants at the King's Gate asked Mordecai about it: “Why do you cross the king's command?” When Haman saw for himself that Mordecai didn't bow down and kneel before him, he was outraged. Meanwhile, having learned that Mordecai was a Jew, Haman hated to waste his fury on just one Jew; he looked for a way to eliminate not just Mordecai but all Jews throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.  In the first month Haman cast the pur (like rolling dice) to determine the day and month. The pur turned up the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.  Haman then spoke with King Xerxes: “There is an odd set of people scattered through the provinces of your kingdom who don't fit in. Their customs and ways are different from those of everybody else. Worse, they disregard the king's laws. They're an affront; the king shouldn't put up with them. If it please the king, let orders be given that they be destroyed. I'll pay for it myself. I'll deposit 375 tons of silver in the royal bank to finance the operation.”

So for offending his pride, Haman successfully manipulates the king into making an irrevocable decree to kill all the Jews.

4)    What is that like from modern times?  Why do some people seem to hate the Jews?

Mordecai and entire Jewish communities go into mourning, wearing sack cloth and ashes.  But Moredecai has faith they will be delivered.  He asks Esther to ask the king to save them.  But Esther tells him it is a crime punished with death to go see the king when you are not summoned.  You are only spared if the kind lowers his scepter.  Mordecai sends her this message.

Read Esther 4:12-16. “Don't think that just because you live in the king's house you're the one Jew who will get out of this alive. If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.” Esther sent back her answer to Mordecai: “Go and get all the Jews living in Susa together. Fast for me. Don't eat or drink for three days, either day or night. I and my maids will fast with you. If you will do this, I'll go to the king, even though it's forbidden. If I die, I die.”

5)    Have you ever been called like Mordecai called Esther to speak out for justice?  Can you think of anyone you know who has answered the call?

Esther responds to the call.  Read Esther 5:1-8. Three days later Esther dressed in her royal robes and took up a position in the inner court. The king was on his throne facing the entrance. When he noticed Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased to see her; the king extended the gold scepter in his hand. Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter. The king asked, “And what's your desire, Queen Esther? What do you want? Ask and it's yours—even if it's half my kingdom!”  “If it please the king,” said Esther, “let the king come with Haman to a dinner I've prepared for him.” “Get Haman at once,” said the king, “so we can go to dinner with Esther.”  So the king and Haman joined Esther at the dinner she had arranged. As they were drinking the wine, the king said, “Now, what is it you want? Half of my kingdom isn't too much to ask! Just ask.” Esther answered, “Here's what I want. If the king favors me and is pleased to do what I desire and ask, let the king and Haman come again tomorrow to the dinner that I will fix for them. Then I'll give a straight answer to the king's question.”

6)    Why does Esther pass up two opportunities to ask the king for what she wants?

Haman is ecstatic at being invited with the king.  But when he sees Mordecai afterward he is enraged.  He plans to have Mordecai hung the next day from a specially constructed 75 feet tall gallows.  Meanwhile the king is reminded of Mordecai’s prevention of the assassination attempt, and that he was never honored for it.  He calls in Haman. 

Read Esther 6:6-14. When Haman entered, the king said, “What would be appropriate for the man the king especially wants to honor?”  Haman thought to himself, “He must be talking about honoring me— who else?” So he answered the king, “For the man the king delights to honor, do this: Bring a royal robe that the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crown on its head. Then give the robe and the horse to one of the king's most noble princes. Have him robe the man whom the king especially wants to honor; have the prince lead him on horseback through the city square, proclaiming before him, 'This is what is done for the man whom the king especially wants to honor!'“  “Go and do it,” the king said to Haman. “Don't waste another minute. Take the robe and horse and do what you have proposed to Mordecai the Jew who sits at the King's Gate. Don't leave out a single detail of your plan.”

7)    So Haman has to do that for Mordecai.  How do you think he felt?

Finally it’s time for the second dinner.  Haman is frustrated and angry, but at least he’s still in favor with the queen.  Read Esther 7. So the king and Haman went to dinner with Queen Esther. At this second dinner, while they were drinking wine the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what would you like? Half of my kingdom! Just ask and it's yours.” Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your eyes, O King, and if it please the king, give me my life, and give my people their lives.  We've been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed—sold to be massacred, eliminated. If we had just been sold off into slavery, I wouldn't even have brought it up; our troubles wouldn't have been worth bothering the king over.”  King Xerxes exploded, “Who? Where is he? This is monstrous!”  “An enemy. An adversary. This evil Haman,” said Esther. Haman was terror-stricken before the king and queen.  The king, raging, left his wine and stalked out into the palace garden.  Haman stood there pleading with Queen Esther for his life—he could see that the king was finished with him and that he was doomed. As the king came back from the palace garden into the banquet hall, Haman was groveling at the couch on which Esther reclined. The king roared out, “Will he even attack the queen while I'm just around the corner?” When that word left the king's mouth, all the blood drained from Haman's face.  Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, spoke up: “Look over there! There's the gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai, who saved the king's life. It's right next to Haman's house—seventy-five feet high!” The king said, “Hang him on it!”  So Haman was hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai. And the king's hot anger cooled.

So Esther and Mordecai were spared.  Esther was given Haman’s estate and she put Mordecai in charge of it.  She pleaded for the fate of all the Jews, and the king gave them his seal and permission to write any edict they wanted.  The decree is in Esther 8:11-12. “The king's order authorized the Jews in every city to arm and defend themselves to the death, killing anyone who threatened them or their women and children, and confiscating for themselves anything owned by their enemies.”

The Jews did defend themselves and killed 75,000 enemies on the day they were supposed to be killed.  But they didn’t take any of their enemies possessions.  Even Haman’s 10 sons were killed in the capital.

8)    Is that a just response to Haman’s edict?  Why or why not?

Thus, when the appointed day came about, the Jews’ enemies were surprised and thoroughly defeated.  The king’s nobles supported the Jews out of fear of them and Mordecai’s new position.  Mordecai’s 10 sons were also hanged after the battles in the capital Susa.  People began celebrating these events immediately, and Mordecai confirmed this idea.

Read Esther 9:20-23. Mordecai wrote all this down and sent copies to all the Jews in all King Xerxes' provinces, regardless of distance, calling for an annual celebration on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar as the occasion when Jews got relief from their enemies, the month in which their sorrow turned to joy, mourning somersaulted into a holiday for parties and fun and laughter, the sending and receiving of presents and of giving gifts to the poor.  And they did it. What started then became a tradition, continuing the practice of what Mordecai had written to them.

9)    The Talmud recommends truly celebrating Purim with great verve.  Even to the point of drinking until you can’t tell Mordecai from Haman.  Every Purim Jews read the entire story of Esther (called the Megillah) twice.  What can you get out of hearing the same story over and over?

10)    What’s one thing you got out of this reading of Esther?

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