OT Survey 113 Seminar 20 Esther
Andrew Hodge 6th October 2006
Old Testament Survey OTE113
Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago pp 241-249; Esther; Libronix
Discuss the purpose of this narrative:
Although none of the names of God are used in the book of Esther, His hand is so evident that I shall assume it.
Esther relates a story which was of critical importance to the dispersed Jewish nation of her day, but is quite unconnected to the remainder of Jewish history. The whole episode may well have been completely forgotten if it were not for the institution of the Feast of Purim (“Lots”, celebrated 14th and/or 15th of the month Adar, the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar - our February/March - Esther 9:21). “Pur” is the Persian (Assyrian?) for the ‘lot’ which was cast by Haman to determine the best day (Adar 13th) on which to have the Jews exterminated. The Jews pluralised this word in their normal way to ‘Purim’.
Generally speaking, the Jewish nation has been systematically oppressed ever since it began becoming numerous in the land of Goshen in Egypt under Pharaoh. Subsequent to the Exodus, Jehovah has allowed continuing oppression of His Nation on account of sinful rebellion against Him and their rejection of Messiah.
The story in Esther is a welcome shining star of Jewish victory over oppression, long remembered and cherished as one of the few times when Jews got the better of their enemies in a completely non-military fashion, at the exhibition of faith in God and obedience on the part of just two people. This separates the deliverances God effected for the Nation under the Judges - these were military, and were part of the larger cycles of rebellion and repentance of all the people - not the situation of the Jews of the Dispersion in polytheistic Persia in Esther’s time.
The Jewish return to Jerusalem and Canaan had already commenced some 57 years before the first Purim. About 50,000 had returned with Zerubbabel in 536 BC but there remained 2 to 3 million Jews dispersed in Persia. All of these Jews were at risk from Haman’s evil plan.
The feast of Purim is not one of the God-ordained feasts of the Jewish religious calendar, coming four weeks before Passover ( which is held in the next month ie 14th Nisan - our March/April), and in this respect is similar to Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, another Jewish favourite celebrated near the Gentile Christian Christmastime.
The purpose of this narrative in spiritual terms (that is, apart from its being a rattling good secular story as well) is to show the Nation and us as Christians that faith and obedience work wonders with God. Focusing on God in all we do and think makes even the smallest of actions and thoughts God-related and God-controlled ie right. My impression of both Esther and Mordecai is that they were Godly people who knew what God wanted and were willing to go a long way out on a limb in faith in order to be a part of the achievement of that will.
They did not have to wonder what God’s will was in this situation - Mordecai at least has a sense of Someone in control over his nation (4:14) and presumably his education included study of the extant Jewish literature which included the Pentateuch, and possibly Jeremiah (which prophesies the 70 year captivity and the return - already begun just a generation or so before Mordecai’s birth - Jeremiah 25:11-12, 29:10). Haman’s opposition to Jewry was on account of Mordecai’s refusal to bow to an upstart Jehovah-less politician. Mordecai was very proud of being a Jew and he showed his patriotism publicly without fear, inevitably singling him out as someone unafraid of political bombast.
Haman’s injured pride at Mordecai’s action was great enough to spill over onto all Jews and his deviousness was slippery enough to concoct a plan which threatened all Jews wherever they lived (including those who had already returned to the land).
Discuss how the major characters interrelate within the events of the narrative:
Ahasuerus is Xerxes, ‘Ahasuerus’ possibly being a title similar to Pharaoh of Egypt . Xerxes is monarch of Persia from 486 to 464 BC at a time when Persia is near the zenith of its power (Jensen Chart 4 pp 36-37). All the major Eastern powers except Greece are under Persian control by direct military conquest - Babylonia in 539 BC (which had itself recently overtaken Assyria - 612 BC), Syria (conquered by the Assyrians mid 7thC BC) and Egypt (crushed by Babylon at Carchemish 605 BC, mostly under Persian control from 525 BC). Esther 1:1 tells us that his kingdom stretches from India to Ethiopia in 127 provinces.
His capital at Susa (Shushan) is rich and the king likes to indulge his affluence and sensuality. The book opens with a six month party with all the trimmings in the king’s third year, ostensibly to plan the invasion of Greece. He does not lack for ambitious courtiers nor for women. The scene is set when his male ‘advisors’ convince him that the action of his current queen Vashti in refusing to appear unveiled before a horde of drunken guests strikes at the heart of every husband in the country, and he dismisses her - both from being Queen and from being his wife. He readily agrees for a search to be made for the realm’s most eligible virgin as a replacement, his harem being fully stocked in the meantime (and in full use whether he has a legitimate Queen or no). He was after all practically the ruler of the then known world, the silver torso of Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 2:39). He tended to resettle conquered lands with his own subjects and he was not known to be anti-Semitic. He was assassinated in his palace in 465 BC after his disastrous campaigns against the Greeks 1.
In secular terms, the turning point in the narrative occurs when Xerxes recognises Haman’s evil plot for what it is (6:7-8). The final straw is his misapprehension that Haman was assaulting his Queen, when in fact Haman was pleading for her mercy, knowing that he was unlikely to get any from Xerxes himself. Xerxes was then willing to be guided by Esther and Mordecai in how the problem of rescuing the Jews should be handled, as he was just as willing to be influenced by Haman’s argument and money that the Jews should be destroyed in the first place. These decisions demonstrate precipitate unthinking action with little appreciation of consequences.
Five years after the feast - eight years into Xerxes’ reign - he selects his virgin to be Vashti’s successor. She is Hadassah (‘myrtle’ in Hebrew; Esther or ‘star’ in Persian and Hebrew 3). Esther comes with more qualities than Xerxes expects.
She is probably in her late teens on accession to the throne as Queen. She is remarkably beautiful - but not just to look at. She captivates everyone with her modesty, humility, kindness and consideration, confidence and maturity, the very qualities that ultimately guarantee her success.
She was an orphan (? at what age) and has been brought up by her cousin Mordecai, who is an official gatekeeper at Xerxes’ court. As Jews, both Mordecai and Esther trust God to manage their own lives as well as those of all Persia including the king.
Esther’s second nature is to implicitly obey her surrogate father in everything and he encourages her to be bold before the king when the Jews are threatened with Haman’s plot. This occurs about five years after Esther’s accession and the spiritual turning point in the narrative is where Esther agrees to trust God in obedience to Mordecai and risk her life to save the Jews (4:14).
In order to have Xerxes countermand his (ie Haman’s) decree to exterminate the Jews (on an auspicious day 11 months in the future) she somehow needed to influence the king to change his mind. This was not a small thing for Esther to do. She had not been invited into the king’s presence for a month, and to come uninvited was to risk death. Once signed into Law, not even the king could alter a decree. Esther’s own life could not be spared if the Law was enacted as it currently stood (everyone at court including Xerxes and Haman were ignorant as to Esther’s nationality). The kingdom was so widespread that delay might mean that even eleven months would be insufficient to communicate the contents of a new decree. Esther and Mordecai know that only wise but immediate action would be effective.
Fundamentally, Esther entrusts herself to right action under God although God is not explicitly mentioned as revealing Himself to any of the players. God undertakes to have Esther accepted before the king, to give her wisdom in how to intrigue the king and entrap Haman, to have the king clearly understand her perilous situation, to have Haman’s pride cause his death on his own gallows prepared for Mordecai, to have the initial decree effectively annulled, and to have the authorities throughout the kingdom assist the Jews to take revenge on their persecutors, resulting in thousands of Gentile killings - 75,000 in the provinces, 500+300 more in the capital, along with Haman’s ten sons.
Haman is Xerxes’ most trusted advisor, which gives much insight into Xerxes’ poor qualities as an administrator. Haman is egotistical and ambitious and has no compunction about manipulating his sovereign to achieve his own ends. He uses lies and money to convince Xerxes to issue a decree to “destroy, to kill and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey” (3:13). He does this because he is enraged at the stubborn refusal of Mordecai the Jew to bow down to him at the king’s gate, his rage not to be satisfied with only with Mordecai’s death but that of the whole race.
3Alfred Jones Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501 1990 p119
Haman, with the connivance of his family, makes a gallows specifically to hang Mordecai on when the time comes. God has arranged matters so that Haman’s evil is turned completely around upon himself - not only that Haman is hanged on his own gallows, but immediately prior to that, Xerxes forces Haman to give a supreme honour to Mordecai as a belated reward for Mordecai foiling a previous assassination attempt against the king’s life. Ultimately Esther is able to give all of Haman’s wealth and possessions to Mordecai - the ‘spoil’ of God’s blessing.
Mordecai, although technically of Esther’s generation as her cousin, was old enough to ‘bring her up in the way she should go’ - not unusual to have such a time gap in the generations of a single family. It is not known how he obtained the gatekeeper’s job at Court, but he would have had to have been well educated, trustworthy and respected. It has also been suggested that in line with most important court officials, he was castrated (possibly later when he was elevated to be second to the king?).
In a sense, Mordecai is the hero of the book. He brings Esther up in the manner which prepares her for a critically important task. He is the one who selflessly protects the king without complaining that he was not rewarded for it. He gives her Godly advice precisely at God’s timing; he is instrumental in guiding the king in how to reverse the irreversible decree; he is the one granted the spoils of the spiritual battle waged over the fate of the Jews - including being elevated to the king’s Chief Advisor in Haman’s place "and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed." (Esther 10:3) “.a
Explain the uniqueness of Esther’s role in relationship to her people and God:
Of the hundreds of thousands of Persian, Jewish and other virgins that might have been selected, God’s choice is Esther. She has precisely the right qualities to be used to save the nation that God had covenanted to protect. More importantly, she had the faith that made her willing to risk herself for the higher goal. 4:14, the book’s key verse, suggests that if she had not been willing then she and her family would have suffered, although God’s plan would not be frustrated for lack of a participant. God would have found someone else and she would not have received the blessings of doing God’s will. "The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them." (Esther 8:16-18)."
Having had the decree effectively reversed, and ensuring that the Jews in the capital get a second chance to finish off their enemies, Esther’s role in the story fades and Mordecai takes the primary role (eg 9:3-4).
Reveal a practical working out of God’s covenant with the Jewish nation:
God’s covenants are guarantees that ensure that His plan will succeed irrespective of who will be willing to obey Him in faith. In several foreign environments, God used the saved and unsaved to achieve His ends to protect and preserve His People, sometimes working through only one individual for success eg Cyrus, Daniel, Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, as well as Esther and Mordecai.
There are also times when the whole of history hangs in the balance on the shoulders of just one human being eg Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the supreme individual, Christ.
The Jews are the only nation through which God planned to bring the Messiah. Many times they forfeited the right to be part of such a privilege but God either directly intervened or used individuals to set them back on track. At present they are not forgotten and God’s covenants for them remain in force for soon fulfilment.
Illustrate how God works through individuals to fulfil His will and plan for His people:
Of all the historical narratives in Scripture, Esther stands out as a book which describes major reversals of fortune in all the key individuals, including Xerxes (see above). There is never any doubt that God will preserve His nation. It is just a matter of who is willing to be used to carry out God’s plan. When an individual walks by faith and not by sight, all things tend to work together for good (2 Corinthians 5:7; Romans 8:28).
“The theme of God exalting the humble and bringing low those in high position may also be observed in the stories of Jacob (Gen. 25:23), Joseph (Gen. 41:39–44), Ephraim (Gen. 48:14–20), Gideon (Judg. 6:14–16), David (1 Sam. 16:6–13) and many others throughout both Old and New Testaments. It is found in Hannah’s song of praise (1 Sam. 2:1–10), Psalm 113 and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). The book of Esther is frequently compared with the Joseph narrative of Genesis 37–45. Both Joseph and Esther are exalted to lofty positions in the royal household in order to bring salvation to God’s people.
The importance of this theme in Scripture relates directly to the ultimate reversal of fortunes: salvation through Christ. Esther and Joseph are exalted to royal position in order to bring temporal salvation, but Jesus abases himself to bring eternal salvation: ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Cor. 8:9). The exaltation of the humble also anticipates the exaltation of Christ after his conquest of sin and death at Calvary (*e.g. Phil. 2:5–11). The elevation of Esther and Mordecai points forward to Christ and reveals the hand of a God who is infinitely more powerful than the whole Persian Empire, a God who is truly the King of kings.”
D. R. W. Wood, New Bible Dictionary, 991 (InterVarsity Press, 1996, c1982, c1962).
1The International Bible Encyclopedia Fully Revised 1956 - 1988 Geoffrey W. Bromiley General Editor, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan III, 779
The Pulpit Commentary: Esther, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, iii (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004).
a The Holy Bible : King James Version. electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995.
T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).