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Biblical Themes :
Esther - Queen of Persia

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Queen of Persia 

Read : Esther

Esther is one of only two books in the Bible named after women (Ruth is the other). The book is unusual in that in the original version, no name, title, or pronoun for God appear anywhere in it. But God's presence and guiding hand is clear throughout the book. 

The events recorded in Esther, take place over a period of about 10 years from 483 BC onwards. The story is set in the king's palace in Susa which was the capital of the Persian Empire. 

The story begins as we heard read, when King Xerxes provides a lavish banquet and display of the royal power and glory for the people of Susa. He wants to make Queen Vashti's beauty part of the entertainment for his all male party at his banquet. But, although this might be acceptable behaviour for a dancing girl, or a concubine, it was not acceptable for a queen, so she refuses his invitation, no doubt hoping that the king will come to his senses when he sobers up. Unfortunately for Vashti, he doesn't and with the encouragement of the other men of the court, she is banished, the justification being so that all the other wives in the kingdom do not follow her example and disobey their husbands. So the search begins for a new queen. The king sends out a decree to gather together all the beautiful virgins in the empire and then bring them into the royal harem.  

Enter Esther, a young Jewish woman, who was orphaned as a young child, and raised by her older cousin Mordecai. Although we know nothing of the circumstances which lead to Esther being chosen as one of the virgin beauties for the King's harem, being forcibly removed from her family and friends to the palace, which she would never be allowed to leave again, is unlikely to have been something she wanted. Her cousin Mordecai instructs her not to reveal to anyone that she is Jewish, or that she is related to him. 

For each of the young women who are taken to the royal harem, there follow 12 months of beauty treatments and special food before they can be brought into the king's presence. A well dressed and well fed wife (or concubine) was a sign of a man's wealth and status, so the young women have to be polished and fattened up before they can become the king's concubines. In time Esther finds favour in the eyes of Xerxes, in fact he is so pleased with her that he makes her his queen, replacing Vashti. 

Meanwhile, Mordecai, Esther's older cousin, becomes a government official. As a result of his duties he becomes aware of an assassination plot against the king, but with Esther's help, Mordecai is able to warn the king and foil the attempt. Mordecai's action is recorded in the palace records.  

Around this time the King goes off to war with Greece, and it is several years before he returns to his palace in Susa. During this time, the ambitious and self-serving Haman is appointed second-in-command in the empire. As a mark of respect, he expects everyone to kneel and do obeisance to him. However, Mordecai refuses. Although the Jews at times would bow down to government authorities, as a mark of respect, Haman's ancestors were ancient enemies of the Jews, so Mordecai refuses to kneel before Haman. Haman becomes infuriated by this, and decides the only thing to do is to kill all those who disregard his authority. He decides to destroy not only Mordecai, but also all the Jews in the kingdom.  

So Haman plots for a year how best to eliminate all the Jews, and his rage and hatred grow as every day he casts lots (known as Purim) until the sticks show him the most auspicious day to massacre all the Jews. Then, mainly by promising Xerxes that this will bring vast amounts of wealth to the king's treasury, he convinces the king to issue an edict. It says that, eleven months from that day, all the Jews in the kingdom will be slain. The decree creates a panic and of confusion among the Jews. Mordecai tells Queen Esther that she must appeal to the king to spare the Jews, convincing her that God has made her queen for this purpose.  

Esther agrees to speak to King Xerxes and reveal her nationality, in a desperate attempt to persuade him to stop the massacre, but she hasn't seen him for a month, and anyone approaching the king without being summoned is likely to be executed immediately. So, through Mordecai she asks the Jewish community to fast and pray on her behalf, and after doing the same herself for three days, she approaches the king's court. God is with her since the king seems pleased to see her and signals her to approach him. When he asks what she wants, she simply invites him to a banquet, along with Haman.  

During the banquet when the king again asks what she wants, she requests only that the king and Haman attend a second banquet with her the next day. Haman is vastly flattered by this attention from the queen, but later becomes more enraged than ever when he sees Mordecai still refusing to do obeisance to him. After discussions, Haman agrees to his wife's suggestion to build a large gallows, where he is confident he can convince the king to execute Mordecai. 

That night, unable to sleep, Xerxes was having some records from the royal archives read to him, when he heard again of the assassination plot that Mordecai had thwarted. Surprised to learn that Mordecai has never been rewarded for this deed, the king sends for Haman and asks him what he recommends should be done to properly thank a hero. Haman's vanity is such that he immediately assumes that the king is talking about him, and so he describes a lavish reward. The hero should be dressed in the king's clothes, seated on one of the king's horses, and the horse led through the city streets by one of the king's highest nobles, who is to proclaim "This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour". The king agrees to everything Haman suggests, but Haman is infuriated and humiliated when he learns that Mordecai is the person to be honoured, and that he himself will lead Mordecai through the streets. 

At Esther's second banquet, Xerxes she tells the king that there is a plot to destroy her and all her people. Furious to hear of this, the king asks who is responsible for this plot. Not knowing that Esther is a Jew, he does not realise she is referring to the Jewish massacre he has already approved. Esther tells the King that Haman is responsible. Without delay, the infuriated king has Haman hanged on the gallows that were built for Mordecai. The seventy-five feet high gallows provide a city-wide spectacle of Haman's downfall. 

But this does not solve the problem, and so Esther begs the king to repeal the decree to kill all the Jews, but even the king cannot revoke Persian law sealed with the king's ring. She persuades the king to issue a new decree, which gives all the Jews permission to assemble and defend themselves against their enemies, on the day of the planned massacre. This new decree produces great joy among all the Jews, and when the fateful day finally arrives, they defeat their enemies throughout the kingdom. To celebrate this historic occasion, the feast of Purim is established, named after the lots (or Purim) that Haman cast.  

The narrative closes as Mordecai ascends to Haman's former position, becoming second only to the king, and the Jews are guaranteed protection throughout the land, while Esther returns to the harem where she will live out her life, and nothing more is known of her. But, because she recognised her God-given opportunity, and with God's help was brave enough able to make the most of it, a whole nation was saved from annihilation. 

Ruth Gillett, Reflective Worship


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