Biblical Themes :
Esther - Queen of Persia
Queen of Persia
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
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
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
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