Proper 21 (26), Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
30 September 2018
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
The Book of Esther was written to explain the Jewish festival of Purim.
Even though the book of Esther is a work of fiction, in locating the story in Persia we learn something about that part of the Jewish community that did not return after the Babylonian exile. The exile had lasted somewhere between sixty and seventy years, which meant you had at least two generations who had never seen the promised land. Their exile had become their home and while going back was the collective desire expressed in the liturgy, not everyone returned. And so you have a Jewish community living abroad. The remarkable thing about this is that they retained their identity as God’s people even in a foreign land. We know that the exile was the beginning of synagogue worship.
The story comes to us in the excesses of King Ahusuerus, King of Persia from 486 and 465 BC. It begins with a royal drinking party at which wine is lavished according to the bounty of the king. Drinking is by flagons and without restraint. On the seventh day of drinking, when the king is merry with wine, he wants to parade his wife Queen Vashti, wearing her crown, to show off her beauty. To her credit, she refuses. The king divorces her upon her refusal because her behaviour may lead other women to look upon their husbands with contempt. Things might unravel if you let her get away with it. It’s the slippery slope argument.
And so Queen Vashti, too, is a heroine, although her chief task in the story is to make room for Esther. Esther enters the stage, quite literally, through a beauty pageant, for the king now has a vacancy in his harem.
The king chooses Esther for she is fair and beautiful. In the harem she quickly advances to the best place, though this does not mean that she would be present at the side of the king. In fact, when her uncle Mordecai requests her help to save her people, she has not been called to the king in thirty days. Mordecai is not only her uncle but also the one who had raised her, for she is an orphan. When King Ahusuerus chooses Esther, Mordecai charges her not to reveal her Jewish identity.
As the story moves along we learn of a plot against the king that is discovered by Mordecai, as he tends to spend time at the palace gate to keep an eye on Esther. Esther reports the plot, which is foiled. This eventually leads to the promotion of Mordecai.
The king is clueless about most things. He is self-absorbed and his only sources of information are the court records (from where he accidentally learns about Mordecai’s uncovering of the plot) and Haman, his right hand man. So while he has all power he is easy to manipulate. He is a blank slate.
There are many comical elements in this story. Haman, the king’s right hand man plans to kill Mordecai for the simple reason that Mordecai does not bow down before him or do obeisance to him. It is the beginning of Haman’s plot to kill all Jews. But Haman feels a special animosity for Mordecai and orders a special gallows to be constructed for Mordecai’s execution. Yet, just as Haman arrives to ask the king’s permission for Mordecai’s execution the king asks him, “What should be done for the man the king wants to honour?” Haman assumes that the king is speaking of him. So he answers, “For the man the king delights to honour, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden … and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!’” Of course, the man the king delights to honour is Haman’s rival Mordecai.
There is one more important bit I need to tell you about. We know from today’s reading that Esther’s interceding saves her people. But initially, Esther was not going to make the request. She tells Mordecai that anyone, her included, who speaks to the king without having been called is put to death. Mordecai appeals to her and reminds her that if all Jews are to be killed, she too will die.
And so Esther begins a three day fast and then approaches the king. She does this seemingly without fear, always in control of herself and of the situation, and understanding better than anyone in the story how to make things happen.
The story ends with the Jews being saved, Haman killed and Mordecai elevated. And so the story has a happy end.
And yet, the story ending is not a happy ending for all. Not only is Haman hanged from the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai, but another 75,000 enemies are slaughtered.
Interestingly, the Hebrew text of Esther never mentions God.
Yet, the Book of Esther is included in the Bible and it tells the story of the survival of God’s people the Jews in a time of persecution. Elie Wiesel makes reference to it in his book, “The Trial of God.” He speaks of the Nazi pogroms as of ‘Purim without the miracle of Purim.’
We do not know how God is present in the story, other than through God’s people. God cares for God’s people and so we may assume that the rescue that comes through Mordecai and Esther is given by God.
And yet God does not speak in the pages of the book, nor does anyone speak to God. But God’s people survive. The Book of Esther resists our temptation to identify God too quickly and readily, and to find comfort in certainties. In this way Esther is like our own lives, we do not always know how we got here. I know some things about how I got here and others I do not understand, which makes me trust that in the midst of my life God is at work.
The violence at the end of the book is difficult to stomach, which may be why our reading for today only tells of the saving of God’s people. It’s sort of like the Psalms we sing in worship that leave out the difficult parts.
However, there are some markers in the story we should pay attention to. The story of Vashti, the wife deposed for not responding to the king’s demand, makes clear that what follows is a persecution text. The conflict surrounding Vashti is resolved by her rejection to which all acquiesce.
This is the introduction to the persecution story that follows. What must be noted is that this story is told not from the perspective of the perpetrator but from the perspective of the victim and thus allows the reader to question Vashti’s expulsion and the system that supports it.
The story of Esther for which the story of Vashti had set the stage is also a persecution text. This is obvious from the outset. It too is told from the perspective of the victim and the mechanisms at work are evident.
In the first three chapters we learn about the connection of anger and violence: Vashti’s refusal creates anger in the king. Her expulsion follows. The eunuchs are reported to be angry and seek to harm the king; they wind up impaled. Haman is angered because of Mordecai’s refusal to bow and Haman plots the killing of all Jews.
All three episodes share a strange absence of explicit motive. The text never tells us why Vashti refused to come before the king; neither do we learn why the eunuchs wanted to kill the king; nor do we learn why Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. The motive is clearly rivalry, though where the rivalry stems from in the first two cases is unknown according to the text.1
The rivalry between Mordecai and Haman goes back to the beginning of time. Mordecai is a descendant King Saul and a Benjamenite, while Haman is a descendant of Amalek and of Esau.
And so the rivalry between Haman and Mordecai is a reflection of the rivalry of the two brothers, much alike yet seeking distinction, like all of humanity.
And yet, what is forgotten is that Jacob and Esau at last made peace and put their rivalry behind them.
In unmasking the mechanism of violence the story of Esther can move us beyond violence, even the as story itself falls back into the familiar pattern of violence. Here, perhaps it is good to remember that the Book of Esther never mentions God.
It is not until Jesus becomes the innocent victim who does not reciprocate or retaliate that God’s people in church and synagogue are able to see an alternative to our cycles of violence.
And so the Book of Esther is not only an entertaining story but it makes us contemplate the presence of God in our lives, whether and how we scapegoat others, and our ability to live peaceably with all. It is not by coincidence that the presence of God in our lives and living peaceably are related.2
1 See Vanessa Jane Avery, Jewish Vaccines Against Mimetic Desire: Rene Girard and Jewish Ritual, University of Exeter Dissertation, page 135-136, https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/14604/AveryV.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
2 see the Gospel text for this day: Mark 9:50