< September 30, 2012 >

Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

 

If you haven't ever read the book of Esther, read it now.

It's not long, and you will need the whole story to preach this text. You will immediately notice that the book of Esther reads almost as a stand-alone text within the biblical canon.

It has no mention of Jerusalem, the law, prophets, the Promised Land or exile, or even God. It includes no formal prayers or miracles, though does depict fasting as a pious practice. Its only internal tie to the rest of the Hebrew Bible is that it involves the survival of the Jewish people, crucial enough to the larger canon.

Most of your audience is unlikely to know the whole story of Esther, her life as an orphan, the role of Mordecai, how she came to be Queen, who Haman is, or why he has orchestrated the destruction of the Jewish people. Without the backstory, or least some explanation of the key characters, these spliced together highlights of lectionary text don't make sense. The lectionary selection relies on prior knowledge of the whole book. So one sermon strategy is to tell the whole story, which is exciting in its own right with the brave Esther saving her people from destruction.

The Rest of the Story

Taken as a whole, the book of Esther addresses several key themes through the story of her life as part of a religious minority living within the dominant Persian culture, and ultimately even in the heart of power, the Persian court at Susa. She, like the Hebrew people in exile, is an orphan as the book opens. She is taken in by her uncle Mordecai, an advisor at the royal court and, later, a hero who saves the king from an assassination plot.  Esther eventually finds herself as part of the king's harem, hiding her Jewish identity in order to maneuver into the king's favor with access to his ear. Her uncle's nemesis, Haman, has convinced the king to decree that all Jews be killed, including special plans to hang Mordecai. Plenty of action in this book!

In all of these intrigues, Esther maintains her proximity to power in order to deliver her people from destruction, which she does. She reveals Haman's treachery, in the process revealing her own Jewish identity to the king as well, and appeals for the safety of her people. The king grants her requests, reverses the decree to kill Jews and authorizes them to defend themselves.

As a Jewish woman at the Persian court in Susa navigating both cultures, she reflects the struggle of the Jewish people living in diaspora. She eventually takes a risky stand in order to deliver and preserve the Jewish people. By the end of the book, more reversals ensue, so that the powerful are brought low, while the servant is raised up. The plot of the evil Haman to destroy the Jews is overturned, and Haman himself is hanged.

The reversals go a step further. The outsider Jews are not only given a last-minute stay of execution, they are given license to massacre their enemies, so that "those who hated the Jews" are slaughtered in the thousands (9:5ff). The very day that had been decreed for Persians to attack Jews, is now decreed as the day for Jews to defend against these enemies (9:1). Jews win, Persians lose. These reversals offer theological reassurance to a religious minority in the post-exilic context that God is indeed still at work delivering his chosen ones.

Purim

In this way, the book of Esther serves to explain and authorize the festival of Purim, and also authorizes the use of violence, though regulated, by the Hebrew people against their enemies. Purim remembers and celebrates the deliverance of the Jews by Queen Esther. The lectionary portion tells us only that Jews are to celebrate "the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies" (9:22).

However, the omitted verses 1-19 from chapter 9 also describes the Jews' violent retaliation against their enemies, including Esther's request to the king that Jews be allowed an extra day of killing (9:13). Commentators note the brutality of this violence and the hard moral questions raised by the book. Chapter 9 is careful to note that this holy war is regulated by the limit of time (only two days of killing) and that the Jews took no plunder, either in Susa or the provinces. For further treatment of violence in Esther, read the 2009 commentary on Esther at workingpreacher.org by Brent Strawn.

Take-Aways

For the Jews in diaspora the book of Esther has a lot to say, and I will note just a few take-aways here:

Living as a religious minority requires careful and sophisticated judgments about how and when to claim Jewish identity. The question of how to claim Jewish identity occupies much of the early story about Esther and Mordecai, with different judgments at different times about hiding and revealing one's Jewishness in varying contexts.

Ultimately, deliverance comes through claiming Jewish identity. Esther takes a great risk in revealing her true Jewishness, though Mordecai points out that she is sure to die either way. Nevertheless, once revealed, the king responds favorably and the Jewish people are saved.

While the powerful (and often evil) appear in control, there is an unseen hand at work in all things, leading to great reversals. Though God is never explicitly cited, the book shows a greater power at work throughout.

God has not abandoned his people. No matter how bad things get for Jews under the hand of foreign powers, God is still God. This is a strong theme through post-exilic literature and so with Esther, too.

These take-aways are pretty useful, too, for Christians who struggle to claim their identity within a dominant culture that would have them be Americans first, or employees first, or consumers first, other identities that compete for the hearts of those who follow Jesus.