< September 27, 2015 >

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

 

Preaching from the book of Esther is not for the faint-hearted.

The book offers some challenges to the preacher. In the Hebrew text of the book, God is never mentioned. Neither is prayer or worship. There is a lot of killing at the end of the book.1 And there’s the little matter of the way in which Esther becomes queen, a process which, despite the Veggie Tales rendition of the tale, shouldn’t be discussed in the presence of young children.

Still, despite these difficulties, the book of Esther is a good story, it has a strong female protagonist (not common in the Bible), it tells us something about God’s character and action, and it is part of Scripture, so it deserves our attention, even if it’s only for this week (which is the only time Esther appears in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary).

The verses assigned by the lectionary are out of context and need to be set in context in order to be understandable. That’s why I would suggest that if you preach about Esther, you largely ignore the other texts assigned for this week and just re-tell the story.         

Be sure to highlight some of the humor in the story. The book opens with a lavish feast that lasts six months! The king of all Persia is a pompous fool who needs his advisers to tell him what to do at every turn. After Queen Vashti refuses to come to the party, the domestic dispute is blown up into a national crisis and engenders a royal decree sent to all the corners of the empire that “every man should be master in his own house” (1:22). The gallows that Haman builds for Mordecai are an absurd height (75 feet tall), and Haman is the one who ends up hanged on them (7:9-10). The tone of the whole book, in other words, borders on the farcical.

The humor of the book of Esther is reflected in Purim celebrations (the annual Jewish festival that commemorates the story of Esther). At Purim, participants dress up in costumes, put on Purim shpiels (humorous plays), and generally have a raucous celebration. When the name of Haman comes up in the reading of the scroll of Esther, it is drowned out by booing and noisemakers. When the names of Esther or Mordecai are read, they are cheered. There is even an ancient tradition from the Talmud instructing Purim celebrants to drink until they are “unable to differentiate between the phrases ‘bless Mordecai’ and ‘curse Haman’” (Megillah 7a).2

All of this humor has a point. There is an underlying seriousness to this story. It is, after all, the story of an attempted genocide of the Jews in ancient Persia, a story (with different enemies) that has unfortunately been played out again and again in Jewish history. Indeed, the joke goes that Jewish holidays can be summed up in this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

The underlying seriousness of the story of Esther comes out most poignantly in a scene that is not included in the lectionary readings, but deserves attention. When Mordecai sends a message to Esther, asking her to stop Haman’s massacre of the Jews, Esther responds that she cannot go to the king unless summoned, on penalty of death. Mordecai says:

"Do not think that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this" (4:13-14).

The rabbis, who puzzled about the lack of God language in Esther, made much of that phrase, “another place.” Relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from “another place;” that is, from God, they said.

Similarly, after Haman goes home, humiliated after being forced to parade Mordecai around the city, his wife and friends say, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him but will surely fall before him” (6:13).

God is never mentioned in the book. But Mordecai is sure that help will arise from “another place.” And Haman’s family is sure that he is doomed to fall before Mordecai the Jew. And there are many, many coincidences that conspire to defeat Haman and save the Jews. Esther, out of all the women, just happens to become queen. The king just happens to have insomnia on the night of Esther’s first banquet. The court records read to him just happen to be the ones that tell about Mordecai saving his life. Haman just happens to come to the court when the king is contemplating how to reward Mordecai. And the list goes on.

Jon Levenson, using an old saying, puts it this way: “a coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.”3

God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. God does not speak or act in the story. There are no burning bushes here; no miracle by the sea. And yet, by the end of the book, God’s people are saved and their enemies are defeated.

This understanding of the book of Esther lends itself to some homiletical possibilities:

  • The preacher might speak of the faithfulness of God to God’s promises. God saves God’s people, Israel. And if God is faithful to Israel, then God will continue to be faithful to those of us who, by God’s grace, are grafted into Israel through Christ (Romans 11:17-24).
  • God saves God’s people not through direct intervention, but through the wisdom and courage of Esther and Mordecai. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” says Mordecai to Esther (4:14). The preacher might use this occasion to speak about vocation and the need for courage in following God’s call.
  • The preacher might also speak about discerning God’s will and action in the everyday realities of life. We may wish for God’s direct intervention, for a burning bush or an obvious miracle, but most days we (like Esther) don’t get such things. Indeed, most of the time, as a friend of mine says, God is subtle to a fault. And yet, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we may be able to discern where God is acting in our lives.

On this last point, Frederick Buechner is helpful. He has written at length about discerning God’s presence in the everyday events of one’s life:

The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak … He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys … ‘Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”4

Here, then, is one place where this humorous, raucous story of Esther might lead us: to the understanding that in the ordinary events of life, and sometimes in the not-so-ordinary events, in the coincidences and chance encounters of our days, we are called and claimed by God. And we may even, like Esther, find the courage to answer that call.


Notes:

1 Brent Strawn has done a good job of addressing this issue of violence in the book of Esther.

2 For one example of a humorous Purim shpiel song, written and performed for Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, listen to “Vashti was Right” (accessed May 30, 2015).

3 Jon Levenson, Esther (OTL; Westminster John Knox, 1997), 19.

4 Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (HarperCollins, 1982), 77-78.