Esther, Week One

Sheila and I began a series on the book of Esther this morning. Here is the summary that I posted today on our class blog:

This week, we began a series called Sex, Lies, and Genocide: What Veggietales Didn’t Tell You About Esther.

This is a very strange book, which is set in the politically-charged world of the court of King Xerxes in ancient Persia. In it, two Jewish characters, Esther and Mordacai, act to preserve their people from annihilation. However, some very un-veggitale like, Rated-R things happen along the way. For example:

  • Mordacai encourages the young virgin Esther, who is his niece, to enter into the King’s Harem and to keep her identity as a Jew a secret. It appears that he does this to position Esther where he can use her to influence the King.
  • Esther has sexual relations with King Xerxes, an uncircumcised Gentile, and, in so doing “wins his favor” (as the text puts it) above all of the other women in the Harem.
  • In the end, Esther and Mordacai use this influence to destroy the enemies of their people in a mass killing that includes, among other things, the impaling of ten young men on poles, presumably for the purpose of setting an example to anyone who would oppose them.
  • Throughout all of this, no one prays, no one mentions God, and God is never given credit for the victory of the Jews.

Christians have always found Esther to be a curious book. Many have never known quite what to do with it. Martin Luther, for example, said that he wished the book had never come to his attention because of its “heathan unnaturalities.” Indeed, after reading the book several times, I have come to agree with those who say that the writer of the book was not particularly concerned with the way God is honored in the book or even with giving credit to God for what happens.

Yet, in spite of the struggles that Christians have experienced when reading Esther, it has become a book of great significance among the Jews. For example, Twelvth Century Rabbi Moses Maimonides said: “When Messiah comes, the other books may pass away, but the Torah and Esther will abide forever.”

Why is Esther so important in the Jewish community? Primarily, because Esther explains the Jewish celebration of Purim, in which Israel achieved final victory from its enemies. The latter part of Chapter 9 provides the explanation for the relationship between the festival of Purim, which is celebrated to this day, and the story in the book of Esther. In Purim, the people of Israel celebrate their victory over those enemies who seek to destroy them.

Indeed, as we saw during class, Haaman, the chief “bad guy” in the story, is characterized as an Agagite – a term that is often used, even to this day, to refer to those who are enemies of the Jews. The “backstory” of the long-standing fued between the Jews and the Agagites (also sometimes referred to as the Amalakites) can be found in Exodus 17 and I Samuel 15.

The Purim festival is often a raucous celebration, filled with dancing, heavy drinking, and a wildly exaggerated re-telling of the Esther story. However, it is when celebration seems least in order that Esther can be most clearly heard.  

Robert Gordis writes: Anti-Semites have always hated [Esther], and the Nazis forbade its reading in the crematoria and concentration camps. In the dark days before their deaths, Jewish inmates….wrote the book of Esther from memory and read it in secret on Purim. Both they and their brutal foes understood its message. This unforgettable book teaches that Jewish resistance to annihilation, then as now, represents the service of God and devotion to his cause. In every age, martyrs and heroes, as well as ordinary men and women, have seen it not merely as a record of past deliverance but a prophecy of future salvation.

As I said already, I don’t think the writer of Esther is particularly concerned with tellin a story about God. However, when the Christian community “hears” Esther in the same way as the Jewish community, we can, along with the Jews, come to view it as celebration of the victory of God’s people over everyone and everything that sets itself up in opposition to them. It is an assurance that God will always act redemptively, even in the most un-veggitale-like of situations.

Next week, we will look at the early part of the story of Esther, asking ourselves whether any good, virtuous heroes can be found in this book, and whether such heroes are even necessary.

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