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Monday, October 21, 2013

A Heroine for the King

The book of Esther is the only book of the Bible that does not mention God’s name. It makes reference to Him and the Jews live lives that reflect His sovereignty and their faithfulness to Him. It is the story of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, in captivity in Persia under King Ahasuerus, the Hebrew name for King Xerxes (Greek name) or King Khshayarsha (Persian name), who lived from 520-465 BC. His son, King Artexerxes was king during Nehemiah’s time. King Ahasuerus reigned from 486-465BC. Esther, the story of a young woman of God, is set around the years 483-478BC.
Many of us have heard the story of Esther at some point in our lifetime. For women, Esther has become a hero. Esther was a young orphan Jewess who was adopted by her cousin, Mordecai while they lived in captivity in Babylon. The queen of king Ahasuerus was Vashti and her beauty was known throughout the kingdom. One night during a half-year feast, the king wanted to parade his queen and her beauty to his princes and noblemen and so summoned her to him. She refused to attend at the king’s request. Upon advice from his most esteemed nobles, the king dethroned Vashti and searched for a new queen. The king’s eunuchs were sent throughout his provinces to find the most beautiful virgins and bring them to the royal palace. Esther was one of these beautiful virgins. After twelve months being pampered and prepared for her introduction to the king, each girl was brought before the king and spent the night with him after which she would go to the harem of the concubines if she was not chosen to be the new queen. When Esther was presented to the king, the king loved her and she found favor with him more than all the other women who were taken to him. He chose Esther to be his queen.
Along with Esther, the daughter of a Levitical priest, Abahail, the king raised the stature of another person, Haman, the Amalekite, 16th generational descendent of King Agag. The history between the Israelites and Amalekites had been long by this point. The Amalekites, under king Agag, were the first people to fight against the Israelites at Rephadim after they crossed the Red Sea. This nation of people dogged the Israelites through time. From history we know the Amalekites to be the ancestor of Esau’s grandson, Amalek. Remember Esau from history; he was the one who sold his birthright to Jacob. Esau was famished after being in the field and agreed to give Jacob his birthright for the soup Jacob was cooking. From that point in time, there was animosity between Jacob and Esau and their descendants. The children of the promise, which God gave Abraham, came through Jacob’s line, not Esau’s. Enter the story of Esther and we see one of the reasons for Haman’s hatred of the Jews. The most immediate reason for his hatred was that Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, did not bow and prostrate himself at the feet of Haman as the king commanded and Haman demanded. Haman’s pride could not let that go unpunished.
The story in Esther is about the saving of the Jews from Haman’s treachery. It is also about two people, Esther and Haman, heroine and anti-hero. It is the story of God’s children and other people. What we can see in this book of the Old Testament is two extremes, ancestor of God’s priest versus ancestor of the nemesis of God’s children. If you were looking at it in modern terms, it is the heroine up against her nemesis. However, this is not ultimately the story of the heroine and anti-hero, but of God and the world. To get to this point, we must determine what attributes characterize a child of God and what characterizes a child of the world.
The attributes of God’s children we see through the history told in the Bible, in history books, like Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s, and historical documents are humility, obedience, love of God and other believers, faithfulness, wisdom, service, and charity and this is not an exhaustive list. The attributes of those who are not God’s children can include the list above, but it can also include self-love, hate and anger, hoarding, following worldly desires, drunkenness, debauchery, pride, and other things. With this in mind, let’s look at Esther and Haman.
The best way to characterize a person is by his or her actions, attitudes, and words. Esther entered the story after queen Vashti was removed from her position. Esther was collected by the king’s eunuchs. The first thing we read of Esther’s interactions with another person is Mordecai’s counsel to not tell them who her people and kindred are. Mordecai, being the male head of household for Esther, was heard and his instructions heeded. It is not until chapter 7 that Esther declared her background or her people. Esther was obedient to Mordecai. She is also intelligent and wise. She accepted the counsel of the king’s eunuch who was in charge of her and the other women. Why did this eunuch offer her his professional advice? He did it because she “pleased him and found favor with him” (2:9). Her demeanor and beauty pleased and he held her in esteem. In fact, all who saw her favored her (2:15). When she was presented to the king, she asked only that which the eunuch told her and she found favor and kindness with the king. Esther had won the favor of the people in the palace. She was a favored child of God. After she was made queen, she continued to obey Mordecai and did not reveal her people or kin. She was favored by Mordecai and the Jews, too. Before the anti-hero enters the picture, we read of Mordecai protecting the king by telling of the plot he heard two of the king’s eunuchs plotting at the king’s gate. Mordecai’s name was written down in the king’s book of records.
Next enters Haman. In chapter 3, the king raised the stature of Haman. He advanced Haman above all the princes and nobles in his kingdom. Everyone was commanded to bow down to Haman when he passed. Everyone did bow down and prostrate themselves except Mordecai. When two men at the king’s gate questioned him as to why he would not bow down and pay homage to Haman, Mordecai explained that he was a Jew and was prohibited by Yahweh from bowing before anyone but Him. These two men took this to Haman and asked if this was a viable excuse. Haman, a man after prestige and worldly acknowledgement, had finally been exalted. The king’s command to bow to him and the fact that Mordecai did not because of religious reasons infuriated Haman (3:5). From the Jewish Law, no one was to bow/prostrate him or herself to anyone except Yahweh. Not only was Haman a man and not Yahweh, he was an enemy of the Jews. Haman was smart, though. He knew he could not single out Mordecai for penalty/death; he had to target a whole people, the Jews. He hatched a plan just for that and he waited a whole year (3:6-7) for its fruition. Haman demanded the worship of man which God forbade. Haman was shown as the anti-hero. He is self-absorbed, self-serving, prideful, hateful, and driven by his own worldly desires. God’s ways versus the world’s ways was juxtaposed here.
We continue to read of Esther and Haman as the next year of their lives unfold in the rest of the book. Haman brought a serious charge to the king to allow him to have the Jews exterminated. He did not say it in exactly those words, though. He told the king there was a people who were not living by his laws, but by their own, and that they were decreasing his profits. Any king would not like to have a people in his kingdom who had contempt for his laws and him by association, as well as, were causing him to lose income. Appealing to the worldly side of the king, Haman, without specifying who these people were, received permission to write an edict to get rid of these people. The king gave him his ring, which, when applied to a seal on an edict, made the law irreversible. Notice how Haman approached the king. He appealed to the king’s worldly desires and then couched his request with these words “if it please the king.” He was not appealing to the king based upon his favor with the king and his personal honor; he was unlike Esther, as we will see later. The next time we encounter Haman is after the queen requested the king and Haman to attend a banquet in their honor in her residence in chapter 5. After the banquet, when Haman left the queen’s residence, he saw Mordecai and his anger filled him (5:9). He controlled himself and went home to brag to his wife and friends of his invitation to dine with the king and queen. He also regaled them by boasting of his great wealth, large number of sons, and stature with the king.  Haman was filled with pride, not humility. His last statement in chapter 5 summed up what occurs when we seek our own personal attainments. Yet all of this does not satisfy me every time I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate" (5:13). Pride makes the possessor unhappy and the irony is that Haman wanted the honor and adoration of the man he despised most. Haman sought after more praise, more wealth, and higher stature/position in the kingdom. He would never be completely satisfied while he was searching for all the world could give him. Additionally, his self-interest blinded him to the facts and feelings of others, the queen, Mordecai, the king, and his own friends.
When we next read of Haman, he is puffed up with his own self-importance. He does not know what the king is thinking. Haman was in the palace on a mission to ask the king for permission to kill Mordecai when he was summoned by the king to advise on how to honor a person. Haman answered the king thinking of himself and how he would like to be honored by the king, assuming the king was thinking about him. Haman wanted ultimate recognition by the king and the people in his kingdom so requests to wear the kings cloak, wear his crown, and ride his horse being led around the city proclaiming this will be “done to the man whom the king desires to honor” (6:9) seemed paramount to getting the top honor by the king. Haman was only after his own interests. Little did he know the king would make him the man who led the horse proclaiming in front of the rider about the honor given to the man riding. Haman was forced to honor Mordecai, the man who would not acknowledge Haman’s stature. Haman had to eat crow. To make matters worse, when Haman arrived home, his wife told him that he will not overcome Mordecai, but would be overthrown by him (6:13).
Haman’s final act with the king and queen arrived. He was invited again to a banquet with the king at the queen’s residence. While there, the king offered to grant a petition for Esther and she made a case for her people which blew up in Haman’s face. The king saw who he really was, a man with no morals who was only after more power and honor. While the king walked outside the banqueting hall, Haman fell prostrate on the queen just as the king reentered. The king challenged him by asking is he already trying to begin his extermination by killing the queen while he is around? The king’s servants grasp Haman and cover his face. In Persian culture at the time, a criminal was so below the king that he could not even look at the king, hence the covering of Haman’s face. When the king found out Haman had a gallows made for Mordecai, he ordered Haman be hanged on it instead. In this story, we saw Haman’s pride, hatred, self-absorption, malevolent scheming, arrogance, abuse of power, and inhumanity in general. We have not seen him treat wisely the power and position which the king gave him. We have seen him scampering, scheming, and scraping to better himself each time we encounter him in the story. Now, let’s consider Esther.
Esther, by the end of chapter 2, had found favor with her people, cousin, eunuch, and king. The favor she found was due not only to her beauty, but to her submissiveness, humility, obedience, knowledge, and wisdom. As we continue to read the story of Esther, we see another action which she did repeatedly throughout the story. We see when she approached the king, she always approached him with humility and appealed to his honor, humanity, and stature. After her initial encounter with the king - finding favor with him, and being proclaimed queen - Esther spoke through servants to Mordecai after Haman’s edict went into all the provinces of the kingdom declaring that on the 15th of the month in twelve month’s time all Jews were to be killed and their possessions become booty for the killers. Mordecai in chapter 4 put on sackcloth and ashes and went to the king’s gate at which no one was to wear sackcloth. Esther talked to him through servants and sent clothes. Finally, Mordecai implored her to go to the king and plead the case for her people, from whom the king does not know she is comes. At that, Esther told Mordecai that no one could enter the king’s presence without being beckoned or without his staff being extended to them. If he did not extend his staff, the interrupter of the king will be put to death (4:11). She was afraid for her life. Mordecai reminded her who she was and from whose people she came. She was a Jew and represented the Jews. She must stand up for the Jews, God’s chosen people. He told her,
Do not imagine that you in the king's palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?" (4:13-14, [NASB])
If she did not speak, she would die because of the edict. If she went to the king, she could have died. Esther was reminded of who she was, a Jew, and who her God is. Remember, she was not only a queen, but one of God’s chosen people and the daughter of his royal priesthood. She may have been seen with favor by all the people, including her earthly king, for such a time as this, as Mordecai stated. Esther asked that Mordecai ask all the Jews to fast for three days and then she would petition the king. Esther was human, submissive to the male head of household and to the king. She was also submissive to Yahweh God, to walk the road on which He placed her.
            After the three days of fasting, and most probably praying, Esther walked to the chamber outside the throne room and the king extended his scepter. See how Esther phrases her request upon questioning by her loving king who promised to give her up to half his kingdom. She said, "If it pleases the king, may the king and Haman come this day to the banquet that I have prepared for him" (5: 4 [NASB])? Esther appealed to his person and position and then make her request, which seemed to be about serving him. She invited him and Haman to a banquet in her quarters. At the banquet, the king offered without her asking, what her request was and he would give it to her (5:6). Esther made another request, "My petition and my request is: if I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and do what I request, may the king and Haman come to the banquet which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king says” (5:8). Esther once again appealed to his care for her along with his desire and stature. She appealed to him as her husband and king then honored him by banqueting with him again. (Some may call this womanly wiles. Whether it is or not, Esther used her gifts and abilities for the service of her King, Yahweh.)
            The next day arrived and the banquet time had come. While they were having wine, the king asked, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half of the kingdom it shall be done" (7:2)? Esther replied,
If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me as my petition, and my people as my request; for we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated. Now if we had only been sold as slaves , men and women, I would have remained silent, for the trouble would not be commensurate with the annoyance to the king. (7:3-4 [NASB])
Esther still appealed to the king’s favor with her, how he had been pleased by her beauty and her being. She had gained his trust. She was humbly subservient to him, his stature and knowledge, and to his desires/wants. Also, she had saved the life of the king with her message from Mordecai. The next part of her request shocked him. As far as we know, she had never appealed for anything personally before. He had to have noticed and taken this request seriously. The crime he heard shocked him. Esther used many words to describe what Haman did, his contemplated atrocity. She planned her words carefully to get empathy for her people. Her words showed the depth of her emotion and awakened a similar depth in the king. The king trusted her knowledge and advice and probably her discretion. She appealed to her king who then walked outside briefly. When the king walked back into the room after hearing about Haman’s treachery and abuse of power, he confronted Haman while his servants grabbed Haman and covered his face. Esther remained subservient and obedient to her heavenly King, her earthly king, and her head of family. She remained faithful to the three. She remained humble, respectful, wise, and a lover of Yahweh and her people, His chosen children.
            After Haman’s scheme unfolded and the king had him hanged, Mordecai was promoted to second behind the king and given Haman’s ring. Mordecai and Esther can be equated to the story of Joseph who was put in his position to provide food for the Egyptians and the Israelites during the severe drought. Each person remembered who they were and whose they were. They remembered not only how great Yahweh is but also how small they were in comparison. They each were humble and faithful. They each worked to serve the Lord and His interests. Mordecai’s words to Esther have been repeated down through the centuries, who knows that you were put in this position “for such a time as this.” Haman, on the other hand, only sought what he desired. He proved not to be devoted to his earthly king by abusing the king’s trust in him. He did not claim allegiance to any god. He was only interested in himself. He would take a life or many when he felt he was not honored. He killed. He slandered. He was a braggart and prideful. He is completely opposite to Esther.
            The story of Esther is a great reminder of who and whose we are. It is also a great reminder that God will take care of His children. Esther sought to be a help to her King (Yahweh) and also be pleasing to her earthly king, Ahasuerus. Esther’s relationship with God affected her attitude and actions toward king Ahasuerus. Her relationship to Ahasuerus reflected her honor to Yahweh. Her relationship to God affected her people. Through her, God saved His chosen people. We should come out of our study of Esther asking ourselves these questions:
1.    To whom am I faithful?

2.    Am I looking out only for myself and my desires or am I humble and obediently following God, the true King?

3.    What are my actions, words, and attitudes saying to others about my relationship with God and who He is?