Old Testament Survey - Lesson 23

The Persian World and Esther

Learn of the Persian era's influence on Jewish history and the benign rule of Persian kings like Cyrus the Great, which allowed exiles to return and rebuild their religious sites. The lesson reviews the Book of Esther, examining its historical context, dramatic style, and significance in establishing the Purim festival. It also questions the historical accuracy and explores the theme of divine providence despite the absence of direct references to God. This analysis provides a nuanced understanding of survival, identity, and faith in biblical literature.

Daniel Block
Old Testament Survey
Lesson 23
Watching Now
The Persian World and Esther

I. Introduction to the Persian Period and God's People

A. Overview of Persian Period Influences

1. Introduction to the Persian period

2. Political conditions in the Persian world

B. Chronology of Babylonian and Persian Kings

1. Decline of the Neo-Babylonian empire

2. List of Babylonian kings and their reigns

3. Persian conquest and list of Persian kings

II. The Persian Approach to Conquered Peoples

A. Contrasts Between Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians

1. Assyrian and Babylonian deportations

2. Persian policy of treating subjects benignly

B. Cyrus the Great's Decrees

1. Decree allowing return to native lands

2. Influence of Cyrus’ decree on Jewish exiles

III. Jewish Exile and Return

A. Response to Cyrus' Decree

1. Limited number of returnees to Jerusalem

2. Conditions encountered by the returnees

B. Continuation of Spiritual and Social Issues

1. Ongoing spiritual crises reflected in biblical texts

2. Despondency and moral lethargy among the people

IV. The Book of Esther

A. Setting and Literary Style

1. Esther's dramatic and suspense-filled narrative

2. Canonical and scholarly responses to the book

B. Major Themes and Characters

1. Esther and Mordecai's roles in the Persian court

2. Ironies and literary devices in the narrative

3. Questions raised by the book's details and its inclusion in the canon

C. Theological Implications and Providence

1. Discussion of providence and God's hidden presence

2. The festival of Purim as a celebration of Jewish survival

V. Conclusion and Reflections on the Persian Period and Esther

A. Recapitulation of Key Points

1. Summary of the Persian period's impact

2. Review of Esther's narrative and its significance

  • Learning about the First Testament's language, geographical, and cultural contexts, and how these factors contribute to its frequent misinterpretation and underappreciation in modern times.
  • Gain insights into the literary and cosmic foundations of grace and glory in the Torah, understanding its role as more than law.
  • Learn that to be made in God's image entails embodying divine qualities and functioning as His representative on Earth, which extends a universal dignity upon all humans and shapes a theological ethic that influences how you treat others.
  • Genesis 1-3 frames human response to divine creation, emphasizing human dignity, work's moral role, free will's consequences, and the persistent grace amid sin.
  • This lesson reviews the Israelite covenant, understanding its stages, implications, and its role in God's redemptive plan.
  • Gain insights into Abraham's covenant with God, exploring his faith and God's promises.
  • Learn how the Exodus from Egypt marked Israel's transformation from a family to a nation under Yahweh.
  • Understand how the covenant at Sinai transforms Israel from slaves into a treasured nation destined for a divine mission, fulfilling God's ancient promises.
  • This lesson covers the covenantal expectations at Sinai. The covenantal agreement provided a constitutional and ethical framework for societal living, focusing on community rights and responsibilities.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into how the tabernacle was both a physical manifestation of God's presence and a profound symbol of His grace, emphasizing the holiness and detailed guidance He provided to the Israelites for worship and daily life.
  • Gain insights into Deuteronomy, recognizing its focus on teaching rather than legislation, and understanding Moses' role as an instructor of Yahweh's will.
  • In this lesson, you explore how to interpret the First Testament's historiographic writings, emphasizing the divine inspiration and literary artistry that guide the selective storytelling and theological themes.
  • Learn how the books of Joshua and Judges illustrate the fulfillment and failure of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, highlighting divine promise, cultural assimilation, and the cyclical nature of faith and apostasy.
  • The Book of Ruth, highlights divine providence, social justice, and personal righteousness while exploring the role of Boaz as a pivotal figure in maintaining the lineage of King David.
  • Samuel had a significant yet complex role in Israel's history; judge, priest, prophet, and crucial figure in establishing monarchy.
  • Learn of David's central role in the Bible, understanding his unique portrayal and the extensive attention he receives compared to other figures.
  • Learn about the Davidic covenant's role in shaping biblical history and theology, emphasizing its eternal impact on Israel and beyond.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles use historical events to underline theological themes, highlighting the role of scribes in documenting Israel’s history.
  • In this lesson on 1 and 2 Kings, review the downfall of Israel through kings' forgetfulness of God's covenants.
  • Learn about Solomon's temple's historical and theological significance, its divine design and purpose, and its role in Israelite worship and communal life.
  • Gain insights into the transformation and resilience of the Judean people during their exile in Babylon from 586-539 BC, exploring their struggles and adaptations in a new socio-political and religious context.
  • Learn about Daniel's exemplary life in Babylon, his integrity, and his prophetic visions, which highlight divine sovereignty and the vindication of the faithful amidst calamities.
  • Review the Persian period's impact on the Jewish diaspora, analyze the Book of Esther's literary and theological significance, and reflect on divine providence and cultural identity.
  • Explore the crucial roles of Ezra and Nehemiah in reconstructing the Jewish community and faith post-exile, understanding their historical significance, source materials, and theological insights.
  • Gain insight into the roles and significance of prophets in ancient Israel, learning about their historical context, and their critical function in guiding and correcting the nation through direct communication from Yahweh.
  • Learn about the lives and ministries of prophets Amos and Hosea, their calls for justice and return to divine covenant amidst Israel's political and spiritual turmoil, through prophetic books that blend personal biography with national prophecy.
  • This lesson reviews Jonah's struggle with divine grace and Micah's advocacy for justice and the messianic hope.
  • In this lesson, you learn how Isaiah's vision portrays the Messiah as king, servant, and conqueror, emphasizing his divine roles and global mission.
  • Learn of the political and social contexts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's exile, including Babylon's rise, Jerusalem's fall, and the crisis of faith portrayed in Lamentations, emphasizing hope amid despair through God's faithfulness.
  • Learn about Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry, navigating challenges with kings, themes in the Book of Jeremiah, and profound passages on true religion and a future covenant, offering lessons on prophetic burdens, God's faithfulness, and spiritual transformation.
  • Explore Ezekiel's life as a priest in exile, his bizarre actions, and profound messages revealing Yahweh's passion and eternal promises of judgment and restoration.
  • Learn about Nahum and Joel's prophecies on judgment, hope, and Yahweh's character. Explore the day of the Lord and the expansion of the covenant community.
  • Explore Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah's prophecies. Discover themes of judgment, faith, and restoration in God's plan.
  • Gain insight into Haggai's role in motivating temple rebuilding during the Persian rule. His brief yet impactful ministry fosters hope and action amid community disillusionment, recoginizing God's presence and reign.
  • Gain deep insight into Hebrew poetry: its forms, parallelism, acrostics, and emotional depth. Explore its celebration and lamentation of Yahweh's glory.
  • Gain insight into Psalms which reflect diverse emotions and experiences. Structured into five divisions, attributed to various authors, their interpretation involves understanding Torah context, literary devices, and applying timeless principles to life.
  • Explore biblical wisdom's depth: from practical skill to moral insight, rooted in the fear of Yahweh. It contrasts with secular knowledge, emphasizing God's order and universal application.
  • Engage with Proverbs to unravel its diverse wisdom, from aphorisms to discourses. Understand its practical guidance for righteous living and leadership.
  • Discover the Song of Songs, a rich exploration of love's nature. From its allegorical interpretations to its celebration of covenantal love, it examines human relationships with wisdom and depth.
  • The book of Job offers insights into faith and suffering, exploring theological themes and character dynamics. It emphasizes trust in God amid life's most difficult trials.
  • Uncover Ecclesiastes' profound journey from despair to hope. Koheleth's existential ponderings contrast with the narrator's faith, urging a shift from worldly pursuits to finding fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

This Old Testament Survey course offers a deep exploration of the Old Testament's literary structure, divine covenants, and historical context. Lessons cover the Pentateuch, emphasizing its narrative over legalistic interpretations, and extend through key biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. Topics such as the covenant at Sinai, the concept of imago Dei, and the tabernacle rituals highlight the continuity of God's grace and the ethical implications of divine laws. The course critically addresses common misconceptions, the role of the Torah as instruction, and the portrayal of God’s plan, underscoring the relevance and complexity of these ancient texts.

Dr. Daniel Block 
Old Testament Survey
The Persian World and Esther
Lesson Transcript


Evidence of the Lord's glory and grace in the Persian, that is, the post-exilic period. What we want to do in this lesson is simply introduce the Persian period and the relationship of God's people to the Persians, and then we'll spend a few minutes on the book of Esther, which is set in the Persian world. We begin by talking about the political conditions within the Persian world.

While extremely consequential for the history of Israel and the providence of God, in long-range terms, historical terms, the mighty Neo-Babylonian empire proved to be just a flash in the pan, as the following chronology of Babylonian kings illustrates. Nabopolassar ruled from 625 to 605 BC. Nebuchadnezzar II, 604 to 562.

Evil-Merodach from 561 to 560. Nerig-Glisser from 559 to 556. Labashi-Marduk, 556, and then finally Nabonidus, 555 to 539.

Within 80 years of Nabopolassar's defeat of the Assyrians, the empire and the glory of Babylon had disappeared. In 539 BC, the forces of Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon. Under the Indo-European Achaemenid dynasty, the Persians would rule the ancient Near East for more than two centuries until the arrival of the Europeans under Alexander the Great of Macedonia.

The following chronology of Persian kings covers the closing period of First Testament history. Cyrus II, that is Cyrus the Great, 559 to 530. Cambyses, 530 to 522.

Darius I, 522 to 486. Xerxes II, that is Ahasuerus, 486 to 465. Artaxerxes I, 464 to 424.

Darius II, 423 to 404. Artaxerxes II, 404 to 359. Artaxerxes III, 359 to 38.

Arces III, 338 to 336. And then Darius III, 336 to 330, which is when Alexander the Great survived. You see from these dates that this Persian period was much, much longer than the Babylonian period.

The Babylonian period was also much shorter than the Assyrian period who preceded them. But our impression, if we are biblical students, students of the Bible, our impression is that the big boy in this world was Babylon. And of course, part of that impression is created by the New Testament where Babylon becomes a metaphor of all that is ungodly and powerful in this world.

The Persian disposition toward conquered peoples differed fundamentally from the Assyrians who deported and scattered the population of Israel, that is Northern Kingdom, wholesale and replaced them with foreigners, and the Babylonians who deported the population of Judah but settled them in their own ethnic community. Rather than imposing integration of conquered peoples by force, the Persians assumed that benignly treated subjects would be loyal subjects. Accordingly, early in his reign, Cyrus II issued a decree freeing subjects to return to their native lands and to rebuild the temples and sanctuaries of their gods.

The assumption, of course, was happy gods would be loyal gods, and they would treat Cyrus the Persian well. A version of this decree giving credit to Marduk, Cyrus' adopted Babylonian god, is preserved in the famous Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum. What is recorded in II Chronicles 36, 22 to 23, and repeated in Ezra 1, 1 to 4, recognizing Yahweh the God of heaven represents a specific politically correct version for his Jewish subjects.

How well the Jews were doing in exile is reflected by the fact that after Cyrus' generous general degree to all Jews authorizing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, actually only a handful returned. Ezra 1, 65 places the figure at 42,360. The majority of the exile population remained in exile.

But what the returnees found in Jerusalem was depressing visually, economically, politically, and spiritually. The crisis of faith created by this situation is reflected in Ezra 1 to 6 and Haggai, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The rest of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi demonstrate that 100 years later, the spiritual issues had still not been resolved.

The glorious hope held out by the prophets of a previous era had not been realized, and the people were paralyzed in a general climate of despondency and moral lethargy. On this picture from the famous object in the British Museum, you see the cylinder of Cyrus on which is preserved his almost universal decree that peoples may return to their native lands, and they are authorized to build their temples. This matches what we see at the end of Chronicles and at the beginning of Ezra.

The glorious hope held out by the prophets of a previous era had not been realized, and the people were paralyzed in a general climate of despondency and moral lethargy. To be sure, a community of Judeans, largely weaned of idolatry, had been re-established in Jerusalem, but this was a pathetic fraction. Ezekiel uses the word ma'at, a small portion or in small measure of what the pre-exilic and exilic prophets had envisioned.

We've mentioned before that, one, only a handful of exiles had returned, and they were primarily Judeans and Levites, rather than all the tribes as envisioned by Ezekiel and Jeremiah and other prophets. Second, only a small portion of land around Jerusalem had actually been occupied by the returnees. This is nothing like the vision yet you see at the end of Ezekiel, where he has the tribal territories taking over all the land that had once been allotted to Jacob's descendants.

Third, King David was represented by Zerubbabel in this pre-, in this post-exilic version of Jerusalem. He and his successors, they were Davidides, but they were not kings. They were merely governors of a Persian province.

And fourth, the rebuilt temple, the temple had been rebuilt, but it was a small and sad version of the original in the book of Haggai. We can understand the background to that book. The people, some of them remember the glory of the original temple, and they feel it is not worth going to this puny little thing that has just been reconstructed.

It's nothing like the worship that we used to experience. So, it's not a very happy community. Well, this is the world into which Esther and her uncle Mordecai, or close relative of some sort, is it uncle or is it cousin? These are two Jewish people who were born into the Persian world.

They didn't live in Babylon. They lived in Persia. So, they are really part of that world, which is why it is appropriate for us at this point to reflect for a few minutes on the book of Esther.

In terms of literary style, what can we say? Well, the dramatic and suspense-filled style of the book of Esther makes this one of the supreme literary achievements of ancient Israel and Judah. Responses to the book by scholars and other readers have diverged in the extreme. On the one hand, some Talmudic scholars elevated the book almost to the status of Torah, presumably because it canonized a traditional festival, the festival of Purim, Esther 9, 26, 27, and 32.

The Pentateuch, Israel's real constitution, has no mention of a festival of Purim, but this one explains the origins of that festival. On the other hand, with characteristic understatement, Luther wrote, I am so hostile to this book, referring to II Maccabees and Esther, that I could wish that they did not exist at all, for they Judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety. We here feel just a little hint of Luther's anti-Semitism in that sort of comment.

But the book does, in fact, raise many questions. How could a Jewish heroine like Esther bear a name that derives from Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love? But of course, that question also applies to people like Belteshazzar, Daniel's new name, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They all had Babylonian names given to them by the Babylonian king.

These were not their native names. So that's question number one. How could this heroine be named Ishtar, Esther? Second, how could a Jewish hero like Mordechai bear a name that derives from Marduk, Mordechai? Marduk was the name of the Babylonian patron deity.

Third, how could an historical document have such a perfect literary plot? And fourth, how could an official Jewish feast be established to celebrate a massacre of innocent women and children? A fifth question, how could a book that looks like it is written to explain the origin of a Jewish festival be taken seriously as historical? It is an etiology, an explanation for something that is, and sometimes etiologies are historical. Sometimes they are imagined, and then the use of the lot, pur, itself raises questions. And finally, how could a book be included in the canon of Scripture that doesn't even mention the name of God or even use the generic title for the one true and only living God? So there are these questions with the book.

Let's turn to the theme and purpose of the book. The scroll of Esther, that's what it's called in Jewish tradition, it recounts in beautiful literary style the rise of two Jewish people in a pagan court and the simultaneous demise of their adversary Haman. However, the book was not only written for the edification and inspiration of all who found themselves in the diaspora, that is out in exile somewhere.

It was written also to explain the origins of and to authenticate the festival of Purim in the Jewish religious calendar. But its religious value extends far beyond this, shall we say, etiological function. In spite of the hiddenness of God, the book of Esther presents a powerful portrayal of providence in the preservation of God's covenant people in a life and death situation.

Haman wants to have them all destroyed. But God's hand, which determines even the way the dice falls, that's Proverbs 16.33, his hand must have been behind not only the lot, the poor, 3 7 9 24, but several other chance coincidences. How about these? By chance, really, a Jewish girl being in the right place at the right time in a critical moment in Persian history.

That's 4 14. Who knows, Mordecai says, but that you might have been raised for such a time as this. Here's a second one.

The king's sleeplessness precisely on the night of Esther's overture. Why was it that he couldn't sleep? Who disturbed him? 6 1 2 3. And third, Haman's presence in the court when Ahasuerus intended to honor Mordecai. What's he doing there? Chapter 6, verses 4 to 6. The passive in 9.1 is obviously a divine passive.

God is not named, but God is the agent. On the 13th day of the 12th month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day, the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned.

That's NIV's translation. And the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them. The question is, who turned the tables? It is not answered.

The author wants you to meditate on that and think about it. Viewed as a whole, we can recognize the affirmation of God's involvement among his people—that is, his providence—but we also recognize his involvement and control are not always obvious to those experiencing an event. It often happens that we can pick this up only long after.

But in casting the story in this way, the author offers a perceptive and realistic commentary on life, inviting the reader to sit up and explore not only this text but also our own experiences and see if in them we cannot find, see, recognize the gracious hand of God. Well, let's summarize the plot of this book simply by working through the outline. The stage is set for the drama, and this really is a drama.

In chapter 1, verses 1 to 2, verse 23, the historic context and the fall of Queen Vashti, King Ahasuerus' glorious banquet, Queen Vashti's defiance, and then the king's response. But this then sets the stage for the rise of Queen Esther. In chapter 2, we see the emergence of Esther, who becomes queen in the Persian court.

It begins with, as background, we had Vashti's insult of the king, and then the king, Ahasuerus, decides to send out a commission to look for a new queen. The royal strategy is described in verses 1 to 4, and then in verses 5 to 7, we discover Esther, who is being taken care of by Mordecai, who is her uncle or close relative. Mordecai was bringing up Esther's original native name, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter, for she had no father and mother.

Now the young lady was beautiful of form and face, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter. So when the command came and the decree of the king was heard, many of the ladies were gathered who would be candidates for the king's wife to be queen. Esther emerges here.

Esther, the daughter of Abihael, the uncle of Mordecai, she becomes known to the king, and Esther is taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace. In the tenth month on the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. But then, a plot is discovered that people are out to get Mordecai.

Two of the courtiers want to assassinate him, and not Mordecai, they're out to assassinate Ahasuerus. Mordecai, who has access to the king's court, we don't know what his official role was, but he hears of this plot, and he lets the people, he lets the king's court know that there's this plot going on, and the two guys who plotted it were themselves hung. But then Mordecai disappears from the scene for a while.

In the meantime, Haman, who is a Persian, one of the officials in the court, who has this visceral hatred for the Jewish people, in chapter 3 verses 1 to 514, we see Haman's plot to get rid of all the Jewish people. It begins with the description of Haman's rise in the court of the king while Mordecai is being marginalized. Haman, he instigates this plan to have the Jewish people destroyed, and because of Esther's intervention, Haman was eventually himself sentenced to or hung on the gallows that he had produced for somebody else.

It is an amazing turning of the tables in the conspiracy of the Jews. It is a story of complete fruit basket upset. On the one hand, I mean, we've got all kinds of reversals happening in the wake of this crisis.

There are the personal reversals. Mordecai is promoted after he had been demoted. Haman falls, and the royal seal in chapter 8 verses 1 to 2 is then placed on the reversal.

It is all fixed. Well, after this, in chapter 8 verses 1 to 7, Esther goes before the king, and she asks for a request for an audience with the king. Of course, it's a daring move because in that cultural context, if you are not invited into the king, you will surely not be well received.

But in response to Esther's request, she is admitted, and then she exposes to the king the plot that Haman has strategized against the Jewish people. The king's response is then to inflict on Haman the punishment that he had wanted for all the Jews, and as a result of Esther's brave, brave action, the nation is preserved. The Jewish people are saved.

Esther turns out to be a great hero in this magnificent story, and the rescue of the people because of the work of Esther gives rise to the festival of Purim, the lot that had fallen against Haman, and the nation is preserved. It's a magnificent story of God's providence, the hidden hand of God doing his work in preserving his people because he has made an eternal covenant with his people, the Jewish people, the Israelite people, the descendants of Isaac and Jacob, and of course, of Abraham. For that reason, because of Esther's bravery, those who were living in Persia survived.

Whether or not Haman's plot would have extended throughout the empire, that was his dream. That would have meant wiping out the Jewish population in Jerusalem as well, but they were spared, and the nation lived to see another day thanks to the bravery of this young woman and thanks to the kind and gracious providence of God. Having looked at the Persian period and the way in which they administered the empire, we may look at the book of Esther, the only book that concerns events that happened entirely in a Persian context.

When we look at this book, it may be helpful for us, first of all, to simply review the storyline in this brilliant narrative. So we begin with chapter one. Ahasuerus, king of Persia, that is Xerxes I, 486 to 465 BC, he hosted a gigantic party in Susa, Shushan, the capital, for the male officials of his empire, a party that lasted 180 days.

After the 180 days were over, before sending the officials back to their respective promises, he climaxed the gathering with a seven-day drinking bout. When his wife, Queen Vashti, refused his summons to come to the banquet so he could show off her beauty to all who had gathered, he banished her. We don't know actually what happened to her.

Was she executed, or was she simply sent out of the country or into confinement? But she disappears from the scene. In chapter two, this required the search for a new queen, for which the king appointed officials in every province to identify the most beautiful virgins in his vast empire. The search resulted in the discovery of Esther, a Jewish orphan who was being cared for by her cousin Mordecai.

Ahasuerus picked her above all the virgins to be his new queen. During the second grand banquet, this time in Esther's honor, that is, his wife, the new queen, Mordecai, her guardian, overheard news of a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai informed Esther of the plot, and she relayed the message to the king, and the conspirators were hanged, and these events were recorded in the court records.

After Ahasuerus had elevated Haman the Agagite to a high office and charged all his courtiers to bow down to him, this is chapter three, for some undeclared reason, Mordecai refused to comply with the king's orders. He refused to bow down to Haman. When Haman discovered that Mordecai was a Jew, he convinced the king to issue a decree calling for the execution of all the Jews in the empire on one day, the 13th of the month of Adar.

Chapter four, like all the Jews of the empire, when Mordecai heard of the edict, he dressed in sackcloth, the garb of mourning, and instead of entering the royal citadel, where sackcloth was prohibited, instead of entering, he went as far as the gate. Despite the potential danger for himself, for herself, when Esther learned of the plot against her people, Mordecai challenged her with a dramatic speech. Do not think that because you are in the king's house, you alone of all the Jews will escape, for if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish.

And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this, pregnant expression that is. Well, Esther agreed to Mordecai's counsel to intervene on behalf of all the Jewish people in the empire before the king with her own immortal self-sacrificial words. If I perish, I perish.

Esther agreed to intercede before the king, even though this put her life in danger. The king may not accept her and may be offended. So Esther, in chapter five, Esther planned a private banquet, inviting the king and Haman, now the first minister of the land, a private one.

Meanwhile, Haman encountered Mordecai at the king's gate again, but again he refused to bow down to him. Well, gloating over his promotion and his being invited by Esther to dine with the king, but furious over Mordecai's insubordination, Haman and a few others conspired to get rid of him by having gallows built for his hanging, that is, Mordecai's hanging. Unable to sleep that night, Ahasuerus needed something to read, so he had the daily diary of the court brought to him.

This is chapter six. In reading this, he came upon the record of Mordecai's earlier reporting of the plot of his assassination. It so happened that when he inquired for information on whether or not Mordecai had ever been honored for this act, Haman happened to be in the court.

When he asked Haman how the king should honor a person who deserved recognition, Haman answered, oh, dress him in royal finery and mount him on a horse and have him led through the town for all to see. Of course, Haman thought the king's anonymous question involved him. The king agreed and ordered Haman to dress Mordecai exactly as he had advised, and that's what he did.

Well, after that, Haman went home while Mordecai returned to the gate of the citadel. Chapter seven. At a second party, Esther informed the king that Haman wished to exterminate her people.

Enraged and with ironic justice, the king had Haman strung up on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Chapter eight. Contributing and increasing the irony, when Ahasuerus learned of Mordecai's relationship with Esther, he gave Haman's signet ring to Mordecai.

Since signed and sealed Persian royal decrees were irrevocable, the king could not annul the earlier decree to have all the Jews slaughtered. Then, in the name of the king and sealed with his signet, Mordecai issued the edict authorizing Jews throughout the empire on the 13th of Adar, freedom of assembly and the right to defend themselves against those who wish to kill him. On Adar 13, the Jews rose up and defended themselves against their enemies, slaughtering more than 75,000 of them, and then they rested on day 14.

In the capital of Susa, an extra day was needed, so the rest was delayed to Adar 15. With Queen Esther's authority, Mordecai wrote a second letter confirming these days as a mandatory annual festival of Purim for Jews everywhere. The name commemorated Haman's sinister casting of the lot, confirming the decree to annihilate the Jews.

But there's one other irony that we missed here, and that is when Ahasuerus discovered this plot by Haman, he had Haman hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Chapter 10. The book concludes with a postscript that functions as a testimony to the character and nobility of Mordecai that was preserved in the official court records.

This is kind of surprising because this book is called the Book of Esther, but in the end, it ends with an exclamation mark on the character of Mordecai. Well, what can we say about this book? The dramatic and suspense-filled style of the Book of Esther makes this one of the supreme literary achievements of ancient Israel and Judah. Responses to the book by interpreters have diverged in the extreme.

On the one hand, some Talmudic scholars, scholars of the Talmud, elevated the book almost to the status of Torah, presumably because it canonized a traditional festival, Purim, and put it on the level with the other required festivals, that is Passover, Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths. This is Esther 9, 26, 27, and 32. On the other hand, with characteristic understatement, Luther wrote, I am so hostile to this book, referring to II Maccabees, and to Esther, that I could wish that they did not exist at all, for they Judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety.

Well, among other things, here we see a little leak of Luther's anti-Semitism which would plague much of his work. Well, what can we say about this book today? It does in fact raise many questions. How could a Jewish heroine like Esther bear a name that derives from Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love? Well, we know she had a Hebrew name, Hadashah, but it was changed to this.

But I suppose the answer to this is, in the book of Daniel, you have the same thing happening there, where Daniel and his three friends, each of whom has a Hebrew name to begin with, but when they come to the Babylonian court and represent the Babylonian court, they must have Babylonian names, and so it is here as well. Second question, how could a Jewish hero like Mordecai bear a name that derives from Marduk, the name of the Babylonian patron deity? And the same answer applies. Third, how could a historical document have such a perfect literary plot? And it really is perfect.

Well, those of us who treat the scriptures as inspired scriptures, we know how this could happen. Inspired by God, this story is told with aesthetic perfection. Fourth, how could an official Jewish feast, Purim, be established to celebrate a massacre of innocent women and children? Fifth, how could a book that looks like it is written to explain the origin of a Jewish festival be taken seriously as historical? We know it has a theological and etiological function.

It explains the use of the lot, Pur, itself in the naming of this festival. It explains why that festival is called this. And another question, how could a book be included in the canon of scripture that does not even mention the name of God or refer to him anywhere? These are all questions that intrigue us, and the scriptures don't give us an answer.

But what is the purpose of this book? Why was it written, and why is it included in our canon? The Scroll of Esther, so-called in Jewish tradition, recounts in beautiful literary style the rise of two Jewish people in a pagan court and the simultaneous demise of their adversary. However, the book was not only written for the edification and inspiration of all who found themselves in the diaspora. It also explains the origin and authenticates the festival of Purim in the Jewish religious calendar, as I've already mentioned.

But its religious value extends far beyond this etiological function, this story about how something became what it is. In spite of the hiddenness of God, God is never named, it presents a powerful portrayal of providence in the preservation of God's covenant people in a life-and-death situation. God's hand, which determines even the way the dice falls, Proverbs 16, 33, must be behind not only the lot, the way the dice falls, Pur, 3, 7, 9, 24, but also several other chance coincidences.

Think about it. We have a Jewish girl being in the right place at the right time in a critical moment. How is it that Ahasuerus picked a Jewish girl and that she was there at the right time? This is Mordecai's comment.

Who knows, but that you might have arisen just for a moment like this. Second, how is it that on that critical night, the king's sleeplessness precisely on the night of Esther's overture made him ask for something to read? He can't sleep, so he needs something boring to read. Maybe the court records will do that.

But in the process of that, when the records were brought to him, he came across Mordecai, the name, and then he asked, what's ever been done to this man to honor him? And the third one, how come at the moment when Ahasuerus intended to honor Mordecai, Haman happens to be the one who is there? 6.426. Well, the passive in 9.1 is obviously a divine passive, but God has to be seen as the agent. Chapter 9, verse 1, on the thirteenth day of the twelve months, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day, the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned, NIV, and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them.

There's that passive, the tables were turned. Who turned them? And of course, if we've read the book of Ruth carefully with our eyes wide open and our ears hearing what's happening, we know that God's hand is behind even chance events. Viewed as a whole, we can recognize the affirmation of God's involvement among his people, providence, but also recognize that his involvement and control are not always obvious to those experiencing an event.

In so doing, the author offers a perceptive and realistic commentary on life, causing the readers to sit up and explore not only this text, but also his or her own experience of the gracious hand of God. But there's one more quick look I'd like to take at the two significant characters, Esther and Haman. What do we learn from these characters? Now, it is common these days to look to Esther as a model for the feminine resurgence in our own culture, but if you read the book very carefully, she is not on any feminist agenda.

This is still a very patricentric world, and in fact, it's a patriarchal world in which archy is the problem. People are treating women like dirt. Notice how Ahasuerus treated Vashti, and if you were a candidate to be the king's second wife, knowing that, would you want to be his wife? It's a sad, sad story of men treating women badly.

But is that the point? I doubt Esther's strength of character in asserting herself as a woman is actually the issue. I like to see this book as an example, a brilliant lesson on what covenant commitment means, in fact, on what the Hebrew word love means. Mordecai risked his life by weeping with his own people and putting on sackcloth and ashes.

Esther risked her life, if I perish, I perish, to save her own people. When I read the Scriptures, that's exactly what the Hebrew word love means. Love means covenant commitment demonstrated in action in the interest of the other person.

This is an amazing story. Esther is an amazing person. She's the queen.

She is willing to sacrifice her queenship, if I perish, I perish, for the sake of her people. Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, but that a person give his or her life for his or her friends. That's exactly what Esther was prepared to do.

This is a book on love and hate. Haman is a sinister character embodying hate to the core, but Esther and Mordecai both are honorable characters who are willing to give themselves in love, in covenant commitment, to the broader community if it means sparing them. In that respect, we should find inspiration not only in God's hand in all things, but also in how we respond to the plights and the crises that others face when we are given an opportunity to rescue them, even at our own expense and to our own hurt.

This is the book of Esther.