“The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:7-8)
A snippet from the Book of Esther, chapter 7, verses 7 and 8, recounting the central turning-point in the Esther drama – a drama that begins when the young girl wins a beauty contest and becomes queen of Persia, and which ends in massive bloodshed as Esther and her countrymen paint the town red with the blood of their enemies!
It is a brutal book, and it’s a controversial book – partly because of its brutality and partly because it never mentions God, which is a little unusual for a book of the Bible! Certainly, I might also add, it is my personal least favourite book in the Bible, for all of the above reasons and more!
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the book? That’s OK. We don’t deal with it very often. Indeed, in our lectionary (our 3-year cycle of Bible readings) the Book of Esther only gets a look-in once every three years! We haven’t read from this book in church since 2009 and we won’t open it again until 2015, and it may be no coincidence that they slipped the thing in here, in the middle of ‘Ordinary time’ (as it’s called) when nothing of any great importance is supposed to be going on!
It’s as if our church fathers felt compelled to give this book an innings (after all, it is a part of the Bible) but wanted to make sure that it would only be opened at a time when noone but the hardened stalwarts would be around – persons who could be counted on not to make too much fuss!
Martin Luther said that he ‘hated’ the Book of Esther. He said it was ‘perverse’ and ‘filled with much pagan impropriety’. As I said, it’s a book that doesn’t mention God at all (something it has in common with only one other book in the Bible – namely, the Song of Songs). Moreover, there is very little that we might label as ‘godly’ going on in the book. There is no worship, no reading of the Bible, and no especially religious persons in the book. There is no mention of the great Biblical themes of covenant and grace. There doesn’t even seem to be any love in Esther! Sex, yes, there’s plenty of implied sex in Esther (which is another point of similarity with the Song of Songs). Yet Esther goes one step beyond Songs by highlighting that other great Hollywood theme – violence.
Esther is a violent book. There is a lot of bloodshed in Esther. There seem to be a good hundred thousand people killed in the story of Esther – men, women, and children – and Esther herself does much of that killing, which raises two important questions: Firstly, why hasn’t Esther been made a major motion picture, and secondly, what on earth is this book doing in the Bible at all!
I do feel sometimes that I’m exposed to enough violence during the week without having to come and absorb more of it on a Sunday morning.
I spent many hours over the weekend listening to and reading through the transcripts of the recent UN speeches given by both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And I listen to their eloquent words and their well-crafted phrases, and I can’t help but think of the pools of blood that both of these men are standing in as they smile and receive the ovations of the crowds.
And it is bizarre that two of the main characters in the Book of Esther are in fact the respective forefathers of Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad – namely, Mordechai the Jew and Xerxes, king of the Persia – for they too were certainly men of blood, as the Book of Esther is a story written in blood!
Goodness! There is so much human misery in our world – so much injustice, so much pain, so much that is dark and sinister and demonic! Surely on a Sunday morning it’s time for something a little more cheerful!
The Book of Esther certainly starts out that way. It starts out looking a lot like the story of Cinderella. It starts with little Esther – a young Jewish girl with no social standing whatsoever – suddenly becoming queen of all Persia, after Xerxes the king gets jack of his old wife and decides to search the kingdom for something younger and prettier.
If they’d had reality TV back then it would have made for a fantastic series on ‘Persian Idol’! Young Esther – an absolute nobody and a foreigner – wins the competition and instantaneously becomes one of the most powerful women in the known world!
And what a nice story it might have been had it ended there (in chapter 1) but from chapter 2 of the book of Esther onwards the focus of the story really shifts from the young girl to her surly old uncle, Mordechai, and his equally surly enemy – Haman the Amalekite, who is Prime Minister to Xerxes, the king!
Haman is referred to as ‘the enemy of the Jews’, and indeed Mordechai and Haman are enemies from the beginning of the Book of Esther, basically on account of the fact that Mordechai is a Jew and Haman is an Amalekite, and there is nothing more hateful to a Jew than an Amalekite and nothing more hateful to an Amalekite than a Jew!
The way it reads in the book, it’s actually Mordechai who opens hostilities between the two. Haman is appointed Prime Minister, and everybody bows and shows respect to him – everybody except Mordechai. Mordechai shows no respect to the man, despite his office. Why not? Because he is an Amalekite!
Let’s be frank: this is exactly how religion works for vast numbers of people in our world. Religion is just another form of tribalism. It’s all about being ‘one of us’. It’s not really about God or about the Scriptures or about obedience, let alone about love. It’s about you being a part of our tribe.
And perhaps when I use the word ‘tribalism’ you think of crazy Jewish settlers or radical Muslim fundamentalists. In truth, tribalism is just as prevalent in the Christian world.
I had a long conversation with a gentleman last week who was tattooed with the mark of the Lebanese Christian militia – the same group who were responsible twenty years ago for the massacre of 2,000 women and children at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila!
And the guy in question was a lovely man who took no pride in that particular chapter of his tribe’s history. Even so, it was ghastly to see the image of the cross so blatantly associated with the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians.
Tribalism! It’s a difficult thing to get away from as a religious person, and certainly when it comes to the key characters in the book of Esther – Haman, Mordechai, and Queen Esther herself – you get the impression that their religion doesn’t’ extend much beyond tribalism.
Certainly as the story unfolds we find, at any rate, that the animosity between Haman and Mordechai escalates rapidly to a communal level where Haman attempts to punish Mordechai for his insolence by killing off every Jew in the Empire! He convinces his king that this is a good idea and sets a date for his holocaust eleven months hence.
The key to the drama, of course, is that neither Haman nor Xerxes realise that Queen Esther herself is a Jewess, as the girl had kept this hidden, apparently at the behest of her uncle, Mordechai.
Mordechai evidently anticipated some level of anti-Semitism from their tribal enemies, though it’s hard to imagine that he ever could have anticipated the violence that Haman planned for them. Even so, it all works out for the best, as it’s the ignorance of both Haman and the king that allow Esther to eventually reach the king’s ear and make an appeal to him on behalf of her tribe before they are all subjected to wholesale slaughter.
I’m skipping over the details, of course, as I give you this summary of the Book of Esther. You are welcome to go home and read those details for yourself, of course, though I suspect that you might get more spiritual benefit from spending the time in prayer or even spending the time washing the car!
The turning point in the whole story, at any rate, comes in chapter seven, as recounted in our reading today, where Esther pleads to the king for her life and where Haman – realising suddenly what is going on and seeing that the tables have been turned upon him – falls on the couch of the queen and pleads for his life. The king then walks in to witness what appears to be some sordid attempt at sexual assault. “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” the king says, and we’re told, “As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:8)
It’s graphic language that vividly anticipates the gruesome fate that meets Haman only moments later.
Ironically, Haman had, up to that point, been happily building a gallows in his own backyard – a gallows upon which he intended to execute his Jewish enemy, Mordechai. As it turns out, of course, it is not Mordechai who is hanged there but Haman himself – hoisted (quite literally) on his own petard.
And yet the violence does not stop there! With the cooperation of good King Xerxes, Esther manages to have all of Haman’s children and extended family hanged there as well, with their bodies hung up on display afterwards for the whole world to see!
And yet the violence does not stop there either! Esther, we are told, no doubt with the encouragement of uncle Mordechai, requests of the king that she and her people might be allowed to go on a killing spree against their tribal enemies and do unto their enemies as their enemies had intended to do unto them!
The book says that Esther and her tribe were so successful in this venture that they managed to butcher the best part of 100,000 people over the space of only a couple of days – a feat that, in the eyes of the author of the Book of Esther, ranks as a remarkable and admirable accomplishment.
And so, as the sun sets on the story of Esther, the book concludes with an account of how this story is remembered each year at the feast of Purim, as indeed it is remembered still today by Jews around the world.
There is indeed a tradition, and it’s an ancient tradition, that at the feast of Purim you are allowed to drink so much wine that eventually you can’t tell the difference between the cries of ‘blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘cursed be Haman’. Some think that’s why the name of God isn’t in the book – because, from the beginning, people were regularly so drunk when they read the book of Esther that they might easily have accidentally taken the name of the Lord their God in vain!
All of which leads us back to my original questions – namely, ‘why hasn’t this story been made into a major motion picture?’ (a question that I am not even going to attempt to answer) and ‘what is this book doing in the Bible at all?’ – a question to which I feel I must attempt an answer.
So what is this book doing in the Bible? It’s such a violent story. The characters all seem so ungodly. There are no great role models here for our children to emulate? They all seem so immoral, so violent, and so damn irreligious!
As I’ve suggested, the parallels between these ancient figures and their modern counterparts seems quite graphic. In each case we are dealing with men of blood who use their positions of influence to damage and destroy persons who are not of their tribe. Religion seems to be largely subservient to their tribal agendas. God, to put it bluntly, is nowhere to be seen in the book Esther, just as God’s presence is not remotely obvious (to me, at any rate) in the speeches I hear made in the United Nations General Assembly.
And I think that maybe that is the point of the book – that God actually is there, even when He is not remotely obvious!
As I pointed out earlier, Christian leaders such as Martin Luther were of the opinion that the book of Esther should be dropped from the canon of Scripture altogether. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it’s only possible to appreciate the message of the Book of Esther when it’s seen in the context of the broader collection of Biblical books.
For the books of the Bible, when they are strung together, tell the story of the history of the people of God and their mission in the world, and Esther – which is a story of the survival of the people of Israel at a time when they might have all been wiped out – is an indispensable chapter in that overall story.
God is not obvious in the Esther story as such, the Spirit of God does not shine through any of the characters, there are no obvious miracles, and yet, when we stand back and look at the big picture, we realise that this is a story of God fulfilling His promises made to Abraham, that He would preserve these people. His will is being done. It’s just that it’s being done in a very irreligious sort of way!
It is no doubt easier for us to think of God as one who inhabits a world of religion. God is present in His holy temple. God is present with his people gathered. God is at work through the prayers of those who serve him, bringing miracles and healings and salvation and life, and all of this is surely true. And yet, it seems that God who is present in His holy temple is also present in the palace of the pagan king. God who meets us with His presence when we come to worship Him at church will also be present with us when we get home. God who works through the prayers of his faithful people will still be at work when nobody is praying and when there are no faithful people to be found!
And this is the story of Esther – a drama where nobody seems to be praying to God, nobody is talking about God, nobody even seems to be thinking about God. But God is at work anyway! And this gives me hope, for this is our world!
I look at the kings and queens of today’s world and they don’t seem to be thinking or talking about God either, and when they are talking religion it’s generally just some form of tribalism – designed to help us distinguish ourselves from those crazy extremists, be they radicalised Muslims, Jews, Christians, Tamils, or some other group of people who are not part of our tribe.
I look at the kings and queens of today’s world and I don’t see any sign of the presence of the Spirit of God, and yet I do not lose hope! On the contrary, I continue to believe that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is moving through history and will bring all things to completion in His own time, and that true justice and peace will come and that love will ultimately triumph!
And I believe this because I believe that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is also the God of Esther – the God who works through the prayers of His faithful people, and who will continue to work when those prayers have all dried up and when those people have all gone home!
Because in the end it’s not about us as (thanks be to God) the future doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God – His is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on September 20, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.