“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)
This last week has been a hard one for many in our world, and for none more so than those who lost friends and family in the tragic stampede near Mecca a few days ago – 717 people trampled to death apparently, and another 800 injured!
Such large-scale carnage is, unfortunately, not uncommon in today’s world. Even so, there seems to be something especially horrible about the fact that these people were on Haj – Islam’s great religious pilgrimage – when it happened. How can God allow such a thing to happen? How can God allow such a tragedy to overtake a peaceful gathering of people who have come together for prayer?
Both Hasan Nasrallah of Lebanon and Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran have said that it is the Saudi’s that are to blame. The Saudi Health Minister, Khalid al-Falih, on the other hand, blamed the pilgrims for not following the rules of Haj, and apparently said in another interview that it was God’s will!
I appreciate that the Saudi government wants to avoid political fallout over the tragedy but I can’t imagine that they are going to endear themselves to the rest of the Muslim world by blaming God! Even so, I appreciate that while it is extremely distasteful to see this disaster treated as a political issue, the religious questions are hard to avoid!
I take some small comfort in the fact that no Christian leaders (as far as I know) have come out yet and suggested that this was God’s judgement upon the pilgrims because they were part of the wrong religion (though I suspect that a number are biting their lips). Even so, the tragedy does cry out for a religious response, and how do we understand the workings of God in a situation like this? Is the only alternative to suggesting that this is the judgement of God to say that God had nothing to do with the whole incident – that God was, perhaps, preoccupied with something else when this tragedy took place?
It is with issues like this that I find the Book of Esther to be a source of wisdom.
That probably was not what you were expecting me to say.
I don’t know how many others in the Christian community consider the Book of Esther to be a source of wisdom on this or any other issue. So far as Christians are concerned, it is almost certainly the least popular book in the entirety of the Scriptures – Old or New Testament – and hardly the sort of book that pious believing people refer to for guidance.
Esther is a brutal book. Perhaps that’s why Martin Luther said that he ‘hated’ it! He said it was ‘perverse’ and ‘filled with much pagan impropriety’. It’s also one of only two books in the Bible that never mentions God (the other one being the Song of Songs of course). Moreover, it’s not just that the word ‘God’ doesn’t appear but that there is so little that could even be labelled as remotely religious 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 even the Song of Songs by highlighting that other great Hollywood theme – violence.
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?
Mind you, there have actually been movies made of the Book of Esther – most notably a 1999 production, entitled simply “The Book of Esther”, and the more recent (2006) production of “One Night with the King”. I haven’t seen either movie and I don’t intend to see either. If the movies are fanciful productions with no real relation to the text then I have no interest in them and if they are true to the text then they will be far too savage for my tastes!
The older I get the less I enjoy screen violence. I don’t know if this is the experience of others, and I don’t know if my change in tastes really has anything to do with my age either. I suspect it’s simply because I’ve seen enough violence off the screen, and I don’t simply mean in Syria either. I’ve seen enough at a domestic level within my own community!
And I don’t know about others but I grow increasingly cynical about movies that follow the predictable plot-line where the great evil we have to fear is some force of inhuman zombies or mindless invaders from another planet – creatures so irrational that the only solution is to call in the marines and kill them all! This theme is repeated so often in movies nowadays that I do wonder sometimes whether it is all part of some terrible propaganda ploy. Personally, the only real violence I fear is that which is generated from within the corridors of power – from within our own business sector and government, which brings us back to the Book of Esther which is likewise a book about violence and corruption within the corridors of power and government.
In case you don’t know the story, let me run you through it quickly:
The story of the Book of Esther is set in Susa – the capital of the Persian Empire, in the fifth century B.C. The Jews are a conquered people by this stage, Jerusalem having been sacked by the Babylonians around 100 years earlier and its inhabitants carried off into the land of its conquerors. By the rivers of Babylon they sat down and there they wept when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137)
But after 100 years the weeping has stopped and the exiled inhabitants of Zion are now so thoroughly integrated into the Persian Empire that when Esther rises to prominence in the royal court nobody is even aware of the fact that she is, by bloodline, a Jewess!
She rises to prominence via a beauty pageant. Queen Vashti, we are told at the beginning of the narrative, oversteps her prerogative in the royal court by refusing to snap to attention when her drunken husband calls for her and so she is dismissed from her position and the job is offered to the prettiest girl in the kingdom, and that pretty girl turns out to be Esther! The book thus sounds a lot like Cinderella to begin with, which is also, quite frankly, a story about the patriarchal abuse of power, though with less violence. Esther – a young Jewish girl with no social standing whatsoever – suddenly becomes queen of all Persia and hence one of the most powerful women in the known world!
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!
I did say that after 100 years the exiled inhabitants of Israel had become thoroughly integrated into their new homeland and yet (as is so often the case) old ethnic animosities die hard, and Haman (who is referred to as ‘the enemy of the Jews’) and Mordechai 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 even after 100 years there was 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!
It all sounds depressingly contemporary to me! Tribalism is as alive and well today as it was back in the 5th century B.C.! I don’t know if there any Amalekites left to hate in the world but certainly anti-Semitism is still with us! In truth though, Islamophobia is the form of tribal paranoia that concerns me the most in our community at the moment!
I had a curious experience yesterday when I bumped into three Aussie Lebanese Muslim men I knew in a coffee shop. I’d met them just once down at Binacrombi (our bush property) a few months back. They were dirt-bike riders, and very down-to-earth working-class guys. The curious part of the meeting came when they started talking about how they could not comprehend how any young person born in this country could grow up wanting to fight with ISIS in Syria. I found myself in the odd position of trying to explain to these men why many Muslim young people feel very upset about the way Muslims worldwide are being treated by Western countries, and how they feel they need to do something to stand up to the violence by resorting to violence themselves. The men eventually saw my point and appreciated the problem.
I wished afterwards that just some of the many people who continually warn me about what ‘these Muslims’ are like (meaning all Muslims) could have been a part of that conversation where my Muslim friends were having just as much trouble understanding the mentality of these jihadist young people as they do!
Tribalism is the issue, and 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.
As the story unfolds we find that the animosity between Haman and Mordechai escalates rapidly to a communal level where Haman tries to punish Mordechai for his insolence by killing off every Jew in the Empire! He convinces the 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 his 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.
The turning point in the whole story, at any rate, comes in chapter seven 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. 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 world to see! And the violence does not stop there either! Esther requests of the king that she and her people might be allowed to go on killing their tribal enemies and so do unto their enemies as their enemies had intended to do unto them!
The book says that Esther and her tribe were so successful that they managed to kill 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 though by today’s standards it would surely rank as one of the most horrendous war crimes of any generation!
The story of Esther is remembered each year in the Jewish community at the Feast of Purim, where there is apparently a tradition that participants drink so much wine that after a while they 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 people are regularly so drunk when the Book of Esther is read that they might accidentally take the name of the Lord in vain! And so the book becomes associated with drunkenness as well as violence and godlessness, which brings us back to the question ‘what is it doing in the Bible?’
It is such a violent story and the characters all seem so ungodly. There are no great role models here for our children to emulate? All the key characters seem compromised, violent, and irreligious! There are no obvious goodies and baddies in this story, and miracles just don’t happen! In other words, this is the same story we see every night when we turn on the TV news! This is our story!
Martin Luther thought that the Book of Esther should be dropped from the Bible altogether. We can understand why. God doesn’t seem to make an appearance in the Book of Esther. I would suggest though, to the contrary, that it is only by keeping the Book of Esther thoroughly embedded within the larger collection of Biblical books that we can see what God is doing in this story!
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 a vital chapter in that greater story.
God’s workings are not obvious in the Esther story. The Spirit of God does not shine through any of the characters and 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 promises made to Abraham, that He would preserve these people. His will is being done. It’s just that it’s not being done in a very religious way!
In Esther we see the secular face of God, which is not what we are used to! It is 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 the same God who is present in His holy temple is also present in the palace of the pagan king. God who meets us in worship at church is also 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!
This is the story of Esther, where nobody prays, nobody talks about God, and nobody even seems to think about God, but God is at work anyway! Miracles don’t seem to be happening. In fact terrible things are happening. Even so, in the end God’s will is being done, and that has to be a ground of hope for all of us!
We look around our world today and miracles again seem to be few and far between! Instead of seeing great acts of healing and the spreading of peace we see violence and corruption and people being crushed to death while they are gathering for prayer! Where is the Spirit of God in all of that?
None of it makes much sense when you’re in the middle of it and can only see the tragedy in front of you. The Book of Esther, likewise, doesn’t make a lot of sense when taken in isolation, but when you stand back and see the big picture – a picture that is thankfully a lot bigger than the Book of Esther – you do see that all things end up working together for good, even if a lot of the individual pieces of the puzzle are just horrible or pointless when taken in isolation!
Please don’t think I’m trying to minimise human tragedy by saying this – suggesting that those things that seem terrible aren’t really so terrible after all. No! The recent tragedy at Mecca, for example, is truly terrible – there’s no two ways about that – but I do believe that the reason our forefathers and foremothers in faith left the Book of Esther in our volume of sacred Scripture is because they recognised that God is quite capable of working through the profane, the secular, the violent, the irreligious, and the truly terrible.
I look at what’s going on in the world today and God’s working are rarely obvious. I do not see many clear and unambiguous signs of the presence of the Spirit of God, and yet I in no way 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 continues to work when those prayers have dried up and when those faithful people have all gone home!
Because in the end it’s not about us (thanks be to God) and the future does not depend on us as the future does not 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 Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 27th of September, 2015.