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We will begin this post by looking at some of the literary devices most on display in Esther 2:19-5:14 and then explore the content of this section by going through each part in turn.  In this regard I have found most helpful Karen Jobes commentary on the book in the NIVAC series, although I do not agree with everything that she says, and the Dillard-Longman introduction to the book.  I encourage you to post a comment if there are other things of interest to you on this portion of Esther that I’ve neglected to mention.

The Pairs of Esther

One of the important literary techniques employed by the author of Esther was to include things in pairs.  Thus we read about two Queens and in each major section there are two feasts – two given by the King, two given by Esther, and then the two accounts of Purim.  Additionally, the Dillard-Longman introduction lists how Esther concealed her true identity twice (Esther 2:10, 20), the two lists of servants (Esther 1:10-14), the two times the women were gathered (Esther 2:8, 19), the two houses (Esther 2:12-14), two fasts (Esther 4:3, 16), two times Haman discussed things with his wife and friends (Esther 5:14, 6:13), two times Esther appeared uninvited before the king (Esther 5:2, 8:3), Mordecai’s two investitures (Esther 6:7-11, 8:15), two times Haman has his face covered (Esther 6:12, 7:8), two mentions of Haman’s sons (Esther 5:11, 9:6-14), two mentions of the eunuch Harbona (Esther 1:10, 7:9), twice that the king’s anger is said to abate (Esther 2:1, 7:10), two mentions of how the law of the Persians and Medes cannot be changed (Esther 1:19, 8:8), two days for the Jewish people to take their vengeance (Esther 9:5-15), and two letters instituting the feast of Purim as a holiday (Esther 9:20-32).

All historical chronicles are necessarily selective and the author of this one has taken delight (as Dillard and Longman’s introduction puts it) in mentioning things in pairs.  This is one of those important reminders that these ancient historical chronicles are very artistic compositions.  Notice that several of these pairs span much of the book, but also that a significant number are found in part or in whole in the section we will explore today: Esther 2:19-5:14.

The Ironies of Esther

The use of irony also continues in this section.  The same introduction notes the contrast of Mordecai’s ”unrewarded merit” and Haman’s ”unmerited reward.”  This suggests to me together with everything else we have previously seen that this may be a hint to expect a reversal of fortunes.  Likewise, there is the irony that Haman is not upfront about his intended victims (their identity having been concealed) and we know that Esther is concealing her identity as a Jewess.  Moreover, there is the ironic contrast of Mordecai refusing to bow for Haman (Esther 3:2-6) and refusing to rise for Haman (Esther 5:9).  That introduction also lists as ironic the contrast of the drinking of Haman and the fasting of the Jews.   The final example they give begins in the text we will see today and ends later – they toast the decree with drinking in Esther 3:15, but then see Esther 7:1-2 when they are drinking again.

Recurring Motifs of Esther

Speaking of the one irony of drinking and fasting – the introduction notes that often the banquets mark important turns in the plot of the book (like Esther 5:4-5) but in one case that turn in the plot comes when there is mention of the opposite of banqueting: the fasting of Esther 4:3, 15-18.  The text also includes mention of clothing articles in Esther 3:10, 4:1-4, and 5:1.  This is one of the recurring motifs of the book that we have previously noted (as was banqueting).

Mordecai Saves the Persian King

In the text we looked at last time, Esther became the Persian Queen.  The next part shows us Mordecai thwarting an assassination attempt on the Persian King (Esther 2:19-23).  It begins with Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate, which is essentially idiomatic for saying Mordecai has an official royal position in the Persian kingdom.  We know from history, as mentioned last week, that although this attempt did not succeed because Mordecai overheard it and told Queen Esther and she told the King, nevertheless, a future attempt did succeed.  No doubt the early readers of Esther knew of this recent historical reversal for the King.

Haman’s Decree against the Jews

Incidentally it was two of the king’s eunuch’s, Bigthan and Teresh, who sought the king’s life.

Where we would expect to find Mordecai rewarded for saving the king’s life we read instead that the King promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha ”and advanced him and set his throne above all the officials who were with him” (Esther 3:1).  This is the setting then for the conflict between Haman and Mordecai.  The text tells us ”all the king’s servants” at the gate ”bowed down and paid homage to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him” (Esther 3:2).  However, the next part of the verse excepts Moredecai from this obedience to the king’s command concerning Haman: ”But Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage” (Esther 3:2).  Here again we have another example of, as Jobes puts it, ”respect commanded and respect refused” as with Queen Vashti.  The text may be implying that the reason Mordecai refused to do so is that he was a Jew, but aside from this possible implication the text is silent as to what that motivation entails.

Jobes explains that the reason for the refusal is suspected to be personal and not religious in nature since other Jewish people had no problems doing court protocols in Persian history.  If it was a religious objection then it would be that Mordecai does not want to glorify Haman but only God.  However, I might suggest that the text itself indicates that Haman is no isolated individual – he is Haman the Agagite.  Thus perhaps Mordecai refused to bow to Haman because of that history with King Agag we have previously discussed.  Reading more of Jobes commentary I see that she agrees – Mordecai is described as Mordecai the Jew and Haman as Haman the Agagite.  Thus these two individuals embody these conflicting groups.  She suggests that we see Exodus 17:8-16 concerning the battle with the Amalekites.  YHWH had promised to ”utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (i.e., from the land of the living) and Moses says YHWH will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.  Agag was an Amalekite (cf. 1 Sam 15).  Thus the question is whether YHWH will continue to fight for Israel post-exile.  And because of this slight, Haman decided to find a way to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom.  His plotting and manipulation of the king sounds eerily similar to what the Jewish religious leadership did to Jesus.

Significant for Purim’s origins we read, ”In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, they cast lots) before Haman day after day; they cast it month after month till the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar” (Esther 3:7, note the same phrase in Esther 9:24).  The significance of Haman casting lots was that he was doing divination.  This was his way of consulting the gods to determine the best time to have the Jewish people exterminated.  It means that Haman will have to wait almost a year before the slaughter.  No doubt this delay was part of the providence of the God of the Jews over the lots.

Then Haman because of this one instance of disrespect manipulated the king into signing a decree against all Jewish people.  Sound familiar?  This is what we saw one of the seven royal advisors do with regard to the disrespect of Vashti – he manipulated the king into signing a decree against all women.  It is not insignificant then that it is a Jewish woman who will manipulate the king and outwit Haman.  It was not true that the Jewish people refused to keep the king’s laws but only that Mordecai refused to obey the one about bowing to Haman, but the truth did not constrain Haman from accusing the whole group.

The book shows us what we today call anti-Semitism.  Haman tells the King that there is no profit in tolerating them, but then tells the king that he will be greatly rewarded for decreeing the destruction of this group.  The king never asks what this group might be, but was moved by the argument that they were a threat and by the enticement of money.  Remember that we know, though the book did not fill in this detail, that the King is largely broke after his war against Greece.  But Haman’s identity is told to the reader: ”Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews” (Esther 3:10).  The text is not explicit in this regard, but it appears to be the case that the expectation was Haman would take the wealth amassed by Jewish people and put that into the king’s treasury.  The suggestion is that these Jewish people have much riches that can be seized when they are destroyed.  Jobes tells us that he does not wait long to send out the decree that the Jews were to be slaughtered eleven months from then.  In fact, she says that the decree went out on the eve of Passover.  She calls this ”tragically ironic” but says it ”serves to heighten the glory of the subsequent deliverance and links it to the ancient covenant of Sinai.”  Indeed, the deliverance on Passover is being suggested as somewhat of a type of the deliverance that will take place as celebrated on Purim.

Esther 4

The next part of the text is Esther 4.  In this part Mordecai reverses what he had told Esther previously.  He had commanded her not to reveal her identity as a Jewess and now he wants her to do just that.  The chapter begins with Mordecai and the Jews fasting, weeping, lamenting and many of them laying in sackcloth and ashes (cf. Esther 4:3).  Word of this reached Esther and so she called one of the king’s eunuch’s Hathach to go ask Mordecai why and to send him clean garments.  Mordecai declined the gift of clothing but Mordecai told the eunuch everything including giving him a copy of the decree to show to Esther.  He now commands ”her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people.”  Esther then sent a response back to Mordecai through the eunuch Hathach.  She indicates that the King has not been interested in her lately – she has not been called to come in for the last month – and if she goes uninvited she could be put to death unless he decides to pardon her.  

Mordecai’s response is interesting since he says that she should not think that she will be spared from the decree of death.  This is odd since no one besides Mordecai and now this eunuch knows that she is a Jewess.  At least we are not aware of anyone else being in the loop.  Some have argued that this was a veiled threat that if she refused to go then Mordecai would out her as a Jewess.  However, it may simply be that her hidden identity is becoming uncovered even in this exchange.  It is Esther 4 that gives us the famous line, hinting at the providence of God, ”And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).  The chapter ends with Esther sending back the message for all the Jews that Mordecai could find in Susa to hold a fast on her behalf and not eat or drink for three days, night or day (i.e., Jonah) and that she and her young women attendants will also fast.  Then she will go to the king ”though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:17).

Esther 5

Esther 5 then brings us to another of the book’s many ironies – as Jobes notes, Vashti risked it all by refusing to go before the king when summoned and now Esther risked it all by going before the king without an invitation.  Further inviting the comparison and also indicating the manner in which she approaches the king without an invitation, she put on her ”royal robes.”  Thus she came before him as Queen.  Thankfully he extended the golden scepter indicating her pardon.  Then she invited the king and Haman to a banquet.  Twice the King says that her wish would be granted ”even to half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”  And so she asked that the King and Haman would attend a second feast the next day when she would ”do as the king has said.”

Haman left the banquet on cloud 9 but then he saw Mordecai sitting in the king’s gate and Mordecai did not rise nor tremble before him and this filled Haman with wrath against Mordecai.  It is likely no accident that Haman sounds like wrath in Hebrew.  But Haman restrained himself and went home where he called upon his wife and friends.  The scene then sounds like the King in the first chapter as he recounts to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, the promotions and advancements in the kingdom he had received, and how he alone was invited to dine with the King and Queen.  And Haman said, ”Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”  At this, his wife and friends suggested building the gallows for hanging Mordecai and to tell this to the king in the morning and then go to the feast joyfully.  Haman liked the idea and had the gallows built.  If you are interested in the method of execution I will unpack that next time — for now, it was not hanging from a noose.  Next time we will resume the story here.

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