November 7, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Esther saves the Jews in the Persian Empire

John F. Fink(Forty-fourth in a series of columns)

Like Daniel, Tobit and Judith, the Book of Esther is another fictional book in the Old Testament. It’s set in Persia (modern Iran) at the time of King Xerxes (485-464 B.C.), called King Ahasuerus in the book. It’s an excellently written story, and I encourage you to read it if you haven’t done so. Here’s a synopsis:

King Ahasuerus became displeased when his queen, Vashti, refused to come to a drunken banquet. He banished the queen and then searched the kingdom for beautiful virgins to replace her. Esther, a Jewish orphan who was being cared for by her uncle Mordecai, was one of the virgins brought to the royal court.

The book says that she “was beautifully formed and lovely to behold” (Est 2:7). If that sounds familiar, it’s the same description given for the Jewish heroine Judith, whom I wrote about last week. The king chose Esther and made her queen in place of Vashti. On Mordecai’s advice, she kept secret the fact that she was Jewish.

Haman was King Ahasuerus’s second in command. When he passed on the street, all the people were to bow down to him. But Mordecai, as a good Jew, refused to bow down, keeping such homage for God alone. This angered Haman. He built a gibbet on which to hang Mordecai.

When he learned that Mordecai was a Jew, Haman told King Ahasuerus that there were people in his kingdom who did not obey his laws. He proposed that all these people be rounded up on a single day for execution. The king issued the decree.

Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes, and walked through the city crying out loudly. Esther sent one of the eunuchs, Hathach, to learn why Mordecai was behaving like that. Mordecai told him what was about to happen to the Jews and asked Esther to appeal to the king.

Esther sent word for all the Jews to fast on her behalf. She and her maids also fasted and prayed for three days. Then she put aside her penitential garments and arrayed herself in her royal attire. Looking gorgeous, she approached the king, who sprang from the throne and welcomed her. What could he do for her, he asked.

Esther invited the king and Haman to a banquet. They accepted. During the banquet, Esther asked King Ahasuerus to spare her life and the lives of her people because an enemy was about to kill them.

“Who and where is the man who has dared to do this?” the king asked.

Esther replied, “The enemy oppressing us is this wicked Haman.”

The king went into the garden in anger and Haman begged for his life. When the king returned, he found Haman on the couch with Esther. He ordered that Haman be hung on the gibbet he had prepared for Mordecai.

The decree against the Jews was rescinded. Then the Jews took revenge by killing a great number of their enemies. Mordecai replaced Haman as second in command.

The Jews celebrate these events each year on the feast of Purim. †

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