Courage for Community
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
27 September 2009
This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. In those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred eighty days in all.
When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king's palace.
Well, right off we know that this guy is powerful and rich and that he likes to show off. The first verse informs us that he rules most of the known world. We are dealing with power, imperial power. So right off our ears should perk up. Through the Bible there is criticism of imperial power—during the Exodus from Egypt to The Book of Revelation and the persecution of the early Church by Rome. This is going to be a story about living in the context of imperial power.
On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
A side note before I go on with the story. There are eunuchs in this story. And they play an important role in it. Eunuchs, we know, are a queer presence in these ancient stories. They are men who cannot reproduce either because they were born that way or have been made that way. They could be trans, intersex, or gay, there are indications of all of these in ancient literature; they usually represent a "third gender" category for he ancients. Therefore, let it be known that queer people are present in the biblical narrative. Now, back to the main story.
Queen Vashti is courageous. What is her motive? Is it that she will not allow herself to be objectified? That she will not be used for the pleasure of these drunken men?
Whatever her motive, she challenges this man who rules the world. He may rule over 127 provinces from Egypt to Ethiopia, but he doesn't rule in his own house, over the one who shares his bed.
It is a mighty challenge to his power, and he knows it. He immediately seeks counsel from his advisors on what to do, and we see what their fear is.
Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, "Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, 'King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.' This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen's behavior will rebel against the king's officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike."
So, Ahasuerus sets Vashti aside. To console him, the harem is expanded with young virgins. We are told in detail in chapter two of the Book of Esther of the inner workings of the harem. The young virgins undergo one year of "cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics." Then the girl is sent to the king of an evening, and in the morning she is taken to the "second harem." And for most of these girls, the king never encounters them again. They spend the rest of their life in the harem, having slept one night with the king as his concubine. Only those who find favor with the king might get another visit.
One of the young virgins in the harem, is a Jewish girl named Esther.
Now there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away. Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter. So when the king's order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king's palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women.
What, then, happened when Esther, after a year, got her chance to sleep with Ahasuerus?
When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet to all his officials and ministers—"Esther's banquet." He also granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality.
This whole time that Esther has been in the harem, Mordecai has been visiting the king's gate to keep informed about her. In the process he uncovers a plot.
In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king's eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.
Now, unrelated to this episode, we learn that the king has promoted Haman as his senior official. Everyone now bows down and does obeisance to Haman. We are not told why, but for some reason, Mordecai will not obey; he does not bow down to Haman.
When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai's people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.
So, Haman persuades King Ahasuerus that
"There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction."
Ahasuerus agrees to Haman's request. Now we've learned that imperial power is no guarantee of strength, wisdom, or justice. The guy who rules the world may be easily ruled by his subordinates. It is a cautionary tale for all of us in dealing with the powers-that-be.
Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.
More eating and drinking! Have you noticed how central they are to this story? Meals are supposed to be opportunities for fellowship and hospitality. In our faith, we celebrate an open, common table, as a sign of our equality and connection with one another.
But this table is that of the persecutor, the oppressor. And we have heard this story before. There is no way for us to read the story of Esther apart from the history of anti-Semitism. The expulsions of Jews in the late Medieval Period. The pogroms of Central and Eastern Europe. The Holocaust. The anti-Semitism in Oklahoma City just last week. We have heard this story before. And, we fear, we will hear it again.
Mordecai and all the Jews were fasting, weeping, and lamenting. With emissaries taking messages between them, Esther and Mordecai begin to discuss the situation. Mordecai implores Esther to entreat the king on behalf of the Jews.
But Esther warns that she has not been called to the king in thirty days and that she cannot just visit uninvited.
"All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live."
Mordecai sent this reply:
"Do not think that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
These are probably the most famous words from the Book of Esther. Living in the context of imperial power, in the context of a society that does not match one's ethics, we humans are faced with a decision. And sometimes we are forced to disobey. What is called for is the courage to stand up to power.
The Book of Esther never mentions God. It has been a problem for religious people through the centuries. In fact, there were a few later editions of Esther which added religious content and God to the story. But the version in the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles does not mention God. God is conspicuously absent.
This can mean a handful of things, but I find it encouraging actually. Why am I encouraged that God is absent from the Book of Esther? Well, so often the stories of liberation in the Bible are accompanied by great miracles, like the parting of the Red Sea, or mystical visions. Yet, that's not the experience of most of us who work for liberation every day.
I do what I do in advocating for equality, justice, and peace, because of my belief in the reign of God and my desire to be a disciple imitating Jesus. But I don't have mystical visions. I don't witness spectacular physical signs and wonders. Despite not having this empirical evidence, I keep working.
The Book of Esther is a story like that. God doesn't show up to fix everything. The people themselves must take action if they are to be saved. They hope that their action will result in change, but they have no guarantee. In fact, they have plenty of room to doubt, which is why what Esther does is a leap of faith.
Esther, then, is a model for all of us of how to live out our discipleship—with courage, taking the risk.
But first, she must prepare, and she asks the community to help.
"Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish."
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, opposite the king's hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace. As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. The king said to her, "What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom." Then Esther said, "If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared for the king."
Esther's action paid off; she receives her audience with the king. And once again, a meal is involved in this story.
Esther feeds Ahasuerus and Haman. But when the King asks what she wants, she asks that he and Haman come back for lunch tomorrow. We don't know exactly what her tactic is, but it seems to make Haman more puffed up. Here he is, the only guest at lunch with the King and Queen.
In the old saying, "Pride goeth before a fall," Haman's pride incites him to take further action against Mordecai. Because Mordecai will not obey him and give him honour, Haman decides to build a gallows 75 feet tall in order to execute Mordecai.
75 feet tall. Overdoing it a bit isn't he? Clearly he's going to make Mordecai a public example. Haman plans on asking the king in the morning if he can execute Mordecai.
Now, in a delightful and ironic turn in the story, something very common in Jewish folk tales, overnight the King realizes that he has never rewarded Mordecai for uncovering the plot and saving his life. The next morning the King is visiting with Haman, who is getting ready to ask if he can execute Mordecai.
So Haman came in, and the king said to him, "What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?" Haman said to himself, "Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?" So Haman said to the king, "For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king's most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: 'Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.'" Then the king said to Haman, "Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king's gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned."
Once again we are reminded that God acts in the most surprising ways. Central to our faith tradition is this idea that the lowly will be lifted up and that God will do the unexpected. God will select for God's chosen people a group of slaves. God will even surprise everyone by resurrecting from the dead an executed criminal and declaring that that executed criminal is "My Beloved Son."
After the public escapade, Haman is mourning the awful turn of events, when he is ushered into the banquet with the King and Esther. This is the story which has been recounted already. When the King asks Esther what she wants, she reveals that she is a Jew. She points to Haman as the perpetrator of violence against her people. And the king orders the execution of Haman on the very gallows which had been prepared for Mordecai. Oh the delicious irony!
In the chapter skipped over by tonight's lectionary reading, we learn the Esther is granted Haman's estate. Mordecai is given the King's signet ring, which Haman had once worn.
Esther then pleads that the King reverse the decree which would allow people to kill and plunder the Jews. The King says that he cannot change the law, but instead delivers a new one.
By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods on a single day.
On the pre-determined day
the Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who had sought their ruin; and no one could withstand them, because the fear of them had fallen upon all peoples. So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. . . . [They] gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder. This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness.
This violent revenge may elicit complicated responses from us, kind of like the current hit film Inglourious Basterds. We enjoy seeing the bad guys get it for once. We also know that we should not like that, that we should hope for a more peaceful, just, and nonviolent way of resolving problems. We might wonder where is the mercy that the Jews themselves have experienced?
This story does not exist apart from real life. Violence and revenge are aspects of human life which cannot be ignored.
Clearly a people who have spent centuries being the victims of violence, enjoy this story of the one day they got to defend themselves.
But what can we take from it? Ben Strawn, Associate Professor in the Candler School of Theology writes,
further clues regarding the interpretation of its violence might be gathered from the other lessons for the day: Psalm 124, which praises the LORD who was on Israel's side and kept them from certain destruction; Mark 9:38-50, which redefines who is for us and who against us, and which warns us about sin and its consequences; and James 5:13-20, which reminds us of the power of faithful prayer and the confession of sin.
And so we should not read this one moment of violence alone, but in the context of our faith tradition.
Finally, what matters in this story is that justice is done and that in the most surprising ways. Here are the final verses of the story:
For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants.
In such a time as this, when it is necessary for us to have courage on behalf of the community, may it be said that we sought the good of the people.