The Feast of Purim: A Jewish Mardi Gras (Esther 8:1—10:3)
Robert L. (Bob)Deffinbaugh
“All’s well that ends well,” the saying goes. If this is the case, the ending of the Book of Esther is crucial to our understanding of the book and its message. How does the Book of Esther end? Does it end well? In my opinion, it does not. Mordecai seems to be like Don Knotts, who plays the starring role in an old movie entitled, “The Love God.” We can easily conceive of Don Knotts as the publisher of a bird watcher’s magazine. That fits what we know of him. But when the owner of a sleazy publication loses its mailing permit, he cons Don Knotts into publishing a new magazine and makes him into a male sex symbol. Frankly folks, my perception of Don Knotts is far from that of a sex symbol. Yet throughout the movie, Don is surrounded by swooning women. The movie’s humor lies in the incongruity of the whole situation.
Mordecai is the “Don Knotts” of the Book of Esther. He is far from being a man of God and far from what the Bible speaks of as a great spiritual leader. Mordecia would not be in the running for a place in the hall of faith as recorded in Hebrews 11. And yet, this is the way he seems to be portrayed in the closing chapters of the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther has not so much as one mention of the name of God, yet it cannot speak often or highly enough of Mordecai. Most Christians accept this representation of Mordecai without a second thought. Although a number of “difficulties” must be explained or set aside to think so highly of Mordecai, few seem to have a problem in doing so.
The final three chapters of Esther carry three prominent themes.
(1) The Jews of the Persian empire and their great victory over their foes.
(2) The two stars of the Book of Esther, Esther and Mordecai.
(3) The origin of the Feast of Purim, which the Jews celebrate even to this day.
Each theme is dealt with in a way which appears to be positive. We are tempted to cheer for and with the Jews as they defeat and destroy their enemies. We want to look up to Esther and Mordecai as heroes and models for us to imitate. We are inclined to think of the Feast of Purim as just one more feast of the Jews like that of Passover or Pentecost. But something is wrong with the picture of each of these themes.
At first, I was inclined to think the author of the Book of Esther had a warped perspective of Esther, Mordecai, and the events surrounding the Jews who remained on in the Persian empire. This is still a possibility. But I am more inclined to believe the author of the Book of Esther did grasp the situation in Persia, and that his work accurately reflects the unbelief and disobedience of the Jews who remained there rather than return to Judea and Jerusalem with that small remnant of faithful Jews. The author deliberately avoids referring to Jerusalem, to the Law, to the teaching of the prophets, to prayer, or even to God Himself. I believe he does so to speak loudly by his silence. And when he speaks in apparently glowing terms of Esther and Mordecai, he does so with tongue in cheek. The author supplies us with more than enough information to conclude that the success and prominence of the “hero” and “heroine” of the book are not really heroes at all. As we study these concluding chapters, let us base our conclusions on what is said, taking it at face value rather than explaining it away. This book has much to say about the Jews of ancient times, of New Testament times, and of our own time. But it also has much to say about those who profess the name of Christ.
Mordecai Replaces Haman
1 On that day King Ahasuerus gave the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews, to Queen Esther; and Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had disclosed what he was to her. 2 And the king took off his signet ring which he had taken away from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.
We should not be surprised at the downfall of Haman. From what we read in the Book of Proverbs, we would expect him to suffer defeat:
22 His own iniquities will capture the wicked, And he will be held with the cords of his sin (Proverbs 5:22).
27 The fear of the Lord prolongs life, But the years of the wicked will be shortened (Proverbs 10:27).
5 The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way, But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness (Proverbs 11:5).
22 A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, And the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous (Proverbs 13:22).
It is not even shocking to find king Ahasuerus giving all that belonged to Haman to Esther and to learn that Esther placed Mordecai over the house of Haman. There is a kind of poetic justice here, although I would not be too quick to think of Mordecai as the righteous man of Proverbs. I am surprised to find the king handing his signet ring to Mordecai on the very same day he removes it from Haman. One would think the king had learned his lesson and would give no man a blank check by bestowing that ring. One would at least expect the king to wait until he knew Mordecai better. But Ahasuerus seems to act hastily these days (unlike what we read of him in chapter 1).
Esther’s Second Appearance—Petition Granted
3 Then Esther spoke again to the king, fell at his feet, wept, and implored him to avert the evil scheme of Haman the Agagite and his plot which he had devised against the Jews. 4 And the king extended the golden scepter to Esther. So Esther arose and stood before the king. 5 Then she said, “If it pleases the king and if I have found favor before him and the matter seems proper to the king and I am pleasing in his sight, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the king’s provinces. 6 For how can I endure to see the calamity which shall befall my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” 7 So King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew, “Behold, I have given the house of Haman to Esther, and him they have hanged on the gallows because he had stretched out his hands against the Jews. 8 Now you write to the Jews as you see fit, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for a decree which is written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s signet ring may not be revoked.”
When Esther first risked her life by appearing uninvited before the king, she asks not only for her deliverance, but for the deliverance of her people, the Jews. Nevertheless, when the king acts, it is only in Esther’s behalf. This necessitates yet another life-threatening appearance before the king, at which time Esther appeals to him to reverse the decree of Haman by which all the Jews in Persia could have been exterminated.
It does not trouble me that Esther would appeal to the king for the deliverance of the Jews. In and of itself, this is a very noble act. What bothers me is the basis of this petition as recorded in verses 5 and 6. How should a godly Jew appeal to the king? I would expect a man like Daniel to plead with the king on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant as recorded in Genesis 12:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).
God promised to curse those who cursed Abram’s offspring and to bless those who blessed them. If the king were to allow the Jews to be exterminated, he would surely be cursing Abraham’s offspring and would bring him under divine condemnation. On the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant, Ahasuerus should not allow the Jews to be harmed but should seek to protect and bless them. This was to his benefit and the benefit of his empire.
Esther does not appeal to the Word of God. She does not even appeal to the king’s sense of what is right or wrong. She appeals to the king solely on the basis of his affection for her and on what the destruction of the Jews would do to her. She does not know how she can endure if her people are slaughtered. Haman’s plan will break her Jewish heart. If the king wishes to enjoy his relationship with Esther as he has before, he will not allow that which will personally devastate her. I would not dare call this “taking the high road,” morally speaking.
It worked, however. The king reminded Esther of his affection for her, as she could see by the fact that he had hanged Haman and given her his entire estate, and this because of his attempted malice toward the Jews (verse 7). And yet he would gladly go further than this by giving Esther and Mordecai53 permission to draft a law which effectively reversed the law decreed by Haman in the king’s name. Mordecai is given permission to draft the law and then seal it with the king’s signet ring, making it official and irreversible. Once again, the king does not ask to review this law before it is enacted or implemented. This is certainly not the same man who formerly sought the counsel of his princes, taking into consideration the implications of a law which was irreversible (see chapter 1, verses 13-22).
The Decree of Esther and Mordecai
9 So the king’s scribes were called at that time in the third month (that is, the month Sivan), on the twenty-third day; and it was written according to all that Mordecai commanded to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces which extended from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces, to every province according to its script, and to every people according to their language, as well as to the Jews according to their script and their language. 10 And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king’s signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horses, riding on steeds sired by the royal stud. 11 In them the king granted the Jews who were in each and every city the right to assemble and to defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate the entire army of any people or province which might attack them, including children and women, and to plunder their spoil, 12 on one day in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month Adar). 13 A copy of the edict to be issued as law in each and every province, was published to all the peoples, so that the Jews should be ready for this day to avenge themselves on their enemies. 14 The couriers, hastened and impelled by the king’s command, went out, riding on the royal steeds; and the decree was given out in Susa the capital.
The scribes are called in and Mordecai dictates the law which he wants them to translate as the law of the land. Like the law decreed by Haman, this law is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring. Let us remind ourselves of the law which Haman decreed in the king’s name:
12 Then the king’s scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and it was written just as Haman commanded to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province, and to the princes of each people, each province according to its script, each people according to its language, being written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet ring. 13 And letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to seize their possessions as plunder. 14 A copy of the edict to be issued as law in every province was published to all the peoples so that they should be ready for this day. 15 The couriers went out impelled by the king’s command while the decree was issued in Susa the capital; and while the king and Haman sat down to drink, the city of Susa was in confusion (Esther 3:12-15).
Like Haman, Mordecai summons the king’s scribes and directs them as to what they are to write. Like Haman’s decree, the law gives permission to “kill, and to annihilate . . . both young and old, women and children.” Likewise, both laws gave permission to keep the possessions of the defeated as spoils of war. But there is one difference in the way the decree is made public, and it is mentioned twice in the text of chapter 8—the couriers who were sent out by Mordecai rode on “the royal steeds” (8:14), the steeds “sired by the royal stud” (8:10). Why this additional detail? I think this is an added touch to make it abundantly clear that the king stands squarely behind this “new” law and in opposition to the old. The king might not be able to reverse a law of the Persians and Medes, but he can surely let it be known that he is in favor of the Jews. The fact that the messengers rode the royal steeds, the king’s own horses, made it evident where the king stood on this matter.
This new law is just what Esther pled for—a reversal of the decree made law by Haman. And that is precisely what bothers me. I believe the author intended for the wording of the new law of Mordecai to bother us. Revenge is getting even or getting back. The new law of Mordecai does not merely grant the Jews permission to defend themselves; it grants them permission to avenge themselves. Self defense would involve granting the Jews the right to assemble and to fight back if attacked. But the words of Mordecai’s law go much farther. They go every bit as far as Haman’s law, only in reverse. The Jews are given license to “kill, destroy, and to annihilate,” not just those who did attack them, but “the entire army of any people who might attack them.” And those whom they could kill included women and children. I may be reading between the lines, but it seems the Jews were granted to kill virtually anyone they perceived to be a threat—or even a potential threat.
What I am about to say is not popular, but I believe it should be said. The Jews, from the days of Esther to the present, celebrate Purim, and thus the defeat of the “enemies of the Jews.” I think the law which permitted the Jews to kill their Persian enemies was no less a permit to practice genocide than were the German laws or principles which permitted their attempt to annihilate the Jewish race. Genocide is genocide, regardless of whether it is practiced against Jews or by Jews. I find it strangely inconsistent for Jews to fiercely protest against the brutality of the Germans and yet to celebrate the slaughter of Persians. The magnitude of these two atrocities may have been different, but the essence seems similar. The law of Mordecai made it legal for the Jews to practice the same brutality against the Persians as Haman had made legal against Jews.
There is one matter which should be considered. The Jews are given the legal right to keep the plunder of their enemies as spoil (8:11). This is the reverse of Haman’s law (3:13), but it is consistent with the Law of Moses as it pertains to the more distant enemies of the Jews (Deuteronomy 20:14-15). In spite of the fact that keeping the spoil is legal, none of the Jews actually kept the possessions of their enemies (9:10,15-16). This was true for all but Esther, who did keep all that belonged to Haman (8:1). Doing so was not wrong, but it was inconsistent with the practice of all the other Jews in the Persian Empire.
The Jews’ Happiness and Mordecai’s Honor
15 Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a large crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16 For the Jews there was light and gladness and joy and honor. 17 And in each and every province, and in each and every city, wherever the king’s commandment and his decree arrived, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.
Mordecai has his moment in the sun. He goes out from the king’s presence garbed much like a king, garbed much as he was when Haman led him about the streets of Susa proclaiming that the king had chosen to honor him. Only now Mordecai gets to keep his royal robes and his crown. What he was for a few hours, he now is in a more permanent way.54 The city of Susa was troubled and in confusion when they heard of Haman’s law (see 3:15). Now, the city shouts for joy. Was it because Mordecai was such a fine man? He must have been considered a better man than Haman. It may be the people of Susa (a number of whom may also have been foreigners brought there after the defeat of their nation) were troubled by Haman’s law, because they saw that it put all minorities at risk, while Mordecai’s law gave at least one minority an advantage.
Some of the standing of Mordecai and the Jews was due to a more basic and understandable reason—they are scared stiff by the Jews in general and by Mordecai in particular. This we see in 8:17 and later on in 9:2-3. Esther and Mordecai have an inside track to King Ahasuerus, and Mordecai now occupies the place of power formerly held by Haman. Mordecai is a kind of godfather whom no one wishes to cross. It stands to reason that people would profess to be Jews and that people would speak well of Esther, Mordecai, and the Jewish people. But let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that most of these new “Jews” really embraced the Jewish faith. Even the real Jews of Persia seem to have turned their backs on the faith of their fathers. This is why they have remained on in Persia. This is hardly an evangelistic triumph. It is simply a nation of people who are so afraid of the Jews that they try to blend in with them rather than appear to oppose them.
If this is a glorious moment for Mordecai, it is also a triumph for all the Jews in Persia. Everywhere in the kingdom the Jews rejoice with a holiday and feasting. For the Jews there was “light, gladness, honor, and joy” (see 8:16-17). But what does it mean to have light, gladness, honor, and joy? I think it means the Jews were, for the moment, held in high regard (honor) by their neighbors. Gladness and joy seems to describe the response of the Jews to their newly acquired status in the kingdom. There is a feeling of elation, of hope, of optimism, because now they are given the legal right to fight back when attacked by their foes.
I am not sure what is meant by the term “light” (8:16). The Jews were to be a light to the Gentiles, but what does it mean to have “light”? Taken all together, I do not find these terms in Deuteronomy 28-30, nor do they seem to be the words of promise and hope that came from the lips of Israel and Judah’s prophets. In other words, the popularity and happiness of the Jews do not appear to be the blessings which God promised His people for loving and serving Him. I am more inclined to view these terms as those which one would expect in the culture of Susa and even in the false religions of that empire. The beer commercial on television says it this way: “It doesn’t get any better than this.” I think this is the mood which the author is describing among the Jews of the Persian empire at that moment in history.
The Victory of the Jews Over Their Enemies
1 Now in the twelfth month (that is, the month Adar), on the thirteenth day when the king’s command and edict were about to be executed, on the day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, it was turned to the contrary so that the Jews themselves gained the mastery over those who hated them. 2 The Jews assembled in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm; and no one could stand before them, for the dread of them had fallen on all the peoples. 3 Even all the princes of the provinces, the satraps, the governors, and those who were doing the king’s business assisted the Jews, because the dread of Mordecai had fallen on them. 4 Indeed, Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces; for the man Mordecai became greater and greater. 5 Thus the Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying; and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. 6 And in Susa the capital the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men, 7 and Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, 8 Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, 9 Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai, and Vaizatha, 10 the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Jews’ enemy; but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Nearly nine months pass between the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9 (see 8:9 and 9:1). The Jews of the Persian empire are elated by the new law which Mordecai has enacted in the king’s name. It gives them the right to fight back when their enemies attack them on the 13th day of the 12th month. It gives them the right to counter-attack and to rid themselves of their enemies, including women and children. They can start over with a clean slate once their enemies are destroyed.
Verses 1-10 of chapter 9 describe the victory of the Jews over their foes on that fateful day of battle, the 13th day of the 12th month. On the day Haman intended to bring about the destruction of all the Jews in the empire, the Jews rout their enemies. The Jews assemble on that fateful day (could it have been a Friday?) and gain the upper hand over their enemies. No one can stand before them. All who try are defeated. The reasons for this are given to us by the author. First, the dread of the Jews has fallen on their enemies. The Jews now terrify their enemies. They appear to be undefeatable. Second, the people are terrified by Mordecai. Mordecai’s power, and perhaps the fierceness with which he “attacks” every task, is enough to demoralize any opponent. Mordecai is a powerful man in the king’s administration, and his power is growing. News of his greatness has quickly spread throughout the kingdom. He is a Goliath to his Persian foes, and news of his power takes the wind out of the sails of those who once boldly opposed him.
When the Jews assemble, they find they are able to do whatever they please to their foes. Not only are they able to do so, they do what they please to them (9:5). One must remember that the odds are not even. The odds are stacked in favor of the Jews. Not only are the Jews given permission to assemble and to fight back, they are clearly favored by those in positions of power. All those in power do what they can to assist the Jews. Anyone who opposes the Jews is fighting a losing battle; they are taking on the Persian government (9:3). On that one day, 500 of the Jews’ enemies are killed in Susa alone. Included among those are the 10 sons of Haman (9:6-9).
The Jews in Susa are Granted a One Day Extension
11 On that day the number of those who were killed in Susa the capital was reported to the king. 12 And the king said to Queen Esther, “The Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men and the ten sons of Haman in Susa the capital. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall even be granted you. And what is your further request? It shall also be done.” 13 Then said Esther, “If it pleases the king, let tomorrow also be granted to the Jews who are in Susa to do according to the edict of today; and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on the gallows.” 14 So the king commanded that it should be done so; and an edict was issued in Susa, and Haman’s ten sons were hanged. 15 And the Jews who were in Susa assembled also on the fourteenth day of the month Adar and killed three hundred men in Susa, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.
When the king learns that 500 Jew-haters have been killed in Susa, he proudly announces the news to Queen Esther. This must surely indicate that similar successes have been achieved throughout the rest of the empire. They are on a roll. All Esther has requested or suggested has prospered. The king is ready to grant any other request she might make, and so he asks her what else she desires. Esther does have a request. She wants the king to grant an extension to the Jews who live in Susa, granting them a second day to rid themselves of even more of their enemies. Further, she wants the bodies of Haman’s sons hung publicly on the gallows he has built and on which he was executed.
Her request is neither encouraging nor comforting. Why does she request a one-day extension only in Susa, the capital? Why not ask for an extension throughout the empire? Was it because this is where Mordecai’s enemies live? Does this grant Mordecai another day to seek revenge on his enemies? Perhaps even worse is the fact that the Jews of Susa will have a distinct advantage over their foes on this extended day. The enemies of the Jews are given but one day to destroy the Jews and confiscate their property, the 13th day of the 12th month. That day is over. Now it will be illegal for anyone to seek to attack or to kill a Jew, simply for being a Jew. But it will be legal for a Jew to seek and destroy anyone he perceives to be his enemy. This is hardly fair. It gives the Jews the right to kill anyone they suspect of being their enemy and to do it to one who cannot legally fight back. It exactly reverses Haman’s law, only now the Jew is favored and the rest are disadvantaged.
The king grants Esther’s request. The bodies of Haman’s ten sons are hung from the gallows he had constructed on which he intended to hang Mordecai. The Jews in Susa attack their enemies, and another 300 are killed on this second day of fighting. None of the spoils of war are kept.
Jewish Feasting and Celebration
16 Now the rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces assembled, to defend their lives and rid themselves of their enemies, and kill 75,000 of those who hated them; but they did not lay their hands on the plunder. 17 This was done on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made it a day of feasting and rejoicing. 18 But the Jews who were in Susa assembled on the thirteenth and the fourteenth of the same month, and they rested on the fifteenth day and made it a day of feasting and rejoicing. 19 Therefore the Jews of the rural areas, who live in the rural towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a holiday for rejoicing and feasting and sending portions of food to one another.
The situation in the city of Susa is unique. Only there are the Jews granted an extra day to rid themselves of their enemies. Elsewhere, the fighting ends at the end of the 13th day of that 12th month. And so while the Jews of Susa are pursuing their enemies, the rest of the Jews in the Persian empire are celebrating their victory. They have killed 75,000 of their enemies. In contemporary terminology, it is “Miller Time,” a time for feasting and rejoicing—a holiday. The Jews in Susa will have to wait an additional day and have their celebration on the 15th day of the month. This is the author’s way of explaining why the Feast of Purim is observed on two different days.
Purim Declared to be a Jewish Holiday
20 Then Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 obliging them to celebrate the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same month, annually, 22 because on those days the Jews rid themselves of their enemies, and it was a month which was turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and rejoicing and sending portions of food to one another and gifts to the poor. 23 Thus the Jews undertook what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them. 24 For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the adversary of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to disturb them and destroy them. 25 But when it came to the king’s attention, he commanded by letter that his wicked scheme which he had devised against the Jews, should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. 26 Therefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur. And because of the instructions in this letter, both what they had seen in this regard and what had happened to them, 27 the Jews established and made a custom for themselves, and for their descendants, and for all those who allied themselves with them, so that they should not fail to celebrate these two days according to their regulation, and according to their appointed time annually. 28 So these days were to be remembered and celebrated throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and these days of Purim were not to fail from among the Jews, or their memory fade from their descendants. 29 Then Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter about Purim. 30 And he sent letters to all the Jews, to the 127 provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, namely, words of peace and truth, 31 to establish these days of Purim at their appointed times, just as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had established for them, and just as they had established for themselves and for their descendants with instructions for their times of fasting and their lamentations. 32 And the command of Esther established these customs for Purim, and it was written in the book.
Whether celebrated on the 14th or the 15th, the celebration of the Jews is a great success—so much so that Mordecai declares these two days to be national holidays for the Jews. It is made a matter of law, as were the earlier decrees of Haman and of Mordecai.
Three things trouble me greatly about the Feast of Purim as described in these verses:
(1) The Feast of Purim was not established by God, but by men. The author tells us plainly that “the Jews established and made a custom for themselves” (9:27). Other feasts, like Passover and Pentecost, are biblical feasts, feasts which God established and which He instructed men to observe (see, for example, Exodus 12:1-20). The Feast of Purim is a purely Jewish invention, which Mordecai decrees the Jews are to observe. There is a vast difference between divinely initiated holidays and humanly devised holidays. Passover is the former; Purim is the latter.
(2) The Jews are celebrating their victory over their enemies. The author informs us that the Feast of Purim was celebrated on both the 14th and the 15th day of the same month “because on those days the Jews rid themselves of their enemies (9:22). The Jews celebrated their victory, not God’s victory. This celebration is more like the celebration of a football team which has just won the superbowl. There is no talk of God or of grace, but only such words and thoughts as, “We are the greatest.”
(3) The Feast of Purim is celebrated in a very different manner than the feasts which God has ordained. Exodus 15 or Judges 5 reveals the response of the Jews of an earlier time after God had granted them a great victory over their foes. But in each instance, the resulting “celebration” is not one of self-indulgence nor even of generosity and gift-giving. It is one of worship. God is worshipped and praised for the victory He has accomplished. In our text, Mordecai prescribes the way in which the Jews should celebrate the newly established Feast of Purim: “they should make them days of feasting and rejoicing and sending portions of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (9:22). No biblical Jewish holiday is celebrated in precisely this manner. There are no sacrifices, no references to God, to His deeds, to His character or His Word. There is no worship, only celebration. It is more like New Year’s Eve in New York City or the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras than the Passover or Pentecost in Jerusalem.
If it seems I am exaggerating, allow me to quote a contemporary Jewish Rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who writes about the observance of the Feast of Purim by the Jews today. Is this anything like any biblical feast of which you are aware?
Perhaps the oddest commandment in Jewish law is the one associated with Purim in which Jews are instructed to get drunk until they can no longer differentiate between “Blessed is Mordechai,” and “Cursed is Haman.”
Although recovering alcoholics, people with health problems, and those planning to drive are freed from observing this commandment, a fair number of Jews do get drunk on Purim. After all, how often can one do something normally regarded as wrong, and be credited with fulfilling a commandment?
The obligation to drink stems largely from Purim’s being one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish calendar. Haman, an ancient Persian forerunner of Hitler, plotted to kill all the Jews. They foiled his plan, however, and then avenged themselves on this would-be mass murderer and his supporters (see Esther).
The rabbis were so enamored of Purim that they declared in a maxim, “From the beginning of Adar [the month in which Purim falls], we increase our happiness” Ta’anit 29a). In fact, they predicted that Purim would be observed even in the messianic days, when almost all other Jewish holidays would be abolished (Midrash Mishlei 9).
Purim is observed on the fourteenth of Adar, just a month and a day before Passover; in Jerusalem, Hebron, and the Old City of Safed, the holiday is observed one day later. This odd scheduling is because a statement in the Book of Esther (9:18-19) ordains that Purim be observed one day later in walled cities (Jerusalem was still a walled city at the time Esther was written). Thus, in Israel anyone so inclined can observe Purim twice, on the fourteenth of Adar throughout most of the country, and on the fifteenth in Jerusalem, Hebron, and the Old City of Safed.
Women as well as men are commanded to hear the public reading of the biblical scroll of Esther. The reading is conducted in the synagogue amid much revelry. Almost all children, and some adults, come to the service with groggers (noisemakers), which they sound whenever Haman’s name is read. Since Haman is mentioned more than fifty times in Esther, the reading is constantly interrupted by shouts, screams, boos, and the rattling of groggers. Because Jewish law requires people to hear every word of the scroll of Esther, the person chanting the book is forbidden to resume until the noise abates.
While Jews normally come to synagogue in suits and dresses, their attire on the playful holiday of Purim is more likely to be costumes and masks. Although many women model themselves on Queen Esther and many men on Mordechai, I have seen people come to services dressed as robots or as members of the Women’s Liberation Army of Shushan (the Persian city where the Purim story takes place).
The synagogue service is usually followed by a party where the command to get drunk is carried out. Very often, members of the congregation perform skits based on the Purim story (see Esther). At many yeshlvot, Purimshpiels are performed, and fun is poked—through plays and skits—at the school, its teachers and rabbis, as well as at traditional texts that are usually treated with reverence.
Another Purim commandment is to send mishloakh manor (gifts of food and drink) to other Jews. The minimum gift one must give is two portions of different foods; they must require no preparation but be ready to eat. In recent years, as the Jewish community has become more affluent, mishloakh manot have grown more elaborate, and many people send them to large numbers of friends.
On Purim one is commanded to be charitable to everyone, even to beggars whose requests for charity one has reason to believe are bogus. On this day of unbridled joy, no questions are to be asked. When I was a student at Yeshiva University, there were two women who used to accost students every morning and afternoon, asking for money. A rabbi I knew there—a generous man—never contributed to them; he told me he knew for a fact that they had independent and substantial means. Nonetheless, on Purim he made sure to give them a donation.
Throughout Jewish history, many communities and families established their own special Purim holidays to commemorate annually the anniversaries of events in which Jewish communities or individuals were saved from death at the hands of antisemites. In the 1970s, a prominent American rabbi was among those kidnapped and held hostage by Muslim terrorists at the B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington, D.C. All the hostages survived, and ever since the rabbi conducts an annual special Purim celebration with his family on the Hebrew date on which he was released.
Another commandment associated with the holiday is to enjoy a large, festive repast known as the Purim se’udah (meal). The dessert normally served at this meal, and eaten throughout the whole holiday, is hamantashen, small cakes of baked dough filled with prunes, apricot, poppy seed, or other filling. During the Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals), a special prayer is recited, thanking God for the miracles that occurred during the days of Mordechai.
The observance of Purim was apparently well known to the Nazi leadership. Julius Streicher, perhaps the most vicious antisemite among the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, shouted out as he was marched to the gallows, “Purimfest.”55
Two Tributes: The Tribute of
Ahasuerus and the Tribute to Mordecai
1 Now King Ahasuerus laid a tribute on the land and on the coastlands of the sea. 2 And all the accomplishments of his authority and strength, and the full account of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia? 3 For Mordecai the Jew was second only to King Ahasuerus and great among the Jews, and in favor with the multitude of his kinsmen, one who sought the good of his people and one who spoke for the welfare of his whole nation.
King Ahasuerus (also known in secular history as Xerxes) is the most powerful man on the face of the earth, king of one of the greatest empires of all time. And yet in these closing verses of the Book of Esther, all we are told of Ahasuerus is that he laid a tax on the kingdom. Political leaders are not praised for such things. Taxes are the basis for protest, not praise. But this is all our author says about the king in his final reference to his rule.
In contrast, Mordecai receives a great deal more attention. While our author barely gives the king one line of editorial exposure, he gives Mordecai nearly five. Instead of writing any tribute to the king, our author gives a great closing tribute to Mordecai. He speaks of his authority, his accomplishments, his strength, and his greatness. This sounds more like a spot commercial for a man running for political office.
Mordecai, we are told, was a great man. He was great because he was second only to the king himself in power. He was great because of his accomplishments, authority, strength, and greatness. He was great among the Jews because his fellow-Jews highly esteemed him. He had the favor of his people because he sought their good, and he spoke for the welfare of his whole nation.
This all sounds mighty good, does it not? I know how this will sound, but say it I must. Almost the same things could have been said of Jimmy Hoffa by those who were members of the Teamsters’ Union. Being great in the sight of men is not synonymous with being great in the eyes of God. Being great among men is not the same as being godly. Mordecai was great, but we have no reason at all to assume that he was godly. How could a godly man take credit for saving his people without even mentioning God?
Something is wrong with this picture. There has been a great deliverance, but that deliverance came about through the providence of God, not through the power of men. The Book of Esther should remind us of the greatness of God and warn us about being too impressed with the greatness of men. And lest we become too enamored with Mordecai as the deliverer of his people, we should be reminded that it was through his stubbornness and folly that the Jewish people were endangered in the first place.
We must interpret the Book of Esther in light of the entire Bible. And yet it is here that we come upon a very serious problem. Esther speaks of the deliverance of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. It speaks of the greatness of Esther and Mordecai. It introduces us to a new Jewish feast, the Feast of Purim. If all these matters are of such great importance, why is there no reference to the Book of Esther or to any of the key persons or events of this book in any other book of the Bible? Why are the Book of Esther and its events ignored in the rest of the Bible? When we read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah—the books immediately preceding Esther which fall in the same general time frame—why is there virtually not even a hint of anything from the Book of Esther?56 If it were not for the Book of Esther, we would know absolutely nothing of this period of time or of these people. Why?
I think for me the reason is finally beginning to sink in. Those things which the Jews thought to be important, those things which are predominant in the Book of Esther, are not the things of God, and they are not really of any eternal significance.57 The Jews who remained on in Persia did not return to Judah and Jerusalem because they had too much invested in Persia. At this period of time, the scene in Susa (Esther 1:1-9) is far more glorious than the scene in Jerusalem, where a small group of Jews (50,000 or so) dwell in the ruins of a once great kingdom (see for example Ezra 3:10-13; Nehemiah 1:1-3).
In that day, there were two kingdoms. One was the great and glorious kingdom of Persia. The problem is that this kingdom was temporal, and even worse, it was a kingdom under the influence of Satan (see Daniel 10:20). The other “kingdom” was the earthly and eternal kingdom of God. It was in Jerusalem that God promised to dwell and to manifest His presence. It was to Jerusalem that people of all nations were to come to worship Him. While the earthly kingdom was far from impressive, it was the place of God’s presence and blessing. It is the kingdom which the Persian Jews rejected, choosing to remain in the prosperity and splendor of this pagan realm.
Everything we read about Esther and Mordecai and the Jews of the Persian empire inclines us to assume that these Jews had little regard for God’s kingdom and an excessive attraction to this temporal kingdom. The reason the rest of the Bible ignores the people and events of the Book of Esther is because the book is an account of Jews who are preoccupied with the wrong kingdom, a kingdom which is not eternal. Oh, the God of Israel is at work in the Book of Esther, but neither Mordecai, nor Esther, nor the Jews, nor the Persians recognize it. In contrast, we see the Pharaoh recognizing the hand of God upon Joseph and Nebuchadnezzar acknowledging and worshipping Daniel’s God. Not so in Persia!
As I reflect on the closing chapters of the Book of Esther, I am reminded of the temptation of our Lord:
8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only’ “ (Matthew 4:8-10).
Satan offered our Lord the earthly kingdoms, hoping that He would give up His commitment to the Father’s eternal kingdom. Satan was not successful in his temptation of our Lord. But it seems to me that Mordecai gave in to this very temptation. At the end of the Book of Esther, we read of Mordecai’s great power and glory, but it is in the wrong kingdom. We are told that the account of his greatness is to be found “in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia” (Esther 10:2). A number of Bible students point out the similarity of this statement to those found in biblical history. Allow me to point out one crucial difference. There is a world of difference between having one’s deeds recorded “in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia,” and having one’s deeds recorded in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah. Just so, there is a world of difference between having one’s name recorded in the Book of Life and having one’s name recorded is some other book, even a famous history book.
The Book of Esther is a picture—and not a very pretty one—of the Jew who is in unbelief and in disobedience. No wonder the Jews of the Persian empire are in peril. No wonder Mordecai and the Jews act little differently than do the pagans of Persia. No wonder that neither prayer, nor repentance, nor the Scriptures, nor faith, nor God are mentioned in this book. The book is a description of pagan Jews, Jews who have become attached to “Vanity Fair.”
How can we not think of the words of our Lord, when He says,
36 “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36).
The position, power, and prestige of Esther and Mordecai (not to mention the rest of the Jews who remained there) were of no eternal benefit. Consequently, in spite of the seemingly glorious account of Esther, these people and events are lost to the rest of Scripture. Significantly and sadly, we find neither Esther nor Mordecai listed in the “Hall of Faith” as described in Hebrews 11.
This error of the Persian Jews regarding the kingdom of God is seen in the Jews of Jesus’ day. They too were caught up with the secular kingdom of their day and with the power that came with it. They were afraid of the “kingdom” of which our Lord spoke. They feared they would lose their position and power in this world, and they had little concern about God’s kingdom in the next. They were not laying up treasure in heaven; they were laying up treasure on earth, even taking advantage of widows to do so (see Matthew 23:14). Not only did they refuse to enter into God’s kingdom, but they tried to keep others from entering as well (23:13). Not surprisingly, they too were into banquets (23:6).
Even the disciples of our Lord reflect the same secular thinking in regard to the kingdom of God. They were interested in the power and prestige of our Lord’s kingdom. They wanted to have a prominent role. They were eager to establish the kingdom and disinclined to wait (or suffer) for it. It took a long time for them to grasp and then to accept what our Lord had to say about the kingdom of God.
And we are no different. We are all too similar to Esther and Mordecai, to the Jews who opposed Jesus, and to the disciples. We find that this present temporal kingdom has a great attraction to us. It sometimes seems real, while the kingdom of our Lord seems distant and far-fetched. Are we critical of the way the Persian Jews added to the Word of God so that their worship became perverted, self-indulgent celebration? Do we think that only the Jews of ancient days failed to recognize the hand of God and took credit for what God has done? We do exactly the same thing today.
I am thinking of the Corinthian church as it is depicted in the New Testament. In the very first chapter of 1 Corinthians, we find the church has already become too man-centered. Christian and biblical morality has all too quickly and easily been set aside so that even the pagans are shocked by what these saints are doing (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-8). The sobering “celebration” of the Lord’s Supper had degenerated into a secular and drunken celebration which brought about sickness and death to some of the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Worship, which is characterized by sacrifice, all too easily becomes characterized by self-indulgence and sin (see Exodus 32; 1 Corinthians 11).
For the Old Testament saints of Esther’s day, worship and service were to be governed by the Law. God’s Law set the standard not only for the Jew’s conduct but also for his warfare and for his worship. The Law is not once mentioned in the Book of Esther. Our conduct, service, and worship is likewise to be governed by the Word of God. How quickly the heathen culture in which we live begins to encroach on our thinking and on our behavior, until we are worshipping in a way that is precisely opposite to that which God requires and enables. Would we scoff at those Jews who celebrate the Feast of Purim by enthusiastically doing those things which the Old Testament forbade? Let us take time to ponder our own practices. How much of what we do in serving God and worshipping Him is contrary to His Word?
Let us not leave the Book of Esther looking down our spiritual noses at Esther, Mordecai, and the Persian Jews. Let us leave the Book of Esther asking ourselves how we are like them and asking what we should do to be the people God has called us to be. Let us seek first the kingdom of God, and let all other things take a secondary place in our lives. Let us not exalt men and forget God. Let us recognize that the Book of Esther describes the dark side of Judaism in those days and that Ezra and Nehemiah set down for us examples which we should follow. Let us look for the hand of God, even in the events of a secular world and through heathen officials and politicians. To God be the glory, great things He has done. Great things He still does and is yet to do.
53 The reason I say that both Esther and Mordecai were given authority to draft this new law is because the “you” in verse 8 is plural, indicating that the king was speaking to both Esther and Mordecai.
54 All of which ended quickly, I suspect, when king Ahasuerus was assassinated in his 20th year.
55 Jewish Literacy, The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.), 1991, pp. 578-580.
56 The only reference to anything in the Book of Esther is the mention of Ahasuerus one time in Ezra 4:6.
57 Aside, of course, from the eternal punishment that results from man’s sin.