Adapted from an article by Mark Stover
Esther 2:8-10, ‘It came about when the command and decree of the king were heard and many young ladies were gathered to the citadel of Susa into the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s palace into the custody of Hegai, who was in charge of the women. Now the young lady pleased him and found favour with him. So he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and food, gave her seven choice maids from the king’s palace and transferred her and her maids to the best place in the harem. Esther didn’t make known her people or her kindred, for Mordecai (Esther’s cousin and guardian) had instructed her that she should not make them known.’
Purim is the Biblical, Jewish holiday which is most carnival-like. Children drown out Haman’s name with ‘boos’ whenever it’s mentioned, young Jewish girls participate in Queen Esther beauty pageants, plays are enacted called Purimspiels. People eat festive food and a great deal of fancy dress parties are attended…this is how the celebration of Purim has developed over the centuries. Yet, behind the feasting and drinking and partying lies a somber message: the near destruction of the Jewish people, something that’s happened repeatedly throughout their history.
It’s a reminder that Jewish survival appears to hang by a thread of circumstance—but the weight of the matter is in God’s hands. The account in the book of Esther takes place in fifth century Persia and the events and characters of Purim – there are royal court intrigues, dramatic confrontations, heroes and villains – it’s not a work of fiction, it’s a true story and is no joking matter. There are exciting elements in a melodrama: Esther, a beautiful Jewish teenager, becomes queen of Persia. Haman, an ambitious and arrogant bureaucrat, turns his envy of the Jew, Mordecai, into a vendetta against the entire Jewish population of Persia.
Esther 4:13-14, ‘Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”‘
Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, appeals to her for help and she cautiously agrees to approach the king, however, she has kept her religious and ethnic identity a secret for obvious reasons. After hosting two banquets for the king and Haman, Esther reveals her Jewish identity, and in the presence of the king she tells of Haman’s treachery to slaughter her and all her people. His plot to destroy the Jewish people is exposed and Haman and his sons are taken away and executed. Mordecai then becomes Prime Minister and is honored while Esther remains queen and the Jewish people are spared from extermination.
Esther 7:3-8, ‘Queen Esther replied, “If I have found favour in your sight O King, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me as my petition, and my people as my request; for we’ve been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated. Now if we had only been sold as slaves, men and women, I would have remained silent, for the trouble would not be commensurate with the annoyance to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus asked Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who would presume to do thus?” Esther said, “A foe and an enemy is this wicked Haman!” Then Haman became terrified before the king and queen. The king arose in his anger from drinking wine and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg for his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that harm had been determined against him by the king. Now when the king returned from the palace garden into the place where they were drinking wine, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was. Then the king said, “Will he even assault the queen with me in the house?” As the word went out of the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.’
The Purim holiday commemorates this deliverance and the name Purim comes from the fact that Haman had thrown lots (purim is the Hebrew word for lots) to determine on which day he should commence the execution of his plot of genocide against the Jewish people.
Purim is classified as one of the minor holidays for the Jewish people, yet that’s not the assessment of the ancient rabbis and many believed the book of Esther was intended to illustrate that God is at work behind the scenes on behalf of His people which makes sense because of the fact that, in the book of Esther, a Biblical text, there is no mention of the name of God, the concept of religion or even the ritual of prayer.1 The only thing that could be remotely considered religious is the call to fast before Esther bravely approaches the king unannounced.
The book of Esther doesn’t mention God at all, yet God is seen invisibly throughout the entire unfolding of that particular period of Jewish history. More than one Jewish sage has compared Purim to the major holiday of Yom Kippur.2 The Hasidim (a religious group of Jews) interpreted Purim as a classic case of Kiddush Ha-Shem (the Sanctification of the Name) where individual Jews were willing to die rather than forsake their faith.3
The preservation of the Jewish people under severe hardship and genocidal threats is a theme woven throughout Jewish history, at Purim, Haman is a metaphor for evil like Pharaoh, or Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire, or Chmielnicki (who conducted the pogroms in Russia), or even Adolf Hitler and his attempted genocide of the Jewish people. In fact, in a speech in 1944, Hitler said, that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jewish people could celebrate “a second triumphant Purim.”4 It’s interesting that Adolf Hitler, who rabidly hated Jews knew so much about their history and apparently didn’t learn the lesson of their history…that every single tyrant who attempted to annihilate them was in turn, annihilated.
Yet the rabbinical interpretation of Purim that lies at the heart of the book of Esther is the Amalekite curse.5
In the next program, we’ll continue learning about Purim and in particular focus on who the Amalakites were and who the Agagites were, because Haman was himself an Agagite.
- Fox, Michael V., “The Religion of the Book of Esther,” Judaism39:2 (Spring 1990), p. 137.
- “Purim,” in Encyclopedia Judaica, edited by Cecil Roth. New York: Macmillan, 1972, p. 1392.
- Loewenthal, Tali, “Early Hasidic Teachings: Esoteric Mysticism, or a Medium of Communal Leadership?”Journal of Jewish Studies37:1 (1986), pp. 58-75.
- New York Times, 1/31/44, p.4.
- Berg, Sandra Beth. The Book of Esther. Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1977, pp. 67-68. Also see Birnbaum, Philip, translator. Daily Prayer Book: Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem.New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 727-730.
The traditional Hebrew liturgy for Purim includes an alphabetic acrostic poem which describes Haman as a “hateful branch (netzer) of the seed of Amalek.” Cf. Isaiah 11:1, which speaks of the righteous “branch (netzer) of the seed of Jesse,” a prophetic reference to Messiah.
- Exodus 17:8-16, is the Torah portion read on Purim morning.
- Herodotus, 3.125, 129; 4.43.
- Birnbaum, pp. 413-414. Cf. a similar passage in the New Testament, Philippians 2:9-11, and in the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 45:23.
- 9. Revelation 3:5.