Thursday, June 01, 2017

Reading Through the Book of Esther

E and DThis past week I have been reading through the book of Esther accompanied by, Esther & Daniel, The College Press NIV Commentary, by Mark Mangano. Esther is a powerful story about how God can work behind the scenes to save His people and accomplish His plan for them, when they have no control, or don’t even know what is really going on. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the commentary are in blue below…

Esther is a story about how God works behind the scenes (He is not mentioned once in the story) to save His vulnerable people in Jerusalem from extermination by the powerful Persian empire. The amazing thing is that He works mainly through two unfaithful Jews, Esther and Mordecai (they ignored the prophetic call to return to Jerusalem, they have Babylonian names and have adopted the culture of their captors, they never pray or quote Torah) and the Jerusalemites don't even know they have been saved until the story ends. Esther is a powerful story of reversal. Esther and Mordecai must choose to do the right thing after years of not doing so and then their impossible situation is reversed: they are honored and Jerusalem is saved.

In the Old Testament God sometimes expressed his displeasure with his people by withdrawal (Ezek 11:23) and silence (Amos 8:11), in short, hiddenness. The absence of God’s name from the Book of Esther implies then his displeasure with the sinfulness of his people... Clearly, then, the actions of Mordecai and Esther reveal them to be less than exemplary. They both failed in consistently living according to the standard of God’s holiness. In spite of God’s displeasure, the Book of Esther still implicitly teaches God’s providential care of his people. Esther, 24–25

“The narrator understandably refrains from any reference to the deity in order to accentuate the role of human responsibility in shaping history, and to indicate the hiddenness of God’s control of history.” “God’s action is indeed involved, but it seems clear that the Book of Esther sees the manner of God’s action … as strategic help periodically supplied to those who with full awareness struggle for his cause and theirs.” Esther 27

The first two chapters of the book set the stage by describing the ascent of Mordecai and Esther to positions from which they will be able to play a part in the saving of God's people. Queen Vashti is demoted because she refuses to dance before the king's guests at his banquet. The story of the king's response, the edict, is designed to show the ineptness and foolishness of the king and his advisors. Esther is then taken to the king and, unlike Daniel, cooperates fully with the harem protocol and gains his favor and becomes queen. Mordecai saves the king from an assassination plot. They both are now in place, despite their bad decisions, to save the Jews.

Michael Fox has suggested that humor teaches us a valuable lesson. In his words, “Humor, especially the humor of ridicule, is a device for defusing fear. The author teaches us to make fun of the very forces that once threatened—and will threaten again—our existence, and thereby makes us recognize their triviality as well as their power...The book of Esther begins a tradition of Jewish humor.” Esther 1, 48–49

If the names of Mordecai and Esther allude to their assimilation into Babylonian culture, “the outcome of the story suggests to the Babylonian pagans that Marduk and Ishtar are subservient to the purposes of the unnamed God of the Jews. The victory of the Jews in this story would then function as a polemic against the pagan deities.” Esther 2.1-7, 54

The author never exonerates Esther’s actions by inferring that her marriage, perhaps the lesser of two evils, led to the greater good for God’s people. The author does not commend to us the actions of Esther as a case of “the end justifies the means.” Esther 2, 60

Mordecai provokes the ensuing persecution by, again unlike Daniel, refusing to bow before Haman. Haman is the prototype (the Agagite) of anti-Semitism and everything God hates (Proverbs 6.16-19), and in his anger at Mordecai decides to destroy the entire Jewish people. He gives an enormous bribe to the king to sign off on his plan and sets the date by lot; 11 months later. Mordecai goes into mourning when he hears of the plot and gets word to Esther, asking her to use her influence to help. Esther is reluctant, probably because she is out of favor with the king. The turning point of the story comes when Esther decides to identify with her people and risk her life to save them. When Esther goes before the king he receives her graciously. The text gives several clues that this is because God has given her favor before the king. She invites the king and Haman to a banquet. When they come, she prolongs the suspense by saying she will reveal her request at another banquet the following night. Haman returns home and builds a large pole to impale and humiliate Mordecai. The danger is at its highest but the stage is set for a great reversal.

Haman’s logic is a classic example of the stereotype. If Jewishness is the basis for Mordecai’s opposition to the royal command, then all Jews are potential lawbreakers. Genocide would solve Haman’s “Jewish problem.” Esther 3, 66

Esther’s defining moment comes when she is faced with taking responsibility for the life God has given her by identifying herself with the people of God. Jobes writes, “After her decision to identify herself with God’s people, Esther becomes the active agent, commanding Mordecai, planning a strategy to save her people, and even confronting Haman to his face. Her decision energizes her, gives her purpose, and emboldens her to face a threatening and uncertain future.” Esther 4, 77

Esther’s initial response includes the words יָבוֹא הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן הַיּוֹם (yābô˒ hammelek wəhāmān hayyôm), “let the king and Haman come today.” The first letters of these four words, YHWH, spell God’s personal name, the LORD. The divine name may be explicitly absent from the narrative, but he is not. Esther 5.4, 82

In chapter 6 the great reversal begins. A sleepless night for the king leads to the overturning of positions for Haman and Mordecai. Haman must give to Mordecai what he wanted for himself. At the banquet Esther reveals her request to the king leading to the demise of Haman on the very gallows he had intended for Mordecai. Esther is the hero as she acts boldly, but God created the scenario, behind the scenes, that made it all possible.

In the book of Esther God works without miracles through seemingly insignificant events and through the decisions of flawed people. “God delivered an entire race of people in Persia because the king had a sleepless night, because a man would not bow to his superior, because a woman found herself taken to the bedroom of a ruthless man for a night of pleasure. How inscrutable are the ways of the Lord!” Esther 6, 92–93

God’s plan cannot be thwarted. Haman was delighted with the suggestion to hang Mordecai on a tree (gallows). Satan was elated that the Son of God was crucified on a tree (cross). Would evil overpower good? Would God lose to the Evil One? Would the plan and promise of salvation be aborted? No! In time Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. On the third day after the crucifixion, Jesus was raised to life, overcoming the power of both death (1 Cor. 15:54–57) and Satan (Gen 3:15). God’s plan cannot be thwarted! Esther 7, 101

In chapters 8 and 9 Esther and Mordecai must deal with Haman's irrevocable decree. They wisely come up with a plan that gives the Jews the right to defend themselves and enrich the king at the same time. This leads many other groups to come to the Jews' defense and they win a resounding victory. Haman's sons and supporters are killed and Mordecai and Esther assume the positions of power in the nation to the benefit of their people.

Mordecai’s decree permitted the Jews the right to defend themselves against attackers. Chapter 9 reveals that God did defend his people from the attackers. And if the attackers do lose their lives, as chapter 9 will make clear, their deaths are evidence of God’s judgment upon sin and evil. Even in the action that follows the scene of highest narrative tension (ch. 7), God is ever present! Esther 8, 111

No other woman among God’s people wrote with authority to confirm and establish a religious practice that still stands today. The importance of most biblical women, such as Sarah and Hannah, lies in their motherhood. Esther’s importance to the covenant people is not as a mother, but as a queen.” Esther 9, 123

Esther shows that God has not forgotten His people in exile. Even when they are not aware of what is going on, God can easily maneuver the great powers of this world to accomplish His kingdom plan for His people. Despite present circumstances, God's promises will be kept, He will win the battle and His kingdom will come.

The book of Esther sets aside the fear expressed in Lamentations 5:21–22. Even though Israel’s sin led to the forfeiture of the promised land, and even though Israel had been driven into exile, the LORD still protects and sustains his people. In short, he is still interested in their well-being. Esther 10, 126

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