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Commentary On The Book Of Esther

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Introduction.

This commentary is based on the premise that the Book Of Esther is written with the intention of presenting factual history, something supported by the fact that it was as a factual history that it was received into the Jewish canon, even though it neither contains a reference to God or YHWH, nor to basic Jewish worship, and is not associated in any way with Palestine or Jerusalem. It is difficult to see how fervent, patriotic Jews would have included such a book into the canon of Scripture unless it was sufficiently well authenticated that it could be seen as factual history. There were many Jewish religious books around at the time which were not admitted into the canon.

It should be noted in this regard that the Book itself portrays itself as history, commencing as it does with the typical historical introduction (1.1), and ending with reference to its sources (10.2). Such artificiality, if such it was, while common today, would not be normal in ancient fictional writings. Incidentally ‘Esther’ (star) was the Persian name of the heroine. It may have been given to her on her adoption by Mordecai, or on his promotion to the palace, or on her introduction into the harem. It may well have been intended to hide her Jewish origin. Her Hebrew name was Hadassah (‘myrtle’).

Brief Note On Authorship And Date.

There are no solid grounds for identifying the author of the book. All we can say is that he was almost certainly a Jew, that he probably lived in Persia, being familiar with Persian customs, manners and institutions, and that he had a firm belief in the overruling power of God. Furthermore, in our view the total lack of mention of YHWH or God, of the Torah (the Law), or of specific elements of Jewish worship point to somene eager to reconcile the Persian empire with the Jewish people, as good solid membes of the empire. It would have been extraordinary at a later date for the above to apply. It was when the Jews were being most actively persecuted that they responded by a firm appeal to YHWH and the Torah, and there would be no reason for the non-mention of either at such times, even by someone seeking to be conciliatory towards their overlords. But in seeking to counter the charge that they observed their own laws and refused to observe the laws of the king (3.8) it is perfectly understandable. We would therefore date the book in the second half of the 5th century BC.

The remarkable fact that no evidence has yet been discovered among the writings at Qumran for the existence of a copy of the Book of Esther may well lie in the fact that the Book was still not fully accepted into the Hebrew canon, and was seen by some as ‘not defiling the hands’. This attitude continued among some well into the Christian era. It would not, therefore, be surprising if it was held in Qumran where a book dealing with life in the Persian empire that did not mention the name of God may well have been seen as not fitting into their fervent Yahwism.

Content Of The Book.

The book deals with the question of the proposed treatment of Jews in the Persia empire during the reign of ‘Ahasuerus’, when a powerful courtier, angry at not receiving from Jews the extreme obeisance that he demanded, determined to annihilate them, seeking to use his influence for that purpose. It indicates how they were signally delivered from what was for them a time of grave national emergency. It was a crisis even exceeding their slavery in Egypt, for it threatened almost total annihilation, something that Esther herself brings out (7.4). The intervention of God is, however, left to be inferred from the history outlined, as, quite unusually, the name or title of God is nowhere specifically mentioned in the book. On the other hand it is made quite clear that Mordecai was absolutely sure of some kind of intervention. Consider, for example:

  • 1). That Mordecai spoke of Esther as ‘coming to the kingdom for such a time as this’ (4.14). He clearly saw in her incorporation into the harem, and selection by the king, the distinct purpose of God, although spoken of in the indirect way which would become common later when the constant use of the Name of God was frowned on.
  • 2). That even if Esther was disobedient he was sure that ‘enlargement and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place’ (4.14). This could only indicate his certainty of the over-ruling hand of God. It is another example of indirect usage.
  • 3). That Esther called the Jews to engage in a three day fast over the situation, which she clearly considered would help her cause, and which every reader would see as being accompanied by prayer (4.16).
  • 4). That the response of both Mordecai and his fellow Jews was to fast and ‘cry out’, and weep and wail, and wear sackcloth and ashes, clearly with the aim of moving their God to action (4.1-3; 9.31).
  • 5). That when the people heard of their deliverance they ‘had light and gladness and joy and honour’, all words associated elsewhere with worship (8.16; compare Micah 7.8; Nehemiah 12.27, 43; Deuteronomy 26.19). Light coming upon His people was a sign of God’s activity (Isaiah 9.2). Thus this could only indicate an attitude of worship.

In those days 3), 4) and 5) could only indicate religious entreaty and celebration, whilst fasting would hardly have been expected to prevail if it was not directed towards God. Esther especially clearly considered that it would help her cause. Besides the very fact that the reader knew that the book was dealing with the Jews as a people meant that certain assumptions would be expected to be made, for the Jews undoubtedly saw themselves as God’s people, and all that happened to them as related to God. The Book was accepted into the canon precisely because the Jews did see what happened as an indication of their God’s direct activity, and saw the Book as portraying that fact. Interestingly many ancient Jews saw the divine name as included in the opening consonants of four words in 5.4 (compare Psalm 96.11) spoken by Esther, which are Yabo’ Hamelech Wehemen Hayom (YHWH) that is, ‘let the king come this day, and Haman’. This was seen by many as indicating secretly to Jews that YHWH would also be present (Esther would, of course, have spoken in Persian, so that this arrangement was the author’s). The words are especially significant because, apart from the usual opening courtesy, they are the first words addressed by Esther in her approach to the king. Such devices were known among early scribes. It would certainly fit in with the unquestionably unusual, but undoubtedly deliberate, lack of the mention of God or of worship. On the other hand it may simply be a coincidence picked up on by astute minds. This lack of mention of the Name of God will be the question that we will consider next.

Why Did The Author Omit All Reference To YHWH And To God?

That the omission of the Name and Title of God was deliberate can hardly be doubted in view of the author’s constant skirting of religious matters and non-mention of the Torah. And along with it is the omission of any reference to praise and worship (although to have ‘light and gladness and joy and honour’ certainly comes close to it) except in a general way not specific to the Jews (e.g. in the stress on fasting). However if the book had partly an apologetic purpose in a situation where there was strong feeling against the Jews and their distinctions in some quarters, the author may well have been reluctant to emphasise the unique features of Judaism. He may well have wanted Persians, and others, to recognise that the Jews were not so very much different after all, and could be seen as an integral part of the empire. Thus along with a warning against interfering with the Jews went the equally important message that the Jews were not so different after all. Haman declared concerning the Jews that ‘their laws are diverse from those of every people, nor do they keep the king’s laws’. If the writer wanted to underline the fact that this was not in fact true, we can understand why he played down the differences between the Jews and other peoples in the empire, and did not draw overt attention to the uniqueness of the God of Israel, rather leaving the facts to do the talking. Any overt mention of YHWH might have emphasised those differences, any overt mention of ‘God’ might have caused confusion with Persian deities. He may thus have felt it best to keep silent. In the end this appears to be the only explanation which fits in with all the facts.

But we must not be misled. The influence of the gods on daily life was an axiom of the ancient world. They saw their whole lives as being affected by the decisions of the gods. Thus the battle between Mordecai the Jew and Haman the Gentile would also have been seen by Jews, and by others, as a battle between the God of the Jews and other gods, between the free activity of God and the power of fate as indicated by the casting of the lot which portrayed the will of the gods. The only unusual factor here, as far as Jewish literature is concerned, is why this was not made clearly apparent? Why should the writer have taken the approach that he did? We have already suggested what we see as the main reason, but a number of further possibilities are now suggested, each of which, on top of what has been said above, might have affected the writer’s position:

  • 1). That the author had such a reverence for the Name of God that He preferred to avoid its use. Compare the words of Ecclesiastes 5.2, ‘God is in Heaven and you are on the earth, therefore let your words be few’. He may not have wanted the sacred Name to be published among the Persians. And he may similarly not have wished to expose the true worship of the Jews to their heathen neighbours. Furthermore he may have felt that to directly connect God’s Name with shameful events (a Jewess entering a harem without revealing her nationality, where she would consequently not ever be able to be ritually ‘clean’ or engage in true worship) would have besmirched the Name of God, and have given the Gentiles a false impression. Indeed it is significant in this regard that the Feast of Purim, which resulted from what is described in the Book of Esther, was originally a mainly secular feast.

    We can compare for this fastidiousness in using the Name of God how the Jews in Jesus’ day, and even Jesus Himself, would use certain words as a substitute for using the Name or title of ‘God’. Consider for example Matthew’s use of ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ where Mark and Luke use ‘the Kingly Rule of God’. Consider also the High Priest’s question to Jesus, ‘are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?’ (Mark 14.61), and Jesus reply ‘you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power’ (Mark 14.62). Such delicacy may well have contributed to the phenomenon seen here, and have been taken to an extreme because of the situation. On the other hand in no other case are we aware that this was felt to such an extent that the lack of mention of the Name of God was absolute, although it would almost certainly have been the case with some individuals (and the writer was an individual), and was probably moreso by some in the dispersion, living among Gentiles.

    However, this could not be the sole explanation for it would not explain the author’s avoidance of anything distinctive in Jewish worship, nor of his non-mention of the Torah.

  • 2). That the author wanted to make clear that, whilst God had intervened on behalf of His people ‘worldwide’, the background to the story was such that it was not to be seen as a situation that met with God’s approval. These were a people who should not have been where they were. God had called His people to return to the Land, and Cyrus had given them permission to return. Therefore those who had not done so were, on the whole, guilty of disobedience to the covenant. Furthermore they were much laxer in their treatment of the covenant. In this very story these non-returnees are revealed as none too scrupulous in their observance of that covenant. For example Mordecai encourages the introduction of his Jewish relative into a Persian king’s harem (2.8), where he knows that she will be unable to follow Jewish dietary laws, and indeed will not be able to participate in Jewish worship, and in spite of that encourages her to conceal her Jewish identity (2.10). Thus the author may have been intending to indicate that, whilst the Jews in Persia could benefit by His mercy even though they were out of the land, they could not benefit by His Name or true worship because they had not sought Him with all their hearts. Mordecai did not want God’s Name associated with Esther, why then should God’s Name be associated with him? We should recognise that around this time there was a very real sense in which Ezra/Nehemiah saw a ‘new Israel’ as having been established in the land, and the true worship of God as having been established there, from the time of the return. The writer may well, therefore, have been intending to indicate that worship outside the land, and especially by a compromising people, was not to be seen as true covenant worship, deserving covenant protection. They were on the outskirts of God’s ways. God’s main attention was concentrated on His people gathered ‘in the land’. Nevertheless it is made apparent that He still did not fail His people, even though He might not act openly.
  • 3). That the author was afraid that if he used the Name or Title of God, or religious vocabulary, it could easily be misinterpreted by contemporaries in Persia as referring to Persian gods and worship, or even be utilised by them for that purpose in order to demonstrate how the gods of Persia had protected the Jews. By not using the title of God he prevented a possible alignment with, for example, Ahura Mazda, the Persian ‘God of Heaven’. It should be noted that in a deeply religious age he also avoided reference to the religion of Persia or Persian gods, again leaving them to be inferred. He was clearly expecting his readers to ‘read in’ what lay behind the events he deals with. The gods of Persia are seen as clearly bested, for Haman, with his superstitious obedience to the gods, is executed, whilst Mordecai the Jew triumphs.
  • 4). That the author wished to reveal how God worked in an unseen way in bringing about His purposes. His purposes for His people are seen as continuing to work out without Him even being brought into the equation, as He quietly fashions history in accordance with His will. He brings home that even Jews in Persia are not outside His purview. But neither are they in the centre of His will and worship. Indeed, some of the ‘coincidences’ depicted are quite remarkable, and would suggest to people at that time the hand of God. The Jews could hardly have failed to see in them that God was at work. Some, of course, cavil at the coincidences, suggesting that they indicate a work of fiction, but life is in fact full of such coincidences, many more remarkable than fiction, so that that argument really does not hold. And as someone once said, ‘when I pray the coincidences start to happen, and when I cease praying the coincidences cease’.

    Examples of such coincidences are,

    1). That Queen Vashti insulted her husband the king with the consequence that the beautiful Jewess Esther replaced her in the king’s confidence at just the right time (4.14), thus enabling her to act as she did.
    2). That Esther, an exceedingly beautiful Jewess, who was also loyal, true and modest, was in the right place at the right time.
    3). That the king, as a consequence of being unable to sleep (6.1), learned about Mordecai’s patriotic act the very night before Haman was hoping to have him executed.
    4). That Haman, having anticipated honours for himself, had to bestow those honours on Mordecai, and having built a gallows for Mordecai, found that he was hung on it himself.

    But there is nothing in any of these coincidences which is intrinsically improbable once we accept the fact that God was at work.

Each or all of these factors may well have swayed the writer’s mind as he considered how to portray what he knew. And he may well have been wanting to indicate that God continued the protection of His people even when He appeared not to be present, and even when they failed to worship Him as they should.

Ahasuerus.

The book describes what happened during the reign of ‘Ahasuerus’ (’hswrs). This was interpreted by the Septuagint (which is not reliable for Esther) as ‘Artaxerxes’. But the origin of the name is almost certainly the Persian khshayarsha, and the Hebrew representation is very similar to that on the Behistan inscription which gives the Babylonian version of Xerxes name. In the Elephantine papyri Xerxes name is portrayed as hsy’rs. It is noteworthy that in Ezra 4.6-7 Ahasuerus is differentiated from Artaxerxes. This would point to Ahasuerus as being Xerxes I, who preceded Artaxerxes I. Xerxes I reigned 485-465 BC.

Difficulties That Have Been Raised With Regard To The Book.

The first suggested difficulty, which is not really a difficulty at all, is the reference to ‘Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away’ (2.5-6). It is argued that if Mordecai was carried away captive by the Babylonians he could not have been alive in the reign of Xerxes. But this difficulty is caused by assuming that the ‘who’ in question is Mordecai. Once, however, we refer it to Kish (which is equally grammatically possible) the difficulty disappears. Mordecai’s great grandfather may well have been carried away captive by the Babylonians, with the family later settling in Persia.

A second difficulty arises from the fact that Herodutus refers to Xerxes’ wife as Amestris, the daughter of a Persian general, a wife who accompanied him on his expedition against the Greeks in the third year of his reign. But it should be noted that he nowhere calls her ‘the Queen of Persia’, or says that she was his only wife. And, of course, Xerxes had a harem. He would have had many wives. Furthermore, if Vashti was deposed as ‘Queen’ before his expedition, (no longer enjoying her ‘royal estate’ - 1.19), Xerxes would necessarily take along with him on that expedition another wife, and that could not have been Esther as he had not yet met her. But he may not necessarily have made that wife ‘Queen’. The truth is that we simply do not know enough about Amestris, or indeed Vashti, for it to be a difficulty one way or the other. Certainly Xerxes’ father Darius had laid down that the queen must be descended from one of the families of the seven chief nobles of Persia. But Xerxes’ mother was not from one of those families (she was the daughter of Cyrus), and yet she was clearly queen mother, so that it is apparent that Darius did not follow his own stipulation. Why then should Xerxes?

A third so-called difficulty is found in the suggestion that on the day fixed by lot for the destruction of the Jews throughout the Empire, (something largely alleviated by the king having revealed his favour towards them and having given them permission to defend themselves), around 75,000 non-Jews were killed. But if we consider that this number was spread throughout the Empire, in which there were one hundred and twenty seven provinces, this would only number under 600 in each province. And when we consider that each of these provinces would have contained a number of cities, the number per city would have been relatively small. These it should be noted would be Jew-haters, who took advantage of the king’s first edict in order to attack and hopefully ‘despoil’ Jews on the fatal day. There are always such thugs in every society who are ready to take advantage of such a situation, especially if they think that there is financial gain to be had. They were not innocent bystanders. The vast majority in the Empire were on the Jews’ side, even if only to please the King. These Jew-haters may well not have been aware of the measures that the Jews had taken to defend themselves, (the Jews possibly being aided by the authorities), and have thus found themselves totally outnumbered, with the consequence that they would be easily dealt with. The 75,000 would have been a round number, based on reports that came in, and it may well represent the divinely perfect seven, supplemented by the covenant number 5.

A fourth difficulty is as to whether a Persian king would have been willing to make such a decree as that for the annihilation of the Jews. But we know from history how such kings were often willing to be persuaded by royal favourites to do all kinds of things, and we do know how capricious a king Xerxes was. If Haman had worked on him so as to convince him how dangerous the Jews were, emphasising their unwillingness to compromise with state religion, and their separatist ways (3.8), and stressing that they were always therefore prone to rebellion, Xerxes may well have been persuaded. And especially so as he had already received reports of their rebelliousness elsewhere (see Ezra 4.6). After all it was he who in his early days destroyed the rebellious Babylon and disfigured their gods, something which his fathers had been unwilling to do, and at that time the intended annihilation of people, such as the Magians under Darius, was not unknown. Furthermore the Persian kings who followed Cyrus the Great saw no problem with the deportation of peoples along the lines previously followed by the Assyrians and Babylonians. So apart from Cyrus they were not as humane as they are often portrayed.

A fifth difficulty with the book from a modern viewpoint is its seeming toleration of what are described as ‘murderous attitudes’. But these are often grossly exaggerated. It should be noted that the Jews were not given permission to attack anyone at will, but to defend themselves against those who would do them harm, a not unreasonable situation. And whilst Esther did ask for an extension of the time limit for the benefit of the Jews in Shushan, this need only have been because she recognised that the Jew-haters would continue their assaults on the following day (they could then blend into the general population, having no identifying feature). She thus wanted her fellow-countrymen to be able to defend themselves with impunity. For they on their part could be identified and called to account. Thus it was not, as is often suggested, a question of seeking revenge killings. It was a matter of necessary self-protection. Indeed what is to be noted is that quite remarkably the Jews refused to despoil their enemies, in spite of being given permission to do so. Unlike their antagonists they were not out for self-gain. Thus the book may be seen as a model of how to behave when under attack, rather than as evidence for the viciousness of the Jews.

A sixth supposed difficulty that was put forward was that the book claimed that pur signified a ‘lot’ which was cast (3.7), and the argument was that there was no evidence of such a situation. But the remarkable discovery of a kind of cube shaped dice from Assyria actually inscribed ‘puru’ has helped to vindicate the writer. It is true that this particular dice came from the time of Shalmaneser III of Assyria, but the use of such means to determine ‘the will of the gods’ was commonplace in the ancient Near East. Thus ‘pur’ would appear to have been derived from ‘puru’ meaning ‘a lot’. Discoveries at Shushan have to some extent confirmed this, for on that site a cube shaped dice was found on which were engraved the numbers one, two, five and six, presumably for use in divination. Such means were regularly used to discover the most propitious date on which to engage in certain activities, and were the equivalent of the Jewish method of ‘casting lots’. A possible good example of this latter was the Urim and Thummim in the High Priest’s breastpouch. Indeed archaeological research has demonstrated that as early as the 19th century BC the word puru’um occurred in Assyrian texts in the sense of a ‘lot’ or ‘die’, and was regularly found in association with the word ‘to throw’.

Other difficulties will be dealt with as they appear in the text.

It should possibly be observed that in our view many commentators treat both Mordecai and Esther rather unfairly in that they expect of them New Testament views on morality even though they had only an Old Testament background, and that they can tend to interpret what is said in an extreme fashion. But in Mordecai’s favour we should recognise that he demonstrates his faithfulness in regard to the guardianship of his adopted daughter Esther, whilst both demonstrate true loyalty towards their people. Given the fact that the Jews were open to legal, vicious attacks from any who decided to do it, as a consequence of Ahasuerus’ first decree, they all demonstrate remarkable restraint. We must remember that the Jews had their wives and children to protect, but there are no demonstrable grounds for suggesting that they took the initiative in the killing that ensued. Rather their restraint is brought out by their unwillingness to take spoil from their enemies, even though given permission by the king to do it. And whilst the death, followed by the impaling, of Haman’s sons may cause us to frown, we must remember that they were probably very influential and vindictive men who could have caused the Jews a great deal of trouble in the future, and almost certainly led groups of men to attack the Jews. Furthermore they were not instantly executed along with their father, as they might well have been. Their execution took place because they continued plotting against the Jews, and even against the one who had been given jurisdiction over their house (Esther). They thus brought it on themselves. It need hardly be pointed out that elimination of dangerous political foes in this way was a regular feature of ancient life. Certainly not acceptable among Christians in modern times, but commonplace in those days.

The Positive Lessons Of The Book.

It is not consonant with the powerful impression of the book to suggest that the main purpose of writing the book was simply in order to support or explain the observance of the feast of Purim, although that may well have been an important secondary purpose, and this is supported by the fact that the last few verses emphasise rather the greatness of Ahasuerus, and of his faithful servant Mordecai suggesting that it is the history that is of prime importance. Had the explanation of the Feast of Purim been its main purpose the book would have ended with a description of that, whilst the emphasis throughout on the detail would surely not have been required, even granted the oriental liking for a good story, had it not been seen as having important lessons to teach. Nor in that case would the author have deliberately refrained from bringing the Name of God and the worship of the Jews into account. It would be passing strange to explain the origin of a religious feast to a deeply religious people in such non-religious terms if the aim was to establish that feast as pleasing to God. It therefore suggests another purpose for the book. Furthermore it overlooks the undoubted way in which the author implicitly and sublimely draws out the overruling hand of what we might call ‘Providence’.

Other more extreme views about its purpose relate its message to the later time of Antiochus Epiphanes, as if that was the only time in history when passions have been aroused against the Jews, or when the Jews have responded in like fashion. But there are no solid grounds (apart from a vivid imagination) for suggesting such a relationship. And the lack of mention of the Name of God is strongly against it. Had the author been writing a novel with this in view he would surely have made the king the oppressor, and have brought out the strong religious feeling involved. But in Esther the oppression is on the Jews as a nationality, not on them as a people who were seen as deeply religious.

Furthermore there is other evidence which points to an historical work. There is the way in which the book is introduced. There is the author’s clear knowledge of Persian customs and institutions, and of the king’s palace and court life, and a total lack of anachronisms. There is the statement of the names of the individuals who are mentioned in the narrative, e.g., the courtiers (1.10); the seven princes of Persia (1.14) the keeper of the women's houses, (2.8, 14); the ten sons of Haman (9.7-9); and so on; all names consonant with the age. And there is the final reference to the book of the chronicles of the Medes and Persians, as the documents in which not only the acts of Ahasuerus, but also the greatness of Mordecai, are revealed (10.2. Compare 2.23; 6.1). All this would have been seen as totally unnecessary in fictional ancient stories.

Indeed in our view the main purpose of the book lies precisely in the continuing emphasis in it of what we might call the hand of Providence, something which comes out so strongly in the book. The author clearly wants to bring out how the invisible God of the Jews, the Unseen, without coming into prominence, directs history in accordance with His will, even for the undeserving, because He has His hand upon them. This would seem to us the message that the author was trying to get over to his contemporaries in Persia in spite of their low religious state and their secular interests. And central to it is the fact that the sacred lot was cast against God’s people only for its effectiveness to be overturned. He thus wanted them, and us, to know that, as their history revealed, ‘Providence’ was watching over the affairs of God’s people, even when they had failed to return to the land that He had given them. He had not utterly forsaken them. But an important secondary lesson is that in order for Providence to succeed, those in a position to do so must be willing to act in the spirit of ‘if I perish, I perish’ (4.16), whilst in contrast God’s people must never abase themselves before the overweening arrogance of the world whatever might be the cost (3.2). With regard to the latter we should note that, whatever we might feel about Mordecai’s attitude towards Haman, the author clearly shows no disapproval of it.

Themes Of The Book.

The first clear theme of the book is the apparent inadequacy of Ahasuerus as the ruler of a great empire, presented in veiled form. He is depicted in 1.1-8 (and in 10.1-2) in all his greatness, but he is then revealed as unable to command the respect of his Queen (1.12), and as showing such favouritism that he fails to fulfil his basic duties as a Persian king (those duties revealed in 1.13-15), by abdicating his responsibilities and giving undue influence to one man without enquiry (chapter 3). Even his remedying of the situation is seen to be as a result of the influence of his new Queen (chapter 7). He is depicted as a weak and easily persuadable monarch. The picture is somewhat alleviated by the words in 10.1-2 again declaring his greatness. No one could accuse the writer of outward disloyalty. But he has nevertheless got over his point. The great king had feet of clay.

In contrast the book gives the impression of a strong overruling hand that is in total control and steps in to remedy the mistakes of Ahasuerus. It is this hand which causes Queen Vashti, with her self-interest, to fall and be replaced by a noble Queen whose concern is for her people as God’s people, so that she is in the right place at the right time, with great influence over the king. It is this hand which enables Mordecai to perform a service for the king, but prevents it being rewarded until the opportune moment has arrived when it occurs as a result of a ‘chance’ occurrence combining the king’s sleeplessness with the reading of the account of Mordecai’s service. And it is this hand, reflected in the king’s goodwill towards Esther, which causes Esther to prevail over Haman, causes Mordecai to prosper politically, and finally enables the Jews to protect themselves against their enemies. Here is One, unseen but real, Who is in total control, Who is on the side of the Jews, and Whose appointments are successful.

Another clear theme is that of the conflict between ‘Mordecai the Jew’, as representing the people of God, revealed as unwilling to offer unrestrained obeisance to anyone but God (before Whom, however, he wears sackcloth), and Haman, as representing what was worst in the Persian empire, claiming total allegiance, and even semi-divine honours, for himself, and yet controlled by his slavish submission to the will of the gods as revealed by the sacred lot. On the one hand we have Mordecai who refuses to offer unrestricted, almost idolatrous, obeisance to a man making such high claims for himself that they were above the norm, and on the other we have Haman who demands total, almost idolatrous, allegiance to himself, above that which was the norm for high level officials, and will brook no opposition. It is Mordecai who comes through the conflict unbowed and triumphant.

Yet another theme underlies the narrative and that is the triumph of God over Fate. In 3.7, at the time of the new year when such things were done, the wise men of Persia, under Haman’s supervision, ‘cast pur’ (that is, the sacred lot) to determine the timing of happenings over the coming year. It was this casting of the sacred lot which determined the date selected for the destruction of the Jews, delaying its occurrence for eleven months, and yet underlining its certainty. It was seen as determined by the will of the gods. What followed, that is, the decree against the Jews, was based on that certainty. But the narrative then goes on to indicate that what was determined by ‘pur’, the sacred lot, failed, and in consequence the feast of Purim, named after ‘pur’ (9.26), was established, celebrating the victory of God and the overriding of the sacred lot. ‘Pur’ had been replaced by ‘Purim’. Whilst it is true that the name of God is not mentioned, and the feast did not specifically have an overtly religious purpose, any such celebration in those days, especially among the Jews, would have at its core religious worship, and especially in this case as it was celebrating deliverance. This is in fact made clear by the fact that observance of the feast was commanded (9.20-21), and was a time of ‘feasting and gladness, and of sending portions to one another, and gifts to the poor’ (9.19, 22), all things associated with the observance of the Law (Numbers 10.10; Deuteronomy 14.29; 15.7-11; Nehemiah 8.11-12).

COMMENTARY.

The Structure Of The Book.

The book is carefully structured in an overall chiastic pattern with the turning point occurring when, as a consequence of the king’s sleeplessness, Haman the Medo-Persian seeks glory for himself but has to dispense it on Mordecai the Jew. We can analyse it as follows;

  • A The greatness of King Ahasuerus and a description of his chief advisers the wise men of Persia (1.1-22).
  • B The rise of Esther to become Queen of Persia (2.1-23).
  • C The rise of Haman and his casting of Pur (the sacred lot) with his aim being to utterly destroy the Jews (3.1-11).
  • D The first decree is written and sealed with the king’s seal and the posts are sent out causing fasting and mourning among the Jews. The people of Susa are perplexed (3.12-4.17). Compare especially 3.12-14 with 8.9-11, 15.
  • E The golden sceptre is held out to Esther, she may have what she will (5.1-3).
  • F The first banquet. Esther commences her appeal and Haman is exultant and prepares a stake for Mordecai (5.4-14).
  • G Haman seeks honour for himself but has to grant the honour to Mordecai (6.1-14).
  • F The second banquet. Esther makes her appeal final and Haman is in despair and is impaled on the stake prepared for Mordecai (7.1-10).
  • E The golden sceptre is again held out to Esther and she declares her will (8.1-6).
  • D The second decree is written and sealed with the king’s seal and the posts are sent out causing joy and gladness among the Jews. The people of Susa rejoice (8.7-17).
  • C The destruction of the house of Haman and the establishment of Purim by the Jews because Haman’s casting of Pur’ against them had failed, resulting in the successful avoidance of destruction of the Jews (9.1-28).
  • B The queenly authority of Esther revealed in the confirmation of Purim (9.29-32).
  • A The greatness of King Ahasuerus and a description of his chief adviser Mordecai the Jew (10.1-3).

Certain emphases come out in this summary. The chief advisers of Persia have to some extent been supplanted by Mordecai the Jew (A). The Queenly power is now through the activity of God in the hands of a Jewess, who acts on behalf of the Jews (B). The power of the sacred lot (Pur), and the will of the gods which lay behind it, is replaced by a feast (Purim) celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from it, by the will of God (C). God so acts that Haman, the anti-Jew, is brought down and replaced by Mordecai the Jew (C). There are two banquets and two decrees, which bring about two opposite effects (D, F). The impalement beam built for Mordecai is used in order to impale Haman (F). And the whole pivots around the fact that when Haman sought to obtain glory for himself, he had instead to give it to Mordecai (G).

A. The Greatness of King Ahasuerus and a Description of his Chief Advisers the Wise Men of Persia (1.1-22).

The reigning king of Persia at the time when the incidents in the book took place was Xerxes I. He was a cruel and vicious monarch, capable of extreme acts. When a storm prevented him from crossing the Hellespont he ordered that the Hellespont be whipped and chained, and the bridge builders slain. Furthermore, after his army had been hospitably entertained on its march on Greece by Pythius the rich Lydian who also offered to contribute an enormous sum towards defraying the expenses of the war, he was infuriated by the request of Pythius, that the eldest of his five sons who were in Xerxes’ army might be released, to be the comfort of his declining years. As a consequence Xerxes commanded that this son be hewn into two pieces, and the parts placed so that his army passed between them. He would later murder his own brother and his brother’s wife in very unpleasant circumstances.

When he came to the throne his first tasks were to complete the building of the palace in Susa begun by Darius his father, and to bring a rebellious Egypt back into subjugation. The subjugation of Egypt was completed in the second year of his reign, and on achieving that he turned his attention towards Greece, in order to further his late father’s ambitions, and in order to wipe out what he saw as their insult towards his father consequent on the defeat at Marathon, and in order to expand his empire even further. This would lead to a four year campaign against Greece which, after early successes, including the taking of Athens, resulted in the decimation of the Persian fleet (thus hitting his supply lines) and the withdrawal of Xerxes, leaving his general Mardonius to face the final humiliating defeats.

The opening chapter of Esther speaks of events which took place at this time, that is, in the third year of his reign (1.3), and seemingly therefore refers to what took place before the Greek expedition, a gathering together of the king’s nobles and officers. Indeed the gathering of the nobles and king’s officers (mentioned by Herodotus) may well have been with that campaign in view. It was this expedition which explains the gap in years between the deposing of Vashti, in the third year of his reign (1.3), and the rise of Esther in the seventh year of his reign (2.16). Whilst on expedition he satisfied himself with the attractions of an older, and possibly his first, wife, Amestris, the daughter of a Persian general, who had two grown up sons active in the campaign. We learn this from Herodotus. Like most kings of those days Xerxes would have had a number of wives. But Amestris was never called ‘the queen of Persia’ by Herodotus.

The Magnificence Of KingAhasuerus (1.1-9).

The prime purpose of verses 1-9 is to bring out the magnificence and wealth of King Ahasuerus. In them we are told of the vast extent of his empire (verse 2), the magnificence of his hospitality (verses 3, 7-10), the wide extent of his military power and wealth (verse 4), and the splendour of his palace (verse 6). He is thus depicted as a great King. And yet the author will go on to demonstrate that even this great king failed in kingship, and had to submit to the invisible God, and benefit His people.

Introduction To The Narrative (1.1-2).

The narrative commences by bringing out the splendour of Xerxes I, describing the extent of the territory over which he ruled, and the vastness of its administration.

1.1 ‘Now it came about in the days of Ahasuerus (this is Ahasuerus who reigned from India even to Cush (roughly Northern Sudan), over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces),’

‘Now it came about.’ This is a typical introduction to a Biblical book. Compare Joshua 1.1; Judges 1.1; 1 & 2 Samuel 1.1; Jonah 1.1; Ezekiel 1.1; Ruth 1.1. It indicates a connection with what has gone before, and suggests that the author saw his work as historical, and as closely associated with Israel’s past history.

‘In the days of Ahasuerus.’ The origin of the name Ahasuerus (’hswrs) is almost certainly the Persian khshayarsha, and the Hebrew representation is very similar to that on the Behistan inscription which gives the Babylonian version of Xerxes name. In the Elphantine papyri Xerxes name is portrayed as hsy’rs. The Septuagint wrongly interpreted it as Artaxerxes (or saw Xerxes as Artaxerxes), and it is noteworthy with regard to this, that in Ezra 4.6-7 Ahasuerus is specifically differentiated from Artaxerxes. This would point to Ahasuerus as being Xerxes I, who preceded Artaxerxes I. Xerxes I reigned 485-465 BC.

‘Reigned from India even to Cush (the Northern Sudan).’ ‘India’ (hoddu) covers an area included in what we know as Pakistan. It consists of that part of the Indus valley and plains east of the Afghan mountains which were incorporated into the Persian empire by Darius I. Cush was south of Egypt, and mainly covered the region of Northern Sudan, and possibly parts of Ethiopia. Xerxes thus reigned over a vast empire.

‘Over 127 provinces.’ Compare 8.9. Under Darius I the empire was divided up into twenty satrapies, each of which was subdivided into a number of provinces. The number of satrapies constantly varied. Here the information is provided that there were at this time 127 provinces, thus averaging 6 provinces per satrapy. This involved a large administrative burden.

1.2 ‘That in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace,’

At this time Xerxes was reigning from Susa (Shushan) which we know from external sources to have been the case. And it would be from there that he planned his operation against the Greeks. It was to be a huge enterprise. We can therefore understand why, after his initial planning which itself took years, he would gather there his nobles and principal officers who would have responsibility for planning and organising the whole affair. And necessarily such people had to be royally entertained.

Susa was a winter residence of the kings of Persia and had formerly been the capital of the kingdom of Elam. It was the name of both the capital city and of the royal fortress that occupied a separate part of the city. It was there that Nehemiah would later approach Xerxes’ son, Artaxerxes, about the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1.1). Ecbatana (200 miles north of Susa) was their summer residence, and according to Herodotus was a Medan city. It was there that the decree of Cyrus was discovered by Darius (Ezra 6.2). Persepolis (‘Persian city’ - 300 miles southeast) was, however, Xerxes' main residence and the ceremonial capital of the empire. The Hebrew word translated "palace", or "capital" (NASB) or "citadel" (NIV), is habirah which refers to an acropolis or fortified area. This stood 22 metres (72 feet) above the rest of the city. A wall four kilometres (two and a half miles) long surrounded it.

He ‘sat on the throne of his kingdom’, i.e. on his royal throne. Such thrones are regularly depicted on inscriptions, the king being seated on his straight-backed throne, with all his attendants around him. The importance of the throne in the minds of the Persians comes out in that the king is said by Herodotus to have observed the Battle of Thermopylae from his throne, whilst Plutarch claims the same about the Battle of Salamis. The word for ‘kingdom’ is found regularly in 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. But it is also found in Numbers 24.7; 1 Samuel 20.31; 1 Kings 2.12; as well as in Jeremiah, Daniel, Ecclesiastes and in a number of Psalms. It cannot therefore be seen as solely a late word.

The Great Feasts (1.3-9).

That this was a preview to the Greek campaign comes out in that Xerxes ‘showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty’. In other words he revealed his preparations for war and the wealth that would back it up, either in order to convince the doubters, or to encourage his supporters, or possibly because of his extreme vanity, and it took him 180 days (6 moon periods) in which to do it. We can compare how when Hezekiah was considering an alliance with Babylon against the Assyrians, he ‘showed them the house of his precious things, the silver and the gold --and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in its treasures --’ (Isaiah 39.2). All who would be involved in leading that enterprise would be gathered there, as would those required to give it their backing. Such a gathering of the aristocracy necessarily required continual feasting. This suggestion is confirmed by Herodotus’ statement that prior to the invasion of Greece Xerxes gathered together an assembly in order to consider the matter.

1.3 ‘In the third year of his reign, he made a feast to all his princes and his servants, the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him,’

Thus in the third year of his reign (c.483 BC) the feasting and drinking began and to it were invited ‘his princes (or high officials) and his servants (courtiers), the power (military might) of Persia and Media, and the nobles (a Persian loan word) and princes/high officials of the provinces. It was a gathering of all the greats. It should be noted, however, that it is not necessarily said that the feast lasted 180 days as a combined event. Probably not all would remain over the whole period. They had an empire to run. It was rather the review of what was available for the enterprise that took one hundred and eighty days, as plans were made and officers were appointed, who set about making preparations. But those who did remain would continue to feast with the king. For the king would hold a feast in his palace every night at which guests were gathered (compare Nehemiah 5.17, and Nehemiah was a mere governor).

‘Persia and Media.’ The two nations were allies, and initially the Medes had been in the ascendancy, but all that had changed with the victories of Cyrus the Great, and it was now Persia that took the lead.

1.4 ‘When he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even a hundred and eighty days.’

The next one hundred and eighty days were spent in reviewing the wealth, armaments and preparations which were available for the Greek enterprise. As mentioned above this was similar to when Hezekiah showed off his wealth and armaments to the Babylonians when he was contemplating an alliance with them against Assyria (Isaiah 39.2). It was necessary for the confidence of the leadership to be boosted. And it no doubt brought the king great satisfaction. For the author, however, the main aim was to bring out the excessive wealth, power and splendour of the king. His spiritual lesson was that with all his wealth and power Xerxes was unable to prevent God controlling what he did, whilst he himself did foolish things.

In the event Xerxes would be at the head of a huge army (over 200,000 strong, although some claim more), and the provisioning and armaments that would be required would be enormous. He thus wanted his subjects to be aware of what was at his disposal.

1.5 ‘And when these days were fulfilled, the king made a feast to all the people who were present in Shushan the palace, both great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s pavilion.’

Once all the preparations had been made, and all the plans brought to readiness, the king then made another great feast to which all the males resident in the fortress were invited, both great and small. This feast lasted for seven days in the open air and took place in the court which was found in the garden by the king’s pavilion. This pavilion would probably have been a colonnaded open structure which could catch any breezes that there were. The feast would last for seven days because that was the divinely perfect number throughout that part of the Near East. It would be seen as full and complete. It was probably in the nature of a celebration that the plans for their venture into Greece were finalised, which would explain the exclusion of the women. There would be an excess of drinking (the Persians were famous for their drunken orgies). It was not necessarily the usual Persian practise to exclude women from feasts. But this feast had a kind of military status.

1.6 ‘(There were hangings of) white (cloth), (of) the colour of fine linen, and (of) bluey-purple, fastened with cords of fine linen and bluey-purple, to silver rings and pillars of marble. The couches were of gold and silver, on a pavement of red, and white, and yellow, and black marble.’

The description of the scene gives the impression, either of an eyewitness, or of someone who knew the palace very well. The hangings are seen as attached to the marble pillars by means of cords of fine linen and bluey-purple (the latter obtained from the aromatic mussel) through rings of silver. The Hebrew simply expresses it as ‘white, fine-linen coloured, bluey-purple, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple --’ with no introductory verb or phrase. But as what were described were clearly curtains or drapes, we supply the words ‘there were hangings of --’. White and bluey/purple were appropriately the royal colours. RSV translates as ‘white cotton curtains and blue hangings’, NIV as ‘hangings of white and blue linen’.

Chur (white) was the colour of linen or cotton. Karpas (linen-coloured) was the colour of fine white linen. Tekeleth (bluey-purple) was the colour obtained from the aromatic mussel. It will be noted that all the colour words are related to their source. The Jews do not appear to have had much interest in colour for its own sake, for if they had had they would have had a wider range of specific colour words. They were rather limited to the colours that came from natural sources, and were more concerned with the significance of the colours. Here at the Persian court they indicated royalty.

‘Fastened with cords of fine linen and bluey-purple, to silver rings and pillars of marble’. We have here the indication of an eyewitness, at least to the details of the palace fortress, if not to the feast itself. The white and bluey-purple linen hangings were attached to the marble pillars of the pavilion with silver rings by means of cords of white and bluey-purple, the royal colours.

‘The couches were of gold and silver’. As befitted a wealthy monarch the couches were of gold and silver, and would be intricately worked. They would be used for guests to lie at table, a custom already pictured in Amos 6.4.

‘On a pavement of red, and white, and yellow, and black marble.’ The mosaic floor on which the tables were placed was made of differing colours in marble. The colours are to some extent guesses. Only the black marble is identifiable. Bahat (red), used only here, is strictly unidentifiable (LXX suggests emerald coloured). Shesh (white), possibly the colour of alabaster, transluscent white. Dar (yellow) possibly mother of pearl (similar to shesh). All we can really say is that the pavement was of marble with contrasting shades between white and black. But it must have presented a magnificent picture as it shone in the sun.

1.7 ‘And they gave them drink in vessels of gold (the vessels being diverse one from another), and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king.’

At the feast the wine flowed abundantly due to the king’s abundant generosity. And it was drunk from golden vessels, each being individually patterned. These vessels were shaped in the form of drinking horns, having their own base. Examples of these have been discovered archaeologically.

1.8 ‘And the drinking was in accordance with the (king’s) diktat. None could compel. For so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure.’

And the king had given a specific diktat that all should drink as it pleased them. Normally guests would drink when the king drank, but the king had given instructions to his officials that at this feast this requirement be abated. Thus drunkenness would abound even more than usual, with uncontrolled drinking, whilst those who wished to be more abstemious were free to be so.

1.9 ‘Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus.’

At the same time as the king was giving his magnificent feast for the men of the citadel, Vashti the queen made a feast for the women. This too was held in the royal house. All resulted from the magnificence of King Ahasuerus. No one was overlooked, whether great or small. We may, however, see in this something of Vastri’s proud nature. The women being excluded from the main event, she puts on an event to rival it.

At this time Vashti was clearly the king’s favourite wife. She was probably much younger than Amestris, who was the daughter of a Persian general, and who accompanied him on his expedition against the Greeks. By that time, of course, Vashti was in disgrace. But her beauty was clearly outstanding. She was the most precious of all the possession of Ahasuerus, which is why he wanted to show her off. We know nothing about her apart from what we are told in this narrative, but we can surmise that she was of noble birth, otherwise she would not have dared to do what she did, nor would she have escaped so lightly. She may well have been the daughter of one of the seven chief nobles, for Herodotus tells us that the king was expected to take his queen from such. On the other hand Ahasuerus may simply have conveniently forgotten that requirement. The fact that she would know full well what she was doing (unless she herself was also blind drunk) suggests that her pride in her status and awareness of her own worth made her ready to defy the king when he called on her to attend before his drunken assembly and face its ribald comments. It is noteworthy that she was not put to death, but simply permanently excluded from fulfilling the duties of a wife to Ahasuerus (verse 19), something which the king later regretted when he returned from his expedition against the Greeks (2.1).

Queen Vashti’s Refusal To Obey The King By Exposing Herself To The Gaze Of The Drunken Assembly, And The Decree Which Was Its Consequence (1.10-22).

Having displayed all his wealth and military power, Ahasuerus, heavily influenced by his drinking, determined to show all present at his feast the beauty of his then chief wife, and he consequently sent a band of leading officials to conduct her to the feast, only to unexpectedly meet with a rebuff. Important and beautiful woman though she was, such insubordination by a woman to her husband, and especially to her king, was almost totally unknown, and the consequence of it was that she was made into a public example. This finally resulted in a decree going out that all wives must in future be in subjection to their husbands, a rather unnecessary decree, but one designed to counter the influence of Queen Vashti’s behaviour.

1.10-11 ‘On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chief officials who ministered in the presence of Ahasuerus the king, to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was fair to look on.’

On the last day of the feast, the king, being totally drunk, commanded his seven chief officials, who were his close servants, to bring the Queen, Vashti, into his presence wearing the crown royal, so that he could show off her beauty to his guests. In his favour we should note that he sent her, as a solid and reliable escort, seven of the chief officials in the land, but he was certainly subjecting her to an indignity beyond anything that she had known before, and to which she took violent exception. The Queen, like all the king’s women, was used to being cosseted and protected, and kept away from the eyes of the people, except when at a private feast or when seated on a royal throne. Now she was to become a gazingstock to men of all ranks and conditions, and men in an extreme state of drunkenness at that.

The king’s desire was merely to show off her extreme beauty, because she was ‘fair to look on’. But her every instinct rebelled against such treatment. Perhaps she felt that the king’s love for her would protect her from churlish treatment, or perhaps she was simply so proud of her status and upbringing that she could not bring herself to do it. Certainly it suggests that she must have belonged to a powerful family. No other would have dared to so defy the king. There is no difficulty with the idea that Amestris was Ahasuerus’ first wife, but subsequently replaced as chief wife by someone younger and more beautiful and from an equally powerful family, only for Amestris to be restored for a period during the Greek expedition because of Vashti’s disgrace. Amestris was not beloved of the king. She was a cruel and unlovable woman. But after Vashti’s disgrace there would be no time to search for a suitable replacement in time for the Greek campaign.

The giving of the names of the king’s court officials (‘court officials’ were sometimes, but not always, eunuchs) is an evidence of historicity. It suggests that this information came from an official source, as indeed 10.2 claims. There was no reason for naming them other than that they were a matter of official record. The names are not evidenced elsewhere apart from Carcas which appears in the Persepolis Treasury Tablets, although Mehuman (‘trusty’) is also certainly of Persian derivation. The fact that there were seven would fit in with the importance laid on the significance of numbers in the ancient world. Seven was the number of divine completeness, as regularly evidenced in ancient literature. But the names are of no particular historical significance.

1.12 ‘But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command by the chamberlains, therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.’

‘‘But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.’ In terms of those days the words are almost unthinkable. The king’s word was absolute. They were brave men who even took back word to the king of her refusal. And yet Vashti refused. It could only have been either as the result of her total confidence that she could bend the king to her will. She had no doubt often done so. But this time it was different. She was publicly humiliating him. Or it may have been because she came from a proud and powerful family, and refused to be subjected to humiliation, preferring rather to die, or look to the protection of her family.

These words must be seen in the light of what has gone before. Here was king Ahasuerus, king of a vast domain ‘from India to Africa’, ruler over 127 provinces, revealing his glory and splendour in preparation for defeat of those who had insulted his father, and now put in his place by a woman. It was almost inconceivable.

The public humiliation was simply too much for the king, and he burned with anger, and ‘was filled with wrath’. How dared she thwart his will? He was beside himself with fury. Ahasuerus was a cruel and despotic king, with a quick and violent temper, and he was not used to having his will thwarted. When a storm on the Hellespont caused his bridge to Europe to collapse he sought to have the Hellespont beaten and enchained. When a wealthy supporter asked for one of his sons to be released from military service for family reasons, he had the son put to death and cut in two. Such a proud despot would not brook disobedience from his wife, however much he loved her, for he loved himself better, and she probably knew it, which makes her decision even braver. She clearly felt the position very deeply.

1.13a ‘ Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times,’

These wise men are described as those “who knew the times,” i.e. they were magi and astrologers, who advised in accord with what they could discover from the heavenly bodies. We can compare the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 2.27; 5.15; Isaiah 44.25; 47.13; Jeremiah 50.35) and Egypt (Genesis 41.8).

1.13b ‘(For so was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and judgment, and the next to him were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom).’

A comment is included explaining why the king sought to the ‘wise men’. It was because it was his custom to consult with those who knew ‘law and judgment’ (a play on words - ‘dath and din’). This last was probably a technical phrase. The point may well be that they had means of knowing the diktats and judgments of the gods (they were astrologers and diviners). We might translate, “for in such a way was the business of the king conducted before all who knew law and judgment.”

Among these wise men were the king seven close advisers. These were seven nobles, who were heads of Persia’s and Media’s aristocratic families. Their names are given as Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan. These in general appear to be Persian/Median names and that of Carshena is in fact found on the fortification tablets discovered at Persepolis. Compare for the seven, the seven advisers of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7.14). They had the privilege of ‘seeing the king’s face’, in other words of coming into his presence whenever they wished, when he was not involved with his women. They were his personal advisers. Once again they number seven. In view of the fact that seven was seen as a divine number and as indicating divine completeness as far back as the days of Sumer, this is not surprising in a superstitious age. Once again there is an archival feel about this statement, supporting the claim of the book that it was largely based on the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia (10.3), in other words was basically historical fact.

1.15 “What shall we do to the queen Vashti according to law, because she has not done the bidding of the king Ahasuerus by the high officials?”

The question put to the wise men was as to what should be done ‘according to law’ with Queen Vashti for refusing to do the bidding of King Xerxes. The king wants it to be quite clear to all that he is not acting out of spite. He wants to act in a way that history would approve of. It is an open question as to what is meant by ‘according to law (dath)’. This is unlikely to signify laws laid down, for this was an unusual case. Surely never before had a queen so openly challenged the king’s authority. It may indicate general precedent based on what has happened in the past. What did the wisdom of the past say? What conclusions could be drawn from the past? But by dath he may well have included the idea of the diktat of the gods as discovered by divination and astrology. The whole of life was seen as bound up with the will of the gods, which was why the age was so superstitious, and why Haman, eager to destroy the Jews, nevertheless delayed it because the portents were against him. If this was so we have a parallel to the non-naming of God, in that the gods of Persia are also not mentioned, but assumed.

1.16 ‘And Memucan answered before the king and the princes, “Vashti the queen has not done wrong only to the king, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples who are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.’

Memucan, one of the seven nobles, acted as spokesman for them all. They had no doubt had detailed discussions, and would almost certainly have consulted with the gods by divination, before coming up with their answer. And so he stood before the king and his advisers and declared their joint decision. Vashti had committed a great wrong, not only against the king, but, by her bad example, also against the princes and the whole of society. For what she had done would soon be spread abroad so that all would know throughout the provinces of Ahasuerus (Xerxes).

1.17 ‘For this deed of the queen will come abroad to all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it shall be reported, “The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come.”

They conjured up a dreadful picture of gossiping women, laughing in secret behind men’s backs, and viewing their husbands with contempt, as they contemplated the brashness of Queen Vashti, and her treatment of the king. The women would be saying to each other, “The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come”. In their view, unless properly dealt with, this could only have led to wholesale anarchy within the family. Women would begin to get above themselves, and feel that they could treat their husband’s desires lightly. It had to be stopped. This was probably most felt by the nobles who had highborn and proud wives who might well become difficult.

1.18 “And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say (similarly) to all the king’s princes. So (will there arise) much contempt and wrath.”

The nobles shuddered as they considered the effect that it might have on their own wives. The very princesses of Persia and Media, having learned of the behaviour of the queen, would conduct themselves in a similar manner, and begin to treat their husband’s with contempt. They were no doubt proud enough as it was. And as a result there would be ‘much contempt and anger’. Life would become a battlefield. This may well suggest that their main fear arose from the domination of their own wives. Thus the only solution was to make an open example of Queen Vashti.

1.19 “If it please the king, let there go forth a royal command from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate to another who is better than she.”

Their solution was the issue of a solemn decree, one as binding as ‘the laws of the Persians and the Medes’ (which alter not neither are changed, compare 8.8; Daniel 6.8), declaring that ‘Vashti’ (note the lack of her title) should no more come before Ahasuerus, and that her royal estates be given to someone more deserving. Note that from now on Vashti is no longer called queen’. She is simply ‘Vashti’. She has become just another woman in the harem.

Note how the punishment fits the crime. She had refused to come into the king’s presence. From henceforth she should be banished from it for ever. As she belonged to the king’s harem this would of course mean that she could never bear children. No one else would be allowed to have her. The fact that she was not cruelly put to death is probably an indication that she was high born, and therefore enjoyed some level of protection. She remained a part of the harem but with no contact with the king. In fact, many in the harem would be similarly neglected. The prospects of each depended on the king’s favour. But for Vashti her being rejected was a certainty, for it was fixed by the laws of the Persians and the Medes.

The going forth of the royal command would initially be by means of messengers. Herodotus, the Greek historian, (c. 484-426 BC) wrote of the Persian postal service as follows: "Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers. The entire plan is a Persian invention; and this is the method of it. Along the whole line of road there are men (they say) stationed with horses, in number equal to the number of days which the journey takes, allowing a man and horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow or rain, or heat, or by the darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is born from hand to hand along the whole line." Thus the furthest parts of the empire could be reached in what was in those days a comparatively short period of time.

1.20 “And when the king’s decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his kingdom (for it is great), all the wives will give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.”

Memucan’s fond hope was that once the way that the king had dealt with Vashti was publicly made known throughout the empire, all wives would give honour to their husbands, and obey them, whether they were important people or unimportant. In his view Vashti had put forward a claim for woman’s freedom which had to be stifled at birth. It was of course the view of a man and a courtier. It is doubtful if what was in the edict would make so great an impression on the vast majority of people. They would continue to behave as they had before. Its effect would mostly be felt among the highborn.

1.21 ‘And the saying pleased the king and the princes, and the king did according to the word of Memucan,’

The king and his nobles were, however, pleased with Memucan’s suggestion. They all felt the same. And so the king acted in accordance with Memucan’s word.

1.22 ‘For he sent letters into all the king’s provinces, into every province according to its script, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and should speak according to the language of his people.’

He accordingly sent letter to the governors of all the provinces, in the script that they used, and to all the peoples in their own language. He was determined that all would understand what had happened. Some have suggested that he need simply have used Aramaic, but he clearly wanted it properly understood by all, even those at the lowest level (compare also 3.14; 8.9). The translating may well have taken place in the provinces as the governors acted in order to make the king’s instructions clear. And the gist of his edict was that every man should bear rule in his own house, and should be free to speak in his own language, that is, in the language of his people. This last phrase ties in with the fact that the edict was translated into the many languages in use in the empire. It suggests that this was something already on the king’s mind as something that he would allow. The Persian kings regularly encouraged local autonomy. It may well be that requests had been received by him from the provinces on the matter, and that he therefore incorporated his will into the present edict.

Or it may be that ‘should speak according to the language of his people’ is giving the man the right to insist that in his own house only the local language could be used so that there could be no question of a foreign wife introducing her foreign language into the household. The man’s customs and authority were to prevail. We can compare the distress caused by the foreign wives who taught their own children the language of Ashdod, rather than the Jewish language of their father (Nehemiah 13.23 ff.). The idea behind the edict was thus to bolster the authority of men over their womenfolk. In practise, apart from among the aristocracy, it would have had little practical effect. But it was the aristocrats, with their powerful wives, who were most concerned.

So the chapter which began with a description of the greatness of Ahasuerus, closes with an indication of how cavalierly he could be treated by his wife, and how subsequently he acted in a fit of pique in order to punish her (2.1 may suggest that he regretted his action later), in order to satiate his anger. The appeal to the gods and to the law was a mere blind, as later events show. All knew that their decision had to please the king. The great king was seen to have feet of clay.

B. The Rise of Esther to Become Queen of Persia (2.1-23).

In this passage we have described the means by which Esther became Queen of Persia, and thus able to influence the king in his dealing with her people, the Jews.

The Search For A Replacement For Vashti Commences (2.1-4).

The author passes over the next four years in silence (compare 1.3 with 2.16). During these years Ahasuerus (Xerxes) conducted his Greek campaign, and in view of Vashti’s demotion, took with him an older wife, Amestris, the daughter of one of his most loyal supporters. We know from Herodotus that he was a licentious man, and he would require someone officially to ‘service’ him while he was campaigning, even though he would also have at his disposal many women. But she was a hard and cruel woman, and on returning to Susa he thought about Vashti with regret. Consequently his officials came up with the idea that a replacement for Vashti should be found. Herodotus tells us that meanwhile he had been satisfying his lusts in various ways. He was not a man to be held back by tradition.

It is noteworthy in this chapter how the author intersperses the story of Esther’s adventures with the careful guardianship of Mordecai. Thus 2.1-10 is followed by 2.11; and 2.12-18 is followed by 2.19-20. As Esther faces up to her new life, Mordecai is seen as keeping watch. It is an example to all of what a guardian should do.

2.1 ‘After these things, when the wrath of king Ahasuerus was pacified, he remembered Vashti, and what she had done, and what was decreed against her.’

‘After these things’ is a vague time note and in this case indicated a gap of a few years. By this time Ahasuerus’ anger against Vashti had diminished, and he appears to have had some regrets. She had after all been a very beautiful woman. But he also recognised that he was bound by his own decree.

2.2 ‘Then the king’s servants (high officials), who ministered to him, said “Let there be fair young virgins sought for the king,”

He clearly made known his dissatisfaction for his high officials came up with a plan to satisfy his needs. Ahasuerus would already have had a harem, but it seems that the women in it no longer satisfied him any more than Amestris did, and especially that there was no woman who ‘stood out’. So they suggested that a new search be instigated for fair young virgins who could be incorporated into the harem.

2.3 “And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather together all the fair young virgins unto Shushan the palace, to the house of the women, into the custody of Hegai the king’s officer, keeper of the women, and let their things for purification be given them,”

They suggested that the king appoint officers throughout the empire whose responsibility it would be to find the choicest virgins for the king. These ‘fair young virgins’ were to be introduced into the palace at Susa, into ‘the house of the women’ where his harem were housed, and placed in the care of Hegai, the king’s officer who had responsibility for the women in the harem. And there they were to go through the rites of purification and beautification necessary in order to be made ready for the king’s attention.

It is made clear by this that Ahasuerus already had a ‘house of the women’ in which his harem were housed. It was not that he lacked women. It was that he lacked someone who could compare with Vashti. Hegai may well have been a eunuch, but not necessarily so, for the fact that non-eunuchs had access to the king’s women comes out in regulations covering their behaviour in the harem, which would have been unnecessary for eunuchs. We should recognise that life in the harem was a life of pleasure and luxury, and it was therefore not a hardship for these women. Indeed there may well have been competition for places in it. They enjoyed every luxury and the demands made on them were not excessive. And they would have been used to the idea of submitting to whatever male pleased their fathers. That it was the king would be seen as a bonus.

2.4 “And let the maiden who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” And the thing pleased the king, and he did so.’

And the final consequence of the search was to be that the woman who finally pleased the king would be made queen instead of Vashti. The king found this idea very satisfying, and he consequently did what was suggested.

The Women Are Gathered In Accordance With The King’s Command And Esther Is Chosen As The Most Likely Candidate To Please The King (2.5-11).

At this point Mordecai is introduced, because he was Esther’s guardian. He was a Jew living in the palace, and appears to have been able to move around as he pleased. This suggests that he held some high official position, something later confirmed by his attitude towards Haman, and indeed Haman’s restraint in dealing with him. He was able to trace his ancestry back to Kish, a Benjamite who had been carried away into captivity from Jerusalem along with Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24.8-12) when it was taken by Nebuchadnezzar. This suggests that he came from an aristocratic family.

The name Mordecai is not an uncommon one. A Mordecai was named among the leaders of those who returned from exile with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2.2; Nehemiah 7.7), and reference is made in 2 Maccabees to ‘a day of Mordecai’ (2 Maccabees 15.36), confirming that a Mordecai was connected with a feast. It also occurs in various forms in the Persepolis Treasury Tablets; appears in a fifth century Aramaic document (as Mrdk); and in an undated Persian text which speaks of a high official called Marduka who was connected with Susa around that time. It may well be the transliteration of the common Babylonian name Mardukaya. The taking of a Babylonian name by exiled Jews was not unusual. Many Jews, including Daniel and his three friends, took Babylonian names. It is even possible that Mordecai was the Marduka named in the undated text mentioned above.

2.5-6 ‘There was a certain Jew in Shushan the palace, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.’

That Mordecai resided in the palace suggests that he was a court official. That his descent from the Jewish aristocracy carried away with Jehoiachin was clearly recognised demonstrates his status among the Jews (it was mainly the aristocracy who were carried away). That he dared to refuse to base himself before Haman suggests a man of great importance. That the officials were wary in dealing with him, and that Haman had to be wary in his dealings with him, points to him as being an important Persian functionary in a high position. Thus he was clearly an important man. But the writer wants us to know that he was above all a Jew. There lies behind this statement the idea that the God of the Jews had, by his presence here, been preparing the way. There was an influential Jew in the palace. The gods were seen as so involved in daily life that they did not even have to be mentioned. The same would be seen as true of the God of Israel.

2.7 ‘And he reared Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was fair of form and beautiful to look on, and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter.’

This Mordecai had reared a young maiden named Hadassah, which was a Jewish name meaning ‘myrtle’. The myrtle tree was associated with deliverance (Isaiah 41.19; 55.13; Zechariah 1.8-11). She was the daughter of his uncle, and when she was orphaned he took her as his own daughter. We learn here that she was ‘fair of form and beautiful to look on’. We are not told when she took the name Esther (‘star’). It may well have been when she was summoned to the palace. Or it may have been given to her by Mordecai for the benefit of Persian neighbours

2.8 ‘So it came about, when the king’s command and his decree was heard, and when many maidens were gathered together to Shushan the palace, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken into the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women.’

As a consequence of the king’s command and decree ‘many maidens were gathered together to Shushan the palace’. We are not told what procedures were followed in order to bring this about, but there would clearly be a selection process. However, as Esther was connected with the palace, and was very beautiful, her being summoned was probably only a matter of course. Neither Mordecai nor Esther would have had any option in the matter. All those who were summoned were committed to the care of Hegai, the ‘keeper of the women’, in the king’s house, that is, in the house of the women (verse 3). It was his responsibility to prepare them for presentation to the king. And they would all be very good-looking. Herodotus mentions a Hegias (probably the Greek form of Hegai) as an officer of Xerxes, which confirms this as a good Persian name.

2.9 ‘And the maiden pleased him, and she obtained kindness from him, and he speedily gave to her her things for purification, with her portions, and the seven maidens who were meet to be given to her out of the king’s house, and he removed her and her maidens to the best place of the house of the women.’

Hegai was clearly impressed by Esther. He saw her as having good potential with the king. And so he behaved kindly towards her, and saw to it that she was speedily provided with her things for purification, and began her process of purification and beautification quickly. Along with this, as a prospective consort of the king, she was treated with all due ceremony, being provided with seven suitable maidens to attend to her needs, taken from the king’s house. This would no doubt have been done for all the candidates. ‘Seven’ would have been seen as a suitable number for a king’s woman. But because he was especially impressed by her, he placed her and her maidens in the best place in the house of the women. He would be a man who knew the king’s tastes, and so this augured well for Esther.

2.10 ‘Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred, for Mordecai had charged her that she should not make it known.’

But now we learn a thing of shame. Esther kept hidden from Hegai the fact that she was a Jewess. And she did it on the instructions of Mordecai. This was in complete contrast with Daniel and his friends in Daniel 1. Daniel had insisted on observing the means of ritual cleanness. It was to be otherwise with Esther. It is not therefore surprising that the author did not want God’s Name too closely associated with the situation. She would be continually defiled as she sat at the king’s table, nor would she be in a position to engage in Jewish worship. Mordecai did not want her to stand out as a Jewess.

It would, of course, be clear to all that Esther was a foreigner, thus what was being hidden was the fact that she was a Jewess. This is an important verse, for it gives some indication as to how the Jews were seen in the Persian empire. As often they were tolerated but frowned upon, something which helps to explain later events. Furthermore such feelings must have been pretty deep for Mordecai to act as he did. And this silence of Esther went along with her change of name, which would disguise her Jewish identity. Nevertheless, while it may have been seen as expedient in the circumstances, (once selected Esther would have had no choice), it would certainly have been frowned on by committed Jews. And they too would have felt that the Name of God could not have been associated with such a situation. It was true that deliverance was being accomplished, but it was through deceit and covenant disobedience. How then could God be directly involved?

Interestingly Mordecai’s attitude was in line with some oriental thinking. They believed, and still do today, that where it was necessary a man could hide his religious connections and pretend otherwise if it would save him from peril. But it was not consistent with the views of committed Jews. We may feel that Mordecai had been over-influenced by his association with his contemporaries in the palace.

2.11 ‘And Mordecai walked every day before the court of the women’s house, to know how Esther did, and what would become of her.’

Whatever his failings Mordecai remained faithful to his guardianship responsibilities. He did not just leave Esther to the care of the harem. Every day he came near to the court of the house of the women in order to learn how Esther was going on, and what might become of her. This again suggests that he was an important official. To approach the court of the women would have been dangerous for anyone less. He clearly had good security clearance. And it would appear he also had influential contacts, for he was seemingly able to enquire about Esther without being frowned on. He may well have had to obtain official authority for this as a king’s officer and Esther’s guardian. We do not on the whole know what contact relatives could have with the maidens in the king’s harem.

The Triumph Of Esther Who Becomes The King’s Choice (2.12-20).

Before women could be considered as suitable for ‘going into the king’ the selected maidens had to go through a process of ‘purifying’ so that the king might not be offended by their odours, but might rather savour their sweet perfumes. Through this process Esther also went, and was shown favour by Hegai so that her turn would come early. In consequence she pleased the king and became not just his concubine, but his queen. Thus we have the second ‘coincidence’ in that at the deposing of Vashti a Jewish woman would replace her just at the vital time when needed.

2.12 ‘Now when the turn of every maiden was come to go in to king Ahasuerus, after it had been done to her according to the law for the women twelve months (for so were the days of their purifications accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odours and with the things for the purifying of the women),’

Each maiden in turn, prior to going into the king, had to go through a twelve moon period course of rendering them suitable. For the first six moon periods this was by means of oil of myrrh, and for the second by perfumes and scents, and whatever else was felt necessary for their purification, which would include the choicest of foods. We could translate, ‘even with the things for the purifying of the women’, with it thus referring back to the oil of myrrh and the sweet odours. It is also possible that they were covered in ‘beautifying paste’ which would lighten their skins and remove any faults.

Persia, along with India and Arabia, which were both in the king’s domain, was famous for its perfumes. Thus there would be no lack of choice. A cosmetic burner of the type used for burning scented products so as to release their odours may well have been used in a kind of expensive fumigation. An example of such was discovered at Lachish.

2.13 ‘Then in this way came the maiden to the king Whatever she desired was given her to go with her out of the house of the women to the king’s house.’

After she had gone through the twelve moon period course of purifying, each maiden would be brought to the king, presumably in an order determined by Hegai, although there may have been some means by which the king could himself initially scrutinise the maidens and make his choice. And in the process she could ask for anything which she thought might please the king and make him look with favour on her, which would, of course, include expensive jewellery. Such a vulgar thing as cost would not, of course, be taken into account. But what was chosen would undoubtedly reveal something about each of the maidens, especially as each of them would no doubt be able to retain what they had chosen.

2.14 ‘In the evening she went, and on the next day she returned into the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s chief officer, who looked after the concubines. She came in unto the king no more, unless the king delighted in her, and she was called by name.’

So each night one of the maidens would go in to the king, and once the maiden had spent the night with the king she was transferred to the second house of the women, under the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s chief officer, the maiden now being a fully-fledged wife or concubine. She would not be called again unless the king chose to send for her by name. Thus it is clear that the king had a large number of concubines, and that many of them would only be with the king once. They thus lived unfulfilled lives, enjoying every luxury, and yet on the whole unable to bear children and have families.

2.15 ‘Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her for his daughter, was come to go in to the king, she required nothing but what Hegai the king’s chief officer, the keeper of the women, appointed. And Esther obtained favour in the sight of all those who looked upon her.’

Eventually the time came for Esther to be summoned into the king’s presence. She was, we are informed, the daughter of Abihail, who was uncle to Mordecai. Abihail had died, and Mordecai had thus taken over guardianship of Esther. And when she went into the king she allowed herself to be guided by Hegai as to what she should use for adornments. Hegai, being the king’s chief officer and keeper of the women prior to their going in to the king, would be well versed as to what would please the king. But the aim of the writer was undoubtedly to demonstrate her humble attitude and willing obedience (seen as virtues in women). She sought no special adornments for herself. Indeed he stresses that she found favour in the eyes of all who looked on her, partly no doubt due to her lack of ostentation.

2.16 ‘So Esther was taken to king Ahasuerus into his house royal in the tenth month, which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.’

The night in question was in the tenth month, that is the month Tebet, in the seventh year of Ahasuerus’ reign. In other words it was following his return from his Greek campaign. There had thus been a gap of about four years since the degrading of Vashti. The tenth month was in midwinter. The indicating of moon periods by a number probably commenced during the exile. After the exile the names began to be named after the Babylonian moon periods, of which Tebet was one.

2.17 ‘And the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained favour and kindness in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.’

Esther was an immediate success. The king loved her ‘above all the women’, and she obtained favour and kindness in his sight. He preferred her over all the other women, and set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Amestris had apparently never been declared queen. Herodotus only refers to her as the king’s wife.

2.18 ‘Then the king made a great feast for all his princes and his servants, even Esther’s feast; and he made a release (or ‘rest’) to the provinces, and gave gifts, according to the bounty of the king.’

Then to celebrate the occasion the king made a great feast for all his princes and servants, naming it Esther’s feast, and at the same time gave a certain amount of release from taxes and provided gifts out of his royal bounty. Vashti had been disgraced at a feast. The accession of Esther was celebrated by a similar feast.

Mordecai Becomes Aware Of A Plot Against The King (2.19-21).

We now come to the third ‘coincidence’ in that Mordecai discovers a plot against the king, which will eventually lead to him being shown royal honours, at the very time when his downfall is being plotted.

2.19 ‘ And when the virgins were gathered together the second time, then Mordecai was sitting in the king’s gate.’

The reference to virgins being gathered together a second time probably has in mind those transferred to the second house of the women, the idea being that a good number of the new batch of maidens had been so transferred when the situation described took place. It was at this time that Mordecai was ‘sitting in the king’s gate’, something which is regularly referred to (2.21; 3.2; 5.9, 13; 6.10, 12). The fact that he was sitting in the king’s gate suggests that he had an important judicial role (Proverbs 31.23), for it was in the gate that justice was rendered, and it was there that appointed judges sat in order to carry out their functions. The more we learn of Mordecai, the more we recognise that he was in a position of authority. There is no suggestion that this was due to Esther’s influence, unless the previous time note be seen in this way. But that would seem simply to be indicating passage of time.

2.20 ‘Esther had not yet made known her relations nor her people, as Mordecai had charged her. For Esther did the what Mordecai said (the commandment of Mordecai), in the same way as when she was brought up with him.’

Once again it is stressed that Esther had not made known the fact that she was a Jewess. And that she had done it out of obedience to Mordecai (compare verse 10). This may well have been because Mordecai feared that if it was discovered that Esther was a Jewess she would be in disgrace, as someone unsuitable to be the king’s wife, or even to be in the harem. This again suggests a general antipathy against Jews. But the writer takes the opportunity to present Esther in a good light as one who obeyed her guardian ‘in the same way as when she was brought up with him’, just as she had obeyed Hegai. Such obedience would be seen by Jews in a good light. She was thus seen as modest (verse 15) and obedient. ‘The commandment of Mordecai’. ‘Commandment’ is a rare word. There may well here be intended a contrast between Vashti who did not obey ‘the commandment’ of the king, and Esther who did obey ‘the commandment’ of her guardian.

2.21 ‘In those days, while Mordecai was sitting in the king’s gate, two of the king’s chief officers, Bigthan and Teresh, of those who kept the threshold, were angry, and sought to lay hands on the king Ahasuerus.’

It was around this time that two of the king’s chief officials, who ‘kept the threshold’, became disgruntled, and determined to assassinate the king. ‘Keeping the threshold’ probably refers to their guarding the very entrance into the king’s private quarters. They would thus have been in a very favourable position to carry out their plot. Bigthan may well be the Bigtha of 1.10. Compare also 6.2.

2.22 ‘And the thing became known to Mordecai, who showed it to Esther the queen, and Esther told the king in Mordecai’s name.’

We are not told how the plot became known to Mordecai, but he clearly learned of it and informed Esther. Esther then informed the king, giving due credit to Mordecai.

2.23 ‘And when enquiries were made concerning the matter, and it was found to be so, they were both hung on a tree, and it was recorded in the book of the chronicles before the king.’

Enquiries were then instituted and when the matter was examined (probably by torture) the two officials were found guilty. As a consequence they were ‘hung on a tree’, that is either crucified or impaled (probably the latter). Impalement was a common Persian punishment. Meanwhile the details of the whole were entered into the official book of records (compare for these 6.1; 10.2). Herodotus tells us that historiographers were attached to the court of Ahasuerus, and moved about with him from place to place. ‘Before the king’ probably simply indicates that they were recorded ‘as in the king’s presence’. Whether it was actually done in front of him we do not know. The writer is thus seen as having access to ‘the book of chronicles’, that is of day to day events.

We will later discover that it was fortuitous that Mordecai’s service was overlooked, for it will later play an important part in the narrative. Meanwhile Esther was in place ready for the events that would follow. We are left to recognise that God was at work.

C. The Rise of Haman and his Casting of Pur (the Sacred Lot) With The Aim Of Utterly Destroying the Jews (3.1-11).

Haman from Agagi is appointed as Ahasuerus’ Grand Vizier, with a requirement being made of special homage, a homage beyond the norm, which Mordecai, as a Jew, is unwilling to offer, probably because he feels that it breached the second commandment not to bow down to or worship images. This causes Haman to determine the destruction of all Jews, and he sets about discovering a date for this which would be pleasing to the gods by the casting of Pur (the sacred lot), probably in dice form Discovering such a date may well have convinced him that the gods were in favour of his actions, and may have formed part of his argument before the king. But the book will go on to show that ‘Pur’ is overruled, resulting in the celebration of ‘Purim’ before God. Cold fate is replaced by Feasting over deliverance.

Mordecai Offends Haman The New Favourite Of Ahasuerus (3.1-6).

Ahasuersus advances Haman the Agagite as his favourite, setting him above all his chief princes, and requiring all people, including the highest princes to make obeisance to him. This obeisance was clearly much more than the normal courtesies, which all the princes would receive, for it was a strict requirement of Ahasuerus. So even without Mordecai’s reaction we might have seen it as indicating a kind of homage that was akin to worship. And that is clearly how Mordecai saw it. This is quite feasible for we soon discover that Haman is seeking the highest glory. What then more likely that he wanted to be seen as a kind of semi-divine figure? And only this makes sense of Mordecai’s response, for he would have had no difficulty with bowing low before the king and princes, a practise which was full scriptural (Genesis 33.3; 1 Samuel 20.41) and would have been performed by him many times. Nor for any other reason would he have refused to obey the king’s decree. To despise Haman would be one thing. To deliberately disobey the king’s decree quite another. This would suggest that Haman had loaded the requirements with his own interpretation, making people treat him as a kind of godlike being, something which Mordecai, himself an official of some importance (otherwise he would have been more summarily dealt with), felt was contrary to God’s Law. We must remember that ‘sitting at the gate’ (performing his official duties there) he would constantly be required to bow deeply before important people. It must then have been something very special that made him so unwilling.

But why is Haman called ‘the Agagite’? There is in fact no good reason for connecting this idea that he was an Agagite with the Amalekite king Agag (Numbers 24.7; 1 Samuel 15.8 ff). That king’s descendants, if there were any, would not have been called Agagites. They would rather have been called Amalekites. And besides Agag was probably a throne name like Pharaoh and Abimelech, not a family name. Furthermore the description Agagite is not found in Scripture prior to this. And it is equally significant that LXX did not see it in that way for they found the term difficult, either omitting it or translating it as bougaios (in 3.1; 9.10 - meaning unknown, but possibly ‘bully, braggart’ or ‘court official’) or ‘the Macedonian’ (ho Makedon - 9.24). They therefore also clearly did not connect it with Agag. They connected it with a part of the Macedonian empire. The supposed connection with Agag came much later with Josephus (over 400 years later), with the Targums and with later Jewish tradition, at a time when history had become the plaything of the exegetes.

Rather then we should probably connect Haman with Agagi, which was the name of an area associated with Media, and which had become part of the Persian Empire. Agagi (Agazi) was previously mentioned in an Assyrian inscription of Sargon II. We note that Haman’s sons had typically Persian names. The rather glib assumption that Haman was an Amalekite should be seen as what it is, an attempt to build up something from a coincidence. It has no real evidence to support it. It has rather been used so as to suggest that Esther is nothing but a good story, partly based on the ancient rivalry between Saul and Amalek.

It is true that Mordecai’s great grandfather was called Kish, as was Saul’s father, and that it was Saul who led Israel against the Amalekites whose king had the throne name of Agag. It is vaguely possible that the author had this in mind, and saw it as an interesting coincidence. But if so he does nothing to draw out a lesson from it. That was left to the later theorists. Kish was in fact a popular Benjamite name. This is just one of a number of coincidences in the book. What the contrast between Mordecai the Jew, and Haman the representative of the Persian empire, brings out is the age long contest between the people of God and the world in its pride.

3.1 ‘After these things king Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes who were with him.’

It was quite normal for ancient kings to have favourites, and to appoint them to positions of supreme authority. And that is what Ahasuerus (Xerxes) did to Haman. As we have seen he came from the region around Media and would therefore be approved of by the Medo-Persian aristocracy. It has been suggested that his name was derived from the Elamite god Hum(b)jan. Elam was in the same general area as Agagi. His father’s name, Hammedatha, possibly means ‘given by the moon’. (Neither connect with Amalek). We should not be surprised at the connection of names with gods (or build theories on it), for such was commonplace. Compare how Daniel and his three friends were given names connected with gods.

So Haman was advanced and given an exalted position above all the aristocracy of Medo-Persia. He was made second only to the king, and a decree had been put forth by the king that he should be ‘worshipped’. That this meant more than simple obeisance comes out in that it had to be established by decree. In general, obeisance before the Grand Vizier would be automatically assumed. People were required to fall on their faces before him, apart possibly from the seven nobles who ‘saw the king’s face’. But here something extra was being asked for that went beyond normal submission. Mordecai probably considered that, whilst not necessarily claiming to be a god, Haman was seeking godlike honours.

3.2 ‘And all the king’s servants, who were in the king’s gate, bowed down, and did reverence to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down, nor do him reverence.’

These were the high ups of the empire who in service to the king would be ‘in the king’s gate’, available for his summons. Seemingly they would gather each day within the huge gateway of the palace so as to be ready for the king’s pleasure. They were to be always available. The huge gateway would provide a place of shade from the hot sun, and no doubt their needs were catered for by servants. Even these great men did reverence to Haman when he passed through, prostrating themselves before him in full homage at the king’s command. But this went beyond what Mordecai was prepared to do. He was presumably perfectly prepared to humble and prostrate himself in the normal way. He would certainly have had to do so before the king, and probably before the seven nobles. But what he was not prepared to do was offer what he saw as the equivalent of worship. Thus while he no doubt acknowledged Haman’s high position by giving him due honour, (otherwise Haman would have noticed him earlier), what he would not do was give him the equivalent of worship. He may well have had in mind the noble three who had refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold (Daniel 3). At another time the Spartan ambassadors similarly refused the kind of obeisance required in Persia towards the king, stating that they did not worship men.

3.3 ‘Then the king’s servants, who were in the king’s gate, said to Mordecai, “Why do you transgress the king’s commandment?”

The difference between his obeisance and that of the other king’s servants was noticeable enough for attention to be drawn to it. So as responsible officials the ‘king’s servants, challenged Mordecai as to why he was disobeying the kings direct decree. The fact that once they had done this they did not immediately have him arrested and impaled suggests that Mordecai must have been a man of sufficient authority to require careful handling. A commoner would have received short shrift. They were seemingly prepared to consider his feelings, and to recognise that he may well have had special permission for his behaviour. They were wary about what they did to one of the ‘king’s servants’.

It is unfortunate that we do not know what his defence was. Quite possibly he pointed out that what was being required went beyond what was what should be offered to a mere man (as the Spartan ambassadors had), and that it therefore went beyond what a Jew could offer on the grounds of his religion.

3..4 ‘And it came about, when they spoke daily to him, and he did not listen to them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew.’

It is apparent that the ‘king’s servants’ (high officials) went to a great deal of trouble over the matter. They reasoned with him daily seeking to persuade him to fulfil the requirements of the kings decree, rather than summarily bringing him to justice. This would again seem to indicate that he held a very important position. But he countered by explaining to them that he was a Jew, presumably arguing that as such he could not disobey the second commandment of the Jew’s covenant with God (Exodus 20.4-6), a central feature of his religion. In view of the fact that cringing submission was a regular feature of life in those days, this may signify that Jews had been given special concessions, as they would be later by the Romans, and that Mordecai was depending on those concessions. (This would help to explain Haman’s reaction as he revealed his vindictiveness, not only against Mordecai, but against the whole Jewish race. And it would explain why he so disliked their laws - verse 8). Or alternatively it might indicate the extreme nature of Haman’s requirements.

We can compare with Mordecai’s attitude the attitude of the Spartan ambassadors mentioned by Herodotus who refused to prostrate themselves before the Persian king on the grounds that it was not their custom to worship men. Thus his behaviour was not without parallel. If this is so it once again introduces into the story in veiled form the very essence of Yahwism, the seeing of Him as the only true God.

3.5 ‘And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down, nor do him reverence, then was Haman full of fury.’

It would appear that Haman was unaware of Mordecai’s attitude until the matter was brought to his attention by the high level officials. This would suggest that Mordecai did fulfil what he saw as the proper courtesies, and that this was sufficient to make his behaviour not appear to be too outlandish, otherwise he would have been spotted immediately. What he refused to do was participate in the excesses. That this was so comes out in that he lived where he did. Had he refused all submission he would simply not have survived. He would have been executed long before. They were not tolerant days.

But on learning that Mordecai refused the full submission that he required Haman was ‘furious’ (chamah, a play on words with Haman - Haman was chamah). Furthermore when Mordecai’s explanation was made known to Haman, that Jews did not worship men, that fury became aimed at the Jews as a whole. He saw their attitude as a personal insult to himself.

3.6 ‘But he thought scorn to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai, for which reason Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.’

This possibly caused Haman to make enquiries about the Jews and what he learned clearly incensed him. What was known of them was made known to him. Here were a people who as a whole would not be willing to submit to his whims because of their strange religious laws, a people who in their captivity would nevertheless not fully bow down to their conquerors because they worshipped the living God. We know from later that he was pretty well a megalomaniac, for he sought royal honours for himself with a view to his own exaltation (6.1 ff). So this attitude would have appeared to him as beyond reason. How dared they hold this view? It was clear to his eyes that such people had to be exterminated. He was a good example of extreme megalomania. How he would go about destroying them will now be described.

He may well, of course, not have known just how many Jews there were in the empire, nor of their resettlement in Palestine. What he was out to remove were a people whose foolish ideas meant that they would not pay to him the obeisance that he required. That was why they had to be exterminated. Note the emphasis on ‘the people of Mordecai’. They were associated with Mordecai’s attitude.

While his attitude might appear extreme it was not without precedent in the Medo-Persian Empire. Forty years earlier at the accession of Darius, there had been a deliberate attempt to annihilate the Magi as a race, whilst prior to that Cyaxares and the Medes had invited the Scythians, whose depredations had proved troublesome, to a great feast, and had there massacred them all whilst they were drunk. Wholesale massacre does not appear to have caused the Medo-Persians any problems. Life was cheap. We can also compare how Mithridates, the king of Pontus, sent out orders for the indiscriminate slaughter of Romans and all others of Italian birth.

The King Is Persuaded By Haman To Decree The Annihilation Of The Jews (3.7-11).

Haman, obsessed with his idea, casts sacred lots to determine when the annihilation of the Jews would take place, possibly prior even to approaching the king. He had no doubts that he would be able to persuade the king. And the lot fell on a date in the last moon period of the year. This gave almost a whole year before the plot could be carried out. But like all the people of his day, he felt totally bound by the will of the gods, and would not therefore have dared to carry out his plan sooner. In their view to have done so would have been to court disaster. It should be noted here that no indication is given by the author, of the religious sentiment that caused this approach. He excludes all reference to religion, whether Jewish or Persian. But the whole of society in those days was controlled by religious ideas, and any reader would assume them.

Haman then set about persuading the king of the rebellious nature of the Jews. This was not difficult in view of their past history and the way in which they insisted on carrying out the Torah and associated traditions in the face of their neighbours, including the observance of the Sabbath. It could be represented as setting them at odds with the empire and its gods. And to the king this would appear heinous. He was constantly aware of peoples who fermented revolution against his empire. He had just had to crush the Egyptians. So the thought of seething rebellion among a group spread throughout the empire would have been too much. And he relied on his advisers. It is apparent, however, that he had ceased to enquire carefully into such situations (in contrast with 1.13-15). H had ceased to rule on his own initiative. He too was probably not aware of quite how large a number of people would be involved. Nor would he probably have cared. But once he had made the decree there was no going back on it.

3.7 ‘In the first moon period, which is the moon period Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from moon period to moon period, to the twelfth (moon period), which is the moon period Adar.’

Haman probably chose the New Year as being the propitious time at which to determine a date for the massacre of the Jews. It was the time at which, at least according to the Babylonian religion, the gods also come together to fix the fate of men. And it left the whole of the coming year available for the selection of a propitious date. Accordingly in that initial moon period he summoned before him the wise men skilled in determining portents and called on them to determine the date fixed on by the gods. This was done by the casting of ‘pur’, that is, of dice or lots, and it appears that in doing this they worked through the year day by day and moon period by moon period until they came to the twelfth moon period, which is the moon period Adar. It was only in this last that the lot gave a propitious date satisfying to the gods, the thirteenth day of the moon period Adar (verse 13). To us it might appear absurd to wait that length of time once the decree had been issued, but to the ancient oriental mind to go against the determinations of the gods would have been even more absurd. Fate (the gods) had determined the date, and to act against it would be to court disaster. Outwardly the Jews are seen as in the hands of Fate, but that is a major point of the book, that in fact they were watched over by One Who controlled ‘fate’. Pur was overruled by the God of Purim.

A year in ancient times was made up of twelve moon periods (28-29 days in length) with a thirteenth added every few years in order to bring the seasons into line. Israel’s year initially began with the moon period of Abib (Exodus 13.4), but during the exile, after a period in which moon periods had been distinguished numerically (‘the first moon period’, e.g. Ezra 6.19), they altered the name of the first moon period to Nisan (Babylonian Nissanu) in accordance with the Babylonian pattern (Nehemiah 2.1). For Adar compare Ezra 6.15.

‘In the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus.’ And thus four to five years after Esther had become queen (2.16).

‘They cast ‘pur’, that is, the lot.’ The remarkable discovery of a kind of cube shaped dice from Assyria actually inscribed ‘puru’ has helped to vindicate the writer in this regard. It is true that this particular dice came from the time of Shalmaneser III of Assyria, but the use of such means to determine ‘the will of the gods’ was commonplace in the ancient Near East, as indeed with Israel (Joshua 15.1 ff.; Proverbs 16.33; and compare Urim and Thummim). Thus ‘pur’ would appear to have been derived from ‘puru’ meaning ‘a lot’. Discoveries at Shushan have to some extent confirmed this, for on that site a cube shaped dice was found on which were engraved the numbers one, two, five and six, presumably for use in divination. Such means were regularly used to discover the most propitious date on which to engage in certain activities, and were the equivalent of the Jewish method of ‘casting lots’. A possible good example of this latter was the Urim and Thummim in the High Priest’s breastpouch. Indeed archaeological research has demonstrated that as early as the 19th century BC the word puru’um occurred in Assyrian texts in the sense of a ‘lot’ or ‘die’, and was regularly found in association with the word ‘to throw’

3.8 ‘And Haman said to king Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered abroad (or ‘separated’) and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of every people; nor do they keep the king’s laws. Therefore it is not to the king’s advantage to put up with them.”

Having determined on the destruction of the people whom he recognised would be unwilling to offer him the obeisance that he required (and thus possibly encourage others to do the same), Haman now had to persuade the king. And he set about this by playing on the king’s constant fear of rebellion in the empire. It is noteworthy that he did not mention the identity of the people whom he was aiming to destroy, rather hoping that the king would not ask too many questions. At the same time he portrayed the Jews as an incipiently rebellious people. Their history had shown this to be so, (although not necessarily moreso than their neighbours), whilst Jewish continuing insistence on obedience to the Torah and what were seen as their resulting strange ways, regularly aroused people’s opposition to them, and no doubt the anger of local authorities. History is full of examples of how this was so. Who at the commencement of the twentieth century would have dreamed that it was possible that a modern sophisticated nation would have set about the task of the annihilation of the Jews? But under Hitler it was so. It is no more unlikely that a similar megalomaniac would seek to accomplish the same at a time when annihilations were more commonplace, against a people against whom there was prejudice. And Haman cleverly played on their known peculiarities. It was not difficult to build up from this a conspiracy theory depicting an unnamed people (the Jews), who kept themselves separate from others, and had infiltrated the empire, as a people plotting against the empire.

Note how he underlines the fact that they could be found everywhere throughout the empire (‘in all the provinces’) engaged in their seditious activity. And how they had their own laws which superseded those of the king, so that they were already disobedient to the king’s laws, and thus already latently in rebellion. It was clearly not to the king’s advantage to allow such behaviour to continue. These were, of course, exaggerations, but there was enough truth in them to make them feasible. Being constantly dependent on his advisers, and inherently antagonistic towards insurgents, there would be no difficulty in persuading the king that the quicker the matter was dealt with the better. But even the king should not have allowed these words to pass without enquiry.

3.9 “If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have the charge of the king’s business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.”

Haman added to his argument the financial benefits that would accrue to the empire. He guaranteed spoils of at least ten thousand talents of silver, a huge sum in modern terms, which would accrue to the king’s treasury, as a consequence of the destruction of this unnamed people. That the sum was to come from the spoils, and not from Haman’s own resources, is confirmed by the fact that in verse 11 the king speaks of the silver as to be ‘given to Haman’.

3.10 ‘And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it to Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy.’

It is noteworthy that the king responded to Haman without seeking to his advisers for guidance. In chapter 1, in the case of Vashti, he had sought counsel from his wise men on the basis of the past and the will of the gods in accordance with custom (1.13). In chapter 2 he had sought counsel from his personal attendants (2.2, 4). Now he acted without enquiry on the basis of the vague information given to him by Haman. There is a clear diminution in his sense of responsibility. He has become a tool in the hands of Haman, possibly too taken up with his sexual adventures for which he was renowned. Thus without any examination into the matter he accepted the vague assurances of Haman and gave Haman the ring from his finger with which to seal the decree which would be issued by Haman. It was a complete abdication of responsibility. Note the description of Haman as ‘the Jew’s enemy’. The king is seen as neutral. It is Haman who is their enemy. But Haman could not have achieved his aim had Ahasuerus been more vigilant. For as 1.13 makes clear, ‘it was the king’s custom to consult with experts in matters of law and judgment’. And in this case this is what he failed to do.

‘‘And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it to Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite.’ The solemn and official nature of this act is brought out by Haman being given his full title. No other would have the right to use it except the one defined.

3.11 ‘And the king said to Haman, “The silver is given to you, the people also, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

The king revealed his total apathy by putting everything into Haman’s hands. Haman must do as seemed good to him. The king was not thereby handing over the money to Haman, but simply leaving him to deal with it honestly (4.7 indicates that most of it would go into the king’s treasury). Had Haman kept all the money he would soon have experienced the king’s anger. Ahasuerus’ point was that he was trusting Haman to do the right thing, both with the errant people and with the spoils. But by this he was failing in his duty towards his people. Ahasuerus is clearly seen to be at fault.

D. The First Decree. This Is Written and Sealed with the King’s Seal and the Posts Are Sent Out Causing The Governors of the Provinces To Prepare For The Destruction Of The Jews Whilst There Is Fasting and Mourning Among the Jews (3.12-4.17).

Whilst the first decree is sealed with the king’s seal it is the product of Haman. It requires the total destruction of all Jews. This decree is then despatched by fast couriers who take it in relays to every part of the empire, in such a way as to reach people of every tongue. The consequence of this is that the Empire begins to prepare for the slaughter of the Jews, whilst the Jews themselves go into a period of mourning and fasting. This decree will finally be remedied by the issue of a second decree demonstrating the Empire’s favour towards the Jews, a decree which results in feasting and celebration among the Jews (8.7-17). Compare especially 3.12-14 with 8.9-11, 15.

3.12 ‘Then the king’s scribes were called in the first moon period, on the thirteenth day of it, and there was written in accordance with all that Haman commanded to the king’s satraps, and to the governors who were over every province, and to the princes of every people, to every province according to their script, and to every people in accordance with their language. In the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and it was sealed with the king’s ring.’

As a consequence of the authority given to him Haman called together the king’s scribes together with a view to the writing of an edict against the Jews. This was accomplished on the thirteenth day of the first moon period, the moon period of Nisan. And in that edict was written all that Haman purposed to do against the Jews, ‘to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish all Jews’, whether men, women or children. The edict was sent as a command to the king’s ‘satraps’ (derived from a Persian word), who presided over the satrapies, and to the governors over each of the provinces, and to all the chiefs of the peoples, and to all the people, copies of it being translated into their own language. As we have seen in 1.22 this was normal procedure for such edicts.

‘In the first moon period, on the thirteenth day of it.’ No Jew could fail to recognise that at the deliverance from Egypt this was the day before the night of deliverance on the 14th of Nisan. Haman possibly chose the date because it was on the thirteenth day of the twelfth moon period that the edict would be carried out. God chose it because it was a reminder to His people of approaching deliverance.

‘In the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and it was sealed with the king’s ring.’ The impersonal nature of the description may have the deliberate intention of demeaning Haman as a nonentity in the author’s eyes. Compare the contrary situation in 8.10a..

3.13 ‘And letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even on the thirteenth (day) of the twelfth moon period, which is the moon period Adar, and to take their spoil from them for a prey.’

Letters were sent by relays of fast horsemen to all the king’s provinces. Their content was unequivocal. No Jew was to be spared. Men, both young and old, little children, and all Jewish women were to be annihilated. Notice the threefold description indicating intensity and certainty. They were to be ‘destroyed -- slain -- and caused to perish’. The work was to be done thoroughly, and their goods were to be taken as spoil on behalf of the king. The words reflect the intensity of Haman’s hatred. And this was to be done on the day chosen by lot, the thirteenth day of the twelfth moon period.

It should be noted how invidious was the position of the Jews. No doubt they would seek to defend themselves. But even by doing so they would be committing treason, thereby demonstrating the accuracy of Haman’s depiction of them and heaping even greater wrath on themselves. They would be accountable for every man they killed, especially those carrying out official duties. They could, of course, flee the empire. Haman might not have minded that, for then they would provide no opposition or insult to him. But they would have had to leave most of their wealth behind, and would forever have been fugitives. Their prospects were gloomy indeed.

3.14 A copy of the writing, that the decree should be given out in every province, was published to all the peoples, that they should be ready against that day.’

The letters sent out indicated that the king’s decree for the annihilation of the Jews should be given out in every provinces to ‘all the peoples’ so that preparations might be made for its fulfilment in each province on the propitious day. All were to be in readiness to carry out the king’s decree on that day. ‘Copy’ is very much a Persian loan word found only in Ezra and Esther.

3.15a ‘The posts went forth with speed by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given out in Shushan the palace.’

The king’s postal messengers sped on their fast horses in every direction, at the king’s command, carrying the king’s decree, just as they had previously done in the case of the disgracing of Vashti (1.22). And as would be expected the decree was given out in the palace area itself.

All such messages would be carried ‘at speed’, but it may well be that Haman had hurried them on lest the king question him further about the decree. Once it was publicised the king would not be able to withdraw because he had effectively sealed the decree.

3.15b ‘And the king and Haman sat down to drink. But the city of Shushan was perplexed.’

The king and Haman were totally undisturbed by what they had done. They ‘sat down to drink’. They were sublimely unconcerned. (This was necessarily put in such a way that the write could not be accused of actually criticising the king). But the people of the city were not undisturbed. They were disturbed and perplexed. They could not understand why this terrible thing was going to be done. At least in the capital the feelings were not anti-Jewish. (In contrast we might surmise that the authorities in Samaria were somewhat pleased, for they were at loggerheads with the Jews (Ezra 4), and it would give them an excuse to deal with them severely). This awareness of the specific feeling in Shushan suggests that the original author was a local inhabitant who was very much aware of feeling within the city.

One Consequence Of The First Edict Is Fasting Among The Jews, Something Which Affects Esther Herself As She Is Called On To Make An Appeal To The King On Their Behalf (4.1-17).

The Reaction Of Mordecai And His Jewish Brothers (4.1-3).

The reaction of Mordecai and his fellow-Jews was to enter into a period of fasting and mourning. That this was a cry to God can hardly be doubted. Compare Isaiah 58.3, ‘what have we fasted and you have not seen, why have we afflicted our soul and you take no knowledge?’ To a Jew fasting was a religious exercise. And whilst in verses 1-3 it might be seen simply as an expression of grief and despair, it can certainly not be seen in that way in 4.16 where it is quite apparent that Esther considers that fasting will affect events in her favour. And that could only be because she saw it as affecting the One Who controls events. (Ahasuerus, did not know that she was a Jewess, and would not therefore be persuaded by Jewish fasting to accept her petition. He would not connect the two).

4.1 ‘Now when Mordecai knew all that was done, Mordecai tore his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry,’

Mordecai’s reaction to the publishing of the decree in Susa was to tear his clothes, put on sackcloth with ashes, and cry out. This was a typical way of expressing deep feeling. It was an outward manifestation of inward grief. In the Near East men did not hide their feelings as we do. We can compare with this the reaction of the people of Nineveh in Assyria, to the news of impending disaster in the days of Jonah (Jonah 3.5-9). And theirs was specifically a ‘cry to God’ to act in mercy (Jonah 3.8-9). We can hardly doubt that this was the same. See also for Israelites, Genesis 37.34; 2 Samuel 1.11; Isaiah 3.24; Daniel 9.3; and for foreigners, Isaiah 15.3; Ezekiel 27.30-33.

‘Went out into the midst of the city and cried with a loud and a bitter cry.’ He would not be allowed in such a garb into the palace area for the king’s presence must not be affected by grief. Thus he went out into the city itself, among the people who were perplexed by what was happening (3.15). It may well be that one of his aims was to win the sympathy of the inhabitants, who would recognise him for what he was, a Jew and a king’s official. But the parallel situation in Jonah 3.5-9 suggests that it was also a cry to God. Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that in such a situation a Jew would not cry to God.

If this happened on the day following the issue of the edict then it would transgress the law of the Passover which forbade fasting during Passover. Esther would know this and it would certainly increase her awareness that something drastic was wrong. However, it is unlikely that a copy of the decree would necessarily be posted in Shushan on the day that it was written. It would take some time for copies to be made and disseminated, and for it to be translated into a number of languages. Thus there may well have been a delay before Mordecai found out about it, sufficient for him to have observed the Passover in the way formulated for people living away from the land. Compare Ezra 6.19-22 for the Passover observed in the land.

4.2 ‘And he came even before the king’s gate. For none might enter within the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.’

He approached the palace as closely as he dared, entering the public square which would be in front of the gateway to the palace (4.6). But he could not enter the palace area itself where the wearing of sackcloth was forbidden. Such manifestations of grief were not to be allowed to affect the king. His probable reason for doing so was in order to attract the attention of Esther, who, secluded in the harem and ignorant of events, would hopefully hear of this strange event, that the official who was her friend was behaving in such a way. Her attendants would know that he was wont to have contact with Esther as 2.22 makes clear.

4.3 ‘And in every province, wherever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.’

And throughout the empire, in province after province, wherever the decree was issued, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing, and many lying in sackcloth and ashes. It is not surprising for their situation was desperate and totally unexpected. Total annihilation lay before them. This behaviour could only have been with a view to moving God to action, for no one else could alter the king’s decree, yet the author still leaves it to be implied (see introduction).

News Of Mordecai’s Situation Reaches Esther And She Seeks To Contact Him (4.4).

4.4 ‘And Esther’s maidens and her close servants came and told it her, and the queen was exceedingly grieved, and she sent clothing to clothe Mordecai, and to take his sackcloth from off him, but he would not accept it.’

When news reached Esther in her seclusion, by means of her maidens and her close servants, who would know that Mordecai had her sympathy and that she was his patroness (2.22), that he was behaving in such a way, she was very upset and wanted to discover why. So she sent clothing to him so that he would be able to remove his sackcloth and enter the palace area.. But he blatantly refused to accept it. This alerted her to the seriousness of the situation. It had to be something very serious which prevented him from fulfilling his guardianship duties. This personal reminiscence, so unnecessary to the story, and so irrelevant, indicates an original source close to the action. To suggest that Mordecai’s refusal was discourteous is to overlook how deeply he felt about the situation. At this critical stage he was more concerned with what God thought, and with moving God, than with what man thought.

Failing In Her Attempt To Contact Mordecai Personally Esther Sends To Discover Why He Is Behaving In This Way And Learns Of The True Situation (4.5-9).

Unable to persuade Mordecai to come to see her, and aware that something was seriously wrong, Esther sent her most faithful servant to enquire as to the problem, and in consequence learns about the king’s edict. It is noteworthy that Mordecai not only knows about the decree, and indeed has a copy, but that he is also aware of the more intricate details. This would appear to confirm that he was a high level official.

4.5 ‘Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s palace officials, whom he had appointed to attend on her, and charged him to go to Mordecai, to know what this was, and why it was.’

Having failed to persuade Mordecai to come to see her, Esther now did the next best thing. She sent her own personal male attendant to Mordecai in order to discover the reason for his actions. She wanted to know what he was doing, and why he was doing it. There was clearly a risk in this, but it was a risk that she was prepared to take. The man whom she sent was Hathach, one of the palace officials, and one who had been put at her disposal by the king. She seemingly saw him as trustworthy. She charged him to go and discover the facts.

4.6 ‘So Hathach went forth to Mordecai to the broad place of the city, which was before the king’s gate.’

So Hathach, in obedience to Esther’s request, went out to Mordecai in the open space outside the king’s gate.

4.7 ‘And Mordecai told him of all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of the money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the Jews, to destroy them.’

And once he was there Mordecai told him of everything that had taken place. How he had refused to treat Haman as some kind of super-god. How the leading officials had sought to get him to change his mind. How he had stood firm, and how they had then taken up the matter with Haman. And finally how Haman had persuaded the king to destroy the Jews. And he especially stressed how Haman had promised to put an exact and massive sum of money into the king’s treasury as a consequence of that destruction of the Jews, without explaining to the king that it was the Jews who were in mind. He wanted Esther to recognise what kind of man Haman was.

4.8 ‘He also gave him the copy of the writing of the decree which was given out in Shushan to destroy them, to show it to Esther, and to declare it to her, and to charge her that she should go in to the king, to make supplication to him, and to make request before him, for her people.’

He then handed to Hathach a written copy of the decree which had been given out in Shushan concerning the destruction of the Jews which he was to hand to Esther as evidence of what he was saying. Hathach was to ‘show her -- and declare it to her -- and charge her’. The threefold verbs stress the vital importance of what he was asking. He was to show her the decree, to explain to her the circumstances, and to give her Mordecai’s charge. There was to be no doubt about the seriousness of what was happening, or of his ‘charge’. And that charge was that she should ‘approach the king -- and make supplication to him -- and make request before him’ on behalf of her people, the Jews. Again the threefoldness stresses the urgency of the situation. She was to urge her appeal on the king. She was the only one who could deliver the Jews.

By his words ‘on behalf of her people’ Mordecai was now for the first time revealing the fact that to the servants that Esther was a Jewess. Personal considerations were no longer important. The existence of a whole nation was at stake. It appears, however, that they loyally kept this to themselves.

4.9 ‘And Hathach came and told Esther the words of Mordecai.’

Hathach then returned to Esther and told her what Mordecai had said.

Esther Points Out That What Mordecai Was Asking Of Her Was Very Dangerous (4.10-11).

Esther then sent a message to Mordecai pointing out that what he was asking would put her life in danger. Approaching the king in the way required (was dangerous in the extreme. Anyone attempting it would be subject to the whim of the king, and at present she did not appear to be in high favour, not having been summoned by the king in the previous thirty days.

4.10 ‘Then Esther spoke to Hathach, and gave him a message to Mordecai (saying),’

Esther gave Hathach a reply to what Mordecai had requested.

4.11 ‘All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, know, that whoever, whether man or woman, shall come to the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, except for those to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre, that he may live. But I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.’

She pointed out what was well known by all, both king’s servants (the officials who served the king), and peoples of the provinces. And that was that a direct personal approach to the king without previous representations was fraught with danger. To personally approach the king in the inner court, without having been authorised to do so, or without having been summoned, was to court death. The only exception was in cases where the king was pleased to extend his golden sceptre towards someone, indicating that he was ready to receive them, with the consequence that they would be allowed to live. Such an approach would thus only be made in the direst of emergencies. And she then pointed out that at that time she did not appear to be in favour with the king, for he had not summoned her for ‘thirty days’, that is for over the equivalent of a moon period. Thus she would have no certainty of acceptance. The ‘thirty days’ was probably a general indication rather than an exact figure.

It is true that we know from Herodotus that it was possible to submit a petition requesting the privilege of coming into the king’s presence, in which case the above would not apply. Permission would already have been granted. But this course was, of course, excluded for Esther, for that petition would have had to include within it the reasons for the approach, and as Esther recognised, her only hope of obtaining deliverance for her people was through her own personal intercession in intimacy with the king. She would be attempting to overturn the king’s decree, and she recognised that such a petition to approach him in order to alter the king’s decree would have been rejected out of hand. And she would especially think this because at that time she appeared to be out of favour with the king. She would know that the only hope lay in a personal approach which would bring her into the king’s favour, after which she could divulge the reason for her approach. Her aims were most likely to succeed if the king thought that her approach to him was made out of her desire to please him. We should consider in this regard the elaborate way in which she went about things, gradually bringing herself back into his favour by a number of stratagems. Esther knew her Ahasuerus. We can consider how even today women will often save difficult requests to their husbands for moments of intimacy, after a period of special favour, knowing that then they are most likely to succeed.

4.12 ‘And they told Esther’s words to Mordecai.’

Mordecai was then informed by ‘them’ of what Esther had said. The change to the plural may indicate that this message was borne by a number of servants (at least two), or it may simply be a general and impersonal ‘they’ arising out of the fact that the author did not know who took that message to Mordecai. A storyteller would not have had this problem. It helps to confirm that the author considered that he was writing facts.

Mordecai Replies Sternly Warning Her That She Would Be Involved In Any Annihilation Of The Jews And Receives Back Esther’s Assurance That She Will Make The Attempt (4.13-17).

We have no right to cavil at Esther’s fears. They were well founded. None knew better than she how cruelly Ahasuerus could often react, something well evidenced by history (for which see introduction). She knew that she would be putting her life on the line. And it was because Mordecai recognised her genuine grounds for fear that he spoke severely to her, pointing out that she could not expect to be excluded from the consequences of the decree. Once the king knew that she was a Jewess she would not escape, especially if she was out of favour, because he would feel bound by his decree.

But he did not stop at that, for he then went on to point out that there were good grounds for seeing her present position as something ordained by God. That she should consider that ‘she had come to the kingdom for such a time as this’. There is a clear recognition here that certain things happen within the purposes of God. Strengthened by his words, as she recognised the truth in them, Esther responded bravely. She would do what she could, and if it meant her death, so be it. This was true bravery, overcoming fear by determination.

4.13-14 ‘Then Mordecai bade them return (this) answer to Esther, “Do not think with yourself that you will escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish, and who knows whether you are not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’

Mordecai’s reply to Esther was forthright, and he utilised both threat and encouragement. He commenced with threat. Through long experience he knew how Persian justice worked. She should not think that because she lived in the king’s house she would somehow be in a different position from other Jews. Once it was known that she was a Jewess she too would perish. The king would not spare her. He would see himself as bound by his own decree. He had been willing to sacrifice Vashti, even though he loved her. He would be equally willing to sacrifice Esther, especially if she was out of favour.

So if she did decide not to risk herself and say nothing she would not thereby save her own life. She and her father’s house would perish, whatever happened to other Jews. For let her be certain of this, all Jews would not perish. History demonstrated that for them relief and deliverance would come ‘from another place’. But if she did nothing that would not apply to her and her house, for by her inactivity she would have forfeited the right to deliverance.

It is clear by this that he saw himself as acting as a prophet, and indeed we know that by many Jews he was seen as a prophet. Josephus, for example, used Esther as history, and stated that since the time of Artaxerxes there had been no exact succession of prophets, which made subsequent records unreliable. This would appear to imply that he saw Mordecai as a prophet.

‘Then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place.’ This remarkable assurance indicates quite clearly that Mordecai had total confidence in the God of Israel. He was confident that God would in some way deliver His people. Its indefiniteness may well have arisen from the fact that the orthodox Jews in Persia preferred to avoid using the name and title of God in an environment in which it could be brought into disrepute, a custom which became prominent in the inter-testamental period. We should consider in this regard how many Jews, including Jesus Himself, often preferred to use a passive tense so as to avoid the unnecessary use of the term God. Thus for example Jesus said, ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (Matthew 5.4) where Scripture makes clear Who the Comforter will be (Isaiah 61.2), and at other times used other words rather than saying ‘God’ in deference to His hearers. See for example Matthew 26.64.

The phrase ‘from another place (maqom)’ may well reflect the emphasis on ‘the place (maqom) which YHWH your God will choose’ regularly spoken of in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12 six times; 14.23, 25; 15.20; 16 six times; 17.8, 10; 18.6; 23.16; 26.2, 3), which itself reflected the sacred ‘places’ of the patriarchs (Genesis 12.6; 13.4; 22.3, 14; 28.16-17; 32.2, 30; 35.7, 14). ‘Place’ had thus a semi-theological connotation. It may thus be seen as indicating God as the source of the deliverance, especially as the Temple, the ultimate ‘place’ where God was seen to have set His Name, had fairly recently been rebuilt.

‘And who knows whether you are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ Or ‘perhaps you are come to the kingdom for such a time as this’. These powerful words again indicate that Mordecai has God in mind. Who else would a Jew see as bringing someone to a place of special importance at the due time in history? The words must have made a powerful impression on Esther, already very conscious of her own remarkable elevation to the king’s palace and the queen’s throne. Was this then the reason why God had done it? Had she ‘come to the kingdom for such a time as this’? (‘not’ is often read in to gain the sense although not in the Hebrew). Everything would have appeared to point to it. It would make her deeply aware of her privileged, God-given position. We can compare how centuries before another had been brought to a foreign kingdom for a similar special purpose (Genesis 45.5).

4.15 ‘Then Esther bade them return (this) answer to Mordecai,’

Esther now instructs ‘them’ as to what answer to make to Mordecai. In this passage these introductory phrases make an interesting minor study. They give us a vivid picture of the to-ing and fro-ing that was taking place. Thus we read:

4.9 ‘And Hathach came and told Esther the words of Mordecai.’

4.10 ‘Then Esther spoke to Hathach, and gave him a message to Mordecai.’

4.12 ‘Then they told to Mordecai Esther’s words.

4.13 ‘Then Mordecai bade them return (this) answer to Esther,’

4.15 ‘Then Esther bade them return (this) answer to Mordecai,’

Note also the movement from ‘Hathach’ to ‘them’, although we have no specific explanation as to why this was. The change may have taken place at 4.10 where Hathach was ‘given a message’ which may well have been delivered by two of her women, or two of her trusted under-servants. Having fulfilled his initial responsibility he ensures that the message goes off and then withdraws from the scene.

4.16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast you for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day. I also and my maidens will fast in like manner. And so will I go in to the king, which is not according to the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

Esther was very conscious of the fact that if indeed she had ‘come to the kingdom for such a time as this’ it indicated that she could expect the intervention of God. And so she called on Mordecai to gather together all the Jews who were in Shushan for a three day fast on her behalf. A three day fast was unusual. Fasting usually occurred on one day. But Esther felt that something beyond the ordinary was required.

That there were a considerable number of Jews in Sushan comes out in that they were able to successfully defend themselves against and slay over five hundred antagonists in one day (9.12). But the only benefit that Esther could hope to receive from such a fast was if it were done before God, thus moving Him to action. In what she had to do she would not benefit at all as a result of it arousing sympathy in the people. Thus its only apparent significance had to be Godwards. The author’s deliberate lack of mention of God comes out vividly here, whilst it is equally clear that the presence of God in the matter is assumed.

‘Neither eat nor drink three days, night or day.’ The fast was to be total. No food or drink for ‘three days’. And this was not be the type of fast such as is practised in Islam where fasting takes place during the day, only to be followed by a night free from restriction. It was to be a total genuine fast. And she assured Mordecai that she and her young women would fast in the same way.

‘Three days.’ This may simply indicate a fast commencing on the first day, continuing throughout the night and day of the second day, and finishing on the morning of the third day. There would after all be limits to the time off that they could claim for a religious exercise. But it was longer than a normal fast. This would appear to be confirmed by the fact that Esther approached the king ‘on the third day’. Alternately it may have been for three full days.

Then after three days she would personally approach the king in his inner court, without prior representation, something which the law did not allow. It would only be done in cases of the greatest desperation. Approach to the king was normally only allowed if previous representations had been made and the king’s permission had been obtained. But she knew that that would not have been effective in this case, as she needed to use her personal influence effectively, before revealing her petition. And so she took the more dangerous course.

As she approached him in fear and trepidation she would hope that he would be pleased to see her, and yet she would remember that he had not wanted to see her for the last thirty days. Thus if he was feeling at all out of sorts, or resented her approach, he would simply do nothing and she would immediately be put to death for her audacity. It was only if he extended his golden sceptre towards her that she would be allowed to live. And that was not all certain. She would clearly therefore be apprehensive. But it was a risk that she was now prepared to take on behalf of her people, and so she boldly declared, ‘if I perish, I perish’. She was making clear by this that, in spite of her fears, she was ready to face instant death for her people.

4.17 ‘So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.’

Having received her command Mordecai went his way and carried out all that Esther had commanded him. She had made her own choice and now it was she who was ‘in command’.

E. The Golden Sceptre Is Held Out To Esther, She May Have What She Will (5.1-3).

To her great relief, when Esther made her attempt to approach King Ahasuerus, he received her favourably, holding out to her his golden sceptre, and asking her what her petition was, promising that he would fulfil it ‘even to half the kingdom’. But Esther had planned her campaign carefully and she commenced by asking the king to a private banquet along with Haman. This was to be the first banquet to which the two were invited, and this one ended with Haman feeling exalted. The second would end in a very different way. We may surmise that Esther had two ends in view in these banquets. Firstly to once more arouse in Ahasuerus the previous feelings that he had had for her, thus making him more willing to consider her request, and secondly in order to discourage any attempts by Haman to undermine her influence. Had he not been present he may well have had suspicions of what Esther intended to do. He would no doubt have learned from his spies that Mordecai was a protégé of Esther’s.

5.1 ‘Now it came about on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house, and the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, over against the entrance of the house.’

‘On the third day.’ The third day was presumably the third day of fasting. It was on this day that Esther put of her fasting garments and clothed herself in her royal apparel. She wanted the king to know that she was approaching him as his consort. She was taking every precaution. Then she approached the royal house, entering the inner court, aware that as she came to the entrance the king, seated on his throne opposite the entrance, at the far end of a line of pillars, would observe her approach. That she knew that he would be there may suggest that there were certain fixed times when he so sat in this way on his throne in order to receive petitions. Alternately she may have been informed that he would be there at that time by her personal servants who were in the know.

5.2 ‘And it was so, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight, and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre which was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the sceptre.’

To Esther’s great relief, when the king saw her standing there, clearly with a petition in mind, ‘she obtained favour in his sight’. For he held out to her the golden sceptre which was in his hand. And in accord with protocol Esther then approached the king and touched the top of the sceptre. Guards would no doubt be watching, ready for any unusual occurrence. And the king would not be alone.

5.3 ‘Then the king said to her, “What is your wish, queen Esther? and what is your request? It shall be given you even to the half of the kingdom.’

The fact that the king surmised that she had a request would appear to confirm that this was a time at which the king dealt with requests ad petitions submitted to him. Why else would he be on his throne ready to give audience? Such requests and petitions would come to him from all parts of his kingdom, but in the main he would have been well prepared for the contents of such requests beforehand. As we have seen an approach by a suppliant without earlier representation and permission was fraught with danger. Thus he recognised that Esther must have something important to request.

He received her graciously, utilising her official title, as became the situation, and asking her what her request was. He assured her that it would be granted to her ‘even to the half of the kingdom’, a phrase which simply meant ‘however great it might be within reason’. The phrase was probably a standard one indicating the largest possible grant. He would not expect Esther to take it literally. It was used by Herod in his dealings with Salome (Mark 6.23). But the limit was significant in one way. It was a recognition of the fact that no king could allow another to rule over more than half of his kingdom. It would put them in a position of too much power.

F. The First Banquet. Esther Commences Her Appeal and Haman Is Exultant And Prepares A Stake For Mordecai (5.4-14).

This is the first of two banquets which Esther prepares for the king and Haman. As a consequence of it Haman feels exalted at the special privilege that has been given him, to dine ‘alone’ with the king and his consort at the consorts special request. But instead of being satisfied with his privilege he is still mean minded enough to plot the downfall of Mordecai. Thus at the second banquet all will be reversed. That banquet will end with his disgrace, and his death on the stake that he had erected for Mordecai. And in between the two banquets he will have to pay due honour to Mordecai. God has an unquestionable sense of what is apposite.

5.4 ‘And Esther said, “If it seem good to the king, let the king and Haman come this day to the banquet that I have prepared for him.”

The king would recognise from Esther’s reply that what she had to request was something intimate. She would prefer to make the request at a private banquet rather than in public. But her request that Haman be present would indicate that it was not too intimate, and that it had to do with the running of the kingdom. The king clearly recognised this for he called on Haman to act with all speed so as to fulfil Esther’s request. He was clearly not put out by the invitation to Haman. He would recognise that if Esther’s request was in any way political, Haman would necessarily be involved as first minister.

Esther’s request may in fact contain within it other than what can be gathered from its face value. Many ancient Jews saw the divine name as being included in the opening consonants of four words in this verse (compare Psalm 96.11) which were spoken by Esther. These words were , Yabo’ Hamelech Wehemen Hayom (YHWH) that is, ‘let the king come, and Haman, this day’. This was seen by many as indicating secretly to Jews that YHWH would also be present (Esther would, of course, have spoken in Persian, so that this arrangement was the author’s). The words are especially significant because, apart from the usual opening courtesy ‘if it seem good to the king’, they are the first words addressed by Esther in her approach to the king. Such devices were known among early scribes.

5.5 ‘Then the king said, “Cause Haman to act with all speed, that it may be done as Esther has said.” So the king and Haman came to the banquet that Esther had prepared.’

In response to Esther’s request the king summoned Haman to act with all speed so that what Esther had requested might be fulfilled. It may be deliberate irony that the two occasions on which Haman is called on to act ‘with all speed’ are with regard to Esther here and with regard to honouring Mordecai in 6.10. He may be second to the throne in men’s eyes but he is still required to show due diligence towards God’s servants. That he obeyed is clear, and we learn later that he was delighted to do so. He had no idea of the impending doom that hung over his head. So the king and Haman came to the banquet which Esther had prepared.

5.6 ‘And the king said to Esther at the banquet of wine, “What is your petition? and it will be granted you. And what is your request? It shall be performed, even to the half of the kingdom.”

Having enjoyed his queen’s presence, during which time she had no doubt partially restored her intimacy with him, and during which time he had no doubt imbibed a good deal of wine making him complaisant (note the description ‘banquet of wine’ suggesting that the drinking of wine was a prominent feature), the king again turned to Esther and asked her what her petition was. In true oriental fashion the matter was not being hurried. Unlike in western society, to have hurried it would have been seen as impolite, and anyway it must await the kings pleasure. And once again the king stressed that there were few limits on his willingness to grant her request. The repetition of the phrase ‘to the half of my kingdom’ brings out that it was a stereotyped phrase. It meant anything within reason. He was not urging Esther to request half of his kingdom.

5.7-8 ‘Then Esther answered, and said, “My petition and my request is: if I have found favour in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition, and to perform my request, let the king and Haman come to the banquet that I shall prepare for them, and I will do tomorrow as the king has said.”

To the western mind this reply might have smacked of delaying tactics. Esther commences as though she will make her request, ‘my petition and request is --,’ and then subsequently delays the occasion to a second feast. But to the mind of an oriental king it would indicate pleasing humility. He would see in it the fact that she did not want to appear forward in making her request, and was acknowledging his superior position. She wanted to treat him with due deference. He would thus be pleased. Meanwhile she acknowledged her gratitude that he was so willing to grant her request, and requests the pleasure of a further banquet on the morrow. At that banquet, she informs him, she will reveal her request. Meanwhile she would be aware that she was once more pleasing to the king and that their intimacy was being renewed. On the morrow, then, he would be more ready to hear her.

5.9 ‘Then Haman went out that day joyful and glad of heart, but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he did not rise up or tremble for him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai.’

Meanwhile Haman was delighted with how things were going. Seemingly he now enjoyed not only the king’s patronage but the queen’s. In consequence he was joyful and glad of heart. He saw himself as even more on the up. Surely there was nothing now that would be withheld from him? As a consequence he became complaisant, which explains why he acted so foolishly in the next chapter. Little did he realise that this was the last time that he would be joyful and glad of heart. That would instead be the experience of those whom he was seeking to destroy (8.17; 9.19, 22).

It was in his exultant state that he passed through the king’s gate, and there he saw Mordecai, who had completed his fast, and was once more seated in his place of authority. And to his chagrin Mordecai ‘did not stand up or tremble for him’. We must not necessarily assume that this had been Mordecai’s previous attitude, for this is the first time that we learn of Mordecai’s position as being openly apparent to Haman. Previously he had not noticed it. This suggests that Mordecai had prviously behaved differently but had now decided to reveal a new attitude towards him. Whereas he had previously been courteous, now he wanted to express his open contempt for Haman. After all he now had nothing to lose. His fate, and the fate of his people was already determined. As a consequence of this Haman was filled with anger. But that Mordecai must have been a man of high standing comes out in that Haman felt himself powerless to do very much without the king’s consent. For his revenge on Mordecai he would require the king’s permission. A lesser man would probably have been arrested on the spot.

5.10 ‘Nevertheless Haman refrained himself, and went home, and he sent and fetched his friends and Zeresh his wife.’

Fuming though he was Haman restrained himself from doing anything about Mordecai. He recognised that with such an important person he would have to act legally. So he went home, and once there called together his friends, and Zeresh his wife, in order to bring the matter up with them, and seek their advice. This is another example of a personal incident given in the kind of detail which points to an historical account. The reference to his wife adds nothing to the story but is given because she was involved. Her name will recur again in 6.13.

5.11 ‘And Haman recounted to them the glory of his riches, and the multitude of his children, and all the things in which the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above the princes and servants of the king.’

In 6.13 we discover that his friends are ‘wise men’. We might therefore translate ‘friends’ as ‘supporters’. And to these men, and his wife, he outlined his full recent history, contrasting all his good fortune with the fact that Mordecai was proving to be a thorn in his side. He was so resentful that he could concentrate on nothing else.

As a prelude to expressing his resentment about Mordecai he described all the good things that he had experienced. This included the vast amount of his riches, the large number of children that he had (for his ten sons see 9.7-10), and the promotions that he had received from the king, the last to such an extent that the king had advanced him above all the other princes and servants of the king. He had been loaded with blessings and honours and given immense power. But the author knew that soon his vast wealth would be given to Esther the Jewess, his ten sons would be impaled as he would be, and his exalted position would be given to Mordecai. The description is thus ironic. Haman does not realise that he is boasting concerning what he is about to lose, but the reader is intended to be aware of it. It indicates that what the world offers is not lasting.

5.12 ‘Haman said moreover, “Yes, Esther the queen allowed no man to come in with the king to the banquet that she had prepared apart from myself, and tomorrow also am I invited by her together with the king.”

But there was more, and it was something of which Haman was inordinately proud, especially as it was so recent. For he explained to them how the queen herself had requested his presence, and his alone, at a banquet that she was holding for the king. No one else was to be allowed to go. Only Haman and the king. And he had been there that very day. And what was more he had also been invited to a similar private banquet on the morrow. He was clearly a queen’s favourite.

The privilege was a great one. It was rarely that someone was honoured by being invited to a private banquet held by the queen for the king. Persian women, especially royal ones, tended to guard their privacy. He might have felt a little less happy had he known that she was a Jewess, but this was something that was still only known to a few. By him therefore the specific invitation by the queen was seen as a high honour. Little did he realise that this above all would lead to his downfall.

5.13 ‘Yet all this avails me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.’

And it is at this point that the meanness of his spirit comes out. All these privileges, even the most recent, had been insufficient to enable him to block from his memory his hatred of the man who had refused him total obeisance and subservience. It was not enough that he had been shown respect. He wanted full submission and he could thus never be fully satisfied until Mordecai the Jew was dead. It had become a fetish with him. Every time he saw Mordecai ‘sitting at the king’s gate’, that is, bearing authority there on behalf of the king, possibly as a judge, he was filled with an overwhelming resentment. For he felt that this man had not given him the honour due to his exalted position as the superior of all men in the empire. It is probable that he basically wanted to be treated as semi-divine. And Mordecai was not willing to treat him in that way.

The fact that he called Mordecai ‘the Jew’, combined with the fact that he intended to annihilate all Jews, suggests a particular hatred of Jews. This had apparently initially arisen from Mordecai’s refusal to render him due obeisance, but may well have been fanned because he learned that the Jews had been granted special privileges with regard to how they had to render homage to the king, (and therefore to Haman), in the same way as the Spartan ambassadors had been allowed to refuse to offer the king what they saw as divine honours which they said they would never offer to a man. The granting of such a privilege, while not anywhere attested, would have been typical of Cyrus the Great’s attitude towards the religions of his subjects. Something like it is required to make full sense of this story.

5.14 ‘Then Zeresh his wife and all his friends said to him, “Let a stake be made fifty cubits high, and in the morning you speak to the king that Mordecai may be impaled on it, then go you in merrily with the king to the banquet.” And the thing pleased Haman, and he caused the stake to be set up.’

Recognising the depths of his resentment, and the great authority that had been given to him, Zeresh his wife, and the wise men who were his supporters, urged him to set up a prominent stake on which to impale Mordecai. Impalement was a recognised Persian form of execution. Then he was to use his influence with the king to obtain the authority to impale Mordecai on it. Once he had obtained that authority he could then go merrily with the king to the banquet arranged by the queen. It is clear that they were keen to please Haman. Later they would be equally eager to disassociate themselves from it and warn him against meddling with the Jews (6.13). The mention of Zeresh first (contrast 5.10; 6.13) may indicate that she played a leading part in persuading him to set up the impalement stake. An alternative possibility to an impalemen stake is that it was a gallows. But impalement was a common method of execution in Persia.

‘And the thing pleased Haman, and he caused the stake to be set up.’ Haman was easily persuaded to take this opportunity of revenge. He saw their advice as fully satisfactory, and very pleased with it he caused the stake to be set up. No doubt he slept well that night, satisfied that he was about to gain his revenge.

‘Let a stake be made fifty cubits high.’ The stake was to be set up twenty three metres (seventy five feet) high, a cubit being approximately half a metre (18 inches). Outwardly it was a huge stake. But the fifty cubits may include the eminence on which the stake was set up. However, such a huge stake might well have been pleasing to Haman’s vanity. And it would be consonant with the exaggerated splendour of the oriental court. Compare how Nebuchadnezzar’s image was sixty cubits high (Daniel 3.1). The whole idea was for the exposure of the impaled person to the taunts of the crowd.

G. Haman Seeks Great Honour For Himself But To His Chagrin Has To Give The Honour To Mordecai (6.1-14).

This chapter is the pivotal point in the book. Prior to this chapter Haman was continually on the ascendancy and took the opportunity in order to seek to destroy Mordecai and the Jews. In this chapter, due to the king’s sleeplessness, Haman aims at greater glory for himself, but then has to grant it to Mordecai at the king’s command. What Haman has sought goes to Mordecai. From this chapter on Haman and his house will slide ever downwards, whilst Mordecai will be in the ascendancy, and the Jews will be delivered. And it is made clear that all this began due to an unseen hand at work behind the scenes which caused the king’s sleeplessness and the reading to him of the loyal act of Mordecai. To the Jew it would be clear that it was God Who was at work.

6.1 ‘On that night the king could not sleep, and he commanded to bring the book of records (or memorials) of the chronicles (events of the days), and they were read before the king.’

On the very night that Haman was erecting a stake on which to impale Mordecai the king was unable to sleep. ‘The king’s sleep fled.’ And in order to fill in the time he commanded that the record of special court events be read before him. This may have been a book in which was written a memorial of all who had especially served the king (compare Malachi 3.16). Ahasuerus was always eager to reward those who ha done some singular service for him. He knew that these records would help to occupy his mind, and would be an encouragement to him, and might even send him to sleep. It may well have been that he had not heard them read for a while.

6.2 ‘And it was found written, that Mordecai had told of Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s palace officials, of those who kept the threshold, who had sought to lay hands on the king Ahasuerus.’

And during the course of the reading he learned how Mordecai had reported the plot of Bigthana (Bigthan) and Teresh (see 2.21), the palace officials with charge over the entry into the king’s apartments, in which they had planned to assassinate the king. Given the fact that Haman was planning Mordecai’s execution with the hoped for agreement of the king this would clearly be seen by the Jews as pointing to the hand of God at work. They would have no doubt that God was acting in order to deliver Mordecai from Haman’s plot. But as usual the author leaves it to be inferred.

6.3 ‘And the king said, “What honour and dignity has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” Then the king’s servants who ministered to him, said “There is nothing done for him.”

When the king heard what Mordecai had done, (he may not necessarily have recognised who he was), he asked what honour and dignity had been bestowed on this Mordecai for it. His close servants informed him that nothing had been done for Mordecai. They may well have known this because nothing was recorded in the book. Or it may have been because they knew of Esther’s interest in Mordecai (it was she who had passed on the information that Mordecai had provided to the king in Mordecai’s name) and knew that he had received no special reward.

6.4 ‘And the king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had come into the outward court of the king’s house, to speak to the king to impale Mordecai on the stake that he had prepared for him.’

Having learned of the failure to reward Mordecai the king was shocked, and indeed we know that it was his policy always to reward loyal service. Herodotus tells us that he made one man who saved the life of his brother governor of Cilicia. Another he endowed with land and listed in the roll of the king’s benefactors. So he would want to remedy the mistake immediately.

Thus he immediately asked who was ‘in the court’, that is, what high official with palace access was available to act in the matter. The king clearly considered that at least one high official would be available, and it may well have been routine for this to be so. The servants would, however, naturally look for the official who was of the highest level who was in the court. And because of his eagerness to see the king early before the banquet began, in order to arrange for the execution of Mordecai, Haman happened to be present there. He had come in order to obtain authority for the lifting up of Mordecai on an impalement stake, and he had no doubt concocted some story, or manufactured some kind of evidence, to justify his request. Possibly he considered that to expose Mordecai as the leader of the disreputable people whom he had previously described to the king (3.8) would do the trick. He clearly had no doubt that the king would accede to his request. His purpose in being there is explicitly stated so as to bring out the situation. But every reader would be aware that in fact Mordecai was now under the king’s protection. They would see the irony of the situation. Haman wanted to expose Mordecai on a stake in order to disgrace him, but instead he would shortly be required to ‘expose’ him to the people in order to honour him. and every Jew would see the hand of God in it. It was to be the turning point in both of their lives.

6.5 ‘And the king’s servants said to him, “Behold, Haman stands in the court.” And the king said, “Let him come in.”

Then the king’s personal servants informed him that Haman was in the court. at which the king told them to call him in. Haman probably thought that such a quick invitation into the king’s presence augured well. And it would give him the opportunity that he was looking for.

6.6a ‘So Haman came in. And the king said to him, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delights to honour?”

So Haman came in and the king asked him his advice on what should be done to the man whom the king wanted to honour? Haman was an extremely ambitious man, almost megalomanic, and such favours had already been heaped upon him, including the present one of being invited to the queen’s personal banquet, that he could think only in terms of himself.

6.6b ‘Now Haman said in his heart, “To whom would the king delight to do honour more than to myself?”

Thus he thought to himself, “To whom would the king delight to do honour more than to myself?” He had continually received such favours that they had taken possession of is mind. It was all he could think of.

6.7-9 And Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honour, let royal apparel be brought which the king uses to wear, and the horse that the king rides on, and on the head of which a crown royal is set, and let the apparel and the horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes, that they may array the man whom the king delights to honour with them, and cause him to ride on horseback through the open space of the city, and proclaim before him, ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honour’.”

For ‘the man whom the king delights to honour’ he proposed a number of things:

  • 1). That he be clothed in royal garments which the king himself had actually worn.
  • 2). That he ride on the king’s own horse regularly ridden on by the king.
  • 3). That the horse have its main tied up in the form of a coronet or top knot, as it would be when the king rode it, demonstrating that the man was riding on the king’s own horse. Such a top knot can be seen on reliefs on the eastern stairway of the Apadana at Persepolis.
  • 4). That the horse and the apparel be put in the hands of one of the king’s most noble princes (he was probably thinking in terms of one of the seven great princes of Media and Persia - 1.14) who would array the man and set him on the king’s horse.
  • 5). That he ride on horseback through the open space of the city, in front of the palace, where large numbers of people would be found, while ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honour’ was proclaimed before him.

It is a mistake to think that this meant that the man would simply be ‘king for the day’. Far from it. It would be a life-transforming experience. No man could publicly wear the king’s own royal clothes, and ride publicly on the king’s own horse, and be proclaimed as a king’s favourite by one of the noblest in the land, without being loaded with riches and honours. By it he was being proclaimed as one of the king’s close favourites, under the protection of the king himself, and the people would then look to see what the king would do for such a man. The king would have to follow the proclamation with suitable gifts, for his very honour would be at stake. In the event the king made Mordecai Grand Vizier (8.2). We should see the two events as closely linked. The king would now have been looking for some vacancy with which to reward Mordecai. Had Haman not fallen he could not have been made Grand Vizier but he would undoubtedly have granted him some position almost as important. When the Grand Vizier’s position did become vacant it opened up the perfect reward, especially now that he knew that Mordecai was related to his queen. Furthermore it would be axiomatic that such a man’s body would be seen as almost sacred. Nothing evil could be allowed to befall him. To have assailed him would have been to assail the king himself. So the moment that this happened to Mordecai, Haman would know that he could no longer hope to have him impaled. To have even suggested it would have been seen as an act of treason.

Haman was, of course, thinking of himself. But had the king thought that he might well have refused. To have taken the second greatest man in the realm, and clothed him in the king’s own royal clothing, and ridden him on the king’s own horse in public, might well have been seen as proclaiming him as his heir presumptive. Indeed, Haman, in his megalomania, might have had that in mind. We can compare how in Israel Solomon was proclaimed as David’s heir by being ridden on the king’s own mule (1 Kings 1.33). It was otherwise with a lesser dignitary like Mordecai. But he would certainly from then on have been treated as a kind of royalty, and given consonant privileges.

We can similarly compare how when Saul wanted to honour the young David in the sight of the whole army, he granted him the privilege of wearing his own royal apparel and armour (1 Samuel 17.38). There was no danger of him being seen as heir presumptive, although so it turned out to be, but from then on David was appointed as a king’s commander. He could no longer go back to what he was. He was then further honoured by being given the personal clothing of the king’s heir (1 Samuel 18.4), an indication in this case of a lifelong bond between him and Jonathan. Jonathan wanted David to be treated as himself. In this regard we can compare how Plutarch tell us that a man called Tiribazus, whom a Persian king wanted to honour, requested similar royal apparel. In his case the request was granted, but he was forbidden to wear them, demonstrating how significant the wearing of them would have been. It would have given him royal status.

A similar example of such a public display resulting in a position of high honour is found in Genesis 41.42-43. It was a way of demonstrating that Joseph was being given a great position.

6.10 ‘Then the king said to Haman, “Hurry, and take the apparel and the horse, as you have said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Let nothing fail of all that you have spoken.”

We can imagine Haman’s deep chagrin when the king told him to make all haste and take the king’s own royal apparel and the king’s own horse, and himself honour ‘Mordecai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate’ in this fashion. This was no doubt the title by which Mordecai was known in the royal chronicle. And the king urged that Haman fulfil what he had suggested in every detail. Haman was left with no option. But he must have been seething inside. Instead of displaying him on a stake, he would have to display him as a king’s favourite.

6.11 ‘Then Haman took the apparel and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and caused him to ride through the open space of the city, and proclaimed before him, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honour.”

As a highly trained courtier Haman would have been expert at covering his feelings before the king. But now he also had to hide them before the people. We can tell how deeply he felt it by what follows when he went back in despair to his friends. It bit deep into his very soul. But he was left with no alternative. So no doubt seething inside, he took the king’s apparel and the king’s horse, clothed Mordecai in the royal apparel, and caused him to ride through the open space of the city. And in the process he proclaimed, and every word would have been forced out, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honour.”

The very proclamation indicates that there was more to what was happening to Mordecai than appeared on the surface. The point was that the man whom the king desired to honour would be covered with royal favour, and would be given a kind of royal status. It indicated that the king was going to show Mordecai high favour. What followed would simply be a carrying out of the privilege now shown to him. He could never go back to what he was. It was only a matter of time before he was duly honoured with wealth and position as one who had been in the king’s very stead. And Haman knew it. What now lay ahead for Mordecai was state honours, not stake ‘honours’.

6.12 ‘And Mordecai came again to the king’s gate. But Haman hastened to his house, mourning and having his head covered.’

The book of Esther is full of contrasts, and this is one of them. On the one hand Mordecai came again to the king’s gate. taking his place there ready to serve the king, his future bright before him. Haman returned to his house, grieving over what had happened, and with his head covered, a sign of his extreme unhappiness. It was also symbolic of his future. Mordecai was on the way up. He was on the way down.

6.13 ‘And Haman recounted to Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had befallen him. Then his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, be of the seed of the Jews, you will not prevail against him, but will surely fall before him.”

Once home Haman told his wife and all his friends all the details of what had happened to him. They had no doubt been waiting eagerly to learn how his case had prospered, no doubt hoping to be rewarded for their advice if things had gone well. Note that his friends are called ‘the wise men’. These may well be the very men who helped determine through the ‘Pur’ or ‘lot’ the date of the downfall of the Jews (3.7). But in the event things had not gone well with Haman’s purpose, and they quickly altered their advice. Let Haman beware. If Mordecai, before whom he was beginning to fall, was a Jew, then he could not hope to prevail against him. They had failed to say that on the previous day, but the turn of events had made them think again. And they had remembered how in the past the Jews had enjoyed remarkable deliverances. Thus anyone who stood against them should be careful. They could only lose out. The implication behind their words, as far as the writer was concerned, was that God was on the side of the Jews.

There is a clear indication here that within the Persian Empire the Jews stood out. They were seen as a people apart, whether for good or ill. And as the centuries have proved, such separateness can often invoke both jealousy and hatred, as well as admiration, as indeed it would for the Jews. There were no doubt many in the Persian empire who had a grudge against the Jews’ although having said that it is evident that, at least in Susa, they were not looked on in the main with animosity. Otherwise the people would not have been ‘perplexed’ at what was threatened against them (3.15).

6.14 ‘ While they were yet talking with him, came the king’s palace officials, and hastened to bring Haman to the banquet which Esther had prepared.’

And even while they were talking palace officials arrived with the aim of bringing Haman to the banquet which Esther had prepared with all speed. This was a regular feature of oriental feasts. Honoured guests would be escorted to the feast (compare Luke 14.17). The verb may, however, be seen as containing within it the sense of eagerness as in 2.9. This may suggest that they felt the matter was now urgent and must be fulfilled expeditiously, or that Haman was eager to attend the banquet as a kind of remedy for his hurt pride. But I may be that in the writer’s view it was God’s purposes that were moving on apace. For this was the banquet that would spell doom to Haman, because of his behaviour towards the Jews. What was being spoken of in verse 13 would become an actuality.

F. The Second Banquet. Esther Finalises Her Appeal, And Haman Is Brought Down To Despair And Is Impaled On The Stake Prepared For Mordecai (7.1-10).

In 5.4-14 the First Banquet was described, at which Esther began her appeal, a banquet which caused Haman to be exultant, so much so that he prepared a stake for his arch-enemy. Now we have the second banquet where the situation reverses. Esther finalises her appeal, and Haman is brought to despair, and is impaled on the stake that he had prepared for Mordecai. And the turning point around which this was change was based was the king’s night of sleeplessness, and the learning of Mordecai’s loyalty. It was clear that God had intervened on behalf of His people.

7.1 ‘So the king and Haman came to banquet with Esther the queen.’

This was in accordance with 5.4 where Esther’s request was that the king and Haman come to her banquet, ‘Let the king come and Haman’ (ybw‘ hmlch whmn) (5.4). ‘And the king came and Haman’ (w-yb‘ hmlch whmn) (5.5 and 7.1). The fulfilment of the request is continuing. Esther’s plan is coming to completion.

7.2 ‘And the king said again to Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine, “What is your petition, queen Esther? and it will be granted you, and what is your request? Even to the half of the kingdom it will be performed.”

The first day was of course the previous day, the day of the first banquet. That too was ‘a banquet of wine’. Note how this verse is very similar to 5.6, but with the addition of ‘on the second day’ and ‘Queen Esther’. This is a continuation of the first feast, but the king’s request is more formal and more exalting of Esther. He is now expecting her reply. Courtesies have been fulfilled. Now as his Queen she may make her request. And he assures her again that whatever she asks will be granted.

7.3 ‘Then Esther the queen answered and said, “If I have found favour in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given to me at my petition, and my people at my request, for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my peace, but as things are the adversary could not have compensated for the king’s damage.”

Comparison with 5.7-8 illustrates how abruptly Esther now speaks. It is clear that she is feeling very emotional. There she commenced with ‘my petition and my request is --.’ Here she goes straight to the heart of the matter. She is clearly speaking under great stress. She speaks as one who knows that her very life is at stake, although she still observes the necessary courtesies. Thus she pleads for her own life, and for the lives of her people, explaining that both she and her people have been ‘sold’ to be destroyed, to be slain and to perish. There is a reference here in the verb ‘sold’ to the price that Haman had offered to the king in order to obtain his ends (3.9). Note also the threefoldness of the verbs, ‘to be destroyed -- to be slain -- to perish’. They are a citation of what was said in the decree. She wants the king to recognise the completeness of the destruction that is being planned. It is nothing less than total annihilation. She then further underlines the severity of the situation by pointing out that had it been that they were merely being sold into slavery she would not have troubled the king with the matter. She was only doing so because the consequences were so total.

It will be noted that she makes no reference as to who her people are. Neither the king of Haman necessarily recognise the fact that she is speaking about the Jews, although Haman may have felt a lurch in his heart because he knew that he was responsible for so much and it may have dawned on him that she was speaking about his bugbear the Jews in view of the pressure he was under with regard to them. This anonymity was a wise move on Esther’s part as it did not produce a conflict in the king’s mind as he was considering the matter. Thus he received the full impact of her words without being bothered by secondary considerations.

‘But as things are the adversary could not have compensated for the king’s damage.” If we translate in this way the idea here is that as things stand the benefits from the destruction of the Jews will not compensate for (be equal to) the loss that will be suffered as a result of that destruction having in mind both their value as people and their productive capacity. It would be like killing the goose which laid the golden egg. He might find a golden egg, but the supply of ‘golden eggs’ would cease. This would parallel the way in which Haman too had appealed to the king’s self interest. She is thus seen as pointing out that Haman is not offering enough to justify the loss that will result. The problem with this rendering is that the Hebrew word translated ‘but as things are’ more strictly means ‘for, because’, but it must certainly be seen as possible.

An alternative is to recognise that the word translated ‘adversary, can also mean ‘affliction’. This could give the rendering, ‘because the affliction could not have made up for (be equal to) the king’s damage.” The idea would then be that the sufferings that the Jews would then face would not be sufficient to justify disturbing the king (so NIV). The former might be seen as a better parallel to the way that Haman had appealed to the king’s greed, whilst the latter would indicate Esther’s personal concern for the king’s wellbeing. A third alternative is to translate as, ‘for the enemy is not equal to (is not worth), the damage of the king’, meaning that the king’s wellbeing was worth more than just vengeance on an enemy. The clumsiness of the sentence might well be seen as portraying Esther’s agitated state.

7.5 ‘Then the king Ahasuerus spoke and said (literally ‘then said the king Ahasuerus and said’) to Esther the queen, “Who is he, and where is he, that dares presume in his heart to do so?”

Unaware that his own ring has sealed the fate of the people to whom Esther is referring the king is furious. Who dared to threaten his queen? Who was he and where was he? He was filled with anger. It was almost like an attack on his own person. ‘Said -- and said’ emphasises the vehemence with which he spoke.

7.6 ‘And Esther said, “An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman.” Then Haman was afraid before the king and the queen.’

We do not know at what point it dawned on Haman that she was speaking about him, possibly not until this moment when Esther denounced him. Such men have little conscience. Thus when she spoke, looking directly at him, it must have come home to him as a death blow. He had been so confident that the Jews were at his mercy, even though he had suffered a setback with regard to Mordecai. But now it would have dawned on him to his horror that the Queen herself was also a Jewess. If only he had known that.

Esther meanwhile makes full play of the situation by firstly indicating that the one who had done it was ‘an adversary and an enemy’ of hers, arousing more of the king’s concern as he wondered who could be so evil, and then turning and denouncing Haman openly in no uncertain terms. She could not hide the bitterness in her heart as she described him as ‘this wicked Haman’. We can appreciate the terror that must have struck Haman to his very heart. From exulting in being the queen’s favourite he has collapsed into being her bitter enemy. He had heard the promises that the king had made to Esther concerning the fulfilment of her request, and he knew how strongly the king felt about her. He would know that even the king’s liking for him would not combat such things. Nor could he expect mercy from the very woman he had condemned to death. No wonder he was ‘afraid before the king and queen’.

7.7 ‘And the king arose in his anger from the banquet of wine (and went) into the palace garden, and Haman stood up to make request for his life to Esther the queen, for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the king.’

The king was so angry that his queen should be treated in this way by one whom he had trusted that he arose from the table at which he was reclining and sought refuge in the palace garden. But according to his words in 8.7 (‘because he laid his hand on the Jews’) he was also angry that Haman had plotted against the Jews and had not made the fact clear to him. The king clearly saw no harm in the Jews. No doubt he was now considering what he ought to do. Or perhaps he was simply seeking to control his seething rage. Either way his mind was soon made up.

Meanwhile Haman, who knew the king well, had no doubt what he would do. The king had the power of instant life and death, and he knew that he was one who acted swiftly in such matters as his past demonstrated. The one who could react to a loyal supporter’s plea that his eldest son be spared to him for his old age, by killing the eldest son, cutting his body in half, and marching his troops between the two halves, would not be likely to show mercy to someone who had threatened his queen. So Haman did the only thing open to him, he rose from his place to plead for his life before the queen. The irony is clear. The man who hated the Jews because they would not humble themselves before him, and sought their destruction, must now humble himself before a Jewess for his very life. But in his desperation, and possibly even somewhat faint with shock as the horror of his situation came home to him, he acted even more foolishly. Possibly physically no longer able to stand upright as his legs gave way under him he fell on, and scrabbled at, the end of the couch on which the queen was lying.

Had he been thinking rationally he would have followed the king out. Such was court etiquette that to remain alone with the queen was in itself an act of folly. But he was not thinking rationally, and he was possibly trembling, with his legs weakened to such an extent that to follow the king would not have been possible. Thus in the situation in which he found himself Esther appeared to be his only hope and he determined to make his plea for mercy. But thereby he brought on himself the inevitable. To even touch the queen’s couch would have been seen as sufficient to require his execution. She was sacrosanct.

7.8 ‘Then the king returned out of the palace garden into the place of the banquet of wine, and Haman was fallen on the couch on which Esther was. Then the king said, “Will he even force the queen before me in the house?” As the word went out of the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.’

When the king returned, angry and no doubt in a somewhat drunken state, it was to see his queen lying on her couch, not alone, but with Haman seemingly bent on molesting her. He was not in a state to reason sensibly. He would think rather in terms of his own sensual predispositions. So in drunken confusion he may well have thought in terms of rape. But ‘force the queen’ is possibly not intended to be seen like that. Rather he may have meant - force the queen by making threats in order to get her to plead on his behalf. Either way the royal servants present, seeing what was writ large on the king’s face, acted immediately. They ‘covered Haman’s face’. This was a sign that they saw him as disgraced and doomed. The king could not be allowed to look on the face of a condemned man.

The covering of the face in this way of a condemned man is not at present testified to among the Persians but we do have evidence that it was practised among both the Greeks and the Romans

7.9 ‘Then Harbonah, one of the palace officials who were before the king, said “Behold also, the stake fifty cubits high, which Haman has made for Mordecai, who spoke good for the king, stands in the house of Haman.” And the king said, “Impale him on it.”

Haman clearly excited no sympathy among the servants. He was the type who would treat ‘lesser men’ with disdain. Thus they were all only too ready to assist with his condemnation. And one of them, a close personal servant of the king (he was ‘before the king’), who was named Harbonah, pointed out to the king, possibly with some satisfaction, that there was a suitable stake available for Haman to be impaled on, one indeed that he had made for that Mordecai who had proved such a good friend to the king, and who had just been honoured by wearing the king’s clothes. What was more the stake was standing in the very house of Haman (in the courtyard). The king replied without any hesitation, ‘impale him on it’. It was the kind of instantaneous action which was typical of him.

7.10 ‘So they impaled Haman on the stake that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then was the king’s anger pacified.’

The passage ends with what can be seen as the overall message of the passage, that fortune had ceased to favour Haman and was now veering towards Mordecai. From now on Haman was finished and Mordecai was on the ascendant. ‘So they impaled Haman on the stake that he had prepared for Mordecai.’ It was a clear picture of the changed situation.

And in consequence ‘the king’s anger was pacified’. The one who had plotted against his queen, and who had even dared to touch the couch that she was lying on, had received his just reward. But we may ask why such a statement was made? It is not really taken up in any way or necessary to the account. Should we possibly see in it the author’s hint that the anger of a Greater King was also pacified. Justice had been obtained on behalf of His people.

E The Golden Sceptre Is Again Held Out To Esther And She Declares Her Will (8.1-6).

In 5.1-3 The golden sceptre was held out to Esther as she approached the king with a view to pleading for the lives of her people. Now she pleads for her people and the golden sceptre is again held out to her. Here we have a second prong of the chiasmus on which the book is based. It is preceded by the granting to Esther by the king of the estates of the house of Haman, and of his rewarding Mordecai by making him Grand Vizier.

8.1 ‘On that day the king Ahasuerus gave the house of Haman the Jews’ enemy to Esther the queen.’

It was common practise for the estates of a condemned criminal to revert to the crown. Consider the similar situation with regard to Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21.15-16). This was so in this case, and the king then granted them to his queen. She thus came into possession of vast riches. This helps to explain why later the sons of Haman are shown no mercy. In terms of those days they were initially shown leniency in being allowed to live and not share the fate of their father. But they not only continued plotting against the Jews, but also plotted against the very ruler of their house. In terms of those days only one fate was possible for them.

8.1b-2 ‘And Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her. And the king took off his ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.’

Having identified herself with her people the Jews Esther now informed the king of Mordecai’s relationship to her, and the king called for him to be brought before him. As we have seen he already owed Mordecai some form of promotion, and once he knew that he was Esther’s guardian he had no doubts of how to fulfil that debt of gratitude. He made him Grand Vizier in place of Haman. That is the significance of the giving of his ring to Mordecai. It gave him authority to act in the king’s name. From now on, like the seven chief princes, he would have had personal access into the king’s presence when the king was not in private. The author no doubt saw it as significant that the ring that had sealed the fate of the Jews had now been set on the hand of a Jew. Esther also set him over her new estates to manage them for her. He was now a man with huge responsibilities.

8.3 ‘And Esther spoke yet again before the king, and fell down at his feet, and besought him with tears to put away the mischief of Haman the Agagite, and his device that he had devised against the Jews.’

‘Esther spoke yet again before the king.’ In spite of Mordecai’s advancement it was still left in the hands of Esther to follow up her previous plea on behalf of her people (7.3-4). This makes good sense. The king had made no promises to Mordecai, but he had made promises to his queen that what she wished for would be granted ‘up to half of his kingdom’. Thus the impetus was with her. It would appear that she was now again being called into the king’ presence (contrast 4.11). This therefore gave her an opportunity to again advance her plea on behalf of her people.

So Esther then fell at the king’s feet, and pleaded with him in tears that he would remove from over the heads of the Jews the mischief that Haman had planned for them, and would cancel Haman’s plot against them. For whilst Haman was now dead, the threat arising from the decree that he had promulgated still existed.

8.4 ‘Then the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre. So Esther arose, and stood before the king.’

The king demonstrated his willingness to consider her request by again extending to her his golden sceptre. This double extension of the sceptre (taking it with 5.1-3) would be seen by the writer as guaranteeing the righting of the situation. It was a twofold witness. It was, however, done under different circumstances. This time Esther was already in the king’s presence. The extension of the sceptre was thus simply an indication that he was pleased to hear her request. Unlike the first time, this time she had not been in danger of her life. As a consequence of the sceptre being extended towards her she was able to rise and stand before the king in order to explain what she was asking for in more detail

8.5-6 ‘And she said, “If it please the king, and if I have found favour in his sight, and the thing seems right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews that are in all the king’s provinces, for how can I endure to see the evil that will come to my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?”

The obsequiousness seen here in Esther’s threefold plea, ‘if it please the king -- if I have found favour in your sight and the thing seems right before the king -- and I be pleasing in your eyes’ is typical of the way in which powerful monarchs had to be approached. The king’s will and desire must come foremost. There must be no thought of trying to put pressure on the king, or he might react against it. He must be allowed to think that the decision was really his. Esther had probably observed this approach many times as suppliants came before the king.

Approaching on this basis she requested the reversal of ‘Haman’s letters’. There is no mention of the king’s decree as sealed by Haman. No blame must be attached to the king. And she was probably well aware that by precedent no decree of the king could be altered. Thus she wanted her request to be seen as simply setting aside letters of Haman. Note the giving to him of his full title. This was official business.

She then makes clear what she wants of the king. Haman had written authorising the destruction of all Jews within the provinces of the empire. She is requesting that this be reversed, and she makes the plea personal. She is not requesting it as a matter of justice, she is doing so because of the deep hurt that it will cause her. ‘How can I endure to see the evil that will come on my people, or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?’ Note the repetition of ‘how can I endure?’ It reveals her deep distress. She feels in her heart the approaching suffering of her people. Such an appeal would be appreciated by the king. Family loyalty was seen as of prime importance. Furthermore distress to Esther was his personal concern. What might have been ignored politically, because inconvenient, became of prime importance when it distressed his queen, and especially when it was related to a promise that he had given, and from which he could not turn back. We know of other cases where Ahasuerus felt himself so bound by a promise made to one of his wives that he granted something extravagant. Esther may well have been aware of this. This explains why she makes no delay in putting forth her plea. It must be done while his promises to her were still in his mind.

D The Second Decree Is Written And Sealed With The King’s Seal And The Posts Are Sent Out Causing Joy And Gladness Among The Jews, Whilst The Amazement Of The People of Susa Turns To Rejoicing (8.7-17).

In contrast with the first decree which determined the destruction of the Jews and caused them great grief, and perplexed the people of Susa, the second decree is now issued, which causes great joy among the Jews, and causes the people of Susa to rejoice.

8.7 ‘Then the king Ahasuerus said to Esther the queen and to Mordecai the Jew, “Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and him they have impaled on the stake, because he laid his hand on the Jews.”

Ahasuerus was as good as his word. He called in, in the presence of Esther the Queen, Mordecai the Jew, who was now his Grand Vizier. It was Mordecai who would be responsible for any official action. And he pointed out to them that he was on their side. Indeed he had already given Haman’s vast estates to Esther, and had allowed his impalement because of what he had purposed for the Jews. (To ‘lay hands on’ is idiomatic for ‘to conspire against’. This has been evidenced from Akkadian sources) Thus he had gone a long way in fulfilling Esther’s request.

8.8 “You also write to the Jews, as it pleases you, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s ring, for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse.’

And he now authorised Mordecai and Esther to think of a way out of the dilemma. What had been sealed with the king’s seal could not be reversed. But what could happen was that some way could be devised to counteract its effect. And this he was leaving in the hands of Mordecai. He could write whatever seemed good to him and seal it with the king’s ring, and that also could not be reversed. The opening ‘you’ is emphatic in the Hebrew and is in the plural emphasising the joint activity of Mordecai and Esther.

The binding principle that what had been sealed with the king’s ring could not be reversed is not known from external sources, although these are limited. But it is basically testified to in Daniel 6.8, and it ties in with common sense. For the king to alter his decree would be to indicate that he had made a mistake. And that would be to cast doubt on his infallibility, something which could not be permitted. But as with modern lawyers dealing with ‘precedent in law’ (which is a similar principle), ways could be found round it.

8.9 ‘Then were the king’s scribes called at that time, in the third month Sivan, on the three and twentieth (day) of it, and it was written according to all that Mordecai commanded to the Jews, and to the satraps, and the governors and princes of the provinces which are from India unto Ethiopia, a hundred twenty and seven provinces, to every province according to their script, and to every people after their language, and to the Jews according to their script, and according to their language.’

For this whole sentence compare 3.12. What had happened there is now being countermanded. The king’s scribes (document compilers) were again called in. In 3.12 it had taken place on the 13th day of the first month, and the writing had been in accordance with the commands of Haman. Now it was taking place on the 23rd day of the third month, and the writing was in accordance with the command of Mordecai. And it was being directed at all the king’s governors, the satraps (over the twenty or so satrapies), the governors (over the provinces within the satrapies), and the native rulers within the provinces. Added in here as compared with 3.12 is the reference to ‘from Indian to Cush (Northern Sudan/Ethiopia), a hundred and twenty seven provinces’ for which see 1.1. The stress is on the fact that the whole empire was involved. Also added in is that it was specifically also sent to the Jews. Mordecai would be aware of how this could be done. Colonies of Jews regularly kept in touch with each other. Note again that it was the practise for all to receive the king’s decree in their own language and script (compare 1.22; 3.12).

8.10 ‘And he wrote the name of king Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king’s ring, and sent letters by post on horseback, riding on swift steeds that were used in the king’s service, bred of (literally ‘sons of’) the stud,’

Compare 3.12b-13a. The personal authority of Mordecai is brought out by the positive nature of the description. ‘He wrote -- and he sealed it --’. Contrast 3.12, ‘it was written -- it was sealed’. Mordecai now had full authority to act in the king’s name. And whereas the previous letters were ‘sent by posts’ these letters were sent ‘by post on horseback, riding on swift steeds which were used in the king’s service, bred of the stud’. Mordecai naturally wanted the good news to reach the Jews as soon as possible. They had been under virtual sentence of death for two months.

8.11-12 ‘In which the king granted the Jews who were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province who would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey, on one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar.’

At first sight this appears simply to give the Jews the right to defend themselves. They would no doubt have done it anyway, but it would have been seen then as an attack on the king’s authority, for the decree would largely have been carried into effect by the Persian soldiery. But the king could hardly be seen as authorising the Jews to fight against the Persian army. So implicit in the second decree is that the Persian army would be at the worst neutral. The authorities would now be aware that the king was favouring the Jews, and would act accordingly. Thus the real difference now was that the Persian soldiery would no longer be involved. There would be no official action against the Jews. Any slaying would be in the hands of any who took advantage of the first decree in order to attack the Jews and seize their wealth. And it would be one thing to do that when they knew that the king was on their side. It would be quite another to do it when it was clear that it was against the king’s present wishes. Thus the number of those who intended to take advantage of the first edict would be greatly reduced. It would be reduced to those whose greed or whose hatred of the Jews was so great that any excuse for an attack on them would be taken advantage of. And they would be in the minority. The odds had thus been hugely turned in the Jews’ favour.

It should be noted that the Jews were not given authority to kill and slay whoever they wanted. They were given authority to ‘gather together’ to defend themselves (which would thus no longer be the crime and act of rebellion that it previously would have been), and to ‘destroy, slay and cause to perish’ on one day all who actively assaulted either them, or their little ones and wives. Note how the verbs follow exactly the first decree. In 3.13 the authority had been given to ‘destroy and to slay and to cause to perish, all Jews both young and old, children and women’ on one day. Now the Jews were given the authority to do the same to their enemies, which would certainly give their enemies pause to think. Thus this is not a question of revenge killing but of self defence. Indeed it is noteworthy that although authorised ‘to take spoil from them as a prey’, the Jews specifically refrained from doing so (9.10, 15, 16). As they appear to have done this ‘universally’ it seems probably that Mordecai had privately written instructions to the Jews around the empire on how they ought to act.

‘Little ones and women.’ This is ambiguous. It is an open question as to whether this refers to Jewish ‘children and women’ or to the children and women of those who assailed them. The Hebrew can be taken either way. In favour of it referring to Jewish women and children (‘them, their little children and women’) would be that it is paralleling the reference to Jewish children and women in 3.13 where it is emphasised. In both cases it is all inclusive with a view to the total annihilation of the Jews. This would appear to be the most likely scenario, especially as the women and children of varied opponents might not have been easily identifiable. Also in favour of this interpretation is that the Torah specifically excluded women and children from slaughter in similar circumstances (see Deuteronomy 20.14). In favour of the opposite interpretation would be that it was intended to be a deliberate contrast to 3.13 indicating the wrong application of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. (An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was intended to limit vengeance, not demand it). But we must after all remember that the wording was finally the product of the king’s scribes and probably not that of the author. They were simply following the pattern of the first decree. And certainly in those gory days the latter instruction would have seemed perfectly acceptable. Children and women of enemies were regularly slaughtered. Modern abhorrence to the idea, while morally correct, comes basically from the influence of the teaching of Jesus Christ, and is precisely that, relatively modern, the product of the triumph and influence of established Christian teaching (which has influenced even humanists).

‘On one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar.’ The slaughter (in both cases) was to be limited to one day. Thus presumably all who escaped on that one day would be allowed to live. There was no authorisation to slay on the following day. This was why later it was necessary for Esther to request permission from the king for the Jews in Susa to protect themselves on the second day because she anticipated that the enemies there would continue their assaults, being less easily identifiable, and possibly being especially vehement as supporters of Haman. The latter might well have felt that they had little to lose (they probably judged Mordecai in terms of Haman). Interestingly the earlier slaughter of the Magians under Darius also appears to have been limited to one day (although not necessarily by specific decree).

8.13 ‘A copy of the writing, in order that the decree should be given out in every province, was published to all the peoples, and that the Jews should be ready against that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.’

Apart from the final clause this verse parallels 3.14. It was considered important that the king’s decree should be given out everywhere and understood by all. But in 3.14 it was in order that the people might be ready for when the day came so that the Jews might be destroyed. Here it was so that the Jews might be ready to avenge themselves on their enemies. The situation has been reversed. The word ‘avenge’ must not be over-pressed. The Jews were not seeking vengeance, but self-protection. They gained ‘revenge’ (justice) against those who attacked them by triumphing over them. The idea is regularly used in the Old Testament of God, or judges, acting in impartial justice (Exodus 21.20; Deuteronomy 32.35-36; Jeremiah 5.9, 29 etc). Both a just God and His justices were ‘avengers’ of wrongs, that is they determined just punishment.

8.14-15 ‘So the posts which rode on swift steeds which were used in the king’s service went out, being caused to hurry and pressed on by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given out in Shushan the palace. And Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a robe of fine linen and purpley-blue, and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.’

For these verses compare 3.15 (cited first):

‘The posts went forth in haste by the king’s commandment’ --- ‘the posts (etc.) were caused to hurry and pressed on by the king’s commandment’.
‘The decree was given out in Shushan the palace’ -- ‘the decree was given out in Shushan the palace’.
‘The king and Haman sat down to drink’ --- ‘Mordecai went out from the presence of the king (demonstrating by his dress in royal colours his new authority)’.
‘But the city of Shushan was perplexed’ ---- ‘and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad’.

The first two clauses are virtually parallel although here in 8.14 there is a greater emphasis on the fact that the posts were royal messengers who acted with alacrity. The previous ill, based on the first decree, was being overborne at great speed as a consequence of the second decree. The second two clauses are contrasts. Whereas on sending out the letters for the annihilation of the Jews the king and Haman were unconcerned and simply got drunk (a negative response), on sending out the letters for the self-protection of the Jews Mordecai, himself being a Jew, went out with royal authority in readiness to act on their behalf with royal approval. He was active in the king’s service and for the king’s benefit (a very positive response). And whereas as a result of the first decree the city of Shushan were perplexed, as a result of the second decree they shouted for joy.

‘And Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a robe of fine linen and purpley-blue.’ Instead of sitting with the king getting drunk Mordecai went out arrayed in royal colours as the king’s representative to act on his behalf for the good of the kingdom. The word for ‘crown’ (‘atarah) is a different one from that used of the king’s crown (kether, probably of Persian origin). It is good for those who are on the King’s business to be ‘going out’ rather than sitting at home at leisure.

‘And the city of Shushan shouted and was glad’. Both because the threat against their fellow-citizens the Jews had been averted, and because their new Grand Vizier was a man of integrity and honour. It was not only the Jews who benefited from the downfall of Haman. He had been a hard and cruel man. It should be noted that whatever anti-Jewish feeling there might have been throughout the empire, it was not in general reflected in the capital city.

8.16-17a ‘The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honour. And in every province, and in every city, wherever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had gladness and joy, a feast and a good day.’

As would be expected the Jews especially celebrated what had happened ‘in every province and in every city’. They were no longer under threat of annihilation by the Persian authorities. The king’s hand was no longer raised against them. Any other threats they were confident that they could deal with. Thus they had ‘light and gladness and joy and honour’. This comes as close as possible to expressing Jewish worship whilst also describing it in general terms which could be applicable to all, for these are all words regularly associated with worship elsewhere. And this is especially stressed by the fact that they celebrated ‘a feast and a good day’. See for example Micah 7.8; Nehemiah 12.27, 43; Deuteronomy 26.19, whilst light coming upon His people was specifically a sign of God’s activity (Isaiah 9.2). It was God Who was their light and salvation (Psalm 27.1; Isaiah 60.20; Micah 7.8). Thus to a Jew this could only indicate an attitude of worship. But light was also a prominent feature of Persian religion. The author appears intent on not differentiating too much between the Jews and their Gentile counterparts. He wants it to be recognised that the Jews are good citizens.

8.17b ‘And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them.’

This may simply indicate that they became ‘Jews for a day’ aligning themselves with the Jews against their enemies, and assisting them, but more likely it indicates that they went even further and outwardly represented themselves as Jews (‘became Jews’ is in the hithpael (‘Judaised themselves’) and may indicate therefore ‘pretended to become’). This would be in line with the known practise among some orientals of representing themselves as of a different religion when danger threatened. It was seen as perfectly permissible. (The Muslims practise the same deceit without any conscience). In this case the way to ensure that Jews did not attack them was to represent themselves as Jews. It may, however, also have been true that many who saw the remarkable deliverance of the Jews did convert to Judaism. The Jews clearly had the reputation of having God on their side (6.13). The description may well include all three ideas.

‘For the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them.’ Compare 9.2, ‘for the fear of them was fallen upon all the peoples’. 9.3, ‘because the fear of Mordecai was fallen upon them (the rulers)’. The threefold repetition confirms the completeness of the fear that fell on all who were not enemies of the Jews. Underlying this was the principle that it was God Who had brought this fear upon them. Jewish readers would have in mind passages such as Psalm 105.38; Genesis 20.11; Exodus 15.14-16; 23.27; Deuteronomy 2.25; 11.25; 1 Chronicles 14.17; 2 Chronicles 17.10; 20.29; Psalm 9.20; 53.5.

C The Destruction Of The House of Haman and The Establishment of ‘Purim’ by the Jews Because Haman’s Casting of ‘Pur’ Against Them Had Failed, Resulting in The Successful Avoidance of Destruction of the Jews (9.1-28). The Deliverance Of The Jews (9.1-16).

9.1-2 ‘Now in the twelfth moon period, which is the moon period Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, on the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them, (whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them), the Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt, and no man could withstand them, for the fear of them was fallen upon all the peoples.’

The day when the king’s commandment and his decree was to be put into execution drew near. But it was no longer a day of fear for the Jews but of preparation. Instead of facing the whole might of the Persian empire, they were facing only those who hated them, and they were comparatively few. And what was more, they had the king’s authority to gather themselves together in their cities with their arms, something which prior to the second decree would have been seen as sedition, and would have brought the wrath of the authorities down on them even earlier. Furthermore they now knew that the rulers and governors, and equally importantly the Persian army, would be on their side. The empire was no longer determined to destroy them. The second decree, and Mordecai’s rise to power, had transformed the situation.

There would, of course, inevitably still be many in the Persian empire who hated or envied the Jews, both because of their supposed peculiarities and because of their wealth, and would thus be determined to take advantage of the first decree in order decimate them or rob them, especially those who were loyal to the old house of Haman, but now their fangs had been withdrawn. They did not have the Persian empire on their side. And furthermore they would not now be attacking Jews cowering in their houses in the face of the full power of the Persian empire, but Jews who on the authority of the king had prepared themselves to fight back, had the backing of the authorities, and could openly make warlike preparations without fear of arrest, although (and it is important to notice this), only against those who sought their hurt. And so the situation had profoundly changed. On the day that the Jews’ enemies had hoped to triumph over them, it was to be the Jews who triumphed over their enemies. And in doing so they had God on their side. For He had put fear in the hearts of all the peoples. ‘Fear of them was fallen upon all the peoples’ (compare Psalm 105.38).

‘The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.’ This serves to confirm the widespread nature of Jewish settlement. They were found in all provinces. Compare 9.20, 30.

‘To lay hand on such as sought their hurt.’ This may suggest that in some cases the Jews took the initiative, not waiting to be attacked. They would have ample means of knowing who were likely to act as their enemies, and may well have been supplied with information by the authorities, both through their spy system and in the ordinary course of ruling. The gathering together of the enemies, where it was in larger numbers, would not escape attention, and they would have to explain to the Persian authorities why they were so arming themselves lest they be charged with sedition.

9.3 ‘And all the princes of the provinces, and the satraps, and the governors, and they who did the king’s business (looked after the king’s affairs), helped the Jews; because the fear of Mordecai was fallen on them.’

All those who held their authority directly from the king were now on the side of the Jews. They recognised that the king had in the second decree indicated his will, and that the real authority now lay with Mordecai (the Jew) who would have a say in all appointments and dismissals. ‘The fear of Mordecai was fallen on them’. This may also suggest that God had put a special fear in them over and above that which would be expected. He was the new power in the land, and very active.

9.4 ‘For Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame went out throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai waxed greater and greater.’

And the reason that they feared him was because Mordecai was the most important man in the king’s house, having been given great authority by the king. But not only so, it was because he was proving a very active minister. ‘His fame went throughout all the provinces’. In consequence he became greater and greater. The writer continually stresses how active Mordecai was. See 8.15 (in contrast with 3.15); 9.20; 10.3.

9.5 ‘And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would to those who hated them.’

This was not indiscriminate slaughter. It was to be confined to those who proved to be their enemies. But against these they were successful. Note again the threefold description, ‘with the stroke of the sword -- with slaughter -- with destruction’. Their success was total. Those who hated them were in their power, and they successfully dealt with them (‘did what they would’ indicates that the authorities did not interfere, not that they went wild). As we will see overall the number of the enemies that they slew was comparatively not very large, averaging less than 600 per province. Had the first decree stood the number slain would have been many more.

9.6 ‘And in Shushan the palace the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men.’

It is clear that in the citadel of Shushan (the part of the city that contained the palace) there would be a large number of Haman supporters who had been appointed to their positions by Haman, and many who were related to him who would want to take any opportunity for blood revenge. If the ten sons of Haman were married and had their own households then 500 would simply indicate 50 people per household, which would include servants and slaves. These are not excessive figures, and they would all have suffered as a result of the downfall of Haman, and would feel honour bound to avenge his death. It may have been mainly these who took the opportunity (or were preparing to take the opportunity) of seeking blood vengeance for the death of Haman, egged on by the ten sons of Haman themselves. These sons would put responsibility for their father’s death, and their own comparative poverty, directly on the Jews, and on Esther and Mordecai particularly. Five hundred of these banded together led by the ten sons of Haman in order to take revenge on any Jews in that part of the city. But the Jews in the palace area, no doubt greatly increased since the rise of Mordecai, were also numerous, and able to deal with them satisfactorily. Indeed, some Jews might have been drafted in, in preparation for trouble which came from an obvious source. We are not told how many Jews died as a result. That was not seen by the author as important. What mattered was that the Jews were successful. ‘Five hundred’ is clearly a round number, but may have signified ‘five groups’ rather than literally 500, for ‘a hundred’ regularly signifies a unit of fighting men.

9.7-10 ‘And they slew Parshandatha, and Dalphon, and Aspatha, and Poratha, and Adalia, and Aridatha, and Parmashta, and Arisai, and Aridai, and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Jew’s enemy, but on the spoil they did not lay their hand.’

The slaying of the ten sons of Haman, who had clearly been spared up to now (in itself an act of mercy for it was common practise for sons to be executed along with their father in view of the trouble that they might cause), indicates that they participated along with the five hundred in seeking to avenge their father’s death. Thus for the Jews it was not a matter of bloodthirstiness, but of slaying or being slain. The names of the sons appear to be good Medo-Persian names. The name Parshandatha occurs on an ancient seal.

‘But on the spoil they did not lay their hand.’ It is clear already that only men have been slain, thus suggesting that no vindictiveness was shown against women and children, and this would appear to be in line with the stress on the fact that the Jews did not seek to despoil their opponents. It was while engaged in such an act of despoliation that women and children would tend to come into play, for they would not have taken a part in the actual assault on the Jews. The author is intent on underlining this leniency for he repeats it three times (here, verse 15 and verse 16), and in the last case it applies throughout the empire. It would appear therefore to have been a settled policy, and may well have been insisted on by Mordecai (compare verse 20 for letters sent out by Mordecai to Jews around the empire). It is clear from this that, far from being vengeful, the Jews exercised great restraint. They only did what was necessary to save their own lives and those of their children.

9.11 ‘On that day the number of those who were slain in Shushan the palace was brought before the king.’

What was going on throughout the empire would take time to assess, but the approximate number who were slain in the palace area of Shushan could be arrived at fairly quickly. And this was reported to the king, who would clearly have a special interest in the situation as it so deeply affected his favourite wife. He would want to know that what he had promised Esther was being fulfilled.

9.12 ‘And the king said to Esther the queen, “The Jews have slain and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the palace, and the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? and it will be granted to you, or what is your request further? and it will be done.”

The king thus went to Queen Esther with the information that he had obtained, wanting her to know that her fellow-Jews had not been slaughtered. Indeed, in the palace area itself, far from being slaughtered, they had slain ‘five hundred men’. What then must they have achieved throughout the empire? The king was not appalled at the slaughter. It was commonplace to him. He was concerned to let ‘Queen Esther’ know that her people were safe and had not been slaughtered, and had safely dealt with their enemies, and that she could be sure that the same applied throughout the empire. He then asked her what else she would like done, and promised her that any wish would be fulfilled. It is an indication of the attitude of mind of such absolute monarchs as Ahasuerus, especially where they had a tendency to cruelty, which we know he had, that they are not appalled by slaughter, having engaged in a good deal of it themselves..

9.13 ‘Then Esther said, “If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews who are in Shushan to do tomorrow also according to this day’s decree, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on stakes.”

Esther was clearly apprehensive that the wider family of Haman in the rest of the city would immediately want revenge for their losses, and that the next day might find them seeking to avenge themselves on the Jews. This would put the Jews in a difficult situation for they would no longer have the king’s authority to take up arms, whereas the followers of Haman might feel that they had little to lose. Recognising this fact she asked for an extension of the decree to the following day, and that Haman’s now deceased sons be impaled on stakes as a warning of what followed for those who displeased the king (compare Deuteronomy 21.22-23). These were reasonable suggestions in terms of that day, and were in fact intended to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. The exposure of the bodies at the king’s command would make any further retaliation treason. We should remember that had the enemies of the Jews taken warning from the second decree there would have been no bloodshed at all.

9.14 ‘And the king commanded it so to be done, and a decree was given out in Shushan, and they impaled Haman’s ten sons.’

The king responded to Esther’s request, and a decree was issued extending the previous decree by a day as far as Shushan was concerned, and at the same time the bodies of Haman’s ten sons were impaled for public view, much as the bodies of those who had been hung for committing crimes were regularly left open to public view in Europe in earlier centuries. This exposure of the bodies of the dead for shaming was common practise, even in Israel (see Deuteronomy 21.22-23; Numbers 25.4; 1 Samuel 31.8-10; 2 Samuel 21.6). It was intended to act as a warning to all. In Israel it indicated that they were accursed by God.

9.15 ‘And the Jews who were in Shushan gathered themselves together on the fourteenth day also of the moon period Adar, and slew three hundred men in Shushan, but on the spoil they did not lay their hand.’

So the Jews in Shushan gathered themselves together for the purposes of defence on the 14th day of Adar, and slew three hundred men who came against them. But once again they did not seek to despoil their families, even though they had permission to do so. They were not seeking revenge. Again the ‘three hundred’ is either a round number, or descriptive of three distinct groups who come against them. The three also indicates the completeness of the victory. The numbers involved indicate the intensity of feeling among some who lived in Shushan, in spite of the fact that the majority supported the Jews. But this is almost entirely explicable in terms of the followers of Haman. Once again emphasis is laid on the fact that the Jews did not despoil their enemies.

9.16 ‘And the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of those who hated them seventy five thousand, but on the spoil they did not lay their hand.’

The same situation applied throughout all the king’s 127 provinces, and in each of the provinces the Jews gathered themselves together and stood to arms in order to defend themselves and their children. In all cases they were triumphant and successfully dealt with their enemies, finally obtaining ‘rest’ from them. This way of describing it is reminiscent of descriptions of Israel’s earlier days (Joshua 21.44; 23.1; Judges 3.30 and often), paralleling the deliverance with the deliverance from their enemies at the conquest of Canaan.

‘And slew of those who hated them seventy five thousand.’ The numbers slain in each province were clearly eventually submitted to the king, as the numbers slain in Shushan had been. And these numbered in total about seventy five thousand. At first this number might appear very large, but when we consider that there were 127 provinces, even if taken literally, it averages less than 600 per province. And even these would be spread over a number of cities and tribes. Thus it can hardly be seen in terms of a large uprising or of a large-scale massacre. And it consisted of those who had tried to take advantage of the king’s first decree in order to despoil the Jews. It is quite possible that an above average number were slain in Palestine, where according to the book of Ezra there was great enmity against the Jews and the Jews were in an impoverished state, and where the authorities were at their least sympathetic. The number is clearly a round number. It is possibly significant that all the numbers involve only three (the number of completeness), five (the number of covenant) and seven (the number of divine perfection). The ancients regularly used numbers to convey meaning rather than being interested in numerical accuracy. Comparatively few could count above twenty.

‘But on the spoil they did not lay their hand.’ It is stressed again that the Jews did not seek to take vengeance or obtain gain from what happened. They were content to defend themselves. The universality of this approach suggests Mordecai’s influence, possibly affected by Abraham’s attitude in Genesis 14.23. It was very much the opposite of the general attitude. Had they been roused to vengeance they would almost certainly have taken spoil, and the numbers slain would have been far more. The author’s threefold emphasis on this (verses 10, 15 and 16) brings out that he had a point to make. Unlike their enemies the Jews showed compassion and mercy. It would tie in with the idea that he was writing in order to convince the Persians that the Jews were law-abiding and compassionate members of the community who were at one with their fellowmen and had no desire to gain at their expense

The Establishment Of The Feast Of Purim (9.17-26a).

One of the important lessons that arises from the chiastic structure of the book is the stress laid by the author on the failure of the sacred lot (Pur) to accomplish its purpose. Pur had been cast (3.7). Fate (the will of the gods) had declared itself to be against the Jews. But the living God overruled Pur, bringing deliverance to the Jews. As a consequence the feast of Purim was established (9.26a) celebrating God’s continual overruling of Fate (the will of the gods). Purim was a triumph over all sacred lots (purim). It emphasises that God’s people were not tools in the hands of fate. This, rather than the establishment of the feast, is the main purpose of the author.

9.17 ‘(This was done) on the thirteenth day of the moon period Adar, and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.’

All that is described, apart from the extra day required in Shushan itself, occurred on the 13th day of Adar (the twelfth moon period) in accordance with the decrees of Ahasuerus. The Jews throughout the empire defended themselves, and slew the enemies who came against them, and on the 14th day they ‘rested’, just as Israel had been ‘given rest’ at the completion of the Conquest (Joshua 23.1). God had given them rest from their enemies. Consequently they made it ‘a day of feasting and gladness’. It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that there were no religious connotations involved. The slaughter of beasts for the feast would necessarily involve religious rites (Deuteronomy 12.21-25), whilst in the surrounds of Jerusalem such beasts would be taken and specifically offered up as thanksgiving offerings to God, at the altar in the Temple, and they would be accompanied by the usual daily offerings. Furthermore prayers of thanksgiving would also certainly be offered up wherever Jews were found. The author was, however, seeking to portray it in terms that would not make the Jews distinctive and cause offence to outsiders.

9.18 ‘But the Jews who were in Shushan assembled together on the thirteenth day of it, and on the fourteenth of it, and on the fifteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.’

For the Jews in Shushan, however, the 14th brought no relief. They once again had to assemble in defence of their lives. For them therefore it was the 15th day of Adar that was the day of feasting and gladness.

9.19 ‘Therefore do the Jews of the villages, who dwell in the unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the moon period Adar a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another.’

The author then explains that this was why in his own day the Jews outside the large walled cities made the 14th day of Adar a day of ‘gladness and feasting’ (a similar phrase could have been used with regard to the Feast of Sevens and the Feast of Tabernacles. See Deuteronomy 16.11). It was seen as a ‘good day’ (a day for rejoicing and not mourning), and a day for ‘sending portions one to another’. These last had especially in mind those who were portionless because unable to afford meat (compare Exodus 29.26 where the word ‘portion’ specifically applies to parts of sacrifices, in that case the priest’s portion). See Nehemiah 8.10, 12, and compare Deuteronomy 12.12, 18-19; 16.11, 14. Later, in 2 Maccabees 15.36, it would be called ‘the Day of Mordecai’. We are not told what the Jews within the walled cites did, although the translators of the LXX seek to fill in the gap by adding, ‘but those who dwell in the chief cities keep the 15th day of Adar as a day of glad feasting, and of sending portions in the same way to their neighbours’, which may reflect what was done in their own day in Egypt.

The expression ‘a good day’ is shown in verse 21 to indicate the opposite of a time of mourning. It therefore indicated a time of celebration.

9.20-22 ‘And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both near and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the moon period Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, as the days in which the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day, that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.’

Mordecai then determined to make the feast a permanent feature. He wrote these things and sent letters throughout the empire to enjoin them to observe the 14th and 15th days of Adar as days when the Jews had rest from their enemies, and because in that moon period the situation was turned for them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to celebration (literally ‘a good time’). They were to be days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor. The religious element would be assumed, (it is typical of the author not to mention it). But it would certainly be there as animals had to be ritually slain. And there would undoubtedly be thanksgiving to God. But it was a feast especially designed to be appropriate to Jews outside the land, with its concentration on feasting and gladness, and generosity towards one anther and especially to the poor. Whether Mordecai wrote on his authority as Grand Vizier, or simply as an influential Jew, we are not told, but it is doubtful whether anyone would have distinguished the two. His authority was seen as sufficient to be acted on. This is all supported by the fact that the 14th became known as ‘the Day of Mordecai’ (2 Maccabees 15.36).

9.23-24 ‘And the Jews undertook to do as they had begun, and as Mordecai had written to them, because Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to consume them, and to destroy them,’

The Jews who received Mordecai’s letters undertook to continue annually what they had begun, in accordance with what Mordecai had written to them, that is the observance of days of feasting and gladness on the 14th and 15th of Adar. Even today the Jew celebrate both days, although with the emphasis on the 14th. And all this was in recognition of how Haman had plotted against them to destroy them, and with the fact that he had cast the sacred lot (Pur) in order to ensure their destruction (see 3.7). Note the emphasis on Pur. It is clear that the Jews recognised the significance of the casting of Pur as a call on the gods, a call on Fate. And they recognised that God had graciously intervened, overruling Fate. As we have seen in the introduction Pur has been witnessed to archaeologically. It was seen as no light matter. It determined the course of nations.

9.25 ‘But when (the matter - literally ‘she’ which can refer to feminine or neuter) came before the king, he commanded by letters that his wicked device, which he had devised against the Jews, should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be impaled on the stakes.’

The aim of the author is to put the king in the best possible light. He describes the king as acting against Haman on his own initiative, and bringing justice on him and his sons because of his wickedness once he discovered what he had done. The truth is, of course, that he had shirked his responsibilities (put very nicely in 3.15), and had allowed himself to be manipulated by Haman, and that it was only due to the involvement of Esther that he had determined to do anything about it. That has been made clear in the body of the book. But it would hardly have been politic to spell it out whilst the Jews were still under the Persian empire. This makes clear that the author was writing while the Persian empire still existed.

9.26a ‘For which reason they called these days Purim, after the name of Pur.’

‘For which reason --.’ That is, because of Haman’s casting of Pur against the Jews with its subsequent failure. That is why the feast was called Purim (Hebrew plural of Pur). It celebrated the overthrowing of the power of the sacred lot. We must never underestimate the superstitious dread under which people of those days in general lived.

The Jews Validate Purim As A Permanent Celebration (9.26b-28).

As a consequence of Mordecai’s letter, and of what they had observed, and of what they had experienced, (note again the threefold description) the Jews ordained that they would observe these two days, the 14th and 15th of Adar, continually every year from then on perpetually, so that what they had gone through might never be forgotten. Such a consensus confirms the intercommunication that continually occurred among Jews in the empire.

9.26b-27 ‘Therefore because of all the words of this letter, and of that which they had seen concerning this matter, and that which had come to them, the Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves to them, so that it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to the its writing, and according to its appointed time, every year,’

‘Therefore because of all the words of this letter.’ That is the letter of Mordecai which had been copied out and sent to Jews in every part of the Persian empire, a letter which had behind it the authority both of the Grand Vizier and of a prophetic man.

‘And of that which they had seen concerning this matter.’ They never wanted the Jews in the future to forget what they themselves had seen, the decree for their annihilation, the second decree which had brought hope, and their assembling themselves together so as to be able successfully to take on the forces who arrayed themselves against them. They realised that without God’s intervention it might have been far worse.

‘And that which had come to them.’ All their experiences from start to finish as described in this book.

‘The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves to them, so that it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to the its writing, and according to its appointed time, every year,’ The Jews ordained -- ‘so that it should not fail’, that they would observe the two days in accordance with what Mordecai had written, and in accordance with the appointed time, every year. And they took this on themselves, and on their seed, and on all who joined themselves to them as converts (note again the threefoldness). This reference to converts is an incidental confirmation that many had recently converted and become Jews (8.17). Their seed had special reason to be grateful, for had God not intervened they would have had no seed.

9.28 ‘And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city, and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the remembrance of them perish from their seed.’

And they ordained that these two days, ‘the days of Purim’ when the power of the sacred lot (Pur) had been overcome, should be remembered and observed through every generation by every family, every province, and every city. Observance was to be total by all Jews. They ordained that these days of Purim should never cease to be observed among the Jews, and that the remembrance of them should never perish from their seed (a twofold witness). And these days of Purim are still remembered among Jews today, as days of joy and celebration, with the 13th being observed as a fast in remembrance of how the Jews fasted in order to be delivered.

It should be observed that such a consensus, binding on every Jew, was much more likely to occur at a time when their deliverance was recent, than at any later time. To suggest that someone wrote a book which was devoid of the Name of God, ignored all special aspects of Jewish worship, and was centred in Shushan, simply in order to bolster an already existing Jewish feast, beggars belief.

B The Queenly Authority of Esther Revealed In The Confirmation Of Purim (9.29-32).

In order to balance the chiasmus on which the book is based it was necessary for Queen Esther to be introduced here in order to parallel her introduction in chapter 2. And here her authority as Queen is introduced in order to bolster the words of Mordecai, and mentioned three times. ‘Esther the Queen wrote -- as Esther the Queen had enjoined them -- the commandment of Esther enjoined these matters of Purim’. Her full authority, as the chief architect of their deliverance, and as Queen, was thrown behind Mordecai. And whereas in 2.20 she had been subject to the commandment of Mordecai, here in 9.32 it is Esther who gives the commandment. She is now Queen.

9.29 ‘Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote with all authority to confirm (or ‘enjoin’) this second letter of Purim.’

Here we have another parallel with chapter 2, for reference to Esther as ‘the daughter of Abihail’ parallels 2.15. We should also note that the verb ‘wrote’ comes first in the sentence in Hebrew, and is feminine singular verb. It therefore refers primarily to Esther whose name follows it. ‘And Mordecai the Jew’ is included because he will be the subject of the next sentence. But here the emphasis is on the fact that the authority of the Queen lies behind this second letter. She ‘wrote with all authority’ to confirm it as she appended her signature (or her seal).

9.30 ‘And he sent letters to all the Jews, to the hundred twenty and seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, with words of peace and truth,’

The letter having been written, Mordecai then arranged for copies of the letter to be sent out to all Jews throughout the empire. The mention of all one hundred and twenty seven provinces suggests that Jews were to be found in each province. And the words he sent were words of ‘peace and truth’. ‘Peace’ was a regular greeting with which letters commenced, and is therefore very appropriate. here, especially as it now celebrated the peace which the Jews now enjoyed. ‘Truth’ is a more unusual word in the context. But it may well here indicate ‘security’. Parallels can be found in Isaiah 39.8 and Jeremiah 33.6 where again the two words are combined.

9.31 ‘To confirm these days of Purim in their appointed times, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined (confirmed upon) them, and as they had ordained for themselves and for their seed, in the matter of the fastings and their cry.’

Mordecai’s letters, based on the letter of Esther the Queen (verse 29), confirmed (or enjoined) the days of Purim at their appointed time (14th and 15th of Adar) in accordance with Mordecai’s first letter (verse 20) and Queen Esther’s second letter (verse 29) and in accordance with what they themselves had previously agreed for themselves and their seed (verses 27-28).

‘In the matter of fastings and their cry.’ The rejoicing of the 14th and 15th of Adar was the consequence of their fastings and their cry in 4.1, 3, 16-17. They recognised that their deliverance was from God in response to their cry to Him. Nothing has been said about a prior day of fasting such as would arise later. We have here therefore a reference back to chapter 4.

9.32 ‘And the commandment of Esther confirmed (or ‘enjoined’) these matters of Purim, and it was written in the book.’

Note the stress on the fact here that ‘the commandment of Esther’ finally enjoined these matters of Purim. It is her authority which puts the final seal on the continual observance of Purim. The emphasis on Mordecai’s authority (verse 20), followed by the exercise of the Queen’s authority may indicate that there were reservations among some Jews about introducing a Feast that was not mentioned in the Torah. (The same reservations may have been found in the Community at Qumran whose writings do not include a copy of the Book of Esther).

In 2.20 Esther was subject to ‘the commandment of Mordecai’. Here it is ‘the commandment of Esther’ which prevails. Commandment is a rare word found in the Old Testament only in these two verses and in 1.15.

‘And it was written in the book.’ This may have been an official record of the decrees of Queen Esther, or a book which was written by the Jews as a record of what had happened, from which the author of this book may have obtained much of his information.

A The Greatness of King Ahasuerus and a Description of His Chief Adviser Mordecai the Jew (10.1-3).

The book ends as it began with a description of the greatness of King Ahasuerus and a description of his source of advice. Chapter 1 and 10 therefore form an inclusio for the whole.

10.1 ‘And the king Ahasuerus laid a tribute on the land, and on the isles of the sea.’

In those days tribute was the main aim of conquest. Tribute was demanded from all lands over which a king ruled. Thus the fact that Ahasuerus laid tribute on ‘the land (the Middle East) and the isles of the sea (the numerous Mediterranean islands)’ indicated the extent of his rule. Tribute was a very heavy, often crushing, burden on these areas demonstrating his total control. And they also had to provide sustenance for the king’s table, a further heavy burden. Persia itself faired far better.

Whilst the word for ‘tribute’ originally indicated forced labour, it probably now had the wider meaning of anything extorted from conquered people. They were the king’s source of military forces, of labourers for building projects, and of the wealth that was required to keep the empire, and especially Persia, prosperous. But there is in the use of the word a sense of the heavy burden under which people lived. This will shortly be contrasted with the wellbeing that was now being enjoyed by the Jews (verse 3).

10.2a ‘And all the acts of his power and of his might,’

He also demonstrated his power and greatness by his powerful and mighty acts (his failures being overlooked) which were suitably recorded for posterity. Thus as at the beginning in chapter 1 we are once more assured of the greatness and power of Ahasuerus.

10.2b ‘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 (affairs of the days) of the kings of Media and Persia?’

But now there was another to be taken into account. For recorded alongside the king’s greatness was the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him. He too was great. For he was the king’s chief adviser and second in command. And the record of their combined greatness was written in the book of the affairs of the days of the kings of Media and Persia. Thus giving due deference to the king, Mordecai is seen as being the power in the land. The Book of the Affairs of the Days of the Kings of Media and Persia (compare 2.23; 6.1) was probably the official record of the empire which had been begun in the days when the Medes were predominant (note the mention of the Medes first in contrast with 1.3, 18), and had continued under the kings of Persia. Alternately some see it as a semi-official record maintained by the Jews. But the former seems more likely.

10.3 ‘For Mordecai the Jew was next to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the good of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed.’

The author carefully indicates that Mordecai’s greatness was dependent on the king. He was ‘next to the king’, that is the second man in the kingdom, standing at his side. But he was also ‘the Jew’, a description not used in verse 2. It is introduced here because attention is now being bought to the benefits that he brought to the Jews. He was also ‘great among the Jews’, not just by virtue of his official position, but because of the standing he had gained among them by what he had achieved and what he was achieving on their behalf. He found continual acceptance among the Jews as a whole, as he sought the good of his people, (in great contrast to Ahasuerus and Haman), and spoke peace and wellbeing to all his seed (i.e. the Jews). Thus the book ends with the implicit assurance that God was watching over His people through the hands of Mordecai His servant. The Jews were no longer the plaything of the empire, but had a secure and promising future.

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