Tag Archives: Esther

Deuteronomy 25: Punishment, Justice, and the Enemy

Deuteronomy 25: 1-3 The Limit of Punishment

1 Suppose two persons have a dispute and enter into litigation, and the judges decide between them, declaring one to be in the right and the other to be in the wrong. 2 If the one in the wrong deserves to be flogged, the judge shall make that person lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of lashes proportionate to the offense. 3 Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.

Deuteronomy believes in a harsh justice but it also sets limits on the execution of justice or revenge. This is one of those places where the dignity and reputation of the neighbor limit the maximum punishment of lashes the neighbor can receive as forty. The action takes place in the sight of the judge who orders the proportionate punishment so that the dignity of the offender is preserved. Although we may live in a society that has trouble with this type of corporal punishment, this is a relatively new thing in our society. The idea of submitting oneself to the measured discipline of the community seems to be an expectation for being a part of the society of Israel. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:24 can claim that five times he received the punishment of forty lashes minus one in addition to the other punishment he lists, and this is one of the many indications that Paul saw himself remaining as a part of the Jewish community since he submitted to the discipline.

In our own society we have become very litigious and often use fines or imprisonment as a means of discipline. Yet, when it comes to these fines and imprisonments which can often be excessive for certain crimes (particularly drug related offenses with harsh minimum sentences) in addition to the shame that comes with a criminal record we may want to relook at the idea of punishment that does not permanently diminish our neighbor in our eyes. Are judges enabled to give punishments that are proportional to the offense or are they bound by laws that are harsh allowing the guilty not chance at a non-degraded standing within society. These are difficult issues, but they are the type of big questions of a society that the book of Deuteronomy deals with.

Deuteronomy 25: 4 Care for the Working Animals

4 You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.

This is an acknowledgment that the working animals are not machines to be driven mercilessly, but even in small ways the lost grain that an ox eats while treading the grain is a part of its due. It is one of the windows into a worldview where animals and plants (see Deuteronomy 20 on trees in war for example) are given some protection as well. They all are a part of the creation of the LORD and are entitled to the benefits of striving with humanity to carve a living from the earth. Paul references this section in 1 Corinthians 9:9 in his discussion of his authority and that he could ask for a material benefit for his work among the Corinthians even though he states he made no use of those rights. 1 Timothy 5: 17-18 also uses this line of argument for the supporting of elders.

Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 Levirate Marriage

Francesco Hayez, A Portrait of a Woman as Ruth (1853)

Francesco Hayez, A Portrait of a Woman as Ruth (1853)

 5 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6 and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10 Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.”

 This passage enters into the narrative of Israel in both the story of Tamar in Genesis 38 as well as the book of Ruth. Deuteronomy is written in an intensely patriarchal world where barrenness is a crisis because it threatens the perpetuation of the family’s name. Women were honored in their role as bearers of children and in their role in allowing for the continuance of the line. The idea of Levirate marriage is foreign to our time, where the idea of marrying the wife of a deceased brother seems out of place. Yet, in the world of Deuteronomy it is an expectation and an obligation. The brother is to ensure that there is an heir to inherit the deceased’s land and title. This also provided protection for the widow for she both has a family she is brought into and with the birth of an heir there is the promise that she will be provided for once her son inherits. In the ancient world, where no government safety net exists, children were the security of their parents in their old age. Even in the ten commandments this concern is addressed in the command to honor the father and the mother (Deuteronomy 5: 16).

In the story of Tamar, who gets herself pregnant by Judah when he denies her his youngest son, is a fascinating short story of a woman who boldly claims her rights to protection and inheritance however she needs to. As Judah can acknowledge at the end of the story, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38: 26) In the book of Ruth this passage serves as the law behind the meeting of Boaz and the unnamed next-of-kin where the issues of inheritance and marriage are tied together. The kinsman acknowledges that he cannot redeem the property, and marry Ruth with the property passing to her children, and so the ‘right’ passes to Boaz. It is uncertain how deep of a shaming was associated with the unwillingness or inability to care for the needs of a widow, as Deanna Thompson states, “This public shaming would give this family the reputation of not providing for its widows, thus making it more difficult for the family to contract marriages for their sons.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 183)

Deuteronomy 25:11 An Unfair Fight

  11 If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, 12 you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.

Deuteronomy is written from a male dominant perspective and to the author of Deuteronomy the idea of a woman ‘sexually shaming’ a man in public (Thompson, 2014, p. 184). The genitals of another man which are exposed and could potentially put the man and the woman on an equal footing are to be off limits in a fight. As we saw in Deuteronomy 23: 1-8 the damaging of the testicles or penis is enough to make a man no longer a man in the eyes of the assembly. For men sexual generativity is on par with sight and limbs and the punishment listed of mutilation is only prescribed for one other event (in Exodus 21: 22-25) where a man injures a woman and causes her to miscarry. The husband may demand whatever punishment he sees fit in that case. Martin Luther addresses this broadly with the maxim, “Evil should not be done that good may come of it.” (Luther, 1960 (1525), p. 9:249) where he talks about the woman wanting to do good on behalf of her husband and yet doing it in a ‘cowardly’ way.

Again this brings up issues centered around women’s rights compared to men’s rights and the rights of self-defense. There are times I am convinced we are more concerned with protecting men than women, and while we might want to protect the vulnerable areas of both men and women how do we also ensure that women are given the ability and permission to protect themselves in an unfair fight and do we accuse that woman of sexually shaming the man or simply attempting to protect herself or her family?

 Deuteronomy 25: 13-16 Fair and Just Weights and Measures

 13 You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. 15 You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the LORD your God.

Justice is a critical part of the people’s life within the land. There will always be the temptation to make a business deal work to one’s advantage and if one can skew measurements and weights in one’s favor one can cheat one’s neighbor out of their fair share. This type of injustice is another of the things that obtain the stronger disapproval of being abhorrent to the LORD. Economic injustices would be a common cry of the prophets for example in Amos 8: 5-6: saying, “When will the new moon be over so we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.

In a barter economy where grain and oil are traded it is easy to think of concrete ways where this type of imbalance could be used to create economic advantages and disadvantages. Yet, in our world sometimes the examples are a little harder to see. When a company uses an inferior material that produces an item that wears out quickly, or a corporation delays in repairing a safety concern because it is cheaper to allow the improper item to remain in use, or when practices are used that harm the land and environment and then others have to bear the cost of cleaning up the land. In our days, as in the ancient times, acting dishonestly and can affect how long our days are in our own land. With the crisis with the water supply in Flint, Michigan we can see the cost when individuals and a government are not honest in their measurements and allow things to become unsafe for their society.

Deuteronomy 25: 17-19 The Amalekites

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Victory O Lord!

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Victory O Lord!

 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.

The warrior God re-emerges here at the end of chapter 25 and demands revenge upon the Amalekites. In Exodus 17: 8-16 we hear the story of the conflict between the people of Israel, shortly after their emergence from Egypt, and Amalek. In the story Moses holds up his staff and the people prevail, but as Moses’ arms become tired the people falter, so Aaron and Hur hold up his hands and the battle is won. As Exodus states:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called it, the LORD is my banner, He said, “A hand upon the banner of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” Exodus 17: 14-16

The Amalekites become the enemy memorialized in a slogan, much as ‘Remember the Alamo’ or ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ allowed for Texans or Americans to call to mind an earlier attack of an enemy. The people are to never forget this action and to never again allow it to happen. This memory sets the stage for a contentious history between the peoples and the people of Amalek enter the story of Israel again in the curses of Balaam in Numbers 24: 20, “First among the nations was Amalek, but its end is to perish forever,” in 1 Samuel 15 where King Saul defeats the Amalekites but leaves King Agag alive (disobeying the LORD) and probably in Esther 3:1 where Haman the Agagite is thought to be a descendent of Agag and the hatred between the remnant of Israel and the remnant of Amalek continues to burn.

We have seen many instances in history where ancient feuds emerge in surprising ways leading to acts of extreme violence and genocide. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu can state, “there is no future without forgiveness.” I talk more about this in the related passage of Deuteronomy 20 (or in the passages at the end of Esther, Esther 9:1-10 and 11-19). I spend more addressing the way passages like this would have been heard in the ancient world and how we talk about them today and don’t need to rearticulate them at this point. Deuteronomy is not a text that is always comfortable for us and passages like this where the people are commanded to blot out another people are passages we will have to struggle against if we are to embrace Christ’s call to love our enemies. In a time where many people want to use ‘Never forget’ in relation to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, we may also be condemning ourselves to a long history of warfare and hatred unless we can learn to remember rightly where the past violence does not define the totality of our future. I speak more about this idea of remembering rightly, influenced heavily by Miroslav Volf’s book The End of Memory here.

The Final Chapter: Esther 10: 1-3

Esther Handwritten

This is the book of Esther written out in my hand, it spans 19 pages. This has been a part of my discipline as I write these posts.

Esther 10: 1-3

King Ahasuerus laid tribute on the land and on the islands of the sea. 2 All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? 3 For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants.

                 And they all lived happily ever after, isn’t that how we want the story to end? For Mordecai he is afforded power and position and honor, and it is great for him and his people and his kindred.  As with the previous chapters, many scholars will argue these are additions to what the original story was. Without going into a lot of detail for Esther there are three primary ancient documents: The Masoretic Text (MT) written in Hebrew late 4th or early 3rd Century BCE, the Alpha Text (AT) which is a greek translation of the Hebrew Text (which is roughly 20% shorter than the MT) and the Septuagint which is also a Greek translation used by most early church fathers and probably most of the writers of the New Testament which comes from the Second century BCE. There are differences in each of the texts, with the Septuagint adding quite a lot (if you look in the Apocrypha in most Bibles that contain them, this is where The Additions to Esther come from). Most translations of the Bible go back to the MT, which contains chapters 9 and 10, while the AT does not. Anyways, it really matters little since the text most people read is the translation of the MT from Hebrew into English (or whatever your favorite language is) and this is the communal memory of the book.

The book end on the note of living happily ever after, and that is where we will leave it. I don’t feel a strong desire to spend any time with the Additions to Esther, but Sidnie-White Crawford, whose commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible I’ve been reading along with as a write does cover this in depth. (Elizabeth Acthemeier, et.al 1999, 3:945-972)

If you have followed through this journey with me, I hope you have enjoyed it and it has provoked thought. Next we are heading into one of the longer books and more challenging books of the Bible, Jeremiah. I am doing this because it is one of the books I don’t know well, like Haggai and Esther, and I want to know more. If you join me on the journey perhaps together we shall see where it leads us.

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The Practice Forms the Faith: Esther 9: 20-32

Tomb of Esther and Mordecai, Hamadan, Iran

Tomb of Esther and Mordecai, Hamadan, Iran

Esther 9: 20-32

                20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. 23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.

 24 Haman 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 crush and destroy them; 25 but when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the wicked plot that he had devised against the Jews should come upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. 26 Therefore these days are called Purim, from the word Pur. Thus because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, 27 the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed. 28 These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.

 29 Queen Esther daughter of Abihail, along with the Jew Mordecai, gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim. 30 Letters were sent wishing peace and security to all the Jews, to the one hundred twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, 31 and giving orders that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as the Jew Mordecai and Queen Esther enjoined on the Jews, just as they had laid down for themselves and for their descendants regulations concerning their fasts and their lamentations. 32 The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing.

Paschasius Radbertus (785-865), a medieval Catholic theologian gave voice to an ancient principle of how doctrine is sometimes formed by the practices of prayer and worship when he said, “the rule of prayer should lay down the rule of faith.” (Pelikan 1978, 159) Our practice informs what we believe, and within the practices of Purim, and the feasting and celebrating combined with the reading of Esther. Purim has some of the feasting and hilarity of Mardi Gras and people often dress up as Esther, Mordecai, Ahasuerus, etc. and this practice shapes the way the Jewish people approach the story in a way that Christians do not have. Esther is a beloved story as a part of this celebration, and so it is not surprising that we have in the closure two different  commands, one from Mordecai and one from Esther that establish the festival. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You can debate back and forth does the edict establish the festival or does the edict give justification for a practice that was already ongoing.

At one point in my life, I took myself and the world way too seriously, and the life of faith is often looked upon as one of austerity, seriousness and moderation-but that has little to do with the Bible or Jesus. The world of the bible is a world of festivals and feasts, of celebrations and parties, of people enjoying participating and being a part of the story. My personal opinion is we celebrate too little. Mardi Gras for example evolved as an act of rebellion against being continually told by priests (Mardi Gras evolved in predominantly Catholic areas) of all the things they were to give up and to avoid having fun. And yet both of the primary festivals of the Christian church (Christmas and Easter) have evolved to where there is an element of feasting and celebration-but this is done with family and not with any connection to the story of the day. One of the challenges for the church as it enters the twenty first century perhaps we need to learn to celebrate and feast, to begin to live out of abundance rather than scarcity. Now one critical difference is the Christian church, at least in the United States, tells its story from a place of relative privilege, we are not (predominantly) a marginalized group. Many of our members occupy places of authority throughout the society, unlike the experience of the Jewish people throughout much of their history. Nonetheless, especially in a postmodern world which places a high value on story, we would do well to consider how our practices could be informing our faith and how we too can use these feasts throughout the year to do just that: to feast and to celebrate.

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The Horror Conclude: Esther 9: 11-19

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

Esther 9:11-19

                11 That very day the number of those killed in the citadel of Susa was reported to the king. 12 The king said to Queen Esther, “In the citadel of Susa the Jews have killed five hundred people and also the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.” 13 Esther said, “If it pleases the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict, and let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.” 14 So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. 15 The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they killed three hundred persons in Susa; but they did not touch the plunder.

 16 Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder. 17 This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. 18 But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. 19 Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, a holiday on which they send gifts of food to one another.

The bloodthirsty tone continues, and again this is probably (hopefully) hyperbole, for if it is not then we have an event of horrific proportions-over seventy five thousand dead and the Emperor merely shrugs his shoulders and allows it to continue. Even though the population of the United States is many times the population of the Persian empire at its height, imagine if in one day even a thousand people lost their lives, or by way of comparison-the bloodiest days on American soil were the days where the Union and Confederate army battled at Gettysburg (over 3 days 46,286 people died). This hopefully puts some scale to the type of numbers that are thrown into the story here. Some scholars suggest the last couple chapters are additions to the book of Esther.  Regardless of how and when they become a part of the book, they become a part of the community’s memory. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, this probably gave hope to a people who were often the victims of oppression and hatred-it gives them a place where they can vent their frustrations at their powerlessness. A desired striking back, long suppressed may indeed give voice to horrific fantasies of violence. In the presence of their own people they can through stories give vent to the desire for revenge that in public society they could never do without severe reprisal. (Scott 1990, 37-44)

Esther again enters the story, the king continues to give the authority to someone else to make the decisions. Esther’s request for one more day in the city of Susa sounds cold and heartless, and the additional three hundred that die as a result may seem tiny in comparison to the seventy five thousand, but they continue to send a message along with the hanging or impaling of Haman’s sons. They are public demonstrations of power, meant to send a message to anyone who may still harbor the desire to wipe out the Jewish people. Impaling or hanging, like crucifixion in later times, makes a public spectacle of the one’s being executed in this manner and it is also a statement of shame. It dishonors the family, it denies the individual an honorable death-it is a striking statement that Haman and his sons are impaled because of their standing and wealth, it indicates a different culture than the Roman empire when crucifixion was reserved for those who were without status.

The purge comes to an end, and then comes celebration. The story is winding down, the victory is won. The remainder of the story will be codifying the celebration of Purim and lifting up the status of Mordecai and Esther. It has been a long journey through this close of the book, but we are almost there.

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Horror or Celebration in Susa:Esther 9: 1-10

Alfred P Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995

Alfred P Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995

Esther 9: 1-10

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day, when the king’s command and edict were about to be executed, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain power over them, but which had been changed to a day when the Jews would gain power over their foes, 2 the Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who had sought their ruin; and no one could withstand them, because the fear of them had fallen upon all peoples. 3 All the officials of the provinces, the satraps and the governors, and the royal officials were supporting the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. 4 For Mordecai was powerful in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces as the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful. 5 So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. 6 In the citadel of Susa the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred people. 7 They killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, 8 Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha,9 Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai, Vaizatha,10 the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they did not touch the plunder.

We are at the part of Esther where one has to make a choice on how they will hear this. Many Christians throughout history have come upon this section with distaste, this is certainly one of the reasons Martin Luther didn’t like the book. The slaughter of over five hundred people, an event that would dwarf events like the Oklahoma City Bombing, Sandy Hook Elementary, or Columbine, in fact by percentage of population it would probably rival the loss of life on the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. If you take the numbers as literal, this is a horrific event (at least if you are not a Jew). In my opinion the numbers are probably hyperbolic, but in either case this is another of those events of violence in the Old Testament that can be difficult to stomach. This is definitely a mindset of retributive justice (you threatened me, so I will do violence to you) that still plays out in wars and genocides even in recent history.

On the other hand, this does reflect a world where anti-Semitism continues to be a real and present force in the lives of Jewish people. This was probably one memory where, instead of being victim, the Jewish people were feared because they actually had power through Mordecai and Esther. Much like Ahasuerus becomes a foil for whatever king they find themselves under and Haman becomes the oppressors they have, this victory probably becomes a counter story in the midst of their lives. When they are weak and powerless they can look back to a time when they were strong.

It is so easy for the oppressed, when given power, to become the oppressor-and even many Christians, who should take Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and non-violence seriously, have become the worst offenders. One doesn’t need to know much history to pull up events like the Holocaust (a “Christian” nation attempting to wipe out the Jews), Bosnia/Kosovo (Serbs, who are predominantly Christian attempting to wipe our Croats who were predominantly Muslim), or Rwanda (predominantly Christian), or Sudan (Muslim north vs. a Christian south) and the list could go on and on. Violence and death are here to stay with us, and in America we are very sheltered from the horror, we in the past year grieved the events in Sandy Hook and that was a major domestic event for us.

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Mordecai’s Rise: Esther 8:15-17

Pieter Lastman, The Triumph of Mordecai (1624)

Pieter Lastman, The Triumph of Mordecai (1624)

Esther 8: 15-17

 15 Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king, wearing royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple, while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16 For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor. 17 In every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday. Furthermore, many of the peoples of the country professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.

The similarities to the Joseph story continue, take a look at Genesis 41:41-43 (also the previous scene where the king has Mordecai paraded around town), and yet it is amazing (at least to a modern mind)in a story that centers around Esther, now the glory goes to yet another man. The text comes from an androcentric (man-centered) world, and while Esther may be the one who took the risks it will be Mordecai who is lifted up here. Once again he is honored and elevated, once again wearing royal robes. Esther will again return to prominence in the next chapter, but here it is Mordecai who will bear the honor and light and gladness of the people.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this reminds me a lot of the partisanship we find where it is a win/loss proposition. If your candidate/agenda/party happens to be in office it is a win for you and a loss for the others, in this case for the Jewish people it is a time of light and gladness, of joy and honor to the point where people are falling over themselves to become Jewish because the political clout of Mordecai (and indirectly Esther). I wonder if there were those who were willing to go as far as circumcision (at other points in history some were willing to undergo a reverse circumcision as painful as that sounds to avoid being immediately identified as Jewish). If nothing else it gives me a reason to go to this fun little scene from Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Yet, this has been a story of reversals, as is much of scripture, and Mordecai has gone from being and exile and his identity as a Jew being the cause of his oppression to being put in royal robes, being a Jew being a title of honor, and Haman (and we will soon see his family) will find themselves destroyed, killed and annihilated.

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Bureaucracy in Action: Esther 8:9-14


Esther 8: 9-14

 9 The king’s secretaries were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and an edict was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews and to the satraps and the governors and the officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one hundred twenty-seven provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, and also to the Jews in their script and their language. 10 He wrote letters in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed them with the king’s ring, and sent them by mounted couriers riding on fast steeds bred from the royal herd. 11 By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. 13 A copy of the writ was to be issued as a decree in every province and published to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to take revenge on their enemies. 14 So the couriers, mounted on their swift royal steeds, hurried out, urged by the king’s command. The decree was issued in the citadel of Susa.

The bureaucracy springs into action, and perhaps like all bureaucracies this is the reason for the unexplainable delay, for the previous sections took place in the first month and now we are in the third month. Did Mordecai need to do a study, convene a committee, and enter into a debate with the Jews of Susa to come up with the right wording (I’m being snarky here). I don’t think that the Jews before would have been unable to defend themselves, but the edict with the force of Mordecai and the king’s authority with it puts them in a much stronger position, and perhaps, like in Nazi Germany, the new edict strips away the permission  to act out against the Jewish people and still to be following orders.

On the one hand, this gives the authority for a preemptive strike, to kill, destroy and annihilate anyone who might attack.  Now I wouldn’t want to go too far in this direction, remember the Jewish people are a small people in exile dependent on the favor of a powerful empire, but the edict and Mordecai’s force behind it does create fear. It is so easy for the oppressed to become the oppressor when the roles are reversed. This may be a story of reversals, but it is not a story of mercy.

Now for the Jewish people this is a story of triumph, what was to be a early Kristallnacht becomes a day of deliverance. God (although unmentioned) once again chooses the weak and the powerless and turns the tables on those who want to take advantage of them. Yet the violence of the end of the story does trouble me, yet it is the way of the story.

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Dueling Edicts: Esther 8:1-8

Esther and Mordecai by Aertz de Gelder

Esther and Mordecai by Aertz de Gelder

Esther 8: 1-8

On that day King Ahasuerus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews; and Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her. 2 Then the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. So Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.

3 Then Esther spoke again to the king; she fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him to avert the evil design of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews. 4 The king held out the golden scepter to Esther, 5 and Esther rose and stood before the king. She said, “If it pleases the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. 6 For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming on my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?” 7 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to the Jew Mordecai, “See, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he plotted to lay hands on the Jews. 8 You may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”


The king lives a sheltered life, and even here at the end of the story he basically passes authority to Esther and Mordecai. They may write and seal it with the king’s seal. The king himself doesn’t take any more responsibility for the actions of Esther and Mordecai than he did for Haman. Even though these are irrevocable matters, they are still delegated. Much as in the story of Joseph, now Mordecai ascends to be in charge of everything and second only to the king, which makes him the person who really makes the decisions.

This makes me think a little of our own system of elected government where we may elect officials, but these officials may have to answer to groups and lobbyists who may be pulling the strings more than we want to admit. Granted, if the king decides to act on his own people have two choice, obey or assassinate the king while elected officials find themselves having negative adds financed against them, or members of their own party who try to take their seat in the next election cycle. I want to believe that the people we elect are there to make the best decisions on behalf of the American people, but the skeptical side sees way to many hands trying to craft their own policies to place under the signet ring of officials.

For the Jewish people in the story this turn of events is a very positive thing, now they have their own guy who bears the signet ring and can craft policy for their benefit. Maybe I am naïve to hope for a government that is better than this, a government that can move beyond what is good for one group or another and look at what is best for the population and even beyond that, the world. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve come a long way-but in our antagonistic and partisan world we can dream of something better.

One final note, I’ve highlighted several times that Mordecai wouldn’t bow to Haman, but this is apparently not a Jewish thing since Esther has no problem bowing before the king. We will never know the why behind Mordecai’s not bowing throughout the story, it could be a personal hatred, an ethnic dislike or any number of other things (and even here Mordecai doesn’t bow with Esther-although it may not be the time or place).

We are left with dueling decrees that cannot be revoked. One that will allow anyone to kill and loot Jewish families and one that allows the Jewish people to assemble and allow for their protection. Perhaps what is most important is not the edict but who has the power to enforce it.

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Mechanisms Of Execution: Esther 7: 7-10

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn- Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn- Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther

Esther 7: 7-10

 7 The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. 8 When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face. 9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

 There is a scene in the 1990s movie Pretty Woman, at the end where the Philip Stukey, the character played by Jason Alexander attacks Vivian, the main character played by Julia Roberts, causing the Edward, the protagonist played by Richard Gere, to throw out his main advisor. A similar thing is happening here. The king storms out, furious (even though he is at least partially to blame for the circumstance), Haman realizes the game is up and his only chance at mercy is not from the king, but the queen and he throws himself at her at the time the king returns and a convenient solution is presented. Haman has assaulted the queen, that allows the king to act immediately and the attendants (silent throughout the scene) now suddenly appear visible. Haman moves from favored one to traitor to death in the span of three terse verses. Ultimately it is the designs of his own hatred that end up being the mechanism for his own execution.

The book of Esther is a story set in a world where the death penalty is not only acceptable, but used not just for murder. Some people critique Esther for not extending mercy, which is their right, but that misses the context of the story and what was considered just punishment. Even if Esther wanted to extend mercy to Haman, and I see little reason to believe she would be inclined to, she may feel that she has pushed the benevolence of the king to its limit asking for the salvation of her life and people. The story turns on poetic justice, but I don’t think we need to make this prescriptive for the justice we seek in our own society.

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Esther’s Crown: A Poem

A young flower freshly bloomed

Is harvested with all the other blooms in the garden

To set before the king for his pleasure

Most will be cast aside, forgotten and neglected

Destined to wilt in the vastness of his harem

Their beauty enjoyed, their perfume stolen

One of the many pieces of a bouquet whose beauty will never be enjoyed

Who will never be adored by another after being sampled and discarded by the monarch

Except the Hebrew Rose Hadassah, the orphan flower Esther

Delicate in a world of men, lifted up as the queen of the flowers

The crowning beauty of the garden of Susa

The rose that delighted the king is crowned with gold and adorned with jewels

Preserved to be displayed before an empire

And a nation celebrates in her triumph

And yet are all the other flowers mourned, the loss of their beauty missed

Or does life go on in the world of men scarcely noticing the flowers

Yet Esther is the bud the king could not set aside

Enthroned to be admired, adored and desired

Her path was never hers to choose, and yet she is the queen of flowers

Plucked from her roots and placed on display for the world to see her beauty

Composed Neil White, 2013

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