Opening The Old Testament
To Defend, to Destroy, or to Hope? Reflections on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
Thus, Haman becomes the spitting image of all those through Jewish history who have hated Jews for no reason whatsoever, except that they are Jews. Reading the history of Hitler's Germany sounds all too much like the history of the Jews in Persia; the maniacal hatred of Jews then and in the 20th century had no basis in fact whatsoever, but the result was the murder of six million, at least. And in the ancient story, without Esther and Mordecai and ironically the Persian king himself, thousands of Persian Jews' lives could have been forfeited.
Haman's rage causes him to convince the unobservant king to sign an edict allowing Haman to destroy the Jews. But while Haman's terrible plan moves forward, Esther becomes the queen and is urged by Mordecai to tell the king to stop the coming slaughter. Esther warns her uncle about the unpredictability of her new husband, and Mordecai responds in words that have rung down the years: "If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place . . . Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this" (Esth. 4:14—frankly it seems inconceivable that the lectionary does not include these, the most famous words from the book).
Esther takes courage in hand and approaches the dangerous king. He fortunately is having a good day (perhaps the wine casks have been hidden?), and he listens to her simple plea to come to a dinner with her. She invites Haman as well. And then she holds another dinner, once again inviting her king and his most important courtier. Haman is so thrilled to be asked to dinner with the royal couple twice that he can hardly contain his sense of privilege and greatness.
But at the second feast, Esther reveals Haman's plot to destroy all of her fellow Jews. The king is furious, but in typical fashion cannot decide what to do, so he rushes into the garden to try to think. Meanwhile, Haman throws himself physically on the queen's couch just as the king reenters the room. Immediately, the king is convinced that Haman has recklessly attempted some sort of sexual contact with his queen and orders Haman to be hanged on the absurdly high (50 cubits or about 75 feet!) gallows he had built for Mordecai. What goes around comes around, and Haman's neck is publicly stretched.
But the Jewish problems are not yet over, because when the Persian king decrees a thing, it must happen. And the destruction of the Jews has been decreed. So Esther begs the king to decree some more, this time to allow the Jews their day of revengeful destruction. And here is the great problem of the book. Does this new decree allow the Jews the right of self-defense against their enemies, or are they given the right to slaughter their enemies willy-nilly? And the answer appears to be "yes" on both counts. Esther 8:11 speaks of "defense," while 9:5-10 suggests a vast slaughter. Self-defense or freedom to kill? It makes a large difference, of course. It does make the book not the simple Good and Evil story it has been made out to be.
But it has served Judaism for centuries with a tale to provide hope in the midst of despair, and perhaps that is a far more important reason to reflect on it. All of us, in whatever exiles we are in, are ever in need of such stories when the flame of freedom is guttering and the spark of hope is dim. Who knows? Perhaps we too have come to our destinies for such a time as this?
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.