A New Year and New Beginnings in Esther
The book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible explains why Jews must celebrate Purim every year, a noisy, silly holiday that honors the deliverance of the Jewish people. With its story-telling, community, and drinking, it is not unlike how some people celebrate New Year’s Eve.
That’s not why I chose to write about Esther, however. While looking for scripture verses about new beginnings, I discovered an article by Jack Wellman called “Five Stories about New Beginnings with Commentary.” One of the five he mentions is Esther.
Really? Esther, about new beginnings?
The General Story
An orphan adopted by her cousin Mordecai, Esther is a poor, Jewish girl who becomes queen to Ahaseurus. Most commentators think he represents Xerxes I who ruled Persia between 485-464 BCE. By that time, the Jewish people had been exiled in Babylonia, set free by King Cyrus, and encouraged to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Esther and Mordecai were among those who stayed behind in Persia.
Esther is a satire, complete with villains and buffoons, yet beneath its light-hearted revelry, the story has serious messages. It examines what it means to be Jewish, especially in the midst of a diaspora. According to Rachel Held Evans, the tale talks “about God’s preservation and providence to a scattered people.” Celina Spiegel believes the story is meant to strengthen Jewish identity.  The story reminds us of who we really are, convinces us we are safe, and assures us that justice will win in the end. This complicated tale can be used to explain and instruct, and its messages are relevant today.
In the third year of his reign, after throwing a 180-day bash for his officials and ministers, King Ahaseurus invites- everyone in the city to join him for seven days of feasting and drinking, a time when “everyone [will be] treated equally.” (1:5 Housman)  According to Spiegel, this equalizing of the poor with the wealthy indicates that the party was meant to be a kind of sarturnalia in which social norms are ignored and roles turned upside down. 
On the last day of the party, while he is “merry with wine,” (1:10 NRSV) Ahaseurus sends for Vashti so he can show her beauty off to the crowd. The queen refuses to come. If this is a saturnalia, this should not matter, for the queen would have dispensation to disobey the king’s orders. Perhaps because he’s drunk, the king becomes angry at her disobedience. Gathering his advisers around him, he asks what the law says about such effrontery.
The advisers tell him that Vashti has not only offended the king, but men throughout Persia. If the women hear what the queen has done, they will stop listening to their own husbands. This would be a disaster. Therefore, they convince the king to issue “a new immutable law” [1:19 NRSV] declaring that Vashti must never again enter his presence of the king.
The King’s Foolishness
What a fool. An “immutable law” cannot be revoked, even by the king. When he sobers up and his anger abates, he finds he misses his wife, yet now he can never see her again. His impetuous, thoughtless behavior has consequences.
Yet the king’s advisers soothe him. At their suggestion, all the virgins are rounded up and brought to the palace, where they each spend a year being made beautiful. One by one, he takes them to his bed until he chooses the one he likes best. This absurd, hyperbolic description of excess and abuse is a bit too close to reality to be funny. Many leaders become caught up like this in lust, greed, and unchecked power.
Enter Mordecai and Esther
Next we meet Mordecai and Esther. Descended from the Jewish tribe of Benjamin, Mordecai is Esther’s cousin. When her parents die, he adopts the beautiful young woman. With the other virgins, she is taken to the palace, where, because Mordecai tells her to, she keeps her identity as a Jew a secret.
For at least a year, Esther is pampered and beautified until the king finally calls for her. She wins his favor, and he sets the crown on her head. Here is the first “new beginning” Wellman talks about.
The next section of the book includes a plot against the king’s life that is foiled by Mordecai and Esther, which the king has recorded in the annals. Haman, son of Hammendatha the Agagite, is made grand vizier. The officials and servants at the king’s gate bow down to Haman, all except Mordecai, because he is a Jew. The astute reader will realize that the Agagites are bitter enemies of the Benjaminites, so of course Mordecai will not honor him. Furious at Mordecai’s disrespect, Haman vows to destroy not only him, but all his people, as well.
To do this, Haman tricks the king into making another “immutable law” that will have a certain people annihilated. Without even bothering to find out who these people are, Ahaseurus agrees. Though the killing is scheduled to take place some months hence, Haman hurries to have the decree to kill the Jews written up and sent throughout the kingdom.
The Crisis Comes to a Head
When he discovers what Haman has done, Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes and goes to the gates, wailing and crying. Word is brought to Esther that he is there. She sends clothes to Mordecai, but he won’t put them on. Through the eunuch Hathach, Esther learns about Haman’s decree. Mordecai tells her she must go to the king and plead with him to save her people. She reminds him that anyone who goes to the king without being called will be put to death.
Mordecai responds, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” [4:13-14 NRSV]
This is Wellman’s second new beginning.
Esther Grows Up
Here is Esther, a young queen, doing what Mordecai and her husband tell her to. Though she may not have liked her life, she hasn’t had to face difficult choices or stand up to injustice. Yet in this moment, she must decide whether she will risk her life for her people or turn her back on them. This is Esther’s true beginning. This is when she chooses to be strong, courageous, and shrewd. Previously, she did what she’d been told. Now, she gives orders.
She tells Mordecai: “Go and gather all the Jews in Shushan, fast for me: do not eat or drink for three days and nights. My girls and I will also fast. Then I’ll go to the king — against the law — and if I am killed, I will be the only one killed.” [4:16 Housman]
And Mordecai does what Esther tells him to.
Esther Claims Her Power
After three days of fasting, and probably of praying and thinking and hoping, Esther puts on her robes and goes to see the king. When the king sees her, he tilts his scepter toward her, and she knows she can go in. As she does so, she puts her hand on top of his scepter.
This is a striking moment. By touching the king’s rod, Esther claims the power that is hers as a woman, as a queen, and as one of God’s chosen people. After that, she uses skillfully uses her power to manipulate Haman’s downfall and save the Jews of Persia.
At this point, the story becomes a farce. Rather than making her request that day, Esther invites the king and Haman to a banquet that day and a second the day after. Haman, thinking this means he is in the queen’s good graces, leaves the palace only to see Mordecai, who again refuses to bow. Seething at the Jew’s disrespect, Haman goes home and complains to his wife and friends. They tell him to build a seventy-foot tall gallows on which to hang the Jew, and the foolish Haman does what they say.
Haman’s Fortunes Turn
During the night, the king can’t sleep, so he reads the book of records where he finds the story of how Mordecai foiled the plot against the king’s life. His servants inform him that Mordecai has never been honored for this, so the king asks Haman, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” (6:4-6 NRSV)
In his narcissistic way, Haman thinks the king must be wanting to honor him, so he suggests a grand display complete with robes and crown and a parade in front of the people. It turns out, of course, that the honor is for Mordecai, and Haman himself must parade the Jew through the streets. At this point, even Haman’s wife suspects Haman is doomed.
Indeed, at the second banquet, Esther reveals that she and her people have been sold “to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated,” (7:4 NRSV) and that Haman is the one who sold them. Haman is hung on the very gallows he built for Mordecai.
Life is Like a Satire
Yet the “immutable law” still stands. Since the king cannot change the order to kill the Jews, Esther and Mordecai send out a letter giving them the freedom to defend themselves. In a gruesome reversal, the Jews kill 75,000 of their enemies. Of course, the story is a satire. It delights in reversals, fools, and larger-than-life consequences, so we needn’t take this detail any more seriously than we take the size of the gallows.
But besides giving us a playful holiday, what does this story have to do with us?
Sometimes life is like a satire. Ahaseurus is a buffoon with unbridled passions for whom human worth and dignity means little. Similar men rule our country now. Ahaseurus acts impulsively, regrets his decisions, yet hasn’t the power to change his mind. Will our elected president be much different?
We live in absurd times, when truth and lies are interchangeable and fact has no meaning, and when even in this country, the wealthy and powerful face few consequences regardless of their overreach. As in Esther’s day, we must use our wit to prevail. Direct resistance might not work. Esther can teach us to wait, to watch, and to begin again, in a new way.
Claiming Our Power and Having Fun
Hopefully, like Esther, we can claim our power, come into our own, and take on the task that is ours. Each day offers the opportunity for a new beginning. May we take that opportunity, with graciousness and even joy, realizing that satire is meant to make us laugh. Like New Year’s Eve, Purim is a celebration, complete with noise makers, good companionship, and delicious food. May we go into the new year claiming our inner strength and beauty, prepared to use our wits to save our people, and may we also make sure to have fun.
In faith and fondness,
- [Spiegel, Celina, “The World Remade: The Book of Esther,” Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, eds. Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel, 193.
- “The Book of Esther” transl. Mordecai Housman, 2015, http://www.beingjewish.com/yomtov/purim/esther1.html.
- Spiegel 194.