One of the most entertaining aspects of my studies on various faith groups is learning about all of the different traditions and holidays that are part of each faith culture. When I was eleven or twelve, I used to go to the religion section of the library to look for books that explained how the holidays of different faiths were practiced. Sometimes, I would even go to the children’s section and look for books that explained – to children of a particular faith – why they believed what they believed and how celebrated their holidays. It was around this time that I discovered the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrated today at sunset! Tonight, synagogues everywhere will be filled with people celebrating their deliverance from a plot that was intended to wipe out their entire people-group.
The story of Purim can be found in the book of Esther.
Esther’s given name was Hadassah, and she was a Jew living in Susa – a city in modern day Iran. As a child, she was orphaned and taken in and raised by her older cousin, Mordecai. Meanwhile, the royals were experiencing a little trouble in paradise. King Xerxes was upset with his wife, Queen Vashti, for her public display of disobedience to him during a banquet he’d thrown. King Xerxes wanted to set an example that wives everywhere need to obey their husbands, and so he divorced Vashti and began looking for a new Queen.
Esther, along with all of the other beautiful young women in King Xerxes’ 127 provinces, was sent to the king’s harem in Susa in order to compete in the ultimate episode of “The Bachelor.” Hadassah donned her new name, hid her Jewish identity from everyone, and found favor with those she encountered at every turn. Eventually, she caught the attention of King Xerxes.
While Esther was vying for her spot as Queen, her cousin Mordecai discovered a plot that the King’s most trusted advisor, Haman, had created to exterminate all of the Jews in King Xerxes’ realm. Mordecai urged Esther to use her influence over King Xerxes to thwart this plot. Esther was hesitant, but Mordecai convinced her. What is probably the most quoted line from the book of Esther comes from Mordecai’s plea to her, “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Esther was convinced by her older cousin and after three days of fasting and prayer, approached, unsummoned, the throne of the King (for which the consequence would be death), with a plan to reveal Haman’s plot. As the story goes, Esther eventually reveals Haman’s plans to get rid of the Jewish people, and that she herself is a Jew. King Xerxes becomes angry with Haman and has him hanged.
But the details of Esther’s story may extend further than what’s recorded in the Bible. According to Jewish tradition, it is suspected that Esther had a much harder life than the Bible lets on. Mordecai loved her, perhaps, but it may also be true that he was sort of an over-controlling “helicopter parent.” It is also said that King Xerxes was more an abusive than romantic husband. Again, he may have loved Esther, but with the way that women were treated at that time, it would have been perfectly acceptable for a King to rape and hit his wife for no other reason but as an outlet for his personal stresses and frustrations. And, running 127 provinces from India to the Upper Nile region was probably the source of a whole lot of stress! We also don’t know whether or not King Xerxes and Queen Esther ever had children! If not, I’m sure that was reason enough for marital rape and abuse in those times. Esther risked sacrificing her life by approaching the King to warn him of Haman’s plans, but she also may have sacrificed the type of life that she probably dreamed for herself – a decent, hard-working husband, sons to fill her home and give her validation as a woman, and the ability to live simply, working and worshiping as she pleased.
But as Mordecai wisely said, “…you have come to royal position for such a time as this…”
Queen Esther may have been the Queen mentioned in Nehemiah 2:6 as well, in position to convince King Artaxerxes (after the death of her own husband) to allow Nehemiah to go and rebuild the Temple. Although the book of Nehemiah appears before the book of Esther in the Bible, we do know that the Bible is not put together in chronological order. A little light research informed me of the possibility that after King Xerxes died, he was succeeded by King Artaxerxes and Queen Esther acted as the Queen Mother. When Nehemiah, the king’s cup-bearer, asked King Artaxerxes to go and rebuild the Temple – a Queen is mentioned as being there, in on the conversation, and I wonder if Queen Esther had anything to do with the Temple’s rebuilding as well. If so, Queen Esther didn’t just save her people – but helped to restore the traditions of Jewish worship that had been destroyed and forgotten as well!
On a personal note, I have always felt a deep connection with Esther. I have always aspired to live my life in a way that protects and rescues others, and she has been my favorite Bible character ever since I learned of her story. If I had to say that I had a role model or if I were asked that famous “if-you-could-have-dinner-with-one-dead-person…” question, my answer to both would be Esther. I’m delighted to have been compared to Esther on more than one occasion in my life, and I’m always excited around Purim to celebrate someone who so selflessly endangered her life in order to protect and restore the lives of others.
There is so much to learn from the story of Esther, and I’d encourage everyone to read it!