The book of Esther has three claims to fame: it contains the longest verse in the Bible (8:9), it is never referred to elsewhere in Scripture, and it never once mentions God. So what is it doing here?
If we mean by that question ‘what is it doing here’, the answer is that it tells the story of Esther, who became a Persian queen around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, so as we found with the book of Ruth, this seemed like the most sensible slot for it in the Bible. But at another level it is in the Bible at all because it is an aetiology, that is a story told to explain a present reality. Kipling’s Just So Stories are examples of aetiologies – we see that elephants have long trunks, so here’s why. In this case the reality was that Jews saw that they kept an annual festival called Purim, and wanted to know why, and how the tradition got started, so the story of Esther was told in order to provide that background. And it’s a bit more historical than Kipling’s tales: the author is at pains to assure us of its historicity, and to date it for us (1:1, 2:23, 9:32).
The story goes like this: King Xerxes has had a few pints too many during a 180 day bender, and commands his beautiful wife Vashti to show herself off before his nobles, wearing her royal crown: probably only her royal crown. She refuses, is banished from his presence, and needs replacing, so a search is made and a beautiful Jewess wins the privilege of becoming queen. In spite of the strong tradition that intermarriage is not allowed, she has no choice, and is told not to let the king know of her nationality. Later her cousin Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king, which Esther reports to him, saving his life.
Haman is an official in the court who is raised to high position, but Mordecai refuses to pay him the honour he expects. Haman decided that in retaliation he would try to wipe out all the Jews, and not just Mordecai. Risking her life Esther approaches the king to plead for her people. Usually she would not venture into his presence from the harem unless called for, but she takes the risky initiative and invites the king to a banquet. Meanwhile the king can’t sleep and tries to drop off by reading the court records, obviously the Persian equivalent of counting sheep. He discovers that Mordecai previously saved his life, but has not been rewarded. Haman becomes even more jealous.
Finally Esther gets to present her petition, for the protection of the Jews, to the king, and tells him of the plot to wipe them out. The king is shocked and asks who could think of such a thing. Haman is identified, and ends up being impaled on a spike he had prepared specially for Mordecai. The king pronounces an edict of protection for the Jews, and amidst great celebrations other enemies are finished off and the feast of Purim is established as a remembrance of the Jews’ deliverance from their enemies. Purim were apparently stones with numbers on, rather like dice, which were used to choose dates at ‘random’.
So what do we do with this entertaining story today? It is about trusting (usually with hindsight) that God has put us in the right place at the right time. It is about risky living for righteousness and justice, and it about thankfulness and celebration, or ‘counting our blessings’ for God’s hand on our lives in the past. In a time when in some parts of the world Christians are being systematically executed in the hope of total eradication, it is a call to prayer and intercession for God’s people, and for the confusion of all those who wish them harm.