Where Was God? The Story of Esther
The First Wife
The original authors of the Old Testament believed very strongly that God had a hand in all things. That philosophy was showcased throughout the 39 books that make up the Old Testament; save for two, the Songs of Solomon and the Book of Esther. In fact, in Esther, God is more visible from His absence than His presence. He’s not mentioned even once; yet He’s still there, working behind the scenes to save the Jews.
The Book of Esther is a fascinating drama of heroism, revenge, genocide, and justice. Her story has been the subject of many movies and inspired the names of countless girls throughout history. The story opens in the palace of King Xerxes, who ruled over the upper Nile region from India to Cush. The other books of the Bible explain how the Jews were taken by King Nebuchadnezzar and ended up in Babylonian captivity. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah examine their return to their plundered homeland in Jerusalem. However, by the time of Esther, some fifty years later, many people had chosen to remain behind, among them was a man named Mordecai, of the tribe of Benjamin. The Jews who had remained in Babylon weren’t slaves, but neither were they considered equal.
King Xerxes was a dangerously unpredictable man. The ancient historian Herodotus records an incident wherein the Hellespont (the passage between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara) in the midst of a dangerous storm had swallowed a bridge that Xerxes had built. In retaliation he had ordered the sea itself to be punished with 300 lashes, shackles be thrown into the water, the Hellespont be branded, and the bridge builders beheaded. There’s no word on how his men actually managed to brand water.
Ordering that a body of water be whipped, shackled, and branded are the actions of a man drunk with power. However, according to Herodotus, Xerxes also liked to get drunk with wine. And it is here that our story opens. King Xerxes, in the third year of his reign, gave a large banquet to all the nobles. The affair was meant as a show of his kingdom’s wealth and his own glory and might. For 180 days, as we learn in the first chapter of Esther, Xerxes displayed his riches and majesty to all the nobles and military leaders of Persia and Media. After this six month ego trip, he gave a week long banquet where the wine flowed like a river from personalized goblets of gold. While the king kept the men in good spirits, the lovely Queen Vashti entertained the women of the royal palace and hosted a lavish banquet.
At week’s end, King Xerxes summoned his eunuchs to fetch Queen Vashti. He wanted to exhibit her beauty for all the nobility to see and admire. However, when the eunuchs returned it was with a message that the queen had refused to come. The Bible never explains her refusal, it’s likely the authors themselves are ignorant to the reason. Xerxes himself certainly never asked why, instead he “burned with anger” at the queens insolence. He consulted with his advisors on the legal way to handle his wife, and they recommended that she be made an example. All the nobility and their wives were present, and the king’s men reasoned that if the king didn’t act the women would take that as permission to be disrespectful to their own husbands. Upon their advice, the king issued a decree to be proclaimed throughout the land, that the queen be banished from the palace, never to return.
After Vashti was exiled from the palace, the Bible tells us three years had passed. The authors don’t mention it, but we know from history that Xerxes had mustered a massive army and invaded Greece during that time. He failed in his endeavor and upon his return to Persia and Media he redirected his focus to finding a new queen. He didn’t want just any queen though, he wanted a gorgeous young virgin that would surpass the former queen Vashti. He announced a search for a new queen and commissioned Hegai, who was in charge of the harem, to size up the women, choose the best ones, give them beauty treatments, and special food, and then taken to the king for selection. The whole process took a year; six months treatment with oil and myrrh, and six months treatment with perfume and cosmetics.
According to the law, what must be done to Queen Vashti? She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes.— Esther 1:15
The New Wife
Once the king’s edict had been announced, many young women were presented to Hegai for inspection. Now here, in the city of Susa, we meet our heroine. Mordecai, mentioned above, had raised his orphaned cousin from childhood. The child, named Esther, had grown into a beautiful young lady so Mordecai put her in the care of Hegai to be considered by the king. Given that the Jews were second class citizens, Mordecai found it prudent to caution Esther to not reveal her ethnicity. She kept her identity a secret and was among those chosen for treatments. Everyday for the next year as she went through her beauty treatment, Mordecai would walk near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was doing and to make sure she was well.
After her year long makeover was finally over, she was presented to Xerxes who became enamored by her looks, grace, and class. He chose her over all the other women and she became queen. To celebrate the occasion, Xerxes invited the nobility over for a massive banquet. He made the day an official holiday throughout all provinces and freely gave away gifts in celebration. However, despite his lavish ceremonies and generosity, the book makes it clear that Esther was at the mercy of his whims. She could only see him when he sought her out, and as the incident with the former queen Vashti made it abundantly clear, she had no choice but to come when summoned.
Though in the royal palace, where one might assume that she would be ‘treated like a queen,’ Mordecai maintained his commitment to his cousin. He continued to go to the palace where he could watch over her. As luck would have it, he was there when he overheard an assassination plot by two of the king’ officers, Bigthana and Teresh. Mordecai warned Esther about the conspiracy and she sent word to the king, making it a point to credit her cousin with the discovery. The two conspirators were hung for their crimes and Mordecai’s actions were recorded in the book of the annals.
There in the palace was a noblemen named Haman, some years after the foiled assassination plot, Xerxes had honored him and placed him second in command. All the officials and nobles and everyone would bow down low and honor him whenever he passed. Everyone, that is, but Mordecai. This angered the egotistical Haman who wanted Mordecai killed for his disobedience. It wasn’t enough that Mordecai be killed though, Haman, in his egomaniacal wrath, wanted every Jew killed for Mordecai’s disrespect. So Haman, who knew a thing or two about egos, decided the best way to handle Mordecai and his people was to appeal to the king’s own ego. Haman went before Xerxes and warned him that the monotheistic Jews would never bow down to the king or respect their laws. The best way to handle them would be to destroy them. Haman assured the king that he himself would pay ten thousand talents of silver to anyone who would carry out the task. Xerxes agreed to Haman’s suggestion and told him to keep his money and that he could “do as he pleased” with the Jews.
If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy [the Jews], and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.— Haman, Esther 3:9
The Courage of the Queen
This happened in the twelfth year of Xerxes’ reign, by this time he had been married to Esther for five years and he still remained ignorant of her Hebraic roots. It was during this twelfth year of his reign, on the thirteenth day of the first month, the king’s postmen sent word to all the provinces to “destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews- young and old, women and little children- on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.” (Esther 3:13) The book notes that Xerxes and Haman celebrated the decree with a drink, but that the city of Susa was bewildered. Mordecai, and many others put on sackcloth and publicly mourned the edict, when Esther heard how he was dressed she sent him clothes, but he refused them. So she sent out her eunuch to find out what had troubled her cousin. Only then did she find out about the pending genocide.
Mordecai told her everything and even gave her a copy of the text for the annihilation. He urged her to go to the king and plead on behalf of the Jews. Esther was trapped. Any official who went to the king without being summoned was to be immediately put to death. That was not a matter of annoyance on the part of the king, that was the actual law. Only if he was in a good humor would he extended his golden scepter, thereby sparing the person’s life. To approach him could mean an automatic death sentence, and to wait to be summoned could risk the lives of the Jews. It had already been thirty days since Xerxes last sent for her. Who knows when he would call for her again?
Here we discover how deep ran the faith of Mordecai. He told Esther: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to a royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14) Though Esther might have been spared the ethnic cleansing, the king had already proven that he had a violent temper and was often subject to his own fits of rage. He could just as easily turn on Esther as spare her. But as we discovered Mordecai’s faith, we also bear witness to Esther’s courage. She sent word back to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day, I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
Esther’s bravery is on full display here. As queen to an unpredictable, vicious, and self-centered king, her job was to sit around the courts and look pretty. Xerxes couldn’t even be bothered to tell her he planned to exterminate an entire race of people. He didn’t marry her for her intelligence or out of respect for her, she was an ornament for him to show off. A status symbol in the same manner that a white tiger or lynx would be to the ultra wealthy. He had already disposed of one wife who had displeased him, Esther had no reason to think he wouldn’t do the same to her. Yet she was willing to risk her very life to save her people.
Though Xerxes had married Esther for her beauty, that didn’t mean she was devoid of intelligence. She knew that she couldn’t just walk in, declare she was a Jew, and ask that her people be spared. She knew that she had to flatter the king, soften him, make him want to change his mind. So after the period of fasting she put on her royal robes, and her very life in hand, she entered the forbidden inner court. When the king saw the queen he held out his golden scepter, sparing her life, so she approached. As luck would have it, he was in a good mood. Xerxes asked what she wanted, declaring that even up to half the kingdom would be hers. She told him that she had prepared a feast for he and Haman, and asked that they attend.
When this is done I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.— Esther, Esther 4:16
God Provides for His People
They ate their meal, and over wine the king again asked what she wanted. She told him that she would prepare another feast for he and Haman the following day, and then she would answer his question. All of this served to make Haman very happy, but as he left the palace he saw Mordecai who had again refused to bow down to him. He went home and called all of his friends together, to them he boasted about all of his wealth, his high position in the kingdom, and his apparent place of honor with the queen. But he finished with the complaint that Mordecai continued to disrespect him, that as long as he saw that Jew sitting at the king’s gate he would never be happy. His wife and friends told him to go ahead and have gallows built, seventy- five feet high, and in the morning he could ask the king to hang Mordecai on them. Afterwards he could go to his dinner with Xerxes and Esther and be happy.
That night, as luck would have it, King Xerxes couldn’t sleep. A man who loved to hear about his own greatness, he ordered was that the book of the annals of his reign be brought to him. The king found the book to be riveting and he stayed up all night reading it. By morning he had gotten to the part where Mordecai had exposed the conspiracy to assassinate him. He asked his officials what honor and recognition he had received for his part in thwarting the plot. The officials informed him that nothing had been done for him. By coincidence, Haman then walked into the court with the intent to ask that Mordecai be hanged on the freshly built gallows. Xerxes saw him and asked “what should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” (Esther 6:6)
Haman and his incredible ego thought to himself, “who would the king rather honor than me?” So he told him to bring the man a royal robe that the king had worn, a horse with a royal crest that the king had ridden, and lead both man and horse through the city streets proclaiming ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’” Imagine, if you will, Haman’s surprise when the king told him to go at once and do just as he had suggested for Mordecai the Jew. It was Haman who led Mordecai and the horse through the streets yelling “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” Afterward, Mordecai returned to the king’s gate where he kept watch over his cousin, but Haman returned home to nurse his pride. His wife and friends told him that since Mordecai was Jewish he couldn’t stand against him, that it would be Haman that would be ruined instead. While they were still ‘comforting’ Haman, the king’s men arrived to escort Haman to his banquet.
At the banquet, Xerxes again asked Esther what she had wanted, promising her once again that she would grant her request “even up to half the kingdom.” The Queen answered him “ If I have found favor with you, O King, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life-this is my petition. And spare my people, this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.” (Esther 7:3-5) The king asked who had done such a thing as to sell the queen’s people into obliteration. And in a moment of climax, the queen answered “The adversary and enemy is the vile Haman.”
The king got up in a rage, leaving behind his beloved wine, and stormed into the palace garden. Poor Haman knew that his jig was up. He began the day in such high spirits. He was going to have his enemy killed, but instead he had to publicly honor him. He was invited to feast with the king and queen, but now he faced certain death. Everything went wrong for Haman, it was a very bad day. He knew the king well enough to know that his fate was decided. He thought his best bet would be to throw himself at Esther’s mercy. Just as he had thrown himself on the couch where Esther lay reclining, Xerxes walked in. “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in my house?” He yelled. Harbona, one of the king’s men, turned to Xerxes and told him that some gallows had been built by Haman’s house. In an ironic twist, Haman was hanged on the very gallows that he had built to hang Mordecai.
Esther told Xerxes her relation to Mordecai, so Xerxes honored him and presented him with his signet ring. Haman’s estate went to Esther, we’re not told what became of Haman’s widow, but his ten sons were also executed. And in a happy ending, Xerxes overturned the edict against the Jews. The day that Xerxes granted the Jews their independence was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month of Adar, and to this day, Jews celebrate the fourteenth day of the month as Purim.
The Book of Esther does not mention God even once. Nevertheless, His presence is felt throughout. As luck would have it, Esther was chosen as queen. Mordecai continued to care for her and by coincidence, he overheard a plot to kill Xerxes. Luckily, he was in a position to save the king. By good fortune, the king was in a good mood the day that Esther approached him. By coincidence, the king couldn’t sleep the night that Haman plotted Mordecai’s murder. Coincidentally, Haman had gallows already built. All the coincidences in the book make it seem like an entertaining work of fiction. But archeology has so far found evidence that collaborates the story. And frankly, there aren’t that many coincidences in the world to keep up with the Book of Esther. Though God is not mentioned, His hand is very evident. He’s behind the scenes working through others to ensure the safety of His chosen people. God had put the right people in place at the right time to save the Jews. He does that to this day. God doesn’t stand in a fiery cloud and make a dramatic entrance right at the climax, that’s not His style. He works through us, we’re His stewards of the land and all that’s in it. He puts us where we need to be to help others, it’s up to us whether or not we do it.
© 2017 Anna Watson