Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thoughts on the story of Esther

I just want to share a few observations I’ve had while I was reading the Book of Esther.

It is rather ironic that King Ahasuerus gets rid of Vashti for refusing to come to his banquet when he commanded, and then he comes to two of Esther’s banquets when she asks him and allows her to come even when he hasn’t called her.  It gives us the impression that with God on her side, Esther is more powerful than even Vashti was.  We see that God softened King Ahasuerus’ heart when he could have been offended at Esther.

It strikes me that Mordecai, by his omitting to bow to Haman, is the provoking factor for Haman’s attempt to kill the Jews, and Mordecai’s niece Esther is providentially positioned to clean up the mess that results from it.  I have to wonder, did Mordecai consider bowing an act of idolatrous worship that he had to refrain from in order to keep the commandment to not have any gods besides Jehovah, or did he know something of Haman’s background that made him think Haman unworthy of a bow?  Such a little thing that led to such danger! 

Now here’s something I noticed that I didn’t realize before.  For the longest time I’ve had the idea that Haman saw Mordecai not bowing down and that made Haman angry and led to his vendetta against the Jews.  However, that is a simplification.  The real story comes before that.

 1 After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him.
 2 And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence.
 3 Then the king’s servants, which were in the king’s gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment?
 4 Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew.
 5 And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath. (Esther 3:1-5)

It seems Haman didn’t even notice Mordecai at first, and Mordecai’s coworkers are the ones who make Mordecai’s actions an issue.  They see him not bowing while everyone else is and they get after him about it.  They won’t let it go; they are after him every day about it.  He told them he was a Jew, and perhaps there was an explanation about the 10 commandments and not bowing down to anything but the true God, but they weren’t willing to let him get out of it.  This is peer pressure on the job, folks.  So, Mordecai’s coworkers are the ones who bring Mordecai’s actions to Haman’s attention, and when Haman notices, he gets really mad.

I think the conflict between Mordecai and Haman is very applicable for us because at bottom it is about how covenant people and their values clash with worldly priorities, but that the Lord prepares ways to protect His people when their zeal provokes opposition from others or when others make an issue of the standards He asks them to live.

Another thing I notice is that the king seem really comfortable with delegating his authority and approving new decrees, even when the real effects and implications are not known.  All Haman does to get the decree to kill the Jews passed is tell the king:
--There’s a people in your kingdom who have different laws from everybody else and don’t follow your laws.
--They don’t help you any.
--I’ll pay for it if you make a decree to destroy them.
The king doesn’t even know who these people are.  The information he is given is incredibly vague, while a critical thinker would start asking questions like, “Who are they?  What are their laws?  What laws of the king do they break?”  A critical thinker would also want to hear the accused people make a defense of their laws and justify their existence.  But then, I am judging by 21st century standards.  King Ahasuerus no doubt made the assumption that since Haman was loyal to the king and a king favorite, he would bring up these concerns only if it were already demonstrated that the people in question were a problem.

The obstacles that Esther faces in pleading for herself and her people are significant.
·      To go see the king to make her petition she has to visit him without being called, which could lead to her death if the king didn’t hold out his scepter to her and pardon her life.
·      To reveal her nationality when the Jews had already been sentenced to destruction meant she could lose her life that way too, if her petition was unsuccessful.
·      She had to argue that the king’s favorite (Haman) had been behind this.  The king could easily take Haman’s side over hers.
·      To point out the king had been duped into making the law in the first place she would imply that the king’s judgment was bad, which would be a bit of a blow to a royal male ego.
·      She hadn’t been asked for by the king in 30 days, so her social currency wasn’t at the strongest right then.  She had to find a way to strengthen her ties to the king.

It must have made Esther very nervous to make such a big request after not having seen the king for 30 days.  I think she knew that one is not likely to grant large request even to family members one has not associated with for a while, but that one is more likely to do so after some quality family time.  Hence, requesting one banquet with the king and then another banquet before she brought up the topic, was an excellent tactic.   Dinner was important for families to bond even back in ancient times, yes?

It is interesting that when Esther comes into the king’s inner court, she just stands there waiting for him to notice.  She doesn’t go far in blatantly; she waits just inside.  It must have been a very tense moment for her.

When the king lowers his scepter to her, I just have to marvel at the two different views of the situation—Esther’s and the king’s.  The king may have thought, “Well, duh, I would definitely pardon my wife if she came to talk to me!” while Esther waited on pins and needles, as for her it was a matter of life and death.   It’s a pretty good lesson that we may see events one way, but to other people those events may have deadly significance and their whole lives hinge on the outcome.  It also makes me think it can’t be very healthy for a relationship if one partner has all the power like that.   Esther had to live in that and make it work.

She goes up and touches the scepter.  To me it is a playful gesture, like an attempt to try to maintain her human dignity and diffuse the tenseness in a situation where she had no control over the outcome.  It’s as if she says, “Yes, I pardon you too.  We will pardon each other and life will be beautiful.  Isn’t it rather silly that you have to pardon your own wife when she wants to talk to you?”

It is interesting to me that when Esther invites the king to come to her banquet she invites Haman too.  I don’t know how she was able to stand it.  If I had been her, I would not have wanted to invite an enemy to a dinner date with me and my husband.  But perhaps Esther is demonstrating greater forthrightness than Haman.  Haman accused the Jewish people without them there to defend themselves, but Esther will accuse Haman to his face.  And it could also be that she wanted to be able to judge whether her pull with the king could become greater than Haman’s.  If she could get the king more attentive to her than to Haman, she might feel more comfortable making her petition for herself and her people.   It may be that after the first banquet she saw she didn’t yet have it so she asked for another banquet so she could continue her bonding efforts.

I really love the Esther asked people to pray and fast for her before she made the attempt to talk to the king.  And actually, it is possible to see that the prayer and fasting had the effect of softening the king’s heart so that he acted with more love and concern than he otherwise would have.  For instance, instead of getting miffed at Esther’s visit to the inner court without being requested, he pardoned her interruption.  Also, his unusually sleepless night just afterward led to a perusal of the records and chronicles, and he realized he had to reward Mordecai for the loyalty shown in revealing the plot against the kings life, when previously he seems to have taken Mordecai’s loyalty for granted.

When Ahasuerus asks Haman what should be done for the man who the king wanted to honor, Haman’s answer seems to be to be particularly lame.  Haman’s answer is:
--to wear the king’s old clothes
--to wear the king’s crown
--to ride the king’s horse through the streets
--to be led by a high-ranking courtier who would proclaim, “This is what is done for the person the king wants to honor.”

What seems lame about it is that it is only temporary, and it is all a show to other people.  And too, the reward is bestowed on Mordecai and it isn’t of any real benefit; Mordecai goes back to being a gatekeeper after his ride through the city.   So why did Haman want this reward for himself?  After all, he was already promoted above everyone else in the court.

I think Haman was still insecure and wanted to demonstrate his status to everyone in the city, just in case it wasn’t known already.  He wanted to make himself the object of others’ complete envy.  It was probably to salve an inner nagging feeling that he didn’t have belonging or acceptance or status.  Certain people can’t be happy with being favored and fortunate; they have to make sure that everyone else knows it too and envies them.

When it comes to the point that Esther reveals Haman’s perfidious plot, it is interesting to notice the factors that influence the king to take her part and turn against Haman.
--Esther reveals that the queen herself is affected by Haman’s plot to kill the Jews.  She spins it in such a way as to portray it as a personal attack on her (and her people too), rather than an unintended consequence of a blanket threat.
--Haman throws himself at Esther’s feet to beg for mercy and somehow it looks to the king as if Haman is about to try to rape her.
--Harbonah, a chamberlain, mentions that Haman had built a gallows for the purpose of hanging Mordecai, whom the king had most recently determined to reward for loyalty.   This makes Haman’s personal animosity toward Mordecai appear in a much more sinister light.  (The king would reason thus--If Haman is trying to destroy loyal friends of the king and destroy the queen, Haman is clearly an enemy to the king.)

Thus, Haman is condemned by his appearance of evil, even if he never meant to be disloyal.  Before we start to pity him, it is worth remembering that Haman had condemned the Jews for appearance of disloyalty from just one of them (Mordecai).  He was getting a dose of retribution equal to his own prejudice.   I have to wonder if Haman’s rise to power with the king was built on a foundation of such underhanded tactics as he tried to use against Mordecai.

The overall meaning I get from this story comes from examining both roles of Mordecai and Esther.  From Mordecai we learn that our zeal to keep the commandments gets us into trouble when it conflicts with the laws, but we are to stay true and trust God.   From Esther we learn that we have a responsibility to use our influence to support and advocate for those whose zeal puts them under fire and trust God to magnify our influence.