What I’m Reading: Esther

Can you name the two books of the Bible named after women?  OK, you read the title of this blog post, so you got Esther.  The other is Ruth.  I read Esther as part of my Lenten reading this year and found it fairly delightful.  I’d say both of these are among my favorite Bible books.

Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile, when the Jews had been dispersed from the Holy Land and were living in various cities in the Babylonian, later Persian, Empire.  The Persian King Xerxes loses his wife and after a period of mourning, searches the empire for a new woman to become his queen.  The extraordinarily beautiful Esther attracts his eye.  On the advice of her cousin, Mordecai, who is a high official in Xerxes’s court, she does not reveal her Jewish ethnicity.

Haman, a vain and cruel man, becomes chief advisor to Xerxes.  This gives him a lot of power, which he loves to lord over others, demanding they bow and scape to him.  Mordecai refuses to do so, however (the implication, I think, is that he only bows to the Lord).  Haman’s ego is pricked, so he formulates revenge against Mordecai.  He tells Xerxes of a people in his empire who have different customs and do not follow the imperial laws.  Shouldn’t the king pass a law to annihilate these people? he asks, without specifying who they might be.

Xerxes, who doesn’t seem too actively involved in running his empire, agrees, and written proclamations are sent to cities across the land that on a certain date, Jews shall be killed and their property plundered.  So Mordecai has Esther arrange a banquet for King Xerxes and Haman, and at that banquet, she tells the king that she and her people have been slated for annihilation.

When the king hears this, he demands to know who is responsible, and Esther points out Haman and reveals that she is a Jew, and Haman has led the king to sign the order for the death of her people.  King Xerxes has Haman killed, and his order is relieved.  To commemorate this occasion, the Jews even still celebrate the holiday of Purim every year during the Jewish month of Adar (that is, late February or early March).

There’s quite a bit more complication, but this is the essence of the story, and it’s a joy to read.  It’s one of the few books of the Bible with a real sense of humor–a subplot concerning Haman’s assumption that the king wishes to honor him on a certain occasion, when really he wishes to honor Mordecai, is particularly funny.  If you are interested in reading the Bible, but you think it would be dry and boring, give the wry, ironic book of Esther or the gentle, wise book of Ruth a try.

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