Divine Design in the Book of Esther (part 1)

Dwight: How many books are there in the Bible?

Congregation: Sixty-six.

Dwight: How many books in the Bible are there that do not mention, even one single time, the name of God?

Congregation: One.

Dwight: Which one is that?

Congregation: Esther.

Very good! Esther, named after the Jewish heroine in the story. Her Hebrew name is Hadassah. The other hero is her cousin Mordecai, from the tribe of Benjamin.

It is a familiar story but one that Christians seldom read. It is a book in which seemingly inconsequential things happen, maybe by chance or so it appears. In fact, there is a providential plan at work.

I was teaching on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran one day where we met the man who the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, climbing the hills around Qumran looking for more scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain pieces of over 800 manuscripts including every book in the bible except one, Esther.

How could such a simple book be the source of considerable historical controversy? It was one of the last books to go into the Hebrew canon of the Bible, of Scripture. The early rabbis rejected it as not being inspired by the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther denounced it as being unspiritual and lacking piety.

Yet, it is part of sacred Scripture by God's sovereign design. And I think it is uniquely meaningful to us today, facing a world of uncertainty and vulnerability, a world in which we don't often see the dramatic intervention of God. Esther actually has a very challenging message.

It really is a most delightful tale, almost told in the spirit of a melodrama. Yet hidden in it is a very fascinating, subtle, but profound theological reflection on life; of how God works miraculously through the natural, commonplace and seemingly trivial. Events that appear to be coincidence are woven by an unseen hand into a pattern of providence and deliverance. Every time I read this story, I can't help but get excited.

According to the Jewish calendar in the Spring month of Adar, the Fast of Esther precedes the festival called Purim (referring to a lottery, or the drawing of the lots). I want to share with you the practices associated with Purim and then look at some of the implications and applications of these scriptures to the people of Israel and to us.

Let's begin with the end of the story in Esther 9:

"Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the rural towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, as a holiday, and as a day on which they send gifts of food to one another." (9:19)

"Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. Therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants." (26-28)

On the one hand, this is a festival of intense joy and celebration, a time of great deliverance in the face of total despair with the trivial and commonplace has been turned by the hand of providence into the significant and the powerful.

On the other hand, it's also a time of soberness and sadness. There is a dark side to Purim because Jewish life in the dispersed regions away from Israel has always historically been a life of great vulnerability. One in which seemingly insignificant things can suddenly turn against them. Life is fragile, desperate sometimes. Their very security seems to hang in the balance of chance, or in the balance of a lottery.

Both of these aspects are held in tension in Jewish celebrations of Purim.

The first and most important practice is to retell the story by an interactive reading of the Megillah, the scroll of Esther. There are, in the Hebrew Bible, five books that are grouped together in the Jewish way of ordering the scriptures. These five books are the shortest among the writings called the Ketuvim.

Unlike our arrangement of the Old Testament, the Hebrews scriptures are ordered in three divisions: Torah, Nevi'im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). The first letters of the three parts form the Jewish name for their Bible, the Tanakh (TNK). Again, five of these books are known as the five scrolls (megillot) and are read at different festivals.

The first in order, read at the time of Passover, is the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon. The second is Ruth, read at the festival of Pentecost. The third is Lamentations, read on the 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av) which is a time of mourning over the destruction of the two temples. Fourth is Ecclesiastes, read during the festival of Tabernacles. And the fifth is Esther, read on the festival of Purim.

We know from rabbinic literature that this reading of the scroll of Esther was done even in the second Temple period, the time of Jesus. Esther is prepared in a handwritten manner on a scroll attachment. It is opened up and read in its entirety, in the Synagogue on the evening and also on the morning of Purim. The Mishna states that it is required that men, women, and children hear the reading of the scroll ... every word.

The Torah reading accompanying the scroll of Esther is from the book of Exodus, it is the backstory of Haman, the hated villain in Esther who has Amalekite origins.

Now, this festival of Purim is unlike any of the other Jewish festivals. This Synagogue is literally abuzz with noise and chaos. Things are topsy turvy. The children are laughing and screaming, they bring noisemakers that make rather a racket. Every time the name Haman is read in the scroll everybody stamps their feet, they boo, they hiss, they make noise, sound off horns or cap guns to blot out his name.

This can get so boisterous that I know of one Orthodox synagogue where they have so many children that in order to get through the reading of the scroll they actually have a stoplight installed. [laughter] When it's green you can boo Haman and hiss and scream and shout and when the red light comes on you've got to stop so they can continue reading the scroll!

The first and most important mitzvah related to Purim is to read the scroll, together. And when they do, everything is topsy turvy just as in the book of Esther where things are topsy turvy.

There is a carnival atmosphere that has developed in the celebration of this festival, there is great silliness and joy. There is great humor. In fact, humor is a very important part of Jewish life. In the face of despair humor sometimes is the only option for sanity. The best defense for despair can often be laughter, even in the horrors of the Holocaust sometimes the human dignity was sustained by jokes, by humor.

The story being acted out is treated like a melodrama. It is written that way and makes for delightful participation. You have the hard-hearted Haman who manipulates the addle-brained King Ahasuerus. Then there is excellent Esther who is finally convinced by mild-mannered Mordecai to come to the rescue of her people. This is the spirit in which Purim is celebrated.

There are three other commandments (mitzvot) associated with this festival. The second is to have a feast, a banquet. You have a wonderful meal, together giving pleasure to your bodies which were destined for destruction but have been wonderfully spared. You fast the day before and then you enter into a great celebration with your family and friends. The third involves sharing gifts of food with friends. The fourth is the giving of gifts to the poor.

The best way to be thankful according to Jewish thought is to share with and give to others, especially those who don't have much to be thankful over.

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