Bible Studies on Esther: Chapter 7 Radical Transformations

Scripture: Esther 7:7–8:17 Background Reading: I Samuel 15:1–9, 32–33

At the conclusion of our last lesson we saw Haman terrified before the king and queen. He has just been identified by Esther as the villain, the enemy, and the foe. As we reflect on this scene, two factors become obvious: there has again been much drinking of wine; and the king is enraged. He has a violent temper. The book of Esther revolves around a series of feasts. The menu is ignored, but the drinking of wine is emphasized. The text tells us that “the king arose in his wrath from the wine-drinking and went into the palace garden” (7:7). In each incident, the reaction of the king is one of rage or wrath. He is inclined to rash behavior.

When Esther labels Haman as the foe, the king removes to the palace gardens, not to look for evidence, not to consider his options, but to vent his anger. Upon returning to the banquet hall, he has added reason to be enraged: Haman appears to be attacking the queen. At the suggestion of one aide, he orders his own prime minister to be hung on the gallows that he, Haman, had constructed for Mordecai. This man had been his prime minister. This man had promised ten thousand talents of silver for his treasury (3:9). This is the official who had persuaded him to issue an edict allowing the annihilation of all the Jews in his empire. There is no trial. There is no search for evidence. Whatever the queen says is accepted as gospel truth. The death penalty is not enough. Confiscate all of Haman’s properties and transfer them to the queen. Furthermore, take away all of Haman’s authority and transfer it to Mordecai. Give him my signet ring. Give him the power to write legislation and to issue it across the empire, even without the king’s endorsement or approval. Give him the authority to do whatever the king might choose to do. With the signet ring, create laws that cannot be changed or revoked.

In a society supposedly governed by the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be altered, there are no defined legislative processes. The king has unlimited authority. The king can do whatever he wishes, with no restrictions, other than an inability to modify laws that are on the books. He can order executions. He can transfer property. He can make appointments. He can do all these things, even though he is progressively characterized by excessive drinking and fits of anger. He is fussy about his women, but he is also fickle regarding human rights. He has serious character flaws. The king is not a man to be emulated. He and Haman are thicker than molasses in January. They deserve each other. But the king cannot change laws once they are written.

In sharp contrast to King Ahasuerus and Haman are the characters of Esther and Mordecai. Esther presents herself as a humble, obedient servant, willing to suffer slavery without complaint. She suddenly becomes the owner of a vast estate, but she does not gloat. She does not express an interest in it per se but promptly appoints her cousin Mordecai to manage it for her. In humility and fear, Esther pleads for the lives of her fellow Jews. She confesses to the king her relationship to Mordecai (8:1) and lets him know that she, too, is a Jew. This is apparently news to the king and to Haman, even though both have labeled Mordecai as “the Jew” (3:4; 6:10; 8:7). Queen Esther becomes the savior of the Jews by identifying herself as a Jew. She pleads for her people and leans upon her personal relationship with the king as the basis for her request. “If I have found favor” becomes the ground for her plea.

Esther desires one thing, which cannot legally be granted. She asks that “an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedathe, which he wrote to destroy the Jews” (8:5). What had been imperial policy suddenly becomes reduced to personal relationships. What could not be changed under any circumstances suddenly becomes as fluid as water. Esther treats the edicts not as laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be changed. She treats them instead as personal letters from Haman which can be revoked. Her request is for “an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman the Agagite” (8:5). The king, who had recently signed an edict allowing for the total annihilation of a whole population group, now suddenly grants his wife permission to “write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring” (8:8). He bestows that same authority on Mordecai, suddenly treating him as though he were now the prime minister.

In connection with this sudden turn of events, the name of Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, is again introduced. This is no incidental naming of a person but a link to Israel’s history. This full name is mentioned not once but six times in this short book.1 The intent is to remind the reader of God’s anger against the ancient descendants of Agag, the king of the Amalekites. Amalek, the original leader, led his people against the Israelites as they were journeying from Egypt to Canaan. In a despicable show of force, the Amalekites attacked the rear of the migration, attempting to kill off the women and children who were lagging behind (Deut. 25:17–19). Joshua was given the power to defeat them. Much later, after Saul had become king, the prophet Samuel commanded Saul to lead his army against the Amalekites and to destroy them, leaving no one alive (1 Sam. 15:1–9). God, the jealous ruler of heaven and earth,2 is wreaking vengeance on his enemies. King Saul foolishly spared the life of Agag, their king. In his anger God removed Saul from his position as king. Samuel, the prophet, became God’s executioner and hacked Agag to death (1 Sam. 15:33). Throughout Israel’s history there were series of people groups who became enemies of Israel. The Moabites, the Canaanites, the Philistines, and the Assyrians come quickly to mind. The enemies of Israel are the enemies of God. They flagrantly violate God’s laws and thus incur the penalty of death. Within the empire of Persia there are hundreds of thousands of people who hate the Jews and want to see them eliminated from the land. They are eager to carry out the edicts of Haman, but they need to wait until the appointed day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month Adar. God providentially controlled the rolling of the Pur (dice) so that his plan could be played out. He will protect his people. He is their God. He loves them enough to fight for them, even though they are living in sin.

Mordecai’s commands must be carefully analyzed, for they are the cause of much confusion. Some commentaries become very critical of the book and claim that the Jewish people engage in revenge, which must be performed only by God himself. These critics love to cite that classic verse, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, say the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). That verse, of course, stands, but it does not apply to the book of Esther. Mordecai does not demand the right to exercise revenge. His new executive order “allowed the Jews to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods” (8:11). The basic language is borrowed verbatim from the edicts issued by Haman. In simple language, the Jews have the right to gather or organize themselves into militia, armed squadrons, or military units. They have the right to defend themselves, even to the point of killing their enemies who are attacking them. That is not revenge. That is self-defense.

To understand the historical context correctly, the reader needs to recall the level of hostility experienced by the Jewish people. Looking back, they could recall the proclamations recently posted all over the empire that allowed the Persian people to “destroy, to kill, and to annihilate” any Jew that they found, for no reason other than their being a Jew. That edict had caused them tremendous grief and sorrow. Under Haman’s orders, they had no defense. They had no right to protect self or property. They were despised slaves, as Ezra (Ezra 9:9) and Nehemiah (9:36) so graphically point out some years later. As slaves, they had no police protection and no military might. They were scheduled for extermination.

If we look back into the time when Darius I was king of Persia, we read into the story of Daniel and the lions’ den an implied hatred of the Jews, focused on their leader Daniel. Daniel is destined for death, not because he had done wrong, but because King Cyrus had given such incredible amounts of gold and silver to the Jews who chose to return to Jerusalem at the conclusion of the seventy years. In addition, Cyrus had given them extensive legislative, taxing, and judicial privileges (Ezra 2:64–69; 6:8–11). The Persian people had been forced to pay taxes for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and to pay the salaries of the Jewish clergy. They even had to pay for the animals used for sacrifices. Quite naturally, these idol worshippers resisted and resented such. That deep-seated tension had also resulted in a work stoppage on the temple for ten years (Ezra 6:13–18).

The greatest transformation comes to Mordecai. Three short months prior he had lain in sackcloth and ashes, crying out in loud and bitter wails. He was devastated; he anticipated genocide for his countrymen. Then, unexpectedly, he is paraded through the capital streets on the king’s horse, dressed in robes worn by the king. He is heralded as the one whom the king desires to honor. Now, because of Esther’s impassioned plea, he is given the king’s signet ring. He is given “royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown” on his head. He suddenly becomes royalty, with delirious crowds shouting his praises. In an ultimate form of compliment, “many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (8:17).

As we will see in the next chapter, Mordecai’s new edicts allowed for the deaths of thousands upon thousands of enemies. The Jewish defense forces were highly successful, and Mordecai became the most powerful man in the Persian Empire. The celebration of the Feast of Purim was mandated for year after year, without exception. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah makes mention of this horrific conflict, but each one informs us of continuing hostility against the Jews during their day. Nehemiah records the conflicts which erupted when they tried to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which had lain demolished for 141 years. Ezra informs us about the Samaritans who harassed the returning remnant.

Discussion Starters

1. How does King Ahasuerus conduct himself when Esther identifies Haman as “the enemy”? Is that rational behavior? Or, would you consider that irrational?

2. Is the author of Esther presenting facts, or is he engaging in character development to fit the story line?

3. Is Haman given a fair trial? Does he deserve to be hanged on his own gallows?

4. Did Haman have an extensive estate? What evidence can you submit for your conclusion?

5. Esther informs the king that Mordecai is her cousin and that she, therefore, is a Jew. What impact did that have on the king?

6. What is the difference between the legislation that Mordecai drafted and that drafted by Haman? Why is some of the language identical?

7. Is it fair to accuse Esther and Mordecai of revenge? Is there some sense in which this is God’s revenge against the Amalekites for their attacks against the Israelites many centuries before?

8. How would you explain the fact that many Persians suddenly called themselves Jews?

1. The name appears in Esther 3:1, 10; 8:3, 5; 9:10, 24.

2. God identifies himself as jealous (Exod. 20:5; 34:14). Jealousy, best understood as a deep-seated protective attitude toward one’s own people, is an attribute and name of God, self-imposed.

Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.