By Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are in week two of our sermon series, Esther: God Remembers You. The thing about the Book of Esther is that it is more like an adventure story. It’s kind of like a TV mini-series. Like a miniseries, we will have a short recap of what happened last week.
Our story is set in the Medo-Persian Empire, under King Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes. The Persian Empire extended from Afghanistan to Egypt. It was vast, and Ahasuerus was in the third year of his reign. He gathered all of his Governors and officials from all over the country for a six month party in his capital of Susa. There are is some debate whether they were brought together to help formulate battle plans for a war with Greece for whether he was trying to impress them with his wealth and power. But at the end of the six months there was a 7-Day party that the whole city of Susa was invited to. At the end of the 7 days, Ahasuerus wanted to show off one other thing, his beautiful queen, Vashti. However, Vashti was hosting her own party for the women. He sent an order for her to appear in her royal crown, but she refused.
Ahasuerus was not used to having his will challenged, and ultimately at the end of this episode Vashti was no longer queen.
After some time, they decided that there should be a new Queen of the Persian Empire, so they set up the Ultimate Bachelor Contest. Have you ever seen The Bachelor or The Bachelorette? Think of that on steroids.
Meanwhile we are introduced to Mordecai the Jew who worked in Susa and his adopted daughter Esther. Esther enters the Ultimate Bachelor Contest, and despite not necessarily being the most beautiful woman, she won. She was well-liked and admired by everyone she came in contact with, and more importantly Ahasuerus loved her. And it all ended with a celebratory banquet.
Our foundational text for this entire series comes from Proverbs 16:9, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” (NRSV)
Here is where our story picks up this week:
Esther 2:21-3:15 CEB
2:19 When they gathered the young women to the second women’s house, Mordecai was working for the king at the King’s Gate. 20 Esther still wasn’t telling anyone her family background and [her people], just as Mordecai had ordered her. She continued to do what Mordecai said, just as she did when she was in his care. 21 At that time, as Mordecai continued to work at the King’s Gate, two royal eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, became angry with King Ahasuerus. They were among the guards protecting the doorway to the king, but they secretly planned to kill him. 22 When Mordecai got wind of it, he reported it to Queen Esther. She spoke to the king about it, saying the information came from Mordecai. 23 The matter was investigated and found to be true, so the two men were impaled on pointed poles. A report about the event was written in the royal record with the king present.
3:1 Sometime later, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son, by promoting him above all the officials who worked with him. 2 All the royal workers at the King’s Gate would kneel and bow facedown to Haman because the king had so ordered. But Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down. 3 So the royal workers at the King’s Gate said to Mordecai, “Why don’t you obey the king’s order?” 4 Day after day they questioned him, but he paid no attention to them. So they let Haman know about it just to see whether or not Mordecai’s words would hold true. (He had told them that he was a Jew.) 5 When Haman himself saw that Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down to him, he became very angry. 6 But he decided not to kill only Mordecai, for people had told him [who] Mordecai’s [people were]. Instead, he planned to wipe out all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus. 7In the first month (that is, the month of Nisan) in the twelfth year of the rule of King Ahasuerus, servants threw pur, namely, dice, in front of Haman to find the best day for his plan. They tried every day and every month, and the dice chose the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar).
8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “A certain group of people exist in pockets among the other peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of everyone else, and they refuse to obey the king’s laws. There’s no good reason for the king to put up with them any longer. 9 If the king wishes, let a written order be sent out to destroy them, and I will hand over ten thousand kikkars of silver to those in charge of the king’s business. The silver can go into the king’s treasuries.”
10 The king removed his royal ring from his finger and handed it to Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son, enemy of the Jews. 11 The king said to Haman, “Both the money and the people are under your power. Do as you like with them.” 12 So in the first month, on the thirteenth day, royal scribes were summoned to write down everything that Haman ordered. The orders were for the king’s rulers and the governors in charge of each province, as well as for the officials of each people. They wrote in the alphabet of each province and in the language of each people. They wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed the order with the king’s royal ring. 13 Fast runners were to take the order to all the provinces of the king. The order commanded people to wipe out, kill, and destroy all the Jews, both young and old, even women and little children. This was to happen on a single day—the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar). They were also to seize their property. 14 A copy of the order was to become law in each province and to be posted in public for all peoples to read. The people were to be ready for this day to do as the order commanded. 15 Driven by the king’s order, the runners left Susa just as the law became public in the fortified part of Susa. While the king and Haman sat down to have a drink, the city of Susa was in total shock.
Susa is stunned. We are stunned. An extraordinary turn of events.
We have four main characters at this point colon King Ahasuerus, Mordecai the Jew, Esther now Queen, and a new character Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son. This is mentioned two different places chapter 3 verse 1 and verse 10.
Remember: when something is mentioned more than once in the Bible, it is very important. Writing materials and the effort to write it was so high that every detail is important. If something is mentioned more than once, it should be like a flashing neon sign.
Haman was the descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites. We learned last week that Mordecai was a descendant of King Saul, the first human king of Israelites.
King Saul had been ordered to kill King Agag, and failed to do so. It was due To this act of Disobedience that God withdrew his support from Saul as king.
The bad blood began long before that. The Amalekites started attacking the Israelites at least from the time of the Exodus, or the Israelites freedom from slavery to the Egyptians. Deuteronomy 25:17-18, explains that the Amalekites, “attacked from behind those were lagging back because [they] were weak and tired.” In other words, they didn’t attack the strong part of the group. They attacked the weakest and the most vulnerable.
In response God says in Exodus 17:16, “The Lord is at war with Amalek in every generation.
In the Book of Judges receive with Gideon that the Amalekites were among those attacking (c.f. Judges 6). The Amalekites also raided Ziklag during David’s time (c.f. 1 Samuel 30).
“The Amalekites came to represent the continuing threat of any group or Nation who sought to destroy God’s people” (CEB, OT 113).
Here, this threat came in the direct form of Haman.
First, it seems that Mordecai after effectively saving the King’s life gets no reward. That in itself is strange. According to Herodotus, a Greek scholar from around this time, Persian kings were well-known for rewarding those who help them. They were called orosgangai, and typically they were given several benefits.
- They received tax breaks.
- They received promotion.
- They were exempted from bowing to other nobles.
There’s nothing to indicate that Mordecai received any of this. Where we might expect to read about Mordecai’s promotion, we read about how this new person, Haman, rises above everyone else. Not only that, but everyone working at the king’s gate is ordered to bow before Haman.
The king’s gate, what is this? We hear it in other places in the Bible. It was the place where important business of the city or in this case country was conducted. It could be considered the administrative are bureaucratic offices of the empire. Judicial court was convened. Laws were distributed. Business was conducted. Mordecai and his colleagues may or may not have physically been at the gate. They and their roles may have functioned as a type of gate between the public and the King. They functioned as the eyes and ears of their ruler. (Esther: It’s Tough Being a Woman, 53)
So, all the people who work at the king’s gate are ordered to Bow before Haman. This is not some little inclination of the head as you pass someone in the hall. This is a get down on your hands and knees with your face to the floor kind of bow.
It was ordered by the king, but Mordecai refuses to do it. What are his reasons? We are not told. Would it have been self-evident to the original audience? We don’t know. We do know two things.
- Under normal circumstances Mordecai would have been rewarded for saving the King by being exempted from this order to bow.
- It was Mordecai the Jew who refused to bow before Haman the Agagite/Amalekite.
It sounds like Mordecai was being pious. It sounds like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow before King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue in Chapter 3 of Daniel. It sounds like Daniel’s refusal to pray to King Darius rather than God in chapter 6. However, in both there cases it is refusing idol worship. There’s nothing in the Law prohibiting giving this king of honor to a high official. In fact, it’s hard to believe that any of these Jewish people who worked in the courts of these kings could have done so if they were unwilling to show deference and respect these kings and their nobles.
It comes back to the other two possibilities: Mordecai felt it was his right to refrain from bowing, or he could not bring himself to bow before an Agagite, the perpetual enemy of the Jewish people.
Whatever the reason, it brought disastrous results. When Haman finds out what Mordecai is doing… or not doing, he is “very angry” or as the NIV renders it, “enraged” (Esther 3:5). In fact, the name Haman sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for anger, hamah. His anger knows no bounds, and it seems out of proportion. Like the King’s reaction when Vashti refused to appear before him.
It is not enough to punish and seek retribution against Mordecai. He must destroy all the Jewish people in Persia. One cannot help thinking of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. The horrors and the terror, and the death and destruction.
When Haman takes his proposal to the King, he takes the specific actions of one individual and twist them into lies and generalizations about an entire group of people. He doesn’t even give these people a name. He can’t risk the King remembering the loyal service of his Jewish servants and staff.
Once Haman receives the King’s approval, he words the order even more harshly. With the King, Haman uses the word “destroy.” In the order Haman says, “to wipe out, kill, and destroy.” Why is this significant? The word “destroy” sounds very similar to the word “enslave”. It could be that Ahasuerus didn’t realize that he was agreeing to the wholesale murder and destruction of an entire people group. Slavery may sound bad enough, but that is an entirely different league from genocide.
Where is God in all of this? And today is part of the story, it can seem hard to find, but it is there.
- Mordecai is working for the King where he can…
- Hear about the plot to kill the king.
- The information can be given quickly through the conduit of Queen Esther and thwart the assassination attempt.
- The king is present when Mordecai’s role is documented in the royal record.
- Then, there is something we haven’t talked about yet, the timing of the announcement of this terrible order.
Before Haman even sees the king to make his proposal, he has chosen the date of the awful event. He has done this by throwing dice, or casting the lot, or the pur as it is described. This was a way of getting so called divine information about when or what something should happen.
Jewish people used this method to determine God’s will, too. The disciples used this method to determine which person should replace it Judas Iscariot among the 12 disciples (Acts 1:15-27). Christian stop using this method once we received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
We have mentioned our foundational text, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps (Proverbs 16:9, NRSV). There is a very similar one in Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lab, but it’s every decision comes from the Lord.”
Haman was casting the lot on the 13th day of Nisan, the day before a very important day on the Jewish calendar. The day the message went out was the 14th day of Nissan, which was Passover.
Can you imagine this? You have gone to Easter worship to celebrate the resurrection. Jesus has risen and redeemed us, thanks be to God! You are gathered with family and friends that afternoon for Easter dinner, and you get a message that in 11 months everyone in the nation is supposed to kill you and your whole family. That could take the wind out of your sails. It certainly put a damper on the celebration. Why today of all days? But then you remember that Jesus died to save us. We are redeemed. God has saved his children many times, and he can do it again.
It would be very similar for the Jewish people in Susa this day. They are celebrating the Passover. They are celebrating the night when they were slaves in Egypt, and the angel of death went over the whole country killing all the firstborn males. Because of the blood they put on their doorways, the angel of death passed over the Hebrew households. Their children were safe. After all of the plagues, this was the last straw. The Egyptians wanted them to get out of Egypt. Get out now, and take whatever you want with you just leave (c.f. Exodus 12:33-26).
When the Jewish people in Persia are told of this impending destruction, they are reminded of when God has rescued them in the past.
Are all of these coincidences? Or is God behind all of this? Think of what has happened in your life to bring you to this place, all of the details. Many of them were within your control. Are you going to bow? Are you going to alert the authorities of a murder plot? But there are also the things that are outside of your control. Being in the right place at the right time to hear about the plot in the first place. It is synergy of working in concert with or against God.
All of those things have brought you to this place right here right now. You have the ability to influence for good or for evil or to do nothing. Which will you choose?
As we wrap up this episode we are left with a dramatic cliffhanger. The King and Haman are celebrating with a drink after work. Do they have the same idea of what they have accomplished this day? Meanwhile, the people of Susa are stunned by this order.
This would be where the words “To Be Continued” appear on the screen. But just like on TV, we get a little preview. We cut to a shot of a queen. A young Jewish woman living in secret, could she possibly have any effect?