Harrowing Of Hell
September 27, 2015

Esther: A Story of Reversals

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Like many of you I’ve been around the church and I’ve studied the Bible, but still I’ve missed things . . . like the Book of Esther—the whole book of Esther. So, this morning I’m going to tell you a story. This is the story of Esther and it comes to us from the Old Testament. Fair warning though, this is a weird one.

In Esther’s story, there are four primary characters. There is Haman, the archetypical villain, an anti-Semite of the first degree. There is King Ahasuerus, based loosely on the historical King Xerxes of Persia from the 5th century BCE. He isn’t very bright and never seems to know what is going on in his kingdom. The other two characters are a bit more complex, Mordecai and Esther, both Jewish and from these two, we see more depth and character development. Other bit characters include Vashti, and a myriad of eunuchs who make brief appearances to keep the plot moving. Interesting fact: this is the only book in the entire Bible in which God is never mentioned.

The opening scene is a vast banquet hall in which King Ahasuerus hosts lots of military officials, princes, and governors of the 127 provinces in his kingdom. This exhibition of wealth lasts 180 days, set among opulence and splendor. When it is over, the king hosts a small banquet, for only 7 days, inviting only the residents of Susa where he resides. The king’s ornate garden is described in great detail; the fine curtains, couches of silver and gold, mosaics, and goblets. Queen Vashti hosts her own banquet for the women during these seven days, and this is where the trouble begins.

King Ahasuerus, drunk I’m sure, orders Queen Vashti to come in to the men’s banquet wearing the royal crown and show off her beauty. She refuses the king’s command, which is unheard of, and the king becomes enraged. For this act of refusal Queen Vashti is banished and the King goes about searching for a new queen.

The King sends out commissioners to all the provinces to gather the most beautiful young virgins to be brought back to the palace. Hegai, the royal eunuch in charge of the king’s harem administers beauty treatments and introduces the young women to the king one at a time until the king chooses a queen to replace Vashti.

Now, there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai who had raised his cousin, Esther, as she was an orphan. Esther was recruited along with the other young women as she was fair and beautiful. And as she left for the palace, Mordecai told her not to reveal her Jewish identity to anyone. It seems strange that a practicing Jew would be able to keep that a secret, given particular customs regarding dress and food laws, but apparently she did.

For twelve months, the young virgins received their beauty treatments before being sent to the king. Out of all of the young women, the king chose Esther to be his queen and they had another royal banquet to celebrate.

Now, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate trying to find out what was happening to Esther when he overheard two eunuchs coming up with a plan to assassinate the king. Mordecai immediately told Esther who told the king and the two eunuchs were hung at the gallows. This was recorded in the royal records in the presence of the king. This is a key point to the plot so don’t forget it, even though the king won’t remember.

Five years pass and the king has a new favorite, our fourth character Haman. We don’t like him. There is a Jewish tradition of “boo-ing” and “hiss-ing” whenever his name is said and I invite you to do that now if you so wish. Haman is given royal office and power by the king. So now, when he walks by the king’s gate everyone bows down to him, which he just loves. But not Mordecai. Mordecai refuses to bow down to him. The reason for his refusal is unclear, but be does explain to the other courtiers that he is Jewish. Clearly they cannot tell that from his outward appearance, which is curious.

The fact that Mordecai will not bow down to Haman infuriates him, but Haman hates to waste his fury on just one Jew and instead he looks for a way to eliminate not just Mordecai but all Jews throughout the whole kingdom. Haman manipulates the king into putting out a royal decree to kill all of the Jews by offering the king ten thousand talents of silver for the royal coffers. The king agrees and the Jews fate is sealed. Remember, at this point the king has no idea that his very own beloved queen is actually a Jew. The king and Haman sit down to drink and celebrate over a banquet of course while the ordinary people of Susa are thrown into chaos.

When Mordecai heard the news, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He then took to the streets wailing and crying. Esther, also deeply distraught (although no one in the palace knows of her Jewish identity) communicates back and forth with Mordecai through one of the king’s eunuchs and they begin to hatch a plan.

There is a rule that no one may enter the king’s chamber uninvited. IF they do two things can happen. They are killed along with everyone else in the kingdom like them OR the king extends his golden scepter and welcomes them (which is very rare). Queen Esther had not been invited into the king’s chamber for 30 days, but she came up with this plan to enter uninvited — a Jew – and to see what would happen knowing full well she might be condemned to death.

Mordecai’s response was this: “Don’t think that just because you are the queen, you will be the one Jew to survive this. If you stay silent, help and deliverance will come for the Jews from somewhere else. But who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.” This is in chapter 4, verse 14. This is the one place in the entire story where scholars believe God is alluded to, as indirect as it is: “perhaps help and deliverance will come from somewhere else, who knows?”

As Esther steels herself to walk into the lion’s den, she tells Mordecai to have all of the Jews in Susa fast and pray for three days and then she will enter the king’s chamber. She does this because she has faith that God is with her. This is where the plot shifts and roles reverse. Mordecai is now the passive and obedient one while Esther takes charge and directs the action from here on out. Esther goes to the king…and he extends his golden scepter saying, “Esther, what is your petition? What is your request?”

Esther states that she wants to have a banquet and invite Haman. Meanwhile, back on the other side of town, Haman is stewing about Mordecai’s insubordination and decides to hang him. He builds gallows 50 cubits high right there in his front yard and waits.

That night, the King, suffering from a wicked bout of insomnia, stays up reading the royal records and stumbles across the account of Mordecai saving him from the would-be eunuch assassins from several years back. And he remembers he never thanked Mordecai properly.

The next day, Haman turns up at the banquet looking for accolades. The king is looking for a way to royally honor Mordecai and a mixed-up, cross-talking conversation occurs in which they are both confused. Haman thinks he is planning his own royal acknowledgement for being simply wonderful. The king is planning a very belated thank you for Mordecai. And in the end, Haman is sent out to robe Mordecai in royal robes and parade him around town on the king’s favorite horse!

Now, before I continue with the rest of the story I want to talk about the theme of reversal. This is really a continuation of last week’s gospel with the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Throughout scripture, God is always surprising us by using the most unlikely people! Or as a friend of mine described Esther this week, “God carves crooked wood.”

Here we are at today’s lesson, the royal banquet for the King, Queen Esther, and Haman who is feeling disgraced, embarrassed, and mocked. The king again asks Esther, “What is your request?” This time she reveals her Jewish identity, and she asks for pardon for herself and her people. Blindsided, the king has to leave the room and retreats to the garden. When he comes back, he finds Haman on top of Esther on the couch doing who knows what and loses his temper completely. Haman is summarily hung on the very gallows he constructed in his yard intended for Mordecai. Reversal.

In the aftermath of Haman’s execution, Mordecai is given the vacant royal office and power. But we still have the problem of the royal edict that has already gone out to massacre the Jews throughout the kingdom. And there is a technicality that once a royal edict has gone out it cannot be rescinded, so they are stuck.

Esther collaborates with the king and the solution becomes an additional edict that on a particular day all Jews are given permission to slaughter their enemies instead. In Susa alone, 500 men are killed including Haman’s 10 sons. That night, the King again asks Esther what she wants, what is her request and she asks that the Jews be given permission to kill their enemies one day more. The king grants it and the slaughter continues. All in all 75,000 are killed throughout the kingdom.

That is the story of Esther. Not a good ending at all, but clearly a reversal for the nation of Israel.

In our modern day we certainly don’t approve of what has happened here. So keep in mind that it is all about reversal. A female Jewish orphan becomes queen and saves her people. Haman is executed on his own gallows. The Jewish people who are to be annihilated, end up being the victors. And this all happens through a strange, farcical tale in which a series of coincidences line up just so to save the Jewish people. Or do they? I came across an old saying this week that seems to fit. “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.”