A Reversal of Fortunes - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19B (Esther 7, 9)
Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
7:1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. 7 The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. 8 When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face. 9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
9:20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. [note: verses 8-9 are omitted from the Revised Common Lectionary]
The lectionary invites us to make a quick stop in the Book of Esther. This is the only lectionary stop, which means a lot of context is lost. We would need to reconstruct the context to fully appreciate the message, but perhaps the lectionary creators would have us consider the origins of the Jewish festival of Purim, which is rooted here in Esther. There’s not time or space here to fully reconstruct, but it’s worth noting that this story is somewhat unique in that it never mention’s the name of God. In fact, God is not really an actor in this story. It is the human participants who do what they need to do to survive. We can, if we wish, read between the lines, filling in the white space with a theological component. Of course, the fact that God isn’t mentioned made this a good book to use to learn Hebrew (thus, we used this book when I took Hebrew many years ago). This is a rather untheological book (which is why we used it to learn Hebrew in seminary).
To give a brief foundation to our story, Esther is set in the post-exilic period, after the Persians had displaced the Babylonian Empire, and the exile had been ended. This story features two Jews who remain behind in the Persian capital. One of the figures is perhaps a minor official in the king’s service, a man named Mordecai. The second person is Mordecai’s cousin and adopted daughter, who is named Esther. In the course of the story, Esther becomes queen of Persia, putting her in a position to help her people when under threat. Esther becomes queen of Persia after the former queen, Vashti was dethroned, because she refused to dance for husband’s friends. As time passed, the king was feeling lonely and regretting ridding himself of Vashti, so his servants suggested finding another queen. That led to an empire-wide search, a beauty pageant, and the selection of Esther as the new queen (apparently with some help from Mordecai, who saw this as an opportunity to protect himself and his people should a threat arise. Remember, for the Jewish people survival was always in doubt).
There are two other figures to take note of here. The first is the king, Ahasuerus [possibly Xerxes (486-465 BCE)]. The second figure is Haman, the king’s first minister, who became annoyed when Mordecai refused to bow to him. In response, Haman devised a plot to get rid of Mordecai, along with Mordecai’s people. In other words, Haman threatened genocide. Fortunately, Mordecai gets wind of the plot and calls upon his adopted daughter, now the queen, to intervene. It will take some convincing, because even queens must be invited into the presence of the king. So, she must devise a plan to get him in her presence, so she can make the big reveal. That leads to a series of banquets. One of things you’ll notice in Esther is that there are lots of banquets and feasts. Some of them last for lengthy period. They like their wine and food!
That is where we pick up the story in chapter seven of Esther. The Queen and Mordecai have conceived a plot to out Haman. To do this, she has scheduled a more intimate dinner party, inviting both the king, who in this story is easily manipulated, and his chief minister, Haman. Of course, Haman is excited to have been invited to dine with the queen and her husband. Apparently, to this point Haman has connected Esther and Mordecai (why we’re not told, except that Mordecai had made sure that Esther not reveal her true ethnic identity). He’s just excited about the party. As for the king, he likes to party. Then there’s Esther, who must be careful, for Haman is an important and respected servant of the king (if a bit arrogant). Will the king believe her? Will she, in revealing her identity, cause the king problems? This was a risky venture, but Mordecai had assured her that this is why she had become queen. It was for a time like this, when she could protect her people.
When the passage begins, the king and Haman have arrived at the party and are having a great time, until Esther decides to rock the boat and bring up a rather unsavory topic. That topic was a plot to destroy her people, and her with it. Now, this got the king’s attention because he was very attracted to Esther. But that’s not all, she was savvy, and she suggested that if she and her people were to be destroyed, this would dishonor the king. With that, she has the upper hand. She has manipulated both the king and the henchman who sought the destruction of her people. When asked who the culprit was, she pointed her finger at the king’s chief minister, Haman, who was jealous of Mordecai. The king gets angry and storms out of the room, only to return to find his chief minister throwing himself on the queen. Verses 8-9, which describe Haman throwing himself on the queen, not to assault her, as the king thought, but to beg for his life, are omitted in the Revised Common Lectionary. While verses 8-9 might not be included in the lectionary reading, they are helpful in truly understanding the fullness of the king’s anger.
Whatever Haman thought he might accomplish by begging for his life was now impossible. The king might have spared him before, but not now. At this the king’s sermon points to the gallows being built outside for Mordecai, suggesting that they might now be used to execute Haman. It is worth noting that Harbona, the servant, reminds the king that it was Mordecai who warned the king of the plot against his life. Thus, Haman is executed, and the king’s anger subsides.
It’s all a rather exciting story that might even be useful in our day, as the question of sexual assault and harassment has become an important conversation. Of course, the situations are very different, as is the cultural context. The king might be more concerned about an assault on someone who is his property than her safety. In any case, the sight of Haman near his wife only compounded the situation revealed by the Queen.
With this story revealed, we jump down into chapter 9, where we find Mordecai writing a letter to all the Jews in the Empire, asking that they gather for an annual festival on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, to celebrate the moment when the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.” The festival so-noted is Purim.
As we read this passage, which describes a reversal of fortunes, we might want to do so in contrast to other passages of scripture, where God is the primary actor. Why did a book like this make it into the canon since God is not mentioned? I appreciate the interpretation given by Noelle Damico. She comments on the passage, noting that the book offers us “vulnerable characters who are unafraid to handle power and who view their future as something for which they, not a monarch or even God is responsible.” This is the story of human agency in defense of their own personhood. Since Damico’s comments on Esther are found in a lectionary commentary addressing justice, she addresses our own times:
In our own day it’s not only political leaders that hold the fate of whole peoples in their hand, but corporations and international agreements as well as economic, political, and social systems. How is the church working together with vulnerable people to analyze and alter those forces that treat people as expendable? [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 416].
What might we learn from the story of Esther and Mordecai? Might we discern that God has empowered us to take on the powers that be? We have been equipped for this task. Mordecai and Esther were from a small and marginal people, and yet they stood toe to toe with a mighty empire and not only survived but stood tall in the world. And as Mordecai reminded his people, this was something to celebrate!
One other suggestion, if one is preaching the text, it might be worth encouraging the congregation to read the entire story.
Picture Attribution: Victors, Jan, 1619-1676. Esther and Haman before Ahasuerus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54179 [retrieved September 24, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_Victors_-_Esther_en_Haman_voor_Ahasverus.jpg.