Sunday, September 27, 2015

Esther Made Easy

The story of Esther is ten chapters of scripture. Fortunately for us, Jeanne Steig, in her delightful book The Old Testament Made Easy, has mercifully shortened it.

High-handed Haman, Esteemed by the King,
Did an evil, ignoble,--nay damnable thing.
He proclaimed, “We have too many Hebrews by far.
Let them therefore be slain, in the month of Adar.”
When the news reached Queen Esther, she shivered a bit,
Then cried: “I say, down with this scrofulous writ!”

She invited her husband, and Haman to feast.
When they'd guzzled their fill, and their chins were well greased,
Said King Ahasuerus, “Dear lady, bravo!
gift shall I give you, what trinket bestow?
What prize will you claim for those tasty ragouts?”
Said she, “Save my life! And my people---the Jews.”

Who threatens my queen? What despicable hound?”
Esther pointed to Haman, who fell to the ground.
King Ahasuerus was horribly wroth.
His eyes were afire, his lips were afroth.
Very little remains of this story to tell.
Horrid Haman was hanged, and his ten sons as well.

The feast of Purim, which Hebrews observe,
Commemorates Esther,--her cunning, her verve.
They dress up in costumes and sing jolly tunes,
And eat hamantaschen, a cookie with prunes.
Jeanne Steig
the Old Testament Made Easy
Farrar-Straus-Giroux, New York 1990

Actually the story has a few more twists and surprises, and I urge you, especially if you like stories of power and palace intrigue , to spend a hour or so reading Esther this week. It's not only a good story, it's also a commentary on power; who thinks they have it, who really has it, and how God can and does intervene on behalf of God's people.

(I am told that when, on the Feast of Purim, the Jewish people tell this story, it is customary to cheer at the mention of Mordacai, and to Boo at the sound of Haman's name. I invite you to do so during this sermon.)

King Ahasuerus (more recognizably known as Xerxes, thought he had power. He was, after all, the sole ruler of an empire that stretched from modern day India to the Balkans. And while he quite likely liked to think he ruled with an iron hand in this story it's clear that he wasn't as in charge as he liked to think he was. He did almost nothing without the advice of his seven closest consultants, (who, in reality, controlled the empire.) As the book opens, a well intoxicated King demands that his trophy wife make an appearance so that he can show her off to his underlings. When she refuses, he asks the seven what he should do. Their advice, which is an affront to modern American thinking, reveals much about the King and his advisers.
Est 1:16-19 Then Memucan told the king and the officials: Your Majesty, Queen Vashti has not only embarrassed you, but she has insulted your officials and everyone else in all the provinces. (17) The women in the kingdom will hear about this, and they will refuse to respect their husbands. They will say, "If Queen Vashti doesn't obey her husband, why should we?" (18) Before this day is over, the wives of the officials of Persia and Media will find out what Queen Vashti has done, and they will refuse to obey their husbands. They won't respect their husbands, and their husbands will be angry with them. (19) Your Majesty, if you agree, you should write for the Medes and Persians a law that can never be changed. This law would keep Queen Vashti from ever seeing you again. Then you could let someone who respects you be queen in her place.”

And it was done. Queen Vashti was banished from the King's presence, and a nationwide beauty contest was held to find a new trophy wife for Ahasaurus. A contest that was won by the Jewish maiden, Esther. (Although, because she was one of the Jewish exiles did not reveal her ethnicity.)

Meanwhile, for reasons the story doesn't reveal, Ahasaurus promoted Haman to be his highest adviser. To say that Haman was a bit of an egotist would be an understatement. He required that those at the palace gate ow down whenever he passed. This was a decree that Mordacai, Esther's uncle and guardian, (who had previously warned the king about a plot against him) would not obey. As a Jew, he could, and would, bow only to God. This affront enraged Haman. Thus was it that Haman, like a modern day racist, Est 3:8-9... went to the king and said: “Your Majesty, there are some people who live all over your kingdom and won't have a thing to do with anyone else. They have customs that are different from everyone else's, and they refuse to obey your laws. We would be better off to get rid of them! (9) Why not give orders for all of them to be killed? I can promise that you will get tons of silver for your treasury.” The king, who trusted Haman, Est 3:10-11... handed his official ring to Haman, who hated the Jews, and the king told him, (11) "Do what you want with those people! You can keep their money."

Like his other advisers, Haman manipulated the King into not only getting rid of the people he, Haman, hated, but also potentially making him a very wealthy individual. And it seemed so easy. But those who wield power surreptitiously are prone to falling victim to their own machinations.

Est 4:1 When Mordacai heard about the letter, he tore his clothes in sorrow and put on sackcloth. Then he covered his head with ashes and went through the city, crying and weeping. Est 4:4 When Esther's servant girls and her other servants told her what Mordacai was doing, she became very upset and sent Mordacai some clothes to wear in place of the sackcloth. But he refused to take them. So Esther sent a messenger to her uncle, (who could not enter the palace). Mordacai sent her a copy of the decree for the annihilation of the Jews and urged her to use her influence with the King to save her people.

The prospect of going directly to the king caused Esther to fear for her life. The law was that no one could approach the king without invitation and the king hadn't called for Esther in a month. So it was, that with the fate of her people resting on her shoulders, Esther approached the king without invitation. Est 5:1-4 On the third day of her fast Esther put on her royal robes and went and stood in the inner courtyard of the palace, facing the throne room. The king was inside, seated on the royal throne, facing the entrance. (2) When the king saw Queen Esther standing outside, she won his favor, and he held out to her the gold scepter. She then came up and touched the tip of it. (3) "What is it, Queen Esther?" the king asked. "Tell me what you want, and you shall have it---even if it is half my empire." (4) Esther replied, "If it please Your Majesty, I would like you and Haman to be my guests tonight at a banquet I am preparing for you."
After an evening of food and wine, Esther invited Ahasaurus and Haman to another feast the next night. Convinced everything was going his way, Haman bragged to his family that he was the only one in the kingdom to dine with the king and queen, not just once, but to be invited back the next day. He celebrated by ordering a 75 foot tall gallows on which he would hang Mordacai.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Est 6:1-10 ... the king could not sleep, and he had a servant read him the records of what had happened since he had been king. (2) When the servant read how Mordacai had kept Bigthana and Teresh from killing the king, (3) the king asked, "What has been done to reward Mordacai for this?" "Nothing, Your Majesty!" the king's servants replied. (4) About this time, Haman came in to ask the king to have Mordacai hanged on the tower he had built. The king saw him and asked, "Who is that man waiting in front of the throne room?" (5) The king's servants answered, "Your Majesty, it is Haman." "Have him come in," the king commanded. (6) When Haman entered the room, the king asked him, "What should I do for a man I want to honor?" Haman was sure that he was the one the king wanted to honor. (7) So he replied, "Your Majesty, if you wish to honor a man, (8) have someone bring him one of your own robes and one of your own horses with a fancy headdress. (9) Have one of your highest officials place your robe on this man and lead him through the streets on your horse, while someone shouts, 'This is how the king honors a man!' " (10) The king replied, "Hurry and do just what you have said! Don't forget a thing. Get the robe and the horse for Mordacai the Jew, who is on duty at the palace gate!"
What a downfall for Haman! Having to show such honor to the one he hated above all others. Later that evening, Est 7:1-10 The king and Haman were dining with Esther (2) and drinking wine during the second dinner, when the king again said, "Esther, what can I do for you? Just ask, and I will give you as much as half of my kingdom!" (3) Esther answered, "Your Majesty, if you really care for me and are willing to help, you can save me and my people. That's what I really want, (4) because a reward has been promised to anyone who kills my people. Your Majesty, if we were merely going to be sold as slaves, I would not have bothered you." (5) "Who would dare to do such a thing?" the king asked. (6) Esther replied, "That evil Haman is the one out to get us!" Haman was terrified, as he looked at the king and the queen. (7) The king was so angry that he got up, left his wine, and went out into the palace garden. Haman realized that the king had already decided what to do with him, and he stayed and begged Esther to save his life. (8) Just as the king came back into the room, Haman got down on his knees beside Esther, who was lying on the couch. The king shouted, "Now you're even trying to rape my queen here in my own palace!" As soon as the king said this, his servants covered Haman's head. (9) Then Harbona, one of the king's personal servants, said, "Your Majesty, Haman built a tower seventy-five feet high beside his house, so he could hang Mordacai on it. And Mordacai is the very one who spoke up and saved your life." "Hang Haman from his own tower!" the king commanded. (10) Right away, Haman was hanged on the tower he had built to hang Mordacai, and the king calmed down.

So what does this story tell us? I think we can mine several lessons from Esther.
First: If you are going to wield power, be sure it is yours to wield Haman thought he was the second-most powerful man in the land, but soon learned otherwise.
Second: Choose your advisers wisely. Those who advised Ahasaurus were more interested in their own welfare and advancement than in what was best for the empire.
Third: Even when confronted by overpowering wrong, call upon God and stand firm for that which is right.

God is power, and all power comes from God. As we enter into a year of political disceptation and hokum, let us not fear to dig through the folderal and detritus to seek out that which is true, and that which is right. To do otherwise is to betray the faith we claim.
America Bless God.

No comments:

Post a Comment