But before we get to Jesus and his role in fulfilling this story, we need to take a look at the book of Esther to see the continuing threat that faces the people of God in the period after the exile, which as we said, is not really “after” the exile in an important sense.
Esther, like Ezra–Nehemiah, is set during the period after the exile and during the reign of the Persian King Xerxes (486–465 bc), placing it chronologically between the events of Ezra 1–6 (539–515 bc) and Ezra 7–Nehemiah 13 (458–425 bc). While Ezra–Nehemiah gives us a window on what is going on in Jerusalem among those who returned to the city, the book of Esther gives us a glimpse of what is happening among those who decided not to return but to stay in Persia. These people are part of the Diaspora or “scattering” of Jewish people outside their homeland.
As we read the book of Esther, we are struck by the fact that God is never mentioned in this book and also by the role that banquets serve as frequent settings for the action. What are we to make of these features?
We are first introduced to King Xerxes who is throwing a huge banquet for all his leaders. However, when he calls for his wife Vashti to make an appearance, she refuses and he deposes her for challenging his authority. To find a new queen, a number of beautiful women were added to his harem and then from these women he would choose one who pleased him to assume the role of queen.
We are now introduced to Mordecai and his beautiful cousin Esther. From their names we know that they are Jewish people who are well integrated into Persian society. Both their names are related to the name of Mesopotamian gods. Not that they worshiped them (they are clearly worshipers of the true God), but they have names of their adopted country. Mordecai is also described as a Benjamite and “son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish” (2:5), an important detail we will explain later. Mordecai may be part of the palace security and as such he uncovers an assassination plot on the king’s life.
Finally, we are introduced to Haman who is called “the Agagite” (3:1), also an important detail of the story. Right away we learn that Mordecai and Haman hate each other. We are not told why, at least not explicitly (see below). Haman’s hate extends beyond Mordecai to include all the Jewish people, so he makes an arrangement that they all be killed on a date chosen by lots, here called “Purim.”
But Mordecai discovers the plot and enlists Esther to help her people. At first she is reluctant because not even the queen can easily approach the king without invitation. But after Mordecai warns her that she herself would not escape the fate of her people, she then agrees to go to the king.
When the king grants her an audience, she invites him and Haman to a banquet. Haman, thinking this a great honor, accepts and brags about it to his wife and friends, but also expresses his anger about Mordecai. They in turn convince him to build a tall impaling pole on which to hang Mordecai.
While at this point it looks like Haman and the enemies of God’s people will win, the story now experiences a series of ironic reversals in which we see the hidden providence of God. It just so happens that one sleepless night, the king’s servants read him the story of how Mordecai foiled the assassination plot. The next morning the king asks Haman what he should do for the man he wants to honor more than any other. Haman, of course, thinks the king is speaking about him and so lays it on thick, saying that this favored person should sit on the king’s horse and wear the king’s robe and then have one of the king’s officials lead him through the streets of the city announcing, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” (esther 6:11). Imagine Haman’s reaction when he was told to so honor his enemy Mordecai!
But this is just the beginning. When he goes to the banquet with Esther and the king, the former reveals the plot against the Jewish people to the king, who then orders that Haman be impaled on the pole that he built to execute Mordecai.
But there is still a problem. The king, whose decrees cannot be reversed, had already set a date for the enemies of God’s people to exterminate them. However, the king can and did issue a second decree, one that allowed God’s people to arm themselves and fight for themselves. On the fateful date chosen by the “Purim,” God’s people defeated and killed their enemies.
Now it is time to dig deeper into the animosity between Mordecai and his people, the Jews, and Haman and his people the Agagites. Mordecai was a Benjamite, and the names of his relatives reveal that he was a descendant of Saul, the first king. Once we realize this (something well known to the original readers), we are taken back to 1 Samuel 13 where Saul had just defeated King Agag the Amalekite. However, when Samuel the prophet arrived in the camp, he was not happy since Saul had not only kept some of the plunder for himself, but also had not completely destroyed the Amalekites. The destruction of the Amalekites was ordered by God in the Torah (deuteronomy 25:17–19) because they had attacked the Israelites as soon as they left Egypt (exodus 17:8–16). No wonder Haman and Mordecai hated each other! But the story of Esther is the account of God’s justice being rendered against these people who wanted to destroy God’s people. And to commemorate this saving of God’s people, the book of Esther establishes a festival named after the lots used by the king to determine the date of this event called Purim, still celebrated by the Jewish community every year.
The story of Esther and the victory of God’s people over their long-standing enemies provide both encouragement and a warning to us today. Even when God seems absent, he is operating behind the scenes in order to care for his people and protect them from their enemies. The survival of his people also means the continuance of the hope for the Messiah who will come from this people. We also learn that God’s judgment cannot be hindered by anyone.