Esther: From Feasting to Fasting
From banquet to bust or feast to fast - the "destiny" of the Jews changes with one event.
From Feasting to Fasting
READ: Esther 2:18
We left off our story with a banquet. It was a banquet that started this multi-year drama regarding the queens of Persia, so it is quite fitting that the matter be concluded with a banquet:
Note that the author of Esther likes to do this! Look for recurring themes like this throughout the book that become bookends to sections.
A quick recap
- King Xerxes (the grandson of Cyrus) held a banquet to show off his opulence, and it included a LOT of wine
- Queen Vashti refused to be summoned by the inebriated King, and we don’t know why
- King Xerxes banished Vashti, his former queen, at the counsel of his advisors
- He went on a wife hunt at the suggestion of his attendants
- He selected Esther, the Jewish orphan to be the new Queen of Persia.
- He held a banquet in honor of the new queen.
Though it does not say so, I am pretty certain that there was a lot of wine at this banquet, too!
Let’s pick up with the story…
Esther 2:19–23 CSB
When the virgins were gathered a second time, Mordecai was sitting at the King’s Gate. Esther still did not reveal her family background or her ethnicity, as Mordecai had directed. She obeyed Mordecai’s orders, as she always had while he raised her. During those days while Mordecai was sitting at the King’s Gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the entrance, became infuriated and planned to assassinate King Ahasuerus. When Mordecai learned of the plot, he reported it to Queen Esther, and she told the king on Mordecai’s behalf. When the report was investigated and verified, both men were hanged on the gallows. This event was recorded in the Historical Record in the king’s presence.
Virgins gathered a second time? It appears as though there was a second draft of virgins, even after the king had a new queen. The significant detail about this does not seem to be so much that more virgins were collected, but the events that are connected to that time. It appears as though this event is meant to signal a specific time reference.
Again, timing is muddy. We do not know the exact dates these things took place.
Mordecai was sitting at the King’s Gate. This is a very important place - as it is where leaders meet and where business is transacted. This is the place where elders and leaders would meet, so the fact that Mordecai is sitting there does not mean he is lazy, but that some point he was promoted to a position of prominence.
There was a plot to assassinate the king, and Mordecai overheard it. Some have speculated that the two eunuchs were talking in their native tongue and just assumed Mordecai wouldn’t understand them. While we have no evidence, it is fun to consider - especially if you are multi-lingual and have had the fun of having people talk around you and now know that you know what they are saying!
We also don’t know their motive for being infuriated. The fact that it is mentioned at the time of the second harvest of virgin *might* be indicating that their anger had to do with that? But we are not certain. We do see that anger is once again the accomplice to evil.
Esther: there are 3 things we can note here:
- She told the king. It was obviously the right thing to do.
- She gave Mordecai the credit. Which would certainly help his career!
- She still kept her identity as a Jew secret… so that mystery continues. She “obeyed Mordecai’s orders” like she always had
This may be a jab at the decree of the advisors in chapter 1 who stated that women would rise up and ignore the men if Vashti went unpunished? Perhaps these Jews, who had their own laws lived differently from the Persians? lol
The end result for the two guys? CSB says they were hanged on the gallows, but the phrase used could mean one of several things, one of which could also be “impaled on a pole”, which is how the NIV and NLT interpret it. It’s gory, but I like it and it is one of the things the Persians were known for.
“Impaling a criminal upon a sharp stake was a method of execution practiced by the Persians, as well as most of the ancient world, several western European nations well into the 16th century and in some cases beyond. When the Persian King Darius conquered Babylon he impaled more than 3,000 prisoners, an act reported by Herodotus, and confirmed in records of Darius himself.” https://historycollection.com/18-examples-of-crime-and-punishment-in-the-ancient-persian-empire/12/
These events were recorded in the chronicles of the kings. “Historical record” or “chronicles of the kings” is referring to a set of Persian documents, NOT Biblical. Remember, this is written from a Persian perspective.
These events (the second gathering, the murder plot, the impaling) all seem very disconnected to the events leading up to Esther’s coronation. And they are. They are abrupt but serve a purpose to set the stage for something that is yet to come.
Esther 3:1 CSB
After all this took place, King Ahasuerus honored Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite. He promoted him in rank and gave him a higher position than all the other officials.
“after all this took place” could be any time between the 7th & 12th years of Xerxes reign. The 7th year is when Esther was taken to the king. The NIV Study Bible places the start of chapter 3 as 4 years after Esther became queen.
The BIG news is that Haman is promoted.
Mordecai, who saved the king, does not even get a thank you, and Haman gets a promotion. There is an injustice here. Mordecai’s name was recorded in the record of the king of Persia but Haman gets a promotion.
Who is this Haman guy?
Haman is the quintessential bad guy. But he is more than that! We are given but one detail about this man, he was an Agagite. The Agagites were the enemies of the Jews.
Agagites were descendants of the Amalekites. When Israel was in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, the Amalekites attacked them.
Exodus 17:8–15 CSB
At Rephidim, Amalek came and fought against Israel. Moses said to Joshua, “Select some men for us and go fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the hilltop with God’s staff in my hand.” Joshua did as Moses had told him, and fought against Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. While Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, but whenever he put his hand down, Amalek prevailed. When Moses’s hands grew heavy, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat down on it. Then Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other so that his hands remained steady until the sun went down. So Joshua defeated Amalek and his army with the sword. The Lord then said to Moses, “Write this down on a scroll as a reminder and recite it to Joshua: I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and named it, “The Lord Is My Banner.”
This is a very famous battle! While most people read and recount this story as a reference to having people to support you in your battles (a FUN one to preach), the part we need to focus on today is the last part where God promises to annihilate Amalek.
Fast forward to the time of the kings. After Saul was made the first king of Israel, God told him to destroy the Amalekites because of that attack.
1 Samuel 15:2–3 CSB
This is what the Lord of Armies says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, infants and nursing babies, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ”
The command was for total annihilation of the people (men, women and children) and even the animals. There was to be NOTHING left.
1 Samuel 15:7–9 CSB
Then Saul struck down the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is next to Egypt. He captured King Agag of Amalek alive, but he completely destroyed all the rest of the people with the sword. Saul and the troops spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and choice animals, as well as the young rams and the best of everything else. They were not willing to destroy them, but they did destroy all the worthless and unwanted things.
Saul was commanded to wipe them out completely - to annihilate them, and he failed. They took a bunch of plunder from them and kept Agag alive, which got them in trouble. THIS was the very reason God removed Saul as king! Saul does actually hack down Agag by the end of 1 Samuel 15, but apparently some of his descendants survived (as we read in Esther as well as in 1 Chronicles 4:42-23).
So, there has been an epic tension between the Amalekites and the Jews. Haman is an Amalekite through the line of Agag. Mordecai is a Jew from the line of Saul. DO YOU SEE THE CONNECTION? BOTH of these nationalities has ben mentioned by the author when many other details have been omitted.
The events that are about to take place, I believe, are most likely connected to that history and the fact that it is the only clue we are given as to the tension.
*** BACK TO ESTHER ***
Esther 3:2–6 CSB
The entire royal staff at the King’s Gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, because the king had commanded this to be done for him. But Mordecai would not bow down or pay homage. The members of the royal staff at the King’s Gate asked Mordecai, “Why are you disobeying the king’s command?” When they had warned him day after day and he still would not listen to them, they told Haman in order to see if Mordecai’s actions would be tolerated, since he had told them he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai was not bowing down or paying him homage, he was filled with rage. And when he learned of Mordecai’s ethnic identity, it seemed repugnant to Haman to do away with Mordecai alone. He planned to destroy all of Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout Ahasuerus’s kingdom.
It was not against the Law of God, nor any Jewish custom to bow in reverence to another man. To bow before an idol, yes. To bow before another god, yes. But not to bow before another human that is greater than they are. Actually, to fall prostrate before someone is a very common event in the Bible!
Some suppose Mordecai would not bow because Haman declared himself a god. It is doubtful that the king would allow such a thing, but it is possible. It is more likely that the Agagite connection is the cause, and I believe other details later in the story point to this.
One detail I find fascinating is that Mordecai told them he was a Jew! First, why could Esther say nothing? Second, why would this reference be made in regard to Mordecai not bowing down to Haman? To me, it seems like the connection back to Exodus.
But again, we are not actually told the motives. We only know that Mordecai would not bow and Haman decided that ALL Jews need to be wiped out. Haman, much like the king, will not just do some small thing, he will go over the top.
THOUGHT: this idea of imposing a single action upon an entire race is surely at the heart of much hatred and discrimination today - even here in our own country. Whether ethnicity, political leaning, skin color or financial status, we can quite easily see this same tendency in our culture, perhaps at times in ourselves, to blame an entire group of people for the actions or one or a few and the result is most certainly hatred and destruction.
Esther 3:7–15 CSB
In the first month, the month of Nisan, in King Ahasuerus’s twelfth year, the pur—that is, the lot—was cast before Haman for each day in each month, and it fell on the twelfth month, the month Adar. Then Haman informed King Ahasuerus, “There is one ethnic group, scattered throughout the peoples in every province of your kingdom, keeping themselves separate. Their laws are different from everyone else’s and they do not obey the king’s laws. It is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If the king approves, let an order be drawn up authorizing their destruction, and I will pay 375 tons of silver to the officials for deposit in the royal treasury.” The king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. Then the king told Haman, “The money and people are given to you to do with as you see fit.” The royal scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and the order was written exactly as Haman commanded. It was intended for the royal satraps, the governors of each of the provinces, and the officials of each ethnic group and written for each province in its own script and to each ethnic group in its own language. It was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the royal signet ring. Letters were sent by couriers to each of the royal provinces telling the officials to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jewish people—young and old, women and children—and plunder their possessions on a single day, the thirteenth day of Adar, the twelfth month. A copy of the text, issued as law throughout every province, was distributed to all the peoples so that they might get ready for that day. The couriers left, spurred on by royal command, and the law was issued in the fortress of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Susa was in confusion.
Haman claims that this “people group”:
- Keeps itself separated from others (TURE)
- Has different laws (TRUE)
- Does not obey the king’s laws (FALSE)
The Jews were commanded to do what they could to bless the nations that exiled them, and as you read the history of people like Daniel and Mordecai, they did what was best for the kings. As was the case with Jesus, when he was falsely blamed by the religious leaders in order to get a king to sign off on his death.
So, you have Haman, descendant of Agag, issuing a decree to annihilate all of the Jews because of Mordecai, a descendant of King Saul. Do you see what is happening here? This is is the antithesis of 1 Samuel 15! Notice, Haman now has a title, “the enemy of the Jews”.
God gave orders to Saul to annihilate all of the Amalekites (including Agag), but Saul did NOT kill Agag initially. Now, a descendant of Agag is issuing the order to kill all of the Jews!
Notice the phrase, “young and old, women and children” is a very similar phrase to 1 Samuel 15. Only the Jews were commanded to take nothing, and Haman says to take everything the Jews have! He is obviously playing on the greed of some people hoping it will motivate them, or perhaps going back to the fact that Saul took the best booty from his attack.
Remember when I mentioned the author likes to make the bad guys really bad? Look at the decree - “destroy, kill and annihilate”. The NLT says, “kill, slaughter, and annihilate”. Now, I could do a word study on each of those words to try to distinguish the meaning of each and how each is nuanced, but that would be pointless! Haman wants to make sure that it is very clear that there is to be NO JEW left when they are done.
Haman did NOT tell the king which ethnic group he was referring to, and the king did not ask! Bad king. He just says get rid of them if you want?!?
Then there is the silver. It has been estimated by some to be 2/3 of the annual income of the Persian Empire. Was it a bribe or was it intended to pay the people who would destroy the Jews? The text is a bit fuzzy, but most see it as a bribe or business transaction.
Verse 7 gives us a time. These events take place after Esther has been queen for about 5 years. So, this is some time later. In the first month Haman cast lots (pur) to determine the date he would destroy the Jews.
PUR - means to cast lots. It is a way for the gods, or Yahweh, to determine events. This was done by the sailors in the book of Jonah to see who was responsible for the storm, as well as the disciples in the book of Acts to determine who should replace Judas.
Proverbs 16:33 CSB
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.
The date selected by the pur ended up being the 12th month. So, the kill date was the 13th day of the 12th month. Exactly 11 months from the date the decree was issued. So, after issuing this decree in every language, it was distributed to every province. That should remind you of the decree to find a new queen! The decree that set things in motion. We have another bookend.
And, once delivered, you have 3 reactions:
CITY OF SUSA - is confused! If you were a Jew working a normal job, paying taxes and obeying the king this would make NO SENSE to you! Why would the king do this? What had you done wrong? They mourn, cry and fast. I would imagine that many of the city dwellers were friends with Jews and now they were being commanded to destroy them.
KING & HAMAN - they do what the king does best - they had a drink together, probably more than one.
Esther 4:1–4 CSB
When Mordecai learned all that had occurred, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, went into the middle of the city, and cried loudly and bitterly. He went only as far as the King’s Gate, since the law prohibited anyone wearing sackcloth from entering the King’s Gate. There was great mourning among the Jewish people in every province where the king’s command and edict reached. They fasted, wept, and lamented, and many lay in sackcloth and ashes. Esther’s female servants and her eunuchs came and reported the news to her, and the queen was overcome with fear. She sent clothes for Mordecai to wear so that he would take off his sackcloth, but he did not accept them.
Mordecai went public. Not only in the middle of the city, but even to his place of employment.
I love the way the narrator uses triplets! The command was to “destroy, slaughter and annihilate” the Jews. The Jews “fasted, wept and lamented”. Some were so grief stricken that they were laying in sackcloth and ashes.
FASTING: There is something very significant NOT MENTIONED here. Usually, fasting was accompanied by something else. What is missing in this section? PRAYER. Absolutely no mention of it.
Two things to remember: this is written from a Persian perspective so thee is no mention of Yahweh. One of the primary purposes of the book is to show how God is at work behind the scenes, so even any communication with God, such as prayer, is not mentioned.
Esther 4:5–9 CSB
Esther summoned Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs who attended her, and dispatched him to Mordecai to learn what he was doing and why. So Hathach went out to Mordecai in the city square in front of the King’s Gate. Mordecai told him everything that had happened as well as the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay the royal treasury for the slaughter of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa ordering their destruction, so that Hathach might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and command her to approach the king, implore his favor, and plead with him personally for her people. Hathach came and repeated Mordecai’s response to Esther.
The fact that Mordecai knew how much was promised to the king might mean that Mordecai had some good connections. However, if Haman was trying to rub this in Mordecai’s face, the amount might not have been very hidden.
Mordecai asked Hathach to give the written decree to Esther and explain it to her. Then, he wants Esther to do (you guessed it) three things:
- GO - approach the king
- BEG - implore his favor
- PLEAD - with him for the Jews (HER PEOPLE)
This is the first time that Mordecai has told Esther to reveal her Jewish identity. She is not just to plead for the Jews, but for HER people. The only way she could effectively plead for the Jews would be to reveal that she was one, otherwise, why would she care and why would it matter?
Esther 4:10–14 CSB
Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to tell Mordecai, “All the royal officials and the people of the royal provinces know that one law applies to every man or woman who approaches the king in the inner courtyard and who has not been summoned—the death penalty—unless the king extends the gold scepter, allowing that person to live. I have not been summoned to appear before the king for the last thirty days.” Esther’s response was reported to Mordecai. Mordecai told the messenger to reply to Esther, “Don’t think that you will escape the fate of all the Jews because you are in the king’s palace. If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s family will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”
“deliverance for the Jews will come from another place”
This shows an obvious amount of faith from Mordecai. Because we have read the prophets we know that their message was that a remnant would survive the exile. Apparently, Mordecai held that position as well, though Yahweh and the prophets are not mentioned at all.
HOWEVER, Mordecai reminds Esther that it will most likely end in her death and the end of her family line. Remember, she is an orphan, so the last of her father’s line. For the Jews, this was very significant as the family was associated with the land, inheritance, position and more.
“Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”
Perhaps the most famous modern day quote from this book! The irony of it is perfect. “Who knows” - well, Yahweh knows. And if you are a Jew, you have a really good suspicion that God lined this up, even though he is a silent character.
This is a fatalist statement. A fatalist is basically holds to the position that “all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable.” ~ Oxford Dictionary. What is lacking is a theology behind it. This can very much be an agnostic quote. ANYONE, whether they believe in God or not can claim that quote, even a Persian.
In Christian circles we call this predestination, or foreordination, and it is always connected to the God of the Bible. “Coincidences” happen, but there is always someone behind it and a greater meaning to it.
Isaiah 46:10 CSB
I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: my plan will take place, and I will do all my will.
That is the word of Yahweh. Read Psalm 139 and you will experience even more! But this is not just an Old Testament perspective, The Apostle Paul had a fair bit to write about it. Ephesians 1:1-14 is a passage you must read and ponder if you want o grasp what predestination means in the life of a follower of Yahweh! One of my favorite verses that reminds me that God is in control and is doing things in my life because he has something for me to do is:
Ephesians 2:10 CSB
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.
We might be afraid to step out when the opportunity arises, we may be uncertain or afraid, but we are chosen and our lives are meant to be used for God’s greater purpose.
So, back to Esther, what is missing is Yahweh. Mordecai *might* have said, “Who knows, perhaps Yahweh put you here to save the Jews so there can be a remnant” but instead, his fatalistic message is given.
Esther 4:15–17 CSB
Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go and assemble all the Jews who can be found in Susa and fast for me. Don’t eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my female servants will also fast in the same way. After that, I will go to the king even if it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.” So Mordecai went and did everything Esther had commanded him.
Fast.... but again there is no mention of prayer. Esther is even going to have her servants, who are probably NOT Jewish, fast. So, the obvious, “call on the name of Yahweh” is missing.
However, the subtle message of hope is still lurking in the small details.
How long will they fast? Three days. When was the last time we had a story that commented on 3 days? Jonah, the pre-exile prophet. Perhaps we are mean tot go back to that three day time and examine the prayer of Jonah? That when death seemed evident, God spared Jonah and raised him from the pit for “salvation belongs to the Lord” - Jonah 2:9.
This subtle hyperlink would not be left unnoticed by the Jewish reader. There is hope when it appears that death is at the door and your situation is hopeless.
Esther is resigned to die if needed. Again, a very fatalist statement. There is no, “IF God wills...” or “Perhaps God will...” just a simple, I will go and I will probably die.
And then we have a shift. For the first time we have Mordecai doing the thing that Esther commanded. I am sure that is not the first time he did something she suggested or demanded. Any father of a girl would probably be willing to admit that their will has at times been bent by their daughter. However, the word “command” is used. We have used this word many times in Esther: 2:10, 2:20, 3:2, 3:12, 4:5, 4:8, 4:10
Esther 4:17 CSB
So Mordecai went and did everything Esther had commanded him.
This word has come up a LOT in this book! Esther commanded Hathach but this is the first time she commands Mordecai - and he obeyed. There seems to be a shift that takes place, as if the author is signaling us that though Mordecai would not obey the kings order to honor Haman, he WOULD obey the queen’s command to fast. I believe that may signal a shift in Mordecai of viewing Esther not just as an adopted daughter, but as his queen. A tough transition I am sure.
Though we have seen this word used a LOT in the first 4 chapters, it is only used one more time in this book… but you will have to wait for that one.
These two chapters remind us of one of the major differences between a Jew/Christian and much of the society around us. Without the presence of God we are left to either a fatalistic approach where everything happens and we cannot change it, or a self-deification approach where each man/woman is a master of his/her own destiny.
Something to chew on: if someone were documenting your words, writing down your conversations and recording your text messages, would they be left wondering if there was a God at work in the world and in your life? Would you come across as a fatalist or a deist?