Scripture for reflection: The Book of Esther
We are surrounded by dazzling power. The Persian empire is at its height, one hundred and twenty seven provinces from Ethiopia to India. At the centre of power is Ahasuerus, king in his capital at Susa.
The empire is celebrating a royal marriage. The emperor has chosen a bride. Esther, niece of a prominent Jewish leader named Mordecai, has been elevated to a position of immense influence.
Precisely at this moment Esther’s life becomes complicated by a threat to the Jewish community. A dangerous and powerful member of the court named Haman is determined to institute a pogrom that will have tragic consequences. To read Haman’s words to the king is to hear the chilling patterns of anti-Semitism down the centuries.
“There are a certain people scattered and separated in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people. They do not keep the king’s laws, so it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them”. Only after this careful and nuanced statement does Haman lay bare his real intention in plain and brutal language. “If it please the king,” he continues, “let a decree be issued for their destruction”.
The king agrees, opening the way to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
Mordecai desperately contacts his niece. Only she can get the king to rescind his decree. The request deeply distresses her. She has not revealed to the king that she is Jewish. Now she must choose between losing everything or remain silent while her people are destroyed.
Through a messenger Esther contacts her uncle. He responds by sending her the documents that Haman has written that condemn all Jews to death. Esther responds. Her reply is full of anxiety and helplessness. She cannot go to the king unless he summons her. Again Mordecai replies. His note is stern and adamant. Its language is chillingly modern, echoing many voices that spoke before and during Hitler’s holocaust.
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish”. Then, with unerring precision Mordechai pinpoints the heart of the matter for Esther. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this”.
This magnificent message with its implied reference to Esther’s own integrity has the desired effect. Esther agrees to go to the king. She makes it clear that she has no illusions about the possible consequences. “I will go to the king”, she writes to her uncle, “even though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.”
Three days later Esther makes her move. Dressing in the grandeur of her royal robes, she waits in a gallery where the king is likely to see her. Her plan succeeds. Esther does not bring up the subject of the pogrom at this point. Instead she asks that the king invite Haman to a banquet that is being planned. . During the banquet the king asks Esther the nature of her request. Without mentioning the king’s own decree she offers evidence for Haman’s hatred and treachery as the real reason for the threat to her people.
Hastily the king rescinds his decree, sending messages across the empire. Haman is summarily executed. Esther’s uncle Mordechai is given the royal signet ring that makes him a powerful figure at court.
In this long ago political struggle, scripture gives us a glimpse of a people struggling to survive. It also introduces us to a courageous and resourceful young woman who placed duty above personal gain, even above personal survival.