Bible in the World – Esther
For Such a Time as This
One of the pivotal scenes in the story of Esther happens in chapter 4, when Mordecai persuades Esther to go before the king unbidden, risking her life in order to save her people. He tells her that if she does not take on the task, help will arise for the Jews from another place, but she and her family will perish. And then he adds, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
That phrase, “for such a time as this,” has been used in modern times for countless devotional books (usually aimed at women) and jewelry, wall hangings, and other gifts (also usually aimed at women). To cite just two specific examples, the phrase is the title both of a 1998 song by Christian artist Wayne Watson and a 2021 book by former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
The phrase, while often taken out of context, seems to address a common desire to know one’s purpose in life. In the midst of uncertain times, it can be comforting to know that God calls and equips individuals “for such a time as this.”
Hamans and Mordecais
The quintessential “bad guy” and “good guy” in the story of Esther have served as archetypes throughout much of Jewish history. Even today, during the annual Purim festival, when the scroll of Esther is read to Jewish congregations, the names “Mordecai” and “Esther” are met with cheering. When the name “Haman” is read, however, noisemakers and voices are used to drown out the name. God promised that Abraham would become the father of a great nation, receive a land, and bring blessing to all nations. More Sachs, a Lithuanian-American Jew, writing in 1917, describes the archetypes this way: “We meet the Hamans today as we met them a thousand years ago. We meet them in all lands where the Mordecais are found – Jews who worship their own God . . . . The Jew, however, does not lose courage. He feels sure that in the end the obstinate Mordecai will overcome the Hamans who will meet their downfall, and the Jews will rejoice again.”
In modern times, the preeminent “Haman” was Adolf Hitler, who was responsible for the destruction of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. Indeed, in a 1944 speech, Hitler himself seemed to draw the connection with Haman when he stated that, should the Third Reich fall, “Jewry could then celebrate the destruction of Europe by a second triumphant Purim festival.”
Joachim Prinz, a rabbi serving a congregation in 1930’s Berlin, recalled that after 1933, “people came by the thousands to the A synagogue is a Jewish house of worship. Jesus often taught in synagogues where he sometimes ran afoul of Jewish leaders. In the book of Acts, Paul and others attend synagogues and teach in them. More to listen to the story of Haman and Esther” which “became the story of our own lives.” The Esther story, read during the Purim festival, “suddenly made sense” for “it was quite clear that Haman meant Hitler….Every time we read ‘Haman’ the people heard Hitler, and the noise was deafening.” (cited in E. Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, [Princeton University Press, 2008], 81-86).
“Neither snow nor rain”
King Persian king and husband of Queen Esther More sends decrees to his whole empire a few different times in the book of Esther. In chapter 3, the king’s edict (dictated by Haman) to destroy the Jews is sent “to every province in its own script and every people in its own language … .Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces” (3:12-13). The “couriers” mentioned in this chapter were part of an elaborate Persian royal mail system attested by several ancient authors. Xenophon, a Greek historian born around 430 BCE, attributed the establishment of the mail system to King Persian leader who allowed Jewish exiles to return home. More, the founder of the Persian Empire. Xenophon explained that Cyrus, after ascertaining how far a horse could travel in one day, built posting stations one day’s ride apart, with horses and couriers at each station, so that messages could be relayed as quickly as possible across the vast empire (Cyropaedia VIII.6.17-18).
Herodotus, another Greek historian, described this Persian mail system with deep admiration: “Now there is no mortal thing that travels faster than these messengers….Nothing stops them from finishing the course allotted to them as quickly as possible, neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness” (Histories 8:98). Herodotus’ description more than two millennia later provided the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service. That motto, inscribed on New York City’s General Post Office building, reads, “”Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
In Esther, these ancient postal couriers carry both Haman’s murderous edict and (in chapter 8) the second edict that allows the Jews to defend themselves.
The Book of Esther plays a significant role in the Jewish liturgical year, as it is read in Hebrew every year at the festival of Purim. Established in the Book of Esther (9:24-32), Purim celebrates the defeat of Haman (and all the Hamans throughout history) by Esther and Mordecai. Revelers dress up in costumes, put on a Purim spiel (an often-farcical play), and drink. One early Jewish tradition recorded in The Talmud is one of the most important texts of Judaism. More instructs those who are celebrating Purim to drink until they cannot tell the difference between the phrases “Bless Mordecai” and “Curse Haman” (Meg. 7a).
During the synagogue service, while the scroll of Esther is chanted, revelers respond with cheers when the names of Mordecai or Esther are read, and they drown out the name of Haman with boos and noisemakers (called groggers). One treat commonly eaten at Purim are triangular, fruit-filled cookies called “hamantaschen,” which may translate to “Haman’s pockets.” In modern Hebrew, the cookies are called “ozney Haman,” which means, “Haman’s ears.”
The festival of Purim takes its cue from the humorous, exaggerated, farcical tone of the book of Esther itself. Purim exemplifies the old joke: “Most Jewish holidays can be summed up as follows: They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!” But behind the revelry is a serious note, a reminder that the Jewish people have faced many Hamans throughout history and so must remain vigilant.
Biblical scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson describes the celebratory character of Purim in this way: “Life together is celebrated as a joyous gift, snatched unbelievably from the gates of death and hell. A people who had faced the possibility of not being are emphatically alive. Community is not explained in historical terms, it is not analyzed in sociological terms, it is enjoyed in the language and rituals and food and laughter of a festival….The fact is that, decimated and dispersed as [the Jews] were, they were not swallowed up in the ocean of pagan power and culture and religion. They survived. By Grace is the unmerited gift of God's love and acceptance. In Martin Luther's favorite expression from the Apostle Paul, we are saved by grace through faith, which means that God showers grace upon us even though we do not deserve it. More. The empire did not.”1
The Contest to find a Queen
The contest to find a new queen in Esther 2 has given rise to various artistic interpretations over the centuries. Pious Christians, especially after the Reformation, found the sexual nature of that contest troubling. Several visual artists from the Renaissance to the modern era had no such qualms. “Esther’s Toilet in the Women’s House of Ahasuerus,” a 17th century work by Flemish painter Artus Wolffort, depicts Esther drying off after a bath with the help of a naked man, surrounded by other men and women in various stages of undress. The sensual nature of the painting is matched by a 19th century work by Theodore Chasseriau called “La Toilette d’Esther,” which depicts Esther lounging against a cushion, wearing nothing above her waist but jewel-encrusted bracelets and a necklace. A 2005 graphic novel, Megillat Esther by J.T. Waldman, combines humor with sexuality as the residents of the harem literally soak in barrels of myrrh, using snorkel-like breathing tubes, and each comes by turn to the king, who lies on his bed awaiting their services.
Film adaptations of the Book of Esther generally make it into a romantic love story between Esther and Ahasuerus. In the 1960 film, Esther and the King, Ahasuerus falls in love with Esther at first sight and she eventually returns his love, spurning the Jewish man (not mentioned in the Bible) to whom she was previously engaged. The same is true for the 2006 film, One Night with the King. The 1999 film, Esther, also makes the Ahasuerus/Esther relationship into a love match, mitigating religious concern with sexual morality. The issue of sexual morality is side-stepped completely in the 2007 Veggie Tales version of the story, “Esther: the Girl who Became Queen,” in which the contest to find a new queen becomes a singing contest, appropriate for the film’s young audience.
The figure of Queen Vashti has received a mixed reception from biblical interpreters. In early Jewish literature (the Targums, Midrash in Judaism refers to methods of interpretation or exegesis. Midrashic exegesis is intended to derive a deeper meaning from a text. More Rabbah), she refuses the king’s summons out of modesty. The biblical text says that the king commanded her to appear before his guests, wearing her crown (1:11). These early Jewish interpreters add that he commanded her to appear wearing only her crown. Hence, her refusal of the king’s command is explained.
Vashti’s character and reputation experienced something of a revival in the 19th century. She appears in a number of creative works, including Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Princess,” where the main character compares herself to Vashti: “[W]e move, my friend,/ at no man’s beck, but know ourself and thee, / O Vashti, noble Vashti! / Summon’d out / She kept her state, and left the drunken king / To brawl at Sushan underneath the palms.”
In recent decades, Vashti has become a hero for some feminist and womanist biblical interpreters. Alice Laffey speaks of Vashti as one who (unlike Esther) “refused to be men’s sexual object and her husband’s toy.”2 LaVerne Gill lifts up Vashti as an example for women who need to change the course of their lives: “Vashti’s story is one that says to women who have made a mistake, or women who have lost their sense of self-esteem, women who have been beaten up or beaten down, that they can change the direction of their lives by saying ‘no’ to past oppressive situations.”3
In one humorous song, “Vashti was Right,” composed by Debbie and John Orenstein for a Purim spiel at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, Vashti is vindicated: “King Ahasuerus blew his top/ The rest is ancient history/ He settled down with a Jewish girl and was as happy as could be./ But some nights when he came down to dine/ And it looked like he’d had too much wine/ Esther spoke this simple line/ “Vashti was right.”
1 Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. 2d ed. (Eerdmans, 1992), 198-99, 215.
2 A. Laffey. An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 216.
3 L. Gill. Vashti’s Victory: And Other Biblical Women Resisting Injustice. (Cleveland: The A pilgrim is a person who undertakes a journey to a place of religious or historical significance - often for spiritual purposes. A pilgrimage to Mecca is a religious obligation for a good Muslim. In the early days of Hebrew history pilgrims traveled to Shiloh,... More Press, 2003), 1.