Festival of Purim
By Raje Ballagan
Esther, a mysterious book in which it appears God is silent. No one declares God’s input, advice, or commands, no prophet appears to declare “Thus sayeth the Lord”. Further to this, we have a festival that is borne out of this chapter in Jewish history, named after the casting of Lots and with no clear theology!
But these are mysteries that we all relate to though, the day to day life experience in which we face challenges that seem to come out of the blue, yet threaten our way of life, our hope and even survival.
In the opening of this book of the Old Testament, we see powerful earthy kingdoms, systems of power and ideologies which epitomise earthly wisdom; “Sensual, demonic, envious and self seeking” (James 3:15-16). King Xerxes has spent the best part of a year showcasing his wealth and dominion to the leaders of his vast kingdom, which essentially spans the civilised world and the excesses in which he is operating, climax with him wishing to parade perhaps the only treasure he has left yet to parade, his exceptionally beautiful wife, Vashti.
Xerxes is humiliated when she refuses to be paraded before a huge gathering of men, for the purpose of her face and body being showcased. Rather than realise he has made a drunken error in judgment, he seeks counsel from his “wise” council of nobles and advisors who are concerned only that as Queen Vashti has stood against the instruction of her husband, that other women of their own class will do the same and that the hierarchical rule of the empire will be changed. They insist that an example is made out of Vashti and she is banished.
As this manner of ruling for control and acting out of pride continue in the Kingdom, another nobleman of the palace, Haman, follows a similar route. He wishes to dispose of the barrier to his own exaltation and rule, the source of which he perceives to be the Jewish people, who reverence neither man nor demi god, but only their invisible and mysterious God, Yahweh. Haman seeks to make an example out of Mordecai, the reverent Jew, and banish his entire race.
But this unusual group of people, had more than a few cultural peculiarities that set them apart from their host empire and its citizens, they bowed only to the God of heaven and earth because He is alone is Holy and righteous. And His wisdom is heavenly and spiritual; “first of all pure, then peace-loving, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere”. (James 3:17)
These counter cultural values and the wisdom of a heavenly kingdom are embodied by the protagonists of the story, Esther and Mordecai, who conduct themselves in manner contrary to Haman and the nobles of Xerxes’ court. Rather than seek their own agenda at the cost of others, they are honourable, patient, willing to yield to the laws and customs of their host nation, and listen to the advice and commands of those in positions of authority on all matters.
The only exception they made was not when it threatened their own personal agendas, but when the lives of God’s people and His commands were challenged; note that Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman but saves the life of the King. Likewise, Esther declares that if her she and her people were to be enslaved she would not contest, but acted only because they were to be annihilated (Esther 7:4).
This is certainly counter cultural today, it seems unrealistic and subservient to the point of foolishness, but perhaps we are blinded by our own self seeking? Perhaps we are missing the wisdom of Mordecai and Esther, in understanding that life will throw many blows but fighting back aimlessly, punching the air as Paul would say, will lead to certain defeat. Instead, to pick and choose our battles, to take control of that which remains in our hands, is far wiser. Though it is difficult, requiring patience and often there is no guarantee, no assurance from man or God that you will be rewarded or rescued in this lifetime.
There is one guarantee that Mordecai prophetically speaks though; that God will save his people, he will keep a remnant for himself and that no-one will annihilate us whom God has chosen. Personal sacrifice for the sake of God’s honour through the story of his called and chosen, is required from us all, and a reward awaits us in the life to come.
This is why Mordecai warns Esther in Chapter 4;14, that deliverance will arise for their people with certainty, but that as individuals, we must decide whether to fear God or fear man. The consequences of fearing man lead to death and loss. But we are to be mission minded, as Paul exhorts us: “No one serving as a soldier entangles himself in the affairs of this life, that he might please the one having enlisted him” (2 timothy 2:4).
It is this mission minded approach which helps us to live lives free from self obsession; let us look at the examples of the two people closest to King Xerxes in this story; Esther and Haman. Haman manipulates many people and circumstances to get his own way but he is never happy; repeatedly we read that he tells his wife that he cannot enjoy his honours from the King himself, because he is so hateful that Mordecai is not subservient to him.
Esther on the other hand had no choice in being enlisted into the King’s harem and makes no effort to attain that which is offered to her for personal gain; half of the whole kingdom is offered to her because of her grace and humility! Yet her wise and calm approach allow her to think clearly, to help others and to gain huge favour with God and man.
This parallel can help to ground us in the midst of our own lives, societies and cultures, as we choose how to conduct ourselves and our affairs. Underlying our approach will always be our values, so aligning our values and actions with God’s wise and righteous Word, can be our mediation and focus over this glorious festival.
Purim celebrates life over death, vindication from God, survival and thriving for us, through God’s providence. It is this providence, the power and love of God, culminating in life and blessings for His children, that the book of Esther assures us of through the victories of Esther, Mordecai and the Jewish people. Let us celebrate that God’s generous Spirit uphold us!