The Feast of Purim (Esther 9:20-32)

I have often looked at the Jewish traditions and thought it would have been fun in some ways to have grown up in that tradition of feasts and remembrances — with things like living in a tent for a few days each year to remember the exodus from Egypt, etc.  These are very colorful teaching moments for families.

In my sports writing and editing life, I have had a teenage boy from a very traditional Jewish family on my staff. He is way ahead of his years in terms of writing and taking on responsibility, as he wants to be a sports writer. And he is a really fun and outgoing kid. He has talked very openly with me about what his Jewish school and family life is like, as he really embraces the various holy days, celebrations and feasts with deep reverence and meaning. And there is something really good about that; and we as Christians likely fail to have enough of these moments in our traditions to cause us to sufficiently reflect on what God has done in history that impacts our faith and lives.

Today we look at the story that initiated the Jewish holiday of Purim. Here it is …

9:20 — Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, 21 to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar 22 as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.

23 So the Jews agreed to continue the celebration they had begun, doing what Mordecai had written to them. 24 For Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the pur (that is, the lot) for their ruin and destruction. 25 But when the plot came to the king’s attention, he issued written orders that the evil scheme Haman had devised against the Jews should come back onto his own head, and that he and his sons should be impaled on poles. 26 (Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur.) Because of everything written in this letter and because of what they had seen and what had happened to them,27 the Jews took it on themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed. 28 These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants.

29 So Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, along with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter concerning Purim. 30 And Mordecai sent letters to all the Jews in the 127 provinces of Xerxes’ kingdom—words of goodwill and assurance— 31 to establish these days of Purim at their designated times, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had decreed for them, and as they had established for themselves and their descendants in regard to their times of fasting and lamentation. 32 Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations about Purim, and it was written down in the records.

You should recall from chapter three that the word “pur” was related to the divination involved in picking numbers for a day for something to happen, believing that the best of luck would come from this sort of casting the lot or “rolling the dice.”  And the “-im” ending is the way Hebrew words are pluralized.

The celebration was one to remind the Jewish people of the providential hand of God in their preservation, God using a variety of circumstances, including the casting of the lot to all work together so that the nation would be delivered in 473 B.C.

In Chuck Swindoll’s book on Esther, he writes …

“In order to have perspective, we must have monuments and memorials, places to return to and learn from and talk about and pass on. If we don’t, we are destined to live rootless, fast-lane lives without much significance and all-too-seldom celebrations.”

In Karen Jobes’ commentary on Esther, she writes …

 “Purim continues to be celebrated by the Jewish people around the world today.  For them the significance of the holiday and the book on which it is based have continued in unbroken tradition from generation to generation.  However, the Holocaust of this century has for many Jews all but extinguished its joy.  The book of Esther was treasured by Jews imprisoned in the Nazi death camps precisely because it promised the survival of their race despite Hitler’s attempts to annihilate them. The hope of those who died in the death camps was realized.  The Jewish people did survive, yet ironically many Jews of the subsequent generations have found it difficult to believe that God’s presence and power are manifested in history as they grapple with the theological implications of Auschwitz….The divine Messiah of the Jews took up the moral agony of Auschwitz and every other atrocity ever perpetrated against the human race.  He agreed that God had to do something about such unimaginable evil and was willing to take it on himself so it could be destroyed on Calvary.  Where is the evidence of his achievement?  In Jesus’ resurrection, which empties physical death of its power over everyone who takes refuge in him as the Messiah.”

So we do celebrate and commemorate our deliverance. We do it when we have communion. It remembers his death and resurrection … his victory over sin, and hence our own deliverance. This is a big deal!  It is not a silly little tradition we tack onto the end of a worship service as a ritual to get out of the way. No, communion could even be argued as the focal point of purpose for the early church gathering, and while there for the remembrance, they also sang some songs and had some teaching.

Celebrations are a good thing. We should do more of them and make more of them.

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The Turning of the Tables (Esther 8:15-9:19)

Any of you reading this would have to be nearly as old as I am to remember much of anything about the 1967 Israeli Six Day War. I would have been age 12 at the time, and I remember it dominating the news and the conversation of my parents. I also recall the universal amazement everywhere as to the rapid nature by which Israel was able to defeat their foes from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, being outnumbered by huge numbers of people in those surrounding lands. It seemed impossible.

And so it was in Persia 2500 years earlier. The original decree that would eventuate in the wipeout of the Jewish people looked to be incontestable. It was motivated by the legal opportunity that presented those attacking the Jews to plunder their belongings.

The second decree to match the first was written in a one-to-one fashion, allowing the Jews to do the same, though we see that they did not do this in the end. This demonstrated their pure motives as simply that of defense. Though some of this reading today has the sound of aggression on the part of the Jews, it is actually speaking of their proactive moves to defend themselves from those intent upon bringing harm to the Jewish people.

As well, the public display of the sons of Haman was not a vindictive move by Esther and the Jews. Rather it was, as throughout times of antiquity, a visual statement to others to not attempt the same behavior that originally emboldened those who were executed to perform their dastardly deeds.

God was preserving the nation of Israel. Through it would come the Savior of the world. And God yet has a future for this people. The support of Israel is a principle of truth that arises from an accurate understanding of biblical interpretation and God’s plan of the ages and the end times. This does not mean that everything Israel does in the modern era is fully just, but as a nation it remains central in God’s plans. Some of these ideas will be discussed in an 11:00 Sunday series for five weeks that begins on October 25th — talking about end times themes.

I especially like the phrase today in 9:1 where it says that “now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them.”  I told the following story in church on Sunday about a Civil War event … A slave had run away from the brutality of his Southern plantation, joined the Union Army, and over time was with their advance into the south, near his old home. While assigned to guard some Confederate prisoners, in the lineup he sees his former master, and in greeting him says, “Hello Massa, the bottom rail be on top this time!”

God is good at putting the bottom rails on the top when His mighty hand is involved.

8:15 — When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration. 16 For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor. 17 In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.

9:1 — On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them. 2 The Jews assembled in their cities in all the provinces of King Xerxes to attack those determined to destroy them. No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them. 3 And all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them. 4 Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful.

5 The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. 6 In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. 7 They also killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, 8 Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, 9 Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha, 10 the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. But they did not lay their hands on the plunder.

11 The number of those killed in the citadel of Susa was reported to the king that same day. 12 The king said to Queen Esther, “The Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men and the ten sons of Haman in the citadel of Susa. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? It will also be granted.”

13 “If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews in Susa permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on poles.”

14 So the king commanded that this be done. An edict was issued in Susa, and they impaled the ten sons of Haman. 15 The Jews in Susa came together on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and they put to death in Susa three hundred men, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.

16 Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder.17 This happened on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth they rested and made it a day of feasting and joy.

18 The Jews in Susa, however, had assembled on the thirteenth and fourteenth, and then on the fifteenth they rested and made it a day of feasting and joy.

19 That is why rural Jews—those living in villages—observe the fourteenth of the month of Adar as a day of joy and feasting, a day for giving presents to each other.